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John is 30 years old. Jack is 10 years old. They are clinically sane.

John is 30 years old. Jack is 10 years old. They are clinically sane. One day, John feels a sudden, uncharacteristic urge to kill. He murders an innocent stranger. On the same day, Jack feels the same urge to kill. He also murders an innocent stranger. John and Jack both admit responsibility for the murders. They acted in the same way for the same reason. Their actions had the same result. Should they be punished in the same way?

Great question! In practice, at least in the United States, the punishment and even the trial will be different. The 10 year old would be tried in juvenile court. The jury would not be made up of only 10 year olds. John, on the other hand, would have a jury (if there was a jury) of fellow adults or peers, and the possible consequences would be different. I suggest that one reason for a difference in punishment is that while both John and Jack admit responsibility (which I assume involves admitting that they knew that what they did was wrong) the child (and a 10 year old is a child, based on international standards, e.g. UN definition of childhood) did not have as full of a grasp of the wrongness of the action as the adult. It may also be the case that the child had / has less resources mentally to address deviant desires / urges. I think we expect adults to engage in greater self-mastery, to exercise greater restraint and control of desires than children. Although the claim may seem odd: sanity for a child may differ at least in degree from sanity for an adult. It would be odd, but not insane for my four year old nephew to think he could put on a ring that would make him invisible (after all, Bilbo Baggins did this in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), but I would be quite insane to think so.

There might also be another way to think of punishment: if a 10 year old is found guilty and given a 10 year sentence, by the time he is 20 he will have spent half of his life in prison. Insofar as part of the role of punishment through prison / incarceration is rehabilitation and reformation, this may be more likely to hurt Jack's chances of reforming. Under such circumstances, perhaps less than 10 years incarceration is warranted (especially if there is admission of guilt, reform, parole, reliable supervision when released...). Perhaps a lesser sentence would be less likely to harden him into a life of such crime. John getting a 10 year sentence would perhaps also harden him, though it would mean that he has spent less of his life time in prison than Jack. It may be that John is more likely to think that he is not a hardened criminal, but someone who made a mistake and paid for it with one third of his life...as opposed to Jack who might (again "might") think: "Half of my life I have been branded a criminal. That is who I am."

That's my best shot at this point in replying to your most excellent question.

Allow me to add that your question really forces one to think about a philosophy of age or aging. When do the values, the virtues and vices of childhood, differ (if at all) from what we think of as the virtues and vices of adulthood? Along with Elizabeth Olson as co-author, we address this in a chapter in a forthcoming book The Catcher in the Rye and Philosophy. There are no easy answers, I am afraid, but there are some good suggestions by other contributors to the book, due out in 2012.

Great question! In practice, at least in the United States, the punishment and even the trial will be different. The 10 year old would be tried in juvenile court. The jury would not be made up of only 10 year olds. John, on the other hand, would have a jury (if there was a jury) of fellow adults or peers, and the possible consequences would be different. I suggest that one reason for a difference in punishment is that while both John and Jack admit responsibility (which I assume involves admitting that they knew that what they did was wrong) the child (and a 10 year old is a child, based on international standards, e.g. UN definition of childhood) did not have as full of a grasp of the wrongness of the action as the adult. It may also be the case that the child had / has less resources mentally to address deviant desires / urges. I think we expect adults to engage in greater self-mastery, to exercise greater restraint and control of desires than children. Although the claim may seem odd: sanity...

I live with my husband and his mother. My mother in law seems to have issues

I live with my husband and his mother. My mother in law seems to have issues with me; she picks fights and tries to manipulate my husband into treating me like dirt just the way she does. She is more than just a meddler. She seems to have strange episodes that might qualify as a mental problem such as depression. My husband always takes her side and goes crazy on me saying that his number one responsibility is to his mother. My question is what is the morally acceptable thing here? Does my mother-in law deserve more of my husband's 'respect' than I do? It seems that he thinks I should never say ill about her even when she's clearly in the wrong.

What a difficult situation! You may be dealing with a matter that involves different cultural traditions. If, for example, you and your family's background is Confusian there may be a primacy of hnor due to parentss, but if you are in Jewish or Chrisitian context then, while honor is due to parents, your primary loyalty is to the marriage partner (Genesis 2:24 institutes marriage as a matter of of a man and by implication, a woman leaving father and mother and father and "becoming one"). But setting aside cultural or religious expectiations, I think most people would understand the vow that established your marriage as promising always to love and respect each other. Sometimes this vow includes a line about "foresaking all others" which suggests the primacy and exclusively important nature of the marriage bond. In light of that, I find it difficult to believe that respect and love would lead to the kind of reproachful behavior you are describing.

