“But Jesus said, Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” – Matthew 19:14
In his book The Ethics of Liberty, libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard takes a controversial view on the treatment of children. In his defense of the absolute right to self-ownership of every man and woman, Rothbard not only makes the rational case for abortion, but also the admissibility of neglecting to feed a child. He writes that obligations such as feeding and clothing offspring “would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights.” It follows then that adults can simply allow their progeny “to die.”
As a libertarian, I’ve always had an uneasy feeling about Rothbard’s take. Logically, it makes sense. But there’s something else about the human condition that makes it hard to reconcile a pure self-ownership philosophy with the idea that it’s okay to allow kids to starve on the street. Intuitively, it seems, there should be a better way when it comes to the issue of children’s rights.
Cultural Marxism surely isn’t helping us find the answer. As American culture metamorphoses into a shrine to victimhood status, the topic of rights conferred to children has become more contentious. Ever since Aristotle argued that children have incomplete rationality, moral philosophy has been befuddled with questions over what claims the young posses. In between the contemporary panic over unsupervised play and outrage over spanking, the debate still rages, albeit under less intelligent circumstances.
As a believer in natural law, I’ve typically found that children and newborns occupy a special status: somewhere between compete personhood and dependent creatures. The line of separation is grey, similar to most areas of life. But a recent essay in the Christian ecumenical journal First Things is a holy slap in the face for the philosophy of Aquinas. The author, Nora Calhoun, pulls no punches when it comes to the nature of babies: “No ability or strength confers human status—not being viable or sentient or undamaged or wanted.”
This line of reasoning runs contrary to natural law theory. Thomistic reasoning says that man is man because he possess certain rational capabilities. It is because of this particular nature that men have rights that should, in theory, be respected by fellow human beings. As Rothbard put it, “individuals possess rights not because we ‘feel’ that they should, but because of a rational inquiry into the nature of man and the universe.”
If man derives his rights from rational observation and deduction, the same reasoning should apply equally to children. But children are distinct from their elders. Toddlers are not endowed with the same mental cognition as grown men and women. They lack maturity. Therefore, they are in a class of their own, whose rights should be altered to reflect their true nature.
So how, then, should children be treated? Love and respect are the first two qualities that come to mind, at least for any decent person. But lacking the means to fully take care of themselves, kids must be given some kind of direction. And sometimes, that requires a bit of force to shape their actions against their will. That’s not a prerogative for physical abuse; just an acknowledgement that the vulnerable need a step in the right direction to eventually become fully functional.
Children should not be viewed in the same category as fully rational adult. But that doesn’t mean they should also be given the same treatment as domesticated animals. The littlest among us are deserving, as Ms. Calhoun avers, of dignity and care because “human descent is enough.” That doesn’t pass the smell test for natural rights, but it strikes at something more fundamental about how we view our natural humanity. It explains the sympathy we feel for those weaker than us. It explains why logic can sometimes be overcome with mercy and forgiveness.
A recent photo gallery in the webmag Slate provides gritty details for the kind of poverty not addressed by the media: low-class whites living chaotic lives. In the once-prominent town of Troy, New York, Brenda Ann Kenneally pictorially documents children surrounded by filth, lacking any hope for a better life outside of a McDonald’s burger wrapper. Children separated from their parents, lighting cigarettes for their caregivers, living off junk food and coffee – these are disorderly existences devoid of any happiness outside material pleasure. Call me a bleeding heart, but it’s hard not to feel flooded with sympathy for these youngsters; born into a disorderly culture with myopic role models.
That’s just in America’s forgotten neighborhoods. Elsewhere in the world, the young lack even the material comfort of capitalism. The ongoing killing of Palestinian children has been heart-wrenching to witness. These kids aren’t aware of the blood feud between Israel and Hamas. They’re used as pawns in a holy conflict fought by men who should know better.
Mix the unneeded slaughter of Palestinian kids with the globe’s other atrocities –
mutilating the genitalia of little girls in Africa, refugee kids living in warehouses on the America-Mexico border, abortions on demand in inner-cities – and it makes for a terrifying world of remorse. It’s also why I reject the logical conclusion of evolutionary genetics out of hand: that if the weak die off, why not hasten the process now for a stronger society? If there is no God, if there is no morality built into reality, if we are not endowed with inherent dignity, then there’s no reason to respect the weak. I can’t hold such a view in good conscience.
I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps the best reason for giving unconditional care to children is that judicious adults aren’t as clever as they think. Humanity may have discovered the laws of astrophysics and trigonometry, but we can’t seem to figure out that theft is always wrong, murder is immoral, and social democracy is for the birds. For every iPhone developed or vaccine for deadly disease created, we can’t bring ourselves out of the rut of hubristic savagery. Who are we to look down upon those lacking sufficient reason when man can’t bring himself to abide by reasoned morality?
We can’t achieve victory over our flawed nature because we weren’t made to. The only thing man can do to achieve a hint of greatness is to abide by the Apostle Paul’s one commandment: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” And since our sons and daughters are our littlest neighbors, they deserve just as much love as anyone else, if not more.
Reserving dignity for every child isn’t the same as teaching them the virtues of responsibility and hard work. Lord knows what long lasting impact giving every child a soccer trophy, even if they’re on a losing team, will have. But we can at least recognize the potential of little people, and do our best to help them along. A society where the small are neglected eventually becomes a society where the large is treated just as poorly. For our sakes, and the sake of our everlasting souls, let’s “think of the children.” It may be all the good we can accomplish in this life.
James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada. Send him mail.
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