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A common libertarian and conservative response to questions about how beneficiaries of government programs will carry on after the removal of their subsidies is that charity should take care of them. This answer is often overly glib, even when combined with the observation that a lower burden of taxation might foster more giving (charity is already tax-deductible after all). Charity will always be insufficient to meet basic human needs, and in the absence of government programs, some people will fall through the cracks. (In the presence of government programs, some people will fall through the cracks.)

This aspect of charity is a feature, not a bug. Charity suffers from the same problem that government welfare programs do: the Samaritan’s Dilemma, as economists call it. The more you help those in need, the more need there will be, because people’s behaviors will change as they come to expect assistance. To the extent that libertarians and conservatives oppose welfare programs because of “dependency” issues, they must also oppose charity for the same reason. Of course, charity is superior to government programs in at least two respects: lower administrative expenditures and, more importantly, greater respect for the moral autonomy of the donor. To the extent that we can reduce extreme human deprivation, many of us will think it worthwhile to do so even if it somewhat reduces the productive efforts of those less deprived, whether through charity or through government assistance. Nevertheless, it is possible for charity to be excessive.

To see the point, consider the argument I made that libertarianism does not preclude mandatory health insurance for children. (more…)

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Libertarians have generally opposed government mandates to participate in commerce on moral, economic, and constitutional grounds. Certainly, a federal government mandate to buy private health insurance contradicts standard libertarian understandings of the right to property and self-determination and the ability of individuals to decide for themselves their need for insurance (and concomitant skepticism of paternalist justifications for government involvement in health insurance), and runs afoul of textualist interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. A state government mandate would not violate the Constitution, but libertarians would nevertheless still tend to oppose it on the moral and economic grounds already cited.

However, there is one type of insurance mandate to which standard libertarian objections fall short. This is not to say, by any means, that all libertarians would support it, merely that opposition would have to find grounding in contingent, disputable facts. The mandate to which I refer is a requirement that (more…)

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[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Mark LeBar, who will soon be joining the Pileus team on a more regular basis.]
 
Will Wilkinson recently blogged on the “happiness” research that claims to have shown, first, that parenting produces significantly less happy adults than do childless marriages (“kids are a drag”!) and, second, that we are “delusional” when we think that they do make us happy. Wilkinson is unusually credulous of samples of a broad and heterogeneous body of research and a specific study that wildly overreaches what its data show.
 
Full disclosure: I write this because I am a parent and I am really glad I am. If Wilkinson and John Cloud of Time (who provoked Wilkinson’s post) are right, this is because I am rationalizing to “reduce the cognitive discomfort of holding conflicting ideas”. That might be right. However, it might also be right that holding conflicting ideas and trying to make sense of them is part of what it is to be a real grown-up human being, and that wisdom consists in part of knowing how to resolve conflicts between the impulses that do push moods and attitudes in one way or another.
 
One problem is that even a casual survey of the actual research seems to suggest far greater heterogeneity in results on these issues than Wilkinson or Cloud admit. Cloud cites a study done by Evenson and Simon which Cloud glosses as showing that “parents are more depressed than non-parents,” when in fact part of the point of Evenson and Simon’s study is to explore the ways that different types of parents (e.g. single parents vs. cohabiting parents, stepparents vs. biological parents) experience depressive effects to differing degrees. And while they conclude that there are no types of parents who experience less depression than childless married folks, there are also numerous categories (e.g. emptynesters) who seem to come out about the same.
 
A second problem is that none of these studies, anyway, seems to sort on what I would expect to be a significant difference in the experience of parenthood, which is something like the terms under which one comes to be a parent. Many note that throughout much of human history (and still today in some places) children represent a potent form of economic security. With that incentive gone, the motivational picture for having children is more complicated. But some significant number of parents don’t choose parenting, but have (shall we say) parenting thrust upon them as an unanticipated and perhaps undesired consequence of doing other things they are strongly motivated to do. It would be especially unsurprising if levels of anger and depression were higher among such parents than among those who sometimes go to great lengths to have children in part for the anticipated (and perhaps actually perceived) benefits of relationships with their children—relationships that are not replicated or imitated in other forms of human life, and which can be unfathomably rich in emotional content and accomplishment.
 