It would be interesting (but probably most unwise and dangerous and messy) if you and your husband were to be in a house if only for a weekend with one of your parents in which you all acted out the kind of behavior you have been subject to!

What a difficult situation! You may be dealing with a matter that involves different cultural traditions. If, for example, you and your family's background is Confusian there may be a primacy of hnor due to parentss, but if you are in Jewish or Chrisitian context then, while honor is due to parents, your primary loyalty is to the marriage partner (Genesis 2:24 institutes marriage as a matter of of a man and by implication, a woman leaving father and mother and father and "becoming one"). But setting aside cultural or religious expectiations, I think most people would understand the vow that established your marriage as promising always to love and respect each other. Sometimes this vow includes a line about "foresaking all others" which suggests the primacy and exclusively important nature of the marriage bond. In light of that, I find it difficult to believe that respect and love would lead to the kind of reproachful behavior you are describing. It would be interesting (but probably most unwise...

Do children have duties towards their parents? If they do, do these arise as a

Do children have duties towards their parents? If they do, do these arise as a result of the parents' efforts on the child's behalf, or are they in some way structurally required, regardless of the parents' "performance"?

Great questions that have vexed many philosophers who have reflected on parenthood and debts of gratitude. Some philosophers (perhaps most famously John Locke) worked historically to limit the control of parents over children. Locke opposed what may be called patriarchalism and a tradition, that goes back at least to Roman times, that a parent (especially a father) could, by virtue of being a parent, exercise tremendous power (in ancient times this included the power of life and death) over the child. This seems to have been built on what you are calling a structual component (you created the child, therefore you have power over him or her) and this could back up claims on the child to demonstrate family loyalty. Behind Plato's dialogue the Euthyphro there is a hint that Socrates himself may have thought that a child should honor his father. (In the dialogue, Socrates challenges a man intent on prosecuting his father.) In any case, I suggest that there may be a prima facie debt of gratitude stemming from the structure of the parent-child relationship, though I also suggest this needs to be hedged in two ways. First, as Locke argued, parents are not the absolute creators of their children. For Locke, as a theist, he thought God is the creator of all, but even if you are not a theist the general point seems reasonable. Human parents can't claim to have created their children ex nihilo (from nothing)! But second, I suspect most of us would conclude that a parent can fail to live up to being a parent. In the case of serious abuse, we might even think that a father or mother has ceased to function as a parent. For example, to use a grotesque example, if a father claims to sexually love his daughter or son, would we say he is demonstrating fatherly love? I think most of us would not. So, I suggest that a parents' performance can undermine any claim a parent might have on a child.

At least two more vexing matters are in the offing: arguments that build on debts of gratitude can be stretched when a good is conferred involuntarily. Children do not (as many of them point out at some point) ask to be born. It is one thing to voluntarily accept a good (say, listening to National Public Radio, here in the USA), and then have a prima facie obligation of gratitude (to help pay for the radio broadcasts, for example), but it is another matter when a good that was not accepted freely. This may not be insurmountable. After all, the gift of life is providing the very basis upon which a person can make any voluntary action at all. Perhaps in the case of such a foundational gift, most of us who are glad to be alive are naturally led to being glad and therefore being grateful that we were born!

Second, if we grant that in the case of good parents, their children do have duties for their parents, how far do these duties extend? I suspect that the way to answer this question would take us into a conversation about love and the good. In a healthy family, there is (or at least I hope there is) love between parent and child and love is best viewed (I suggest) as desiring the good of the beloved. So, if a child loves a parent, she or he will desire the good or flourishing of the parent, and vice versa. This love would then inform just how much one party would desire or request of the other. Presumably, in this terrain, we are entering into deeply personal relations when a philosophical panelist should know when to stop writing!

Great questions that have vexed many philosophers who have reflected on parenthood and debts of gratitude. Some philosophers (perhaps most famously John Locke) worked historically to limit the control of parents over children. Locke opposed what may be called patriarchalism and a tradition, that goes back at least to Roman times, that a parent (especially a father) could, by virtue of being a parent, exercise tremendous power (in ancient times this included the power of life and death) over the child. This seems to have been built on what you are calling a structual component (you created the child, therefore you have power over him or her) and this could back up claims on the child to demonstrate family loyalty. Behind Plato's dialogue the Euthyphro there is a hint that Socrates himself may have thought that a child should honor his father. (In the dialogue, Socrates challenges a man intent on prosecuting his father.) In any case, I suggest that there may be a prima facie debt of gratitude...

What is it that makes some things childish and others not? And why is it that

What is it that makes some things childish and others not? And why is it that most of the things we call childish are things we do for fun? Why are adults expected to have less fun and be more serious about everything?

