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I would like to encourage my grandchildren (ten of them, ages 5 to 17) to think

I would like to encourage my grandchildren (ten of them, ages 5 to 17) to think about and discuss ideas. I started to compose an email (they are located in the U.S. Canada and Sweden) on the importance of the question "Why?". Among other things, I wanted them to be able to challenge, in a constructive way, the "wisdom" of their peers. I found that it was hard to do this in a way that would compel them to even think about my email! I also would like them to learn the value and the discipline of thinking, generally. Do you have suggestions (including literature) that would help in getting children to think and talk about ideas? I have found that this is very difficult - either because they find the process too much work or they don't want to embarrass themselves (or?). Any help would be appreciated. Thank you.

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!

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.

Is it morally wrong for a person with a serious illness and reduced lifespan to

Is it morally wrong for a person with a serious illness and reduced lifespan to reproduce, knowing that in all likelihood the child will have to experience the loss of a parent in adolescence? Assume that the other parent is healthy and prepared for life as a single parent. Can the reproduction be morally justified on the basis of it being less of a wrong to bring into existence a child who will likely lose a parent early on than for one person to deny the other the opportunity of experiencing parenthood? Obviously we are talking about two different recipients of potential harm here but I am focusing on the idea of a general moral wrong. i.e. which is the greater wrong?

You ask whether it's "less wrong" to create the child than for one adult to deny the other the chance of parenthood. That makes it sound as if the only possible wrong on the adults' side is the willing adult being denied parenthood. Wouldn't it also be wrong for the unwilling adult to be forced into parenthood? In any event, if the two adults go ahead with procreation, on grounds that it's "less wrong" to make the child, that seems like the wrong way to start the parent-child relationship. A parent's gain, in becoming a parent, shouldn't be at the child's expense. To start off the relationship on the right foot, they have to believe that giving life to the child-to-be is right, not merely "less wrong."

Might it be right, under these circumstances? That's a very hard question. The crux of it is whether it's fair to the child to be given a life that will foreseeably include early loss of a parent. You might say it's fine, on grounds that in all probability the child will still have a life worth living. But by that the standard, it would be fine to create children who will foreseeably lose both parents, or suffer even worse setbacks. We ought to create only children with reasonably good prospects, but what does "reasonably good" mean, and why is that the standard? An excellent and very accessible book on these issues is Choosing Children, by Jonathan Glover.

A comment about the book Eric Silverman recommended: Benatar's view is that it's always harmful to children to be brought into the world, and not just harmful when the child's prospects are lower than normal. He'd say it was wrong for the parents in your example to have children, but also wrong for everyone else. Glover, by contrast, thinks most of the time childbearing is fine, and tries to sort out the hard cases like the one you describe.

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.

Is the lack of consent the only argument against pedophilia? I ask because it

Is the lack of consent the only argument against pedophilia? I ask because it doesn't seem like a very good argument against pedophilia. On this logic, feeding a child would be a criminal act unless the child understood the reason they were eating.

Lack of consent isn't the only argument, but I doubt that anyone ever thought it was. Roughly, we think we need consent when we think the person might reasonably object if they only knew about or understood what was being done to them. In the case of pedophilia, there's plenty of reason to think that the child would object if s/he understood. As it happens, I know someone very well who was the victim of a pedophile. When it happened (and it happened more than once), she didn't understand; she was four years old. But if you asked her about it now, she would say that what this man did to her was very wrong and caused her a great deal of torment as she came to terms with it.

Though it's hardly the whole story, the phrase "taking advantage of" is entirely apt here.. This man didn't have that young girl's good in mind. He was using her for his own disagreeable reasons. It's a straightforward case of what Kant would call using someone as a mere means. Offhand, I can't think of any cases where that's okay.

When it becomes painfully obvious that an adult child is embarrassed by her

When it becomes painfully obvious that an adult child is embarrassed by her working class roots should she be confronted by the parent? Or is this a right any child has to recognise or reject their background regardless of how feeling are going to get hurt?

As someone inclined to virtue theory, I am not really very sensitivee to sorting out claims of "rights." Is it a "natural right" to reject one's background? Weird question!

Instead, let's ask whether it is a good thing to reject one's background, just because it is working class. If being from (or in) the working class is not a bad thing, then rejecting anyone (especially one's own family members) for being in or from that class seems like it is a bad thing. Rejecting one's own background sounds on the face of it to be a kind of self-rejection--can't say I find that something I wwould generally recommend.

Of course, some backgrounds do deserve to be rejected--those involving abuse or violence, for example. But just because a family is working class? I don't really see that as a good ground for rejecting one's own past and family!

I suspect there may be other factors at work here--some a bit more complicated. "Working class" may also be a kind of code for a set of values that one becomes uncomfortable with, for example. Depending on the nature of those values, there may actually be good grounds for leaving them behind. On the other hand, it may betoken too much value being placed on material wealth, which is certainly not by itself ennobling (as too many recent news stories confirm)!

As a vegetarian, when I consider the prospect of having a child I must ask

As a vegetarian, when I consider the prospect of having a child I must ask myself whether to bring her up on the same diet as mine. I have met people who resentfully continue to be vegetarians because their parents brought them up that way and they could never ingest meat properly. Is it fair for parents to treat a child in this way and would you answer that question differently if the majority of adults, but not children, had freely chosen to be vegetarians and were now asking themselves the same question?

