I don't belong to the group of youths, but one does not need to belong to the particular group in order to defend their interests, like in the case of animal rights movements. Also, I belonged to it, therefore I have some experiences.

Let us look on legal drinking age laws. I know why they exist, but these laws are easily overcome. I would say they are like obstacles rather than justifiable prohibitions. Yet, adults do not face such obstacles. It looks like oppression to me.

There also are other examples such the driving age, the age of consent or age of watching porn. All of these appear oppressive by me. If you can drive well, your age is irrelevant. If you want to have sex, your age is irrelevant. If you want to watch porn, your age is irrelevant.

Is there an ethical theory that rejects such laws as oppressive ? If there is, what is its name or label ? I am looking for references.

I do not assume there are no differences between youths and adults, I just say this age difference is irrelevant, just as the difference between males and females is irrelevant when speaking about feminism (in the form of universal rights).

As this paper says (link provided by @Conifold), adolescents on average are more impulsive, yet then we should merely to prohibit the driving for impulsive people, not for adolescents, why not? There indeed can be adolescents who are less impulsive than average adult. If it is wrong that these differences are foundations for these laws, then what are the arguments for existence of such laws?

Regarding sex, I assume informed consent is a much better solution than age of consent. Anyone, regardless of their age, can give consent if they know the potential results of sex: pregnancy, STDs, injury caused by too rough sex, etc.

  • 1
    Could you try to phrase questions differently than "is it ok for me to call something X and who else does it?", whether X is "oppression" or "natural". And you are factually mistaken about irrelevance of age to sex, drinking and driving due to risk taking/impulse control differences in children and adolescents.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 0:07
  • @Conifold, have you read my last paragraph? These two questions should really be answered, others are somewhat rhetorical. Whether or not I'm mistaken is a matter of debate. You can also talk about the irrelevance of gender to particular kinds of labor, this does not mean feminism is wrong. Also, you ignore the premises: if one drives well, age is irrelevant - driving well includes driving as rules prescribe. Regarding sex - what do you suggest? It is intrinsic for humans. Also, if it is protected, what are the issues?
    – rus9384
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 0:14
  • It is not a matter of debate, there are multiple empirical studies on it, here is a survey Brain Development, Impulsivity, Risky Decision Making, and Cognitive Control. As before, you need to do some prior research to come up with a good question rather than just channel what comes to mind.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 0:20
  • @Conifold, have you read next sentence after I said it's the matter of debate? Do you assume I'm ignoring psychological and physiological differences between males and females? Indeed, there are such on average as well as in the case of youths compared to adults. But average does not mean universal. There are exceptions. But even then, how is brain development relevant to the right of drinking? Or how is it relevant to the right of having sex with anyone? The reason why age of consent exists is completely different: it is brought by feminists. Except in the case of Britain.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 0:24
  • 1
    For some things, I think you are actually looking at it backwards -- the problem with age cutoffs are not that youths are being unjustifiably obstructed, but that adults are being unjustifiably permitted.
    – user6559
    Commented Jul 11, 2018 at 1:05

3 Answers 3


In the context of political philosophy, here are three lines of consideration:

  1. Libertarian political philosophy could suggest that restrictions like driving ages and age of consent generally infringe on personal liberty.

  2. Alternatively, age-based restrictions can be considered a form of age-based discrimination.

  3. Finally, as you seem to suggest it's possible to argue that age-based restrictions serve as a biased or chauvinist proxy for other more relevant considerations. For instance, we might consider granting a driving license to a child who has been properly trained and can pass a driving test.

The merits of 1 can be argued, but along those lines the issue would be having any requirements to drive rather than simply age-based ones. However, this is one of the traditional ways of interpreting such restrictions as being oppressive.

For 2, substantial cognitive differences (such as those detailed in the paper on adolescent brain development) between youths and adults, along with the social benefit of protecting the young from objective dangers suggests at least a prima facie justification for such restrictions.

I suppose 3 is interesting. One response is simply that the benefits of removing those restrictions are minimal and carry risks. One sort of risk comes from the imbalance of power that usually exists between adults and youths. Restricting their access to situations where a serious dispute is likely to arise with an adult helps to discourage and protect them from coercive and abusive behaviors. In ordinary situations, it's expected that a parent or guardian is able and willing to take care of their children in such a way that they don't need to engage in those sorts of risky interactions.

If you're interested in further exploring 3 and the parallels with universal rights and the historical treatment of women, you might find the topic of feminist perspectives on disability to be relevant.

  • I am wondering how given paper is a counterargument for 2. Let's say that black people are worse in X, so, they should have different rights. Seems wrong, no? Or we can look at the castes in India: biological traits are heritable, so, castes are not wrong. In either case this question is yet alone that answers the first question.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jul 11, 2018 at 9:55
  • The argument against 2 is that the restrictions have objective justification and are arguably in the interest of both the restricted group and society as a whole. Also biological development presumably happens over time. To instead use subjective criteria may introduce bias, while other objective criteria might favor certain groups with genetic or developmental advantages as MichaelK seems to suggest. You could still argue for 2 by e.g. claiming the harms to the restricted group outweigh the benefits or that age-based discrimination is never justified.
    – Greg S
    Commented Jul 11, 2018 at 21:11

First of all, thank you for making this question plain and clear. I agree that some of these rules seem pointless: for instance, clearly, any younger sibling is already watching restricted media when their older sibling is around.

