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topic in question involves 2 combined rights: first, the right to religious
freedom and second, the right to parent. Such hybrid right is the loci of
discussion as although it is simple to claim that parents have some rights over
their children, it is more normatively pressing to consider whether parents
have the right to enrol their children in religious practices. This is because
children are a special case for philosophical consideration in regard to their
status as right holders which is what makes this discussion so significant. I
will consider the limits to parental rights and child autonomy.


note about the scope of this paper is in order before I begin. Rather than offering
a contribution to a general account of the reasons and principles that ought to
determine whether parents have a right to enrol their children in religious
practices, my purpose in this thesis is deliberately narrower. Although I
recognise that there are many dimensions to the ethical discussion regarding
‘comprehensive enrolment’; for the scope of this essay, I will focus on the
adjudication between the leading academics Feinberg and Clayton. I have chosen
to focus on to these two-leading analyses within the literature because I
believe they are the strongest position in arguing that parents do not have the
right to enrol their children in religious practices. During such arbitration,
I will show that Clayton’s analysis is superior. However, I will also establish
that his position is to be improved if we are to successfully draw the
conclusion that parents lack the right to enrol their children in religious
practices. If I am able to dismiss these claims and their objections I am able
to prove parents fail to obtain the right to enrol their children in religious
practices unless with the best version of Clayton’s argument is asserted.

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establish my thesis, I will first define what is meant by ‘right’ and ‘enrol’. To
begin, the parents right to enrol their children into religious practices is a negative
claim right against state intervention in their child-rearing. This consists of
2 parts: the right to religious freedom and the right to parent. Also, for the
purposes of the argument, ‘enrol’ is not to be associated with the success of
such enrolment. Arguments are about parents intending to raise their children
in a way that will make it more likely (not certain) that they come to share
their conception of the good life in later life. Therefore, for ease of
discussion, “children are ‘enrolled’ into such doctrines when they are
encouraged to regard them as true and as worthy of pursuit prior to having the
capacity to properly scrutinise them”1.


analysis consists of three parts. In Part One, I consider Feinberg’s argument
for the child’s right to an open future. This will attempt to show from within
a rights-based deontological framework, that children have rights to not have
their future autonomy violated prior to reaching adulthood. This section
includes my examination and analysis of the shortcomings of Feinberg’s
argument. Second, I will address Clayton’s pre-condition conception of
autonomy. He proposes that we must not treat children in ways they could
reasonably reject later on. I will address this critique second as I will show
how it is stronger than Feinberg’s previous proposal yet is in need of further development.
Lastly, I will put forward an extended account of Clayton’s analysis. In Part
Three, I attempt to supplement Clayton’s rights-based deontological argument by
taking an even further child-centred view of autonomy. Clayton’s suggestion is
on the right track; however, it is not adequate as it stands. Indeed, I take
the Anti-perfectionist view that parents act illegitimately when they enrol
their child into religious practices because it violates the child-as-child



Part One: Joel Feinberg


first coined the principle of the child’s right to an open future. This is the
view that, it is the child’s “right to an open future”2
that constrains what may be done to him or her now, while she is a child. A Feinbergian
account, therefore, conceives of autonomy as an “end-state” or as an
achievement. This is because children cannot hold autonomy rights until they
have reached a certain level of maturity. These “rights in trust”3
can be exercised later when the child is “more fully formed and capable”4.
Autonomy is violated according to the achievement view when others deprive a
person of an environment that presents them with sufficiently varied goals to
choose from or undermines their deliberative facilities. Unpacking this
account, it is clear that parents lack the right to enrol their children in
religious practices because parents may not insulate their children from other
ways of life. Religious practice by nature ties a child to a particular goal before
they reach adulthood which is morally impermissible. Parents do not have the
right to encroach a child’s right to be exposed to the possibility of different
lifestyles during their course of childhood. The rearing of children must be
constrained in such a way that it does not undermine the “child-as-adults”5
capacity for autonomy.


Glaston has criticised such proposal, claiming Feinberg’s ‘Open Future’ is
“implausible, to say the least”6.
According to Galston, “as long as families exist, they cannot help shaping
children in specific ways”7.
Further, as Plato recognised millennia ago, the only way to prevent this
outcome is to remove children from their parents and “turn their nurture over
to the state”8.


