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Justice for ChildrenReview - Justice for Children
Autonomy Development and the State
by Harry Adams
State University of New York Press, 2008
Review by Anca Gheaus, Ph.D.
Aug 18th 2009 (Volume 13, Issue 34)

This interesting, ingeniously argued, insightful and informative and very timely book makes a convincing case for the state's duty to guarantee the conditions necessary for all children to attain a minimal degree of autonomy, by ensuring proper parenting and education.

The book is aimed at two kinds of audience: philosophers (particularly the first and third chapters) and a wider, specifically US, audience interested in social justice and public policy (particularly the last two chaptes) It is carefully argued, with due attention to the many counterarguments that are likely to be leveled against the author's position. Some of Adams' policy solutions, such as the enforcement of a parenting licensing scheme, are very controversial. Adams' reasoning blends consequentialist interests in comparing costs and benefits of the envisaged policies with deontological commitment to the intrinsic moral merits of autonomy.

The first chapter lays out an ambitious understanding of autonomy as the ability to effectively govern one's life according to one's non-adaptive preferences and, ultimately, to one's life plan. Such an ability involves numerous cognitive and volitional skills. Adams suggests that we understand autonomy as a matter of degree, ranging across six levels from "non-existent" to "extremely high". He argues that there is a moral duty to promote people's autonomy at least to a minimal threshold represented by the fourth level. People at this level are characterised by the author as "ambiguous", since their lives are neither a total "mess" (sic!) nor are they running smoothly or "free of significant frustration" (p.17).

The second chapter looks at the development of autonomy (mostly in the light of social cognitivist theory) and argues that the achievements of each stage of life (infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood) are based on, and largely determined by, those of the previous stage. The chapter refines the understanding of what a minimal level of autonomy is, introducing the temporal dimension. Importantly, the author connects autonomy with (early) exposure to, and informed choosing from, a number of what he calls "life goods" to include pleasure, sex, love, friendship, work, parenting, social esteem, power etc. (There are altogether twenty of them, derived in a manner not unlike Nussbaum's capability list, and mysteriously, to my mind, omitting items such as play or access to nature.) Autonomy, argues Adams, is both intrinsically valuable and instrumentally essential to attaining other intrinsically valuable things. Indeed, autonomy is a particularly important type of advantage, because its lack leads to a snowballing of disadvantage, i.e. entails significant harms to wellbeing. I found this chapter very useful in its exposition of how various forms of (socially alterable) deprivation preclude proper development throughout infancy, childhood and adolescence and lead to an "accumulating chain of disadvantage".

Therefore, argues Adams in the third chapter, states have the duty to ensure at each stage the proper development of its children's autonomy or, in cases of what the author calls "arrested development", to help those lagging behind from no fault of their own. The main normative grounds of this duty are the facts that inadequate autonomy represents serious harm and that states are equally compelled to attend to the interests of their children (in this case, their interest in autonomy) as to the interests of their adult citizens.

Family and school are the main sites of children's development into autonomous adults. Chapter four contains a very detailed exposition of a parenting licensing scheme, an issue that has recently been attracting increasing attention from philosophers. Adams argues that people should lose parental rights if their parenting jeopardises the minimal autonomy of their children. He suggests ways of dividing (potential) parents into several categories according to how risky their parenting might be and endorses several kinds of checks and interventions meant to ensure adequate parenting, the most extreme of which is compulsory contraception.

Finally, the fifth chapter argues that states should ensure that schools enforce an "educational justice standard" that will guarantee that all children reach minimal autonomy. The last section of the chapter makes the case for a higher egalitarian standard in education, which the author however believes should not translate into policies for the world as it is, but is more adequate as part of an ideally just world. (By the latter he means a world in which we know better how to avoid the risks carried by high levels of state interventionism.)

Let me now formulate a number of worries that I had while reading this very stimulating book.

One ambiguity that, I thought, runs throughout the book is whether autonomy is (mostly) about the possession of a critical faculty, as Adams frequently suggest, or about social success, i.e the successful pursuit of a life plan. Adams seems to understand (full, or ideal) autonomy as a blend between an accomplished contemplative and active life. Thus, one example of a less than autonomous person is the socially adjusted, the person who does not possess the ability to transcend the norms and behaviors of those from her immediate social environment. Another example of alledged defective autonomy is one's inability to successfully pursue one's life plans and thus to expect "the heights of life's possibilities" (36). But, arguably, a critical stance towards one's social environment and the successful pursuit of a life plan are rarely, if ever, fully compatible. Also, if autonomy is an ability to reflect critically on one's current situation, cultural and social environment, autonomy is in principle achievable for all (unlike competitive success -- see below), but, as said, it is unlikely to sit comfortably with personal success.

