The Redneck Guide to Parents' Rights
The fifth in a series
At the conclusion of my last essay on “Education and the Rights of Children and Parents,” I argued that the relationship between parents and their children was grounded in two fundamental facts of the human condition. The first concerns the moral choices involved between a man and a woman in creating and then bringing a new human life into the world. The second concerns the natural maturation of children from birth until they reach the age of majority. Both of these facts serve as the metaphysical foundation on which we will establish the rights of parents and children.
With these observation-based facts as our starting point, let us now begin to examine how our general understanding of what rights are (see “The Role of Rights in a Free Society”) applies to a specific kind of human relationship—the relationship between parents and their children.
The seventeenth century philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, took the Latin word “Caute” [i.e., “be cautious”] as his motto. By this, Spinoza meant that one should be careful in one’s speculations about disputed subjects and especially so when exploring ideas that are likely to challenge prevailing conventions, prejudices, and orthodoxies. And so it is with me and this essay.
It’s important for you, the reader, to know as we begin exploring this topic that it is extraordinarily complicated, controversial, and even dangerous. It’s full of land mines, and people have very strong passions and opinions on the subject.
I will also tell you in all frankness that this is one of most difficult subjects I’ve ever worked on, and I do not claim to have the last word on this subject. I’m open to being persuaded by a better argument.
So, what’s so difficult about the question of parental rights?
The subject is complicated because the rights of parents are intimately bound up in the separate but related rights of their children and vice versa, and the subject of children’s rights is even more complicated than the problem of parents’ rights. (I will be doing a deep dive into the problem of children’s rights later in this series.)
To muddle matters even more, the rights of parents and children are also intertwined with the authority of government.
In a free society, the proper role of government is to protect the rights of individuals (including the rights of parents and, even more particularly, the rights of children). If parents do not or cannot protect their children, or, worse, if they violate the rights of their children, the government has a legitimate role to play in protecting the children vis-à-vis their parents.
But what exactly is the role of government when it comes to parents and their children?
This is a particularly thorny question.
Government in a free society should be mostly viewed as a protection agency, which means that it should otherwise leave individuals and families alone to be almost entirely autonomous and self-governing. If ever there were a case for a laissez-faire or “Night Watchman” form of government, surely it would be relative to the family.
The very difficult philosophic and legal challenge is to determine the proper boundary lines between the rights of parents and those of children. When, for instance, is it proper for government to step in between a parent and a child? On this question there are shades and degrees of separation that are sometimes very difficult to distinguish between.
At one end of the spectrum, we might say of serious child abuse what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said about pornography: “I know it when I see it! On some level, this is true. Most people have an immediate, gut reaction to certain kinds of child abuse. They know it when they see it!
At the opposite end of the spectrum are those cases where a parent gives their child wallop on the bottom for wandering onto a busy street despite having been told repeatedly that they must never go near the road? Most observers will simply shrug at or nod in support of the parent’s action.
But the extremes are the relatively easy cases to adjudicate. What about the countless cases in-between? This is where things get both interesting and difficult.
To complicate our subject even more, we know that government, the supposed protection agency of parents and children, is sometimes the greatest potential and actual threat to the rights of both parents and children. We all know of horrific instances where a government has seriously hurt parents and/or children by initiating its enormous and arbitrary power against them.
Consider, for instance, the famous case in Germany of the family whose home was raided in the middle of the night by a fully armed SWAT team in order to remove a teenage girl from the house simply because she was being homeschooled, which is outlawed in Germany. The girl was subsequently put in a mental institution for cognitive detoxification.
In sum, the rights of parents are involved in a complex, three-way relationship with their children and the government.
Ultimately, the general goal of this essay and those that are to follow is to sort out the knotty problems associated with the three-way relationship between parents, children, and the government.
The specific purpose of this particular essay is to explain what it means for a parent to say in the ordinary language of day-to-day life, “these children are mine” or “these children belong to me.” My hope is to unravel the meaning of this universally accepted but hitherto unarticulated and unexplained moral claim.
