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« A no-win situation | Main | Learn from the past »

On violence

There's a brilliant post at renegade parent on the subject of violence and children in which Lisa takes libertarians to task for advocating traditional approaches to child-rearing (enforced schooling, traditional subjects, corporal punishment and so on) which are, on the face of it, not exactly in accordance with libertarian ideals of self-ownership and non-initiation of violence.

I'm sympathetic to many of Lisa's points. For example, she says that children should follow their own interests and we have certainly found that putting educational materials in the way of the kids has been an easy way to get them to learn things - they simply pick them up and absorb them when they are ready, with Spanish, Geography and History proving very popular. I agree that children are not inherently stupid, untrustworthy or lazy - they are highly intelligent on the whole. I think they just don't know very much. (See the difference?).

It's also worth pointing out, however,  that just because someone advocates schools run along certain lines, doesn't mean that they support schooling per se. The decision to school children is effectively made for us by government when they tax us to support school-based education. Those who can afford to HE regardless (or are willing to make the personal financial sacrifice to do so, or who can bring themselves to live off benefits while doing so) are a minority. So if we are effectively forced into having schools, the question then becomes "how do we best get them to work", to which the answer might well be "traditional subjects, rote learning" and so on. I've written before about how coercion breeds coercion and this is another example of the same thing.

But Lisa's objection to corporal punishment is a mistake. There is nothing in libertarianism that says that harsh punishments are not permitted. Libertarians are against initiation of violence, but are quite comfortable with "giving as good as one gets", and then some.  Corporal punishment in fact is probably the most liberal approach to retributive justice there is. So when it comes to child rearing, I would have thought that "physical chastisement" is quite appropriate in certain circumstances. For example, when little Jonny bashes little Jane, and particularly if the social niceties of bashing have already been explained to little him, it would convey an important lesson about the real world. After all if we accept that children are intelligent human beings (which we do) then surely we have to accept that they have to take responsibility for their actions?

That said, use of corporal punishment for non-violent transgressions such as "answering back" is probably wrong. Once though, I applied my hand to bottom of one of the offspring for running across a road without looking. Did I do wrong? There's a question here of legitimate authority and its transgression that I need to get my head around. In the meantime, there's plenty to talk about.


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Reader Comments (22)

There is a difference between pacifism and libertarianism. The Harm Principle states that the only possible justification for coercion is to prevent harm to others (which doesn't mean preventing harm to others always justifies coercion), but that an individual can give consent to let themselves be harmed. The exception is partly to allow for minor harm to be done in the interests of preventing greater harm (e.g. surgery), but mainly because people differ in what they define to be "harm", and should have the right to their own definitions.

Where children are an odd case is that it is believed they are not capable of giving informed consent, and so their guardian exercises their rights on their behalf - including that right to consent to being harmed. Because it is not the parent's right, but the child's right exercised on their behalf, there are limits set for intervention where the parent is clearly not acting in the child's interests. Society has some duty to ensure that a safe guardian is assigned - parents are made guardians by default as usually the best choice, not by right - but the threshold for intervening in that must necessarily be set high.

In theory, a child who can demonstrate themselves capable of informed choice should take their rights into their own hands early, rather than setting an arbitrary age threshold, but there are practical difficulties. Mental competence tests are tricky enough to define for adults - there is an unfortunate tendency towards circular definitions - it would be harder with children included.

As you say, children are intelligent, and it is not very hard to work out that crime pays handsomely. No parent teaches their children to lie, but the smarter they are the sooner they learn. Adults are no less perceptive. That's why libertarianism *has* to permit coercion to prevent harm. It simply wouldn't work otherwise. Liberty-sans-violence grants tyrants the 'freedom' to enslave, murderers the 'freedom' to kill, thieves the 'freedom' to steal.

So just as adults are prevented from harming others by methods that are themselves violent, so must children be. The smack is the analogue of arrest by the police, the 'naughty step' or 'being sent to your room' the analogue of prison. The distinction is not the use of violence, but the limitations on when and why it can be used.

This is commonly misunderstood. People see misuse of power and think the problem is the violence, rather than the misuse. I suspect at least some of it comes from the 'moral equivalence' methods of those 'pacifist' political movements that sought to defend the abusers of power by equating fighting for people's freedom with violence in the service of tyranny and oppression. Even to claim that they become so cruelly tyrannical in *direct response* to your efforts to 'impose' your liberal views on them. All force is bad, they say, and even though the bad guys use it, you can't because it would make you just the same.

