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Children and Opportunity Costs

photograph of silhouetted figure alone on bench at sunset

In a previous piece, I argued that concerns about a potential child’s future carbon emissions do not give us any good reason to have fewer children. My basic argument there was simple: while a human life causes some harm via carbon production, it also causes far more total good. Human lives are, on net, a good thing for the world.

But while I don’t find the carbon cost argument persuasive, there is a different argument against having kids I find much more convincing.

Had I stayed single throughout my whole life, I expect I could have done a lot of good. Were I to eventually secure a good job — which I expect I will eventually do — then, with only myself to support, I could have donated a lot of money to high-impact charities.

I don’t have expensive tastes, and in the past I always found it easy after I receive a raise to mostly maintain my prior standing of living and funnel my new income to those in need. (To be clear, this is not because I’m a particularly generous person; I just don’t really buy much stuff. For example, I have a terrible time coming up with things for people to buy me for Christmas even when I know the money won’t otherwise be donated.) Had I not married, I expect that over the course of my life I could have easily donated well more than 50% of my income to those in real need.

But instead I got married and plan to have kids. And this, I expect, means I will do less good for the poor.

That is because kids are expensive. The USDA estimates that raising a child costs over two hundred thousand dollars (not including college). That is money that I could, and probably partly would, have spent providing malaria nets to families in Africa or funding vitamin A supplements.

This objection to having kids, what Stuart Rachels calls the “Famine Relief Argument,” is powerful. It points out that while the direct costs of having a child are not very high (my child will probably not make the world a worse place), the opportunity costs of having a child are huge. If one can save a life by donating about three thousand dollars to high-impact charities, then for the amount of money the average American spends raising a kid, I could save almost one hundred lives.

Of course, I could be more frugal than the average American parent (and do hope to be). But even living frugally, having kids will substantially increase my essential expenditures.

An Uncomfortable Demandingness

This argument is extremely strong, but you don’t see it brought up very much.

I’ve seen far more people on Facebook mention climate costs as a reason not to have kids than mention opportunity costs. Every couple months we see a new news article asking whether climate change should make us rethink procreation. I don’t see similar news articles about if global poverty should make us rethink procreation (other than those occasional very confused articles that suggest that poverty might be a result of overpopulation). There is a whole BirthStrike movement of women refusing to have kids until progress is made on climate change. Why is there not a BirthStrike movement of people refusing to have kids till we’ve eliminated global poverty? Why is more attention paid to the climate costs of having children, rather than the much, much larger opportunity costs?

It’s always dangerous to try and guess at underlying psychological motivations. But I expect two things are in play.

First, we never see opportunity costs. We see the damage our actions do but are never viscerally confronted with the goods we forgo by not performing certain actions. Thus, our brains are much better at considering costs other than opportunity costs.

Second, once you begin factoring in opportunity costs you suddenly realize just how radically demanding your ethical duties are. If I don’t have a child, I can donate far more money to charity. But also, if I give up philosophy and become a lawyer, doctor, or computer programmer, I can probably make far more money to donate to charity. Am I required to give up the career I love to help the poor?

Americans spend over 10,000 dollars per child on average each year. But Americans also spend over 3,000 dollars each year eating out. And the good of eating out is surely at least three times as small as the good of a child’s life. Are we doing something wrong anytime we eat out at restaurants?

Part of the reason you don’t see the opportunity cost argument made very often, is because making the opportunity cost argument forces you to confront the extraordinarily demanding nature of justice.

Responding to the Argument

Are there any plausible responses to this argument?

You could deny that ethics is really all that demanding. Perhaps your money really is yours, not just in the sense that you have the right to decide how it is used, but in the sense that you don’t have any moral reasons to use it to help others.

But, I’m convinced this is wrong. It really is wrong to spend money on luxuries when you could be donating that money to effective aid organizations. So are there any considerations that might justify having kids, even if they would not justify eating out or buying a new car?

Maybe. If there are, I think they come down to the special sort of value involved in a human life. The value of a child is very different from the sort of value involved in going to a restaurant, buying a new car, or taking international vacations.

All four (children, restaurants, cars, and vacations) are luxuries in the sense that they are not things that we need. Thus, you might think that since there are others who need food, shelter, clothing, and medication, it would be unjust to acquire those luxuries.

But there is also this important difference. If it was unjust to buy the car, it is obviously also unjust to keep the car. If I don’t need the car, not only should I not have bought it, but now that I have it I should sell it and donate the money to the poor.