In any case, the standard of autonomy advanced by Adams is very demanding, excluding -- explicitly and from the start -- large categories of people, for instance the "handicapped" (as the author calls them). I also found the hierarchy of autonomy levels disturbingly moralizing -- he uses as illustration of the "ambiguous people" prostitutes, illiterates or "phlegmatic types". Given how comprehensive the concept of autonomy used in this book is, it is hardly surprising that it can achieve a lot of normative work. But, as a reader, I often felt it should be appropriate to swap it for the more holistic concept of "wellbeing".

As already mentioned, a distinctive worry comes from Adams' frequent equation of autonomy with success, often with competitive success (see, for example section 3.5). Competitive success, by definition, cannot be achieved by all children/adults. And for non-competitive kinds of success to be achievable, not only parenting and education, but the social world itself, should be structurally changed -- such that, for instance, we do away with poverty and low status or unusually boring or intrinsically demeaning jobs. (Otherwise, presumably, some will remain trapped.) The only way out of this problem would be to say that poverty and low status are, in a just world, for the "lazy" or otherwise "morally deficient". It is difficult to deduce, from reading the book, what is the exact position of the author on this question; at times he seems to presuppose that even ideal conditions of development will be unable to prevent some people from choosing non-autonomous -- "lazy" or otherwise morally deficient -- lives. Whether it is acceptable that such people to end up in poverty and low status jobs is, of course, a further question.

I will finish with a few comments on what is probably the most contentious (although by no means unheard of) part of the book: Adams' parent licensing scheme. I find appealing the compassionate element of the argument that parents who are abusive or neglectful or harming their children's autonomous development in any other way are likely to be themselves deeply harmed individuals. Hence, public policies should emphasise prevention of future parental harm and remedies for past harming, rather than punishment. But at the same time, this means denying parenthood to people who have already suffered much injustice: this would compound injustice. If the very criteria of what makes people unfit to be good parents are -- to pick only two example from a long list -- histories of past abuse, or little education, then it seems that the denial of parenthood will befall those who have already been victims of serious past injustice.

One paradox that underlies the argument on compulsory contraception is that it is presented as a policy solution for a world that is not ideally just.  This is a world in which society is not able to mitigate inadequate parenting and support both parents and children to thrive even if they live in suboptimal homes by dismantling the harm done at home such that children whose parents jeopardised their autonomy can nevertheless "catch up". At the same time, compulsory contraception is only endorsed for societies that are not (more) racist, sexist or classist, which is, for societies that did achieve significant progress towards social justice (in order to avoid immoral eugenic scenarios). So, if compulsory contraception is after all a policy designed for a rather ideally just world, the natural question is whether efforts should not be better directed towards empowering all parents to reach standards of good enough parenting, rather than towards preventing people from becoming or remaining parents. For example, should states not aim to do away with poverty, lack of education, alcoholism, drug addiction, physical and psychological abuse and other factors that Adams identifies as very likely to turn affected individuals into inadequate parents?

The author competently addresses several essential criticisms of the parents licensing scheme, such as that it infringes reproductive rights or privacy rights, that it is inherently racist, sexist and classist or that it is particularly prone to abuse. A serious worry the author does not address is that the scheme will be very difficult to implement and that people might resent the numerous verifications and general culture of suspicion these verifications are likely to generate, to the point of these risking to defeat the purpose. Checks that are highly disruptive of intimacy may well have the unintended effect of damaging parenting and relationships between parents and children which, according to psychological studies, are inherently intense and marked by ambivalence. Finally, it seems the existence of a licensing scheme for parents implies that all children must have two licensed parents, which is obviously divergent from current realities and not independently argued for by the author.

 

© 2009 Anca Gheaus

 

Anca Gheaus is a post-doctoral researcher at the Philosophy Faculty of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. She works on theories of care and justice on which she has published several book chapters and articles in Raisons Politiques, Feminist Theory, Basic Income Studies and Hypatia.


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