Politics

Sex and Punishment: How Old Do You Have to Be?

By Maximilian Kiener

 

In March 2022, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte signed a bill that increased the minimum age for sexual consent from 12 to 16 years. This bill marked a significant change to a previous law that dated back to 1930.[1] International Organisations have advocated for a changed in the Philippines for a long time and welcomed the new bill. ‘Having this law is a very good protective instrument for our children from sexual violence, whether or not it starts online or whether or not it also starts in a face-to-face encounter’, commented Margarita Ardivilla, a UNICEF child protection specialist.[2]

To the Western World, the Philippines’ new bill seems obvious and overdue. After all, most other countries already specify the age of 16 for consent to sex or health care. But we should not feel complacent too quickly. In fact, there might be more to do to protect children and adolescents. Although most countries now convergence on 16 as the age of consent, they still have a much lower age for criminal responsibility, that is they punish children much earlier than they allow them to consent.

 

Consider the following case from the UK. On Friday 12th February 1993 in Liverpool, UK, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables murdered the two-year-old James Bulger. At the time of their appalling crime, Thompson and Venables were only ten years old, an age at which they would not have been able to give legally valid consent to their own healthcare, or to sex. Yet, the authorities considered them criminally responsible and made them the youngest convicted murderers in 20th-century Britain.[3]

Although this is an extreme case, it illustrates a more general fact: the age at which children become criminally responsible is often considerably lower than the age at which they become able to give legally valid consent. Noroozi et al. found that in 80% of countries with clearly defined ages for consent and responsibility, the age of criminal responsibility is still about 2 to 8 years lower than the age of consent.[4]

This situation should make us think. Now that we agree that the age of consent should be around 16, and not 10 or 12, let’s think about the age of criminal responsibility too. Why should children or adolescents be criminally responsibility for their deeds when they could not possibly give consent to anything important in their lives?

 

Those who support a lower age for criminal responsibility often pursue one of two routes, neither of which is convincing.

First, they argue that consent requires greater mental capacity, or reasoning skills, than responsibility. When deciding whether to consent, one needs to be able to understand one’s own prudential interests, values, and the potentially intricate consequences of one’s decision, and doing so requires a great deal of intellectual and emotional maturity. On the other hand, understanding that one should not murder, steal, or break other fundamental norms, is pretty straightforward and everyone with a basic grasp of our social interactions should be able to master this.

But this line of reasoning is not convincing. Morality is not just about regurgitating slogans. It requires understanding, more fundamentally, what we owe each other as fellow moral beings. Moreover, sometimes, the situations regarding consent and responsibility could be very similar. Consider the fictitious case of the 15-year-old Mary who can be convicted of murder but cannot refuse her own life-saving treatment. In both cases, Mary needs to understand the concepts of death and fatal action, and it may therefore be inconsistent to hold Mary responsible for murder but then deny her ability to validly refuse treatment for herself. So, on purely capacity-based terms, a categorical divergence between the age of consent and the age of responsibility lacks warrant.

A second argument for a lower age of responsibility often refers to a policy of being ‘tough on crime’. Being tough on crime means sending a clear signal to children and adolescents that their wrongs will be prosecuted and punished.

Yet, this policy presupposes that children possess sufficient competence to understand the signal. Therefore, this approach cannot justify a lower age of responsibility independent of a psychological assessment of children’s competence. If children at 10 years old cannot sufficiently understand relevant moral and legal norms, there is simply no point in sending them ‘a clear signal’. Consider again the ten-year-old Thompson, one of the children who killed James Bulger, who is reported to have asked the police whether they took his victim James to the hospital ‘to get him alive again’.[5] Such a child is very unlikely to have understood the fatal nature of his acts, let alone their moral repugnance. Thus, being tough on children like him is very unlikely to deter children of similar competence.