But the same is not true of a child. Once I have a child, I should not sacrifice that child even if it means I can donate more to charity. Why is that? Because the value of a human life is profoundly different from the value of a car. Cars have a fungible value. It makes sense to trade one car for another, or to exchange one car for a certain amount of food.

Human lives are different, as is clear when we consider the unique type of tragedy involved in a human death. Consider how the point is put by Tal Brewer:

“Human beings have a very distinctive kind of value, wholly unlike the value of a physical pleasure, or a pocket full of money. It can make perfect sense to trade off physical pleasures against each other, foregoing one so as to experience another that differs only in being longer and more intense. … The loss of a human being is not compensable in this sense by the creation or preservation of another human life. This is not to deny that it sometimes makes sense to choose a course of action that will lead to the foreseeable death of one person but will spare the lives of many others. It is only to deny that in the wake of such a choice, it would make sense to regard the lost life as compensated for without remainder—indeed, without a literally grievous remainder—by the fact that other lives have been spared. This is precisely the blindness at the heart of utilitarian conceptions of value. …

It is worth pausing for a moment over the enormity of what we are referring to when we say such things as that the loss of human life cannot be compensated without remainder. … What is at issue here is that which we cannot or at any rate won’t quite believe in the possibility of when we struggle to fathom the fact that someone no longer is: it is an unfillable absence, a sense of which opens like a fresh wound when we turn our thoughts to the person who has been lost.

… For example, mature grief at the death of a loved one involves an awareness, whether articulate or inarticulate, that nothing could represent a compensation for what has been lost. Consolation might be possible, but compensation is not.

When we seek to stretch ourselves towards a fuller appreciation of the badness involved in the death of strangers, we often remind ourselves that the deceased was someone’s son, someone’s best friend, someone’s lover. … This familiar discipline of vision, then, testifies to a widespread confidence that the value of human beings is seen more clearly through the eyes of love than through the aggregative arithmetic of the utilitarian or the bureaucrat.”

Of course, the choice to not have a child is different from the choice to let a child die. To let a child die is monstrous, it is not monstrous to not have a child.

But even if this does not show there is any obligation to have children, I do think this should give us reason to doubt that we are obligated to not have kids in order to donate more to charity.  A human life has a type of value totally different than that of a car — it is a life with its own sort of incalculable meaning and importance.

And because of that unique value, it is unclear to me if it makes sense to make the sort of comparison required to say that it is more important to donate to charity than it is to have a kid. I worry such a comparison misunderstands the unique kind of value possessed by each and every human life.

How Many Children Must We Save?

photograph of boys filling water jugs from a ditch in Kenya

The economic slowdown from the coronavirus pandemic is likely to reverse a global trend of poverty reduction. This crisis should renew interest in our moral obligations to the poor. And there is no better place to begin thinking about those obligations than the work of Peter Singer. He argues we are morally required to give a lot more expendable income to the poor:

“On your way to work, you pass a small pond. … [You] are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond […] it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. […] The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy.”

Clearly, we should save the child. And we could save many people from sickness and death from lack of food, medicine, and shelter by donating a lot more of our expendable income to the poor: you could live a happy life, visit Starbucks less often, and donate the money instead to the poor. Singer argues not donating is morally no different than letting the child drown. Much of our spending on goodies doesn’t contribute to our well-being: we would likely be as happy, going to fewer movies, and buying fewer fancy coffees (and perhaps none). The goods and services we buy with our expendable income don’t compare morally to the lives we could save.

Up to this point, Singer makes a good case. But it doesn’t end there: Singer argues that we are morally required to give substantially more than we (likely) do:

“Suppose you have just sent $200 to an agency that can, for that amount, save the life of a child in a developing country who would otherwise have died. […] But don’t celebrate your good deed by opening a bottle of champagne, or even going to a movie. […] You must keep cutting back on unnecessary spending, and donating what you save, until you have reduced yourself to the point where if you give any more, you will be sacrificing something nearly as important as a child’s life.”

Here Singer is stressing the extent of our moral obligations to the poor: when we decide to go to a movie, or buy a fancy coffee, we could have instead donated that money to save the life of a poor person dying from lack of food, medicine, and shelter. When comparing something trivial, like a caramel macchiato, to a life we could save, we should part with the money. But this line of thinking may lead to overly demanding moral requirements.

We should take a step back to think about moral overdemandingness. Moral requirements can be hard — admitting we lied to a friend may be hard, but morally required — but they can’t be too demanding. Suppose Nathan has a few beers during Monday night football. He does nothing obviously wrong. Any moral theory that says otherwise is too demanding; we should be leery of any moral theory or view that demands too much. Unfortunately, it looks like Singer’s argument may do that. We can explore this with a sorites paradox.

