Locke and the Rights of Children

Locke firmly denies Filmer's theory that it is morally
permissible for parents to treat their children however they please:
"They who allege the Practice of Mankind, for exposing or selling
their Children, as a Proof of their Power over them, are with Sir Rob.
happy Arguers, and cannot but recommend their Opinion by founding it
on the most shameful Action, and most unnatural Murder, humane Nature
is capable of." (First Treatise, sec.56) Rather, Locke argues that
children have the same moral rights as any other person, though the
child's inadequate mental faculties make it permissible for his
parents to rule over him to a limited degree. "Thus we are born Free,
as we are born Rational; not that we have actually the Exercise of
either: Age that brings one, brings with it the other too." (Second
Treatise, sec.61) On top of this, he affirms a postive,
non-contractual duty of parents to provide for their offspring: "But
to supply the Defects of this imperfect State, till the Improvement of
Growth and Age hath removed them, Adam and Eve, and after them all
Parents were, by the Law of Nature, under an obligation to preserve,
nourish, and educate the Children, they had begotten." (Second
Treatise, sec.56) Apparently, then, Locke believes that parents may
overrule bad choices that their children might make, including
self-regarding actions. Leaving aside Locke's duty of self-
preservation, his theory permits adults to do as they wish with their
own bodies. But this is not the case for children, because their lack
of reason prevents them from making sensible choices. To permit a
willful child from taking serious risks to his health or safety even
if he wants to is permissible on this theory. Parents (and other
adults as well) also seem to have a duty to refrain from taking
advantage of the child's weak rational faculties to exploit or abuse
him. On top of this, Locke affirms that parents have enforceable
obligation to preserve, nourish, and educate their children; not
because they consented to do so, but because they have a natural duty
to do so. 2. The Problem of Positive Parental Duties The first
difficulty with Locke's theory of childrens' rights is that the
positive duty of parents to raise their children seems inconsistent
with his overall approach. If, as Locke tells us, "Reason teaches all
mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and
independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health,
Liberty, or Possessions." (Second Treatise, sec.6), it is difficult to
see why it is permissible to coerce parents to provide for their
offspring. In general, in Locke's scheme one acquires additional
obligations only by consent. Even marriage he assimilates into a
contract model: "Conjugal Society is made by a voluntary Compact
between Man and Woman " (Second Treatise, sec.78) We should note that
in section 42 of the First Treatise, Locke affirms that the radically
destitute have a positive right to charity. "As Justice gives every
Man a Title to the product of his honest industry so Charity gives
every Man a Title to so much out of another's Plenty, as will keep him
from extream want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise." But
this hardly rules out relying on voluntary charity if it is sufficient
to care for all those in "extream want." Quite possibly, this right
would never have a chance to be exercised in a reasonably prosperous
society, since need would be minimal and voluntary help abundant.
Moreover, it is hardly clear that the duty to provide for the
extremely needy rests only on some sub- group of the population. This
passage seems to make it a universal duty of all of society's
better-off members. For these two reasons, then, it would seem hard to
ground positive parental duties on the child's right to charity. For
if the number of children with unwilling parents is sufficiently tiny,
and the society in which they are born sufficiently rich, the
preconditions for exercising the right do not exist. Moreover, there
is no reason for parents, much less the parents of a particular child,
to have a duty to that child; more plausibly, all able-bodied members
of society are equally obliged to fulfill this duty. Nor would it work
to say that parental obligation is derived from the right of
restitution for harm, which