Mortality and moribund languages

July 9, 2008

This summer, in addition to tutoring and general labrattery, I’ve been trying my hand at construction work (residential and commercial carpentry, for those to whom that means anything). While I understood that the work would be dirty, dangerous and demeaning, I did not anticipate it also wholly rotting my mind. Let me drop some Smith on you: Read the rest of this entry »

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Licensing redux

July 7, 2008

Since the original post was accidentally published prematurely by my coëditor, I’ll take this post to look at some of the more common objections to licensing and argue that they’re lacking.

The first objection to parental licensing is the invocation of a “right to one’s children.” As Hugh LaFollette notes, any right one has to one’s children is far too limited to preclude a licensing regime. One has no right to abuse one’s children, and the law already allows that the state may remove children from parental custody in such cases. Licensing, moreover, is in many respects a less invasive remedy to the problem of parental incompetence than the current presumption in favor of the parent.

This argument, however, takes “competence” to be the quality in virtue of which successful parents are to be licensed and unsuccessful parents, to be denied. Lawrence Frisch, in his critical reply to Lafollette, offers four sufficient criteria by which parents may be found unfit to raise children:

  1. they may be ignorant a certain basic body of knowledge about the mechanics of childcare,
  2. they may be physically or mentally unable to act upon that knowledge,
  3. they may be unwilling to act upon that knowledge, or
  4. they may be willing at large, but lack the disposition or self-control to refrain from abuse when tried by circumstances.

While Frisch concedes that licensing programs may improve the lot of children cared for by parents of the first or second types (either by mandating that parents take the appropriate remedial actions or placing them in new homes), he doubts that parents of the third or fourth types will be meaningfully deterred from abuse by the kind of licensing regimes that regulate drivers, doctors and dentists.

The purpose of licensing in the traditional cases, Frisch argues, is to demonstrate the applicant’s possession of certain relevant knowledge, or the ability to perform certain tasks. Drivers’ tests have no predictive value to the state in identifying drivers most likely to prove extraordinarily dangerous. For a licensing program of LaFollette’s design to succeed, it must identify as likely to commit abuse parents who have never mistreated children. This feature, Frisch claims, stands at odds with the conventional purposes of licensing. He charges LaFollette with

hav[ing] shifted the focus of licensing from its traditional purpose of assessing knowledge to the realm of predicting future behavior and confronting issues of negligence and incompetence—areas in which licensing has no historical interest.

But the traditional concern in licensing for determining present competence, and not for predicting future performance, is primarily a problem with the state of the art of assessment. Examining applicants upon a body of relevant knowledge, or an array of tasks which simulate the specialized skills required in the licensed profession, just is the most reliable predictor of future performance, the tested knowledge and skills being indispensable to competent practice. Curiously, no one proposes for medical students the “wait and see” method of assaying competence that is current for parents; the claim that unlicensed proto-doctors have never actually injured a patient strikes us rightfully as ignorant of the elenchus.

If it became possible, perhaps under the purview of a mature and unified neuroscience, to develop licensing procedures which identified, with level of significance α, that a given parent would gravely abuse or neglect their children, how high would α have to be before the procedure should be administered? Alternately, if faced with a choice between medical licenses, and medical schmicenses which consisted in the licensing examination plus a time machine which allowed us to check for future malpractice, what is the argument for retaining licenses?


Parenting Licenses

July 2, 2008

Ashley and I were arguing the other day about some issues pertaining to state-issued licenses for parenting. In my experience, the proposal usually arises when one is confronted by acts of exceptionally bad parenting, and it must occur to us then that (a) public exhibitions of abuse and neglect are not at all uncommon, (b) many more acts of abuse and neglect are committed outside of the public sphere, and (c) the parents who do not scruple to casually abuse their children in public are liable for much worse in the privacy of their own homes. All told, about 900,000 children are abused or neglected every year, and 1,500 of those children are killed as a result. Despite this, parenting licenses have never received sustained political support, trailing far behind flag pins and gay marriage* in the national consciousness.

The case for parenting licenses is pretty unimaginative:

  1. Before undertaking activities in which an incompetent actor can quickly cause lasting harm, the state may insist upon a demonstration of competence.
  2. Parenting is such an activity.
  3. ∴ The state may insist upon a demonstration of competence in parenting.

Both (1) and (2) seem uncontroversial. We expect plumbers to obtain more training and certifications than we currently require of parents, and we do not conclude from this disparity that the regulatory burdens imposed upon artisans, doctors, lawyers or drivers are too high. Neither do many deny that the role of the parent affords the potential to inflict great harms upon children, including the diminished capacity to create and enjoy future relationships with others. With both premises in place, however, many people and many parents still balk at the conclusion.


*Whether or not the state grants you a marriage license is hardly a trivial panem et circenses issue when you find yourself barred from your partner’s hospital room or dropped from their health plan. I include it for the anxiety it commands from the perhaps 95% of the electorate for whom gay marriage has no practical impact. Put another way, there is no 9/11 of children and infants every two years owing to a lack of political action on gay marriage.


Hello world!

July 1, 2008

This is the group blog of Patrick and Ashley, two students of philosophy, science and useful arts.  Expect things to change rapidly at first.  Here, you see, it takes all the changing you can do, to keep in the same place.

Also, please let me know if (pace google) I was correct in my suspicion that I was not the first to turn to semantic externalism for blog titles.