We should first introduce sorites paradoxes. And like with most philosophical ideas, they sound more complicated than they are. An example of a sorites paradox would help. Consider a heap of sand. Taking one grain of sand won’t destroy a heap. And that’s true of every individual grain of sand. If we apply this rule over and over, we will eventually destroy the heap. But if taking a single grain of sand doesn’t destroy the heap, we could take a single grain of sand, over and over, and on this rule, and we would still have a heap — but we know taking one grain at a time, over and over, will eventually destroy the heap. We can formulate this paradox as follows:

(1) A pile of one trillion grains of sand is a heap.

(2) A single grain of sand isn’t a heap.

(3) Taking one single grain of sand won’t create/destroy a heap.

This is a paradox: a set of individual statements that seem right, but taken together cannot be true. If we took a single grain of sand from a heap over and over, according to (3) we wouldn’t destroy the heap. But we intuitively know that isn’t right: if we took enough individual grains of sand, over and over, until a single grain remained, it wouldn’t be a heap.

We can frame Singer’s argument as a sorites paradox:

(4) Saving an innocent person, with a modest donation, isn’t morally too demanding.

(5) There are millions of people we could save with a modest donation.

(6) A moral requirement to save everyone we can with a modest donation is too demanding.

Consider a defense of (4): a cup of coffee or a new pair of shoes doesn’t morally compare to the life of an innocent person; if we could save them, by not buying goodies, and instead donating the money, then we’re morally required to do that. This isn’t morally too demanding: it is as reasonable as saving a child drowning in a shallow pond. However, there are millions of poor folks who need saving, and could be saved by a few modest donations. And individually, these acts of sacrifice wouldn’t rise to the level of overdemandingness; in each case, we could argue the life of a child is morally more important than watching a football game buzzed.

However, if we apply this line of argument over and over, there will eventually come a point where we won’t be able to watch a football game with a few beers because it would be wrong. We could work overtime instead and donate that money to charity. This isn’t to say Singer thinks we should never rest and recover, or earn money to pay our bills. We can still do those things, but only if they have comparable moral worth to the life we might otherwise save. And that looks like it demands too much of us; if a moral claim is overly demanding, we should be suspicious of that claim. This overdemandingness calls attention to an implicit assumption: that moral reasons trump other kinds of reasons — like, say, the value of enjoying a football game with a few beers — to act. And while moral reasons should be weighty in our rational deliberation, it isn’t obvious they override other kinds of reasons, such that those reasons don’t count.

How many poor folks are we morally required to save before it becomes too demanding? Most of us could, and likely should, do more to help the poor than we do, up to the point where it’s too demanding. But where exactly that point is located remains fuzzy.

Back to School: America’s Uncontrolled and Unethical Experiment

photograph of middle school science clasroom

As of this writing, several school districts in the United States have already reopened at some level, but most of the nation’s 40 million school-age children are scheduled to return sometime from mid to late August. One major argument for the reopening is so parents can return to work (assuming there is a job to go to), and help rebuild America’s faltering economy. The American Academy of Pediatrics has also supported this back-to-school movement, though this support concentrates on the emotional and social needs of the students that can be better met by returning to school.

There is, however, one argument against going back to school that few consider: Going back to school amid an epidemic is America’s uncontrolled experiment using our children as the sample. Even the nation’s top epidemiologist, Anthony Fauci, told teachers in a recent interview: “You’ll be part of the experiment in reopening schools.” This experiment is neither scientific, nor ethical.

We scientists live in a world of unknowns, and we traverse that world through the use of the scientific method and research ethics. The controlled scientific experiment goes like this: (1) A research question is formulated when the researcher makes the best “guess” as to what to expect from the data to be collected; this “guess” is based on what is already known about the topic, (2) a sample of people is identified that will participate in the experiment with as little risk to them as possible, (3) variables are identified which, as much as reasonably can be, are controlled for, (4) after considering any risks, and obtaining consent to participate from the sample members, the experiment is run, (5) the data are collected, (6) analyzed, and (7) conclusions are drawn. Through this controlled and ethical study, hopefully we find some answers that can be used to solve the problem at hand. Of utmost importance, however, is that these steps must be accomplished within the boundaries of research ethics. In the field of healthcare, these are typically four in number.

