Sunday, 22 February 2009

Is Maturity an Imperialist Notion?

I attended a course last week to learn about delivering lessons designed to encourage children to critically engage with ideas. It's called Philosophy For Children. As is often the way with these things part of the course involved taking part in a session in order to get a sense of how one would work.

In a session, a group will debate a question that has arisen from some kind of stimulus (the exact process doesn't matter here). The question that the group had chosen was 'When do you become a grown up?'

It was interesting because most of the group had not had any formal philosophical training and it was clear that a lot of them enjoyed the opportunity to discuss the kind of questions that they wouldn't normally have an opportunity to go into. It was interesting how much trouble the group generally had coming to a concrete definition of the term and how much it would revolve around a perceived 'maturity' in behaviour and the idea of 'taking responsibility' or being 'responsible' for themselves, and a recognition of how hard it is to draw a firm line based on age: some people in their mid-20s behave irresponsibly, some young people are very serious etc.

It set me thinking, watching all this, about why the notion of 'maturity' might be so hard to get a clear idea about, and the following is the line I started to follow.

In our society, rights are accorded to individuals based on age, and there doesn't always appear to be a clear line of reasoning as to why. Criminal responsibility for example is determined to be 10 years old, in Scotland at least. Voting on the other hand is set at 18. You can buy a lottery ticket at 16, but can no longer buy cigarettes until 18.

The underlying reason for this of course is that we live in a society whose legal foundations are the notion of autonomy. In order for our legal system – and I'm not here talking about specifically criminal law, but contract law, employment law, marriage, property, mental health etc – to function at all the individual must be assumed, at some point, to be able to make free decisions for which they can be held responsible. The age limits that abound are therefore set according to the imperatives of these systems: if a crime is committed the need to hold the accused accountable for their actions is very pressing; however the public health agenda to try and reduce smoking favours holding off the age at which an individual's decision to be fully autonomous to as late a date as possible.

This arrangement therefore reflects the fact that the system requires the legal notion of autonomy in order to function in the context of a series of social relations determined by a system predicated on private property, wealth and production. Hence, this notion of autonomy is one extended over a far more amorphous period of human development (at least as regards the notions of apprehending one's own responsibility for one's actions and ability to determine their own best interests that 'grown up' appears to encompass) by a system not owned by the majority of the people who must accede to it. Insofar therefore as it is an imposed system it is an imperialist notion instigated in the interests of one class over another, demanding a universality that conceals its real peculiarism.

This was my line of thought, and although I haven't done a great deal to develop it so far, it seemed worth sharing. Any input, feedback, criticism etc gratefully received.

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