A final concern is about what exactly it is that these social scientists are measuring. In particular, are they measuring things that people actually believe they should care about? Things that are of genuine value? As philosophers have known for 2500 years or more, those are quite challenging questions to answer, but many social scientists seem to operate under the principle that you should look for your keys under the lamppost, because that is where the light is, rather than where you lost them. If it is easier to operationalize some conceptions of happiness than others, then that is what we will study, rather than what we think on reflection might really matter.

 The level of discussion of such issues is gradually rising (see for example recent work by philosophers Valerie Tiberius and Daniel Haybron, but I think it will be some time before there are thoughtful measures of the degree to which parenting contributes to good human lives, and I think when it does those measures will reflect of degree of sophistication about how we come to parent that is simply missing from the crude stabs at research now, about which we should be much more skeptical than Wilkinson and Cloud suggest.

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I gave a talk to the Yeshiva College Philosophy Club recently in which I made the following claim:

In my view, what gives people dignity, what is admirable and noble in them, is precisely their capacity for moral agency. It is when they have the liberty to make free choices but are required to take responsibility for their choices that human beings express their uniquely moral natures and become moral beings. Similarly, it is when we give people the liberty to exercise their judgment but hold them accountable for their decisions that we respect their moral natures. Kant was right that human dignity follows from one’s ability to choose ends for oneself, and that the essence of humanity is as a freely choosing agent.

During the question-and-answer session, an insightful student asked me whether it followed from my position that children and others who do not (yet) possess an ability to choose freely therefore do not possess dignity or nobility.

A good, challenging question, because it exposes the limits of my position. I would like to sketch a brief answer.

I think my answer has to be that such people do not, in fact, possess the dignity that results from moral agency. But it does not follow from that that they possess no dignity, nor that they do not possess something else making them inherently valuable, namely preciousness.

I did not argue that dignity result only from moral agency; rather, that moral agency results in a peculiar dignity. So, lacking moral agency entails lacking moral-agency dignity; lacking moral agency means not possessing the peculiar dignity that results from moral agency. But I believe there is another species of dignity, namely that which results from the inherent value that human beings have qua human beings. I call this inherent value preciousness, and I argue that it results in its own peculiar species of dignity.

One reason to respect people’s expression of their moral agency is because the dignity that agency constitutes is inherently valuable. We respect, or should respect, people because of this inherent value, and respecting that value entails respecting its manifestations, which includes moral agency. But I believe people have inherent value even independent of their moral agency, as human beings qua human beings.

This means, I suggest, that although we do not have to respect the choices of human beings who do not possess moral agency—e.g., children or others who do not have or have lost the capacity of free judgment with which to make free choices—we nevertheless do have to respect their inherent value or preciousness. A child is precious even if not yet a moral agent; a person with dementia is precious even if no longer a moral agent.

What this means in practice will depend on the particular circumstances of individual cases. But in general it will mean that we must treat such human beings with humanity, consideration, and charity befitting their preciousness. Such treatment will include using our judgment regarding such things as their well being, their welfare, their happiness, and so on, and it will require many acts of beneficence, all situation- and person-specific. Such acts of beneficence thus require a great deal of localized knowledge, which is one reason they cannot be specified in advance or by third parties.

Regarding children in particular, except in the rare cases of actual, permanent incapacity, respect for children’s preciousness will transition over time into respect for their moral agency, entailing the freedom and accountability mentioned in the quotation above.

What I have said here leaves many issues unresolved. For example, from where, exactly, does humanity’s inherent value, or preciousness, derive? Is humanity’s preciousness greater than that of nonhuman animals? How does a person’s criminal activity affect his dignity, or the respect we must show him?

