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Does Madeleine McCann deserve never to be found?

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Several news sources reported recently that Scotland Yard has launched a formal investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, following the emergence of ‘new evidence and new theories’. Madeleine disappeared from her family’s holiday apartment in Portugal in 2007, a few days before her fourth birthday. Her parents had left her and her siblings alone in the apartment one evening while they dined with friends at a restaurant. The years since her disappearance have seen a botched Portuguese police investigation, the arrest and release of Madeleine’s parents, various unconfirmed sightings and false leads, a private investigation commissioned by the McCanns, a Scotland Yard case review, and a massive media campaign driven by the McCanns. The case is controversial: among other things, various people have complained that attention to it eclipses other abducted children, and have suggested that media interest in it is partly due to the fact that Madeleine is from a respectable, educated, white, middle-class family.

Perhaps some of this criticism is warranted—I don’t wish to engage with it here. Personally, I am happy that Madeleine’s disappearance is to be investigated, and I hope that it sends a clear indication that this sort of crime will be taken seriously even when a child disappears outside his or her community, with all the difficulties this raises for any investigation. I wish, instead, to focus on a particular complaint about Madeleine’s case that arises again and again each time the case reappears in the news: the view that the case is undeserving of serious attention because the fact that Madeleine’s parents left her unsupervised means that they are partly to blame for her disappearance. This complaint appears many times in comments on a recent Daily Mail story about Madeleine.

Many would agree that it was irresponsible of Madeleine’s parents to leave their children unattended in a holiday apartment. Even so, parents act in comparably irresponsible ways every day, often (mercifully) with no ill consequences. Last year, for example, the Prime Minister accidentally left his young daughter in a pub while the rest of the family went home. And a couple of months ago, my three-year-old daughter wandered into the road while I was strapping her brother into the car. As it turned out, no children were harmed in either of these incidents—but they could have been, and the neglectful parents would have been held responsible. That the McCanns’ irresponsibility had such dramatically tragic results is bad luck, and it is perhaps unfair to heap blame on them when parents like the Camerons and me get off with, at most, a disapproving tut. (Roger Crisp wrote a great blog post on just this sort of unfairness a few months ago.)

I do not think, however, that this particular complaint about Madeleine’s case is concerning chiefly because it is unfair to her parents. I think its main problem is that it reveals a shocking failure to appreciate that the true victim in this case is Madeleine. This ought to be obvious—but, perhaps given the media focus on her parents’ anguish, many people seem to have lost sight of it. Whether or not a suspected case of child abduction is worth investigating does not (or should not) depend on whether the child’s parents acted responsibly, or are otherwise deserving of the resources required to support an investigation. Madeleine’s parents have undoubtedly experienced unimaginable suffering since her disappearance, but they are not the relevant morally significant subjects: Madeleine is. Any investigation into her disappearance, and any punishment of those responsible for taking her, must primarily be a response to (suspected) harm to Madeleine, not to her parents.

The attitude I have criticised is an example of a low-key but persistent failure to view young children as morally significant. Consider, for example, the issue—hotly debated in parenting circles—of whether it is harmful to allow babies to cry themselves to sleep. Very often, the permissibility of this strategy is assessed purely with reference to long-term harms to the child (see, for example, here). The implicit assumption seems to be that the suffering experienced by the crying baby does not matter; we need only worry about whether he or she will suffer when older. To take another example, consider that parents often justify certain punishments to their children with the words, ‘My parents did this to me, and it never did me any harm’. Again, the assumption is that only harms experienced later in life count. Yet another example: decisions about parental access to very young children in foster care generally take into account the preferences of the parents, but not those of the children (for a brilliant and harrowing account of the experiences of foster parents and children, see here. Sometimes there are prudential reasons to ignore the preferences of children. They are less able than adults to consider their own long-term interests, for example. But when this discounting of children’s interests goes too far—as when it leads us to conclude that a suspected child abduction should not be investigated because the child’s parents acted irresponsibly—something is seriously wrong.

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