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Moral status is one of the most difficult topics in ethics. The difficulty resides in the fact that any account of what makes one morally considerable is bound to either leave out some individuals which most people think are in fact owed moral respect, or fail to distinguish between individuals which we do not usually believe are morally equal, or else fail to recognise as moral equals individuals that we do believe to be so. For instance, if some kind of rationality is what makes one morally considerable, then human beings who are not rational or at least capable of rationality, as well as most animals, are left out. If the criterion is sentience, you will have problems distinguishing between the moral worth of a human being and that of a hen. And if you adopt a multicriteria theory of moral status you are likely to conclude that some human beings are worthy of higher moral consideration than others. No theory of moral status is easy to reconcile with common sense morality because every such theory will have to deal with some 'hard cases'.
Traditionally, children have been thought to be an example of such 'hard case.' Their abilities to reason seem modest compared to those of adults', they are less able of autonomy and, at least up to a certain age, their sense of morality is not fully formed. (Or this, at least, is the dominant view on children. If you would like to know how neuroscience has been recently challenging this view you may want to read Alison Gopnik's work.) The most remarkable feature of James Dwyer's book is that it turns this picture on its head. The author argues that, far from thinking that they are less morally considerable than adults, we should regard children as having higher moral status than adults. To do this, Dwyer adopts (and defends) a multicriteria theory of moral status, to include the usually considered features of life, relationships, sentience and higher cognitive functioning as well as lesser discussed features like potentiality, talents and beauty. He finds that on most criteria children fare better than grown-ups.
The book is structured in chapters addressing the definition and importance of moral status, a methodological discussion on how to determine moral status, a presentation of the different possible criteria for determining moral status, a chapter on the difficulties raised by multicriteria theories, one on how to determine children's moral status on a multicriteria theory and a final discussion of the practical consequences of the author's views on children's moral superiority.
Dwyer's book is dense in argument, making a detailed discussion of it difficult. Particularly interesting is the last chapter which looks at some of the changes that we ought to make in our social world to reflect children's superior moral status. The changes would have to start at home, in the way in which we understand the source of adults' responsibility towards children. Dwyer believes that parenthood should be understood as a merely fiduciary role, with parents being allowed to play it 'only to the extent that it is best for a child.' (p.189) There is some indication, but unfortunately not a full discussion, of what this account of parenthood entails: that those adults who would make the best parent to a particular child ought to have the right to rear the child (rather than the child's biological parents.) Another difference from the status quo, according to the author, is that adults other than parents ought to be legally compelled to shoulder some of the financial costs of rearing children. Divorce law, too, ought to be change to give priority to the interests of children. For instance, the law ought to allow children to continue living in their pre-divorce home and even to give courts a say in the parents' choice of new partners -- just like it should, more generally give courts a say with regard to parents' conduct (for instance, smoking.) Other affected areas are public policy on spending on children, on education and on the creation of a public space where children's views can be known and given due consideration. Finally, changes ought to take place in how children are being treated in general to ensure due respect -- for instance, social norms ought to be more permissible of children's interrupting adults' work and hobbies than of adults' interrupting children's play, and '[f]ailing to squat when talking with a small child would be a great insult.' (p.197) Many of the suggested changes do not require -- as the author himself notes -- that we believe in children's moral superiority. Indeed, some of these changes are already on the agenda of several philosophers interested in childrearing.
© 2014 Anca Gheaus
Anca Gheaus, Sheffield University, UK
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