The four basic ethical considerations when doing research in the public health and healthcare arenas in general are (1) autonomy, or the power to make an informed, uncoerced, freely given consent to participate in the research; (2) justice, assuring a fair distribution of risks, benefits, and resources over participants, (3) beneficence, that no harm is done; and, (4) nonmaleficence, keeping participants from harmful situations. These ethical considerations came about after WWII when atrocities of uncontrolled experiments on human subjects by the Nazi regime were discovered. These considerations are now guides in designing ethical research. By carefully adhering to the scientific method and ethical principles of research, controlled experiments can be carried out.

Unfortunately, none of these guidelines are being met in the uncontrolled experiment America is about to run on its children when they go back to school this fall. The assumption is that getting students back in school will help solve the economic problem as well as the social and psychological problems the nation’s children are facing. These are important problems, and there are ethical ways of addressing them; the uncontrolled experiment on which America is embarking is not one of them.

If we compare this uncontrolled experiment with an ethically-sound controlled experiment, we can see the many pitfalls; pitfalls that may have dire consequences for all involved.

First of all, there is no research question. There is only a hope that things go OK and not too many get hurt. We don’t have enough information about the virus and its effect on children to even formulate a research question. What are we looking for and hoping to find? In essence, we are saying, “Let’s reopen schools, get the economy going, and help meet students’ social and emotional needs,” inferring that this is the only avenue open to us to accomplish these goals.

Secondly, variables such as the age, race, and gender of students, teachers, school staff, and bus drivers — along with their underlying medical conditions — are just some of many variables that are difficult, if not impossible, to control for in the school environment. Even when good-faith attempts are made to control for some of these variables, several ethical problems emerge.

One example is school transportation. The average school bus occupancy is 56; if social distancing without masking is practiced, only 6 students can ride the bus; if masking alone is practiced, only 28 can ride. It costs districts about $1000 per pupil per year to transport students to and from school. Additional costs to the districts by adding routes and making more trips to get students to school using either masking or social distancing, will be a strain on precious resources that could be spent on helping students with the ability to use remote learning.

Additionally, many states have regulations that mandate only students who live beyond a one-mile radius of the school they attend can ride a bus. Others must walk, ride their bikes, or use public or private transportation. Assuming that the family can afford public transportation, or, has a car, lives in a neighborhood that is safe for walking, and has weather that cooperates, these options work. However, marginalized children who live within this one-mile radius (and are thus not candidates for school transportation) may be further marginalized — kept from the emotional and social contacts they need and potentially missing vital instructional activities. These concerns are further complicated when we think about special needs students, whose medical vulnerabilities might put them at-risk in these new school environments.

Thirdly, the sample used (children) is a protected one. The Office of Human Research Protection (OHRP) identifies several protected populations that deserve special consideration when they are involved in research using humans. Pregnant women, prisoners, those with lessened cognitive abilities, and children are a few examples. Extra precautions must be taken to assure these subjects are not simply being used with little protection from specific harms that may come. Children are not mature enough to make their own decisions as to whether they want to participate in a research project. They seldom, if ever, are even allowed to make their own medical decisions. Children have no say in whether they want to go back to school amid a pandemic projected to have taken the lives of more than 180,000 in our nation by the end of August. We are sending this protected group back to school blindly, with few safety precautions. We also know that when schools were closed statewide during the months of March through May, there was a temporal association with decreased COVID-19-related deaths in those states.

Fourthly, how will we be able to keep the participants (children, faculty and staff, bus drivers) from harm? Masking and social distancing can be practiced at school; however, some age groups will be better at that than others. The benefits and risks involved are not spread evenly over the sample of students. Not only the students are at risk, but teachers are, as well.

Education Week recently reported that as many as 1.5 million public school teachers are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 due to their underlying health problems. The research on school staff vulnerability is sparse, but, given the law of large numbers, many staff members are at high risk as well when in a building of several hundred children. Children do get COVID-19, and with 5.5 million children suffering from asthma alone this could be a disaster waiting to happen. When race is taken into account, African-American children are 2.5 times as likely to contract COVID-19 as are Caucasian children, and American Indian and Hispanic children are 1.5 times as likely. Schools may be breeding grounds for transmitting the virus to these vulnerable populations. Children have more of the COVID-19 virus in their noses and throats than do adults, which makes children just as likely to spread the disease. They may not get the disease as easily as adults, but they do transmit it just as easily.

Do the benefits of returning to school (and there are many) outweigh the associated costs of spreading the disease?

