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Liberalism And Children

Hugo Schwyzer recently pointed to this old, but still interesting, article by Stephen Carter about the conflict between religion and the liberal state. It somewhat echoes my thoughts from the "religious left" debate. The argument turns on the distinction, used by John Rawls in his influential statement of liberalism, between comprehensive and political doctrines. Comprehensive doctrines are philosophical systems giving guidance on all aspects of life. Political doctrines, on the other hand, are doctrines that limit their application to the "basic structure" of the state. Rawls argued that liberalism must be merely a political doctrine, in order to avoid squashing the freedom of thought and practice of people with varying comprehensive doctrines (e.g. different religions). In making public policy, then, two kinds of reasons can be offered: "public reasons," which are based on the shared political doctrine and presuppose no commitment to any comprehensive doctrine, or "overlapping consensus," in which people each have their own reasons to agree to it (e.g. one person supporting welfare because it maximizes utility, another because it reduces capitalist exploitation, and another because God said so).

But Carter charges that liberals have been corrupted by power and that the modern state is engaged in promoting a comprehensive liberal doctrine. Rather than carving out accommodation for various belief systems, those systems are being trampled by liberal values. His major example is the public school system. There, children are being taught liberal values that conflict with the comprehensive religious doctrines parents may want to impart.

But thinking back to Rawls's reasons for limiting liberalism to a political doctrine, there's a good explanation for why liberalism would interfere with child-rearing. It's an implication not clearly addressed by Rawls, who built his system on the presumption of dealing with rational and independent adults, but it seems to follow from Rawls's ideas and standard assumptions about the nature of children.

The distinction between the state and non-state groups (like churches) in Rawls is based on coercion. It is presumed that people have no real choice about whether they live in the state. Rawls rules out emigration as being unfeasible for most people. Thus, the state must be governed according to principles that can achieve liberal or overlapping justification. Non-state organizations, on the other hand, are voluntary -- people may choose to join or leave at any time, and thus they may require anything they like of their members. Indeed, that voluntariness is to be enforced by the state -- nobody can be punished for apostasy.

Where do the family and schools fit in? For adults, the expansion of educational opportunities and the women's movement have made these institutions effectively voluntary. They present no more of a conceptual problem than a church or a recreational club. But children are a different story. While adults may get divorced or drop out of school, children may not. The principle of voluntary consent, on which liberalism's tolerance of non-state organizations and comprehensive doctrines rests, cannot be met in the case of children because they are presumed to be "below the age of consent," not yet fully rational and responsible people.

Thus, from the child's perspective, families and schools resemble the state more than they resemble clubs. And because of that, they must be run on liberal principles. It's only natural for liberalism to "encroach" there, and it doesn't constitute the promotion of a liberal comprehensive doctrine.

One response from the parent who wishes to raise his child in a non-liberal environment is that the child should be, from a liberal standpoint, a non-entity. The relevant choices are those of the parent, who is able to give consent. This is a tougher question, and one I don't have a ready answer for in this top-of-my-head blog post.


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