The Little People
Philosophical Reflections XXIII
Part A: Starting Small
Since the previous Philosophical Reflections dealt with the morality of sex, it is appropriate to move on to one of the consequences of sex: children. Why would you want them? What rights do children and parents have? What do you owe them? What do they owe you? What are the principles of raising them?
In all mammals, childhood is the period between birth and sexual maturity, characterised by relative physical and mental dependency, during which the child must acquire the tools required for independent survival. Those tools include raw size and strength, and the special abilities the species has evolved for its survival – things such as for a deer, speed, and for a lion, hunting skills. For Man, the rational animal, those special skills are pre-eminently mental: as thinking is Man’s primary tool of survival.
The defining quality of human beings is rationality, in the sense of possessing the power of reason. That is what separates us from other animals, and that is the defining quality determining how we interact with external reality, including each other. Were it not for rationality – were you not a reasoning being with a conceptual consciousness – you could not be reading this nor extracting any meaning from these marks on paper. Nor would the decisions whether to have children and how to treat them be anything more than the results of chance, instinct and imitation: only a rational being can think, and only a thinking being can make free choices.
The physical basis of rationality is intelligence. Without sufficient mental processing power, a conceptual consciousness, one capable of inductive and deductive reasoning and infinite levels of abstraction, is not possible. The hallmarks of a rational consciousness – how it functions and deals with the real world – are integration and differentiation. These are the making of connections between things in reality, involving the mental uniting of concrete things into abstract concepts, the further uniting of simpler concepts into wider ones, and the fleshing out of broad abstractions with finer distinctions.
Consider the mental development of a young girl. As she experiences individual dogs, cats, sparrows and frogs, she integrates them into the concepts “dog”, “cat”, “sparrow” and “frog”; she integrates these further into the concept “animal”; then integrates the concepts of “animal”, “plant” etc. into the broader concept “life”. At the same time, she makes more sophisticated mental divisions: dogs and cats can be grouped into the concept “mammals”, a subdivision of animals separate from others such as “amphibians” and “birds”; and her initial simple concept of “dog” can be subdivided into “hound”, “terrier”, “poodle”, etc – and broadened to include “wolf”. Thus as she grows, the whole interrelated process increases her knowledge by integration, subdivision and more diverse referents for each concept. Should she become a biologist, she might extend this process both more broadly into an understanding of the grand sweep of life, and more deeply into the minutiae of the different species of flies.
(Future Philosophical Reflections will discuss the nature of concepts and inductive reasoning in greater detail. For those curious to delve more deeply on their own, I highly recommend Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.)
The foregoing description reveals the fundamental determinant of human childhood: to develop the rational faculty is a long process. It requires substantial time for the physical development of body and brain which underpins it, for the development of the mental tools required, and for the processes of learning, integration and reasoning themselves. Of course, as with all animals a human child needs time to mature physically. But comparison with other animals shows that this can be achieved much more quickly if that’s all there is to it: a cow or gorilla has a bigger body yet a much shorter childhood than a person. The importance and extent of mental development is the origin of the unusually long human childhood and adolescence.
The Needs of the Child
The above defines the needs of children. By their nature, children require physical support (the provision of food, shelter and protection) and mental training (education).
For most of human history, thinking was something that people did, but not something they were taught. Most of that history was a long, slow progress out of the cave and the jungle, characterised by high infant mortality, short lifespan, and vulnerability to whatever disasters nature imposed. Education consisted of training in the concrete skills of survival: what was good to eat; what was dangerous; the rules of the tribe; the arts of farming, hunting and war. The physical needs of children were met as well as could be; their mental needs were met by imparting knowledge and beliefs; thinking skills were left to chance and luck (or even suppressed, to the degree that people were ruled by superstition, tradition and arbitrary power).
The progress of civilisation has been grounded in progress in the art of thinking. To the extent that people thought freely and well, progress was made. To the extent that the importance and rules of thinking were appreciated, progress was accelerated. Now we live in the end result, a technical civilisation unparalleled in human history: a civilisation based on the inventions of the mind, whose problems’ solutions rely on the exacting use of the mind, whose continuing progress depends on the mind.