The various arguments put forward in this essay may at first blush seem controversial, even shocking, to some, but we must examine them rationally and with a high degree of philosophic circumspection and moderation.
The Redneck Method
Before we go any further, though, I would ask you to put down your books, your articles (including mine), your theories and even your prejudices about what you think the rights of parents are. I’d like you to think about the question of parental rights without the aid of any preconceived notions that you might have. I’d like you to pretend that no book or article has ever been written on the subject of parents’ rights and that you are the first-ever philosopher to think about the topic.
Let’s say that your only resource on this topic is either your experience as a parent or your experience as an observer of people who are parents, or maybe both. In other words, stop and look at the world around you and think about it.
We shall refer to this approach as the “Redneck” method of doing philosophy!
Based on what you have observed about parents and their relationships with their children, how would you go about thinking about the rights of parents, particularly the rights of parents in relationship to government?
You might begin the intellectual process of thinking about the right of parents (and children) by asking some questions based on your experiences. It’s important to put your observations to the test. For instance:
What is the nature of the relationship between parents and their children?
What are the observable, natural relations between parents and their children?
What is the nature of the relationship between parents and their children relative to some third party?
What would be a parent’s natural response to having their child taken from them without their consent?
What would you say to a person who demanded that you hand over your child to them without your consent, and why would you say it?
If someone were to take your child from you by force or fraud, what would be your response?
How do you think most, if not all, parents would respond to having their child taken from them?
Would you support, following Plato’s Republic, the government taking children from their parents at birth and educating them communally? If not, why not?
When a parent says “this child is mine” or “this child belongs to me,” what exactly does that mean? Is such a statement simply rhetorical, or should it have some kind of legal meaning? If you speak of “your” child or “their” child, what exactly does that mean, and should it have any meaning reflected in the law?
If something is “mine” and “belongs” to me or if something is “yours” and “belongs” to you, what kind of possession do I or you possess?
Is it actually possible that parents regard their children as some kind of temporary possession? And if a child is some kind of possession, how should that be recognized in the law?
Before you read any further into this essay, I really would like you to stop and think long and hard about these questions and about how you have experienced or observed them in the context of your life.
Take your time. This essay is not going anywhere.
For what it’s worth, my own experience and observation tell me, for instance, that it is a natural human phenomenon for parents to say this child is “mine” or this child “belongs” to me and to no one else. This represents the lived experience and it is the ordinary language used by ordinary parents around the world. In fact, this phenomenon seems to be both timeless and universal. So strong is this parental claim that most parents would either kill or be killed in defense of their claim.
If it is an observable phenomenon that parents typically claim their children as theirs and no one else’s, the next question would be: how should this fact of human life be borne out in the context of a legal-political system? How should such a claim be recognized in the law? What is or should be a parent’s moral-legal claim to their child relative to other individuals in their community or to the government itself?
And if what is being suggested here is that parents naturally do or should have some kind of limited and temporary “property” claim in or to their children, surely we don’t mean to say that parents actually “own” their children in the same way that they own a house or a dog? If a man or a woman can own a child wouldn’t that suggest that the child has no rights? If a child is owned, doesn’t that make him or her a slave in some way? And if a man can own a child just as he owns a horse or a slave, that would suggest that the child could be whipped or sold! The very suggestion is horrific.
But there are more complicating questions: if a child can’t or shouldn’t be sold (factually speaking, they sometimes are around the world), why is it ok to give them away, say, in the form of adoption? And what about surrogacy? If a childless couple is willing to pay $25,000 to a surrogate mother for the child in her womb, is that transaction immoral and should it be illegal? Who is the loser in the transaction?
We seem to be stuck on the horns of a paradox!
Next week and the week after, I shall dig more deeply into the question of parents’ rights, and I will attempt to answer many of the questions that perplex us.
***Have a Merry Christmas and a great Holiday Season!!!