Taking Children Seriously

The Cognitive Capacity Argument

Posted by David Deutsch on the TCS List on Mon, 15 Jul., 2002, at 16:49:25 +0100

A poster wrote:

It's is also usually the case that what people really mean is not that “children (or women, or people of color) cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves” but that “children cannot be trusted to make what I feel is a good decision for themselves”. In other words, the child might choose differently than I want him to.

Another poster replied:

This argument ignores the fact that women and people of color are mature adults while a 3 yr old isn't.

And that argument ignores the fact that a white man is white and male, while women and people of colour are darker-skinned and female.

You can make this guilt-by-association argument but that doesn't prove anything.

It's not a guilt-by-association argument. It's an illustration of the fact that no circular argument is ever valid. So, in particular, when arguing against the proposition that children are cognitively fully human, it is no more valid to appeal to the fact that they are not mature adults than it would be for a racist to appeal to the fact that negroes have dark skin. The reason why it is invalid is that in both cases the connection between the dark skin, or the non-adulthood on the one hand, and ‘lack of cognitive ability’ on the other, is the very thing that is in dispute.

Why not say the same about animals? Animals only seem cognitively deficient but really their not, and it's all a plot to deny them their rights? Fact is, kids seem to lack cognitive capacity, and the onus is on you guys to argue the contrary. Sorry if this sounds confrontational, I am interested in hearing your argument!!!

I disagree that children seem to lack cognitive capacity. Children who do not understand language, do understand it a few months later. Animals who do not understand language, still do not understand it a few months later. It seems that the difference here must be due to a difference between the thought processes of children who do not understand language, and animals. In other words, animals seem to lack a certain cognitive capacity that the children possess.

Now, where is there evidence of a similar difference between children and adults? It seems to me that the evidence is overwhelming that children differ from adults in knowledge and skills (any one of which differs just as much between one adult and another as between adults and children) but not in the capacity to think. If anything, to the extent that there is such a thing as generalised ‘cognitive capacity’, it seems obvious to me that children have much more of it than typical adults – the evidence being that children acquire complex knowledge very rapidly, while adults notoriously change very slowly, or not at all. And note that the current dispute is exclusively about cognitive processes that cause changes – for instance, the process of being persuaded not to do something disastrous, or to do something necessary.

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