I have answers, or attempts at answers, to these questions, but I will leave them for another time. Here my goals were to clarify how, on my conception of human nobility and dignity, people without moral agency still deserve respect, and to indicate, in broad strokes, the kinds of obligations we have toward such people.

We have had here on Pileus some sophisticated discussion of our duties or responsibilities toward children; what I say here does not substantially improve on that. The strength of my position, such as it is, relates I believe to its illumination of the ways we should, and the ways we should not, treat all the normally functioning adults with whom we come into contact—who are neither children nor incompetent, and should not be treated as if they were.

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Our esteemed ringleader Mr. Cleveland has prodded me to do a post on “children’s rights,” following last week’s discussion of abortion. My musings here are largely based on a paper (PDF) I did a number of years ago.

What do parents owe their children? And may these obligations be legally enforced? Most of us rightly think that children are unlike adults in two ways. First, children have a right to positive provision that adults may not enjoy. Parents have a duty (that ought to be legally enforced) to provide for their children’s basic welfare. Allowing your child to starve or expelling it into the street like a trespasser is both morally wrong and punishable. Second, parents (and perhaps the state) enjoy the right and indeed obligation to treat their children paternalistically in order to guide their development to full rationality. They have the duty and therefore right (“ought” implies “may”) to prevent their children from, e.g., taking harmful drugs or having sex before the age of maturity. Libertarians would certainly say that no one has the right to prevent sane adults from doing these things. So how do we justify this moral distinction between children and adults?

Rights are correlative with obligations. So if children have a right to provision, parents have a duty to provide it. But to whom? Are parents’ duties actually to their children as such? Ordinarily, we think of rights as alienable, i.e., you can waive them if you want. But children don’t have the ability to consent to waiving their rights. So there’s still something a bit weird here. And what about parents’ duty/right to treat children paternalistically? Do children have a duty to obey their parents?

My answer is no, children do not have a duty to obey their parents. First, many children are too young to understand moral duties, so clearly they can have no moral duties. Second, children did not consent to being born or to living in the family in which they find themselves. So how can you acquire a positive obligation to obey someone else if you never did anything positive to assume such an obligation? And how could such an obligation, if it exists, suddenly disappear at maturity?

I would argue that children have rights in virtue of the rationality they will eventually enjoy. If raised tolerably well, children will grow into fully rational, capable adults with the regular panoply of natural rights.(*) Children as children may not know what their best interests are, but as adults they will. If those interests are compromised, it is ultimately the mature, self-aware adult who suffers. (The transition from childhood to maturity is gradual and continuous, but I’m using binary categories here for clarity.)

Parents have a duty to promote the development of their children into rational, capable adults. Depriving them of the necessities of life and of intellectual development violates their children’s rights. Moreover, parents have a duty to try to protect their children from their own harmful behaviors, and any positive action that anyone else may undertake to harm a child’s basic interests is wrong. On this basis, it is appropriate for a government to enforce “age of consent” laws for sex, drugs, etc. to prevent harms accruing to children who don’t know any better, and to buttress the parents’ right to safeguard their children’s development. The children may not realize any harm now, but the self-aware adults who they will become will.(**)

That selfsame respect for the rationality of a person that requires us to treat children paternalistically requires us to treat adults nonpaternalistically. Libertarianism, as a distinctive moral philosophy of natural rights, only makes sense if we draw clear distinctions among rational persons, not-yet-rational persons, and nonrational nonpersons. Treating adults paternalistically is wrong precisely because it is like treating them like children, the not-yet-rational. It disrespects them as persons. Utilitarianism, by contrast, makes no distinctions on the basis of rationality: both children and adults may be treated paternalistically. As a matter of practice, children probably require more paternalistic treatment than adults, but whenever adults tend to make systematic errors about their own interests, it’s appropriate on utilitarian grounds for others (the government) to “nudge” them in the right direction – libertarians reject this view. In the end, then, what seemed like a paradox for libertarianism – different rights for adults and children – turns out to be essential to the core of the philosophy.

