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.

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12 Responses to A Puzzle about Parenting

  • Nikolas Schaffer says:

    “By taking the money, Sikes did what was best for himself”

    Only if he’s a sociopath, i.e., an individual with no empathy for others or moral sensibilities in general. If he’s a normal person, by taking the money he’s set himself up for all kinds of unpleasant guilty feelings for the years ahead. If his parents had taught him that it’s the rational thing to do, then presumably they were also sociopaths and he would probably have inherited their tendencies. But it’s hard to imagine sociopathic parents particularly caring how their kids are brought up and how they fare in life, anyway.

  • Ian says:

    Did Sykes later speak to the neighbour to enquire how the wheelchair purchase had gone?
    If the neighbour mentioned the loss of the money did Sykes then return it?
    If they did not mention any loss, only pleasure regarding the wheelchair purchase.
    What other inquiries if any did Sykes make?
    Did he report the find to the police and, as often required where money is concerned, then pass the money to the police?
    If he did not hand the money to anybody else did he later give that money to a charity of his choosing, rather than allowing the police, if it was not claimed, to give it to a charity of their choosing.
    Or, did he spend it on himself.
    Many alternatives which can contain laudable responses given the frequent uncertainty of a direct and honest answer to a question – I have found some money, have you lost it…

  • Ian says:

    Did Sykes later speak to the neighbour to enquire how the wheelchair purchase had gone?
    If the neighbour mentioned the loss of the money did Sykes then return it?
    If they did not mention any loss, only pleasure regarding the wheelchair purchase what other inquiries if any did Sykes make?
    Did he report the find to the police and, as often required where money is concerned, then pass the money to the police?
    If he did not hand the money to anybody else did he later give that money to a charity of his choosing, rather than allowing the police, if it was not claimed, to give it to a charity of their choosing.
    Or, did he spend it on himself.
    Many alternatives which can contain laudable responses given the frequent uncertainty of a direct and honest answer to a question – I have found some money, have you lost it…

  • Luis says:

    What’s best for the child is an ethical issue only when the parents interests are in conflict with a dependent child or another child’s welfare.
    Secondly, problem becomes trivial if he finds “useless stuff”. He finds instead value and ownership… if he gains ownership, he should expect to spend all of the money securing his property, creating an unethical system of ownership where boundaries are necessary and a question of law/enforcement. Rather, he has to establish rightful ownership, with reasonable effort and compensated for having done so (and be allowed to decline payment if so inclined). If ownership is known and he still keeps the money, it is theft of value as he would have to lie to keep it. So, he may be better off leaving the money where it was lost for the rightful owner to find.

  • David says:

    While teaching the one child the advantage of immoral behaviour would result in benefits if the parents had multiple offspring to teach them immoral behaviour would be counter productive as it would result in competition between family members. it begs the qu

  • David says:

    It begs the question whether it is possible to identify an only child from the morality of there decisions.

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    « My tentative conclusion is that in morally educating their children in the usual way, parents aren’t doing what’s best for their children. »

    I beg humbly to differ, Roger, so let me sketch a brief argument why :

    1. If « the best for my children » is defined, for example, as being able to live a life of pleasure, satisfaction, and fulfilment, then (assuming for the sake of argument that their pleasure will not consist of being a solitary hermit) they will live and derive these qualities from interacting with others.
    2. Trust in others is a pre-requisite for this to happen : a society where each person exploits each opportunity to benefit him/herself personally (as does Sikes in your example) will not permit my children to have what is best for them.
    Therefore
    3. I will quite rationally bring up my children to be as appalled as you are by Sikes’ behaviour.

    You may want to change the definition of « what”s best for our children », but I think the argument still stands up.
    You may of course think differently….

  • Roger Crisp says:

    Thanks to all of you for your comments.

    Nikolas: Some thieves are sociopaths, but lots are not, and they steal from their neighbours. But in fact the argument goes through equally well with ‘victimless’ crimes, such as cheating on an income tax return.

    Ian: I agree the story needs filling out. I am assuming Sikes keeps the money to spend on himself, that he’s not in dire need, and so on.

    Luis: This seems to draw the scope of morality very narrowly. It may be that one should always put one’s child’s minor interests before the major interests of others; but there’s certainly an ethical issue there to be discussed. And I was assuming that Sikes would enjoy whatever he bought with the money, and could reasonably and rightly assume his theft wouldn’t be discovered.

    David: I think parents of more than one child could tell them not to treat one another as strangers. Consider e.g. the behaviour of members of the families in *The Sopranos*!

    Anthony: The parents would be well advised to inculcate use of a strong distinction between insiders and outsiders. Ordinary parents already do this, of course, since their behaviour implies that their children don’t need to care much about strangers, especially distant ones. What I’m suggesting might be called ‘exceptional egoism’: in certain quite unusual circumstances, think of your own interests and do what common-sense morality forbids. This could be backed up with various rationales as well, of course, according to which e.g. property rights are unjust, our family hasn’t been given a decent chance, etc.

    • Anthony Drinkwater says:

      Thanks for your reply, Roger.
      I doubt that not caring about strangers as much as for one’s in-group (which most of us believe to be rational and justifiable) entails believing that stealing from strangers is right (which most of us believe to be wrong).

      And if I teach my child that he should act in her own interests because our family has never been given a decent chance, I’m not at all sure that this will give her a recipe for a better life. People with a chip on their shoulder are not renowned for being happy.

      But of course I may have a different view from you as to what constitutes a good life…. (but this would open up a huge can of philosophical worms… I’ll leave the tin-opener aside for today)

      • Roger Crisp says:

        Thanks, Anthony. I agree with you about the lack of entailment. I was just suggesting a small amendment to our current attitude to strangers. So rather than teach our children merely to be unconcerned about the severe suffering or death of strangers, we teach them also to be prepared to steal from them on certain occasions. But as I said in response to Nikolas, I think the argument works with victimless crimes, so issues about personal relationships needn’t arise.

        One can believe one’s family hasn’t been given a decent chance without having a chip on one’s shoulder (that is, without resenting it). Consider poor Christian socialists.

  • John Scott says:

    It seems to me the success of the argument depends on two different concepts of self. I would suggest Sykes has an attenuated idea of himself as a purely rational being. This means it would be rational for him to take the money. However when rearing our children we are interested in instilling in them a sense of character. Instilling in them feelings of pride and shame which leads them to have a broader concept of self. Someone with such a broader concept of self would not see it as appropriate for him to act as Sykes did. I must admit I am somewhat reluctant to use the term rational in this context.

  • Roger Crisp says:

    Thanks, John. Your point resonates with that of Anthony about views on what makes for a life worth living. The question is whether it’s better for one to have a sense of character that precludes stealing. If it is, we should perhaps pity Sikes for not having it. In fact, I think we don’t pity him, and indeed blame him for making his own life better at the expense of the important interests of others.

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