Saturday, 28 February 2015

Children are special, but not particularly important

A strange idea has taken over the social conscience so entirely that it is a taboo even to say what it is. Children have come to be seen as more valuable than adults not despite but because they lack the psychological maturity that makes persons objectively valuable.

Consider the appearance of "baby on board" placards from the mid-1980s onwards.

Nobody would have placed such a sign on a car if it were not already understood by society that the life of a human achieves its peak value at birth and declines thereafter. A toddler is almost as precious as a baby, but a teenager less so, and by the time that baby turns fifty, it seems that nobody cares much anymore if someone crashes into her car. You don't see a lot of vehicles with placards that read, "Middle-aged accountant on board." (Danielle and Astro Teller)
Something has gone very wrong in the way we think of the ageing process! Fortunately philosophy can help.


Children are morally special in one particular - their extreme neediness. They have extensive often urgent needs that only suitably motivated adults can meet, and the younger they are, the greater their neediness. That makes children's care and protection a moral priority in any just society - there are lots of things that aren't as important and should rightly give way to meeting children's needs. As a result, children create multiple obligations upon their care-givers, as well second-order obligations on society in general, to ensure those needs are met.

Yet the fact that you should give way to an ambulance attending an emergency doesn't mean that the person in the ambulance is more important than you; only that her needs right now are more important than you getting to work on time. Likewise, the immanence of children's neediness should often determine how we rank the priorities of actions we want to do, such as interrupting a movie to attend to a baby's cries. But such an action ranking is not a guide to the relative worth of children and adults, or of babies and teenagers. There will surely be times when something even more urgent occurs - such as someone having a heart-attack in front of you - that requires a baby's cries be neglected for the moment.


As a psychological phenomenon it is not especially remarkable that the moral importance of attending to children's needs is routinely transformed into a general impression that children themselves are particularly important. But the mixing up of neediness with worth is only one source of our greater confusion. The other major source is rather more blameworthy: identifying psychological immaturity with moral worth.

For a peculiarity of the moral priority we grant to the neediness of children is that we do not apply it to equally needy adults, most obviously those whose mental and physical faculties decline in old age in a somewhat symmetrical way to the development of those faculties in children. If we only cared about neediness we would care more about, and take on more personal responsibility for, meeting the needs of the disabled in general without regard for their age.

Of course we don't do that. We seem to place a special value on children because of their blankness, the fact that they have not thought or done anything interesting or important yet and their identity - their relationship to themselves and to others - is still unformed. (Some abortion activists make a great deal of the innocence of foetuses, the ultimate non-achievers.) As children grow up and become more like people, with a life of their own – with friends and favourite things and secrets and dreams and ideas that are genuinely theirs - they seem to become less valuable.

I can't explain this bizarre phenomenon.

Maybe it has to do with religious concepts of sin and the idea of innocence as remaining untouched by the corruption of the world. Although, if the world is really so bad, parenthood seems a monstrous decision - the voluntary creation of new sentient creatures and thus of new suffering.

Maybe we are particularly affected by the discrepancy between potential and actual achievements: a baby could grow up to be anything at all, but with every step it takes more of those brilliant possibilities fall away. But life is for living - what do possibilities matter if you don't take them up? A blank canvas is perfectly free of mistakes, but also perfectly free of art.

Maybe we just have an evolved doodah in our brain that makes us think babies are irresistibly cute and really important, so that we wouldn't throw the annoying things out of the cave. But evolutionary histories aren't moral justifications.

Maybe it is because the deaths of children seem especially significant events because they are so unusual these days, thanks to our mastery of communicable diseases. When the deaths of children receive so much more media attention than the deaths of adults we may just assume that their lives must count for more.

Maybe all of those and more. In any case, explanation is not justification and the result is eminently absurd. We have it back to front. People's lives get more valuable as they 'grow up' because in growing up we gain more life to live.


The greatest part of the value of a human life, as opposed to that of a merely sentient animal like a mouse, relates to the development of personhood. Persons are what children are supposed to grow up to become. Persons are able to relate to themselves in a forward and backward looking fashion, to tell a story about where they have come from and where they are going, to determine how they should live, to relate to other persons as independent equals, to explain and justify themselves, to make and keep promises, and so on. Personhood in this sense normally develops over the course of a life, peaking generally around the mid 50s, the traditional prime of life, before beginning to decline again.

The trouble with our attitude to children is that the less like this idea of a person they are the more valuable children's lives are supposed to be. The younger and more inchoate their minds and the shallower their ability to relate to themselves, others, or the world, the more significant their lives are held to be and, for example, the greater the tragedy if one should die.

Of course the death of a child is a tragedy for her parents. But the fact of their grief, and our readiness to sympathise with it, doesn't address the issue of relative significance. Is it really the case that the death of a baby is an objectively worse thing to happen in this world than the death of a toddler than the death of a teenager than the death of a middle-aged adult?