There are many reasons other than academic ones for children needing to be in school. We know that at least 14 million children do not get enough to eat on a daily basis and this is dependent on race; 30% of these children are Black and 25% are Hispanic, less than 10% are Caucasian. Additionally, when children are home for extended periods of time with adults, the probability of child abuse increases. Yet, during this summer, schools found a way to deliver lunches, if not breakfast also to their students who were in need of that service.

Some local municipality police departments and county sheriffs have instituted a “Drop By” program. In these programs, homes where abuse may be more likely to occur, are irregularly visited as a “Drop By” to see how things are going and if anyone needs anything. During the visits law enforcement officers are able to get a feel for any evidence of domestic violence doing so in a non-threatening and non-accusatory manner.

School attendance both mediates and moderates the potential problems of food insecurity and abuse. But, as seen with programs such as outlined, there are other ways to ameliorate these injustices to our children. A re-allocation of dollars is needed along with creative ways to supply the needed services that children and families need during this pandemic. Sending kids back to school under the current implementation is not the solution. The potential nonmonetary costs are not worth the benefits that may accrue by returning to school under the present conditions.

Eventually, we will have to come to terms with the outcomes of this uncontrolled experiment. Will we have learned that it was a bad idea? That there should have been more planning to control for the safety and well-being for all at school? That we should have controlled for transportation safety? That dollars should have been reallocated for technology and given to those without it for remote learning? That home visits by school personnel to aid those experiencing difficulty learning remotely would have been worth the money?

Is America prepared to deal with the outcomes of this uncontrolled experiment where children are the sample? Neither science nor the ethics of research accept the premise of “we’ll do it and then see what happens.” But uncontrolled experiments do just that at the peril of those who are participants in unethical, uncontrolled experiments. America sits poised to conduct such a trial.

The Moral Challenges of Opening Up Schools During the Pandemic

As we inch ever closer to August, the question of if and how schools will open in the fall is increasingly pressing on everyone’s minds. Many decisions related to COVID-19 are presented as morally controversial when they really shouldn’t be. The issue of opening the schools, on the other hand, is complex. No matter what decision is made, some individuals and groups will experience significant hardship.

One critical question should be procedural: who should get to make decisions related to if, how, and when schools open back up? The fact of the matter is that, across the country the entities actually making the decisions, at least when it comes to public schools, are local school districts. COVID-19 is a tragedy of a sort that no one has experienced before, and there is no reason to think that local school districts know better than anyone else how to proceed. Comparatively, the number of people who are in decision-making positions in school districts is small. As a result, decisions could easily be made by a group of people who don’t believe the virus poses a significant threat.

A second approach, then, is to let communities decide. As the entire community will suffer the consequences of gathering large groups of people together in school buildings, the least we can do is give each one of those members a voice regarding if and how they would like that to happen. One problem with this, however, is that we are experiencing a strong wave of anti-intellectualism and science denial in the United States. This wave started building momentum before COVID-19 hit, but in response to the virus it has become a tsunami that threatens the lives and well-being of everyone every day. A democracy infected in this way can’t ensure just or even safe outcomes.

A third option is to let matters be settled by epidemiologists. This is a novel virus, so no one has perfect knowledge regarding what might happen in the future. Keyboard-certified “experts” flood the internet with baseless predictions that “sunlight kills the virus” or that “children can’t spread the virus.” Best, then, to leave the decisions up to the people who have dedicated their lives’ work to the study of infectious diseases in settings in which peer review and replication studies happen regularly. There are a handful of concerns for this approach as well. First, it can be tempting to think that people of science are people of dignity that are immune from political pressures. This simply isn’t so. An epidemiologist in one state may be more reliable than one in another. An alternative approach may be to act on the basis of what appears to be the consensus among experts. That said, the experts that arrive at consensus aren’t themselves going to be making the decisions in local communities, so again, the question becomes: who should be responsible for crafting policy? Since this is a decision by which everyone will be bound, it’s important that the decision is made in a way that is procedurally just.

However it turns out, the parties responsible for crafting policy will need to look carefully at the arguments, and there are compelling considerations on all sides of the issue. Right out in front is an argument that points to the intrinsic value of the lives and health of the children, teachers, and staff that will be crowded together in the school. Many people argue that the schools must reopen for the greater good. We’ll consider some of those arguments below. The response to them is to say, “life and health are not the kinds of values that should be bartered away.”

