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It seems to me that Kant's categorical imperative implies that we all have a

It seems to me that Kant's categorical imperative implies that we all have a duty to procreate. Is this actually the case? I say this because it seems that any person choosing not having children would be forced to admit that, if their behavior was made a universal law, society would collapse, with a slowly aging and ailing population and nobody to take care of them. Society would die out, and the last generation before the end would be helpless geriatrics suffering the problems of old age with nobody younger to look after them. So do Kantian ethics actually demand that we have children? Or is there a subtler way of looking at the issue?

I used exactly this example in an essay published over 20 years ago as one of the arguments in support of a more subtle interpretation that had been first proposed by Tim Scanlon. On this reading, it is the permission one is claiming for oneself that is to be universalized. So instead of asking whether one can will that all people act on one's maxim of remaining childless, one is to ask instead whether one can will that all people be permitted to remain childless. In the world as it is, we can certainly will this universal permission (because enough others would decide to conceive even without a duty to do so), and therefore each of us is permitted to act on the maxim in question.

A philosopher pointed out the the big questions of philosophy are also the ones

A philosopher pointed out the the big questions of philosophy are also the ones asked by all children. I'm thinking Quine, or Bertrand Russell But I can't remember. Anyone know?

I've made the same point in my book "The 60-Second Philosopher," though I think it has to made with some finesse to count as being particularly accurate. Young children seem quick to recognize questions about basic principles -- that there is a causal order -- that there may be a supreme being of some sort -- basic moral principles -- but that's still pretty far from saying they ask the same questions as the big questions from philosophy. (Tom Wartenburg has a recent book out on doing Philosophy with Children and on focus groups he's done, which might offer support for your question ....)

hope that helps--


Is there any validity in the following argument?

Is there any validity in the following argument? By medical science we keep people with severe chronical diseases alive and these people are free to reproduce. Already there has been an increase in people with chronical diseases, maybe because of our progression in medical science. So, in the future, it is possibly that we will all struggle with many chronical diseases, unless we accelerate in stem-cell research or genetic manipultaion. With this I see only two opportunities: either deny the chronically diseased to reproduce (Which I think is quite unethical) or "play God" and rid our selves with these plagues with either genetic manipulation or stem-cell research (which is also unethical, for some). But not matter what ethical principles one leans on, these two options are the only sensible ones, of course to the exception of not doing anything (which is also unethical). So we have here, three unethical options, depending on one´s ethical affiliation: 1. Everyone will be chronically diseased. 2....

We have been grappling with these ethical issues since the mid-nineteenth century and the beginning of the Eugenics movement. You have obviously done some deep thinking yourself, and perhaps it is time for you to engage with some texts in history and ethics in order to see how to take the questions further. I suggest Diane Paul's "Controlling Human Heredity" and "The Politics of Heredity" (both cheap paperback books) and an essay by Erik Parens "The Goodness of Fragility" widely reprinted in bioethics texts (there are many other bioethics resources, such as and

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 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.

Over the past few years, my wife has become a staunch antivaccinationist. (We

Over the past few years, my wife has become a staunch antivaccinationist. (We have a son on the autism spectrum; she has bought into the discredited vaccine causation theory of autism.) She is unreachable on this topic; no facts or reason will move her from her position. Unfortunately, she has decided that our children are to have no further vaccinations. She will not compromise on this. I, of course, want our children to be protected from dangerous diseases and thus want them to be vaccinated. My question: What are my ethical obligations in this situation--to my wife, to my children, and to society? Going behind my wife's back and having the children vaccinated without her knowledge does not seem ethical. Agreeing to her demand that the children receive no further shots also seems unethical--this would put my kids at risk of disease, as well as other people. Telling my wife up front that I'm taking the children to get their shots, despite her objections, also seems problematic--they are her children...

I agree with Professor Smith. The only thing I would add may be obvious and may be something you've already tried. It sometimes helps to have third parties intervene to provide all the facts and arguments you would use to try to persuade your wife to change her mind. Here, your knowledge of who might influence her is useful. Would she trust your family's pediatrician or react harshly against him/her as a member of the 'vaccine conspiracy'? Her parents or yours? Mutual friends? While an 'intervention' would be extreme, making friends and family aware of a serious issue that affects the health of your children (and others) and enlisting their help might make it easier for your wife to back down without feeling pressured to do so solely by you. But should these methods fail, then Prof. Smith's suggestion seems appropriate.

Should a parent report their own children to the police if they are aware that

Should a parent report their own children to the police if they are aware that the child has commited a criminal offence. Does the age of the child or the seriousness of the crime matter. Example should you report your child if you suspect they have commited shoplifting or should you only report them for serious crimes like armed ronbbery. What about other family relations such as your brother or cousin commiting criminal acts. Do you owe any loyalty to your family or is it more important to obey the law. Michael.

I don't think there is a hard-and-fast rule to give here. Do you call the cops when you see your kid litter? Of course not! Just make them pick it up and give them a good lecture about why that is unacceptable behavior. But if you see them commit murder? Well, yes, then it seems appropriate. If I caught one of my children shoplifting, I would try to come up with a way to make them repay the store--but I don't think I would be supportive if people at the store gave me an indication that they aggressively prosecute every case of shoplifting.

I think our responsibilities change in different relationships. I would also try to "correct" minor misdemeanors (like littering) when done by friends or more distant family members. The worse the crime, the more it seems to me to call for a legal report. But I think we are, in a way, much more responsible for the behavior of our minor children than we are after they have reached the age of majority, and we are much less responsible for distant relatives, acquaintances, and the like. So my own culpability in failing to report some law-breaking is relative to the degree of my responsibility for the behavior of that other person.

