Unfinished adults and defective children: on the nature and value of childhood.

Author:Gheaus, Anca

A PHILOSOPHICAL TRADITION THAT GOES BACK to Aristotle represents childhood as a state of lacking. This is the view that children are imperfect, because not yet finished, adults. (1) On Tamar Schapiro's recent version of this view, childhood is a predicament because children lack full moral agency. (2) Being a child is to find oneself at a lower stage of development, a stage that normal individuals are expected to leave behind in due course to move on to the superior stage of adulthood. Arguably, this view dominates not only the philosophical tradition, but also current, everyday thinking about childhood. Traditionally, developmental psychology (3) assumed that children become adults by going through successive stages of intellectual and moral development, with each subsequent stage being superior to the former. (4) I refer to this view of childhood as the "children as unfinished adults" view.

Over the past few centuries, this view of childhood has been compensated by the Romantic view of children as natural geniuses, human beings not yet morally corrupted by civilization and having privileged access to truth by means of intuition. Some of the same features that mark childhood as an inferior stage of development in the neo-Aristotelian tradition are responsible for the superior standing of children in the Romantic one, according to which children's lack of full instrumental rationality is valuable because it allows them to remain connected to the rest of nature and humankind, and their emotional nature makes possible a degree of spontaneity and creativity usually lost in adulthood. (5) Here I refer to this view of the relationship between childhood and adulthood as the "adults as defective children" view.

I defend the view that childhood is intrinsically valuable rather than having value only to the extent to which it leads to a good adulthood. Neither the "children as unfinished adults" nor the more extravagant "adults as defective children" view is by itself convincing because both are incomplete ways of telling the story of childhood and adulthood. A short article cannot settle the issue of the relative value of childhood and adulthood, but I suggest it is plausible that some kinds of value that we can fully enjoy as children are, in the case of most people, different from those that we can enjoy as adults. As we turn into adults we improve our knowledge and abilities: We accumulate experience and gain better control of our emotions. Thereby, we become capable of full moral agency. Moreover, we become more purposeful and acquire the executive abilities necessary to pursue our aims effectively, and thus new types of achievements become available to us. At the same time, in the transition to adulthood we lose, on average, not only desirable physical skills such as agility and flexibility, but also much of the mental plasticity, imagination, curiosity and vivid, sometimes synesthetic perception of the world (that is, an ability to experience the world through more than one sense at a time). In the process, the ability to imagine radically different worlds and the philosophical and artistic abilities we had as children are on average lost or at least greatly diminished. Therefore, the change from childhood to adulthood may not in every way be either progress--as the view of "children as unfinished adults" would have it--or regress--as suggested by the view of "adults as defective children." Rather, it is a transformation from one intrinsically valuable kind of human being to a different intrinsically valuable kind of human being. (6) My account draws on work in philosophy with children and on new research in developmental psychology. While I speak about children in general, it goes without saying that claims about children's abilities apply differently to different age groups; yet, I assume that the distinction between "childhood" and "adulthood" is, as such, pertinent.

In the next section I elaborate on the "children as unfinished adults" view, explaining its plausibility and normative implications. The third section introduces and discusses a heuristic device for investigating the value of childhood. The subsequent section explores the reasons why childhood has intrinsic and special value: Children possess certain valuable abilities to a significantly higher degree than adults and childhood is a time when we can fully reap the intrinsic benefit of experimentation and variety. For these and other reasons children can lead good lives on several understandings of well-being: as a pleasurable state, as the satisfaction of simple desires or as the realization of certain objective goods. (But I do not commit to a particular conception of children's well-being. (7)) The fourth section addresses the objection that children's lack of moral agency precludes them from leading good lives, and therefore that childhood cannot have intrinsic value. A short discussion of the view that adults are defective children follows in section five, and I conclude by sketching a conception that acknowledges the truth in both the "children as unfinished adults" and "adults as defective children" views--and thus transcends both.

  1. The "Children As Unfinished Adults" View

    According to Schapiro's influential account, the condition of childhood is, essentially, a predicament. A child is an underdeveloped human being, unable yet to act on reasons of her own and therefore lacking in moral agency. Unlike an adult, who can "speak in her own voice, the voice of one who stands in a determinate, authoritative relation to the various motivational forces within her," a child is an agent who "is not yet in a position to speak in her own voice because there is no voice which counts as hers." (8) This is because children have not yet undergone the process of "becoming themselves," that is, of settling on reasons for action, reasons that the child herself endorses and with which she identifies. On this (Kantian) view, moral agency requires precisely this kind of identification with one's reasons for action. Therefore, children necessarily lack moral agency, which makes paternalistic behavior toward them legitimate. According to Schapiro, childhood is a time of experimentation--mainly through play--aimed at creating such a self, or voice, of one's own. The essential task of children is to turn themselves into agents capable of moral agency, and adults have a duty to help them in this process. Shapiro thinks we adults ought to make "children's dependence our enemy" (9)--that is, to help children get over childhood as quickly as possible, for instance, by encouraging (or perhaps demanding) that children take on adult responsibilities as early as possible as long as we do not require children to perform tasks that are beyond their abilities. Requiring too much of children, on this view, is objectionable merely because it is likely to entrench dependence instead of curing it.

    An extreme form of the view that a child is an unfinished adult represents childhood as a misfortune, and explains the duty to help children grow up as a duty to avoid such misfortune. Loren Lomasky's account suggests that children are morally on a par with cognitively incapacitated adults because neither such adults nor children can be proper project pursuers. In a section about "defective human beings," he writes that:

    were one condemned ... to remain a child throughout one's existence, or to grow in bulk without simultaneously growing in the capacity to conceptualize ends and to act for their sake, it would be a personal misfortune of the utmost gravity. (10) Non-Kantians, too, have seen childhood as valuable only as a path to adulthood. According to Michael Slote, "what happens in childhood principally affects our view of total lives through the effects that childhood success or failure are supposed to have on mature individuals." (11) Thus, Slote discounts the achievements of childhood, which he thinks are of trivial importance compared to adult achievements; while the failures of childhood are so insignificant that they count for nothing in determining how good one's life was overall. (12) Neo-Aristotelians like Slote have several reasons to think that childhood has value only as preparation for adulthood: Human beings are biological organisms whose good is partly determined by biological aims and adulthood is the only period of life when one is capable of biological success measured by an ability to reproduce. Similarly, if moral value is to be identified with the exercise of virtue, only adults can aspire to moral goodness since they have had the time to acquire and perfect the exercise of virtues.

    If either of these accounts of childhood were correct, they would entail that childhood has only extrinsic value, that is, that childhood's value depends on whether on not it performs the function of preparing individuals for a good adulthood--whether the goodness of adulthood is given by the acquisition of (moral) agency, or by reproductive fitness, or by the mastery of virtues. Without denying the truth in the view that children are unfinished adults, I challenge its completeness. Children display some valuable features to a greater extent than adults, and while, on average, they may lack the ability to accomplish the same valuable goals as adults, children are better able than adults to engage in processes that are valuable in themselves.

    But first it is worth explaining the normative importance of this issue. Any view of childhood and of its relative value compared to adulthood has important practical implications. If childhood was indeed merely an inferior stage of development then it would be desirable to overcome it as quickly as possible; ceteris paribus, it would benefit individuals to quickly turn into adults. If, instead, childhood had intrinsic as well as extrinsic value, then demanding children to grow up as quickly as possible might be a mistake. (Whether...

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