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Recently, I read an article about someone whose parents would purposely have sex in front of him when he was a young child. Many of the comments left in response to the article remarked that this amounts to child abuse. (For a less extreme example, it's commonly held that exposing young children to porn or graphic sex scenes is similarly inappropriate.) I agree that this sort of thing is egregious, but I don't know how to explain why. When the child is watching his parents have sex, what exactly is happening that harms him?

Allen has already said a lot about this, so I'll just add a brief note. Early in the response, he says, "Imagine a society in which people live in close quarters and privacy is a luxury." We don't need to imagine such a society! Most human societies prior to the industrial revolution were like that! It used to be quite common for children to see adults having sex. It is, I'd suggest, no accident, that it was in Victorian times that people started to worry about children seeing such things: the "primal scene". (Yes, I'm talking to you, Freud.) I won't draw any moral conclusions from that. That would clearly be unjustified. But it does just point out that this is a very modern problem. It's really not at all obvious to me why it should be obvious to anyone else that seeing such a thing should be harmful to a child. Indeed, I can recall reading a 'parenting manual' some years ago that advocated having one's children sleep in the 'family bed'. Concerning the sort of issue raised here, the advice was: Love...

Is it wrong to fantasize about sex with children? If a pedophile never acts on their fantasies are they still guilty of having evil thoughts, assuming that their abstinence comes out of a genuine desire not to do harm?

So far as I can see, there's nothing wrong with fantasizing about sex with children. There's nothing wrong with fantasizing about anything you like. If that seems crazy, then it's probably because you are thinking that someone who fantasizes about something must actually wish to do that thing. But that is just not true. As Nancy Friday makes very clear in My Secret Garden , her classic and groundbreaking study of female sexual fantasy, fantasy is not "suppressed wish fulfillment". The point runs throughout the book, which you can find on archive.org , but maybe the best statement is on pp. 27-8, though see also the poignant story that opens the book (pp. 5-7). I'd post an excerpt, but the language maybe isn't appropriate for this forum! As Friday's studies reveal, people fantasize about all kinds of things. Some women fantasize about being raped. It's a very common fantasy, in fact. That does not mean these women actually want to be raped, on any level. As Friday remarks, "The message...

Having an almost three year old daughter leads me into deep philosophical questions about mathematics. :-) Really, I am concerned about the concept of "being able to count". People ask me if my daughter can count and I can't avoid giving long answers people were not expecting. Firstly, my daughter is very good in "how many" questions when the things to count are one, two or three, and sometimes gives that kind of information without being asked. But she doesn't really count them, she just "sees" that there are three, two or one of these things and she tells it. Once in a while she does the same in relation to four things, but that's rare. Secondly, she can reproduce the series of the names of numbers from 1 to 12. (Then she jumps to the word for "fourteen" in our language, and that's it.) But I don't think she can count to 12. Thirdly, she is usually very exact in counting to four, five or six, but she makes some surprising mistakes. Yesterday, she was counting the legs of a (plastic) donkey (in natural...

Most of these questions are not so much philosophical as empirical, and there has been a tremendous amount of extremely important work done in the last few decades on children's concepts of number. The locus classicus is The Child's Understanding of Number , by Rachel Gelman and Randy Galistel, which was originally published in 1978, but this stuff really took off in the late 1990s or so. A lot of people have contributed to this work, but I'll mention two: Susan Carey and Liz Spelke , who are both at Harvard. You will find links to some of their work on their websites. Part of the reason people got interested in these issues is because they are closely related to issues about object recognition and individuation, which had been a focus of a great deal of work just before that. (I.e, people had been interested in the question at what age children start to "pick out" objects from the environment, and to think of them as distinct entities, that continue to exist even when you do not see them....

It seems like our society hold a number of bigoted beliefs about children. Even on this website a philosopher made the claim that children have poor impulse control and that they tend to think the world revolves around them. I don't know if there is any good evidence to support such a claim but I have my doubts. Perhaps that is a good description of most adults as well. Have any philosophers addressed the pervasive prejudice against children?

One of our graduate students at Brown, Jed Silverstein, is writing a dissertation concerned with issues in this vicinity, so I asked him if he'd like to answer this question. Here is what he had to say: "In recent times, political philosophers such as Susan Okin, Eamonn Callan, and Rob Reich have shown persistent interest in the philosophical significance of children. However, their interest in children generally focuses on the legal and political relationship between the state and the family in a liberal democratic society, and less on the moral status of children within the home. Other philosophers such as Gareth Matthews (sadly, recently deceased) directly explore the moral status of children, and question the prevailing doctrines of developmental psychologists such as Piaget. The upshot of Matthew's view -- sometimes known as child liberationism -- is that society systematically denigrates children on the unwarranted grounds that they are morally and cognitively deficient. "An...

Last night my 4 year old son asked me, "where was I before I was born (or in your tummy?) was I alone?" What should I tell him?

Kids do ask some amazing questions. I am no expert on child psychology. I am just a philosopher who is also a parent. So please do not take what I will say the wrong way. I do not really mean to be giving parenting advice here. To some extent, what you should tell your son depends upon your religious beliefs. Some traditions would hold that your son was with God, waiting to be embodied. Some would hold that your son may have had a prior life, about which you would not know very much. But I am guessing that none of these traditions is yours, since otherwise the answer to the question would be clear enough. So I will answer assuming that you believe that, prior to your son's birth, he did not exist. (Note that many religious traditions would hold this view. So this is not a religious vs non-religious issue.) So, telling your son the truth would mean saying something like this: We can make cookies, but before we make the cookies, there aren't any cookies. There is flour and butter and...