 

Thus, the view that the age of responsibility should always be lower than the age of consent cannot be justified. We need a more fine-grained approach and should be particularly critical of wide age gaps, like those in the UK, where the age of criminal responsibility is 10 and the age of consent to much in life is 16.

For this reason, the news from the Philippines about the age of consent should be the start, not the end, of a conversation on how to best protect children and adolescents. It should prompt us to think about the age of criminal responsibility too and reform the law in ways that make it coherent across different domains.

 

[1] https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/philippine-leader-approves-bill-raising-sex-consent-age-12-16-2022-03-07/

[2] https://theaseanpost.com/geopolitics/2022/mar/09/philippines-raises-age-sexual-consent-16

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_James_Bulger

[4] https://ebmh.bmj.com/content/21/3/82.abstract

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_James_Bulger

The Morality of Sending Asylum Seekers to Rwanda

Written by Doug McConnell

The government has recently claimed that their policy to send asylum seekers on a one-way trip to Rwanda as part of the UK-Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership is “completely moral” and responds to an “urgent moral imperative”. The justification for these claims is that the policy will act as a “very considerable deterrent” to asylum seekers and break the business model of people smugglers who put asylum seekers at risk of drowning in the English Channel. Needless to say, these claims about the morality of the Rwanda policy are highly contested. Here, I assess whether they stand up to even the most charitable assessment. Continue reading

The Right To Tweet

By Doug McConnell

On January 6th, 2021 Trump was locked out his Twitter account for 12 hours after describing the people who stormed the US Capitol as “patriots”. A few days later, his account was permanently suspended after further tweets that Twitter judged to risk “further incitement of violence” given the socio-political context at the time. Elon Musk has recently claimed that, if his deal goes through to take control of Twitter, he would reverse the decision to ban Trump because it was “morally bad and foolish in the extreme”.

Here, I argue that the original suspension of Trump’s account was justified but not its permanence. So I agree with Musk, in part. I suggest a modified system of suspension to deal with rule breakers according to which Trump’s access should be reinstated. Continue reading

Hang Onto Your Soul

By Charles Foster

Image: https://the-conscious-mind.com

I can’t avoid Steven Pinker at the moment. He seems to be on every page I read. I hear him all the time, insisting that I’m cosmically insignificant; that my delusional thoughts, my loves, my aspirations, and the B Minor Mass’s effect on me are merely chemical events. I used to have stuck up above my desk (on the principle that you should know your enemy), his declaration (as stridently irrational as the sermon of a Kentucky Young Earth Creationist): ‘A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution – perhaps its greatest breakthrough – was to refute the intuition that the Universe is saturated with purpose.’ 1

He tells me that everything is getting better. Has been getting better since the first eruption of humans into the world.2 That there’s demonstrable progress (towards what, one might ask, if the universe has no purpose? – but I’ll leave that for the moment). That there’s less violence; there are fewer mutilated bodies per capita. He celebrates his enlightenment by mocking my atavism: he notes that the Enlightenment came after the Upper Palaeolithic, and (for the law of progress admits no exceptions) concludes that that means that our Enlightenment age is better than what went before. Continue reading

Parliament Psychedelic

Written by Doug McConnell

Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak, and Liz Truss are on psychedelics at the Palace of Westminster. This isn’t the work of Russian spies who have dusted off the KGB playbook or yet another Downing Street party but, rather, a near-future professional development program for politicians.

The path to this near-future scenario has two steps. First, let us suppose that psychedelics make good on their early promise as moral bioenhancers. Second, once effective moral enhancements exist, then people whose jobs entail making morally momentous decisions, such as politicians, would be morally required to take those enhancements. Continue reading

Philosophical Fiddling While the World Burns: Second Movement

Written by Doug McConnell

Most ethicists would agree that the climate emergency is one of the most serious ethical problems society has ever faced, yet the focus of most of our work is elsewhere. In his piece, “Philosophical Fiddling While the World Burns”, Charles Foster suggests that business as usual for ethicists – “fine ethical tuning” and making “subtle distinctions” – amounts to shuffling the deck chairs when we know the ship is heading for an iceberg. Here I argue that, frustratingly, most ethicists qua ethicists have a limited role in responding to the climate emergency. However, this doesn’t mean we should despair but, rather, that we should also contribute to addressing the climate emergency outside the ivory tower qua citizens. Continue reading

Are Electoral Pacts Undemocratic?