A lot of libertarians disagree with me, (especially when it comes to applying the principle to international affairs). And I would certainly agree that non-violent methods are greatly to be preferred, if they are available and effective. But I find the consequences we observe in the world today of *unconditional* appeasement and non-violence to have been all too predictable.
Apr 10, 2009 at 7:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterPa Annoyed
How nice to see you back in the land of the living! This is making me think hard: good and thanks.

Pa Annoyed has given me some clarity in words: "People see misuse of power and think the problem is the violence, rather than the misuse."

It *is* misuse of power that concerns me. However, "people differ in what they define to be "harm", and should have the right to their own definitions" is also pertinent and I personally have chosen to (try) not smack my children as I feel it causes more harm than good, mainly because I would then find it hard to explain to her that violence towards others is wrong. And my inconsistency might then cause her to doubt the reliability of my judgement in other circumstances when I really want her to listen.

However, on reflection, there are circumstances where violence towards others wouldn't necessarily be an issue for me (although apart from dire situations I would still *prefer* her to choose different methods and would talk with her about this.) I would think it likely that Jane would bash Johnny right back and so be it. But when an adult intervenes to bash Johnny on Jane's behalf... Well there are issues to do with proportionality: size, force, experience and example-setting that just trouble me. And a teacher or police officer doing it on my behalf? Not for me, thanks.

Ultimately, I would intervene to whatever degree necessary to ensure that no serious harm was caused to the child (I am all for scraping knees or banging heads) or any harm to other people. I definitely do not advocate unconditional appeasement. I want our children to be as responsible, disciplined, hard working and caring as I hope we are - but I actually don't think I can *make* them be that way. And coercion often sends people in the opposite direction to which one desires; it's certainly not a good long term strategy, whether left or right wing in approach, which was my main point.

I agree that the question of "how do we make schools work" is more important in some respects, because it affects so many more people. And the answer you have already given here in my opinion: privatisation. That way, I can send my child to a Summerhill and someone else can send their child to boot camp without state meddling ;-)

Going to think some more about this and hairbrushes.
Apr 10, 2009 at 10:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterRenegadeParent
"I personally have chosen to (try) not smack my children..."

I have no argument with people having that choice. Especially when you add "(try)".

"... as I feel it causes more harm than good, mainly because I would then find it hard to explain to her that violence towards others is wrong. And my inconsistency might then cause her to doubt the reliability of my judgement in other circumstances when I really want her to listen."

That of course was my point. Instead of teaching her that violence towards others is wrong, you could be teaching her that violence towards others for any other reason than to prevent/punish harm (to her or others) was wrong. That way, you can still smack her for punching Johnny without provocation or running into the road, desist for lesser crimes like talking back, maintain perfect consistency, and hope to bring up a human who will not only respect others but also defend the weak and stand up for what is right.

And she will know where the boundaries are, and that there are consequences for crossing them, but that she is totally safe staying within them. That way, she gets to learn right from wrong, and that when in the right she has rights she is entitled to defend and have defended, even against you.

Of course, if you don't accept that it can be right to use violence to protect the weak, then you're not going to accept any of the above, which is fair enough. As I said, you have that choice. And it's probably a wiser move in this modern political climate, where mere citizens are supposed to rely totally on Authority for defence. "Taking the law into your own hands" they call it. (Although that only makes logical sense if Authority can be relied upon to do so. Children are not stupid - why would they go to Authority instead if they can see it achieves nothing? This sort of obvious inconsistency just discredits what they say. Don't mention Robin Hood to them, either.)

On your other point about the *proportionality* of adults hitting children, I'd like to add another item to your list: 'self-control'. An adult has the emotional experience and physical control to be able to chastise without causing damage. (Like scraped knees...) Someone more evenly matched probably would not, and is at greater risk from escalation if the other child decides to fight back. Theoretically, that's also why we leave law enforcement to the police: because they have the training, the organisation, and the accountability to use force safely and responsibly. In theory, anyway.