The mind has always been Man’s tool of survival, whether we knew it or not, whether we applied it to its fullest or not, whether we promoted it or suppressed it, whether its use was rewarded or punished. Our children today are the beneficiaries of the past centuries of men’s thought: low infant mortality, good health, excellent nutrition, high standard of living. As Douglas Adams put it in the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series, we have progressed from “how can we eat?” via “why do we eat?” to “where shall we have lunch?” And as it was in the history of our race, so it is in the life of the individual: life and happiness depend on the use of the mind – whether your own mind, or as a beneficiary or parasite of the minds of others. For all that human life and happiness require must be produced, and that which must be produced must be created by the rational mind. Being a parasite or a looter of the work of others can never reach even a zero sum game: it is the creative mind which is the origin of happiness and the sustainer of life. It is the creative mind which turns rocks that have lain in the ground for aeons into cars, computers and skyscrapers.
Thus, the most important aspect of educating a child is to teach him or her how to think: how to be the rational being which is his or her nature and birthright, but which is not automatic. The brain and its functions we are born with: but even more so than any other skill, its effective use must be learned.
Philosophy is concerned with two broad questions when it comes to raising children. The first is defining the best way to raise children: parents normally love their children and want the best for them, and it is philosophy’s role to tell them the basic principles of how to achieve those aims. The second is defining the rights of children: which determines to what extent the law should protect children against bad parents.
We turn now to the latter. Note that the question of rights is a question of the minimum parents owe their children. Naturally, most parents voluntarily offer their children much more than that, but here we are concerned with what they must offer.
In earlier Philosophical Reflections, I discussed the nature of rights: the fundamental right being the freedom to think and to act upon the results of your thinking: which means, freedom from the initiation of physical force.
That discussion was in the context of adults. Those rights derive from the nature of human beings, namely their rationality. We are thinking beings whose means of survival is that thinking, is reason: and force is the antithesis of the reasoning mind, demanding by its nature actions againstthose called for by your reason. That is, physical force is anti-mind, and that which is anti-mind is anti-life.
But children are not fully rational. They start as infants with no capacity for rational thought, and develop rationality as they mature. Thus they do not have human rights in the sense that adults do. They are not capable of independent survival, and even at an age when they might manage to eke out physical survival, to attempt it would be at the price of the time they need for education – education required to reach their potential as adults. A child cannot say, “I demand adult rights”, because that is saying “I demand the right to an independent existence”: and what a child actually requires by its nature is to be looked after.
This gives us the clue to what their rights are.
The rights of children stem from two facts of reality. First is their basic nature: they are partially rational beings who, in order to survive and develop into adults, require physical support and mental training. Second is the part played by their parents: children are the result of the decisions of adults, and adults must bear the consequences of their choices. Even if the child was an “accident”, it was a predictable consequence of its parents’ voluntary actions, in which it had no say.
Thus, children are a result of voluntary adult actions, and a result with a known nature: an independently conscious being requiring years of care and investment of time and resources.
Consequently, children have a right to have their needs met by their parents to the best of their ability; and if their parents cannot meet those needs adequately, their obligation to the child is to try to find someone else willing and able to meet them. Note that although a child has such rights from its parents, other people cannot be forced to take up the slack if the parents fail: the special dependency of children does not give them greater rights than adults. Needs neither grant nor negate rights: whether those needs or rights are children”s or adults’ (see Philosophical Reflections 17 for more on rights vs needs).
Part B: Rights & Responsibilities
In Part A, we discussed the nature of children and what rights this gives them. We now look further into the question of the rights of children and parents.
There are no conflicts between the rights of adults: for there can be no conflict between different people’s right to be let alone – which is the essence of the fundamental human right to be free from the initiation of physical force.
The issue is not so clear-cut when it comes to the rights of children, as the last thing children need is to be let alone. Their peculiar position is that they are dependent beings with rights to their dependency.
However, in fact this is not essentially different from many other long-term relationships. Adult interactions are often not so fast and loose that people can come and go as they please: they operate under contracts, contracts which define mutual benefits, obligations and termination conditions. Contracts are what protect the rights of the parties to arrangements requiring long-term commitments.
