Whose ends?

“In my dealings with others, I seek unanimous consent. For only then can my actions possibly be moral. Only then am I treating the other person as an end in himself rather than a means to my own ends.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


Transcript of a talk first given on 6th April, 1999

Let’s look at some of the justifications parents give for overriding their children’s wishes. Since in thinking about parenting, these justifications are so familiar that we don’t question them, I want to use the same arguments in a different context to show why they don’t make sense. If it is true, for example, that having good intentions, or expecting a good outcome, means that your actions as a parent will be fine, then it should be true more generally. I shall show that it is not. I shall give you an idea of why I think that coercion is such a grave mistake, and why I think it vital to seek consensual solutions to problems and disagreements.

Between 1934 and 1976, the Swedish government sterilised 62,000 people, many against their will, as part of a eugenics programme.

Those selected for sterilisation were deemed to be flawed. Some had scored low on IQ tests. Some had bad eyesight. Some were ‘of gypsy appearance’.

Some were young boys found to be ‘sexually precocious’. <GASP>

Some were sterilised because they were considered inferior parents. (Lucky I wasn’t a parent at the time then—no doubt they would have regarded me as such a case!)

One priest had a young girl sterilised because she hadn’t learnt her confirmation lessons well enough.

But their intentions were good, weren’t they?


Bear in mind that at the time, eugenics was a mainstream view. Among educated people, virtually everyone subscribed to it in one form or another. So the Swedish authorities expected the outcome of the scheme to be a better world. And they were using the very best knowledge available at the time about how to make it a better world.

They thought they were helping those they sterilised as much as anyone else, because an inferior person, who has inferior children is then having an inferior life.

Of course, many of the people sterilised didn’t agree. They didn’t think that they should be sterilised. But their opinions didn’t count.

The Swedish authorities thought they were doing it for the best, but with hindsight we can see that they were wrong.

If we can’t judge a proposed course of action by what we intend its outcome to be, and if we can’t judge it by what we expect the outcome to be, then what can we judge it by, if we want to avoid behaving wrongly?

Are you wondering why I’m going on about all this?

Are you thinking that nowadays we know that gypsies are not inferior, and that it is quite normal for boys to be ‘sexually precocious’—so it couldn’t happen now anyway?

If you are thinking that, you are missing the point.

If we didn’t know that it is quite normal for boys to be interested in sex, would it then be right to sterilise them?

A woman who was sterilised in Canada under a similar programme in the 1950s was recently awarded $750,000 compensation.

The Edmonton Journal reported that “An IQ test later showed that she was of normal intelligence.”

So would it have been fine had her IQ been less than normal? 😳

You see why that’s missing the point?

A decent attitude to human beings requires that whether a person gets sterilised or not does not depend on your opinion of whether he would be better off sterilised—but only on his.

You can have an opinion; you can inform him of it; but if he disagrees there is nowhere you can get the right to sterilise him.

You don’t reach the truth by dogmatically forcing your will on other people.

What applies to sterilisation applies to everything else in life too.

So what should we judge a proposed course of action by, if we want to avoid behaving wrongly?

What about judging it by its actual outcome?

“It never did me any harm,” English people say, to justify subjecting their children to the unbearable boredom, beatings, and buggery of boarding school. 😳

Well… one has to wonder about such people. They seem to be in a pretty bad way to me!

But seriously, you can’t know for sure what the actual outcome will be in advance, can you? (Or are you God?🫣)

More importantly, by whose standards are you judging the actual outcome?

By the standards of the person involved, at the time?

If that is really so, then you must be able to persuade the person that your proposed course of action is good.

If you cannot, then, as William Godwin said, perhaps it may be suspected that you are no proper judge of it.

Or are you judging the outcome by the person’s standards after the event?

You ignore little Roger’s cries and send him off to boarding school, and by the time he has children, he is of the opinion that you were absolutely right to make him go.

Does that justify your action?

If so, then it would also justify lobotomy, or any cynical manipulation of the mind or brain that would leave the person docile at the end of it.

Suppose you rob Captain Scott of his ship to prevent him exploring Antarctica; or you rob Marie Curie of her pitchblende so she can’t discover radium.

You may save their lives and so achieve a ‘good’ end by your ownstandards. But you do it by destroying what they themselvesthink their lives are for, and so you commit an unforgivable crime against them and (as it happens, in those cases) against humanity too.

As Immanuel Kant said, it is immoral to treat a person as a means to an end rather than as an end in himself.

So how should we judge a proposed course of action if we want to avoid behaving wrongly?

The answer is, an action won’t be morally wrong if everyone involved genuinely agrees to it. Because if they all think it the best course of action, then, if it is a mistake, it is their mistake as well.