That said, though, it would be an interesting experiment to see what would happen if the police stopped enforcing the law with the use of violence. Is it possible that criminals are only criminal because the police use force rather than reason to try to stop them? It has often been reported that prison doesn't work, with re-offending levels all too high. Is the coercion of prison a poor long term strategy? Would we be better off just giving them a good talking to? Rapists and serial killers and all? Seriously, I'll have to have a think about whether you have a point there.
Apr 11, 2009 at 12:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterPa Annoyed
Good to see you back in harness.

Remember, there are two alternative bases for the classical-liberal philosophy - the natural-law approach, which you are describing here, much favoured by American libertarians following Murray Rothbard. And the utilitarian approach, as advocated by Ludwig von Mises.

I don't think you'd have any dilemmas in this regard if you followed the utilitarian approach.

I agree with you that there are difficulties with squaring the natural law approach with authoritarian parenthood, although this doesn't seem to prevent most natural-law libertarians from arriving at sensible compromises with their principles (quite rightly putting the welfare of their children above philosophical purity).

All the same, the tensions are there. This is a significant reason why I believe Mises was ultimately more right than Rothbard. In a long correspondence I had with an ideosyncratic natural-law libertarian on the subject (, this was an area that he acknowledged presents difficulties.

Pa gets round the difficulties by relying on the right to use coercion to prevent one person from harming others. But one of the most common cases I know where parents use a short-sharp smack because it is necessary to get the message across to the child in a fraction of a second, is where a child goes to run out into the road. In this case, the threat to others is a minor consideration and not the motivation for action. The smack is mainly for the benefit of the child. I don't have a problem with parents choosing that way of dealing with the situation, but it does present ethical difficulties to a natural-law purist.

I note also that Pa's argument relies on a utilitarian justification: "It simply wouldn't work otherwise." That is all right and fine. But having falling back on utilitarianism to bend natural law principles to allow for what obviously ought to be allowed, why not discard the natural-law shackles altogether? We don't need them, and it's a lot easier without them.
Apr 11, 2009 at 2:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterBruno Prior
Pa Annoyed - I was learning whilst writing! I had confused the two things because one (violence) was so widely advocated by many libertarian leaners yesterday as a way of making children compliant before any harm has been identified or caused.

I think the real nub is comply with what? In our house, as few rules as possible, please. So, broadly speaking, we choose rules with a moral basis (and caveats): we do not do illegal things; we do not harm other people; we do not harm ourselves.I am happy to live with those rules; and so I expect my child to. I will intervene only when those rules are about to be/have been breached and act accordingly. And this is where I agree, Pa Annoyed - that it is a concern if the parent does not have the authority required to do this.

But we try not to coerce in ispecific issues of preference - you go to bed a this time, you eat this, you cannot drink alcohol, you must go to school, you will share etc. A lot of people (libertarians too) view these things as moral in and of themselves, and judge others accordingly. So, *notwithstanding the overarching rules*, I think it's reasonable for a child *not* to share if they don't choose to (I don't want to share if it's not my choice to). It's OK for a child to drink alcohol (I don't want Alcohol Concern's input). If my child chooses to smoke (I'd rather they didn't), that's their choice.

And in these situations, coercion is an ill-thought through strategy. Reasoned argument, based on experience, through a sound relationship of trust, where I am leading by example and being fair and consistent, seems to me most likely of a positive outcome. But lots of people seem to think this is bad parenting, and put it on a par with the everything goes approach which I detest. It has no moral conclusion and leads to chaos or worse.

In my experience, self control can only be learnt, not taught. So do I "teach" her that bedtime is a done deal at 7pm whether or not she's tired, because that's what good children do? Or do I teach her to listen to her body and allow her to go to bed at 10pm every night of her own free will in order that she gets the sleep her body needs? Ditto with food etc. It's this approach which leads to independence, whereas authoritarianism is self-defeating.

In the case of rapists, serial killers and all, I don't think that self control is an option. Yes, prison is a notoriously poor rehabilitator. Its best function is to protect people on the outside.

I am going to go off and read a bit more about what Bruno said. I don't know enough at all really, so pardon any glaring ignorance on my part.
Apr 11, 2009 at 9:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterRenegadeParent

Thanks for the link to the interesting debate. I'll get to that in a moment. First, on two of the things you said...

"Pa gets round the difficulties by relying on the right to use coercion to prevent one person from harming others."

