Are the criteria for social equality different for children?

“Equality of What?” has been a central question in political philosophy following Rawls. According to Gerald Cohen, the question asks “what metric [should egalitarians] use to establish the extent to which their ideal is realized in a given society.” Many answers were given to this questions by Rawls, Dworkin, Sen, and others.

I want to briefly explore whether the answer is different depending on whether we are discussing children or adults. Now, clearly, the specific goods (e.g., primary education) that children need are different from the needs of adults (e.g., pensions). What I am asking though, is whether the criteria we use to determine what all children should have are the same as the criteria we use to determine what must be equalized for adults.

Part of what drove interest in “equality of what?” was that egalitarian theorists strove to articulate a norm of social equality that nonetheless left people responsible for the consequences of freely made choices. As Cohen put it,

Equality of opportunity… permits and indeed enjoins departures from welfare equality when they reflect the choices of relevant agents… If a person’s welfare is low because he freely risked a welfare loss in gambling for a welfare gain, then… he has no claim for compensation.

I agree with the point. But notice how it is framed. Because we need to evaluate the person’s choices to determine whether they deserve compensation, we can only determine what someone is justly due after they have made their life choices.

This isn’t helpful when we are thinking about children. On the one hand, what we want for children is a way to equalize their future prospects, not compensate them for unmerited loss. On the other hand, relative to adults we are much less inclined to hold children responsible for poor choices.

When I think about “Equality of What?”, I am thinking about how to equalize things for children. It seems to me that what we want to equalize is Sen’s notion of capability: the ability of the child to do things and to achieve valuable forms of human functioning. Capability is forward looking and does not involve retrospective evaluation. My intuition is that ‘capability’ is the best notion of equality for children — perhaps the answer is different when we are thinking about adults.

About Bill Gardner

A health care researcher and a child and quantitative psychologist by training. I am an American living in Canada and am Professor of Paediatrics, Obstetrics & Gynaecology, and Community Health & Epidemiology at Dalhousie University; and Professor of Pediatrics, Psychology, and Psychiatry at The Ohio State University. I also blog at The Incidental Economist ( and you can follow me @Bill_Gardner on Twitter.
This entry was posted in Blog posts. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Are the criteria for social equality different for children?

  1. What about these two objections? 1) Education is needed all along the life course 2) Some adult people could be forced to a condition of “minority” by the external social pressures. In these cases the difference between adult and child could be not so relevant. Thanks for your post.

  2. Bill Gardner says:

    Thanks — those are cogent objections.

    The categorical distinction between children and adults is artificial. There is a continuous dimension here. Children become responsible for their choices in a gradual way as they change. And, as you point out, adults need support education & help in recovering from bad choices. I think my point can be defended, but I need a more sophisticated account of these matters.

  3. You raise distinct theoretical elements that can be combined in different ways to yield different overall theories. So (at the very least) you have:

    – welfare
    – opportunity
    – capability
    – responsibility
    – equality
    – forward looking vs. retrospective

    I think it is a mistake to say that the idea of capabilities is conceptually tied to a forward-looking perspective. Sen did/does not think this, and indeed he sees it as a virtue of the capability notion that it can be included in theories that differ on the forward-looking vs. retrospective question (and, for that matter, on the equality vs. sufficiency vs. priority vs. … question). So it would be perfectly coherent to say that capabilities constitute the metric for *both* children and adults, but that a child cannot (through her choices) abdicate her entitlement to acquire important capabilities in the way that an adult can.

    • Bill Gardner says:

      Yes, this was too hasty on my part.
      It’s clearly true that Sen thinks that capability works both looking forward and looking back. It’s implicit in his examples. If you can point me to someplace where he discusses the forward and retrospective perspectives explicitly, I’d appreciate it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.