The difference is that whereas in adult contracts all parties agree in advance, children plainly don’t ask to be born. For the reasons named earlier – children have known needs, so adults know what they are getting themselves into by having them – this creates an implicit contract between parents and their children: that the former will provide appropriate care. Note that contrary to modern non-objective philosophy of law, which defines rights by needs (thus switching rights from justice to demands, effectively negating rights entirely), this contract between parents and children is the only valid implicit contract there is. It stems from the fact that the party to a long-term relationship who requires the support of the other, metaphysically (i.e., by their fundamental nature) could have no say in the whole thing: while the ones providing the support knew what they were doing, and therefore implicitly agreed in advance to the consequences.
The origin of this implicit contract determines its terms. Morally, people should not have children unless they have cause to believe they will be able to care for them: just as no other contract should be entered into unless you believe you can meet your side of the bargain. The obligation they accept is to provide such care, and this obligation ends at the child’s adulthood. That end is implied by why the contract exists at all: it ends when the child should become capable of independent existence.
Of course as noted earlier, parents usually want to continue providing love and support to their children past their childhood: but then we are dealing with voluntary choices based on values, not ethical and legal responsibilities.
At what age is a person “adult”? The precise definition is a question for the philosophy of law, because it concerns a legal question: the time limit on the implicit contract between parents and children. The principle involved is at what age the “average” person should be able to be self-supporting – while recognising the variability in human mental and physical development. The legal definition of adulthood means: when does the implicit contract between parents and children expire? Which means: when should a child be allowed to leave or lose parental care without special permission of the courts? Historically and biologically, around the age of 16 is probably a good average for the beginning of adulthood; in a technical society where the amount of knowledge to be learned is high, perhaps older – or perhaps not. There are complexities in this whose solution is beyond our present scope, which is the basic principles. The answers are to be found in applying these principles to the facts of human nature. Note that the question is not, “When will the child gain no further benefit from staying?” but, “When should the child be mature enough to be able to go its own way if it has to or wants to?”
What do children, as involuntary entrants to the arrangement, owe their parents?
Since they did not ask to be born and it is the parents who decided to have them, whether consciously or by default, children certainly do not owe their parents the cost of rearing them. There can be no such thing as an unchosen obligation imposed as a result of somebody else’s actions. Parents are not entitled to ask their children to repay their “investment”, either monetarily or by demanding that “in return” they be supported in their old age. Children are not a form of social security, whose life you own because you gave it to them. Gave it to them is precisely what you did: children do not tell their parents before they were born, “please bear me and raise me, then I will repay you.” It is the parents who made all the choices, and one person’s choice does not impose an obligation on another.
Naturally, children usually love their parents and will voluntarily help them out: but there can be no legal requirement for that. Indeed, if the parents are bad and mistreat their children, those children have a perfect moral right to have nothing to do with them once they leave home.
What children do owe their parents, morally, is respect and obedience to their wishes while under their care: anyone supported by another person owes that much consideration in return. Of course, parents must earn that respect and obedience: keeping someone alive does not entitle you to respect if you make that life a misery, nor to obedience if your wishes are irrational or unjust. But given reasonable circumstances, when you live in someone’s home and are supported by their effort and love, you owe it to them to respect their wishes (to the extent that it is rational to do so): or leave. That a child cannot actually leave makes that obligation stronger, not weaker: to abuse someone while using your need of them as a shield is despicable. And once a child is capable of leading an independent life, the obligation “to honour or leave” becomes literally true.
Furthermore, obedience to your parents’ rational wishes is inherent in the implicit contract: the reason the contract exists is the need children have for care and support. So accepting that care and support, including recognising its parents’ right to make decisions on its behalf, is the child’s half of the deal. To refuse to accept it is to say “I have no need of your protection any more”: which is to say, “I release you from your contract.”
Parental Rights & Responsibilities
The foregoing defines the role of parents, which defines their rights and responsibilities. The role of parents is to raise a person from helpless infant to independent adult. Thus their fundamental responsibility is to do that to the best of their ability. The default presumption is that the best of their ability is good enough (after all, they managed to reach adulthood themselves), and thus they have the right to do it according to their own judgement (we shall return later to the question of what to do if this presumption fails – see It’s the Law in Part C following).