Do I call in every case I see of someone speeding past me on the freeway? No. That's not my responsibility. But if I see evidence that they are seriously impaired in some way (weaving dangerously, etc.), well, yes, I would call that in.

I think the only good advice I have to give here, beyond such rules of thumb, is that you exercise the best judgment of your own level of responsibility (to the criminal, to his or her victims, and to your fellow citizens) and of what you can do that is most likely to provide the best available resolution to the situation.

Parents who are conscious and critical of rigid gender norms face a problem. If

Parents who are conscious and critical of rigid gender norms face a problem. If they raise their children without regard for traditional gender norms, then their children run the risk of being ostracized for not conforming to these gender norms. Yet if a parent enforces gender norms on their child, then they are closing off potential spaces for self-fulfillment. This kind of problem is most easily recognizable with regards to homosexuality - many parents say they have nothing against homosexuality, but wish their own children would be heterosexual, because of the social difficulties and ostracism faced by homosexuals. As a parent, where must one stand? Must one teach one's children to conform to rigid gender norms that one disapproves of, because it will make life easier for the children? Or should one liberate one's child from these norms, and run the risk of them suffering greatly for their disregard of these norms?

Seems to me your question poses what is known as a false alternative. I see no reason why a parent cannot help to inform a child about gender norms, so the child can understand these norms, while still making clear that such norms are really not necessary, not appropriate, and stifling. Don't we try (well, those of us who are decent folks, anyway!) to do the same with racism and other forms of prejudice?

Is a parent's right to their own children based on something more than just the

Is a parent's right to their own children based on something more than just the fact they are a good force in their children's lives? I read about a court case in which a custody dispute was decided on the basis of "what was best for the child". Now of course the children's interests should be one consideration, but aren't there others as well? Suppose a baby is born to two very poor parents. A rich couple demands their baby saying "We can give your baby a better future. With us, the baby will get a better education, eat better food, live in a better neighborhood." Shouldn't the poor parent's still have a right to keep their child, even if this situation is not "what's best for the child".

Precisely, and we do not tend to insist that children are brought up by the best parents, only their parents, other things being equal. So it is clearly the case that some parents are pretty lousy as carers, they may even realize it themselves, and yet this is no blanket reason to take their children away from them. In the example you give it is not obvious to me that children are better brought up in nicer neighbourhoods, despite what the new prospective parents might say, but there are obvious cases where parents are pretty poor at caring. Perhaps they smoke over the children, perhaps they sit them all day in front of a TV, have no books in the house, speak little to the children, have a poor diet, yet we would not necessarily take those children away. Provided they do enough for the children to preserve their general wellbeing, that is enough, since otherwise the processes of working out who would be the best carers for which children would be horrendous. From a liberal perspective one of the advantages of the present rather relaxed system is that we do not really know how to bring up children, what is best for them, and it is rather useful to have lots of different experiments in living in working this out. We need then to be cautious in thinking we can define who are better and worse parents.

Hello, and thanks for this amazing site. I am a 17 year old guy in a

Hello, and thanks for this amazing site. I am a 17 year old guy in a relationship. My girlfriend (although the word comes with a certain stigma of immaturity, which I don't like) and I have been together for well over a year. We have had a very successful relationship, even though we've had our bumps and bruises. However, our relationship is now in turmoil. My girlfriend is trying to end the relationship - although we both still love each other very much, enjoy each other's company, and feel the same as day one. The reason is her commitment issues. They come from a very troubled past, but I will not betray her privacy and give further details. This has been an issue which she has avoided for a long time. Never could we have a productive discussion on the issue. In truth, she needs therapy. She admits this, she knows this. She discontinued therapy (for PTSD and other things) a couple years ago. The reason why she refuses to go to therapy, why she is driven to break apart our relationship rather then go to...

Thanks for this thoughtful question, and I'm sorry for what you're all going through!

However I'm not convinced this is, in the end, a 'philosophical' matter -- it sounds more like one that's for the professional psychologists and therapists .... and I wonder if it might be useful even for YOU to consult with one, to get some useful advice about how to deal with this complicated situation! (There are some philosophers with some psychology expertise, but I don't know if any of the panelists on this site are those!)

best of luck!

We say "Blood runs thicker than water", but is there any philosophical

We say "Blood runs thicker than water", but is there any philosophical tenability to this idea? If I feel my girlfriend's parents are mistreating her, should I step in, or should I keep my nose out of another family's internal business? Is it acceptable for me to prioritize non-family-members over members of my own family in cases where neither side clearly has greater need/right? Should children always turn to their parents before anyone else when they need help?

Rather a lot of questions there which have at their root the issue of whether we should take family as a relevant ethical issue. To say it is relevant is not to say that it always is stronger than any countervailing right. An adult who strikes a child may be in a morally stronger position if the child is his, but he is still not in a strong position, and others are entitled to intervene to protect the child, it seems to me. On the other hand, it would be going too far to insist that everyone is a perfect parent, whatever that might be, and to remove children from less perfect parents.

There are advantages in fostering strong family links since those who are normally closest to us might well know what is our best interests, and they might be more concerned for our welfare than comparative strangers. Not that this is inevitable of course, and when families break down there should be mechanisms to intervene. It is very useful for us to persuade ourselves though that we have a special responsibility for a child when it keeps us up all night and presents us frequently with unpleasant diapers, since otherwise it would be difficult to make sense of our caring behavior.