In my research I consider several related questions relating to children’s place in contemporary liberal theory. The motivation for my work is that lots of theorists think about childhood in the wrong way. Too often, philosophers begin by thinking through what a just society composed of only adults would look like. When they’ve come to an answer they’re happy with, they then apply their thinking to what they see as the side issue of children. I believe that children and childhood are more morally significant than this, and that an adequate account of justice for children forces a more significant reconceptualization of theories of justice.
I have explored these questions since my PhD research at the University of York which I completed in 2010, and since coming to Bristol five years ago have been working on a book on the subject that will be published in March of 2020 titled Liberalism, Childhood and Justice. The book builds on and develops arguments I have already published in a series of academic articles published in The Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Politics, Philosophy and Economics and The Journal of Applied Philosophy. In the book I consider how childhood affects foundational questions of distributive justice, whether a state charged with protecting children’s interests can or must be neutral with respect to contested ethical questions and the rights and responsibilities of parents.
On foundational questions, I take up the question of the right metric of justice. This debate follows Amartya Sen’s question, ‘equality of what?’. Those committed to broadly egalitarian principles of justice need to consider the currency that is to be equalised across persons. Other distributive theories face a similar issue, for instance those who think justice is about giving people ‘enough’ must answer what currency people must have enough of. In the existing literature two dominant approaches have emerged. Resource based theories believe justice should be about distributing goods that are widely held to be useful things for pursuing various plans of life. By contrast, Welfarists believe that justice should more directly track a measure of how well a person’s life is going. I show that the resource answer is a good one for adults whose plans and preferences are known, but a poor one for children whose future character is (in part) an output of the very social institutions that principles of justice regulate. Knowing which children benefit most from a particular social scheme means assessing the effects of those institutions on their character and personality, as well as the resources the scheme distributes to different groups of children.
Much of my existing work has been on the issue of state neutrality and its implications for childrearing. Leading liberals like Rawls, Dworkin and Larmore believe that the state must be neutral on matters of the good. According to them the state cannot, for instance, fund opera houses or literature festivals because we believe that a life engaging with such culture is richer than one that does not. Nor may states criminalise things like drug use or prostitution because of the supposedly empty or unedifying nature of lifestyles containing such activities. Matthew Clayton, an important contemporary thinker on childhood, believes that parents must also be neutral in this way. He believes that parents cannot encourage their children to follow particular pursuits, or induct them into cultural or religious practices. I have argued against this neutral view, both when applied to the state and parents. I show that while it often seems attractive when the subject of justice is conceived as an adult, it is much less persuasive when applied to children. Children require guidance from others on how to live well. For this reason, I argue that children are owed an environment that contributes to their development, not only towards being good citizens but to living flourishing lives.
What constitutes human flourishing is obviously hard to define and highly contested. In my work, I’ve prioritised several elements of wellbeing. These are intimate long-lasting human relationships, the development of one’s talents and abilities and access to the natural world. There’s obviously much more to living a flourishing life than this, but I’ve tried to show how these elements provide guidance for what kind of education and upbringing children are owed. For instance, defenders of liberal neutrality tend to see education as mainly being about raising good citizens. The reason its permissible for the state to force parents to send their children to school (or provide equivalent education at home) because schooling is necessary to acting as a good citizen. I think that while this is true and important, it misses a great deal of why education is important. Teaching children to read literature, or play music or learn history are good things for the state to do because they contribute to the current and future ability of children to live well.
In the book, I apply this framework to two policy questions, whether parents have a right to purchase expensive education for their children and whether society should subsidise parenthood (through child support payments or free childcare). I suggest that the right way to evaluate both policies is whether they would create a society in which the worst-off citizens have an opportunity to live well. This contrasts with an alternative framework which assess the fairness of transfers against a supposedly fair market outcome. I suggest that institutions like private schools are usually unjust, at least supposing the state provides good schools, because they disrupt egalitarian relationships between members of society. I then argue that states should subsidise parenting, because doing so protects a relationship which is hugely valuable for many people and gives citizens the ability to combine becoming a parent with a wider range of jobs and lifestyles.
In my future work, I plan to continue research on childhood and flourishing and to broaden my focus to encompass issues relevant to the elderly population. On childhood, I’m looking at how different states have understood ‘good parenting’ and whether this is something states can effectively promote through training courses or other targeted interventions. My suspicion is that too often ‘good parenting’ is synonymous with various middle-class cultural practices, and that state interventions blame poorer parents for their children’s bad outcomes when the best explanation is economic and structural rather than because of poor parenting. Continuing my focus on personal relationships, I’m also working on a paper exploring how elderly citizens can be better integrated into society and have more flourishing relationships with others, particularly with children.
Tim Fowler is Lecturer in Political Theory at the Unicersity of Bristol