Many parents seem to suppress their children’s behaviour for no good reason, such as when a young child is exploring a fascinating place like a bank and is made to sit still – when they aren’t actually bothering anybody. Or the apparent opposite, of giving in to the child’s every whim, or allowing them to “run wild” without guidance or limit.
These superficially opposite policies of repression and over-permissiveness actually share the same essential error. Both are manifestations of “whim worship”: where the whims are the parent’s or the child’s respectively. The proper course, as usual, is not some compromise between opposing whims: it is nobody’s whims, but rationality. And rationality in this context is the application of a general principle – the independent mind is man’s tool of survival – to the specific case: childhood involves a process of maturation from mindless helplessness to rational independence. From this follows the correct principle of child rearing.
The nature of what parents are doing is raising another person to adulthood, which means, to independence of thought and action. It follows that while a child must be protected from its ignorance and weakness, and guided in its mental and moral development, he or she must be given the freedom to experience reality first-hand, and the tools to think about those experiences. Similarly, while a child’s needs must be met and its rational desires taken into account, to attempt to grant its every whim would be counter-productive. Everyone needs to learn that neither the universe nor the lives of other people revolve around your personal wishes – and that your wishes are neither granted on demand, nor fall into your lap if your tantrum is loud enough, but must be achieved by rational action.
Thus, parental rights and responsibilities form a continuum, inversely correlated to human development: from total control of an unthinking, dependent infant, to no control of a reasoning (at least in principle), independent adult. Of course, many emotional conflicts can arise in such a process of diminishing control and care, due to parents and children having different ideas of what and how much is appropriate. By the origin of the implicit parent/child contract, in adult competence vs. children’s dependence, the smoothness of this relationship is primarily the parents’ responsibility: especially by ensuring that what they ask of their children is rational, thereby earning their children’s respect for their fairness, judgment and rationality. Of course, there can be no guarantees in such a process: by the fact of free will, not even the best parent can guarantee the responses of another thinking being with his or her own values, thoughts and philosophy. They can help or hinder the development of their child – but not determine it. It is the child’s own judgments and choices which ultimately determine his or her character.
Part C: Punishment and Crime
In Part B we discussed the rights and responsibilities of children and parents. We now extend this to the questions of discipline and legal issues.
To what extent do parents have the right to discipline their children, particularly with physical punishment?
To avoid confusion, it is important to recognise that there are three aspects to the use of force by parents to control their children.
First is “control”: simple controlling force such as dragging a screaming toddler to the car, making a child go to its room or enforcing TV-viewing rules. Second is “cuffing”: immediate “stop that!” action taken to stop what the child is doing right now, as in a shake or a smack in the heat of the moment. Third is “punishment”: action taken after the event not for prevention of the act itself, but to hurt them for having done it and hopefully prevent a repetition, as in “grounding” a teenager or the old “six of the best” caning at school. Also, note that in each of these there is a choice between actions which do or do not cause physical pain, for example “cuffing” using a smack vs. a shout.
So the question of discipline is which of these actions are appropriate and when. The answer comes from the basic principle we’ve been discussing: the nature of parenting is rearing a person from mindlessness to rationality.
When a child is very young and effectively an animal, reason is by definition futile. All they understand is immediate consequences, and therefore, the same principles apply as with other animals. A lioness with a cub will pick it up and carry it, or cuff it to “teach it a lesson” (which works by making the immediate price exceed the immediate benefit in the cub’s perception). The immediate is all it understands – and all a young child understands. Thus until a child has a functioning mind, it can only be controlled by simple physical domination. Of course, only sufficient force to achieve the desired outcome is defensible, of the same order as the lioness cuffing her cub: enough to dissuade without causing actual harm. That is, a smack not a beating. Equally obvious is that punishment at this stage is futile: a child needs enough of a mind to understand the link between its past behaviour and the later punishment before it can have any beneficial effect or justification.
