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‘The kids are alright’: political liberalism, leisure time, and childhood


Interest in the nature and importance of ‘childhood goods’ recently has emerged within philosophy. Childhood goods, roughly, are things (including kinds of activities) that are good for persons qua children independent of any contribution to the good of persons qua adults (although they may also be valuable in this way). According to Colin Macleod, John Rawls’s political conception of justice as fairness rests upon an adult-centered ‘agency assumption’ and thus is incapable of incorporating childhood goods into its content. Macleod concludes that because of this, justice as fairness cannot be regarded as a complete conception of distributive justice. In this paper I provide a political liberal response to Macleod’s argument by advancing three claims. First, I propose that political liberalism should treat leisure time as a distinct ‘primary good.’ Second, I suggest that leisure time should be distributed via (a) the ‘basic needs principle’ and (b) the ‘difference principle’ for all citizens over the course of their complete lives, including their childhoods. Third, the provision of leisure time in this way supports the realization of childhood goods for citizens.

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  1. 1.

    She writes: “Only autonomous people can participate (meaningfully) in choosing a vision of the good life; and continuity of care is at least necessary, although probably not sufficient, for the development of children’s autonomy” (Alstott 2004, p. 1951).

  2. 2.

    According to the theory of political liberalism, liberal societies are characterized by the ‘fact of reasonable pluralism’: the fact that persons living in such societies, as a consequence of the free exercise of their reason, invariably will subscribe to a variety of different, typically incompatible, philosophical, moral, and religious ‘comprehensive doctrines’ (Rawls 2005, pp. 36–37, 440–441). In order to accommodate the fact of reasonable pluralism, Rawls holds that the main institutions of a liberal society should be governed by what he calls a ‘political conception of justice.’ A political conception of justice satisfies the ‘basic structure restriction’ and the ‘freestanding condition.’ According to the basic structure restriction, a political conception of justice applies only to the ‘basic structure of society,’ roughly, its main social institutions, taken together as an overall system of cooperation (see n. 7). A political conception of justice satisfies the freestanding condition by being formulated in terms of distinctly ‘political’ ideas (including ideals, values, principles, and so forth). Such political ideas, like that of society as a ‘fair system of social cooperation,’ do not presuppose or depend upon the truth of any particular comprehensive doctrine (for instance, Buddhism or utilitarianism). These ideas instead are construed as implicit within the public political culture of democratic society. Political conceptions of justice are compatible with the (‘reasonable’) comprehensive doctrines endorsed by that society’s citizens (Rawls 2005, pp. 11–15, 374–376, 453).

  3. 3.

    In Rawls’s final formulation of justice as fairness (2001, pp. 42–43), the first principle specifies a set of ‘basic liberties’ that are to be secured equally for all citizens within the constitutional structure of society (these liberties include freedom of thought, liberty of conscience, freedom of association, the political liberties (including their ‘fair value’), and the like). The second principle requires, roughly, that any economic inequality in society must (a) benefit the ‘least advantaged’ citizens over time more than any other system of economic distribution [this is the ‘difference principle’ (see n. 19)], and (b) not undermine or violate the ‘fair’ equality of opportunity of all citizens to compete for positions of authority and responsibility. The first principle, moreover, enjoys ‘lexical’ priority over the second (and within the second principle, the fair equality of opportunity requirement has priority over the difference principle). As we shall see later, Rawls also mentions a ‘basic needs principle’ that has lexical priority over even the first principle of justice as fairness. [The basic needs principle must be satisfied by all reasonable political conceptions of justice (see n. 6).]

  4. 4.

    For a discussion of different views concerning the educational implications of political liberalism, see Neufeld (2013).

  5. 5.

    In my discussion here I treat the terms ‘leisure time’ and ‘discretionary time’ as interchangeable.

  6. 6.

