Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Plight of Children
Are We Meeting Our Responsibility to Children?

Interaction Council, Session II, 22nd Annual Meeting
July 22, 2004

By Kirk O. Hanson, Santa Clara University

Mr. Chairman, Members of the InterAction Council, Special Guests and Observers: I am pleased to join Prof. Hyodo in launching the discussion of the question "Are We Meeting Our Responsibility to Children?" As a professor of ethics, I participated in the Tokyo High Level meeting which produced the Chairman's Report you have in your binders.

Prof. Hyodo has articulated the troubling facts which led the participants in the Tokyo meeting to conclude NO, we are not meeting our responsibility to children.

In addressing this failure, we must confront the ethical failure which is at the heart of the problem. We do have an ethical responsibility to children. They are the most vulnerable inhabitants of our globe, and it falls to the more powerful to protect and nurture them.

In the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibility prepared by the InterAction Council in 1997, Article 18 calls for all adults not to exploit, abuse, or maltreat children. Article 9 sites that all peoples have the responsibility to overcome poverty, malnutrition, ignorance, and inequality. And in Article 10, all peoples are said to have an obligation to lend support to those in particular need.

Thus the central question is whether we will recognize this ethical responsibility and give it priority over other concerns. Ethics is ultimately about self interest versus the interests of others. It is about what priority we give to particular obligations or actions.

In our private actions, it is about what we do with the time — and with our wealth that has come from our work, from our birth, or from our God. Do we use our wealth — or some of it — to aid others rather than for our own interests and pleasures?

So it is also for nations and peoples. To honor an ethical responsibility to children, we must value children in need in our own countries and in countries poorer than our own — more than our own pleasure, more than other priorities which clamor for our attention. It is about being committed to more than one's personal interest, more than to the interest of one's nation, instead to the interests of all human beings — and in this case to the most vulnerable of them, children. This is the essence of the global ethic that has motivated the InterAction Council and its founder Takeo Fukuda.

To make the case for a global ethic — to value others more than our own country's interest — takes leadership and courage. One will always confront those who will contend that one's own interests — or those of one's country — should take priority over the interests of children elsewhere.

I come from a country, the United States, which is paradoxically increasingly generous on a personal level — but in recent years rather ungenerous at the state level. Personal philanthropy by citizens of the United States to global causes — including children — is increasing significantly. It is not just Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, but an increasing number of Americans, who are discovering the necessity of the global ethic — and the priority of global philanthropy. Nonetheless, as Mr. McNamara cited yesterday, development and relief aid from the United States government, so generous immediately after World War II, has fallen to just over .1% of gross national product.

In some ways this is very hard to understand. In the case of children, one can make a very strong practical expedient case for aid to children. A child who is fed and educated can grow up to defend himself and his family, can become an economic producer and can advocate for his or her own rights. He or she needs less future aid and can even contribute to the welfare of others. A child in desperate need and without hope is more easily exploited, more likely to be conscripted as a child soldier, and more likely to be recruited as a suicide bomber. An educated girl child can advocate for her own rights and — statistics show — will have fewer and healthier children.

So what can the IAC do today in addressing the failure of our nations and our peoples to meet their responsibility to children? Among the recommendations discussed in Tokyo were the following:

1. All countries need to recapture the sense of purpose and generosity demonstrated after 1945.
2. Leaders must make the commitment to children a key part of their personal ethics and philosophy, their public advocacy, and their legislative and executive agenda.
3. Wealthy countries must recognize and honor a greater global ethical responsibility, making all their arrangements — including trade policy — contribute to the development of poorer countries.
4. NGO's must become watchdogs on national social spending for children and also foreign assistance to support children around the globe.
5. All of us who proclaim a global ethic and responsibility to children must listen to the voices of children and their voice about their own needs. We are not always the wisest regarding their real needs.
6. Religious leaders and — yes — teachers of ethics and society must instill an understanding and commitment to the global ethic and the priority of children.

Finally, as in all fields of human endeavor, one must become specific in one's advocacy. It is not enough, we concluded, to promote a general global ethic of responsibility to children. One must embrace a responsibility to specific children or specific needs of children — to the children of SubSaharan Africa, to AIDS orphans, to child soldiers, to girls drawn into sexual slavery. Only in campaigning for specific children — and specific actions — do we meet our responsibility to children.

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