It is perfectly legal and moral to sterilise people by the tens of thousands… 

… as long as they want you to.

But it is perfectly illegal and immoral to sterilise even one person if she doesn’t want you to.

Incidentally, notice how the very same act can be a harmless or beneficial thing when it is voluntary, but an absolute obscenity when it is involuntary. Rape is another example. This is true for everything.

And as Thomas Szasz said, “you can be walking around with raging syphilis and nobody can get a microgram of penicillin into your bloodstream without your consent.”

It is perfectly illegal to perform any medical procedure on an unwilling patient.

Unless you’re a child of course.

Then it is perfectly legal. But is it right?

Is it right for us to override children’s wishes?

What if, for all our good intentions and our reasonable expectations, we are wrong—just like the Swedish government was wrong, for all its good intentions and reasonable expectations?

So the Swedes made a mistake. So what? We all make mistakes and they were doing their best!

Well… if you are a heart surgeon you might, in an attempt to save someone’s life, do a risky operation with the patient’s genuine, informed agreement.

The operation might result in the patient’s death.

That does not mean it was wrong to do the operation. The patient wanted you to take that risk.

There is a world of difference between doing your best and failing with the person’s full consent, and doing your best and failing on someone who objects to what you are doing.

Incidentally, if you think that coercion is a mistake because it is counterproductive, you are still missing the point.

The core justification of liberal policies is not that illiberal ones are ‘counterproductive’ (though they do tend to be) but that they are immoral, because they regard the child as an object, a means to a predetermined end, instead of as an end in himself.

In our culture, treating a human being as a means to an end—as an object instead of a person—is rightly regarded as the ultimate immorality.

The Swedes would have completely agreedwith that idea—even as they forcibly sterilised people.

The Swedish government was not a tyranny. 

They just didn’t recognise gypsies as human in the relevant sense.

They did regard them as human in many senses: killing them would be considered murder, for example.

It is only as moral agents that they were not deemed fully human.

Because of that, they were not deemed competent to participate in the decision to sterilise them.

Are children competent to make decisions that affect them?

Most people appear to think not. But are they right about that?

Or are children the ‘Swedish gypsies’ of today?

“Now just a minute! You are surely not suggesting that children can participate in the decision to go to school or not, are you? If we let children participate in that one, where would that leave the teachers? And how could we parents work if we had to look after our children every day?”

“But obviously Jenny must go to school whether she likes it or not, because without a decent education, what kind of life will she lead?”

“In this case, I have to coerce Billy, because his health is at stake.”

“But I have to make an ‘executive decision’ sometimes or we’d never get anything done!”

“Don’t get me wrong—I agreewith you that coercion is undesirable. But sometimes it is necessary, isn’t it.”

“It’s all very well for you—your children are reasonable—but trust me, mine aren’t.”

I think that the excuses people give for doing things to children against their will—all such excuses—are on a par with the excuses the Swedes gave for sterilising gypsies.

The arguments that show why it isn’t right to do things to gypsies against their will apply just as much to other groups of people too, including children.

They all have opinions which can be overridden.

And when you override their opinions, risking a mistake that they will suffer for, you have done something immoral.

The fact that you are doing it for the best as you see it, doesn’t make it moral.

And the fact that you think you know best doesn’t mean that you do.

And the fact that you are sure that you are right doesn’t mean that you are.

The Swedes were sure they were right in overriding the opinions of those they sterilised. But they now think that they were wrong.

If you are a parent, and you override your child’s opinion (as parents have been known to do 😉), how do you know that you won’t later realise that you yourself were wrong too?

You can’t know that.

And in those cases you will feel sure that you are right and that the other person is mistaken.

You can be sure that you are right, yet still be wrong. Just like the Swedes were.

And because they have now realised that they were wrong, the Swedish government is now paying 14,000 pounds compensation to each individual they sterilised.

I believe myself to be fallible—I am a human being who may make mistakes.

So in my dealings with other human beings, including children, I seek full, free, genuine agreement.

When I disagree with others, I try to persuade them.

I strive to use reason, never force. Even psychological force.

(Unless it’s self defence: if I am accosted by a mugger, then he’ll wish he’d picked on someone else. 😊 But my friends and family are not muggers.)

In conclusion, in my dealings with others, I seek unanimous consent. For only then can my actions possibly be moral. Only then am I treating the other person as an end in himself rather than a means to my own ends.

If you want to nurture your children’s autonomy rather than destroy it, that is what you have to do.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1999, ‘Whose ends?’, https://takingchildrenseriously/whose-ends

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