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Ethical Research Involving Children


By John Wall, Rutgers University


Considering matters of ethics in research involving children invites us to engage reflexively with notions of childhood and of ethics.

I am a philosophical ethicist who originally came to childhood studies with the question of how children have been understood in different times and places in ethical theory. It turns out that both minority and majority world views of children have been highly various, both historically and today. And, on the whole, such views, as for other others groups like women and the poor, involve a great deal of oversimplification. After all, most philosophers, theologians, poets, and other writers over history have been adult men living in highly patriarchal societies.

To make this point in talks, I sometimes ask if anyone knows the percentage of the world population that is women – to which the answer is almost always around 52%. In fact, the percentages are 35 for women, 34 for men, and 31 for children under 18 (using the United Nations definition of a child). That so few consider the world population as divided in thirds is one small example of how childhood is invisiblized in accepted social thinking.

What has gradually dawned on me is that, unlike other historically marginalized groups, children still lack ethical frameworks for critiquing these kinds of biased normative assumptions. Children are understood by ethicists and others as objects of ethical thought, but rarely as subjects who might change ethical thought in new ways. While traditional ethics has been transformed from a variety of feminist, post-genderist, Marxist, and post-colonialist perspectives, it has never been questioned from the perspective of childhood. Nevertheless, the young are just as much victims of historical patriarchy – the dominance of the pater or father – as are women, the poor, the colonized, and others.

I call this form of critique “childism,” which can be thought of as like feminism but for children. The idea is for children’s complex and diverse experiences to challenge and transform scholarly and social norms. Instead of just applying ethical ideas to children’s experiences, children’s experiences are applied to ethical ideas. Concepts such as agency, autonomy, independence, utility, community, empowerment, and rights need to be reimagined in light of children’s lives. Even relatively close ethical ideas from feminism – such as relationship, narrativity, and embodiment – need to be further expanded and problematised.

In two books, Ethics in Light of Childhood (2010) and Children’s Rights: Today’s Global Challenge (2016), I tried to imagine what a childist or child-inclusive ethics might look like. One conclusion is that the human ethical problem has less to do with violations of autonomy or breakdowns of community than with what I call “deep interdependence”: the fact that all people (and natural beings) are at once independent others and dependent selves. We are not just related but actually reliant on one another for responding to our social differences. Another conclusion is that, therefore, a key ethical aim in life is to respond to otherness by expanding shared imaginations. Experiences of age – just as of gender, race, or class – should transform our shared moral imaginations.

An example is that of human rights. The modern rights movement was started by Enlightenment philosophers who all explicitly excluded children from it, on account of their supposed pre-rationality, innocence, or downright unruliness. As they took off in the twentieth century, human rights practices adopted this baked-in adultism, making their fit for children unclear and often self-defeating.

For instance, the famous article 12 of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child purports to guarantee children freedom of expression, but only for children capable of forming their views, in matters affecting the child, and according to their maturity – all conditions that no adult would accept. The underlying assumption here is that participation rights rely on fully independent capacities for autonomy. Instead, human rights need to be reconceptualized as interdependent responsibilities: the ways that humans simultaneously participate in societies for themselves and provide for and protect one another in their otherness.

Another example that I am developing in a new book is children’s rights to vote. Democracies are usually considered to have achieved “universal suffrage” when voting includes all eligible adults. But the ideal of “rule by the people” thereby leaves out the third of citizens who are children. Some argue adultistically that children are not yet competent, knowledgeable, or independent enough to vote. Others claim that children can be just as competent to vote as adults.

But a childist approach would suggest that the problem lies, not in children, but rather in democracies. Just as over history for other groups, democracies need to be theorized and practiced in new and more expansive ways. Voting needs to be reimagined, not as an act of autonomous independence, but as one of deep interdependence. Specifically, I argue for a new kind of “proxy-claim” voting system in which every citizen from birth to death has an automatic proxy vote, assigned to a parent or next of kin, which they can claim to exercise on their own behalf at any age or point that they wish. This would make all the people equally able, regardless of age, to hold representatives accountable to their interests.

Ethics is a field of study that has come up with many different ways of theorizing moral life, whether deontological, teleological, communitarian, decolonial, or relational. But, as in academia as a whole, this theorizing has assumed an invisible adult perspective. Deontologists call for respect for mature autonomy. Teleologists aim for the maximally rational good. Communitarians stress wise social virtues. In all cases, children come out as pre-moral becomings rather than equally moral beings. They can be protected and provided for but not equally included or empowered.

A truly human ethics would need to take seriously the human condition’s vulnerability and dependency alongside its innate capacities for empowerment and creativity. The result, I think, would be an ethics founded on the expansion of interdependent imaginations. All of us, adult and child alike, fundamentally rely upon diverse relations, cultures and politics which, in turn, we have the capacity to reshape from our own distinct experiential perspectives, whatever those may be. We have the right not only to social participation but, in a more complex way, to what may be called empowered inclusion.

Last year I and others launched a Childism Institute, which aims to discuss and critique how childism might work across diverse areas of scholarship and social activism. On its website one can find references to childhood studies research using childist and other related approaches. Perhaps it is also time to consider how childism is at work, both tacitly and explicitly, in the way we understand and approach ‘ethics’ in research contexts.



John Wall is Professor of Philosophy, Religion, and Childhood Studies at Rutgers University Camden, Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion, and Director of the Childism Institute. His work investigates theoretical ethics, political aesthetics, children’s rights, and children’s democratic participation. He is the author, among other things, of Children’s Rights: Today’s Global Challenge; Ethics in Light of Childhood; and Moral Creativity. He is currently working on a book titled Children and the Vote: How to Democratize Democracy, an argument for eliminating the voting age, to be published in 2021.

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