What is wrong with watching child pornography? Let's be clear that child abuse is wrong, and anything that makes more of it likely in the future is also wrong. Even if we agree that watching child pornography which encourages further harm to children is wrong, it seems less clear where the wrong is in doing so when there is no chance of causing harm. There are many pictures of adults and children who have been harmed to an extent at least on a par with the victims of such child abuse from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we do not normally think that viewing those images is wrong or makes us complicit. The most obvious candidate is the motive of sexual gratification on the part of the viewer. What makes that different from the motives of readers of bombs in the Middle-East? Is it the fact that the viewer must have a deviant sexual orientation or because they are benefiting from the harm in a way that the reader isn't? The first reason seems off the mark since it seems that the act of...

Let me ask a view questions. Is it clear that viewing child pornography is always wrong? Consider a detective who is viewing it in an attempt to establish the identities of the participants. Is it clear that any photograph of children being sexually exploited by adults is ipso facto wrong? Consider a reporter who takes pictures of some politician in bed with a pre-pubescent boy. What is distinctive of the case in which we would intuitively regard the viewing as wrong? What attitude towards the participants does such viewing involve? In particular, what attitude towards the children does it involve? Does viewing child pornography as a way of achieving sexual gratification seem compatible with a compassionate attitude towards children and a proper respect for their interests and their autonomy? Does it seem compatible with a proper appreciation of their suffering? The wrong might lie less in the viewing than it what one's viewing such things as a means of sexual gratification says about...

George W. Bush has, along with many others, made the claim that marriage is the fundamental basis of civilization. Is there any reasonable argument to be made supporting this claim? If not, is there another institution that makes a better candidate for being the fundamental basis of civilization?

I take it that the thinking is that the family is the "basis of civilization" and that marriage is the basis of the family. Both claims can be doubted. More importantly, their conjunction can be: It may well be that each claim can seem plausible, in its own right, but that is because one is understanding the word "family" in different senses both times. Perhaps there is some sense in which it's obvious that family groups are fundamental social units. But what a "family group" is, in that sense, needn't have much to do with "nucelar families" in the sense our President thinks of them. Or again, it may seem obvious that there is some sense in which marriage, by which I mean a committed long-term relationship between adults, is the basis of the family. But then one is of course thinking of "family" in a particular sense, and it's entirely unobvious why families in that sense are the foundation of civilization. Regarding the last question: Why think that civilization needs to have a "fundamental...

My 4-year old son is asking incredibly good questions about God. As for myself, I do not partake in the idea of religion. My wife does. Together we decided to let the children make their own decisions. To that end, on Sundays they go to Sunday School with their Mom and I sat home to “do chores.” My son is questioning nearly everything they are telling him. “Why did God make man first then a woman if they are equals?” “If God made man, where was God before we were there to talk about him on Sundays?” “How did God make God before was us?” (real quotes). I’m amazed, proud, and confused. How do I answer these questions without dashing his chances at the illusion of “it’ll be alright” that Christians harbor in their lives? Do I have an moral obligation to tell him I don’t believe in that “stuff”? Or am I better off to string him along? I hate to discourage this sort of dialogue; I love wondering at the world. The Church people tell him to stop asking questions. Is that healthy?

It's really too bad that there is this common image of religious peopleas simply swallowing what someone else has told them. I don't know manysuch folks myself, though I am sure they do exist. And if the people at your son's church are telling him to stop asking questions, that's even worse: Questioning is not opposed to faith but an integral part of it, and a faith based upon just not questioning is not a faith that will survive very long. Maybe you and your wife should find a different church if this one is not serving your son well. But whatever you decide on that score, there is no reason you can't engage your son's questions. The three you report are very different. (And, not to torpedo your pride, not uncommon: Children are amazing.) The first concerns the second creation story in Genesis. (If you don't know, there are two such stories, drawn from two different traditions.) Assuming your wife isn't committed to literalism here, then the first thing to tell your son is that this is a story ...

Is it philosophically defensible, or morally right, to inculcate your child to an organized religion when you yourself do not firmly believe in it? Along the same line, is there anything wrong about avoiding religious topics with your child with the intent that the child will choose her own set of beliefs when she becomes more mature?

The first sort of reasoning (not that I need to tell Jyl) goes bythe name "Pascal's Wager". It has been the subject of much controversy.The best recent paper I know is by Alan Hájek. See his"Waging War on Pascal's Wager", Philosophical Review 112 (2003), 27-56. Alan also wrote the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Pascal's Wager , which is presumably a better place to start for those who are interested. Letme offer a slightly different perspective on the question originallyasked. I don't think I'd want to say that it is permissible to"inculcate" one's children in a religion one doesn't accept. But thatis strong and fairly loaded language. I actually know two people whoare in the something like the following situation. (I could be wrongabout some of the details, so if anyone guesses who I've got in mind,don't assume I'm right. The situation is officially hypothetical.) Alexand Tony are white academics and have adopted two black children. Theybelieve very strongly that, as the church is and...