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The Treatment of Adults and Children in Consumer Protection

Updated on October 6, 2015


  • This article argues that 'adults' can be as stupid, vulnerable, and spontaneous as children when it comes to purchasing goods and services.
  • It rejects the idea that just because we reach a certain age we should be given the freedom to make decisions for ourselves without any help from the state, and concludes that such a notion is impractical.

Children and Adult - Differences

  • The reasoning behind treating children and adults differently as consumers is because traditionally we view the former to be an inferior version of the latter. In fact, we view the former as requiring the guidance of the latter.

'To treat someone like a child is, roughly, to treat her as if her life is not quite her own to lead and as if her choices are not quite her own to make.' - Kantian philosopher Tamar Schapiro.

  • Schapiro explains the common viewpoint that 'an adult... is one who is in a position to speak her own voice, the voice of one who stands in a determinate, authoritative relation to the various motivational forces inside her.' That is to say, adults are aware of their personal preferences and can choose what they want accordingly.
  • Contrarily, says Schapiro, children have not yet developed such preferences and so cannot decide for themselves: 'there is no voice which counts as hers'.


  • This type of argument is very weak. It is obvious that, growing up, we cannot have our own wants without first considering those of others. However, whichever wants we do end up with are not accidents: they are instilled in us from various sources.
  • Parents, friends, advertisements, movies - whether we are five years old or fifty years old doesn't matter, our wants are a direct result of what our life has told us to want. Just because we have had more exposure to sources of influence does not mean that we are better equipped to decide what we 'really' want than children are.
  • In fact it may well be the opposite. Years of lies and propaganda can make adults want for things so strongly that children would never be capable of acting in similar ways. Extremist views are, after all, held by those adults who, though having spent longer on this earth than children, want for things to the point of sacrificing their own lives to kill 'enemies' (as in 9/11), or torturing - in the most barbaric ways imaginable - innocent others because they believe they are 'evil' for being Jewish (as in WWII), or aerial striking innocent civilians in Palestine because of notions of territoriality (as in the Israel-Palestine conflict).
  • With regard to consumerism, then, how can we trust adults - so easily radicalised - not to buy an inferior product simply because it is from their nation of origin, or because of their religion, a flashy ad, or basic association-psychology (e.g. seeing the product surrounded by attractive members of the opposite sex).

Frances Waksler

  • Argues convincingly that childhood and adulthood is a continuum: the former at the beginning, the latter at the end, so that we are always in-between the two and cannot accurately be called either.
  • 'Perhaps adulthood is at heart a tenuous achievement, being adult as continuous accomplishment, and the serious questioning of adult understandings thus a challenge to a fragile view of the world... Much of adult knowledge is based on faith - faith in the correctness of what people were taught as children.' - Waksler

Sigal Benporath

  • We must '[realize] the flexibility of the concept of childhood... There is no specific point in the process of development that turns children into adults.'

Given that clearly this is the case, and there is never a 'point of no return' (other than perhaps, biologically) where we can never exhibit the vulnerability of childhood again, it seems reasonable that our law does not use terms of 'childhood' and 'adulthood' but rather addresses the problems directly. Laws should be drafted with provisions focused on the 'vulnerable', the 'ignorant' and the 'incapable'. The effect of this would be to extend the protection the law currently affords to children to everyone - because it is everyone that can, at times, be vulnerable to clever marketing, vicious propaganda, or lapses of judgement.

Emotions and Consumer Protection

  • Children get emotional easily.They cry, get angry, frustrated, jealous or sad at the smallest of things.
  • But do they kill out of anger? Do they rape out of jealousy, or burn down a house?
  • Thankfully, they don't.
  • It has been argued that emotional control is something that children learn to deal with as they age so that they do not simply act on them on a whim. It is concluded from this that adults are better at deciding what to buy and how much.
  • It is conceded that this is true to an extent, but at the same time children, as they grow, begin to learn which actions are relative to the emotions they are feeling.
  • Thus a child, when beaten by another, may get angry or upset, but not act on it because he simply has not been taught, or has not yet observed, how to respond in that situation.
  • Without this teaching or observation, he would not do what many adults would do in the same situation. This is to beat the aggressor back, or, in many cases, return later with a group of friends or deadly weapons and seriously injure or kill the person that previously dishonoured him.
  • Of course, both the child and the parent could have made the preferable response of going to the police to deal with the matter formally. It is important to realise, however, that what decides whether they do so or not is not simply their age but how they have been taught to respond, or how they have seen others respond (and the consequences/effectiveness of the response).
  • Now, it may be that the reader makes the clever argument of saying 'adults have had longer on this earth to figure out what the most effective response is to a given situation and so deserve less protection than children" but this, it is submitted, is asking far too much of the human race.
  • Why is it too much? Because we cannot agree on one set of moral principles to decide what is an 'effective' response or not. Is calling the police to deal with an aggressor a better response to aggression than to use violence against him yourself? Is vengeance part of the 'effectiveness' of the response? Should the response cause suffering to the person who wronged you (if so, how much?), or is it enough that he is locked away to never do it again?
  • It is simple moral questions like these that mean adults will always act differently and that many of these different responses will be looked upon as being bad decisions by other adults: there is simply no common ground between the desires of men to be able to make such judgements.
  • Having established that, it is easy to see that offering less consumer protection to adults - those who are hopelessly wading through a sea of moral confusion with nothing to guide them - is as cruel and impractical as letting children decide for themselves what they wish to buy and how much.
  • It is the job of the state, the only entity which has the means to analyse products and services to the degree that it can see which are inferior, or even malicious, to protect all of society from being swindled.

We are all at risk!
We are all at risk!

Statistics pulled from:

  • Natasha Singer, Study Urges More Oversight of Dietary Items, N.Y. Times,
  • Janine L. Pilliteri et al., Use of Dietary Supplements for Weight Loss in the United States: Results of a National Survey, 16 OBESITY 790, 790-794 (2008).

This is all a bit too much - consumers can't be so easily manipulated, can they?

  • Here's a good real-life example provided by Neil Browne and Lauren Biksacky.

"During 2009, at least 114 million US consumers regularly purchased dietary supplements. Almost all scientific evidence indicates that dietary supplements are not effective in helping people lose weight. Despite the scientific evidence contradicting the efficacy of dietary supplements, 62.9 percent of dietary supplement users and 42.8 percent of dietary supplement non-users indicated in a National Obesity Study that they perceived dietary supplements as an effective method of weight loss.'

  • I leave the reader with the following question: what is to stop the state from having a dedicated scientific institution responsible for assessing which major companies are misleading consumers through aggressive and manipulative advertising campaigns, so that, when a product is conclusively not fit for what it promotes itself as - as in the case of dietary supplement and herbal remedies - the general public will know about it through a state-run television program, website, or magazine?

Guaranteed! Warning: backed by no scientific evidence, may cause intestinal bleeding.
Guaranteed! Warning: backed by no scientific evidence, may cause intestinal bleeding.


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