Participation, Not Paternalism: Moral Education, Normative Competence and the Child’s Entry Into the Moral Community

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Compared with children, adults are widely assumed to possess more mature moral understanding thus justifying deference to their moral authority and testimony. This paper examines philosophical discussions regarding this child-adult moral relation and its implications for moral education, particularly accounts suggesting that the moral status of children constitute grounds for treating them paternalistically. I contend that descriptions and justifications of this paternalistic attitude towards children are either unacceptably crude or mistaken. While certain instances justify paternalistic treatment towards children, in the context of moral education the paternalistic attitude is largely irrelevant and even counterproductive. I make a case that children can readily meet minimal standards for moral understanding and engagement. Even when children have no final say, there is still a significant normative difference between deferring paternalistically to the adult's moral testimony and interacting with the child in moral conversation. These considered, I defend a social-contextualist account of moral education that incorporates a participatory (over a paternalistic) pedagogical attitude. Further, instead of portraying moral education in terms of stages (as argued by Kohlberg), moral education should be characterized more as a gradual appreciation of and sensitivity to normative demands that apply in various shared contexts and spheres of human concern.