But in the opposite extreme, consider what hazards exist in our civilization for which restricting by age is not nearly enough to protect the public. Launching nuclear weapons, for instance, cannot be done by anyone but the most trusted members of government. Should the ethical principle that people have freedom give every 9-year-old a shot at aiming a nuclear bomb? Clearly not.

So what justifies these restrictions? We make laws to restrict things that require management in order to avoid harm. And the capability to manage risk is either demonstrated by training (as with a driver's license) or simply by age.

Sex is no exception. Besides the possibility of transmitting diseases, sex does things to people's brains that nobody understands. And the fact that sex causes new people to exist means that society has an interest in its restriction, so that fewer people get made vulnerable in this way.

Furthermore, Western governments intervene constantly in contractual relationships; so it's clear that the risks, costs and duration of pregnancy makes it sufficiently similar to a contract for the government to intervene in sexual relationships as well.

Finally, it would be really hard to say that these kinds of laws are oppression because they don't apply to people based on their permanent qualities but on a temporary situation that always goes away.

  • "Should the ethical principle that people have freedom give every 9-year-old a shot at aiming a nuclear bomb?" But ethical principles do not allow such freedom for every adult as well. "sex does things to people's brains that nobody understands." - the burden of proof is on those who claims. Do same things work for adults or not? If yes, then what's the point of restriction? Also, in many societies it's allowed for two youths to have sex with each other and it's even worse when the baby is born in such couple rather than one of parents is adult.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 1:11
  • "it would be really hard to say that these kinds of laws are oppression because they don't apply to people based on their permanent qualities but on a temporary situation that always goes away." Then it's impossible to oppress old people by doing those things which are not considered to be oppression when done against mod-age people. It's impossible to oppress those people who are bedridden because of illness. There are many analogies.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 1:13
  • Yes, the same things happen with adults. The point of the age of consent law is that while no children below some age have seen enough to know what the risks are, at least most adults have seen enough and won't feel unjustly oppressed by the consequences of their liberty. Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 1:33
  • This is somewhat illogical. What are the sources for people to see enough if f.e. watching porn is prohibited (yet another meaningless law, seen as obstacle)? I would argue for the idea of informed consent, regardless of age. It is not hard to know in 14 that STDs exist and that having sex results can result in pregnancy with no contraception. It's not hard to know some other important things at that age.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 1:37
  • I think we don't have "informed consent" in the US because we acknowledge the risk that grown-ups would be able to deceive youngsters in order to take advantage of them. Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 1:56


The ethics are quite simple:

  • We find that for some tasks you need to be qualified to be allowed to do them. Because experience shows us that if we leave those tasks open for everyone, harm is likely to come to the individual, to the group and/or to society.

Qualification can be achieved in several ways:

  • You can be certified by an appointed authority.

    Example: take a driver's test

  • You can be vouched for by a trusted party.

    Example: "I know that person. They are cool, let them in".

  • You can aquire some kind of attribute that automatically infers qualification.

    Example: you reach a certain age.

Now you may argue: so why not just qualify me in a different way? Let me show that I can do these things responsibly and without causing harm.

Two things speak against that:

  • The cost and effort may be a lot higher, or even absurd for that type of qualification
  • It may be considered unfair

On the first point... let us exemplify with the age of sexual consent. Do you really want to institute something that can qualify/disqualify kids to have sex before the age of consent? No, I did not think so... it would be absolutely absurd. Even though some people very clearly can have it before that age, and some should not have it even after the age of consent, the mere thought that qualification to be allowed to [copulate] should be done by some kind of human review instead of a certain age... that thought revolts our sensibilties.

On the second point, let us exemplify with voting, or in any other way participating in the democratic process. There are obvious problems with instituting a test to let people into the process. The risk of unfairness, and especially the impact of unfairness coming true, is so great that we have simply said: no tests, everyone can join in as soon as they have reached a certain age.

  • "It may be considered unfair" - joking? Qualification is much more fair mechanism than age restrictions. You attack me appealing to emotions: "it would be absolutely absurd."; "that thought revolts our sensibilties." Exactly unfairness rising from age restrictions made me think so. It's not the best way to heal diarea by putting plug in the arse. The source should be dealt with, not only the symptoms.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jul 11, 2018 at 7:53
  • Not at all joking.
    – MichaelK
    Commented Jul 11, 2018 at 7:55
  • Unfounded statements like "it would be absolutely absurd" are on the same line with the fallacies of appealing to authority and emotion, which have no place on forums like the Philosophy Stack Exchange. Commented Nov 24, 2018 at 15:45

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