However, to the extent that a child can and does reason, reason is the appropriate way to deal with it. Thus as a child gets older and its mind develops, explanation becomes more important and desirable than imposition of your will. That is important for two reasons. Not only is it the appropriate way to deal with a rational person of any age, but part of the training of a thinking being is to show how thinking beings should live together. And the correct way to deal with others is by reason, not by arbitrary orders enforced by greater power. The best place and method for that training is the example of your own behaviour, especially in how you deal with them. An example is worth far more than a thousand words, especially when it is the example of a parent.
Implicit in reason being the appropriate way of dealing with a thinking being is that it is only appropriate with such a person. If a child lapses into an inability or refusal to listen to reason, treating them like the animal they are acting as may be appropriate (depending on the severity and duration of the lapse). That also is a valuable lesson: that whether you are treated as a thinking being or an irrational animal depends on which one you choose to be! Children need to learn that the best way for them to show that force is unnecessary in dealing with them is to show that it’s not all they understand.
A general principle of justice is that the punishment must fit the crime. Thus punishment involving significant physical pain is not justifiable, except when the child itself has committed violence against others. Even then, retaliation generally would be appropriate only if that was all the child understood. The aphorism “spare the rod and spoil the child” is a false dichotomy, as if the only alternatives are physical punishment and permissiveness. It is true that to allow a child to live according to its whims while protecting it from the consequences is likely to spoil it, by giving it the impression that its whims are omnipotent and it can get away with anything. Far from children having a right not to be punished, parental control is implicit in the contract between them. But in general, the appropriate punishment is removal of privileges, not physical assault. Privileges are anything you give your children over and above their basic needs. Usually, of course, children are showered with privileges because their parents love them: and equally, children tend to have an infinite appetite for such privileges. Thus the effectiveness of withdrawing them as a means of punishment.
Furthermore, in a rational morality people are motivated by values not by fear: therefore discipline by withholding values rather than by the threat of pain is important both for its own sake and as an example to the child. Imposing your will on a child is often necessary: but the lesson in the child’s mind should be this is how I must act to gain values, not I am afraid to disobey my parents’ orders. One of the most important things you can give a child is a benevolent view of life, in which life consists of achieving values, not avoiding pain: of living, not escaping death.
Any punishment, whatever its form, must be commensurate with the “crime.” This is both simple justice, and (not coincidentally) simple motivational psychology: the cost must exceed the perceived benefit, without being so excessive as to be demonstrably unfair. Playing in the mud after being told not to deserves much lighter punishment than beating up another child. Injustice never accomplishes anything of value, for anybody.
What it boils down to is simple recognition of reality. To the extent that a child acts like an adult, they should be treated as such, and to the extent that they act like a child or animal they should be treated likewise. Discipline and guidance is essential for carrying out the parents’ side of the implicit contract: but the type of discipline depends on the maturity of the child and the requirements of justice.
Our earlier discussion of the rights and responsibilities of parents and children was based on the nature of the entities and their relationship. That is, on reality. It is not surprising, then, that people’s emotional and psychological tendencies lie in the same direction – those qualities having evolved in the context of the same basic reality. That is, parents love their children and vice versa.
So it is a reasonable expectation that parents will want the best for their children. That is a consequence of love. Furthermore, provision of that best is basically up to them, as they are the ones providing the care. As in other things, it is the role of philosophy to guide them in that task. However, there is an implicit but nonetheless real contract involved, and so the law comes into it: basically to protect the rights of the child (who is rarely in a position to violate the rights of its parents).
The fundamental right is to live by your own judgement. The problem here for the philosophy of law is to reconcile the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, with the rights of children not to have their lives ruined as a consequence.
Some contracts limit your right to act on your own judgment, such as when you are an employee who has to follow your employer’s policies and orders to at least some extent (of course, you chose to accept that restriction). However, this does not apply to the implicit contract between parents and children. That contract derives from the metaphysical nature of adults and children, and there is nothing in that which demands parents give up their judgment on how to fulfil it. Indeed, the pertinent nature of adults is their ability to deal with reality, which derives from the use of their mind. Thus the contract demands that they raise their children according to their own best judgment, which implies not sacrificing that judgment to the beliefs or demands of other people.
