Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Unfinished Adults and Defective Children: On the Nature and Value of Childhood

Academic journal article Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy

Unfinished Adults and Defective Children: On the Nature and Value of Childhood

Article excerpt

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. …

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