On Becoming an Adult: Autonomy and the Moral Relevance of Life's Stages



What is it about a person's becoming an adult that makes it generally inappropriate to treat that person paternalistically any longer? The Standard View holds that a mere difference in age or stage of life cannot in itself be morally relevant, but only matters insofar as it is correlated with the development of capacities for mature practical reasoning. This paper defends the contrary view: two people can have all the same general psychological attributes and yet the mere fact that one person is at the beginning of a life and another in the middle of one can justify treating the younger person more paternalistically than the older one. Recognising the moral relevance of age, moreover, is crucial if one is to accommodate both the liberal moral ideal of respect for autonomy and our demanding educational aims, given that these otherwise come into conflict with one another.