In response to concerns regarding the well-being of teachers and students, people often claim that spread of the virus to and from children is rare. Those making that argument point to studies like this one conducted in the Netherlands. One concern with the information presented there, however, is that the sample size is very small, and cases in the Netherlands never came close to approaching what we have experienced in the United States. In the United States, the circumstances simply aren’t the same. In northern Georgia, a YMCA summer camp had to shut down because 85 campers and staff tested positive for coronavirus. In Missouri, a summer camp shut down after 82 campers and staff tested positive for coronavirus. Across the country, cases of coronavirus spread at daycare facilities have been reported. In plenty of these cases, people who knew that they or their children might have coronavirus dropped their children off at daycare anyway because they couldn’t miss work. This seems like a situation that is likely to be repeated if schools open up in the fall. What’s more, the Netherlands report suggests that coronavirus has not killed any children there. Sadly, that is not true in the United States. We have the grim distinction of having more information to work with on this topic than the Netherlands does. All one has to do is search news sources for “child dies of coronavirus” to find plenty of cases.

Even if children don’t die from the coronavirus, we do know that it is possible for them to suffer severe organ damage, including brain damage. Many viruses have symptoms that only show themselves much later in life — consider the case of the chickenpox virus producing debilitating cases of shingles decades after the initial infection. Coronavirus cases might appear mild in children, but viruses can stay in the body of the carrier for their lifetime, and we don’t know enough about this virus to know what might happen down the road. Best then to err on the side of caution, social distance, and educate our children from the safety of our own homes.

Let’s imagine for a moment that children never get the virus, never pass it, or never experience any deleterious effects. The fact remains that COVID-19 clearly can be spread between adults. Adults can suffer and die from it and are doing so in great numbers. Bringing children back to school in the fall doesn’t just involve packing children into small buildings together, it involves packing adults together in close quarters too. In many cases, teachers and staff have been given no choice regarding what they would like their educational delivery method to be in the fall. This includes teachers who are immunocompromised or those who have immunocompromised loved ones for whom they care. Continued employment, especially during a recession is an immeasurably coercive force. Many people simply can’t afford to quit their jobs. These are skilled people and we should value what they do. We need them, and shouldn’t force them to work in conditions that are unsafe.

The considerations mentioned above are compelling, but there are also compelling arguments in favor of reopening. Of course, one of the most obvious arguments concerns children’s need for formal education. Some people believe that students have already experienced a developmental pause because when material was presented during the lockdown period, it was presented in less than ideal ways. Educational quality needs to improve in the fall. Of course, whether this goal can be realized depends a great deal on the area in which a person lives and the particular teacher, class, learning environment, and student in question. Some teachers went above and beyond the call of duty in planning course content that may have resonated with students better than it would have in a traditional classroom. It is a fact, however, that education in a physical setting does work better for at least some students, and this fact must be acknowledged in decision making about what to do in the fall.

Another argument for opening up the schools is that, for various reasons, parents can’t constantly be the full-time caregivers for their children. Many jobs can’t be done from home, and parents who work those jobs need a place for their children to go where they know that they will be safe and fed. Many of these people are already suffering financial hardship because of the pandemic. These people already pay taxes that fund the schools. It is a challenge for many people to find and pay for daycare in addition to everything else. On top of that, daycare situations may pose just as significant a threat as schools, so these parents would incur all of the harms and none of the benefits.

What’s more, not all children and parents have the same needs. Attending school in a physical way may be particularly important for certain special needs children. Educators trained to provide valuable resources to such children are critical in the lives of both the children and parents. Not having access to these resources might put significant strains on these households.

One way of replying to these concerns is to get creative — how might we design schooling that allows for children who need to be there to do so safely? One answer might be to offer high-quality online options to students and parents for whom that delivery method makes sense, freeing up space for in-person learning to be done in a safe, socially-distanced way. This kind of arrangement requires careful planning. Unfortunately, in many areas across the country, school districts have squandered away critical planning time while they were busy holding their collective breath hoping that the virus would disappear before it was time for the children to go back to school.

There are all sorts of considerations that are legitimate here. But there are at least three positions that are not morally defensible. First, there is no good argument for starting school in the fall with no coronavirus protections in place. Masks and social-distancing plans are a good place to start. Second, relatedly, it is not acceptable to commit the perfectionist fallacy — to say, “there are problems with all approaches, nothing is perfect, so let’s just stick with the status quo.” Though it may be true that no approach is perfect, some approaches are surely better than others. Finally, it is not morally defensible for decisions about if and how to open up schools safely to be motivated by re-election hopes, either at the local or the national level. A culture that would play politics with the lives of children and educators has truly lost its way.

