MonoRealism Philosophy Site

The Little People

Part D: Finishing Them Off

Killing Babies

Since we have been discussing the law regarding children, now is an appropriate place to discuss one of the more vexed legal questions of recent decades: the right to abortion, which is the killing of an embryo or foetus

The debate generally rages about when "human life" begins. Does it begin at conception, the gaining of a recognisably human form, or birth? Biologically, of course, a new "human life" starts at conception. However, the question concerns not biology but rights: so its answer depends on the nature and origin of rights.

Rights do not derive from the unknowable whim of some invisible god; nor in some inexplicable – and therefore, unjustifiable – mystical endowment upon anything labelled "human"; nor from the permission of "society"; nor from the ability to feel: but from the ability to think, from Man's rational faculty. Rights are rights because human life as such depends on the use of the mind.

An embryo has no mind, and a foetus has less rationality than a sheep. Thus they have no rights. As potential human beings, they have potential rights. This means that actions calculated to damage them as adults (such as cutting off their arms) are forbidden, being tantamount to assault on the adult they become. That potential does not extend to overriding the rights of actual human beings, namely their mother. So long as they cannot survive outside their mother's body, she has the absolute right to terminate her pregnancy , derived from her absolute right to her own life. (The only exception is some prior limitation such as a marriage or surrogacy contract, which may give others a say in it.) The "right to life" resides in the mother, in her right to her own life and happiness. A foetus has no right to override that, and indeed, none has never asked to. It is only adults posing as champions of rights who have demanded it, a demand which in fact is an attempt to override the actual rights of actual human beings – an attempt to impose their mystical morality on other people. Of course, no foetus has ever demanded its rights because a foetus is incapable of even having wishes, let alone articulating them: and that is the point.

If however a woman decides to bring her baby to term, normally she thereby gives up the right to take its life. While still absolutely dependent on others for its survival, it is no longer necessarily dependent on her specifically. While the implicit contract involved in raising children is not "signed" until she decides to keep the child, for that very reason once the baby is out of her body she has no rights over its fate unless she does decide to take on the responsibility of being its parent. She may give it up to someone else, but not kill it, with two exceptions.

The first is if she doesn't want it and nobody else is willing to take it. If somebody complains about that, the correct answer is the same as to anybody who says their morality demands that the needs of person A means that person B should be forced to look after them. It is: you do it – and if you won't, by what right are you demanding that someone else does? In this case, if nobody is willing to take the baby – that nobody includes you.

The second is in the case of severe deformity, so bad that the child cannot be expected to be able to lead a conscious or happy life. Then for the sake of the child, in fulfilment of parental responsibility to the child the parents can decide it should die, whether somebody else offers to take it or not. Of course, any such decision must be subject to courts operating under objectively defined laws (one purpose of the law being to remove the use of physical force from individual whim).

Why is the moment of birth the critical moment, not conception? For the reasons noted above. It is at birth that the baby loses its dependence on the mother specifically: the cusp at which the initiation of force against a thinking being changes from other adults against the mother (when the baby is inside her), to the mother against them – to prevent them from taking over the care of her baby, who now has a separate existence. It is at birth that she must make one of two decisions: to keep the child, thereby agreeing to the implicit contract, or to give it up. It is at birth that for the baby to survive, someone must agree to care for it – but anyone can. The mother has no right decide to both keep it and not care for it properly.

Contraception

Not surprisingly, most people prefer to prevent conception in the first place, rather than abort afterwards. Of course it follows from the above discussion of abortion that there is no ethical problem with contraception. It wouldn't even be worth discussing if not for religious opposition – a ban much dishonoured in the breach, as it deserves.

If opposition to abortion is based on a mystical view of the sanctity of "human" life, opposition to contraception takes a giant leap into fairyland. The argument is basically that an omnipotent, benevolent God – who incidentally thinks nothing of condoning the killing of multitudes of living human beings (see The Bible) – will have his alleged will frustrated and his punishments unleashed if people do anything, other than abstaining from sex, to prevent acquiring a tribe of unwanted children. As such arguments have no referents in reality, no further discussion is required. Reason recognises no validity in arbitrary claims, which by definition have put themselves outside the realm of argument. And attempting to impose such arbitrary claims on other people instantly invalidates any claim to ethical authority.

A Wanted Child

Of course, most babies are wanted. Their parents conceived them by intent for the purpose of having them. We have discussed the ethics of preventing birth: what are the ethics of having children? When should you? Why should you?

Naturally, having children has been and is necessary for the continuation of the human race: and until recently, was critical to the survival of your own self, family, tribe etc. Thus there are genetic reasons why people value children, want them and love them when they get them. However, ethics are concerned with what ought to be rather than what is. And in a technological civilisation where babies are a choice not an accident, and their death rather than their survival a matter of low probability, the issue has become more of choice than of necessity.

The basic valid motive for having children is the same as anything else: for your own happiness. But as with marriage or friendship, this particular pursuit of happiness involves the happiness of another person, whose rights must be respected. And unlike marriage or friendship, this other person has special needs and rights as discussed previously. It is not valid to have a child out of "duty": there can be no unchosen obligations in a rational ethics, and the alleged interests of family or nation can never give them a claim on you overriding your own values. Nor is it valid to bring a child into the world as a crutch, a relief from boredom, a toy or a slave. It is another human being, to whom you owe an obligation to raise into an independent adult: no human being is a possession of another, or (primarily) the means to the ends of another.

There can be much pleasure and satisfaction in raising children: and that is the proper motive for having them. In both parts: the happiness itself, and its being from raising them, in bringing them to an independent, happy adulthood.