Feinberg does not deny that children will inevitably be influenced by their
families and communities. He notes; “Respect for the child’s future autonomy,
as an adult, often requires preventing his free choice now”9.
The objection I will raise to the end-state argument is different from the
objection just considered. I believe his argument fails fully to capture the
autonomy claims of children. This is because even if parents rear their
children in a way that ensures that their child’s capacity for autonomy upon
reaching adulthood is robust, it is still possible that the manner in which
they have reached them does not respect their autonomy.


example, a strong objection to the end-state argument is demonstrated through the
following thought experiment:


the child’s natural incline is to be difficult and inward-looking. He prefers
not to expose himself to new activities or to form new relationships. However,
whilst he is a child, his parents change his character and insist he tries new
activities. The result is that he emerges from the experience with a greater
capacity to explore and pursue goals. The end-state view put forward by
Feinberg would seem to applaud this example of child-rearing; indeed, it would
require it in the name of the child’s autonomy. However, this example of
child-rearing comes at the expense of at least some part of the child’s

this can be shown with Paul Bou Habib and Serena Olsaretti’s illustration of
the “Magic Pill”10. Here,
a parent slips a magic pill in their child’s drink on their 18th
birthday so he can move forward into adulthood with a robust capacity for


the end-state view presented by Feinberg fully captured the autonomy claims of
the child, there would be nothing unwelcoming in this thought experiment; at
least from the point of view of the child’s autonomy. But I think there is
something very regrettable. The end-state argument misses an important
dimension of the autonomy of the child. Even though children cannot exercise their
autonomy Feinberg’s argument necessarily misses out the value of the child’s
autonomy as a child.


Part Two: Matthew


alternative attempt to capture the autonomy claims of children is better put
forward by Clayton. Like the end-state argument, this account assumes that
children lack capacities for autonomy, but insists that their autonomy,
understood in a particular way, can still be violated while they are children;
independently of whether their future capacity for autonomy is compromised.
Clayton’s argument consists of 2 principal parts. He argues that the
requirement of public reason must be extended to constrain parental conduct as the
relationship between parent and child is relatively similar to the relationship
between state and citizen. This is the case because the child’s treatment by
her parents is “non-voluntary, has a significant effect on her beliefs and life
chances and is marked by coercion.”11
Second, he argues that the public reason does not permit enrolment in
comprehensive doctrines or practices.


to Clayton’s independence view, achievement though immensely important is not
the only thing that matters for autonomy. He holds that the comprehensive
enrolment of children is morally wrong because parents cannot be confident that
their child will retrospectively consent. The individual who is young now will
later hold an informed view of how she was treated as a child. This constraint on
the parents right to enrol is justified because “to do otherwise would be to
treat the person as a mere means, as an individual whose goals and activities
are chosen by others who are more powerful. She would thereby, become like a
tool, which is used by others in fulfilling their chosen projects”12.


the literature, Clayton’s approach distinguishes itself in being much more
developed in its underlying political philosophy. One can therefore not afford
to ignore Clayton’s arguments. In particular, his monograph is superior to
Feinberg’s. The end-state view allows what Clayton’s analysis of autonomy
prohibits; namely, the inculcation of comprehensive doctrines prior to the
attainment of autonomy. This pre-condition conception of autonomy in comparison
to the end-state notion grasps a deeper latch on the child’s autonomy; which is
what I believe is the crux of what is at stake here. As opposed to, Feinberg’s “maximization of options”13 is far
from clear how to individuate and count options or opportunities; Clayton
provides a real focus on protecting child autonomy. As a result, I believe it
is stronger in providing a robust argument against the right of parents to
enrol their children into religious practices.


although I am in broad agreement with Clayton’s conclusions, I do not think he
fully succeeds in providing a rationale for them. I have 2 main qualms about
his argument. 