Thus, the law cannot attempt to override parents’ wishes in terms of what may or may not be “better” for the child. In matters of judgment such as that, it is the parents’ judgment which counts. This includes such things as the kind of education they should have, the activities they should engage in and, to a degree, how they are disciplined.
Where parents’ rights end is where objective, permanent harm begins. Just as the right to live by your independent judgment does not include the right to decide to live by violence – because there can be no contradictions between rights – so the right to raise your children according to your judgment of what is best for them does not include the right to deliberately harm them or to fly in the face of manifest reality. While everybody has a right to live and risk their own life however they like, opposing reality in a fundamental way revokes your right to judgment affecting a dependent human being.
A critical point here is that it is not a light matter to go against the parents’ judgment. Provable harm must be involved, and the touchstone is the metaphysical nature of man. Statistical probabilities that doing X probably had a 10% advantage over doing Y in 55% of cases studied is useful information for parents on which to base their judgments, but does not justify a law to enforce X and ban Y. On the other hand, imprisoning a child in the basement or feeding them on air flies in the face of the demonstrable requirements for the development of human beings as such: no matter how sincerely the parents feel about it.
As with the legal definition of an adult, it is a task of the philosophy of law to fully delineate what parents may and may not do. It is the task of general philosophy to determine the basic principles on which such delineations are to be based. And the fundamental principle is that parents have not only the right but the obligation to raise their children as they see fit, within the bounds determined by the basic nature of human beings.
Part D: Finishing Them Off
Since we have been discussing the law regarding children, now is an appropriate place to discuss one of the more vexed legal questions of recent decades: the right to abortion, which is the killing of an embryo or foetus
The debate generally rages about when “human life” begins. Does it begin at conception, the gaining of a recognisably human form, or birth? Biologically, of course, a new “human life” starts at conception. However, the question concerns not biology but rights: so its answer depends on the nature and origin of rights.
Rights do not derive from the unknowable whim of some invisible god; nor in some inexplicable – and therefore, unjustifiable – mystical endowment upon anything labelled “human”; nor from the permission of “society”; nor from the ability to feel: but from the ability to think, from Man’s rational faculty. Rights are rights because human life as such depends on the use of the mind.
An embryo has no mind, and a foetus has less rationality than a sheep. Thus they have no rights.As potential human beings, they have potential rights. This means that actions calculated to damage them as adults (such as cutting off their arms) are forbidden, being tantamount to assault on the adult they become. That potential does not extend to overriding the rights of actual human beings, namely their mother. So long as they cannot survive outside their mother’s body, she has the absolute right to terminate her pregnancy , derived from her absolute right to her own life. (The only exception is some prior limitation such as a marriage or surrogacy contract, which may give others a say in it.) The “right to life” resides in the mother, in her right to her own life and happiness. A foetus has no right to override that, and indeed, none has never asked to. It is only adults posing as champions of rights who have demanded it, a demand which in fact is an attempt to override the actual rights of actual human beings – an attempt to impose their mystical morality on other people. Of course, no foetus has ever demanded its rights because a foetus is incapable of even having wishes, let alone articulating them: and that is the point.
If however a woman decides to bring her baby to term, normally she thereby gives up the right to take its life. While still absolutely dependent on others for its survival, it is no longer necessarily dependent on her specifically. While the implicit contract involved in raising children is not “signed” until she decides to keep the child, for that very reason once the baby is out of her body she has no rights over its fate unless she does decide to take on the responsibility of being its parent. She may give it up to someone else, but not kill it, with two exceptions.
The first is if she doesn’t want it and nobody else is willing to take it. If somebody complains about that, the correct answer is the same as to anybody who says their morality demands that the needs of person A means that person B should be forced to look after them. It is: you do it – and if you won’t, by what right are you demanding that someone else does? In this case, if nobody is willing to take the baby – that nobody includes you.
The second is in the case of severe deformity, so bad that the child cannot be expected to be able to lead a conscious or happy life. Then for the sake of the child, in fulfilment of parental responsibility to the child the parents can decide it should die, whether somebody else offers to take it or not. Of course, any such decision must be subject to courts operating under objectively defined laws (one purpose of the law being to remove the use of physical force from individual whim).