For children, it is a bit more complicated. The Harm Principle permits harm in two cases: to prevent harm to others, and if the subject of the harm gives informed consent. It is this second case that is being used here. This is in combination with a second principle that when a person is *incapable* of giving informed consent, that a guardian may effect that right on their behalf. (Like "Should a surgeon choose whether to operate if the dying patient is already unconscious?") The basis of the smack-for-running-into-the-road is that the parent consents on behalf of the child to being smacked, because if the child understood the issues and dangers themselves, they would rationally prefer being smacked to risking hospitalisation. The parent *can* make an informed choice, and that's what they would choose for themselves.

I feel on solid ground with respect to the Harm principle. The limits of guardianship are fuzzier, and defined more pragmatically. There is clearly a problem with those *incapable* of informed consent - but it isn't so clear that guardianship is the right answer. Nevertheless, that's what we've got.

"I note also that Pa's argument relies on a utilitarian justification: "It simply wouldn't work otherwise.""

It wasn't intended as a justification so much as a practical constraint. Whether it is correct/justified or not, an unconditionally pacifist system would not survive for long. (In my opinion.) It would be like an economic system that relied on universal altruism and honesty. Can rejection of Communism be "justified" by noting that it doesn't work in practice?

But regarding Utilitarianism versus Natural Law, as in your Rothbard versus Mises debate, I tend towards an entirely different position that I don't have a proper name for, but that I tend to think of as the social instinct hypothesis. I find this is most easily explained by drawing out an analogy between morality and language.

Languages are shared conventions to allow people to communicate, like morals are shared conventions to allow people to live together in societies. For both, having one is instinctive, but many of the actual details of them are to some extent arbitrary. You can choose which language to speak or which moral system to follow, and you can bend the rules a little, but you cannot simply redefine language/morals however you want on your own, like Humpty Dumpty. You can't control them, fix them into permanent changelessness, or redefine them wholesale. They evolve constantly (in a Darwinian way - another productive analogy), and yet there is still such a thing as incorrect grammar/spelling. The reason for their being is teleologically utilitarian, but this is not a justification - you do not need to justify what *is*.

Many of these arguments about the ultimate justification for morals seem to me like the arguments of 'language mavens' on "correct" grammar, and the 'true' meanings of words. They are taking what is in fact a mutable conglomerated accretion and trying to find system in it; a set of fixed and immutable laws. Or despairing of that, declaring a post-modern free-for-all, with spelling, grammar, and precision of expression all optional. They cite the dictionaries and style guides as authorities, they derive complicated rules from Chomskian axioms of deep structure, they generalise from special cases, they assert rules, and construct elaborate justifications for the exceptions, and they so often declare their opinions to be "just obvious", which they are, except that other people clearly have different opinions.

I could go on for hours about the endless parallels between language and morality, but I'll spare you that. Your Rothbard versus Mises debate on the origins of ownership seemed to be akin to one about who gets to define the meaning of a new word. The dictionary-writers would be Rousseau's answer. The person who first coined the term would perhaps be Rothbard's. A Utilitarian would ask what meaning aided communication the most, which makes sense - but of course we know that meanings are not decided in that way in actual fact. Natural Lawyers would possibly break it down into its Latin and Greek roots, and argue from their etymology and construction. And so on.

Morals are as *real* as languages, and moral values as real as meanings; there is something real there to study. But ultimately, all attempts to construct a simple, systematic, and totally consistent moral system will end up being as relevant as Esperanto. It's an interesting intellectual exercise, which I do like to indulge in myself, I admit, but I don't think it's how morals actually work (or could work) in reality.
Apr 11, 2009 at 12:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterPa Annoyed
"Once though, I applied my hand to bottom of one of the offspring for running across a road without looking."

Off with his head! The fact that the alternative might well be scraping your child off the road seems to escape the do-gooders. Adults do not cross the road in front of traffic because they fear being run over. In this context, fear is good, and prevents people from doing stupid things. A young child has to be taught this, and since a single mistake can be fatal, it has to be taught with some force, e.g. a smack or a tour round A&E and the morgue. I think I know which would be more traumatic.
Apr 11, 2009 at 12:14 PM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

Yes, I'd agree with all of that. When it comes to matters where no harm is being done, I don't believe even a parent has a right to coerce.
Apr 11, 2009 at 12:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterPa Annoyed
"I agree that children are not inherently stupid, untrustworthy or lazy - they are highly intelligent on the whole."

