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Childhood Trauma Is a Moral Emergency

Childhood trauma makes it difficult to acquire the essential arts of personhood.

Key points

  • "Essential arts of personhood" refers to skills that are basic to human life and being treated as a human, such as hoping and empathizing.
  • The essential arts are primarily modeled by caregivers in childhood, and they are essential for self-respect and moral agency.
  • Trauma in childhood hinders a person's ability to acquire the essential arts that help them become a full person and treated as such.

Many children are experiencing significant trauma in detention centers, foster, state, and psychiatric care. Others are experiencing trauma stemming from alcohol or drug abuse by parents or guardians, violence in their homes or communities, and massive disruptions in their educations. While most surely a public health crisis, this epidemic of childhood trauma is a moral crisis.

All forms of trauma hinder a child’s ability to realize or acquire “essential arts of personhood.” Philosopher Annette Baier introduces this expression to highlight certain skills and abilities that are basic to human life, being human, and being treated as a human. We are all heirs and successors to other people; each of us is born utterly dependent on others. As we mature, the extent and nature of that dependency change. In many ways, dependency becomes interdependency.

The parent-child relationship is the primary nexus in which these skills are modeled by parents and learned by children. Moral psychologists often use the expression “parental scaffolding” to capture the ways that parents provide the structure and frameworks for learning to do all sorts of things we humans can do. What and how a parent teaches changes. Quite importantly, parents have to teach children how to learn and how to self-regulate. As a person matures, he should be able to engage in self-scaffolding. The ability to self-scaffold is an inheritance from our parents, teachers, other adults, and our peers.

These arts and skills are crucial for navigating the physical and social worlds. They are the basis for knowledge, self-knowledge, self-respect, and consciousness of ourselves and our place in the world. The essential arts of personhood include cognitive capacities such as thinking rationally, deliberating, comparing and contrasting, remembering, forming plans, etc) as well as emotional capacities, which always have cognitive content such as feeling loyalty or trusting others). They include recognizing and accepting some limitations while pushing against others, learning from mistakes and repairing their effects.

I regard a constellation of arts or skills as essential such that their absence makes it more likely an individual will be the object of moral disapprobation or will be medicalized if not pathologized. The lack of these skills makes it difficult if not impossible to become a full person and to be treated as a full person. This is why I regard childhood trauma as a moral emergency.

The Essential Arts of Personhood

The essential arts I want to describe briefly are imagining, hoping, having empathy, and maintaining bodily self-possession. Imagination is the ability to consider matters not as they are but as how they could be. Imagination is what allows us to take actualities and reshape/reconfigure them into possibilities. Imagination can look backward, forward, and in the present. Imagination helps us to engage in counterfactual reasoning. We often run through many possible options before we act. We imagine the different consequences that would follow from the different actions. We often put ourselves in the shoes of others, wondering how we would respond or how we would like to be treated.

Hoping—or more specifically hoping well—is equal parts gift and skill. Hoping well involves having aspirations that are appropriate and don’t require others to make them come true or trod over the aspirations of others. Hoping well involves acting in a responsible way to make the hopes actual. Someone who hopes well uses her imagination to consider options and scenarios and then to take deliberate actions. Hoping well is a balance of recognizing limitations, making effort, and acting in ways that are responsive and responsible.

Empathy is the ability to feel into another. In order to do that, one needs to understand what another is feeling. She may first need to imagine how she might feel in the same circumstances. She may need to be able to “read” another’s facial expressions and bodily behaviors. Empathy can also be internally directed to one’s self, which means one must be able to identify what one is thinking and feeling.

Maintaining bodily self-possession involves identifying and meeting one’s bodily needs and limitations as well as regulating one’s bodily responses. Bodily self-possession requires having enforceable boundaries and the power to grant or deny permission for another’s engagement. Each of us is an epistemic (knowledge) authority on what is happening with our body. As humans, each of us has been, presently is, or will be again dependent on the care of others. The nature and extent of that caregiving must aim toward each person’s achieving the highest degree of bodily self-possession possible given the realities of age and ability.

Cultivating the Essential Arts Leads to Self-Respect

The essential arts are always works in progress but this doesn’t take away from the fact that the groundwork for their acquisition is in childhood. Some of the arts are more basic or primitive while others are more complex and build from others. The arts and skills augment and complement each other, which explains why some seem to cluster. Imagination, hope, empathy, and bodily self-possession are fundamentally connected. One must be able to imagine possibilities before one can hope for them. One must be able to imagine how others feel before she can feel empathy. Emotions are bodily, so one must be able to recognize what is happening with herself so that she can recognize it in others.

Cultivating and practicing these essential arts culminates in a person’s coming to have self-respect. Self-respect is having a sense that one has moral worth. Self-respect is necessarily connected to agency; one will use the acquired arts and skills to assess a situation, deliberate, imagine alternative ways to act and their consequences, form intentions, make choices, and understand herself as a person with worth in the world. When the essential arts are lovingly and consistently cultivated from a child’s earliest days, she becomes a person with self-respect along with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. Every child deserves loving attention, care, education, and opportunities to become a full-fledged person and be treated as such. Most surely, this is not what many children are experiencing.


Baier, Annette. 1985. Postures of the Mind. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

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