Why is the moment of birth the critical moment, not conception? For the reasons noted above. It is at birth that the baby loses its dependence on the mother specifically: the cusp at which the initiation of force against a thinking being changes from other adults against the mother (when the baby is inside her), to the mother against them – to prevent them from taking over the care of her baby, who now has a separate existence. It is at birth that she must make one of two decisions: to keep the child, thereby agreeing to the implicit contract, or to give it up. It is at birth that for the baby to survive, someone must agree to care for it – but anyone can. The mother has no right decide to both keep it and not care for it properly.
Not surprisingly, most people prefer to prevent conception in the first place, rather than abort afterwards. Of course it follows from the above discussion of abortion that there is no ethical problem with contraception. It wouldn’t even be worth discussing if not for religious opposition – a ban much dishonoured in the breach, as it deserves.
If opposition to abortion is based on a mystical view of the sanctity of “human” life, opposition to contraception takes a giant leap into fairyland. The argument is basically that an omnipotent, benevolent God – who incidentally thinks nothing of condoning the killing of multitudes of living human beings (see The Bible) – will have his alleged will frustrated and his punishments unleashed if people do anything, other than abstaining from sex, to prevent acquiring a tribe of unwanted children. As such arguments have no referents in reality, no further discussion is required. Reason recognises no validity in arbitrary claims, which by definition have put themselves outside the realm of argument. And attempting to impose such arbitrary claims on other people instantly invalidates any claim to ethical authority.
A Wanted Child
Of course, most babies are wanted. Their parents conceived them by intent for the purpose of having them. We have discussed the ethics of preventing birth: what are the ethics of having children? When should you? Why should you?
Naturally, having children has been and is necessary for the continuation of the human race: and until recently, was critical to the survival of your own self, family, tribe etc. Thus there are genetic reasons why people value children, want them and love them when they get them. However, ethics are concerned with what ought to be rather than what is. And in a technological civilisation where babies are a choice not an accident, and their death rather than their survival a matter of low probability, the issue has become more of choice than of necessity.
The basic valid motive for having children is the same as anything else: for your own happiness. But as with marriage or friendship, this particular pursuit of happiness involves the happiness of another person, whose rights must be respected. And unlike marriage or friendship, this other person has special needs and rights as discussed previously. It is not valid to have a child out of “duty”: there can be no unchosen obligations in a rational ethics, and the alleged interests of family or nation can never give them a claim on you overriding your own values. Nor is it valid to bring a child into the world as a crutch, a relief from boredom, a toy or a slave. It is another human being, to whom you owe an obligation to raise into an independent adult: no human being is a possession of another, or (primarily) the means to the ends of another.
There can be much pleasure and satisfaction in raising children: and that is the proper motive for having them. In both parts: the happiness itself, and its being from raising them, in bringing them to an independent, happy adulthood.
As noted before, Man’s primary tool of survival is the mind, and the growth of a child to adulthood therefore requires the development of his or her mind. This is the process of education.
Parents have the primary responsibility for educating their children, but as with most things in an advanced society, the best way to achieve it is by hiring specialist teachers – if suitable ones can be found. Even so, parents retain a crucial role, as the primary example and authority in their children’s eyes. It is especially important for parents to be a good model of rationality and morality. Few things are worse for the moral education of a child than to be told that rationality, honesty, justice etc are how they should live: and seeing their own parents doing otherwise.
Education is needed because the use of the mind requires reason and knowledge: reason as the art of thinking, the ability to make correct conclusions and inferences; knowledge as information on the facts of reality, which is the end product of the thinking of others, and the starting point of your own. Neither reason nor knowledge is innate. The basic processes are inbuilt, but the full and precise use of your mind is an art which must be learned (and took millennia to develop in the history of mankind), and all conceptual knowledge likewise must be acquired.
The specific purpose of the education of children follows from our earlier discussion: it is preparation for independent existence in reality. That defines what it must aim to achieve: development of the rational faculty and the tools for the pursuit of life and happiness.
