Anthony Skelton: ‘Two Conceptions of Children’s Welfare’ – Talk Podcast

In the latest St. Cross Ethics Seminar (which you can listen to here) Anthony Skelton investigates how we should construct an adequate theory of welfare for children.

Following a discussion of why the question of children’s welfare has received such little attention in the philosophical literature, Skelton goes on to delineate, and object to, two prominent accounts of children’s welfare. First, he considers Wayne Sumner’s approach, outlined in his Welfare, Happiness, and Ethics. According to Sumner’s conception of adult welfare, welfare cannot amount to mere happiness because, as Nozick’s experience machine thought experiment shows, it is possible for happiness to be inauthentic, and the enjoyment of such happiness does not seem to be sufficient for welfare. In view of this, Sumner claims that an adequate theory of welfare for adults must concern authentic happiness, and therefore it must include a cognitive component as well as an affective component. However, since children lack the cognitive capacity to ascertain the authenticity of their happiness, Sumner concedes that a child’s life can be said to be going well if he/she has a surplus of satisfactory experiences. Skelton objects to Sumner’s conclusion on the basis that it is not clear why this broadly hedonistic view of children’s welfare is not subject to Nozick’s experience machine objection.

In the third section of the talk, Skelton considers Kraut’s developmentalist view of welfare (outlined in his What is Good and Why: The Ethics of Well-being). On Kraut’s view, although hedonism is a necessary condition of welfare, it is not sufficient; in order for an agent to fare well, they must also develop their powers through their experiences. Skelton suggests that Kraut’s view is more plausible than Sumner’s, but argues that it is focuses on two narrow a range of affect in claiming that enjoyment and pleasure are necessary for welfare. Skelton argues that a child can also be said to fare well if they are merely satisfied, or absorbed in their activity.

In view of the deficiencies of both Sumner and Kraut’s views, Skelton proposes his own view of welfare which represents a combination of Sumner and Kraut’s approaches. On the one hand, Skelton suggests that Sumner is right to claim that happiness, as a broad affective attitude, is necessary for children’s welfare, but wrong to claim that it is sufficient. On the other hand, Skelton suggests that Kraut is correct to claim that a theory of children’s welfare must incorporate some sort of value requirement on the child’s experiences, but that he is wrong to claim that this must be a requirement concerning the development of powers. Accordingly, Skelton proposes that a theory of children’s welfare should maintain that happiness is necessary condition of welfare, but that certain fixed points are also necessary. Amongst these, Skelton includes the enjoyment of valuable relationships, the engagement in various intellectual actions, and the engagement in play activity.

Skelton’s talk provides an insightful and welcome new view in a neglected area of practical ethics which should appeal to anyone interested in the notion of welfare, or the ethics of parenting. Moreover, the view presented here will surely provoke a lively debate, since it is not without controversy. Questions which may be raised against Skelton’s view include practical concerns about its applicability to severely ill children, and whether it can adequately account for the development of capacities which seem necessary for autonomy and welfare in later life.

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