In an earlier article [1], I outline the case that, contrary to traditional legal presumption, most people are actually competent to make decisions on their own behalf as early as age 13. Put another way, the empirical evidence strongly suggests that, if the required level of maturity to warrant autonomous decision-making is higher than that of a typical 13-year-old, then the threshold is so high that a significant portion of the adult population should be, as a matter of fact, found incompetent. Because this is absurd, I made the case for lowering the age of majority to 13 years (with some caveats).

However, I did not discuss one issue which is claimed by some authors to justify denying youth, even past the age of competence, the broad types of decisional autonomy given competent adults. I will first outline the broad Parens Patriae doctrine, and then will critically examine the assumptions and reasoning behind it to address whether or not it can validate differential legal treatment of competent adolescents and adults.

 Parens Patriae is the formal name for the government acting “like a parent”, that is, paternalistically. [Note N1]  To broadly describe this issue, consider the following point made by one author discussing children’s rights: “A plurality of distinct rational beings who are also needy cannot therefore universally act on principles of mutual indifference. If they did, agency would fail or diminish for some… ’’ [2].  In other words, in order to make sure that everyone has the capacity to exercise their undiminished liberties in the future, the thinking goes, it is necessary to treat persons unequally now on the basis of age (for instance, by imposing compulsory schooling on young people, forbidding or severely limiting paid employment below a certain age, and allowing parents to impose sanctions on adolescent misbehavior of a kind that would be considered unacceptable for adults in response to the same action, or for actions which would be considered permissible for adults and not worthy of any sanction at all).

According to this line of thinking, even people who have reached the age of competence may not be old enough to be treated the same as competent adults, because current competence does not necessarily imply robustness against factors that can affect future liberty or the capacity to utilize that liberty. On this view, adolescents are much more vulnerable than adults to factors leading to failures to further develop as a person, to outside bad influences, etc. and this vulnerability is a separate matter from the youths’ current decisional competence. Also on this view, a sacrifice of the youths’ current self-determination rights is needed to enhance their future freedoms, but would be justified in virtue of being temporary.

A more extreme scenario illustrative of the same general idea is given in [3]: The right of a (competent) adolescent to refuse life-saving medical treatment. The most controversial type of case is that in which the adolescent’s reason for refusing the treatment seems based on the type of preference that many people are thought to “grow out of”, for instance the chemotherapy treatment for some cancers that causes a patient to be bald-headed for some time and feel nauseated. It is perhaps thought to be the case by many, who reason like the author of [3], that the adolescent puts too much weight on short-term personal appearance considerations (loss of hair) and on short-term feelings of nausea. The adolescent’s apparent disregard for the long-term loss associated with the forgone years of life is thought to be a sign of immaturity which not only shows poor judgment but also amounts to a tradeoff between the current liberty rights of the youth (decisional autonomy) and the future liberty of the youth (the choices they would later have if they continue living and overcome the cancer but will not have if permitted to choose death). 

Opponents of adolescent decisional autonomy also believe that the adolescent’s priorities may change later, so that even a decision which is rationally based on short time-preference may not seem rational to their future, adult self who presumably will have a longer time-preference horizon, since short-term bias is associated with youth. In short, the rationale given for adolescent non-autonomy is that the adolescent would likely, if required to accept the treatment, become an adult thankful for the intervention and over-riding of immature desires. There seems to be some degree of empirical support for a (slightly) shorter time horizon in young people than in adults [4]. Adolescence is perhaps a time when someone’s priorities are more malleable than in adulthood, and it is this issue in part that seems, at first, to justify differential treatment of youth and adults. I will now proceed to critically analyze the logic behind this view.

Despite all of the seemingly reasonable explanations for differential treatment of youth and adults, we have not truly distinguished between, on the one hand, justified differential treatment of youth and adults, or, on the other hand, unjust discrimination. To understand this, note that we neglected to consider the corresponding situations applied to adults, and how we would act in those cases, compared to youth. In particular, there are plenty of adults who, for reasons of depression, ADHD, or other mental conditions, are likely to be biased toward shorter-term thinking but are nonetheless competent. Even normal variation among adults is enough that many healthy adults have a shorter time preference than the average adolescent in [4], as indicated by the standard deviation in their adult samples [Note N2]. These adults are generally also, of course, competent. Furthermore, many of the (presumed competent) adults that do, in fact, have mental issues are both temporary and treatable, sometimes even cured using therapies such as EEG neurofeedback [5]. This effectively puts the adult in the same position as the youth, when it comes to the consent or refusal of treatment, in three senses: First, the adult in this situation has a condition which is temporary, in the same way that youth is temporary. Second, the adult also stands to gain capacity for later liberty by accepting the treatment, just like the youth in the earlier examples, since the adult’s improved mental function will enhance their opportunities and thus will enhance their liberty. Third, the adult’s treatment is likely to result in a reduction in impulsive or short-term preferences upon which decisions are made, just like the youth is plausibly going to later have a longer time-preference than they currently do.