    In his final writings on political liberalism, Rawls acknowledges the existence of reasonable conceptions of justice other than justice as fairness. While such “a family of reasonable political conceptions” of justice exists, “[t]he limiting feature of these forms is the criterion of reciprocity” (Rawls 2005, p. 450). This criterion requires that citizens offer terms of social cooperation that they think other citizens will find acceptable. Conceptions of justice, in order to satisfy the criterion of reciprocity, must secure a set of specially ranked ‘basic liberties’ for all citizens (including liberty of conscience, freedom of association, and the political liberties of democratic citizenship), as well as adequate resources (such as education and wealth) for all citizens to exercise effectively those liberties over the course of their lives (Rawls 2005, p. 450). Despite this moderate pluralism with respect to justice, though, the ‘basic needs principle’ applies to all such conceptions, even those that endorse distributive principles less egalitarian than the difference principle. While I focus on justice as fairness here, my overall view can apply to any reasonable political conception of justice (simply substitute the ‘difference principle’ for the alternative distributive principle). [I should mention, finally, that in his final writings on political liberalism, Rawls maintains that justice as fairness is the most reasonable conception of justice (Rawls 2005, pp. xlvi–xlvii, 450–451).]

  7. 7.

    As pointed out in n. 2, the political conception of justice as fairness applies to the basic structure of society. For Rawls’s discussion of the basic structure and why it should be understood as the subject of the principles of justice, see Rawls (2005), Lecture VII. [I provide an interpretation and defence of political liberalism’s basic structure restriction in Neufeld and Van Schoelandt (2014); for a broadly similar view, see Hodgson (2012).]

  8. 8.

    Rawls explains the relation between ‘comprehensive doctrines’ and ‘conceptions of the good’ in the following passage: “The elements of […] a conception [of the good] are normally set within, and interpreted by, certain comprehensive religious, philosophical, or moral doctrines in the light of which the various ends and aims are ordered and understood” (Rawls 2001, p. 19).

  9. 9.

    ‘Reasonable citizens,’ roughly, acknowledge the fact of reasonable pluralism and are committed to satisfying the criterion of reciprocity when justifying fundamental political decisions (Rawls 2005, pp. xliv, 16, 49–50, 54). (While ‘unreasonable persons’ are ‘full citizens’ in terms of their legal and political status, the exercise of political authority need not be justified to them, according to political liberalism, given their rejection of the criterion of reciprocity and/or the fact of reasonable pluralism.).

  10. 10.

    See n. 2.

  11. 11.

    This list is meant only as a sketch; other childhood goods are discussed in the literature. Here is a list (not meant to be comprehensive) provided by Samantha Brennan:

    • Unstructured, imaginative play

    • Relationships with other children and with adults

    • Opportunities to meaningfully contribute to household and community

    • Time spent outdoors and in the natural world

    • Physical affection

    • Physical activity and sport

    • Bodily pleasure

    • Music and art

    • Emotional well-being

    • Physical well-being and health

    (Brennan 2014, p. 42).

  12. 12.

    Anca Gheus suggests: “there is nothing about the intrinsic goods of childhood that is necessarily inimical to good adulthoods” (2015, p. 43). For the purposes of my discussion here, though, I need not take a position on the question of the availability of childhood goods during adulthood (see Brennan 2014, pp. 42–43).

  13. 13.

    On Rawls’s four-stage sequence for formulating and applying justice as fairness—of which the ‘legislative stage’ is the third—see Rawls (1999, pp. 171–176, 2001, p. 48).

  14. 14.

    This point is made by Rawls while discussing the distribution of health and medical care.

  15. 15.

    “We could […] identify a list of primary goods of childhood,” Macleod writes, “Child-focused primary goods would be identified as those resources (or social conditions) that are essential to securing conditions necessary for development of the moral powers” (Macleod 2010, p. 181). In this part of his discussion, Macleod refers to a 1980 article by Amy Gutmann. Ultimately, Gutmann’s justification is instrumental: she defends “a liberal concern for fostering the conditions that facilitate the development of capacities for personal choice and democratic citizenship’ (Gutmann 1980, p. 351)” (quoted in Macleod 2010, p. 181).

  16. 16.

    A difference in certain goods (e.g., income or leisure time) amongst adults might be justified, say, if they reflect different decisions made by those adults, decisions for which they can be held responsible. This possibility (whatever its merit vis-à-vis justifying certain kinds of inequalities amongst adults) is implausible with respect to children. (See Macleod 2010, p. 183.)

  17. 17.

    As noted earlier, I treat ‘leisure time’ and ‘discretionary time’ as interchangeable in my discussion here.

  18. 18.

    See n. 3 for a summary of the two principles of justice as fairness.

  19. 19.

    I should note that the difference principle covers “the social and economic inequalities attached to offices and positions” (Rawls 2005, p. 6), and thus the distribution of “powers and prerogatives” (Rawls 2001, p. 58), as well as income and wealth. Rawls’s treatment of leisure time, though, focuses on its relation to income and wealth.

