William and Mary Law School

An Excerpt from "The Superiority of Youth"

In his forthcoming book, The Superiority of Youth: Moral Status and How We Treat Children (Cambridge University Press), Professor James Dwyer argues for greater moral status for children and urges a devotedly child-centric model of thinking about child welfare issues. 

An excerpt from the Introduction is below.


Historically children have occupied an inferior social status, in the sense that adults – who dictate the norms of social interaction – have generally regarded children as less worthy of consideration than themselves.  A paradigmatic example of this phenomenon is the ancient Roman law under which parents had legal power to sell or kill their offspring.   Infanticide has in fact been a widespread practice in many cultures, and Western culture appears not to have afforded much attention or significance to children prior to the thirteenth century.   In addition, many philosophers in western intellectual history have contended that children occupy an inferior moral status, because only rational, autonomous beings are “persons” belonging to the moral community, a proposition they believed explained and justified children’s inferior social status.   Philosophers before Rousseau regarded childhood as merely preparation for adulthood, a state of being unfinished relative to the human telos of cognitive and physical maturity. (Archard, in LaFollette (2003) at 92-93)  In Plato’s Republic, children were instruments of the state, to be bred and educated so as to suit the needs of the polis.

However, beginning in the seventeenth century, and accelerating greatly in recent decades, there has been a substantial elevation in children’s position in western society and in political and moral philosophy.   International and domestic children’s rights documents, national ombudsmen for children in many countries, professionalized child welfare agencies, public debates over the acceptability of corporal punishment of children, and a culture of more child-centered parenting are testament to the enhanced societal respect for children today.  Scholarly work on the moral and legal rights of children has proliferated since the 1970s, with many philosophers and legal academics devoting all or most of their attention to children’s issues.  It is increasingly less common for philosophers to contend that children occupy a moral status inferior to that of adults.  On the contrary, some contend that “[t]he principle that all humans are equal is now part of the prevailing political and ethical orthodoxy.”

Philosophers have also paid increasing attention in recent decades to the concept and theoretical underpinnings of moral status in general.  That work suggests general principles concerning, and general criteria for determining, moral status that could now be applied to the case of children, in order to think through in a more rigorous way what moral status we should attribute to children relative to that of adults.  Yet that task has not yet been undertaken, at least not in a sustained, rigorous way.  Whereas in the past three decades “a veritable industry” of work on animals’ moral status has developed, and an extensive environmental literature has analyzed the idea of our owing duties to non-animal entities, moral status theorists have paid little attention to children.  Moral theorists concerned with childhood have generally simply stipulated that children have a particular moral status relative to adults, and have focused on the implications of that presumed status.   Long overdue is a concerted examination of this most fundamental question in moral theorizing about proper treatment of children – that is, are children of equal, lesser, or perhaps even greater moral importance compared to adults?  Undertaking such an examination can help us assess whether popular attitudes and scholarly assumptions have evolved in a direction consistent with sound general principles and criteria of moral status and, if so, whether they have moved far enough in that direction.  The basic task of this book is to identify those general principles and criteria, assess how they should apply to children relative to adults, and consider some implications of that assessment for legal and social treatment of children.

In the course of accomplishing this aim, I uncover some ways in which general theorizing about moral status has been deficient and suggest ways to correct those deficiencies.  In particular, most ethical theorists have supposed that there is only one criterion of moral status, while differing amongst themselves as to what that criterion is, and have supposed that moral status is an all or nothing thing – that is, that a being either has “full” moral status or none at all.  I show that neither uni-criterion nor either/or views about moral status is defensible and that neither is consistent with the way our moral psychology operates.  Holding onto those mistaken views is the primary reason ethical theorists have had such difficulty making their theories fit with settled convictions about specific cases – in particular, convictions that certain beings, such as adults in a coma, anencephalic infants, human fetuses, and non-human mammals, have some moral status but not the same status that normal humans have.  Widespread specific moral beliefs or intuitions reflect an acceptance of moral hierarchy, but most theorists writing about moral status go to great lengths to deny such hierarchy, for reasons I will address.

I ultimately find that a more plausible and complete account of moral status – one that incorporates multiple criteria, recognizes that each morally relevant trait can be present to different degrees, and accepts that moral status admits of degrees – generates a quite novel and surprising conclusion about the relative moral status of children.  To the extent philosophers in recent decades have addressed directly the status of children, most have simply stipulated that all human beings (at least after birth) are of equal moral status, so that children are the moral equals of adults, against the traditional notion that there is a moral hierarchy among human beings tied to age or stage of cognitive development.   At the same time, there are still some who assert that children are inferior in moral status, because of their lesser mental capacities relative to adults.  Adherents to the view that “personhood,” defined as having cognitive capacities that include at least self-awareness, is a necessary condition for having moral status are likely to say either that young children do not matter morally at all or that moral status is initially slight and then increases during normal human development.   My critique of the existing literature on moral status, however, supports an altogether different and novel position – namely, that if it is possible to arrive at any rationally defensible conclusions about the relative moral status of different beings (and it might not be), then we should conclude that children occupy a moral status superior to that of adults.  Various traits associated with youthfulness elevate beings’ moral status, and in general children are more youthful than adults.


The project as a whole might be described succinctly as follows:  I develop a naturalistic account of the normal human practice of assigning moral status, identify the general principles and criteria inherent in that practice, and then consider the implications of applying those general principles and criteria consistently to the specific case of humans at different stages of life, to assess existing attitudes and policies toward children.  A starting assumption is that general criteria of moral status can provide a basis for critiquing more specific attitudes toward particular beings, because specific attitudes might reflect unattractive non-moral influences on beliefs – in particular, self-interest and ignorance.  That assumption underlies much extant theorizing about the moral status and proper treatment of specific categories of beings.  For example, proponents of greater respect for non-human animals contend that we adult humans have failed to afford sufficient protection to animals, because our self-regarding desire to use animals in various ways blinds us to the reality that those animals share with us a characteristic – sentience – that we generally believe to have moral significance and that underwrites, at least in part, our sense of why others owe us moral duties.  Self-interest and ignorance seems also to have underwritten the tendency historically for adult humans to have treated children as non-persons or of lesser significance in normative discussions.

Conversely, unshakable convictions as to specific moral beliefs – for example, that among conscious adult humans no distinctions of moral status should be drawn – might cause us to question use of one or another general criterion of moral status, or might push us to look for a more sophisticated general account.  Ultimately, it could be the case that some such “fixed points” in our moral attitudes cannot be reconciled with any plausible general theory of moral status, yet abandoning those specific convictions would make us very uncomfortable and would serve no purpose other than logical consistency.  As a possible way out of such a dilemma, I will suggest that in some instances non-moral, pragmatic considerations might license us to ignore certain status distinctions that the best theory of moral status generates.  But before considering untoward implications of a theory of moral status, I proceed unconstrained to construct a general account of moral status based upon our moral psychology.