A Puzzle about Parenting
Consider the following case. Sikes, walking home late one evening, comes across an envelope containing a thousand pounds outside a neighbour’s house. He’s pretty sure it belongs to the neighbour, as she’d told him she would be withdrawing the money from the bank to buy a new wheelchair for her disabled mother. It is clear to Sikes that no one is looking, so he scoops up the envelope and enters his own house. To most of us, this seems appalling behaviour. Sykes has selfishly put his own interests before those of his neighbour and her mother.Now most parents believe that – on the whole – they do what is best for their children. But very few of them will teach their children that, if they find themselves in the same situation as Sikes, they should act as he did. This is odd. By taking the money, Sikes did what was best for himself. So if his parents had wanted what was best for him, they would have taught him to do exactly what he did.
A typical parent might argue that the guilt or shame Sikes would feel at what he had done would more than counterbalance any benefit he might get from the money. But if Sikes had been taught that this was the rational thing to do, he probably wouldn’t feel any guilt or shame. Indeed most likely he’d be feeling rather pleased with himself.
But, the parent might claim, human dispositions aren’t specific to situations. If Sikes is willing to steal in this case, then almost certainly he’d be ready to steal in others when he’d be more likely to be caught. So in the end his life would be worse for him.
This is an empirical claim, and I think it’s not unlikely to be false. If the parent introduces at a fairly late stage in the child’s development advice about how to advantage oneself immorally, the child will already have the same dispositions not to steal most of us have. Further, the parent can stress just how unusual such situations are, and how the child must be almost certain he or she can get away with it before committing the offence.
A Platonic parent might argue that virtue itself is in the interest of the child. But this goes against the natural, and plausible, view that Sikes benefits himself at the expense of others – and that this is indeed why his behaviour is so terrible. In many cases, I suspect, virtuous parents bring their children up to be virtuous because they themselves like and respect other virtuous people and want a child they can like and respect. It may be that having such a relationship with their parent benefits the child. But that probably isn’t the parent’s main motivation for moral education. If it were, it might make more sense for the parent to bring the child up to be vicious in exceptional cases such as that of Sikes, and to try to love them as much anyway (not so difficult, if their vice is a result of parental education!).
My tentative conclusion is that in morally educating their children in the usual way, parents aren’t doing what’s best for their children. They are doing a lot of good for their children, of course, but also at a certain cost to the child a lot of good for those others with whom their children will interact. Most if not all of us do better if children are brought up in this way, so it’s certainly not something to be regretted or discouraged. But we might want to be a bit more careful when we think we’re doing what is best for our children.