(*)It may be argued that normal adults aren’t rational all the time. But what I mean by “rational” here is that a person has the capability for logical reflection and comprehension of moral rights and duties. This doesn’t mean that the capability is always exercised.

(**)Ages of consent are admittedly arbitrary, and there may be some children below the age of consent who are mature enough to make rational decisions about the prohibited behaviors. Ideally, I would favor a high age of consent to protect the rights of even “late bloomers,” along with a judicial emancipation procedure that would allow people below the age of consent to acquire some or all of the rights of maturity.

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What kind of adults do we want our children to become? Responsible parents ask themselves this question, and their answers provide principles that guide their parenting. 

The federal government, however, is making it very difficult to be a good parent, because it systematically undermines so many of the lessons one wants to teach. 

I want my children to become respectable, independent adults—able, like the blacksmith in Longfellow’s poem, to look “the whole world in the face,/For he owes not any man.” There is a nobility and a dignity in standing on one’s own two feet, in expecting to be held accountable for what one does with one’s liberty, and in not imposing on others to handle one’s own affairs. 

Now, children are all for liberty, but they sure don’t want accountability. They want the freedom to decide whether to do homework or watch American Idol, but they don’t want privileges taken away if their grades suffer because they opted for the latter. They want the freedom to spend all their money on candy and sodas at the movies, but then they want mom and dad to pay the registration fee for the school trip they were supposed to use that money for. 

If you’re a parent you understand this all too well. How many times have you spoken with your children about the importance of planning ahead? About remembering longer-term goals and arranging priorities accordingly? About how becoming an adult means saving for a rainy day, keeping your promises, and not expecting others to do things for you when you should take responsibility for yourself? 

These things go into making a responsible adult. Liberty, yes, but accountability too; and using good judgment about how to allocate resources so that long-term goals are served, not just the pleasures of the moment. One has to develop the discipline to abide by one’s principles all on one’s own, even when nobody is looking. 

Yet all of these sound moral habits are violated today by the federal government, and with increasing flagrancy. Take just one spectacular example: the mounting national debt. 

The federal government’s national debt is currently over $12 trillion—some $40,000 for every man, woman, and child in America. That’s not including unfunded obligations to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, whose present value is approximately $41 trillion, or another $137,000 per American. For a family of four, this means over $700,000 in total current federal government debt. Our national debt will soon approach, and then exceed, 100% of our Gross National Product

Putting economics aside, consider the moral message this conveys. Nearly every conceivable problem people might face in life constitutes an obligation on someone else’s part to resolve. President Obama’s proposed 2010 budget funds hundreds of government programs designed to reduce or eliminate the negative consequences of people’s own bad decisions—giving them, in essence, liberty without responsibility. Do not fret about standing on your own two feet, it tells Americans: spend recklessly today, for tomorrow we will bail you out. 

Who is the “we” who will bail you out? Well, don’t fret about that either: future Americans may be servants to the debt, but that is years from now, and for now we’ll pretend that by then someone will have figured out how to deal with the problem. 

But why should our children take responsibility for themselves when the adults will not? Why should our children undergo the arduous process of becoming accountable adults when those currently in charge take every opportunity to shirk their own responsibilities, closing their eyes to the economic tsunami that their decisions will unleash on future generations? 

Once upon a time, people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Adam Smith railed against public debt, believing it an immoral imposition on our children. It is indeed an egregious form of “taxation without representation,” since those who will have to pay it—future citizens—have no opportunity to say no. That alone should awaken us from our moral slumbers: It is wrong to do this to our own children. 

But it is also a terrible moral lesson to teach them. The virtuous adult is free and independent, yet also responsible and accountable. Our public institutions should not only encourage that virtue but also manifest it. Is it too much to ask that our representatives behave as we would have our children behave?

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