“Incels” and the Right to be Loved

Image of a man alone in a dark computer room

If you’re like me, you cringe when you hear the word “incel” and never use it without scare quotes. Of course, there have always been people who are involuntarily celibate, but when they band together as a named subculture, something’s seriously amiss. I’m pretty sure I’d see it that way even if there weren’t four recent cases of men venting their sexual frustration by slaughtering people—one having done so explicitly as an “incel.”

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In the Boy Scouts, Making Room for More than Just Boys

Photo of Boy Scouts saluting.

In October of last year, the Boy Scouts of America announced that the organization would begin admitting girls.  Cub Scouts, the organization for youths 7-10 years old, will begin welcoming girls this summer.  The program for youth 11-17—The Boy Scouts—will change its name to Scouts BSA and will begin accepting girls, providing a pathway for young women to become Eagle Scouts.

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Opposition vs. Prohibition: Should Iceland Ban Circumcision?

a Rembrandt drawing of a ritual circumcision

Iceland will soon vote on a bill that would criminalize infant circumcision. While the medical community is supportive, some Icelanders are concerned. It’s not so much the typical Icelandic parent who wants to retain the right to make this decision, but Jewish and Muslim leaders are concerned that a ban would intrude on core religious practices. Circumcising newborn boys is a religious commandment for both religions.

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Disturbing Videos on YouTube Kids: Rethinking the Consequences of Automated Content Creation

"Youtube logo" by Andrew Perry liscensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

The rise of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) in everyday life has been a defining feature of this decade. These technologies have gotten surprisingly powerful in a short span of time. Computers now not only give directions, but also drive cars by themselves; algorithms predict not only the weather, but the immediate future, too. Voice-activated virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon Alexa can carry out countless daily tasks like turning lights on, playing music, making phone calls, and searching the internet for information.

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Scotland May Ban Spanking. Should the United States?

A stereograph of a woman spanking her child.

An October 19, 2017 article in The Scotsman reported that the Scottish Government plans to implement proposals that would “remove the defence of “justifiable assault” from Scottish law, which can currently be used by parents who use corporal punishment on their children. Late last year, France also instituted a law banning the spanking of children. This made it the 52nd country to do so.

The United States is not on that list of countries. According to an NBC News report from 2014, corporal punishment is legal in all 50 US states. State statutes generally indicate that the physical punishment must be “reasonable” or “not excessive.” In addition, 19 states still allow corporal punishment in schools, as of 2014. Public opinion in the United States also widely supports spanking. The NBC News report cited a 2013 Harris Poll which found that 81 percent of Americans say “parents spanking their children is sometimes appropriate.”

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In Canada, Apologizing for Forced Adoption

A school photo from a Canadian residential school.

For decades in the 20th century, the US, Canada, and Australia took thousands of indigenous children from their families and either put them in residential schools or found non-indigenous adoptive parents for them. These practices ended in the 1970s, but only now are governments in Canada and Australia trying to make amends. Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard apologized in 2013, while the government of Manitoba apologized for forced adoptions in 2015.  At the beginning of this month, the Canadian government agreed to pay reparations to victims of the “Sixties Scoop”—the forced adoption of indigenous children in the 1960s and 70s. 750 million Canadian dollars will be paid out in legal settlements.  

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Mental Health, Information Literacy and the Slenderman Stabbing Case

A sidewalk chalk drawing of Slenderman.

On May 31, 2014, two 12-year-old girls lured a friend, also 12, into the woods with the promise of a game of hide-and-seek.  Once there, one of the girls pinned their friend down, while the other stabbed her 19 times with a long-bladed kitchen knife, causing serious injuries to major organs and arteries.  The young perpetrators then fled the scene, leaving their young friend to die of her injuries.  Miraculously, the victim survived.  She was able to crawl to a road where a cyclist found her and went for help.  

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Navigating the Ethics of Hot Cars

Every year, an average of 37 children die from heatstroke as a result of having been trapped in hot vehicles. Statistically, most of these children are under the age of three. These very young children lack either the ability or the knowledge to operate car door handles or to unlock doors. Many of them die in a desperate attempt to escape from the vehicle.  This year, deaths due to children stuck in hot cars reached an all-time high for this point in the year, according to a CNN report, with 29 deaths reported so far.

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Who Should Decide Charlie Gard’s Fate?

