Origins and Departures: Childhood in the Liberal Order

Andrew Justus Hall

Origins and Departures: Childhood in the Liberal Order
Hall, Andrew Justus
Thesis Advisor(s):
Neuhouser, Frederick
Ph.D., Columbia University
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Central to most forms of liberal social and political philosophy is the idea of the free and equal, self-governing person. And yet we do not come into the world as autonomous and accountable individuals; at best, this is the outcome of a long process of development and education which (in many societies) now extends throughout the first quarter of the average life. During this period of childhood, moreover, we are governed, not by ourselves, but by others. This dissertation examines the paradoxical position of children in liberal theory, who (as Locke put it) though not born in a state of freedom and equality, are born to it. In particular, the dissertation's three parts examine three interrelated questions. First, what is the basis of the paternalistic authority that is exercised over children? Second, what is the moral basis of the special rights of parents over particular children? And third, when, if ever, are inequalities of education and opportunity justified, when these emerge from decentralized authority over children in families and local communities? Part I: On what grounds do we deny children the personal freedom we accord to adults? The standard liberal view is that we are "born free as we are born rational" (Locke). That is, we are only born with the potential for freedom and rationality. Others ought to respect our liberty once we have, with age, become sufficiently reasonable to govern ourselves. On this view, a person's age matters only insofar as it is correlated with reason. I, on the contrary, argue that we should recognize age to have independent moral significance. This is because the educational paternalism at the beginning of a life does not impede our ability to carry out our life plans in the same way as would similar interference in the middle of a life. This explains why it is appropriate for parents and educators to aspire to more than fostering the minimal competence necessary for just getting by in life. Part II: What is the moral basis and extent of parental rights? Typically, liberals assume that governmental authority is only justified insofar as it serves the interests of the governed. Is parental authority the same, or is it partly justified by the interests of the "governors" as well (e.g., the interest parents have in passing on their values to another generation)? While many contemporary philosophers have followed Locke in describing parental authority as a fiduciary power, I suggest that Hegel provides a richer account in two respects. First, because Hegel has a more nuanced account of the differences between natural right, personal morality, and social ethics, he has the resources for a more sophisticated philosophy of moral education than Locke. From this we can derive a more detailed account of parental duties, as well as see why, without the help of schools, individual families are not generally well-suited to educate children for the modern world. Second, Hegel's conceptions of love and of social roles help illuminate the interests that adults have in rearing their children. Part III: When, if ever, are inequalities in the provision of education justified? While parents have traditionally been responsible for providing for their children's education, this role has increasingly been taken on by the state. In Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court held that public education must be made available "on equal terms" to all. But how is this to be understood? Does it require that the state spend roughly the same amount on educating every child? Or does it require that the state attempt to compensate children who have fewer educational advantages in the home to even out life chances? Or should educational equality be understood in a more modest way: an equal opportunity for a decent or adequate education? I claim that, assuming a rich and multi-faceted conception of adequate outcomes, educational inequalities above the adequacy threshold that emerge from differences in native ability or family background are not necessarily unjust. However, a norm of equal treatment establishes a defeasible presumption of resource equality in the public school system, once the adequacy threshold is met. I allow that inequalities between local communities may be justifiable if communities have chosen to tax themselves at different rates, but not if the school-finance system permits some communities to draw on significantly larger revenue bases than others.
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Suggested Citation:
Andrew Justus Hall, , Origins and Departures: Childhood in the Liberal Order, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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