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Matthew Liao argues that children have a right to be loved by everyone. He had papers on this topic published in 2006 and he has written several articles since then on the topic. This book, published in 2015, offers an extended defense of the claim. Liao has a concise and straightforward style of writing that makes it appealing since one can see the structure of his arguments very clearly. Often, his arguments appeal to moral intuitions and existing practice, so they are somewhat conservative in the sense that they are not aiming to undermine prevalent moral ideas shared by most morally thoughtful people. Rather, he aims to show that if we take central strands of common sense morality, then we rationally should be committed to the duty to love children. His approach is of course based on the idea of rights, and he devotes a good deal of space to explaining what kinds of claims rights are and how children can have them.
As one reads through The Right to be Loved, one will want to focus on what the implications of Liao's views are regarding which children have a right to be loved, whether there are exceptions, whether this extends to fetueses, and whether it follows that some adults also have a right to be loved. One might also wonder how demanding these rights are if they apply to everyone: what sacrifices they would require one to make in order to love children, not just as a parent, but also as a stranger. One will also be looking for an explanation of what constitutes love for the purposes of this discussion: it has to be more than just a feeling, and will involve behavior and attitudes, but how specific is it possible to be?
Liao defends what he calls human rights, which are moral rather than legal rights. His view is that "human beings have human rights to what I call the fundamental conditions for pursuing a good life" (39). On his view, a good life is "one spent in pursuing certain valuable, basic activities." (41). These basic activities are those that are "important to human beings qua human beings" (41). He does not seem to be saying that non-basic activities do not contribute to a good life, since he says that being a philosopher is not a basic activity, but is still valuable. Rather, he is defining a minimum for a good life. He explains that basic activities include "deep personal relationships with, for instance, one's partner, friends, parents, children; knowledge of, for example, the workings of the world, of oneself, of others; active pleasures such as creative work and play; pleasures such as appreciating beauty" (42). He says that a life with at least some of these activities is a minimally decent life. Then the fundamental conditions he has referred to are those that are necessary to be able to pursue those basic activities. It is noticeable that he does not provide an a priori justification that we have a human right to pursue these activities, but he does argue that his account does better at accounting for popular understandings of human rights than other accounts. While Liao does not employ the distinction between negative and positive rights, he is clear that he is defending more than the right to be free from interference in pursuing a good life. People can be entitled to receive help to pursue the good life under some conditions.
Liao makes a psychological case that children need not just nutrition and support, but also love. It can be difficult to give an operational definition of love, and psychological experiments may not distinguish between carers who act from love, duty, guilt, or custom. It is certainly easy to argue that love helps children. It is less easy to argue that full love is necessary for a child to grow up and lead a good life. Liao puts the emphasis on developing the ability to trust others, have positive self-conceptions, and to be motivated to obey commands. Love comes in different forms and levels of intensity, and there is an overlap with a more generic good-willed caregiving. One might quibble over definitions, and one might argue that children can achieve these abilities for the most part so long as they receive consistent care rather than love. But none of this makes a major difference to Liao's overall conclusion.
The exact nature of love makes more difference in addressing the commandability of love. Liao takes the view that people have a duty to love children, which includes not just behavior, but also having the emotion of love for children. He considers and rejects the objection that as emotions are not actions, we cannot have a duty to have an emotion. He argues that we can bring ourselves to love children in many cases, and it is not required that loving be completely under our control. He spells out some ways that we can bring ourselves to love children. His arguments here are plausible enough, depending as they do on comparisons with regular expectations of people rather than a priori definitions of the nature of duty.
Whether we count the duty to love as more a matter of emotion or behavior is also important when it comes to assessing who has the duty to love children. Liao is sensitive to the concern that universal duties should not be too demanding. He makes sense of this through his own idea of rights, since he has already argued that people should be able to pursue the basic activities. Should fulfilling a duty significantly impede these activities, then one's rights might be violated. He argues that people can discharge their children to love children in different ways, and there will be less burdensome ways to do so. They can also partially discharge the duty, so they contribute to the loving of a child to the extent that they can without it becoming significantly burdensome, but still doing something rather than nothing. So although Liao agrees with the commonsense view that biological parents have the primary responsibility to love children, and agencies charged with caring for children have a duty to ensure that children get love, it is still true on his view that everyone else also has a duty to love children.
The book ends with 2 chapters on more practical issues. First, whether parents should be required to have a license to have children. Liao defends the common sense view that they should not, mainly on the ground that there is a primary right to have children. Second, he asks whether we have a duty to adopt children without parents or without adequate parents, and his answer is yes. So he argues, given that so many children need to be adopted, that public policy should make it easier to adopt.
Liao's book is especially valuable in addressing a topic that has not been discussed at great length in philosophy and he shows that it deserves attention and is of great philosophical interest. It raises questions about our obligations to people who are incapable of pursuing a good life because of intrinsic deficits, such as severe brain disorders. Of course, there may be other sources of duties apart from the ones that he discusses, so he is certainly not saying that such people have no right to be loved. But it would follow that their right to be loved must have a different source, if it exists, from that of other people. There might also be some children whole potential to pursue their own basic activities is unclear, given the difficulty of making predictions about how well they can adapt to their deficits. We could argue that a principle of generosity would imply that we should do what we can to enable them to develop whatever potential they have.
In terms of practical policy, there probably is not much here to distinguish Liao's recommendations from those of other humanitarian approaches. Liao's view of society is one where people have human rights that require us to do a great deal to help others. Most people are going to agree that our society should treat children well and give then the attention and love they need to flourish. So, for example, presumably a utilitarian philosopher who didn't buy into any rights talk would still agree about the importance of loving children. Liao's view might disagree with a libertarian view (such as that of Robert Nozick) that insisted that we have no or very few moral obligations that we do not voluntarily enter into. Yet even these libertarians might agree that children must have the opportunity to develop into individuals, and in order to do so, they must receive love. Curiously, it is possible that Liao's view might conflict with some versions of care ethics, depending on how they ground the source of the obligation to care for others. It is possible to imagine a version of the ethics of care that grounds care obligations in family relationships and community relationships, and implies that there is no obligation to care for those who fall outside of one's own group. That view would imply there is no duty to love children outside of one's family and community. I don't know of any philosophers who have explicitly developed such a view, and it certainly seems a hard-hearted one.
Thus, although some parts of Liao's claims are philosophically distinct, there is probably little here that is controversial. The Right to be Loved will be a book of interest to philosophers and political theorists interested in grounding the rights of children.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.