Bryan Caplan  

The Economic Philosophy of Child Abuse

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When is loss of custody a morally acceptable response to child abuse?  To clarify the issue, assume (a) the child is too young to express a preference; and (b) the decision-maker faithfully but fallibly follows whatever standard you pick.

Then consider the following standards in approximate order of strictness.  To repeat, the question is, "When is loss of custody a morally acceptable response to child abuse?"

1. Never.  As Robert Filmer infamously argued, parents are within their rights to treat their children however they please.

2. Only if the parent has perpetrated a severe crime (attempted murder, rape, etc.) against the child.

3. If the parent is likely to perpetrate a severe crime against the child.

4. If loss of custody increases the expected welfare of (parent + child).  Or in other words, if the gain to the child exceeds the loss to the parent.

5. If the loss of custody increases the expected welfare of the child.  Notice: On this standard, losses to the parent don't count.

6. If the loss of custody increases the welfare of children in general.  Notice: On this standard, a child could be taken from his parents even if he'd be worse off as a result - as long as the deterrent effect on other potentially abusive parents made up the difference.

7. If the loss of custody increases expected utility of all non-child-abusers.  Notice: This standard doesn't just count the deterrent effect on potentially abusive parents; it also counts third parties' desire for retribution against abusive parents.

8. Zero tolerance: Loss of custody is the "mandatory minimum" sentence for any clear-cut act of child abuse.

I could be wrong, but I'd guess that current U.S. policy is somewhere between #3 and #4.  But where is the morally right place to draw the line?

Somehow I doubt that many people will take position #8.  It's expressively appealing, but even people who hate economics can't easily evade the fact that a kid's imperfect parents are usually his least-bad alternative.  But how much lower are you willing to go?

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (19 to date)
infopractical writes:

As somebody who suffered physical abuse as a child, I tend toward #5. The parent(s) lose considerable rights at the point at which they mistreat children just the way that citizens lose rights when they perpetrate violent crimes against other citizens.

Going to #6 allows an individual to become a sacrificial lamb to the utility of people they don't know. This flies in the face of republican government.

I might hedge on #5 if the cost of implementing the outcome is particularly high. If it costs a billion dollars to rescue one child, that's a ridiculous burden on taxpayers. If it costs 10 cents, nobody would blink at the cost. Somewhere in between there is a balance in the cost of a social good to the degree that abuse becomes a societal problem with a shared cost.

Prakhar Goel writes:

Exactly where does the abusive and atrocious US child-care system enter?

The (current) alternatives are not abusive parents and blissful foster homes but a very small fraction of parents who are abusive and The System which is filled by apathetic incompetent social workers who let their charges get abused on a regular basis.

Why should this part of the federal bureaucracy be expected to work better than any other part?

The current policy seems to be nowhere close to #3, #4, or anything else on this list.

Also, in general, your options need to be made concrete. Robert Filmer would probably argue that "child abuse" was a nonsensical term and therefore option eight is equivalent to option one (not that I agree with that).

Winton Bates writes:

The problem with (5) is that it could be used to take children away from their parents purely on the grounds that they are likely to have a better life with wealthier foster parents.
This has been somewhat controversial in Australia. To find out more: Google 'stolen generation'.

Robin Hanson writes:

If you are going to all trouble to list eight options, why not include an economic efficiency option, namely: when loss of custody increases the welfare of everyone, including all child-abusers.

Henry writes:

From the Wikipedia article on the Stolen Generations:

"a study conducted in Melbourne and cited in the official report found that there was no tangible improvement in the social position of "removed" Aborigines as compared to "non-removed", particularly in the areas of employment and post-secondary education.[46] Most notably, the study indicated that removed Aboriginal people were actually less likely to have completed a secondary education, three times as likely to have acquired a police record and were twice as likely to use illicit drugs.[46] The only notable advantage "removed" Aboriginal people possessed was a higher average income, which the report noted was most likely due to the increased urbanisation of removed individuals, and hence greater access to welfare payments than for Aboriginal people living in tribal communities.[46]"

How much of this is attributable to racial motivations trumping child welfare and poor foster care is hard to determine. Still, this illustrates the point about "fallibility" well.

There's also the murky "moral relativity" issue. There are many cultural practices Westerners would mostly consider "abuse", but does that justify intervention? From a consequentialist perspective, why should we care whether a father rapes his children out of tradition rather than some other reason? Presumably because the former probably thinks he's doing what's best for his children (even if that seems misguided) while the latter is most likely malevolent in other areas.

nazgulnarsil writes:

I find the problems of rights (here parental rights) less bothersome when I assume a social group that shares my values.

much of the strength of moral argument seems to stem from the close proximity of social groups with wildly varying values. separate these groups and the animosity decreases proportionately.

Rachel writes:

One additional point. Before removing a child, we should demand proof beyond reasonable doubt of abuse. And the accused parent should get a public trial with all the traditional rights.
Governments can (and have) use the power to remove children to punish groups they don't like. That risks needs to get taken into account when setting levels of removal.

Pavel writes:

5 is extremely appealing to me, but I don't really trust the government to make a good decision about issues like that, so I'd rather fo with 3.

[anon] writes:

Wouldn't #1 maximize the total population over the long term (since parents who would only have children in order to abuse them would have children) and hence maximize total utility? Exponential growth will ultimately overcome any proportional decrease in total utility caused by #1, assuming that the maximum possible population is high enough (e.g. if the time derivative of total utility is f'(t)=exp(t) for policy #3 and g'(t)=exp(1.01t)/10^8 for policy #1, g(t)>f(t) for sufficiently large values of t). A government could even implement policy #1 until the country reached its maximum sustainable population and then switch to a more reasonable policy to maximize utility per capita (which would be equivalent to maximizing total utility, since the population is not increasing).