I've thought about this issue a lot, as a vegetarian with two children (now both 12). We decided it would be better to let them choose for themselves. My thinking was: if we raised them as vegetarians, they would inevitably come into contact with meat and feel curious, tempted, guilty. Out of concern for their wellbeing, I wanted to avoid that. I also thought they would experience vegetarianism as an imposition and eventually rebel against it. Plus, I wanted them to have the experience of confronting a moral issue for themselves.

This is how things have turned out (so far)--When my kids were very young, all the food I prepared was vegetarian, but I bought cold cuts for sandwiches, let them order meat in restaurants and at school. At age 6, my daughter decided to stop eating meat. I practically discouraged this, giving her permission to change her mind, give in to temptation, etc. In fact, she became steadily more consistent, resolute, and outspoken. At age 12, my son made the same decision.

I think it's better for my children that they've made their choices, and I suspect these choices will be more permanent for being their own, but we'll see. I'm proud of them for the choices they are making right now, but I continue to think it's up to them. I recognize that it's hard having a diet that reduces your options and puts you at odds with everyone else.

Should prominent adults (e.g. athletes) be held responsible as role models for

Should prominent adults (e.g. athletes) be held responsible as role models for young children even if they do not consider or present themselves as such?

I do not think we have a right to expect prominent adults who do not represent themselves as role models to serve in that capacity, or to be held responsible for failing in that capacity, when they do.

To take a very controversial recent example, Tiger Woods became a celebrity because he is extraordinarily good at golf. He did allow and encourage that celebrity to be constructed into a highly marketable persona for endorsements and advertisements, and for these, he did take on a certain responsibility to behave in certain ways--or at any rate, not to behave in certain other ways (and I am sure that, as a matter of contract, his responsibilities were stipulated clearly). In failing to live in accordance with these quite legal stipulations, many of those who had contracted his services or used his name have now decided to hold him responsible for some things he has been discovered to have done, and many of his most lucrative contracts have thus been revoked or not renewed. But he is still, we assume, an excellent golfer, and just because we may not approve of his (now admitted) infidelities to his wife, it would be wholly inappropriate not to allow him to continue to play golf professionally, lest some of our (golf-admiring) children decide they would like to become "like Tiger."

The processes by which society singles out people to serve as role models for children is not (or at least mostly not) under control by those who are thereby represented as such. It makes no sense to hold people responsible for that which is not under their voluntary control. Insofar as Tiger Woods or anyone else does voluntarily seek to be identified in such a way, then we can fault them for their violations and seek to remove them from the list of those we regard as role models. But if this particular case or any of the many others like it haven't already proven the point for me, it should by now be seen as simply obvious that, as a society, we are doing an extremely poor job of identifying people as role models for our children. Highly successful professional athletes are credible as role models of being highly successful professional athletes. So unless being a highly successful professional athlete is our highest aspiration for our children, to use such a person as a role model is obviously foolish on its face. But it is our own foolishness, not the athlete's (unless, as I said, the athlete voluntarily promotes his or her own image as an example of a good role model for other more important aspects of human life).

Is it immoral for a person in a rich country to adopt a child from a very poor

Is it immoral for a person in a rich country to adopt a child from a very poor country, while the parents are still alive. Often, the parents in poor countries will beg rich people to take their children, so consent is not an issue.

Since your question is so timely, given the arrest of the missionaries in Haiti who were illegally taking 33 children out of the country, the first thing to point out is that it might be immoral to adopt such children, even with parental consent, if the adoption was made possible by actions that were illegal. That is, it might be immoral because, in general, it is immoral to break the law. Nonetheless, we might ask whether it would be immoral even if it were not illegal or whether this is one of those cases where breaking the law is not immoral (e.g., though some may take it as controversial, I take it that Rosa Parks was not doing something immoral in breaking the (immoral) segregation laws and that homosexuals were not doing something immoral when they had sex in their own homes in states that had (immoral) laws against such acts).

Other philosophers will know this literature better than I, but I take this case of adoption to be one where questions of consent become very difficult, perhaps like the case of someone consenting to sell her kidney or one of her eyes or other organs, or the case of prisoners consenting to be used in medical experiments, or perhaps the somewhat different case of people consenting to prostitution. The worry is that there may be a difference between saying you consent and giving your consent were you not in a compromised situation or were you fully informed, etc. A few parents in Haiti may be agreeing to give away their children only because they are in such desperate circumstances which they believe will never improve or only because they are too tired to think through all the consequences, etc. If so, it seems it would be immoral to take advantage of that situation, especially if there are other options available, such as providing temporary shelter for the children until the country is in better circumstances.

Of course, it also seems plausible that circumstances will never get that much better--that most poor children raised in Haiti will never have the opportunities for education, healthcare, and wealth that they would have if they were adopted by a family in a richer country. (And the parents know this.) And we do allow parents to put their children up for adoption, at least at birth. So, the question bleeds into other issues, such as our obligations to improve the situation in countries like Haiti, the importance of biological parenthood, and whether the children would consent were they fully informed of their situation, etc.