By Ben Davies

In the early hours of Friday morning last week, the long-Conservative UK constituency of North Shropshire caused some political upset (and no little political joy) by electing a Liberal Democrat, Helen Morgan.

It is hard to exaggerate quite how significant a swing this was: the previous Conservative MP, Owen Paterson, whose resignation around accusations of corruption promoted the by-election, had a majority of nearly 23,000 when he was re-elected in 2019. Morgan beat the new Conservative candidate by nearly 6,000.

How was all this possible? One factor will likely have been Conservative voters staying at home, and a few switched to other right-wing parties. But at her acceptance speech, Morgan acknowledged that it was highly likely that voters who would have preferred a Labour MP (the party saw a collapse in its vote share) or a Green MP, lent her their support in order to have the best chance of avoiding a Conservative win. This will lead some to call again for a more formal electoral pact at the country’s next General Election, whereby Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens agree to stand down candidates in seats currently occupied by a Conservative, and where there is a reasonable chance of one of these three parties winning if their anti-Tory rivals stand aside.

Continue reading

How we got into this mess, and the way out

By Charles Foster

This week I went to the launch of the latest book by Iain McGilchrist, currently best known for his account of the cultural effects of brain lateralisation, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western WorldThe new book, The Matter with Things: Our brains, our delusions, and the unmaking of the world is, whatever, you think of the argument, an extraordinary phenomenon. It is enormously long – over 600,000 words packed into two substantial volumes. To publish such a thing denotes colossal confidence: to write it denotes great ambition.

It was commissioned by mainstream publishers who took fright when they saw its size. There is eloquent irony in the rejection on the ground of its length and depth of a book whose main thesis is that reductionism is killing us. It was picked up by Perspectiva press. That was brave. But I’m predicting that Perspectiva’s nerve will be vindicated. It was suggested at the launch that the book might rival or outshine Kant or Hegel. That sounds hysterical. It is a huge claim, but this is a huge book, and the claim might just be right.

Nobody can doubt that we’re in a terrible mess. The planet is on fire; we’re racked with neuroses and governed by charlatans, and we have no idea what sort of creatures we are. We tend to intuit that we are significant animals, but have no language in which to articulate that significance, and the main output of the Academy is to scoff at the intuition. Continue reading

Who Cares?

By Stephen Rainey & Yasemin J. Erden

How much of a role should the state play in taking care of us, as opposed to, say, our family members? According to some, care should “start at home” and should, moreover, be selfless. Statements like “Parents and other caregivers look after their children with little thought of return” from a recent New Statesman article sound nice, and elicit nods of approval – of course no returns are sought!

But are they true? Continue reading

Philosophical Fiddling While the World Burns

By Charles Foster

An unprecedented editorial has just appeared in many health journals across the world. It relates to climate change.

The authors say that they are ‘united in recognising that only fundamental and equitable changes to societies will reverse our current trajectory.’

Climate change, they agree, is the major threat to public health. Here is an excerpt: there will be nothing surprising here:

‘The risks to health of increases above 1.5°C are now well established. Indeed, no temperature rise is “safe.” In the past 20 years, heat related mortality among people aged over 65 has increased by more than 50%.Hi gher temperatures have brought increased dehydration and renal function loss, dermatological malignancies, tropical infections, adverse mental health outcomes, pregnancy complications, allergies, and cardiovascular and pulmonary morbidity and mortality. Harms disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, including children, older populations, ethnic minorities, poorer communities, and those with underlying health problems.’ Continue reading

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