Clayton’s argument concerns the suggestion that comprehensive enrolment can be
said to be generally impermissible because religious parents who enrol their
children in their comprehensive conceptions, and so deliberately, treat their
children as “mere means” or “tools” in the pursuit of their own projects. That
description of what parents do would be true, if what motivated the parents in
enrolling their children into their comprehensive doctrines were the
achievement of a goal in which only they, the parents, had an interest.
However, most religious parents engage in the comprehensive enrolment of their
children for the sake of their children. It is true that the parents rely on
their own conceptions of the good in order to identify what exactly is in their
children’s interest, but that does not make it any less true that they are
acting for the sake of their children, or the children’s interests at heart. Weinstock
for example, has recently added to the debate that “parents should be protected
in their right to raise their children according to the tenets of a religious
faith because children have the right to enjoy intimacy bonds with their


this criticism, one can imagine that Clayton may deny that acting for the sake
of one’s children precludes the possibility of using them as a means. For
example, if a parent wants his son to be a football player and forces him to
train and rigorously stick to a strict diet, it seems reasonable to say that he
is using his child as a means regardless of the intimacy bonds developed. This
is because they are shaping and moulding him based on their specific conception
of the good. 


am sympathetic to this suggestion, but insist that one needs to appeal to the
child’s autonomy as a child in order to vindicate the charge that it is wrong
to use one’s child as a means in this way. Clayton’s aim to set constrains on
parental conduct (to enrol one’s child into religious practices) can’t be done
by merely appealing to the wrongness of setting goals for the child, unless we
assume that the child’s autonomy matters. For example, it is not wrong after
all, to shape clay or pets. The reason it is wrong to try shape a child into a
footballer in the way just described, is that the child, as a child, has
autonomy. Therefore, it is only by taking seriously the child’s capacity for
autonomy that we can explain why comprehensive enrolment, even when it respects
the child’s retrospective consent, is wrong. When children are enrolled into
religious practices, the wrong that parents thereby do to their children is not
to be explained by reference to the absence of the retrospective consent of
their children-as-adults. The trouble with comprehensive enrolment lies


Part Three: Extended
Child-Centred Approach


goal of this section is to supplement Clayton’s argument in order to gain a
more comprehensive and satisfying account of the kind of autonomous ethical
understanding. This is because I believe the concern Feinberg and Clayton’s arguments
fail to express is best expressed by an argument that takes the autonomy of
children as children seriously.


“virtually all reasonable people hold that children are persons and not for
example, pets or property”. So, although they are unable to run their own
lives, it is arguable that autonomy means more than independence in the sense
of being able to take care of yourself physically. I suggest that children have
emerging autonomy from birth. This is because children’s increasing language
skills, intelligence, memory, perception and mobility are all operating now to
gain mastery of their environment. In fact, the potential for such mastery has
been there from birth. Even new-borns with little capacity for mobility
exercise preferences with regard to sensations they seek and perceptions they
form. “They are able to turn their heads from side to side and will turn to
their mother’s voice in preference to some other voice”15.


highlights that there is a push/pull aspect to a child’s development. The push
comes from within the child – from inner longings that produce a thrust toward
development. The pull comes from parents whose job it is to pull the child
forward. Autonomy understood in this way assists my assertion that parents do
not have the right to enrol their children in religious practices yet can still
perform their other parental roles. For example, ultimately when children need
to go to the Doctors, it is parents who have the last authoritative. Therefore,
the Childs emerging autonomy
outlined previously does not conflict with a large portion of child rearing. As
a result of building on Clayton’s pre-condition conception which constrains the
influences that parents can legitimately impose on their children, we finally
take seriously the autonomy claims of children. For example, some
fulfilling life choices are only available at the expense of denying the child
a number of otherwise possible choices. A child intensively trained to realise
his considerable innate musical abilities may be unable to pursue careers that
would have been open to him in the absence of such dedicated education.


is therefore, not exclusively the open future or retrospective consent which best
explains child’s autonomy rights. Rather than the child’s adult self; it is the
adult’s child-self whose autonomy which is pinnacle.


will now consider 2 objections to my expanded version of Clayton’s account.

first objection is that my proposal appears to be in tension with my previous
claims. For example, earlier I illustrated that parents do not encroach on
their child’s autonomy when they force her to go to the doctors even though
they make the decision on her behalf. A strong critique of my argument can be
made by those who pioneer that parents do have the right to enrol their
children into religious practices. It is arguable that the doctor’s scenario can
be used to defend comprehensive enrolment. If parents are entitled to make
executive decisions regarding their child’s medical decisions, it is unclear
why this is not the case for religion.