Education

As noted before, Man's primary tool of survival is the mind, and the growth of a child to adulthood therefore requires the development of his or her mind. This is the process of education.

Parents have the primary responsibility for educating their children, but as with most things in an advanced society, the best way to achieve it is by hiring specialist teachers – if suitable ones can be found. Even so, parents retain a crucial role, as the primary example and authority in their children's eyes. It is especially important for parents to be a good model of rationality and morality. Few things are worse for the moral education of a child than to be told that rationality, honesty, justice etc are how they should live: and seeing their own parents doing otherwise.

Education is needed because the use of the mind requires reason and knowledge: reason as the art of thinking, the ability to make correct conclusions and inferences; knowledge as information on the facts of reality, which is the end product of the thinking of others, and the starting point of your own. Neither reason nor knowledge is innate. The basic processes are inbuilt, but the full and precise use of your mind is an art which must be learned (and took millennia to develop in the history of mankind), and all conceptual knowledge likewise must be acquired.

The specific purpose of the education of children follows from our earlier discussion: it is preparation for independent existence in reality. That defines what it must aim to achieve: development of the rational faculty and the tools for the pursuit of life and happiness.

The role of education is not to teach children what to think, but how to think; not to inculcate conformity and obedience, but to develop independence in both its aspects – thinking and acting for yourself, and respecting the rights of others to think and act for themselves. The purpose of education is not to churn out cogs for someone else's machine, whether of State or of Industry: but to produce individuals able and willing to make and achieve their own purposes for their own sakes.

The last thing an education system should produce is the kind of feeling expressed in Pink Floyd's song of being "just another brick in the wall", who "don't need no education", whose teachers should "leave our kids alone." Education should be an adventure of learning and growth into a person of reason, purpose and self-esteem: not a boring, irrelevant grind.

Again, these are the basic principles behind a whole specialist subdivision of philosophy: in this case, the philosophy of education. The purpose of that is the determination of the best subjects of education (the curriculum) and the most effective methods of teaching them. While a detailed philosophy of education is far beyond our present scope, we can develop the basic principles on which a such a philosophy should be built.*

Curricular Activities

As the total amount of knowledge in the world is far beyond the capacity of a single brain, and increasing all the time, the curriculum has to give a grounding in the most important base knowledge, that which gives the most fundamental tools for further growth of the individual along the specific paths he or she chooses to follow.

Of course this involves the art of thinking itself, and all the other aspects of basic philosophy: the nature of reality, how we can discover its secrets and how we should live for ourselves and with each other. To this we must add conceptual communication: reading, writing and speaking: how to acquire and transmit conceptual knowledge. In addition, we can identify mathematics, as one of the most fundamental means of describing, abstracting, analysing and predicting the relationships of things in reality; science, as our most powerful means of discovering and manipulating the laws of nature; geography (including foreign languages) and history for a basic understanding of the world around us and how it came to be, a wider view of human experience, and knowledge of the forces which have shaped and continue to shape the world; art, for all the reasons which make art itself important (see Philosophical Reflections 21); and sport, both as part of the development of a healthy body, and as a concrete example and experience of setting and achieving goals, by skill and effort within an objective framework of rules and fairness.

Whatever the subject being studied, the learning of principles, derived from well-chosen concrete examples, is far more important than the rote learning of long lists of facts. Man is a being of conceptual consciousness, not a tape recorder; and explaining principles and why understanding them is important is vital for both learning and the motivation to learn. Concrete examples and facts are necessary, to connect the principles to reality: but not at the expense of understanding those principles, or at the cost of drowning the child's brain and enthusiasm in a sea of disconnected and consequently irrelevant and often boring facts.

While the core subjects give children the basic tools and knowledge they need to make their way in the world, exposure to a wide range of additional fields of endeavour is also needed. For if they never encounter the range of possibilities available to them, how will they discover their own interests and set their own priorities and purposes? They need enough information to make an informed choice of which areas of knowledge they wish to pursue in greater depth for their own careers as adults.

If I were to sum up the purpose of education, it would be this. The proper role of philosophy is to discover the nature of reality, how to know, how to live, and how to achieve happiness. The proper role of education is to teach these things to children.

Conclusion

The philosophy of children is a wide-ranging field, encompassing the nature of childhood, the rights of children and parents, the validity of laws regarding children, and the philosophy of education. I have tried to derive the basic principles involved. Naturally, these principles reflect those of philosophy itself, as philosophy is our guide for living, and raising children is the process of guiding them into living their lives.

The essence of the philosophy of raising children is that the purpose of having children is to raise them as human beings. This means, to help them achieve their best potential as rational, independent adults, who understand and apply the values and virtues necessary for the fullest, happiest life of and as a human being.

What makes us human is the ability to think, so the prime task of parents, directly and indirectly, is to teach their children how to think. This encompasses rationality in all its aspects: a thirst for knowledge; the tools of logic; the values of life, reason and self-esteem; the virtues of rationality, justice, independence, honesty, integrity, productiveness and pride.

Parents should, and usually do, want their children to be happy and successful, but wanting something does not tell you how to achieve it. No person can determine how another person will turn out, not even their own child, as nobody can control another's thinking. But they can help or hinder the process. The way to achieve it for your children is the same as how to achieve it in your own life: by having a sound philosophy of life, which means, a rational, reality-based way of thinking: and doing your best to impart that to your children.


* For parents who want their children to learn independence, thinking and self-discipline, I recommend the Montessori system of education.

© 2001 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.