Dear Princess ‘Ishka,
In very recent times, I have been thinking about the reasons of the special treatment we reserve to children and adolescents when they die. There are many anthropological theories about these phenomena, drawing from cultural studies, psychology and even evolutionary biology. Such theories are not of my concern. Instead, I would like to briefly inquire the possibility of a plausible moral justification for the special character of grief regarding young people.
At a first glance, if we agree that human life has a priceless value in our societies, it seems already hard to defend the claim that some human beings deserve to be mourned more or more intensely than others. Under normal conditions, there is no unit of measurement available to understand why lives of adolescents would be of greater moral value than those of older people. I stress the fact that I am thinking in moral terms, and not in terms of, say, reproductive potential, working potential, and so on.
From a moral perspective, all (at least human) lives are incommensurable in value, independently of how long they lasted, other things being equal. Therefore, it can’t be a matter of value, to look for the moral reasons to justify the great attention devolved to the death of children.
I talked to my flat mate about this puzzling matter and he suggested to consider the traditionally Christian focus on the innocence of children. I understand the term “innocent” as having two main meanings: the etymological one, which is said of a person “not committing any harm” (lat. in-nocens); and the religious one, which is “being without sin”.
The etymological meaning of the word simply doesn’t apply to children in general. We all know what great harms children are capable of, even if they lack the means of adults. Bullying and egoistical behaviors are just two of many examples. Of course, someone could claim that “innocence” actually implies being naïve, independently of the harm committed. But this would be a reason to be less morally sensitive to a child’s death rather than more, because being naïve can be morally reprehensible.
On the religious view – or so I take it, children are “without sin”, whereas adults are sinners. It seems to me, that when you commit a sinful action, your whole being gets somehow infected psychologically. It is as if you contract a disease (the sin) and the only way to get rid of it is to repent and let the divinity wash away the stains from your soul. Morality, however, talks only about actions and not about the soul and psychology of people. When you commit a bad action, from a moral perspective, the only thing being bad is the action and, on other accounts, the bad intentions. But there is no compromised soul, and psychology is left to psychologists.
If innocence, in the etymological sense, is not observable among children more than among adults and the religious sense is addressing a domain of meaning not of direct interest for morals, we are better off without it.
After all, there could be no moral justification for the great attention given to the deaths of young people. However, I suspect that we have been ignoring a very important element of morality so far. Children and adolescents are indeed “special” moral subjects. And it’s definitely not because they are “intrinsically good” or “better” than adults. Indeed, they are less, because their understanding of morality is, on an average, less developed than the one of adults. By “being less good” I don’t mean “being morally worse”, but rather not being yet full-blown moral subjects.
If children are potential moral subjects, their loss is a particular one. When an adult dies, her death has a meaning: that person, as a full-blown moral subject, held a moral position in this world, and has left meaningful and personal traces of herself along her way. What traces can a child leave, if all he has done so far has been reflecting like a mirror his education? What traces leaves an adolescent, as she struggles to find her place in this world like a chrysalis trying to develop its wings?
We can’t ascribe any moral meaning to the death of children. They were not autonomous defenders of any moral value, they didn’t stand for anything with appreciable personal commitment, nor were they reprehensible for indolence. When they die, they leave holes.
Perhaps it is absurd to look for a moral justification for the mourning of children. But surely we feel an atypical moral bewilderment when they leave this world.