This question came up recently in another thread. I thought it was interesting enough to get its own thread.
The age of majority is very much a culturally-defined idea. It is not just a matter of getting through puberty or physically appearing like an adult. Although it does have a strong link to puberty and the associated physical development, it’s really the mental development that matters. And not just generic mental development, but probably specifically development of one’s mental picture of his/her place within the society and culture they live.
Actual process of turning from child into adult is gradual, physically and culturally. And there are many different aspects of it that could be controlled separately. Different developmental clues or ages could be used for each different aspect. I think this has become more and more recognized over time in the complexities of our laws. Common US examples: driving (with test), alcohol, gun license, ability to marry, own property, trade stock, etc. Jury duty, voting, being tried as an adult. I am only going to focus on one important step, separate from all other possible signs of the “adulthood”: the right to vote in a democratic society. (I am assuming that Federation societies are democratic, or at least a close approximation.)
I would think that mental (specifically social) maturity is what matters, not so much physical maturity. At least, no more than physical maturity may affect mental growth and maturity.
If you were going to test for “maturity” or “adulthood” as a precursor to gaining the right to vote, what would you test for if not the physical? My initial thoughts (ie: gut reaction) was that you couldn’t test too much for any particular knowledge, like the ability to read and write or even a particular knowledge of how the government works because even ignorant bums (and I use the term loosely, not to point out any particular group) should have the right to vote in a democracy. Then I thought, maybe some kind of IQ test, but again that doesn’t account for the ignorant bums.
There are actually some people that are mentally deficient enough that they should not be allowed to vote. I’m talking about people with medically declared mental deficiencies that require life-time assistance, like people in mental institutions (permanently at least, maybe not just temporary visitors), or people like my uncle, who suffered a head injury at the age of 9 and never developed beyond that point (although he lived to be 64).
But other than the actual medical cases, everyone else, no matter how ignorant or how low the IQ, should be allowed to vote once they grow out of their childhood dependency into adulthood. That’s the initial gut reaction anyway. You certainly don’t want to try and start secluding people on any basis, because there would be the urge by people in charge to corrupt the system to further weed out undesired people from the voting populace. It’s the slippery slope idea.
So we come back to the only real quality clearly linked to maturity and measurable enough to apply across the board equally: physical age. At some point in age we go through puberty and take on the physical characteristics of adulthood. The exact age differs depending on environmental and genetic factors. And at some point in age we have gained enough experience with the world to be considered “adults” by our cultural definitions. Again, the exact age differs. But it is the only good starting point for discussion, and each culture can define the appropriate age for them.
Of course, in the Federation, the link between age and puberty is more complex because there exist different species. And it’s possible that vastly different environmental factors could significantly change the onset of puberty, even for members of the same race. Say, for instance, that being raised on a low gravity environment (like the Moon) causes a measurable delay in puberty for the average human. That would have to be taken into account. But how do you deal with people coming and going, not living continuously in any one environment their entire lives (3 years on Earth, 6 years on the Moon, 2 years on a starship, 4 years in aquatic city miles deep in an ocean somewhere, etc, etc)?
Maybe if we could accurately measure when puberty happens, then base the voting age on that somehow? But that would probably be exceedingly hard to do. Even within a given species (like humans) there are lots of variability in signs of puberty. What would you use as a measurable indicator? Girls getting their period? Not all of them do. Boys getting facial hair? Not all of them do. There are medical conditions which may remove one or more signs of puberty without reducing the over-arching reality that the person is an adult now and not a child, at least in the important aspect of mental capacity for abstract and social thought. And what about the estimated 5-9% of the human race that do not fall into the strict categories of man or woman?
I think the only real fair way for the Federation to deal with this is to have a 2-tiered system:
(1)There would be an agreed upon age for each species upon which normal adulthood is assumed. Some people could be withheld from this automatic age of majority by professional medical diagnosis. This is much like most modern societies on Earth today, except that you would have to take into account different possible environments. And the age would have to be different for each race. (As an aside, this age would have to be measured from the being’s perspective. If they went forward or backward in time, or they spent any time at relativistic speeds, etc, then those things would have to be taken into account.) These normal ages would be defined by the people or the legislative bodies in a democratic way.