  20. 20.

    I defend this claim in greater detail in Neufeld (2017).

  21. 21.

    I assume that most (if not all) citizens’ conceptions of the good include at least some important dimensions of their lives away from work and/or separate from their care-giving responsibilities. (I will not defend this assumption here.) Even if this is not true for all citizens, though, the availability of leisure time does not prevent any citizens from pursuing their conceptions of the good (see n. 29).

  22. 22.

    For “a statement of such a principle,” Rawls refers to Peffer (1990, p. 14) [at Rawls (2005, p. 7, n. 7)].

  23. 23.

    See Rawls (2005, pp. 226–230).

  24. 24.

    See Michelman (2003, pp. 406–407), Rawls (2005, p. 166, n. 29; p. 407).

  25. 25.

    I leave aside here the difficult issue of how to specify such a right to adequate leisure time. I should mention, though, that a right to leisure time is included within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 24) and that most contemporary liberal democratic societies legally require that employees enjoy a minimum amount of paid vacation time every year (the United States is a notable exception), although such laws generally are not considered to be among the ‘constitutional essentials’ of these societies.

  26. 26.

    Some childhood goods identified by philosophers writing on this topic may not be realizable via the primary good of leisure time. One such good is a secure sense of belonging and trust in others (see, e.g., Brennan 2014, 43f). The realization of this good seems to depend, at least in significant part, on the kinds of families to which children belong. Still, the basic structure of a politically just society—one in which citizens all enjoy (inter alia) adequate education, income, and leisure time—is one that is more conducive to or supportive of loving family relations than is the basic structure of an unjust society.

  27. 27.

    Here I draw upon Rawls’s account of paternalism in A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1999, pp. 218–220). (My thanks to Louis-Philippe Hodgson for pressing me to clarify this point.)

  28. 28.

    My proposal resembles in some respects that advanced by Gutmann (1980) and discussed by Macleod (2010, p. 181). The difference is that I think that childhood goods can be understood as good for persons qua children, and not simply instrumentally valuable for children qua future citizens.

  29. 29.

    In this respect, then, leisure time (which involves the enjoyment of some mix of childhood goods during the childhood phase of persons’ lives) is like the other primary goods. Not all conceptions of the good involve the exercise of all the basic liberties, say, or the use of income and wealth (beyond that required for subsistence). A stoical or ascetic conception of the good, for instance, makes little use of most of the primary goods that are secured for all citizens. Nonetheless, persons qua citizens rationally would want access to such primary goods, given their three higher-order interests. (See n. 21). (More precisely, the parties within the ‘original position’ would select principles of justice that secure access to such primary goods for the citizens whom they represent. This is because (inter alia) the parties within the original position are ignorant of the precise conceptions of the good endorsed by the citizens they represent. [On the nature and role of the original position, see Rawls (2001, Sect. 6, 23–40)].)

  30. 30.

    Such direct provision of leisure time for children—say, at schools—may be necessary to mitigate the decisions by some families not to grant their children adequate leisure time (say, by insisting that their children fill their time away from school with work or study). (My thanks to Joseph Heath for discussion of this point.)


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Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Association for Political Theory’s 2016 annual conference, the American Philosophical Association Pacific Division’s 2017 meeting, and the Canadian Philosophical Association’s 2017 meeting. I am grateful to the audiences at all of those presentations for their helpful questions and comments. In particular, I would like to thank Randall Curren, Tommie Shelby, and Rosa Terlazzo for their comments at the APA presentation; those comments led me to rethink and revise the overall argument of the paper. I also would like to thank Peter Dietsch, Joseph Heath, Louis-Philippe Hodgson, and Anthony Skelton for their comments and questions at the CPA presentation; those comments and questions helped me to revise and fine-tune a number of key points. I especially am grateful to Lori Watson for organizing the special panel at the APA on political liberalism and children, which prompted me finally to turn a languishing outline into a complete draft. Finally, I owe a special thanks to Colin Macleod for answering a number of questions I had about his view over a couple of pints in Montreal a few years ago.

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Correspondence to Blain Neufeld.

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Neufeld, B. ‘The kids are alright’: political liberalism, leisure time, and childhood. Philos Stud 175, 1057–1070 (2018).

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  • Children
  • Justice as fairness
  • Leisure time
  • Political liberalism
  • Primary goods
  • John Rawls