Faces of harm: capability-restriction and agency deprivation during childhood

Brando, Nico (2018). 'Faces of Harm: Capability-Restriction and Agency Deprivation during Childhood' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


Children are one of the human groups most prone to harm. The vulnerability and dependence inherent in their condition makes the study of the harms that may be inflicted on them a priority for any study of justice (Schweiger and Graf 2015). Capability theory offers many tools to analyse the potential interests of children, and how they may be harmed.[1] When talking about harms that may be inflicted on children, the core focus of concern tends to rely on threats to their well-being (both present and future). Priority lies in ensuring the nourishment, health and other basic necessities required for the minimal survival of the child and her development (Dixon and Nussbaum 2012). This primary concern with the well-being aspect of a child’s deprivation encompasses much of the theoretical and policy discourses, and most (if not all) legal and political systems in the world tend to endorse them without much controversy. Growing importance has been given as well to the interests and protections required for children to not have their future agency harmed (Brighouse 2002). The exercise of agency in adulthood requires support and development throughout childhood, demanding certain securities and resources to be provided. Education, for example, is considered as a structural mechanism for ensuring that children’s future agency is not harmed and positively promoted.  

Concern with a child’s present well-being and her future agency interests are fundamental issues, and any theory of justice for children should address them. In this paper, however, I consider other potential sources of harm which arise from a child’s present agency deprivation. Standard accounts on children’s rights consider that limiting and restricting children’s agency freedoms in the present is justified because it protects children’s present and future well-being, as well as their future agency. Children’s status as developing beings makes them more prone to harming themselves and others if granted full agency freedom. However, protecting children from themselves cannot justify a full-on restriction of their agential abilities; their ‘evolving capacities’ to take control and authority over their lives and choices implies that their position as agents should be maintained, even if not over all aspects of life (nor to the same degree) (Liebel 2014). Agency freedom is a fundamental source of empowerment in various stages of development, and should not be seen as an interest only for people “with their full mental, emotional and physical abilities”; it plays, as well, a fundamental role in a person’s capability-formation during childhood (Biggeri et al. 2011; Hart and Brando forthcoming).

I consider that unjust restriction of children’s agency freedom falls within two categories: first, restriction of freedoms that do not generate a relevant risk of harm neither to the self nor to others; and, restriction of freedoms that protect the child from harms caused by others. My contention is that harms to a child’s freedom are fundamental injustices because they breach the basic liberal principle of equal treatment and respect for people as agents, and because they may impose the burden of restriction on the victim of harm rather than on its perpetrator.

Restrictions tied to non-harmful freedoms and to harms inflicted to children by others affect two core objectives that a liberal political system must guarantee: a person’s interest in self-development and in self-determination (Young 1990). Standing on Nussbaum’s three levels of capabilities (basic, internal and combined) (Nussbaum 2000), I argue that a child’s agency interests can be harmed in different ways depending on the stage of capability-formation in which she is (Cowden 2012). Self-development harms are those that are inflicted on both basic and internal capabilities, stemming from the restriction or limitation of a child’s freedom to be an active agent in her development process (not only tied to infringing a negative duty of non-interference, but also of the positive duty to provide the conversion factors required for self-development). I explore harms to self-development through the concepts of dehumanisation and oppression, affecting, respectively, basic and internal capabilities (Cudd 2006). Self-determination harms are those that are inflicted on the combined capabilities and a child’s actual opportunity to exercise agency. They stem from the restriction or limitation of a child’s freedom to be an active agent in determining her own life and choices as a private and public agent. I explore harms to self-determination through the concepts of domination and unfreedom, both being structural constraints to a person’s ability to act as a free agent, and fundamental phenomena which affect a system’s consideration of the child as entitled to equal treatment and respect by her social and political community (Sen 1999; Pettit 2016).



Biggeri, Ballet, and Comim (eds.) (2011). Children and the Capability Approach. Houndmills: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Brighouse (2002). ‘What Rights (If Any) Do Children Have?’ In Archard and Macleod (eds.) The Moral and Political Status of Children. Oxford: OUP.

Cowden (2012). ‘Capacity, claims and children’s rights.’ Contemporary Political Theory  11 (4): 362-8.

Cudd (2006). Analyzing Oppression. Oxford: OUP.

Dixon and Nussbaum (2012). ‘Children’s Rights and a Capabilities Approach: The Question of Special Priority.’ Cornell Law Review 97: 549-594.

Hart and Brando (forthcoming). ‘Children’s Well-Being and Agency Rights: A Capability Approach to Participatory Education.’ European Journal of Education 53 (3).

Liebel (2014). ‘From Evolving Capacities to Evolving Capabilities: Contextualizing Children’s Rights.’ In Stoecklin and Bonvin (eds.) Children’s Rights and the Capability Approach. Dordrecht: Springer.

Nussbaum (2000). Women and Human Development. The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge: CUP.

Pettit (2016). ‘A Brief History of Liberty – And Its Lessons.’ Journal of Human Development and Capabilities 17 (1): 5-21.

Schweiger and Graf (2015). A Philosophical Examination of Social Justice and Child Poverty. Houndsmills: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Sen (1985). ‘Well-Being, Agency and Freedom. The Dewey Lectures 1984.’ Journal of Philosophy 82 (4): 169-221.

Sen (1999). Development as Freedom. Oxford: OUP.

Young (1990). ‘Five Faces of Oppression.’ In Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton: PUP.

[1] I rely on Amartya Sen’s typology of basic human interests (well-being and agency achievements and freedoms) (1985), and Harry Brighouse’s inclusion of present and future interests (2002).

scroll to top