Violence against Children – a topic for moral philosophers?

There has been a massive increase in domestic violence and abuse during the global lockdown. For a shocking number of women, children and dependent elderly, home is not a place of safety, care and intimacy, it is a place of intimidation, terror and suffering. Instead of care, or some odd perversion of it, they are tormented physically, emotionally and in some cases sexually. While there is some philosophical literature on domestic violence against and abuse of intimate partners, a topic that fits the feminist criticism of “rape culture”, the cruelty perpetrated on children and on the elderly has so far received minimal attention from moral philosophers. And this in spite of the fact that cruelty on children is considered the greatest of evil. Since when is moral philosophy not interested in the greatest of evils? Is it still the case that philosophy shuns the intimate, private sphere of the home?

Looking at the literature on evil, one would surely conclude that: concentrating on the most shocking cases of war crimes and serial killers, the paradigm case of evil is a sadist monster who takes pleasure from the suffering she inflicts. But explanations coming from these cases fail to express the particular sense of shock and horror that we experience when encountering cruelty perpetrated on children in their home. We cannot explain that unless we take into account the nature of the relationship between the parent and the child. First of all, unlike the case of intimate partners, it is by default an unequal relationship. The parent is stronger, both physically and mentally, she has the responsibility over the child and can decide on her behalf. She is in the position of power. At the same time, she cares about the child who is vitally dependent on her care, both physically and emotionally. Lastly, there is a unique bond of love between parent and child; indeed, parental love is often considered the paradigm of unconditional and selfless, that is, the best kind of love. Part of it is that the parent identifies with the wellbeing of the child. And the child takes this for granted: there is absolute trust on the part of small children, and at the same time, there is loving devotion, admiration and adoration of the parent. Assault or abuse perpetrated by the parent violates the relationship in at least these three senses: it is an abuse of power over someone weaker and vulnerable whose protection is the parent’s primary responsibility. It is a violation of care which again is the parent’s primary responsibility. And it is a violation of love, a betrayal of the child’s innocent trust.

Digging deep into academic literature, one finds at least some of these aspects covered. In the ethics of care, a few papers consider how care is violated, and Ruddick (1995) claims that assaults on children have to be considered as cases of injustice, with interesting connection to domination. Following Ruddick, Kittay (1999) criticizes prevailing accounts of domination for failing to account for contexts of care and dependency. In the vulnerability studies, Mullin (2011) analyses the special ways in which children are vulnerable, emphasising the emotional harm caused by neglect or abuse, which has significant consequences for their further development. Together with other feminist writers, Mullin points out the specific vulnerabilities of caregivers and the social factors underlying these vulnerabilities. In the literature on evil, Card (2002) depicts vividly the cases of maternal child battering and abuse, blaming the rigid conditions of the institution of marriage. More importantly, in spite of not speaking explicitly about children, Goldberg (2019) connects the idea of evil with vulnerability and its exploitation in an unequal relationship, which makes his theory especially well-suited for explaining the evil of child and elderly abuse. But it is only Weil’s (1987) conception of injustice and evil that makes the explicit connection between power abuse, lack of love (and compassion) and affliction. She, too, didn’t write about children, but her account has exactly the kind of sensitivity one needs when writing about them.

Kamila Pacovská




Card, C. (2002), The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil, ch. “Terrorism in the Home”, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goldberg, Z. (2019), “A Relational Approach to Evil Action”, Journal of Value Inquiry 53: 33-53.

Kittay, E. F. (1999), Love’s Labor Essays on Women, Equality and Dependency, ch. “Inequality, Domination, and Vulnerability in the Dependency Relation”, Routledge.

Mullin, A. (2011), “Children, Vulnerability, and Emotional Harm”, in K. Mackenzie, W. Rodgers, S. Dodds (eds) Vulnerability, 266-287.

Ruddick, S. (1995), “Injustice in Families: Assault and Domination”, in Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics, ed. V. Held, 203–223. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Weil, S. (1987), “Are We Struggling for Justice?”, transl. M. Barabas, Philosophical Investigations 10 (1):1-10.