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Children's Rights

Children's Rights

3 Mins
January 25, 2011

Question: Since Ayn Rand stated at a Q&A period at the Ford Hall Forum, when asked if 'children' have any 'rights,' that they don't, then what is the proper Objectivist rationale for how they should be treated ethically/morally and politically/legally?

Answer: In the Objectivist view, the rights of human beings arise from their rational faculty and their ability to live as independent producers and traders. All rights, including rights like free speech and property, are consequences of—and can ultimately be reduced to—the one basic, fundamental right: the right to be left free from the initiation of physical force.

Rights in this sense do not apply directly to children. While it is difficult or impossible to distinguish the precise moment that a child matures beyond the state of non-rational dependence, all children must pass through such a period of development. If the basic right is freedom from coercion, this is the exactly the right that children—for their own sakes—must be denied. Children must be made to eat their vegetables, get their rest, go to school, etc., and children often demonstrate impetuous unwillingness to complete these and many other important tasks. In fact, applying rights principles to children could cause them outright harm. Imagine if one had to wait for a baby’s consent before feeding it or changing its diaper!

Ethically, Objectivism is opposed to any unchosen or undeserved duties. In this context, however, Objectivists generally acknowledge that parents, in creating (or adopting) a dependent child, choose for themselves the obligation to raise that child to a healthy adulthood with the power to exercise his rational faculty (if he so chooses). This obligation implies that the parents must undertake certain tasks at least to some minimal standard, including feeding and clothing the child and providing him with a basic education.

The legal implications of children’s lack of rights are more difficult to discover and define. If children have no rights, doesn’t that leave parents or even perfect strangers free to harm or kill them?

While children do have the full rights of adults, they deserve to have their right to live and not suffer violent attack respected.

Various Objectivists have developed theories on this subject. Generally, these theories hold that while children do have the full rights of adults, they deserve to have their right to live and not suffer violent attack respected, in virtue of their status as biologically independent human beings with the potential to develop into fully rational and socially independent adults.

One of these theories is by William R Thomas, and is available on the internet if you want to read more about it. Thomas has crafted a legal theory that affords some protection for children based on tort damages, without relying on the dubious claim that they possess rights. (See  here .) Thomas points out that one’s right to file a tort lawsuit does not demand that one was in full command of reason when the relevant harm was inflicted. One has the right to demand compensation for damage wrought—even while asleep or unconscious—that persists into periods of wakeful alertness. Moreover, in such cases, the police should not allow an aggressor to continue to abuse a victim, since it would only add to the victim’s suffering once he regains consciousness. Some crimes, including murder, even preclude the possibility that the victim will file suit against his aggressor. For these cases, criminal laws ensure that offenders cannot escape justice by preventing their prey from filing civil suits.

This applies to children because, though their full exercise of reason may be years in the future, they nevertheless possess such a potential throughout childhood. In stalling a child’s physical or intellectual development, parents would inflict harm on a person who one day could come to possess rights, including the right to sue for torts. They could also starve him to death before he ever reaches the age of majority. Legal authorities should not permit abuse of children (whether by parents or others) to continue, and criminal laws specifying the grounds for police intervention are appropriate.

So it is true that Objectivism denies that children possess “rights,” in the full sense of the word. Some may find this viewpoint disturbing, but it is the recognition of the truth about rights and children’s nature. Still, Objectivist scholars have amply demonstrated that, within such a framework, there are still ethical and legal guidelines one should follow in raising one’s children.

Andrew Bissell
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Andrew Bissell