The death of an adult person is a tragedy because a sophisticated unique consciousness has been lost; a life in progress, of memories and plans and ideals and relationships with other persons, has been broken off. The death of a young child is also a tragedy, but it seems a comparatively one-sided one: the loss of an tremendously important part of her parents' lives.

What about fairness? Isn't it more unfair for a child to die than an adult, since the adult will have gotten to live so many more years? Not so. Unless one wants to accept the ultimate value of the life of the just fertilised egg. Death affects the child and the adult differently. The younger the child the less real her presence in the world, including to herself, and the more she resembles the generic outline or idea of a child. By contrast an adult has developed much further her life's project of constructing and refining a unique identity of her own and therefore she, and the world, has much more to lose by her death.

I don't mean to suggest that the only way to value a life is in death. Think of it this way. An acorn has what Aristotle called a telos, its ‘life's ambition' is to grow up into a mighty oak tree. But it would be odd to claim that an acorn was therefore worth more than an already existing oak tree. Likewise, the telos of a child is to grow up into an adult, a full person. Childhood is an intermediate state that is meant to be overcome by something better. It would be odd to claim that the thing which is better is worth less. To do so suggests that we want to deny the child's telos - we don't want her to grow up.


What follows from such an analysis? Not, I suggest, that we should care any less for children but that we should care more for adults.

First, we should attend equally to the urgent needs of any living human being, including the need to be loved, no matter whether they are very young or very old.

Second, we should do more to recognise the particular value of the lives of the middle-aged. On the principle that a good idea realised is better than a good idea merely, we should acknowledge that oak trees are more valuable than acorns. Adults live fuller, deeper, and more real lives than those who have yet to grow up.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.

The baby on board placards don't play any role in my argument besides illustration. But here is an account of their history for those readers who are interested.


  1. Valuing childhood over the rest of life is puzzling to me too. I think it has a momentum of its own. People rationalize entrenched attitudes.
    Two thoughts: as Aries showed in Centuries Of Childhood, childhood once in the western world did not exist as a social institution; second, I suspect consumerism has something to do with it. In the sense of childhood as being some kind of utopia, lacking responsibilities.

  2. One possible reason for viewing the death of a child as especially tragic is that they lose the opportunity to live a full life. People who are old or middle-aged have already lived life. They've had experiences. Infants who die don't get that.

    1. The perspective I'm considering here suggests that it isn't just a numbers game. The younger a child is, the less grip they have on life - the less there there is. Experiences, and memories of experiences, have a deeper and more meaningful significance to adults than they can have to children who haven't yet had them and couldn't appreciate them yet anyway. Thus adults have more to lose by dying.

  3. This idea just popped into my mind, any further analysis of it has not happened. It goes: a persons value is the more significant the more the idea of the loss of themselves, their person, through death will cause them pain. This would render any valuation of a persons life's worth through the pain of others worthless -- since it would not tell anything of it. This would also imply in the case you wrote about, child contrasted to an adult, that the more self conscious the person considered is the more valuable they are, here it would be the adult.

    This would in realization, only as itself, lead to the value of any being being worth nothing at all, if the method used in removing it would leave no time for itself to consider its own end. This is why it would be necessary to include in the rule a part stating that the being be made conscious of their death, if possible, and after that seeing how it reacts on this threat. Should the infant then be let to grow in peace to a fully conscious being? And after this, test it in the same way any being is tested against each other. Now a relative value could be determined.

    I suppose the hard question is that should we by definition state a right for the infant to grow up into a fully sentient being in order to test it. The right would guarantee an equal value untill testing.

    This, what I wrote, is a little messy, I understand, but relating to it: if you have in mind any definition or a test of a sentient beings worth against other sentient beings, I would like to hear about it. Ofcourse you already stated in the text that you do not have one, but trying again wont hurt much?

    1. Merely sentient beings have feelings but not consciousness. For them, only the way they die matters. Persons also have consciousness. They inhabit their lives more completely and have something greater to lose by death, even if it happens in their sleep.

      We generally take personhood to be more important than sentience (e.g. in comparing human rights with the rights of mere animals). So why should we take children to be of greater moral worth the closer they get to mere sentience?

  4. Your confusion that has resulted in this extensive philosophizing (which I confess to not reading in its entirety) seems to be due to a lack of understanding supplanted by erroneous assumptions and conclusions that further perpetuate your lack of clarity.

    The basis of a "baby on board" sign is that anyone and everyone who is vulnerable in any way is in need of consideration and assistance from anyone and everyone who is in a position to render such consideration and assistance.

    From this, arises the long standing practice of giving greater consideration and assistance to children, women, the sick, the injured, the infirm, the mentally deficient, elders, the poor and misfortunate, the lost, the hungry. In reality, we are all vulnerable in some way so we all need consideration and assistance.