I went to school with some who clearly were some or all of those things. In my adult life I have met numerous people who were some or all of those things.
Apr 11, 2009 at 12:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterLaroquois
The lack of knowledge on this matter is heart-breaking. Violence applied to children always has devastating and unpredictable consequences - especially in the long term - and is the root of most of our social ills. I am a "libertarian" and until recently agreed that corporal punishment was OK. That was until I read the works of Alice Miller, and also spoke at the length to a number of child psychologists who are experts on child development. It is appalling that we still believe that a slap or a kick or a punch will "persuade" children to behave differently. It won't. It will leave them confused, hurt and likely to resort to violence when they become adults. Alice Miller, a psycho-analyst who has spent her life exploring the impact of violence on children, has publlished around a dozen books on this topic, and I recommend them strongly. I don't have the time to summarise her findings, but it boils down to that violence of any sort as a "corrective" not only seriously damages the mental development of a child, but also instils a propensity to violence. I am currently reading her study of Hitler, a product of the child rearing theories that prevailed in 19th century Germany.. He was brutalised from the moment he was born by a father who was a firm believer in corporal punishment because he himself had been beaten. Miller's theory about Hitler's motivation is that he was extracting revenge for what his father did to him.
Apr 11, 2009 at 12:44 PM | Unregistered Commenterrobin horbury
Pa, There's not much of a gap between your position and Mises'. It's effectively utilitarian. To paraphrase: we need common rules in order to cooperate, we discover over time what works best, and these evolve into moral (and legal) conventions. It's not complicated. I think we agree.

It is the natural-law crowd that complicated things and tied themselves in knots over illusory fundamental origins of principles. That's what I was debating with Stephan about - trying to demonstrate that this stuff is a Gordian knot that is best cut by acknowledging that at root it all depends on utilitarian justification so why construct a vast edifice of natural law, homesteading, self-ownership principles if they don't take you any further than where you started from - not about who gets to define what.

And if we agree that this stuff is "as relevant as Esperanto", we can stop worrying about the implications of self-ownership for parenting, and just think about what works for parents and children. End of problem for the Bish.
Apr 11, 2009 at 12:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterBruno Prior

I agree that my position is a lot closer to Utilitarianism than Natural Law, but there is still a gap. The mechanisms by which languages and morals are generated may work for essentially Utilitarian reasons, but they are not themselves Utilitarian. They are a mixture - mostly tradition/upbringing, some elements of common structure essential to their ultimate purpose or consequences of the architecture of the brain, a bit of deliberate (utilitarian) engineering, and a lot of blind randomness. Furthermore, the Utilitarian argument suggests that any individual can determine what approach would be most useful and take it, but that doesn't work. Social conventions are developed *jointly*, and no one individual has control over the outcome.

To take the other analogy I mentioned, Darwinian evolution predicts that elements of lifeforms will have the appearance of being designed for particular purposes, but there is in fact no designer making these utilitarian decisions. It may be 'survival of the fittest', and the utility of being fit may help explain the 'why', but it isn't the 'how'. Nothing ever thinks "if I grow a longer neck, I'll be able to reach leaves on high branches." It is simply that longer necks worked, and therefore spread. It isn't the genes choosing what parts to grow that ultimately decides what evolves, but the natural environment choosing which creatures to kill.

Utilitarianism in offering its criteria implicitly assumes that somebody is designing the rules, that you have a choice. But they're really decided and imposed on us by our social environment. Utilitarianism makes a value judgement, that this way of deciding rules is right; that it is *right* that the fittest survive. The social instinct hypothesis just tries to describe the way it is. It's a different perspective, and I think distinct from simple Utilitarianism.
Apr 11, 2009 at 2:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterPa Annoyed

I don't think utilitarianism implies subjectivity of morality. Of course, whether claiming to be drawing on natural law, utilitarianism or any other basis of morality, anyone can come up with any justification for any system, if one believes that there are not propositions that are logically right or wrong. But if one accepts the constraints of logic, one can assess the suitability of schemes to achieve the intended ends.

My favourite line from Mises is "the ultimate yardstick of justice is conduciveness to the preservation of social cooperation" - not snappy, but rich in implication. One can apply logic to this in both directions - is it a defensible statement, and what follows from this if it is true?

