MonoRealism Philosophy Site

The Little People

Philosophical Reflections XXIII

Part A: Starting Small

Since the previous Philosophical Reflections dealt with the morality of sex, it is appropriate to move on to one of the consequences of sex: children. Why would you want them? What rights do children and parents have? What do you owe them? What do they owe you? What are the principles of raising them?


In all mammals, childhood is the period between birth and sexual maturity, characterised by relative physical and mental dependency, during which the child must acquire the tools required for independent survival. Those tools include raw size and strength, and the special abilities the species has evolved for its survival – things such as for a deer, speed, and for a lion, hunting skills. For Man, the rational animal, those special skills are pre-eminently mental: as thinking is Man's primary tool of survival.

The defining quality of human beings is rationality, in the sense of possessing the power of reason. That is what separates us from other animals, and that is the defining quality determining how we interact with external reality, including each other. Were it not for rationality – were you not a reasoning being with a conceptual consciousness – you could not be reading this nor extracting any meaning from these marks on paper. Nor would the decisions whether to have children and how to treat them be anything more than the results of chance, instinct and imitation: only a rational being can think, and only a thinking being can make free choices.

The physical basis of rationality is intelligence. Without sufficient mental processing power, a conceptual consciousness, one capable of inductive and deductive reasoning and infinite levels of abstraction, is not possible. The hallmarks of a rational consciousness – how it functions and deals with the real world – are integration and differentiation. These are the making of connections between things in reality, involving the mental uniting of concrete things into abstract concepts, the further uniting of simpler concepts into wider ones, and the fleshing out of broad abstractions with finer distinctions.

Consider the mental development of a young girl. As she experiences individual dogs, cats, sparrows and frogs, she integrates them into the concepts "dog", "cat", "sparrow" and "frog"; she integrates these further into the concept "animal"; then integrates the concepts of "animal", "plant" etc. into the broader concept "life". At the same time, she makes more sophisticated mental divisions: dogs and cats can be grouped into the concept "mammals", a subdivision of animals separate from others such as "amphibians" and "birds"; and her initial simple concept of "dog" can be subdivided into "hound", "terrier", "poodle", etc – and broadened to include "wolf". Thus as she grows, the whole interrelated process increases her knowledge by integration, subdivision and more diverse referents for each concept. Should she become a biologist, she might extend this process both more broadly into an understanding of the grand sweep of life, and more deeply into the minutiae of the different species of flies.

(Future Philosophical Reflections will discuss the nature of concepts and inductive reasoning in greater detail. For those curious to delve more deeply on their own, I highly recommend Ayn Rand's Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.)

The foregoing description reveals the fundamental determinant of human childhood: to develop the rational faculty is a long process. It requires substantial time for the physical development of body and brain which underpins it, for the development of the mental tools required, and for the processes of learning, integration and reasoning themselves. Of course, as with all animals a human child needs time to mature physically. But comparison with other animals shows that this can be achieved much more quickly if that's all there is to it: a cow or gorilla has a bigger body yet a much shorter childhood than a person. The importance and extent of mental development is the origin of the unusually long human childhood and adolescence.

The Needs of the Child

The above defines the needs of children. By their nature, children require physical support (the provision of food, shelter and protection) and mental training (education).

For most of human history, thinking was something that people did, but not something they were taught. Most of that history was a long, slow progress out of the cave and the jungle, characterised by high infant mortality, short lifespan, and vulnerability to whatever disasters nature imposed. Education consisted of training in the concrete skills of survival: what was good to eat; what was dangerous; the rules of the tribe; the arts of farming, hunting and war. The physical needs of children were met as well as could be; their mental needs were met by imparting knowledge and beliefs; thinking skills were left to chance and luck (or even suppressed, to the degree that people were ruled by superstition, tradition and arbitrary power).

The progress of civilisation has been grounded in progress in the art of thinking. To the extent that people thought freely and well, progress was made. To the extent that the importance and rules of thinking were appreciated, progress was accelerated. Now we live in the end result, a technical civilisation unparalleled in human history: a civilisation based on the inventions of the mind, whose problems' solutions rely on the exacting use of the mind, whose continuing progress depends on the mind.

The mind has always been Man's tool of survival, whether we knew it or not, whether we applied it to its fullest or not, whether we promoted it or suppressed it, whether its use was rewarded or punished. Our children today are the beneficiaries of the past centuries of men's thought: low infant mortality, good health, excellent nutrition, high standard of living. As Douglas Adams put it in the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy series, we have progressed from "how can we eat?" via "why do we eat?" to "where shall we have lunch?" And as it was in the history of our race, so it is in the life of the individual: life and happiness depend on the use of the mind – whether your own mind, or as a beneficiary or parasite of the minds of others. For all that human life and happiness require must be produced, and that which must be produced must be created by the rational mind. Being a parasite or a looter of the work of others can never reach even a zero sum game: it is the creative mind which is the origin of happiness and the sustainer of life. It is the creative mind which turns rocks that have lain in the ground for aeons into cars, computers and skyscrapers.

Thus, the most important aspect of educating a child is to teach him or her how to think: how to be the rational being which is his or her nature and birthright, but which is not automatic. The brain and its functions we are born with: but even more so than any other skill, its effective use must be learned.

Children's Rights

Philosophy is concerned with two broad questions when it comes to raising children. The first is defining the best way to raise children: parents normally love their children and want the best for them, and it is philosophy's role to tell them the basic principles of how to achieve those aims. The second is defining the rights of children: which determines to what extent the law should protect children against bad parents.

We turn now to the latter. Note that the question of rights is a question of the minimum parents owe their children. Naturally, most parents voluntarily offer their children much more than that, but here we are concerned with what they must offer.

In earlier Philosophical Reflections, I discussed the nature of rights: the fundamental right being the freedom to think and to act upon the results of your thinking: which means, freedom from the initiation of physical force.

That discussion was in the context of adults. Those rights derive from the nature of human beings, namely their rationality. We are thinking beings whose means of survival is that thinking, is reason: and force is the antithesis of the reasoning mind, demanding by its nature actions against those called for by your reason. That is, physical force is anti-mind, and that which is anti-mind is anti-life.

But children are not fully rational. They start as infants with no capacity for rational thought, and develop rationality as they mature. Thus they do not have human rights in the sense that adults do. They are not capable of independent survival, and even at an age when they might manage to eke out physical survival, to attempt it would be at the price of the time they need for education – education required to reach their potential as adults. A child cannot say, "I demand adult rights", because that is saying "I demand the right to an independent existence": and what a child actually requires by its nature is to be looked after.

This gives us the clue to what their rights are.

The rights of children stem from two facts of reality. First is their basic nature: they are partially rational beings who, in order to survive and develop into adults, require physical support and mental training. Second is the part played by their parents: children are the result of the decisions of adults, and adults must bear the consequences of their choices. Even if the child was an "accident", it was a predictable consequence of its parents' voluntary actions, in which it had no say.

Thus, children are a result of voluntary adult actions, and a result with a known nature: an independently conscious being requiring years of care and investment of time and resources.

Consequently, children have a right to have their needs met by their parents to the best of their ability; and if their parents cannot meet those needs adequately, their obligation to the child is to try to find someone else willing and able to meet them. Note that although a child has such rights from its parents, other people cannot be forced to take up the slack if the parents fail: the special dependency of children does not give them greater rights than adults. Needs neither grant nor negate rights: whether those needs or rights are children's or adults' (see Philosophical Reflections 17 for more on rights vs needs).