(2)There would be a method available for beings to gain their right to vote prior to this “normal” age to account for the unusual person/event.
(By the way, this is generally how I think current Earth cultures should deal with this problem even now; except for the points about different species.)
So again, I come back to: what do you test for, if you were going to? And for this, I have to remind myself that the age of majority is a culturally-defined construct. So the real question is, what does our culture expect of an adult in relationship to voting. (Remember, this question can be asked with different answers for different things, but I am only going to focus on voting.) I think, in general, adults are expected to contribute positively to society. (You can say this is especially true in the idealized Federation, where apparently everyone does that without even having money to motivate them.) And in order to positively contribute with your new power to vote I would think one would need (and be able to pass a test to prove) a basic understanding of how to vote, what it does, probably even an understanding of the basic structure of the government and it’s checks and balances, of which voting is a part. And most importantly, express an understanding that this voting right is your alone, not to be forced on you by others or shared with others. (The idea being to minimize the chance that somebody could “force” a bunch of young ignorant children into voting a certain way.)
Basically, I would think this “early voting power” test would be similar to citizen tests given to people trying to gain citizenship in a new country. Only, this voting test would be more focused just on the government construct and the act of voting itself. No need to have detailed history tests. Or recite the pledge of allegiance, etc.
Of course, this testing process would have to be available in many languages and methods to ensure that no particular language is required, not that ability to read and write. And any physical handicap would not prevent someone from passing.
I got to thinking further about this idea that the age of majority was a cultural-defined construct. What about those societies that have a vastly different idea of what the age of majority is? In human history at least, the age of majority has tended to be older and older as the average lifespan of the people in the society goes up. In less technologically-advanced cultures where the average life expectancy is lower, the age of majority tends to often be associated directly with puberty itself. Well, what about those segments of Federation society that have maintained a less-technologically-advanced existence and therefore have a vastly younger age of majority? Like the descendants of the Rubber Tree People that Chakotay meet on Earth in the VGR episode “Tattoo”.
But would such people even want to get involved with Federation politics? It doesn’t matter whether they do or not, really, they have the right and there needs to be an answer to how that would be addressed. Say a young 13-year-old human boy/man comes out from one of these sub-cultures and says “I’m an adult in my society, I know nothing about Federation politics, but I want the right to vote in Federation elections.” Who is the Federation to deny that kid the right to vote just because he’s not old enough by the pre-defined normal human standards in the Federation and he can’t pass the “early voting” test? Well, that answer is: they are the Federation, a totally different culture than the one he grew up in.
Because the age of majority is culturally defined, it can be different for different cultures and subcultures. You can see how there might be lots of different tiers of cultures in the Federation, each with their own different definitions of age of majority. Voting in Federation-level politics requires a certain age of majority (say 18), but local politics are very different and require a different age of majority (like 13 in the case of this young boy). I think it’s OK for this to be different. There are differences in how local politics work versus large-level Federation politics. It’s OK to recognize those differences. IDIC and all that. Plus, all that young boy would have to do to gain the right to vote in Federation elections would be to learn a little about the Federation government that he will be participating in. That’s not too much to ask for is it? I think it’s a good reason, as alluded to above, to have that second tier of gaining the right to vote in the Federation.
Here’s one more major challenge for Federation in relation to the age of majority and the right to vote: how do you handle mix-breed children. Every new hybrid child that is born is practically a new species entirely. There would be no pre-defined data to go one when you ask the question: “what’s the normal age for this child to go through puberty?” What age do you use as the default age of majority for such a being? You would assume a hybrid child would mature at least as fast as slowest-maturing parent, but even that may not be the case. Especially if a lot of genetic help was required along the way in order to have the child in the first place (like when humans and Vulcans produce offspring). At least initially, you would think the new hybrids would have to test into adulthood because there would be no predefined "automatic" age of majority.