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Are Adults and Children One Another’s Moral Equals?

Abstract

The question of the basis of human equality has recently gained increasing attention. However, much of the literature has focused on whether persons—understood as fully competent adults—have equal moral status, while relatively less attention has been devoted to the analysis of what grounds the equal moral status of those human beings who are not fully competent adults. This paper contributes to this debate by addressing the question of the equality of moral status between adults and children. Specifically, this paper has three aims. First, it provides a conceptual map of this complex issue. Second, it argues that the challenges that have been raised against standard accounts of persons’ equal moral status are even more forceful when applied to the question of adults and children’s moral equality. Finally, it examines what a commitment to adults and children’s moral inequality entails and what it does not, thereby showing that the justificatory role of the principle of moral equality is not as far-reaching as commonly assumed.

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Notes

  1. For some notable exceptions, see Jaworska and Tannenbuam (2019) and Waldron (2017: ch. 6).

  2. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for encouraging me to address these issues.

  3. For instructive discussions of what is commonly referred to as the “threshold problem”, see Archard (2015), Fowler (2014), and Franklin-Hall (2013).

  4. A consequentialist account of moral status, instead, maintains that if an entity has moral status, then its interests should be taken into account in the moral deliberation, the aim of which is to maximize the satisfaction of the interests of all those entities that have moral status (Singer 2011). In this article, I only focus on deontological accounts of moral status.

  5. For a prominent defence of speciesism, see Williams (2006: ch. 13).

  6. This raises the further and more fundamental question of how to determine what properties are morally significant. A fully worked-out analysis of this question, however, goes beyond the scope of this paper. For instructive discussion, see Dwyer (2011: chs. 2–3) and Floris (2021). For the purposes of this paper, I grant that the properties identified by some of the most prominent accounts of children’s moral status are indeed morally relevant. Our task is to understand whether they have succeeded in showing that children do not simply have moral status, but that their moral status is equal to that of adults.

  7. The relationship between the basis of moral status and the content of fundamental rights has been widely defended in the literature. See, among others, Carter (2011: 542), Christiano (2015), Cupit (1996), Gilabert (2019), and Kagan (1998: 290).

  8. In the final section, I will return to this issue and explain when other things are exactly equal.

  9. To be sure, rational agency and sentience may also be incommensurable. I will return to the incommensurability view below (see fn. 16). For the time being, it is sufficient to note that, like the (in)equality, the incommensurability of two values is not entailed by their difference.

  10. Of course, this may generate different sets of specific rights because promoting the welfare of a child and promoting the welfare of an adult require different things, at least sometimes. However, the important point is that both adults and children have the same—and equally stringent—fundamental right to have their welfare promoted qua moral equals. What is not needed to promote their welfare is not required as a matter of justice, and what is incompatible with the promotion of their welfare is forbidden as a matter of justice.

  11. Some have attempted to reject the variations objection by arguing that moral equality is not grounded in the equal possession of a status-conferring property, but in the rejection of treating others as inferiors. See Sangiovanni (2017). For a critique of this approach, see Floris (2019, 2020).

  12. For some criticisms of Carter’s view, see Arneson (2015), Christiano (2015), Husi (2017) and Sher (2015).

  13. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for prompting me to address this objection.

  14. Of course, not everyone agrees. For an interesting attempt to argue that children and adults have the same status-conferring properties, but that these are held by children to a higher degree, see Dwyer (2011: ch. 5).

  15. To be sure, there have been several attempts to demonstrate that childhood is equally—if not more—valuable than adulthood. Thus, several philosophers have suggested that children have exclusive or privileged access to a range of goods—such as, “sexual innocence”, “carefree approach to life”, and “aimlessness and openness to future possibilities”. For instructive discussions, see Gheaus (2015) and Hannan (2018). But, as Tomlin pointed out, the question of the value of childhood and adulthood is distinct and, at least to some extent, independent from the question of the moral status of children and adults. Specifically, the former concerns whether childhood or adulthood is a valuable state for the individual who experiences them, whereas the latter is about whether children or adults hold any morally significant property and, therefore, have moral status (Tomlin 2018: 30–31). Therefore, views about the value of childhood have no straightforward implications for the question of adults and children’s moral status. For instance, the fact that children experience a “carefree approach to life” may entail that childhood is good but need not imply that having a “carefree approach to life” is a valuable property that confers (a superior) moral status upon them.

  16. It may be suggested that a promising way to overcome these challenges is to maintain that adults’ moral status and children’s moral status are incommensurable. This, however, is a mistake because adults and children’s moral equality cannot be derived from the incommensurability of their moral statuses. If adults’ and children’s moral status are not commensurable, then it is simply impossible to establish whether adults and children have equal or unequal moral status. But the incommensurability view, a critic may note, can at least ground a presumption in favor of their equal moral status. Whether incommensurability justifies a presumption in favor of equality is debatable. However, the important point here is that incommensurability is insufficient to ground a definitive justification for adults and children’s equal moral status.

  17. For a defense of the view that children lack rights qua moral status-holders, see Griffin (2002).

  18. More needs to be said about when the less fundamental interests of beings whose moral status is superior are outweighed by the more fundamental interests of those beings who have an inferior moral status. However, the important point here is that denying moral equality does not imply that all the rights of the beings whose moral status is superior should have priority over all the rights of the beings whose moral status is inferior.

  19. Interestingly, while this point has often been overlooked in the literature on basic equality, it has been appreciated in the literature on children’s rights. See, for example, Hannan (2018).

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Acknowledgements

For helpful written comments on previous versions of this article, I would like to thank Matt Perry, Federico Zuolo and, in particular, Liam Shields. I am especially grateful to an anonymous reviewer for the Journal of Ethics whose comments greatly improved this paper.

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Correspondence to Giacomo Floris.

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Floris, G. Are Adults and Children One Another’s Moral Equals?. J Ethics (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10892-021-09390-2

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Keywords

  • Adults
  • Children
  • Moral equality
  • Moral inequality
  • Moral status