Prakhar Goel writes:

Rachel's comment illustrates exactly why this discussion needs an empirical grounding.

She may agree with options five through eight but her insistence on a trial, etc... would in practice result in a legal regime somewhere between two and three.

Without concrete facts and situations, we are striking at air.

Sharper writes:

2.5 Only if the parent has perpetrated a severe crime (attempted murder, rape, etc.) against someone and the parent is likely to perpetrate a severe crime against the child.

Anything below that depends on judgement calls by "late-twenties socialogy majors with no kids" to be infallible. So with your caveat that the rules will be enforced fallibly, you need a full court trial to establish the facts before permanently removing a child from their parents.

Otherwise, you get kids removed because a neighbor thought they weren't dressed warm enough to play in the backyard, or because a mother washed a baby's rear-end off in lukewarm water from the bathtub faucet and a social worker saw it, or because a Dad gave his middle school kid a hug in front of the school when picking her up.

Those are real cases I know the anguished parents involved in. In 2/3 of those cases, the kids were returned after literally years of lawsuits. Can you guess which one they weren't? The bathtub case, because even though the Mom was totally cleared, they were still in the foster-parent stage of adoption proceedings with the kids and the agency had more power for official wards of the state than even expensive lawyers could overcome.

Sara writes:

How about something between 4 and 5? Simply acting on the expected welfare of the child with no account of the parents feels intuitively cruel. However, I think intuitively most people care less and less about the expected welfare of the parent as the parent's actions are more and more reprehensible. For example, we care about the devastation of the mother who loses her child because she left him home alone while she worked nights. No one cares how crushed Humbert Humbert feels when he loses Lolita.

Brian Clendinen writes:

Between two and three, historical speaking before Christianity was prevalent #1 was the common law of the land. Anything at or past #4 is morally reprehensible , how does one measure net welfare. Based on that criteria all wedlock children should be removed from their mothers based on numerous studies( 50 times more likely to run away among other things). Any person convicted of a sex crime could not have a child. #4 ( yes they would agrue it was also good for the parents because the parents behavior would change under the treat of removing their children) and beyond is what the Nazi, Russian Communist, and the Khmer Rouge normally used to argue. If a parents political beliefs were not acceptable then for the Childs own welfare it was better to take the child.

The only thing I can think of that might fit into #4 is gross negligence. That is the type parent would feed, cloth, and house a child but then pretty much let them do whatever they want. If the child ended being a local hoodlum in elementary school and it could be proven the parent was ignoring the child, then removal is justifiably. Even then I am not sure about that in most cases if the child would be better off in foster care.

I might hate the moral code other parents might teach their kids and know it will make the child miserable and cause major social cost in the long run. However, it is that parents right, what makes me as an elected official or civil servant even able to know if a child welfare will be harmed by the teaching other than criminally taught behavior. I found the state of Texas removal of the children from their mothers at that Mormon polygamy compound a few years ago morally corrupt. Granted the children were being taught some ideas that are extremely harmful, but as long as there was not child brides and the children were not being physical abused, the state had no right to remove them.

Then again I believe children from about 14 or 15 to about 18 to 19 should be given a quazi adult status in many areas. To many laws are equally applicable to a 17 year old as they are a 1 year old yet not a 18 year old? That does not make sense , all it does is give judge huge amounts of leeway that they should not have. Historical speaking how many cultures consider 14 or 15 year olds full adults. I know the Jews did, in many African tribes today it is similar.

Peter writes:

As a parent I'm with number one myself until they are old enough I am no longer legally or fiscally responsible for them but I understand that isn't a popular answer; I always found it amusing that the same folk who ware against number one are also pro-choice though fundemantly it's the same thing (effectively pre (good) v. post (bad) natal abortions).

Given the current social standards though I would be happy with a 2.5 (i.e. three must be proven beyond all doubt by a jury of ones actual peers with the burden on the state) and then only after offsetting Prakhar Goel comments given I have yet to see a convincing study where fosters kids, wards-of-the-state, or orphans have a better long term outlook than those who were continue to be raised by abusive parents; at best I have seen break even which suggest leaving them with the abusive parents as it's cheaper

Jack writes:

Of course, number one. Anyone that argues otherwise is purely evil and wholly immoral. To grant the state such power is a capital crime and those who do so must be punished accordingly, swiftly and without mercy.

Bill writes:

I believe the standard is what is in the best interest of the child, subject to Supreme Court precedent stating that parents have certain rights in raising their children, like passing down a religion, customs, etc., and only having their children taken away if the child is in danger. The best interest of the child is considered in the totality of circumstances, not simply pecuniary considerations.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

You seem to be implying that this is some sort of ordinal ranking of strictness. I think if you look into the child welfare literature, you'll find that the "strictness" of #3 - #5 can be quite ambiguous. The foster care system is often worse for removed children than the home they left. And even when it is a welfare improvement for the child, ending custody is often a welfare improvement for the parent (who obviously is likely to have a capricious attitude towards the child in the first place). This would make #4 less "strict" than #5.

The child welfare community has done a lot to grapple with this phenomenon lately - including relying more heavily on kinship care and home visiting that don't eliminate parental custody - NOT because such an elimination of custody would be morally or legally unjustified, but because the welfare of the child is actually better served by keeping them with their family (perverse and paradoxical as that may sound).

vt writes:

It seems to me that from the point of view of rule utilitarianism points 2-3 are the same as 6. How do you safeguard the "the welfare of children in general" (#6) other than by making sure that certain general rules regarding the child-parent relation are not broken (i.e. #2 or #3)?

nils writes:

Here's a real case to consider:

I think it's interesting because it touches on intent, which hasn't really been considered in Bryan's post nor the comments.
In the linked article the mother appears to be grossly ignorant. Does that change any arguments?

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