I am persuaded by his arguments for why this is true. The purpose of morality and law (concentric circles, in Bentham's simile) is the guiding of our behaviour as it affects other people (by definition: Robinson Crusoe has no need for them). Their objective is our mutual benefit (or we could simply choose to have nothing to do with each other, in which case we would not need them). It is fair to generalize that we prefer to do those things we choose voluntarily to do than those things we are forced to do (or we wouldn't need forcing). So those rules of morality and law that encourage voluntary cooperation and minimize coercion are most suitable for their purpose. Ergo, "the ultimate yardstick of justice is conduciveness to the preservation of social cooperation".

If this stands, the rest of his philosophy follows. For instance, he shows that socialism and interventionism are not conducive to the preservation of social cooperation, are therefore not fit for purpose, and in the absence of other alternatives, is therefore able to provide a values-free recommendation of liberalism as the most suitable way of coordinating social cooperation.

We could equally ask what behaviour towards children is most conducive to the preservation of social cooperation. Is the coercive intervention of the state to prevent parents from smacking their children (or authorising others to) more conducive to the preservation of social cooperation than leaving the decision to parents?

There is no question of voluntariness in the relationship of adults to children. Someone will be responsible for letting them know what is right and wrong. They are not born with this knowledge ingrained, so someone will be constraining their behaviour, one way or the other. If the state steps in, it will be moving some of the responsibility for constraining the child from the parent to the state, but it will not be eliminating the coercion.

So we should focus on the relationships between adults. And clearly the intervention of the state to control parent's behaviour towards their children requires more coercion of one set of adults by another than if the state generally leaves parents to their own devices.

There are actions that parents can take that clearly contravene other moral rules that we have derived from the same principle, such as prohibition of murder, assault and so on. It is hard to argue that there is any benefit to social cooperation in allowing parents to ignore these prohibitions with regard to their own children. So we may make exceptions to the general rule of leaving parents to decide how to bring up their children, where the parents' choices contravene these prohibitions.

Smacking is a middle ground where the action would breach our prohibitions if carried out on another adult, but which may be conducive to preservation of social cooperation, because it contributes towards the safety of the child, or teaching right from wrong (without which social cooperation breaks down). In most cases, it is obvious whether greater harm is caused by allowing or prohibiting the adult's action. A smack when a child runs out into the street is a case in point. So too may be punishment for misbehaviour. Some adults may believe that these can be achieved without coercing the child, but the harm to the child is not sufficient to justify the imposition of other people's standards on the parents. If an adult punches a child, on the other hand, it is obvious that the balance swings the other way. There is no greater benefit to the safety or education of the child than if a more proportionate measure had been used, and clearly there is greater harm to the child.

I don't think it would be easy to come up with a valid utilitarian justification for an alternative morality in this regard - one that justifies the punching, for instance, or one that justifies greater coercion of the parents. People may have their own preferences for how to bring up a child, but that does not translate into a justification for enforcing those preferences on others.
Apr 12, 2009 at 2:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterBruno Prior
I meant to add that a much better exploration and justification of a Misesian utilitarian approach than I can shoehorn into comments on a blog can be found in Henry Hazlitt's The Foundations of Morality - as good and straightforward a book on this subject as Economics in One Lesson is on economics.
Apr 12, 2009 at 2:57 AM | Unregistered CommenterBruno Prior
"Smacking is a middle ground where the action would breach our prohibitions if carried out on another adult,..."

Would it? Reasonable force is permitted when arresting somebody for a crime, or to eject trespassers. Ask any night club bouncer. Break the rules, refuse to cooperate, and you can expect to experience a small amount of perfectly legal and acceptable violence.

It's an unfair comparison, between the acceptable behaviour between law-abiding adults and the 'criminal' behaviour of children. You have to compare naughty children to criminal (or misbehaving) adults, and then it becomes apparent that we *do* in fact allow something similar for adults. The prohibitions are essentially the same.

The only difference I see between children and adults is that children may not be able to give informed consent, and so an adult may consent to violence on their behalf even when there is no harm to others so long as they are acting in what they reasonably believe are the child's interests. In all other cases, the justification has to be to prevent significant harm to others, and that applies to adults and children equally. In all cases, the level of force applied must be 'reasonable'.