    "Baby on board" simply serves an an alert and reminder to other drivers to be considerate to those in the car bearing the sign AND to all others on the road with them, because everyone on the road, which is a dangerous place, is in need of consideration and assistance in making it to their destination. This even includes one's own self.

    We all get along better with a little help from our friends, because we're all in this life together, intimately and inextricably interconnected and interdependent.

    1. Probably better if you had read my whole piece before trying to point out what hadn't actually been missed.

    2. I read the entire article and what Carl stated is entirely valid. Babies are different than middle aged adults because they lack the ability as well as the know-how to defend themselves, thus requiring a larger, more intelligent being to do so for them. As adults we know this, so it is our innate desire to protect them.

  5. In my mind, the value society places on individuals is a function of society's willingness to help one individual over another, given that their situations are comparable. Take a (modified version) of your example for instance: a baby and a middle-aged person both having collapsed due to a heart attack (assuming babies could have heart attacks). Who would receive more sympathy? Who would the doctors help first, assuming they could only help one at a time? Probably the baby because of its helplessness due to its feeble frame, as you suggest. Now what if the older person's injury was slightly more severe than the baby's -- now we're compensating for the helplessness of the baby -- say, the baby broke an arm and the adult was passed out for some unknown reason. I still believe that in this instance society would be more inclined to help the baby in most instances. It is rather the greater potential for success that the baby possesses than the adult that people are attracted to. A baby's future net worth, fame, etc. is unknown to an observer. Therefore we can assume that the baby will grow up to become an average adult -- average in wealth, success, moral values, or maybe even slightly above average since more people are optimists than pessimists when they look at a baby as a blank slate. Logically, if the adult who has passed out is above average with respect to income, fame, in short, an asset to society, he likely deserves more sympathy in the eyes of society. If he ranks average or below in these areas the baby wins.

    The only thing special about children is that they haven't defined themselves and their future worth.

    1. So if the old man was a billionaire and the baby was a Syrian refugee, the old man would be worth more?

      I think this net present worth approach will only get you into moral tangles.

  6. The death of a child is significant because during the very short time they existed they made more powerful and lasting memories than all the years of traveling, college, dating, etc. From the moment they are born they are at their peak of "magical" and continue to become a more complex wonderful magical until they hit puberty. At which time the "magic" fades and they become angry, awkward, disassociated, and a significant decline in their purity and happiness. This decline will continue and directly as it declined they will grow into an adult with more activities to serve as memories, more reasons why they can be angry, and more reasons why they feel they are significant and thus better than a child. Whereas that magical child would never think they are better or more valuable than te adult.
    A child is more valuable than an adult because they are untarnished. They still see things clearly and can solve problems and have hope to continue on. An adult will easily become depressed, sick, and die.
    You're right, the fertilized seed might be like the acorn. But the actual child is like a new car. Less maintenance and all the best features. Adults are like the old cars, just waiting to be recycled after their 200,000 miles.

  7. Am I seriously the one suggesting that we deem children as important because they represent the survival of our species?

    1. Children construed as a life-stage surely occupy an essential place in the cycle of humanity's reproduction of itself. But this provides no justification for valuing any individual child, nor for valuing children more highly than adult parents, who seem equally essential for reproduction.

    2. The same thought occurred to me Rafael. The "Selfish Gene" sprang to mind. Now my thought is not fully-formed, but I am rather tempted to follow this line of inquiry. Children are (largely)perceived as "the future" of our species, but what is the basis or root of that perception? I would suggest it lies within our biology, are we hardwired to place a greater "value" on children as a mechanism to ensure the survival of our species? Mechanisms for survival are experienced as physical reactions, disgust leads to avoidance and we have the origin of taboos that are then transformed by our innate and collective consciousness into morals, religious beliefs; the mechanism of life, itself, is presented as pleasurable anticipation, desire, etc. Just scratching the surface here, but I do not find the origin for this human perception puzzling, what is very interesting is how our brains have elevated our most basic need, species survival, indeed life preservation throughout our history into all manner of fascinating beliefs. The currency of youth, biologically speaking, is of more value to survival of the species; maturity and wisdom are vital to the process of civilization. The moral question is perhaps how do we align our base nature with the mechanism of civilization?

    3. Sorry, Ordinary Person. I accidentally deleted your original comment (and a bunch of others) and in restoring it I stripped your identity.

      Anyway, thanks for your comment. You make a nice point.