Great questions! As for your main point or the point behind the questions, it does seem a great pity to think that adulthood must be defined in terms of a seriousness which frowns on fun, though I have some hesitancy about the way you are setting up childishness versus adulthood. I am not sure you are 100% right "that most of the things we call childish are things we do for fun." You may be spot on, but I suspect that we also call persons or actions childish when we believe they are immature, reckless, selfish, not thought through or naive. And in my experience children are sometimes just as serious, if not more so, than many adults I know. Also, the term "adult" has a pretty stable use in English for describing (perhaps inappropriate?) fun --as in "adult" films, bookstores, products.

Stepping back from the above observations, however, it is interesting to note that in the old days (e.g. industrial revolution) childhood was often not associated with fun and education, but labor, viz. child labor. Thank heavens, we today generally condemn child labor and seek to safeguard childhood as time for both fun and exploration. Hopefully (and here we may agree?) we can do more to continue that spirit into adulthood!

Great questions! As for your main point or the point behind the questions, it does seem a great pity to think that adulthood must be defined in terms of a seriousness which frowns on fun, though I have some hesitancy about the way you are setting up childishness versus adulthood. I am not sure you are 100% right "that most of the things we call childish are things we do for fun." You may be spot on, but I suspect that we also call persons or actions childish when we believe they are immature, reckless, selfish, not thought through or naive. And in my experience children are sometimes just as serious, if not more so, than many adults I know. Also, the term "adult" has a pretty stable use in English for describing (perhaps inappropriate?) fun --as in "adult" films, bookstores, products. Stepping back from the above observations, however, it is interesting to note that in the old days (e.g. industrial revolution) childhood was often not associated with fun and education, but labor, viz. child labor. ...

I am curious about the formation of the moral conscience and at what age a child

I am curious about the formation of the moral conscience and at what age a child should be held responsible for knowing the difference between right and wrong. And would the same criteria apply for acts of commission and acts of omission assuming that there are no "defenses", so to speak, like voluntary intoxication or organic brain damage. Thanks.

Great question. Probably one of the other panelists will do a better job than me on this one, but here goes: I suggest that the key to determining the age of responsibility comes down to measuring the development of cognitive power and control. You ask about "what age a child should be held responsible for knowing the difference between right and wrong," which suggests that there might be a time when a child might NOT know such moral differences but that at some point the child SHOULD have such knowledge. For this reason, the key is knowing when a child has sufficient cognitive power to know the moral consequences of her/his acts and omissions. If, for example, the child simply lacks the power to put himself in the position of others (and thus fails, for example, to be able to grasp that hitting his sister hurts her), then the child is not a moral agent. Moreover, if the child lacks sufficient bodily and mental powers to control her body and thought, moral agency would also not be achieved. In these respects, recognizing the presence of moral responsibility would, in principle, be akin to recognizing when an adult with organic brain damage or voluntary intoxication is responsible, though in the later case the fact that the intoxication is voluntary would be sufficient to assign blame for the person becoming in a state when he is no longer able to have sufficient knowledge and control to know and do right rather than wrong.

In terms of assessing a child's powers, we are up against what in philosophy is called the problem of other minds. We cannot directly know the child's mental states and so we must form some overall best understanding of them, supported by a variety of sources (behavior, etc). Some philosophers seem to put the presence of cognitive power that would form a basis for responsible agency way too late (Davidson held that pre-linguistic children lack beliefs) whereas others are perhaps too early in their estimation of cognitive power (Melanie Klien thought that very young, pre-linguistic infants have substantial moral knowledge). Perhaps we need three categories: clear cases of when there is no agency, clear cases when there is, and then a third category when we might treat a child as though she or he is morally accountable but we are doing so in order to help the child develop morally rather than this being a case of when we know the child has already achieved full moral accountability.

If some other panelist can do better, please do so!

Great question. Probably one of the other panelists will do a better job than me on this one, but here goes: I suggest that the key to determining the age of responsibility comes down to measuring the development of cognitive power and control. You ask about "what age a child should be held responsible for knowing the difference between right and wrong," which suggests that there might be a time when a child might NOT know such moral differences but that at some point the child SHOULD have such knowledge. For this reason, the key is knowing when a child has sufficient cognitive power to know the moral consequences of her/his acts and omissions. If, for example, the child simply lacks the power to put himself in the position of others (and thus fails, for example, to be able to grasp that hitting his sister hurts her), then the child is not a moral agent. Moreover, if the child lacks sufficient bodily and mental powers to control her body and thought, moral agency would also not be achieved. ...

Is it better to adopt children or to create them?

