Parental Obligation: Revising Rothbard

In the Ethics of Liberty, Murray Rothbard argued that parents have no legal obligation to feed their children that can be derived from the theory of rights of self-ownership. Self-ownership rights mean non-aggression of others against one’s person and property; they do not entail positive obligations other than non-aggression against others.

Rothbard thought that if law is restricted to having its source in self-ownership (or non-aggression), then it cannot place an obligation upon parents to feed their children. He thought that the parents may not, under this law, invade a child’s body; but they have no obligation to feed the child, although this may cause its death.

This inference is, I believe, faulty. The rest of this blog suggests a theory that justifies parental obligation while still maintaining the core concept that rights do not entail positive obligations. The way out is through the idea of self-limiting one’s rights by willingly choosing positions of responsibility, such that abdicating that responsibility causes aggression.

Certainly, under the self-ownership theory of law, it’s not a legal obligation of non-parents to feed the children of others. They in no way have brought them into this world. They have not done anything to bring about such a responsibility. Certainly, under the nature-given conditions of being a child or baby, the child doesn’t have the burden of feeding itself if it cannot do so. To prevent starvation of children, it must therefore fall upon the parents to feed their children. Furthermore, this obligation must be enforceable by law; it’s not only a moral obligation.

If the failure of parents to perform the positive act of feeding their child causes its death, is this not aggression? If we can identify why it is aggression in this particular case, in such a way as to distinguish this case from others that one may think are analogous or the same, then this exception or special case will not mean that this singular case in general destroys the idea that rights cannot confer obligations. All we have to do is identify the conditions that burden parents with feeding their children.

The key condition is that they are the parents. This means that they made the child. We may roughly say “You make it, you own it.” Making a child brings the obligation or responsibility to feed it. No rights of the parents are lost due to people around them enforcing this obligation by law. That’s not an aggression of others against the parents. The parents limited their own rights when they made the child and brought it into this world.

This idea of limiting one’s own rights or incurring legal obligations by one’s own actions is compatible with Rothbard’s self-ownership (or non-aggression) theory. The obligation may be understood by custom, common sense or by formal legal code. It is well-known that an airline pilot who bails out of the plane, leaving the plane to crash and kill the passengers, is committing a crime. His act of being a pilot, which he chose, limits his rights or modifies them. He now has an obligation. Anyone driving a car has an obligation to obey certain rules of the road. Any vendor of food has an obligation not to sell poison food. All of these kinds of positions and acts that a person voluntarily selects modify or limit the person’s scope of action. All entail obligations or responsibilities. This is what occurs when people decide to become parents. The duties come with the position that’s willingly chosen. This procedure of willing limitation of rights in no way undermines the notion that rights of self-ownership do not confer positive obligations.

One may raise the objection: But where do these obligations come from? They come from extending the non-aggression principle to instances where a person has voluntarily taken up a position wherein he has the capacity to initiate violence against others by not doing acts that are under his purview, acts that are obligatory given the positions and roles assumed by the person. If he stops piloting the plane, lets the car wander into other lanes, stops feeding a baby, or stops cleaning the food he’s selling, then he’s aggressing against others, without direct physical violence to be sure. But if a baby starves, who else is responsible but the parents?

If you should see someone on a bridge who is about to jump off or does jump off, you have assumed no such special position. You have no obligation deriving from self-ownership to talk the person down or jump in after them. If you see someone being accosted, you have no such special position that obligates you to intercede. They distinction between this sort of case and the case of a parent is clear. You do not make it [the suicide attempt], so you do not own it.

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10:20 am on January 11, 2019

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