Children aren't an exception to our libertarian prohibitions, the problem seems to be that we often don't understand fully what our prohibitions are. You don't need Mises' yardstick to derive new justifications for it. Mill had already done it, with greater generality, and I think with greater clarity.
Apr 12, 2009 at 11:52 AM | Unregistered CommenterPa Annoyed
"Robin Horbury"... You have me seriously concerned. When I was a child I was smacked a couple of times by my father. Does this mean that I'm going to start displaying psychopathic and megalomaniac tendencies and thenceforth annex the Sudetenland?
Apr 12, 2009 at 1:56 PM | Unregistered CommenterJeff

The cases you mention refer to two specific dispensations for coercion: (a) enforcement of the law, (b) protection of our property. Neither of these implies a more general dispensation to allow for one adult to use force against another. Yet there are circumstances where we would accept that it is reasonable to use force against a child for actions that would not translate into a case of criminality or infraction of property rights if carried out by an adult. Our use of force to constrain children is not equivalent to our use of force against criminals or trespassers.

The question of consent is a red-herring too. Criminals do not give their consent to being coerced. Drunks in nightclubs do not give their consent to being coerced. We are not entitled to do this by the coercee's consent, but by basic legal or moral rules, and society's support for them. There is no issue of whether the child consents, or the parent consents on their behalf, other than where a parent empowers another adult to act in loco parentis.

Mill's contribution was mixed. Yes, he was a good writer with a persuasive turn of phrase. But I'd suggest that clarity of thought was not the hallmark of his contribution to ethics. For instance, his distinction between higher and lower pleasures was an intellectual cul-de-sac, founded on snobbery and a failure to allow for individual subjectivity.

If you want a sound British ethicist of an earlier period, I'd suggest Hume, not Mill.
Apr 12, 2009 at 10:49 PM | Unregistered CommenterBruno Prior

First, there is no dispensation for enforcing the law. The dispensation is to prevent harm to others, and the law should only be enforced to the extent that the law does that. Second, protecting property rights is only one *example* of harm prevention. One reasons from the Harm Principle to property protection, one doesn't generalise from property protection to any wider dispensation.

We seem to be mixing the dispensations and examples up. There are two issues: the circumstances under which harm can be done to others, and the circumstances under which it can be done against the subject's will. The examples I gave were to illustrate that violence between adults is permitted - because I thought you were making the common claim of anti-smackers that any such violence if it were between adults would be assault.

The examples I gave were intended as examples to illustrate that *smacking* has its counterparts in the adult world, not to illustrate the corresponding crimes that could justify smacking. There are examples of childish counterparts to such crime I could have given. These would be for crimes like bullying other kids, kicking the cat, painting on the walls, stealing sweets, and so on. Issues of consent are not relevant here either.

However, there is a separate category where there *is* a difference between adults and children, which is where a person can consent to be harmed. Drinking alcohol causes harm, and a barman who serves me beer harms me, but I can choose to accept that nevertheless. The sport of boxing causes harm, but knowing the risks, I can choose to do it. I already gave the example of surgery.

If the harm is only going to potentially hurt *me*, it's my business whether to allow that or not. Maybe I don't consider it harm, or maybe there's a compensating benefit that I think outweighs it. But to avoid the difficulty of people being *tricked* into consenting without fully understanding the risks, it has to be *informed* consent.

The difference between adults and children is that children are assumed to be *incapable* of understanding the long-term consequences of such decisions. Adults are assumed capable by default, except for specific, usually medical reasons.

So for a better example, consider the case of an adult going to a psychotherapist and asking to be cured of a bad habit. The psychotherapist suggests aversion therapy, where you are given a small electric shock every time you fall into the habit. The adult can consent, and ask to be wired up to the electrodes, because they value the ending of the bad habit more highly than freedom from pain. The psychotherapist is allowed to inflict pain, because the patient has asked for it.

The distinction between adults and children is that a parent can effectively give consent for such a therapy on behalf of a child, and in the case of smacking, actually apply it. They are making the decision to end the bad habit for them.

In this case, the example is not perfect because an adult can request such treatment for any reason, whereas I would expect them to only do so on behalf of a child for reasons very clearly in the child's interest. Learning not to run into the road, yes, sitting up straight, no. The debate gets a bit tricky with issues like circumcision and following one's parents' religion.

In these circumstances, smacking isn't supposed to be punishment, it's supposed to be education.