Charlie Gard is an 11-month-old boy suffering from an inherited and terminal mitochondrial disease. He cannot move his arms and legs or breathe unaided. At the time of writing, Charlie was still in intensive care at a UK hospital. Charlie’s parents decided that Charlie should be brought to the United States to receive an experimental treatment that may help alleviate his condition. However, the doctors at the UK hospital decided that the experimental treatment would not likely improve Charlie’s quality of life. Since the parents and the doctors disagreed on what would be in Charlie’s best interests, the courts got involved.  The UK legal system has so far ruled that receiving the experimental treatment would not be in Charlie’s best interest, and Charlie should be removed from life-sustaining treatment to receive palliative care; the legal process is still in process concerning Charlie’s ultimate fate.

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Should Parents Lie to Their Children About Santa Claus?

photograph of Santa Claus ornament on tree

As the parent of an inquisitive 2½ year old, I currently find myself fumbling to explain Santa Claus to him, of whom he is now quite aware. Should I emphasize that he is a storybook character and not a real person? Would he even know what the difference between real and make-believe is yet? Ultimately, I find myself confronted by the perennial parenting question that divides many a household: Should we lie to our kids about Santa Claus?

My own parents always dutifully marked some Christmas presents as if they were from Santa Claus, even well after we kids were past the stage of believing in that jolly old elf. I do not personally feel damaged by my parents sustaining the myth of Father Christmas, but a recent essay in Lancet Psychiatry warns otherwise. Kathy McKay, a clinical psychologist at the University of New England, Australia and co-author claims: “The Santa myth is such an involved lie, such a long-lasting one, between parents and children, that if a relationship is vulnerable, this may be the final straw. If parents can lie so convincingly and over such a long time, what else can they lie about?”

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Do Children Have Rights That Adults Do Not?

Though the 2016 election may be more defined in the public imagination by questions concerning the candidates’ personal virtues and vices, this does not mean that substantive questions of policy that provoke deep philosophical and ethical disagreements among the American public have not also been relevant. One issue that has not received much coverage concerns policy proposals aimed chiefly at improving the lives of children and their families. Recently, for example, Hillary Clinton has proposed a generous expansion of the child tax credit, a refundable credit taxpayers receive in virtue of having children. In addition, Clinton has other proposals aimed at expanding access to early childhood education.

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Consent to Dying: The Case of Julianne Snow

Recently, a 5-year-old child named Julianne Snow passed away from from a neurological disease known as Charcot-Marie-Tooth, causing nerves in the brain to degenerate and loss in the muscles related to chewing, swallowing, and eventually breathing. Although Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease is one of the world’s most commonly inherited neurological disorders, this story made national headlines due to Julianne’s independent decision to refuse treatment.

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This and That: The NRA’s Firearm Fairy Tales

Last week, the New York Times reported that, thanks to a set of fairy tales creatively recreated by the National Rifle Association, children can now read their favorite fairy tales from the perspective of if the characters had guns.  

In the retelling, Little Red Riding hood confidently tromps through the forest with a rifle across her back, and Hansel and Gretel hold the wicked witch off at gunpoint.  Even the Grandma, the unfortunate first casualty of the traditional Little Red Riding Hood story, now has a shotgun she makes use of to hold the wolf at bay.

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Surrogacy and Abortion Rights

On February 18, The Atlantic’s Katie O’Reilly published an article titled, “When Parents and Surrogates Disagree on Abortion.” The article describes a messy ongoing legal battle between a pro-life surrogate carrying triplets and the soon-to-be father of these children. In January, a California woman named Melissa Cook entered into a surrogacy contract with a single Georgia man. There were three embryos created, as is frequently the case when doctors implant multiple embryos at a time to increase the chance that one will be fertilized.

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Teaching Children about Tragedy

In the wake of tragedy, the issue of rhetoric often moves to the forefront of public discourse. The framing of an event and the way it is discussed has a powerful impact on public knowledge and understanding of an event and its aftermath. When it comes to situations such as these, one particularly difficult task is to cope with finding the proper rhetoric for discussing tragedies with children. Is there a “right way” to talk to children about these events?

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Land of Plenty?

It’s no secret that living a healthy lifestyle is a key factor when it comes to leading a long, happy life. Public discourse on this topic has grown increasingly over time with diet trends and programs, nutritional supplements, and even pharmaceutical and medical solutions becoming a part of our everyday lives. We are infiltrated on a daily basis with encouragement to put healthier things into our bodies in the form of TV and film references, news outlets, social media, and advertisements, just to name a few. First Lady Michelle Obama’s advocacy for creating a healthier generation, such as her “Let’s Move” campaign and mandated modifications to school lunches, has become very visible in the public eye and is a well-known aspect of her work in the White House. All of these factors combined, plus many more, make it clear that as a society, U.S. citizens are more aware than ever of the importance of staying active and eating well.

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