On episode 711 of The Tom Woods Show, host Tom Woods and guest Julie Borowski briefly discussed areas where libertarians have a tough time applying basic libertarian principles to certain issues. Borowski stated that two issues where libertarianism is “pretty weak” are the issues of children and animals. The question that prompted the discussion regarding was “Should a parent be allowed to starve their [sic] child?” Borowski stated that her emotion-based answer is “No, of course not”, and I think that almost everybody would agree. Woods certainly agreed that on the surface, it’s an easy question to answer from an emotional standpoint, but may be harder to answer using a logical, principled approach.
Woods made a proposition to his listeners regarding these tough questions, stating if they had an article on the topic, they should share it with him. I’m going to accept that proposition and try to make sense of the issue “Should parents be forced to feed their own children?” It’s an easy question to answer from an emotional standpoint. It’s a bit harder to provide a succinct, clear, principled, logical, and moral framework for the answer, but that is what I will attempt to do here.
Morality vs. legality
Before we dive into the answer, I want to briefly discuss the difference between the moral answer and the legal answer to the question “Should parents be forced to feed their own children?” Of course, virtually everybody would say parents have a moral obligation to provide for their children. This is similar to the emotional answer. Libertarians do not believe that morals (or emotions) should be enforced by governments or other third-parties. Morals belong to individuals, and adhering to a specific moral code does not directly harm another person. Therefore, forcing someone to do something cannot be justified simply on moral grounds[i]. Forcing someone else to abide by your own moral code would violate the non-aggression principle (NAP).
This is not to say that force is never justified. For libertarians, the only time force can be used against someone else (and still be consistent with the NAP) is when it is defensive force against someone else’s initiation of force (or aggression). If there is a NAP violation, then third party defensive force can be justified. When governments or other third parties use force, it must be justified in this manner in order to stand up on legal grounds. Thus, when a NAP violation has occurred, one can proceed beyond the morality of an issue and address the legality of the issue.
So the question then becomes: “Are parents who do not feed their hungry children violating the NAP permitting justified use of legal force?” The short answer is “Yes”. A more complete answer will, of course, take a few more column inches to flesh out. To go beyond an emotional or moral answer, one must prove logically that parents violate the NAP when they do not feed their hungry children in order to use force to compel them to feed their children. Over the course of the remainder of this article, I will support the position that parents can be forced to feed their children by 1) showing there are special cases where one person has responsibility for another person and not meeting those obligations of responsibility to that person is a violation of the NAP and 2) that the relationship between children and parents is one of those special cases.
Responsibility to others
What is our responsibility to each other? Again, there are two ways to answer that question: the moral answer and the legal answer. As discussed above, we are not interested in the moral answer at this time. Legally, there is no natural responsibility of one person to another. Therefore, no government should force one person to take care of another person. But there are situations where – because of their actions – individuals inherit responsibility for other people.
One illustration[ii] of this inherited responsibility involves two people – we’ll call them Adam and Bill – and a hot air balloon that Adam owns. The hot air balloon is Adam’s property; he can do with it as he pleases; he can restrict Bill’s access to it, and if Bill is using Adam’s hot air balloon without Adam’s permission, Bill is violating Adam’s property rights (a standard violation of the NAP), and Adam can use force against Bill. But what if Adam has invited Bill for a ride in his hot air balloon? Bill can accept the invitation and the two go for a ride and it is not a violation of the NAP.
If, during the course of the ride, while several hundred feet off the ground, Adam decides he no longer wants Bill in the hot air balloon, he does not have the right to force Bill out of the balloon. Why? Certainly Adam generally has no natural responsibility to provide safe travel in a hot air balloon to Bill, but because he extended an invitation to Bill, he inherits a responsibility to Bill while they are travelling together in the balloon. Changing his mind mid-flight about Bill’s presence in his balloon does not give Adam the right to use force to expel Bill from the balloon as the fall to the Earth would certainly cause him harm.
As one can see, there are special cases where one person can inherit a responsibility to another person. In the special case above, one person had no natural responsibility to the second person until he offered to put the second person in a situation where the second person’s life was in the hands of the first person. The first person inherited a responsibility to the second person because he took actions to put the second person in the situation.
The nature of children
Now that we’ve seen there are times when one person can have an inherent responsibility to another human in special cases, we need to examine if the relationship between children and parents is one of those cases. Like we saw above, when one person is responsible for the situation that another person is in, then he bears at least some responsibility to see the second person through that situation.
This principle does apply to parents. Parents take actions that can lead to the creation of a child[iii]. That child has a natural right to exist (right to life) just as all people do. The parents have at least an inherited responsibility to the child because they are responsible for putting them in the position they are in – the child from conception onward is in a situation where they rely on the parents to survive. A child cannot provide for himself and cannot survive on his own. A child is also unable to defend himself against adults that are bigger, stronger, and craftier. This is the nature of children. Children, are a special case to be considered when applying the NAP.
Parental responsibility and the NAP
Because parents have an inherited responsibility to their children, we must look at what happens when the parent does not fulfill that responsibility, for example, when a parent is not feeding a hungry child. Some may still argue that forcing a parent to do something – anything – would be a violation of the NAP. However, the NAP, properly understood, does not prohibit all force – it prohibits aggressive force, or, in other words, the initiation of force.
When one person violates the NAP and aggresses against another person, it is not a violation of the NAP for the second person to respond to that force with defensive force. Defensive force is perfectly acceptable. If, say, a woman is attacked by a man, the woman has every right to use force to defend herself. It is also acceptable for another person to step in and help defend the person who is being aggressed against. Someone who witnesses the attack can step in and help the woman who is being attacked. This would, in no way, be a violation of the NAP.
The same is true for the situation where a parent does not feed the hungry child. The parent has the inherited responsibility to provide for the child. When he does not provide for the child, he is violating the NAP. The child has a right to defend himself, but in many ways will not be able to due to the nature of children. Just as a third party can step in to help defend a woman being physically attacked, a third party can also step in to help the child defend himself. Force against a parent neglecting a child, then, is justifiable in a legal sense.
There is a clear and compelling libertarian case to be made for forcing a parent to feed a starving child. Parents have an inherited responsibility for their children because they are responsible for the situation that the children are in. Children are also a special case in the sense that they cannot provide for themselves or defend themselves the way adults can. The parent who does not provide for his child, then, is himself in violation of the NAP. It is not a violation of the NAP for a person to defend himself, nor is it a violation for a third party to step in and stop someone from aggressing against someone else. Therefore, it is not a violation of the NAP to force a parent to stop aggressing against a child by forcing the parent to feed their hungry child.
This article is just a brief outline for the case for forcing a parent to feed his starving child. There are certainly some nuances or situation-specific instances where there will be wrinkles in my outline. I simply cannot provide a specific position for every hypothetical. But hopefully I have provided an answer to the question that is consistent with libertarian principles.
[i] Of course, if someone does not share the same moral value system as you, you can choose to engage that person and try to change his mind or you can choose to disassociate with that person. But you do not have the right to use force to encourage someone to adapt his moral compass to match your own or use violence to punish him if he does not adapt.
[ii] I believe I first heard this example form Dr. Walter Block, but do not recall. Regardless, it is not an illustration original to me.
[iii] Like every generic, hypothetical situation, there are twists in the real world. The case of rape that leads to conception is a tragic twist in this situation. It is too complicated to delve into here, but I would simply say that I understand there are situations like rape that complicate the issue further.