 In all three of these relevant senses, the adult with the treatable ADHD or depression is in an analogous situation to the youth facing compulsory education, parental discipline, or (forced) chemotherapy. Yet despite this, the adult’s autonomy to accept or decline the treatment is accepted, as long as the adult is competent [Note N3].  Furthermore, adults that need more education are not forced to obtain it, and adults are not given non-consensual parental disciplinary sanctions in the manner that many adolescents are, even if such tactics might improve the adult’s self-discipline. Again, adults’ autonomy to accept or decline the education, discipline, or treatment is accepted. The adult is given what we might call meta-liberty, this is the liberty to make decisions that have an effect on one’s liberty. The adult is given the autonomy to, in effect, sign away their autonomy. The only requirement is simple competence. So why not the adolescent?

It may be reasoned that the future considerations or future interests of the adolescent should weigh more than those of the adult, simply because, compared to the adult, the adolescent has more of his/her life span awaiting, or potentially awaiting, him or her. This enhancement of future years would, on this line of thinking, justify a removal of the youth’s liberty relative to the adult’s. But this same line of thinking could also justify sex discrimination, since the sexes have different life expectancies. Furthermore, it might also justify genetic discrimination or even discrimination against persons who are exceptionally healthy, since their future interests are higher. If the argument for discrimination against these classes is unconvincing, it is unclear why, or even if, it should be different for youth. [Note N4]

There are a number of ways that unconscious biases can play into ageism against young people, which is, as I argue here, evident. Plausibly, the differential treatment of adolescents vs. adults, and the high age of majority with respect to the age of competence, are manifestations of an unconscious, but societally pervasive, ageism against young people. To be sure, the intent is usually benevolent. Here I explored prejudices regarding the autonomy of young people who are well-behaved and law-abiding, vs. adults who are well-behaved and law-abiding. However, a parallel set of ageist biases exist with respect to young people engaged in criminal activity, compared with adults engaged in criminal activity [6]. More research is needed in the psychological community to elucidate the similarities and differences between ageist biases against youth and other biases, such as those based on race or gender or (old) age, and also operating at an unconscious level[7][8]. I conclude that it is still reasonable to assert that a truly non-biased society would set its age of majority at 13 years, with the same caveats as in [1].



[N1] Usually the term parens patriae is reserved for cases where the government steps in the place of a negligent parent, which is distinct from the government enforcing obedience to parents (via the age of majority and consent laws). However, the underlying idea is the same – the government is imposing parental authority upon young people, in one form or another. Thus I refer to the broad notion of parens patriae, not the narrow one as commonly used.

[N2] The standard deviation within the adult samples is not directly given by that source. However, it can be calculated by working backwards from the standard error in the population mean (given as “SE”)  using the standard statistical formula σ = (SE)√N, where σ is the standard deviation and N is the size of the sample. In Table1 of Ref. [4], the “Future orientation total scale” of the younger adolescents is around 2.7 and for the adults it is around 3.0. All groups have a SE of around 0.06 and N > 100. This means that in each group the standard deviation is at least 0.6 or so. Thus the difference between the younger adolescents and the adults is at most 0.5 standard deviations. In other words, many younger adolescents have a longer time horizon than many adults, even though on average the adolescents’ horizon is shorter.

[N3] In case the analogy between the adult and the youth still seems unconvincing, consider the case of an adult who simultaneously has a treatable cancer and also a treatable psychological condition, but is still competent.

[N4] As a thought experiment, consider the case where the adolescent, in our comparison with the adult patient, has some genetic condition which shortens expected lifespan from 80 years to 60 years but will not affect the adolescent’s mental state. Due to the shortened lifespan of the adolescent (~60 years vs. ~80 years), that school of thought would also lead to the conclusion of treating the adolescent and the adult on similar footing, if the adult is in his/her early 30’s. The intuitive lack of appeal for this should suggest that “remaining lifespan” is substantially insufficient to justify age discrimination against young people.



[1] Cole, Nightvid F. "Minority vs. Legal Incompetence: The Case for Lowering the Age of Majority to 13." Science 2.0. Science 2.0, 16 May 2017. Web. 23 May 2017. <>.

[2] O'Neill, Onora. "Children's Rights and Children's Lives." Ethics 98.3 (1988): 445-63. JSTOR. Web. 23 May 2017.

[3] Harvey, Martin T. "Adolescent Competency and the Refusal of Medical Treatment." Health Matrix : The Journal of Law - Medicine 13.2 (2003): 297-323. Case Western Reserve University School of Law. Web. 23 May 2017.

[4] Steinberg, Laurence, Sandra Graham, Lia O'Brien, Jennifer Woolard, Elizabeth Cauffman, and Marie Banich. "Age Differences in Future Orientation and Delay Discounting." Child Development 80.1 (2009): 28-44. University of Colorado Boulder Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. Web. 23 May 2017.

[5] Rogala, Jacek et al. “The Do’s and Don’ts of Neurofeedback Training: A Review of the Controlled Studies Using Healthy Adults.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 10 (2016): 301. PMC. Web. 23 May 2017.

[6] Males, Mike A. The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on Adolescents. Common Courage, 1996. Print.

[7] MULLAINATHAN, SENDHIL. "Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions." The New York Times 3 Jan. 2015: Print/Web.

[8] Lyubansky, Mikhail, Ph.D. "Studies of Unconscious Bias: Racism Not Always by Racists." Psychology Today 26 Apr. 2012: Web. <>.

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