Is it better to adopt children or to create them?

Great question, though "create" may not be the best term when you might refer to giving birth to a child. It seems that without considerable details, it would be very difficult indeed to answer your question. Still, one can identify some of the values that are in play. In adopting a child, it seems that you are exercising your voluntary will (it would be odd or unusual to adopt a child by accident or be compelled to do so) whereas in some cases getting pregnant may not be a choice or a voluntary one. In adoption you also may be acting to prevent harm (e.g. if the child is not adopted, perhaps she would remain in an orphanage until she comes of age) and bring about good to someone who (in most cases) already exists, whereas the child you have would not exist unless you and your partner had intercourse and the pregnancy came to term. In some respects, I suggest that giving birth to a child is the primary good. Every person, whether they will be adopted or remain with their birth family, has been, is being, or will be born. Adoption is and can be a great good, and for some people it can clearly be better to adopt than give birth to a child (e.g. in conditions when child birth may be a danger to mother or child). But the process of adoption seems to simulate child birth (the adopted parents are usually addressed as mother and father --in homosexual unions, obviously, it is a matter of two fathers or two mothers--and for single parents it is either mother or father) rather than child birth simulating adoption. Still, even in the course of child rearing with biological parents there may be times when the virtues that are in play in adoption are called upon, e.g. your child might turn out very differently than you expected and you may need that openness and generosity that is so evident in healthy adoptions.

Great question, though "create" may not be the best term when you might refer to giving birth to a child. It seems that without considerable details, it would be very difficult indeed to answer your question. Still, one can identify some of the values that are in play. In adopting a child, it seems that you are exercising your voluntary will (it would be odd or unusual to adopt a child by accident or be compelled to do so) whereas in some cases getting pregnant may not be a choice or a voluntary one. In adoption you also may be acting to prevent harm (e.g. if the child is not adopted, perhaps she would remain in an orphanage until she comes of age) and bring about good to someone who (in most cases) already exists, whereas the child you have would not exist unless you and your partner had intercourse and the pregnancy came to term. In some respects, I suggest that giving birth to a child is the primary good. Every person, whether they will be adopted or remain with their birth family, has been, is...

Assume it were discovered that certain mental aspects of a person - their

Assume it were discovered that certain mental aspects of a person - their temperment, their inclinations, their basic attitudes and desires - were at least partly the result of the person's genes. Now assume that a couple (for whatever reason) decides that they want their child to be an energetic, extroverted, optimistic and competitive; or that they decide they want a calm, collected, intelligent, questioning and cooperative child; or any other variation. They then go on to their doctor and have the embryo's genes modified such that their child will have these qualities. Is the control exercised over the child's fundamental nature an imposition of the parents' wills onto the will of the child? And is a person whose will has been designed by another will as free as a will that has not been designed at all?

Excellent question. It is excellent partly because it goes to the heart of the nature of freedom: freedom makes little sense without a context. So, it makes sense to ask of a person at any time whether she or he is free to do X, but in the case you are imagining there is no will of the child prior to the parent's decision making. So, we do not have a case of when, say, a two year old child is given some character-transforming infusion, we are rather focussing in on the very gestation and emergence of the child. I suggest that there might be reasons to discourage this kind of engineering (perhaps such engineering might tend to make parents feel they have a kind of ownership over their children), but that such engineering need not be seen as an imposition of the parents' will "onto the will of the child" with one proviso. That condition concerns whether the child has any freedom once she reaches maturity to be (for example) not optimistic, not competitive, to neglect her intellectual talents, to be non-cooperative and unquestioning and so on. Arguably, one freely does X when one does X and has the power to do otherwise. If the engineering is so thorough that the child cannot act other than she or he has been shaped then it seems that the parents have, as it were, programmed their child and eradicated her freedom, except in the trivial sense that the child will be free to do what she wants. I describe that as trivial in the sense that while she can do what she wants, she is not free to have any other wants than those her parents have selected.

Excellent question. It is excellent partly because it goes to the heart of the nature of freedom: freedom makes little sense without a context. So, it makes sense to ask of a person at any time whether she or he is free to do X, but in the case you are imagining there is no will of the child prior to the parent's decision making. So, we do not have a case of when, say, a two year old child is given some character-transforming infusion, we are rather focussing in on the very gestation and emergence of the child. I suggest that there might be reasons to discourage this kind of engineering (perhaps such engineering might tend to make parents feel they have a kind of ownership over their children), but that such engineering need not be seen as an imposition of the parents' will "onto the will of the child" with one proviso. That condition concerns whether the child has any freedom once she reaches maturity to be (for example) not optimistic, not competitive, to neglect her intellectual talents, to be non...