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Autonomy and Children’s Well-Being

Part of the Children’s Well-Being: Indicators and Research book series (CHIR,volume 9)


This paper addresses the questions of how we should interpret the autonomy of children and of how we should identify the treatment their autonomy demands of others. In examining this question, the paper casts doubt on two views of the nature and relevance of the autonomy of children. It criticises Joel Feinberg’s well-known view that the autonomy claims of children are reducible to the autonomy claims of the future adults the children will become. It also raises objections to Matthew Clayton’s proposal that the treatment of children should be constrained not only by their future autonomy, but also by a particular component of their autonomy, namely, their independence. We believe Clayton’s proposal has the merit that it does not, unlike Feinberg’s proposal, restrict the basis of the autonomy-claims of children purely to the future autonomy they will enjoy as adults. Nevertheless, we do not believe that the concern with independence adequately captures the autonomy claims of children. After considering these alternative views, the paper proposes that the autonomy claims of children are in fact routed in their evolving capacities for autonomous decision-making. We argue that this proposal both fits with some common-sense ideas about how children ought to be treated, and upholds Clayton's radical proposal that parents should not enrol their children into their comprehensive views about the good life, including their religious views.


  • Primary Good
  • Comprehensive Doctrine
  • Comprehensive Conception
  • Deliberative Faculty
  • Retrospective Consent

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  1. 1.

    UNICEF, ‘Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries, Innocenti Report Card 7’, (Innocenti Research Centre, Florence, 2007).

  2. 2.

    The term ‘concerted cultivation’ comes from Annette Lareau’s fine study of class-based parenting styles Lareau (2003).

  3. 3.

    See Macleod (2010). Macleod’s criticism seems applicable also to other theories of social justice, including Ronald Dworkin’s theory of ‘equality of resources’.

  4. 4.

    Wisconsin v. Yoder 406 U.S. 205 (1972).

  5. 5.

    See Wisconsin v. Yoder (White, J., concurring). White ultimately supported the court’s majority opinion in favor of the Amish parents on the grounds that the Amish request to reduce their children’s education by 2 years would only make a slight difference to their qualifications.

  6. 6.

    A version of this objection is raised by Mills (2003).

  7. 7.

    At one point in the argument, however, Clayton suggests that the demands of autonomy as he understands them can be defended, among other reasons, on the grounds of their having instrumental value for a person’s future capacity for autonomy. See Clayton (2006: 105–9).

  8. 8.

    In this article, Clayton restates and develops the argument of Justice and Legitimacy in Upbringing in the face of objections raised by Cameron (2011).

  9. 9.

    As Clayton writes (2011: 361): ‘the independence view of autonomy asserts that the comprehensive enrolment of children is morally wrong, because…it is an instance of others deciding one’s characteristics or goals without one’s consent or in the absence of confidence of eliciting one’s retrospective consent.’

  10. 10.

    As we understand the independence argument and the retrospective consent test, they specify necessary but not sufficient conditions for meeting the demands of autonomy. It is in principle possible to respect someone’s independence, and not set goals for him, but to fail to provide him with the opportunities that are required for him to become autonomous. So we understand Clayton to hold that parents are under the demands of both the achievement and the independence view. Similarly, thinking that retrospective consent is sufficient may license ‘self-justifying paternalism’: this might permit parents to instil in their children the very preferences and character that lead the children to retrospectively consent to the ways in which their parents reared them. But this would not guarantee that the child’s autonomy has been respected. It would seem necessary that the retrospective consent that the child-as-adult gives to ways in which she was reared as a child not owe itself solely to the manner in which her parents reared her. It is thus more plausible to hold that retrospective consent is only a necessary condition for respecting the child’s autonomy, and not a sufficient condition. For an illuminating discussion of self-justifying paternalism, see Archard (1993).

  11. 11.

    The point we are raising here is similar to, but different from, Cameron’s objection to Clayton. Cameron believes that there can be no objection to comprehensive enrolment from autonomy-as-achievement when a child lacks the capacity for autonomy: ‘I fail to see how whether or not another person chooses for you at a time when you cannot choose for yourself can be relevant to the autonomy of your life as a whole.’ Cameron (2011: 347). Our objection is that it is unclear that there can be an objection to comprehensive enrolment from autonomy-as-independence when a child lacks the capacity for autonomy.

  12. 12.

    The case of genetic enhancement, which Clayton thinks stands condemned by the value of independence, can be explained in this light. See Clayton (2011: 361).

  13. 13.

    See Clayton (2011: 357–61).

  14. 14.

    For people to enjoy autonomy, either across a life and overall or at specific times and in particular domains, they must have both certain intrapersonal and certain environmental capacities. Our claims concern intrapersonal capacities, since it is these that children are thought to lack. Moreover, we are talking here about children having ‘local autonomy’, or autonomy with regard to particular actions.

  15. 15.

    A related class of cases in which parents may override a child’s wishes in line with her autonomy are those in which the parent thereby teaches the child the discipline of adherence to her own chosen projects. We would insist, however, that the projects the parent may require the child adhere to must be the child’s own projects, not projects the parent has chosen for her. For a discussion of the relevance of adherence to the autonomy of children, see Callan (2002).

  16. 16.

    With the latter sort of beliefs, unlike with the former, it is true that even adults cannot come to hold it by reasoning their way through it. Our view does not commit us, however, to suggesting that it is somehow wrong for adults to choose themselves to embrace such beliefs; what is wrong is to make autonomous others, even partially autonomous children, believe such things.

  17. 17.

    The original source of the Wolsterstorff passage is Wolsterstorff (1997).


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Correspondence to Paul Bou-Habib .

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Bou-Habib, P., Olsaretti, S. (2015). Autonomy and Children’s Well-Being. In: Bagattini, A., Macleod, C. (eds) The Nature of Children's Well-Being. Children’s Well-Being: Indicators and Research, vol 9. Springer, Dordrecht.

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