Child Safety, Part II

In my last post, I introduced a set of studies that suggest that parents and nonparents alike prefer to invest about twice as much in child safety as adult safety. For purposes of this post, I want to take that descriptive claim as true and ask: What justifies that differential treatment?

One answer is simply that we should respect preferences (almost) regardless of their content. But that seems too quick.

Below are a few thoughts on how we could justify greater protections for children.
I invite readers to add to this preliminary list.

  • Children have more life years ahead of them to live with permanent injury, and lose more life years if they die. This is likely part of the story, but it is an incomplete defense of the data because focusing on life years would not justify providing children with extra protection for temporary injuries like spending one year in the hospital or catching the common cold.
  • Perhaps everyone deserves an opportunity to achieve certain milestones in life, like growing up and falling in love, that often occur during adolescence and young adulthood. To the extent that life years leading up to those milestones are more valuable, we might want to offer younger people more protection. We might also want to ensure that temporary injuries do not impede those opportunities. (Something like this view might be at work here, where one couple recently wrote up a bucket list for their terminally ill infant and went to great lengths to ensure that they checked off each entry.)
  • Children might deserve an open future.

Stay tuned for Part III, where I will discuss what these empirical patterns might mean for tort law …


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7 Responses

  1. cmc says:

    Adults typically have the capacity to provide for their own safety and to make reasoned judgements based on their own risk tolerances. Children are largely at the mercy of their environment (to include caregivers).

    • Sean Williams says:

      Thanks cmc, your comment raises an interesting possibility. Perhaps we want to protect classes of persons (like children) who have relatively little control over their own safety. We might think of this as a prophylactic measure to ensure that they have some appropriate level of protection.

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    We are biological, evolved organisms, after all. I wouldn’t totally dismiss the possibility that there’s some instinct involved, as a K strategy species that doesn’t protect its offspring is going to do badly.

    • Sean Williams says:

      Thanks for the comment Brett! You are certainly right that evolutionary pressures help explain parental altruism. For more specific predictions, we might want to start with Hamilton’s rule. The trouble is that Hamilton’s rule is in some tension with the data that I introduced in my last post.

      In its simplest form, Hamilton’s rule predicts that people will exhibit altruism toward others in proportion to their genetic relatedness. So we would expect sibling A to help sibling B because doing so increases A’s fitness indirectly. More specifically, we would expect that A should value B half as highly as himself, because there is a 50% chance that they will share any particular gene. (Your reference to K strategies suggests that you might be familiar with all of this already, but I thought I would elaborate for the benefit of others).

      Under a simple version of Hamilton’s rule, we would therefore expect a parent to value a child half as much as herself. So a parent would invest $X in her own safety, and $X/2 in her child’s. But the data suggest a starkly different pattern. Parents spend twice as much on child safety as their own. This is hard to square with Hamilton’s rule.

      Further refinements to Hamilton’s rule can help, but they also bring up additional problems. For example, if paternity is more uncertain than maternity, then we would adjust Hamilton’s rule accordingly and expect different investment patterns for mothers and fathers. But much of the data find no differences, and the data that do find differences still find that both fathers and mothers invest more in children than themselves.

      Taking a step back, any genetic account might explain parental behavior but it will not alone justify it. For example, we might be able to come up with an evolutionary account of why a step father murders his step children, but that would not justify it. Both explanations and justifications are useful in my project, but justifications are especially important when we ask whether we should design the law to reflect the extra value that people appear to place on child safety.

      • Brett Bellmore says:

        “This is hard to square with Hamilton’s rule.”

        I’m not so sure of that; Parents only have a few chances to pass on their genes, and keeping themselves alive only promotes passing on their genes so long as they’re going to have more children. Once you’ve stopped having new children, keeping yourself alive only promotes your genes to the extent you’re better at promoting your childrens’ welfare than other people would be. It doesn’t do anything at all to directly perpetuate them.

        So, assuming a cultural background that keeps orphans alive, it’s quite easy to justify putting a higher priority on keeping your children alive than yourself.

        • Sean Williams says:

          Brett, you’re spot on. As we add nuances to the very simple form of Hamilton’s rule that I described above, we can better explain a premium on child safety. But additional problems emerge as well. Adding nuances to our evolutionary analysis sometimes makes it harder to explain other aspects of the data.

          If we consider the number of reproductive years that each parent has left, we could make at least two additional predictions. But the available data does not provide much support for either. Before outlining those predictions, let me start by making up a term and defining it. The child-favoritism-ratio (“CFR”) is the ratio of child safety investments to adult safety investments that a particular parent prefers. So numbers above 1 would indicate a child premium and numbers below 1 would indicate that parents prefer spending more on safety investments for themselves. Here are two plausible predictions: First, younger parents should exhibit a lower CFR than older parents, all else being equal. Second, because fathers will normally have more reproductive years ahead of them than mothers, we might predict that fathers would exhibit lower CFR’s than mothers, all else being equal. Here’s the problem: It’s not clear that either of these predictions are true, although there is not much data on point. The evidence for both claims is mixed. There are, of course, several other ways to complicate our analysis. We could incorporate the fact that infants are at increased risk of death during their first year, and thereby predict that the CFR should be lower for infants than toddlers. We might also think that parental investments in child safety would be even higher once the child hits puberty, all else being equal. But the available evidence does not appear to bear this out. For an overview of some of the empirical work, see this piece.

          I hope this is sufficient to give you a sense of why I suspect that it would be difficult to develop a parsimonious evolutionary model that explains the relevant data. Of course, I would certainly welcome one, if it exists! It might lead to interesting insights.

  3. Sean Williams says:

    Brett and cmc’s posts, taken together, highlight an important point. When we are seeking an explanation or justification for the data I introduced in my last post, we might want to think about parental investments separately from the investment choices of the general public. Parents may have reasons to act that do not apply with the same force to the general public, and vice versa. For example, we might think that the general public would consider the positive externalities that children create, but we may suspect that parents would not take this into account.