The role of education is not to teach children what to think, but how to think; not to inculcate conformity and obedience, but to develop independence in both its aspects – thinking and acting for yourself, and respecting the rights of others to think and act for themselves. The purpose of education is not to churn out cogs for someone else’s machine, whether of State or of Industry: but to produce individuals able and willing to make and achieve their own purposes for their own sakes.
The last thing an education system should produce is the kind of feeling expressed in Pink Floyd’s song of being “just another brick in the wall”, who “don’t need no education”, whose teachers should “leave our kids alone.” Education should be an adventure of learning and growth into a person of reason, purpose and self-esteem: not a boring, irrelevant grind.
Again, these are the basic principles behind a whole specialist subdivision of philosophy: in this case, the philosophy of education. The purpose of that is the determination of the best subjects of education (the curriculum) and the most effective methods of teaching them. While a detailed philosophy of education is far beyond our present scope, we can develop the basic principles on which a such a philosophy should be built. (For parents who want their children to learn independence, thinking and self-discipline, I recommend the Montessori system of education.)
As the total amount of knowledge in the world is far beyond the capacity of a single brain, and increasing all the time, the curriculum has to give a grounding in the most important base knowledge, that which gives the most fundamental tools for further growth of the individual along the specific paths he or she chooses to follow.
Of course this involves the art of thinking itself, and all the other aspects of basic philosophy: the nature of reality, how we can discover its secrets and how we should live for ourselves and with each other. To this we must add conceptual communication: reading, writing and speaking: how to acquire and transmit conceptual knowledge. In addition, we can identify mathematics, as one of the most fundamental means of describing, abstracting, analysing and predicting the relationships of things in reality; science, as our most powerful means of discovering and manipulating the laws of nature; geography (including foreign languages) and history for a basic understanding of the world around us and how it came to be, a wider view of human experience, and knowledge of the forces which have shaped and continue to shape the world; art, for all the reasons which make art itself important (see Philosophical Reflections 21); and sport, both as part of the development of a healthy body, and as a concrete example and experience of setting and achieving goals, by skill and effort within an objective framework of rules and fairness.
Whatever the subject being studied, the learning of principles, derived from well-chosen concrete examples, is far more important than the rote learning of long lists of facts. Man is a being of conceptual consciousness, not a tape recorder; and explaining principles and why understanding them is important is vital for both learning and the motivation to learn. Concrete examples and facts are necessary, to connect the principles to reality: but not at the expense of understanding those principles, or at the cost of drowning the child’s brain and enthusiasm in a sea of disconnected and consequently irrelevant and often boring facts.
While the core subjects give children the basic tools and knowledge they need to make their way in the world, exposure to a wide range of additional fields of endeavour is also needed. For if they never encounter the range of possibilities available to them, how will they discover their own interests and set their own priorities and purposes? They need enough information to make an informed choice of which areas of knowledge they wish to pursue in greater depth for their own careers as adults.
If I were to sum up the purpose of education, it would be this. The proper role of philosophy is to discover the nature of reality, how to know, how to live, and how to achieve happiness. The proper role of education is to teach these things to children.
The philosophy of children is a wide-ranging field, encompassing the nature of childhood, the rights of children and parents, the validity of laws regarding children, and the philosophy of education. I have tried to derive the basic principles involved. Naturally, these principles reflect those of philosophy itself, as philosophy is our guide for living, and raising children is the process of guiding them into living their lives.
The essence of the philosophy of raising children is that the purpose of having children is to raise them as human beings. This means, to help them achieve their best potential as rational, independent adults, who understand and apply the values and virtues necessary for the fullest, happiest life of and as a human being.
What makes us human is the ability to think, so the prime task of parents, directly and indirectly, is to teach their children how to think. This encompasses rationality in all its aspects: a thirst for knowledge; the tools of logic; the values of life, reason and self-esteem; the virtues of rationality, justice, independence, honesty, integrity, productiveness and pride.
Parents should, and usually do, want their children to be happy and successful, but wanting something does not tell you how to achieve it. No person can determine how another person will turn out, not even their own child, as nobody can control another’s thinking. But they can help or hinder the process. The way to achieve it for your children is the same as how to achieve it in your own life: by having a sound philosophy of life, which means, a rational, reality-based way of thinking: and doing your best to impart that to your children.