Many people believe that parents enjoy extensive moral options with respect to how they raise their children. For instance, they believe that parents are morally permitted to give their children a religious or non-religious upbringing as they choose: they are permitted to enrol their children into particular religious practices and to encourage them to believe in and develop a motivation to follow the teachings and rituals of that religion.
The main liberal response to this widespread view has been to argue that parents' moral options are constrained by children’s rights to what Joel Feinberg calls ‘an open future’. According to this view, children have a moral right to an upbringing that will equip them with the wherewithal to reflect on various conceptions of religion and what makes for a good life so that as adults they are in a position to adopt, revise and pursue the conception they find attractive. Nevertheless, on this view parents may still enrol their children into a religious practice provided that arrangements are in place to ensure that their children’s minds are not closed.
A more radical view, which I have sketched (2006, 2014) and am now currently elaborating and defending at greater length, which will appear in a book entitled Independence for Children, is that parents are not morally permitted to enrol their children into particular religious practices. I believe that parents and other educators are duty-bound to provide children with an upbringing that gives them the ability and motivation to honour their duties of justice to others and equips them with the skills to make their own informed decisions about which religion or conception of the good is worth pursuing. However, I also believe that parents are not morally permitted to encourage their children to adopt a particular view of religion, or make their children practise one as a child, even if the encouragement and enrolment are consistent with their children developing a sense of justice and the capacity to make informed choices for themselves later in life.
My main argument for independence for children involves extending to children’s upbringing Rawls’s ideal of a society that is acceptable to everyone consistently with regarding themselves as free and equal (Rawls 1993). Rawls believes that political principles must not be justified on the basis of controversial ideas about religion or what counts as a successful life, because to do so would inevitably involve citizens being required to live under institutions that they do not fully endorse. Endorsement of the rules that constrain us, and their justification, is part of what it means for us as citizens to govern ourselves. Therefore, many Rawlsians insist that, when acting in our capacity as lawmakers or citizens, we should not appeal to truths or beliefs about religion that inform how we live our non-political lives. Instead, we ought to proceed on the basis of ideals and reasons we can share with others in virtue of our status and interests as free and equal citizens.
I believe that a similar argument applies to the relationship between parents and children. Children suffer a violation of their self-government if, in their infancy, their parents make them participate in religious activities that they (the children) retrospectively reject when, as adults, they look back at what their parents did to them. For example, suppose your parents made you attend Church and encouraged you to adopt Christian beliefs as children. Suppose, in addition, that as an adult you believe that religion is superstitious nonsense. In that scenario, part of your life is shaped by others’ religious ideals that, on the basis of your considered reflection, you believe to be thoroughly mistaken. That is a violation of your independence. A parent ought, instead, to raise her children according to ideals that her children can share or endorse regardless of the conception of the good to which they devote their lives. So, she should not seek to perfect her children’s lives; she should respect their claim to live independent lives.
Independence for children represents a conception of parental morality, a conception of how parents ought to treat their children—what they are morally permitted or required to do to, for or with their children. But it also represents a perspective for thinking about the legal rights and duties of parents and schooling more generally. In a related project funded by the Spencer Foundation, Andy Mason, Adam Swift and I are writing a book in which we separately identify the implications of our different conceptions of parental and political morality for issues concerning whether faith schools should exist and be funded by the state. My distinctive contribution is a chapter entitled ‘Against Religious Schools’, which argues for the phased abolition of schools that promote controversial religious or irreligious views. However, together, we also try to identify the right policy for the regulating existing faith schools in England given that they are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
My views about political morality and the moral status of children have also led me to work with David Stevens on a series of papers addressing how the school curriculum should be arranged and whether teachers ought to be permitted or required to encourage students to adopt particular beliefs about morality, politics, religion, sexuality, and natural history. We are sceptical of education policies that prioritise the study of world religions over, say, philosophical conceptions of what a good life involves, but we defend the view that directing students towards the right view of justice should have a more prominent place in the school curriculum than it currently has.
Alongside my writing about children and education, with Andrew Williams I am writing a book that examines the moral, political and legal philosophy of Ronald Dworkin. Dworkin is often lauded as one of the most important legal philosophers of the Twentieth Century. His political philosophy has not received as much critical attention. One reason to write the book is to encourage students and researchers to take his political philosophy seriously, because in my view, apart from Rawls, no one has got closer to identifying the truth about political morality than Dworkin.
Matthew Clayton is Professor of Political Theory at the University Of Warwick