Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Raising Children

When talking about ethics, the subject of childrearing has always made me uncomfortable. I fully agree with Marx and Mill about the idea that a person's ability to plan her life is affected significantly (even constrained!) by her upbringing. It seems to me, then, that it would be profoundly disrespectful of a child's individuality to bring her up in a way that hampers her ability to choose and pursue a life which best suits her. But I wonder if this intuition could be sustained.

For one thing, it seems impossible to bring someone up without influencing her decision making in one way or another. For another, I wonder if there really are "best" life paths for each of us which we would choose if we weren't influenced in one way or another. In light of these objections, it might be that the most respectful way to bring someone up is to do so in a way that enables her to change her mind and to pursue a wide breadth of life paths. Although they'll inevitably be influenced somehow or another, perhaps what's best for people is to be able to be critical of their own life choices, and to have the tools for pursuing different life paths if they choose to do so. I think this seems basically right.

But if this were the case, then we would be forced to confront two uncomfortable entailments. The first is that certain lifestyles may be incompatible with such an upbringing; no one would choose them except by being brought up in a way that would "force" one to choose them (by affecting one's ability to critique the choice in light of alternatives, or by denying one the tools to pursue alternatives, or through actual barriers to exit). The second is that we would be implying that by continuing to exist, it is clear that such lifestyles are inherently disrespectful of people's individuality.

What I have in mind is the classic story of the child brought up in a deeply traditional lifestyle, indoctrinated throughout his upbringing and unable to escape even if he wanted to because of his undeveloped real-world sensibilities. Clearly such an individual could be said to have been deprived of both the ability to properly critique his own lifestyle, and the capacity to pursue alternatives. Such an upbringing seems completely disrespectful to the individuality of the child so raised. Further, it's clear that the disrespected individuals are going to end up being the very same people who disrespect the next generation in the same way.

But am I not, then, supposing that those lifestyles are somehow worse? Mill said that we must come to conclude that tradition is useful and valuable on our own, and I have smuggled in that prejudice. It may be that the freedom to choose can't ensure the right choices because we can't necessarily understand why a lifestyle is best without living it. Or even worse, the value of a lifestyle might be built on one's not choosing it in the uninfluenced manner which we've been discussing.

If one of these were the case, then it seems that complete respect for a person's individuality would severely hamper their ability to make the best choices. For example, it fully respects the individuality of a young child to allow him to have sex with an older pervert who allures him with praises of maturity. But we would hopefully view this kind of respect for individuality to be improper; a child seemingly must be prevented from making such a disastrous mistake, even if the child could not have been made to understand why the choice would have been a bad one. If we are like children, then it could be that despite our inability to see the value in some lifestyles, they would be better for us than any alternative we could have chosen on our own.

So what are we to say, then? On one hand, it clearly disrespects one's individuality to indoctrinate and brainwash someone into accepting a lifestyle that they would not likely choose in the absence of outside influence. But on the other hand, it could be that people are unable to make proper life choices without being influenced, and so it might be perfectly acceptable to disrespect people's individuality to ensure that they don't squander the only life they have. How can we resolve this without asserting the objective superiority of our lifestyles to others which we have never ourselves experienced? Or can we assert this somehow in an unobjectionable manner? I have no idea...

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