Child Abandonment: Why Kinsella’s Analogy Doesn’t Work

In my last post, I discussed an argument by analogy made by Stephan Kinsella and Tom Woods against the critique that parents have no enforceable obligation to feed or take care of their children in a libertarian society. The analogy was as follows: suppose A pushes B into a lake, and B starts drowning. Under libertarianism, A has aggressed against B, and therefore has an obligation to save B. Likewise, a set of parents that create a child but abandon him have aggressed against that child by putting him in a situation where he will likely die (like B who would likely drown on his own). Because of this, the parents have a positive obligation to take care of that child.

(Note: whenever I say “obligation” or “positive obligation” in this post, I’m referring to a positive enforceable obligation, not merely a positive moral obligation, unless otherwise stated)

Last time, I discussed why even if this argument works, the NAP still leaves rarer cases of child abandonment (e.g. rape) along with positive enforceable obligations to strangers (e.g. a random girl drowning) unsolved. This time I’ll discuss why I think the argument doesn’t even work.

In an interview with Daniel Rothschild about a year ago, Walter Block made some interesting arguments against this analogy. His main argument was that in the case of child abandonment, the parents’ act of creating the child and thus giving life to it actually puts that child in a better situation than he was before. Therefore, the parents giving the child life and then abandoning it would be analagous instead to a situation where B is about to get hit by an oncoming truck, and A pushes him and saves him from the truck but pushes him into a river. A has bettered B’s situation by saving him from the truck, but by pushing him into the river he has only given him a few more minutes to live. In this scenario, it’s not so clear that A has a positive obligation to save B.

However, ever since I heard Kinsella’s original analogy, I took issue with it but I was never able to figure out what that issue was. Listening to Block’s argument clarified it for me. Consider the following:

In making the analogy that if A aggresses against B by pushing him into a lake, A now has a positive obligation to save B, what is the comparable act of aggression supposed to be in the situation of the abandoned child? It certainly isn’t the act of [leaving the child alone] by itself. There are adults all across the earth who have no connection to the child and are leaving the child alone: we wouldn’t consider this an aggression. And it isn’t the act of [creating the life of the child] by itself. This would nonsensically suggest that all sexual acts ending in fertilization constituted aggressions. The act of aggression then is the series of acts, the totality of both creating the life of the child and later abandoning it.

Let’s say that the parents engage in the sexual act at time(t)=0 and and at t=100 they abandon the child. In addition, at t=1 the egg was fertilized and the child’s life came into existence (this necessarily happens after the sexual act since neither the sperm or egg is under the control of either man or woman after the sperm is released and the sperm takes time to reach the egg). Since the totality of both acts is what constitutes the aggression, the parents were aggressing against their child from t=0 -> t=100. But what this means it that the parents were aggressing against the child before it even existed.

As I said before, at t=0 the parents are engaging in the sexual act: the child does not exist yet. At t=1, the child comes into existence. But since someone making the river analogy is calling the series of acts from t=0->t=100 an aggression, they are necessarily saying the parents were aggressing against the child at t=0. Of course, we only know in hindsight that the action at t=0 was part of a series of acts constituting an aggression. But it nevertheless was part of it, and that implies that the parents were aggressing against tthe child before it existed.

This is a clear contradiction. In order to aggress, we must be aggressing against someone. If I attack Bob with a knife, I’m aggressing against Bob, and Bob necessarily exists. If Bob didn’t exist, I couldn’t attack Bob because there is no Bob. Likewise, if Kinsella and Woods say that a set of parents is aggressing against their baby, but the baby doesn’t exist, they are contradicting themselves. Therefore, the analogy does not work.


Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos via Compfight cc


Posted on January 21, 2016, in Ethics, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. It’s not that the act of aggression is the combination of the sex and the abandonment. I think the act of aggression comes from not fulfilling the positive obligation that was created with the act of sex. So the abandonment is differentiated. The positive obligation can be transferred to adopted parents and at that point the adopted parents would be aggressing by abandoning their adopted child.

    The act of aggression with the person being pushed into the lake is two fold. There is the aggressive act of pushing the person into the lake. But then there is a second and separate act of aggression in not saving them. In this case the positive enforceable obligation is created by the first act of aggression but if we instead consider the plane analogy where I have invited you onto my plane. The act of aggression would be in kicking you off while we’re 10k feet in the air. Although it is my plane, I have a positive enforceable obligation due to inviting you onto my plane in the first place.

    So I think the core of what you and perhaps Walter Block are stating is that it doesn’t make sense to incur positive enforceable rights against someone that does not exist. If that were the case, then abandoning them would not be an aggression as they have no claim to your aid.

    I would say that because your actions have a direct effect that is creating life, you have a positive obligation towards that creation as it is a direct consequence. So it’s not that you are aggressing against your child. It’s that you are incurring the consequences of your actions which in the case of sex includes a positive obligation towards any life that is created from that act.

    • To clarify, though Walter Block and I are on the same side, we have (or rather, had) different reasons for believing it (I’m having some second thoughts on my own argument, but I think Block’s still works; I’ll explain why I’m changing my mind further below). I was arguing it doesn’t make sense to aggress against someone non-existent while Block was arguing that the lake analogy is a disanalogy. The reason he says that is because creating life is essentially an improvement of situations (it’s better to exist than to not exist). Therefore, it’s more like a person pushing someone out of the way of an oncoming truck but accidentally pushing them into a lake. It’s not so clear that he has a positive obligation, and I think that Block would say that argument still applies to what you said.

      I will say though that I have at least been convinced that this is a murky area. It’s hard to say that I agree with Block that there is no positive duty for a parent to his or her child in libertarianism, but that I think there such a positive duty outside of libertarianism. The reason that’s hard for me to say is because life creation is just its own special case. In the end, I’m just relying on my intuition, and if I tried to make any argument by analogy based on real life examples, Block could raise that same counterargument against me.

      As a side note, I’ve noticed an additional problem with my own counterargument. Imagine a world where birth for human beings is equivalent to the creation of life (stipulating this to get rid of complications regarding a woman’s right to her body). The parents say in the public “We’re going to put the baby in spot X as soon as it’s born (t=1) and we are not claiming ownership” (can even stipulate it’s a raped mother who says it so there’s no property rights issues). Let’s say Fred hears about this and throws a spear at t=0 at the spot where they’re going to put the the baby. It hits and kills the baby at t=1. It’d be weird to argue this isn’t an aggression just because his action took place at t=0 before the baby existed. The effects are what matters.

      Haha, this is getting ridiculously complicated.

      • Well put. I had a very similar thought about some sort of projectile harming someone but couldn’t articulate a thought experiment.

        Makes sense about blocks argument as well. I guess this is why the plane analogy is cleaner.

        • Though I haven’t written a blog post yet about the plane analogy, I do think that’s another case of an aggression creating a positive obligation, unfortunately again making it a bit of a murky comparison to abandoning a child. Walter Block has written an article in response to Wisniewski about this (a bit lazy to find it now), where he basically argues for a distinction between implicit contracts/agreements and explicit ones. If you are invited onto a plane by a friend/airline, there is an implicit agreement that they will not kick you off the airplane, and as such if they do, they’re aggressing against you by breaking the terms of your agreement. To deny this implicit agreement is to say that every time someone agrees to go on an airplane, they’re agreeing to the possibility of being thrown out and killed at any moment, which seems to be an absurdity.

  2. Btw, enjoyed are convo on this so far. I think you present some really good counter-arguments to Woods-Kinsella and it’s definitely interesting to think through all this.

  1. Pingback: Child Abandonment: Why Kinsella’s Analogy Doesn’t Work | Liberty News

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