Do Children Have Rights? A brief analysis of the theories of rights.

October 16, 2012 § 1 Comment

For my first blog I use the foundational reading I am undertaking at the start of my PhD studies in order to discuss the theories of rights, and more specifically, what these theories mean to children as right-holders. There are two main competing theories as to the nature of rights; interest theory and choice (or will) theory. I will start by trying to briefly explain each, pointing out the fundamental differences which lead to the problematic philosophical question of whether or not children have rights.

Interest Theory

Developed from Jeremy Bentham’s benefit theory, Joseph Raz’s interest theory focuses on rights arising from our holding of a sufficient interest. The subsequent right then informs a duty or obligation of others, as Raz explains;

[T]he interests are part of the justification of the rights which are part of the justification of the duties. Rights are intermediate conclusions in arguments from ultimate values to duties. They are, so to speak, points in the argument where many considerations intersect and where their results are summarized to be used with additional premises when need be.

From this it can be seen how we move from an interest to a right, and from the right to a duty. Rights are intermediate conclusions between interests and duties, and as such we also see a key point of interest theory; that rights talk can take place antecedent of duties. This means rights ground and justify duties, or are the ‘reasons for the duties to which they give rise.’

Choice Theory

The choice theory of rights was propounded by H.L.A Hart in his 1955 paper ‘Are there any natural rights?’ Hart’s core idea is that “if there are any moral rights at all, it follows that there is at least one natural right, the equal right of all men to be free”. The use of conditional language also shows another important aspect of choice theory; the difference between a right, and the right thing to do. The actions of moral agents may be considered as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ without reference to the exercise or violation of rights, which will be important later. For now it is enough to assert that possessing a right, on choice theory, is to have a moral justification to determine how someone else should act, whether it be to fulfil a duty owed or to waive the claim. The key to a right on choice theory is control and/or autonomy. Rights serve to protect a certain measure of freedom/control the right-holder enjoys by dint of their capacity as an active manager, a choosing agent, within a realm defined by the right.

What the differences mean

As seen above, choice theorists argue that people are the “active managers of their own lives even when to do so will work to their overall detriment”, thus the upholding of autonomy is central to the theory. Contrastingly it is argued that on interest theory individuals become “passive beneficiaries of the services of others”. Interest theory could place autonomy as an interest, which can then put others under a duty not to interfere, but at the same time it can be argued that autonomy is the core and to have interests that are worthwhile, or ‘sufficient’, one must first be autonomous. Autonomy may therefore seem to supersede all other rights and interests, however there does appear some circularity here and possibly an irresolvable intertwining between interests and autonomy. Do we have an interest in being autonomous because we are autonomous? Or does our autonomous nature now makes us realise that it was because people had a duty to protect our interests in the past, that allowed us to become autonomous beings at all? Choice theorists believe a right comes from having control over someone’s duty. Yet here it can be said that they have an interest in controlling someone’s duty, and so such rights may exist on interest theory, if this interest is seen as sufficient. Rights are more likely to conflict with interest theory, but this also ensures that we consider other’s interests when determining duties.

Another important difference is unwaivable rights. Choice theorists, as ‘active managers’, believe any rights we possess can be waived by us, and that if a ‘right’, such as not to be assaulted, cannot be successfully waived, it is not a right. As such there is no right not to be murdered, or not to be enslaved, but choice theorists do not therefore condone murder or enslavement (the difference between what is right, and a right). They argue the language must be different, and that something not being protected by a right, does not mean others do not have a duty against doing it. If we bring this idea out of moral philosophy and into pragmatic legal thought, then it may seem an idea for we which we have more sympathy. Whilst there is no such thing as legal murder, we have the right to medical treatment, but we also have the right to refuse medical treatment – that is to waive our right to medical care. Thus we can control our rights, or at least certain rights. Whilst appealing, this is not without problems in that in order to be able to control our rights, right-holders must necessarily be fully autonomous persons. Thus we come to the debate of whether children have rights.

The Rights of Children

The bestowing of rights upon children and incompetent adults is one of the major advantages of interest theory. Wenar has suggested that choice theory is ‘implausibly narrow’ because it does not give those groups of individuals rights as they do not have the necessary capacity to exercise their rights. “The appeal of the interest theory emanates from the wide range of rights that it can endorse, and from the evident fact that having rights can make a life go better.” “Few would insist that it is conceptually impossible, for example, for children to have a right against severe abuse.” And Hart, subsequently changed his views on the concept of a right in respect of moral rights, reportedly suggesting rights “may be used to focus upon individuals’ needs rather than upon their possessing choices.” This would suggest that Hart agrees that children therefore have moral and legal rights against their parents, to be fed for example, as this is something ‘focused upon their needs.’

Choice theorists however would rebut that such non-right-holders are still afforded protection by non-correlative obligations, that is, obligations that are not grounded from any right. Every right may inform a corresponding duty, yet not every duty therefore is informed by a right. Such non-correlative obligations are necessarily held by the autonomous right-holders. Sumner incorporates relational duties based on a benefit analysis into his view of choice theory, leaving us with a result he hopes will negate such problems;

[A]lthough a theory of rights which adopts the choice model can make no sense of the rights of animals or foetuses or infants or young children or the severely mentally handicapped, it can accomplish essentially the same objective by making them the beneficiaries of our protective duties.

Such protective duties may seem to make the theory more palatable however there is more to the rights of children than negative duties and obligations by adults not to harm them. For example, protective duties may no room for the right to education or even to be cared for. No positive rights for children can exist, as no rights for children exist, which means our children enter a world where moral thought concerning them is that the superior autonomous human beings merely have an obligation not to harm them. It should perhaps go without saying that we as a society have problems accepting this. Children have rights. They may not have always been recognised in law, such as the Roman Republic, yet as MacCormick states, “that only means that some or perhaps many legal systems have been morally deficient, which is scarcely a startling observation.” Thus he seems to propose a blend of the two theories of rights. Interest theory is not without clear problems such as; unwaivable rights; third party beneficiaries, which show a right can be held by one who will not benefit from the duty; and that what a ‘sufficient’ interest is that will ground and justify a right has not been given any more objective description. Yet protecting sufficient interests is vital for children to have rights, and perhaps equally vital to protecting them in order to allow them to become autonomous moral agents. At this ‘cut-off point’, when this may be is another debate entirely, such moral agents may be considered to know what is in their own interests and as such move into a choice theory conception of rights. Such an idea is worthy of further thought, as it bestows rights upon children, yet has the vital aspect of control and freedom for competent and fully autonomous agents as well.

– Dominic O’Brien

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§ One Response to Do Children Have Rights? A brief analysis of the theories of rights.

  • RS says:

    This raises a lot of important issues and interesting questions. With the opening of the third optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a discussion on children as rights holders is very timely.

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