    4. Thank you for your gracious reply. I had another line of thought (hopefully this is not down a rabbit hole). That thought is that we run into another moral, ethical question when our "selfish genes" are at odds with species survival. Species survival is, I would propose, the elemental driving force behind civilization and forms the basis for societal, ethical moral principles. A simple illustration is that when I am faced with a dilemma e.g. having the ability to save the life of my own child at the expense of the lives of five other unrelated people what choice will I make? My selfish genes would undoubtedly urge me to save my "own". In this case if I were to make a choice of saving five at the expense of my child, that choice would be (most probably) experienced by me as deeply and viscerally wrong, "bad". I refer to this quote from D.H. Lawrence “The blood-consciousness and the blood-passion is the very source and origin of us. Not that we can stay at the source. Nor even make a goal of the source, as Freud does. The business of living is to travel away from the source. But you must start every single day fresh from the source. You must rise every day afresh out of the dark sea of the blood.” Maybe, civilization itself must rise every day out of the dark sea of blood? A dark sea that has the potential to consume all human progress, is this the human condition?

  8. I think it is a fallacy to assume that a child's death in and of itself is felt more keenly than that of any others, excepting the fact that in modern society we do not anticipate and expect the death of the young and protected as much as those who operate and move independently throughout the ever widening spheres of adult life. It seems more likely that it is the lack of differentiation in the young that makes us more empathic to their loss. All healthy individuals have a certain degree of nostalgic narcissism that predisposes us to value that in which we see ourselves. Thus when a child dies we look internally and think 'I too was once a child, how tragic if I had not lived my life!' We mourn an idealized image of ourselves.
    In contrast we look at other adults and must consciously attempt to put ourselves in their place, and our grief is filtered through layers of assumption, bias, envy and fear. Consider the outpouring of grief when a popular celebrity or public figure dies; it is the personal loss of one's own potential future experiences, combined with the appeal of envisioning oneself in their place. It is pleasurable to imagine oneself as a rock star or a tech guru, thus easier to empathize with and internalize their loss. Poverty, infirmity, mental or physical disability however are foreign to many people's mental landscapes, strange and terrible to contemplate. Empathy in these cases often only comes with personal experience, or through special effort. This is why it is not uncommon that the most generous are those who have known lack, the fiercest defenders those who have known fear.
    The ease of establishing an empathic connection is what differentiates a child from other social groups equally lacking in agency, and equally deserving of special considerations. We fear or pity the life which we cannot or do not wish to know. We envy that to which we aspire. We treasure an idealized nostalgic image of ourselves. We're human.

    1. Wonderful analysis! Thanks.

      Perhaps we need to read more novels to develop our empathy, as Martha Nussbaum would have it.

  9. But you DO know that the "baby on board"-stickers are not meant to entice others to drive carefully etc. or that the car has been "loading" some valuable "goods" - but to make sure that, after a car crash, first responders look for a very small being that most likely will not be able to free himself from his carseat?

    1. That's a common misconception - I included a link to the history of the placards for those who are interested.

      In any case though, the placards are only an illustrative example. Nothing about my actual argument depends on them

  10. Because children are the future, I am the present.

  11. Did you consider that perhaps people care more about babies dying simply because we are not lofty, hyper-rational beings but actually just animals? Hearing a baby cry while unable to help it is, for the majority of people, one of the worse things that can happen; a form of torture.

    Maybe people care about babies because there's an evolutionary advantage to weighting the lives of children more highly. The average child likely represents a greater chance for the production of yet more children. Baring disease and death they have more fertile life ahead of them than average adult. It would make sense for evolution - a force that only cares about self-perpetuation, yes? - to weight as closely as possible to the average amount of additional healthy children likely to be produced by an individual. This amount is at maximum prior to sexual development and only goes downhill from there. Though I'll grant this approach would suggest that 8-9 year-olds would be perceived as more valuable than babies, I'd say one could argue their way into a simpler, linear mapping of age against worth.

  12. I feel this article has the general theme that we give too much value to children, although it summarises that we should give value to children but we should also give attention to everyone equally.
    Fair enough. It’s a good topic and before I had a child I would of been on board with him.
    But that’s the thing, this is a subjective topic that wants the guise of being objective. Most parents (adults) cannot see this topic objectively because having a child to care for day after day has skewed there thinking. Just as people without children can’t see through a parents eyes.
    A childless person telling a parent that his/her child is a valuable as a grown person, would be outright bizarre for a parent. Words and logic cannot penetrate the connection between parent and child, nothing in this world can, it seems like rhetoric and dribble but it’s true.
    When cities are under prolonged siege only the children survive because no parent can eat while they see their child starve, a parent in the blink of an eye will put themselves in harms way to protect their child, its true love. The same cannot be said for partners, husband and wives and lovers, they think they know love…… until they have a child, then they get it.
    You can’t put yourself in the mind of a parent, it’s like describing the colour red to a blind person, it’s a room you cannot glimpse from the outside, you won’t know until you enter it.
    Do the majority of parents care more for children, yes, and if they don’t I pity them as they are broken.