The Foundation of the Child's Right to an Open Future

Journal of Social Philosophy 45 (4):522-538 (2014)
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It is common to cite the child’s “right to an open future” in discussions of how parents and the state may and should treat children. However, the right to an open future can only be useful in these discussions if we have some method for deriving the content of the right. In the paper in which he introduces the right to an open future Joel Feinberg seems to provide such a method: he derives the right from the content of adult autonomy rights. In this paper I argue that his argument fails. If it is to give us guidance about the content of the child’s right to an open future, then the right should be interpreted as a right to a maximally open future. But this strong interpretation is unjustified: the arguments that can be found in Feinberg in favor of the right are invalid, and, in any case, this interpretation has implausible implications. A moderate interpretation of the right to an open future, according to which children have a right to acquire some reasonable range of skills and options, is more plausible. However, if a moderate interpretation is correct, there is not only no argument in Feinberg to support it, there is also no method for deriving the content of the right. Without such a method we have to bring in other moral considerations in order to work out the limits on parental discretion and what children are owed. The right to an open future then does no normative work.

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Joseph Millum
University of St. Andrews


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