I have no particular objection to Hume, but I think he was mainly concentrating on other aspects of the problem. Is there any particular passage you think is especially relevant, that you would like to draw my attention to?
On this particular issue, I found Mill sufficiently clear.
Apr 13, 2009 at 10:57 AM | Unregistered CommenterPa Annoyed

The Harm Principle would still reduce to utilitarianism - we apply it because it works. Or you could possibly derive it from natural law (I haven't given that any thought, because I wouldn't bother). But it's going to be one or the other, because the Harm Principle isn't itself a fundamental - it depends on a reason why harming others is a bad thing. There is no reason in theory why we couldn't have "dog eat dog" morality. If we choose another course, it is because that course works better or is fundamentally right.

I wasn't thinking of a particular passage in Hume. I was thinking of how muddled Mill was in a number of respects, and suggesting someone who was generally a clearer thinker. It was more anti-Mill than pro-Hume, if you like. As you know, I would prefer Mises. I only mentioned Hume as a better ethicist (in general) if you wanted to refer to someone British and of an earlier period.

I'm going to bow out of this debate now. Very interesting, but I can't justify any more time on it.
Apr 13, 2009 at 11:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterBruno Prior
Robin Horbury

"Violence applied to children always has devastating and unpredictable consequences"

A statement like that can be refuted by a single piece of evidence. I am such a piece. I know of many others. You are talking through your hat.
Apr 14, 2009 at 5:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve
legitimate authority and its transgression...

Where does authority lie? Isn't each person the authority on their own self, knowing their own feelings and beliefs and learning process better than anyone else does? It is accepted practice to transgress children's autonomy all the time, with intent to do so, and libertarian-minded people really ought to know better, imo.

If my small child were to run into the road, I would indeed snatch hir out of harm's way, hold hir close and safe and tell her how scared I was when s/he ran into traffic, that s/he could really get hurt and how sad and awful and that would be and how important it is to avoid that. I would love that child up, tell hir how much I love hir and how it is my job to help keep hir safe while s/he is learning how to do that for hirself, and I would mentally reveiw what went wrong that my child was unattended near the road to get into that situation and make a point of changing what we do so that opportunity does not happen again.

Smacking, to a kid, is scary and humiliating and breeds distrust in the relationship- the parent-child relationship, the most important relationship in our lives- getting in the way of clear and honest communication that is the foundation of a good relationship. The idea that punishing children is helpful in learning is wrong-headed imo; it simply does not 'teach' what people intend it to, unless they really want thier children to be frighened and mistrustful of them.

In an otherwise respectful and honest parent-child relationship, a one-time mistake of smacking a child is not likely to supercede all other posititve interaction (though why sow the seed of mistrust and fear at all?), but the idea that it is a good and useful way to 'teach' children what they 'have to know' is a bad meme perpetuated generation upon generation, along with other bad ideas about 'how children learn' like enforced imprisonment in societal institutions that bore the hell out of them through rote memorization and other painful treatment that in reality gets in the way of real learning and critical and rational thinking and problem solving.

Yes, children know less about the world and about themselves than those who have been around longer, though evidence abounds that adults have problems learning and thinking rationally as well, so adults do well to keep their minds open and listen to children and take their ideas seriously and help them learn rather than squash them flat when the children's ideas are obviously false to the adult. Adults have a huge and important responsiblity to help children to learn, not through coercion but through help in exploring their ideas in safe and legal ways.

I challenge the idea that it is a libertarian value, to 'give as good as you get', and especially when it comes to one's children, the very people that you love enormously and are responsible for creating in the first place. These are people that we, as parents, are responsible for helping, not thwarting and hurting. We are in an evolution away from corporal punishment and coercion, towards consent in our dealings with other human beings. The way we treat our children is critical, to help create ways to interact that help all involved to learn and create better ways to resolve conflict that does not get in the way of learning. We are humans; we identify and solve problems, we learn all the time from birth to death.

Authoritarianism over others has no place in libertarian homes imo. Respect for autonomy does. This is a new paradigm and we have a lot to learn about how to resolve conflict with our children through consent, finding and creating the solutions that please everyone involved. It's a huge challenge and seems to me to be libertarian to the core. One place this is being explored is
Apr 18, 2009 at 3:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterSue
TCS has got to be the best philosophy for libertarian parents.
Apr 18, 2009 at 9:54 PM | Unregistered Commenterelizabeth

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