I believe there is an asymmetry between making a child act in a particular way
and making a child hold a particular belief.


difference is crucial here. A child’s capacity is preserved intact when a
parent makes her go to the doctor. But to get a child to believe something on
authority is quite different. It circumvents her capacity to reason. But our
autonomy, including the autonomy of children, requires that the reasons for
which we believe something not include authority. “Once
we are made to believe on authority, our autonomy is undermined, either by
ourselves, if we are old enough to know better or if we are too young, by those
who made us believe on authority”16.


A second objection however, is that the
argument I just defended rejects authority too strongly. There are many
instances in which parents make their children believe something on authority
that are entirely unobjectionable. It is not particularly clear what is wrong
for example in making an infant believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. My
argument is therefore vulnerable to the criticism as to why comprehensive
enrolment is particularly singled out for condemnation.


response, I will distinguish that it matters what the beliefs we make children
believe are about. A belief is a mental attribute that some proposition is
true. As it is a type of disposition, it isn’t necessary for a belief to be
constantly and consciously manifested. Importantly, beliefs form a mental
representation of the world around you and form the mental attitude that world
is structured in some way rather than another. As a result, beliefs are
necessarily the foundation for action: what actions one takes in the world is
based on one’s mental representation of the world at large. By contrast, the
belief in Santa Claus is much less. The implications of the requirement to
respect the autonomy of children are more controversial where the issue at
stake concerns what beliefs children may be expected to form.





To conclude, parents
do not have the right to enrol their children into religious practices.
Feinberg and Clayton’s account of how the demands of autonomy constrain
parental conduct fail to fully capture the autonomy claims of children. Clayton’s
account however should not be so easily discarded but rather used as a stepping
stone. Whist Clayton’s principle is on the right track, it is not adequate as
it stands. I have provided strong grounds for sustaining the claim initiated at
the start of this paper. With a narrower focus, I was able to delve deeper into
the discussion regarding children’s autonomy as children. This right limits,
but does not extinguish the parental right to exercise some control over their
child. Having determined the contours of the right

Beliefs are
important and shouldn’t encroach on a child’s emerging autonomy

Paul Bou Habib and Serena Olsaraett’s, “Autonomy and Children’s Well Being”.
“The Nature of Children’s Well Being”. Vol.9. pp. 22

2 Joel
Feinberg, “Freedom and Fulfilment”. Princeton, N.J. pp. 77

3 Ibid.,

Ibid.,76. It is of course questionable when a child can
be said to have reached maturity. Because different children mature at
different rates, varying degrees of freedom will be appropriate for different
children prior to reaching legal milestones.

Paul Bou Habib and Serena Olsaraett’s, “Autonomy and Children’s Well Being”.
“The Nature of Children’s Well Being”. Vol.9. pp. 19.

6 William
Galston, “Authority of Education”. “Parents, Government and Children: Authority
Over Education in a Liberalist Pluralist State”. pp. 6.

Ibid. Claudia Mills, “The Child’s Right to an Open Future” makes a similar
point, questioning whether it is either possible or desirable to keep a child’s
future open

Plato, Republic

9 Joel
Feinberg, “Freedom and Fulfilment”. Princeton, N.J. pp.78.

10 Paul
Bou Habib and Serena Olsaraett’s, “Autonomy and Children’s Well Being”. “The
Nature of Children’s Well Being”. Vol.9. pp. 21.

Matthew Clayton, “Debate: The Case against the Comprehensive Enrolment of
Children”, pp. 355.  

12 Matthew
Clayton, “Justice and Legitimacy in Upbrining”, pp. 104

Richard J. Arneson and Ian Shapiro, “Democratic Autonomy and Religious Freedom:
A Critique of Wisconsin v Yoder”, pp.391.

14 Daniel
Weinstock, “Religion in liberal political philosophy”. “For a Political
Philosophy of Parent Child relationships”. pp. 224

AJ DeCasper and WP Fifer, “Of Human bonding: new-borns prefer their mothers’
voices”. Pp. 1174

Paul Bou Habib and Serena Olsaraett’s, “Autonomy and Children’s Well Being”.
“The Nature of Children’s Well Being”. Vol.9. pp.

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