Recipe for Your Child’s Success in Life: Aristotelian Virtue

     How would you describe day-to-day life with children?  Although my children are wonderful and beautiful creatures, I find that most of my day-to-day interactions with them consist of me telling them, rather frantically, either what to do, or what not to do.  For instance, on any given day I can be assured that I will say the following things at least 50 times:   don’t shout, don’t reach at the table, don’t call names, don’t slam doors, don’t tell lies, don’t chase your sister around the house, don’t be sassy, get off your ipod, stop whining, stop making your brother cry, do your chores, do your homework, clean up your mess, brush your teeth, make your bed, tidy your room, turn off the TV, come the first time I call you,  and  so on and so forth.

     It seems that throughout the day I am focused on their actions.  Life with children is hectic, and this usually requires me to employ a ‘parenting moment-to-moment’ mode,  where I’m so busy thinking about whether my children are doing the right things, that sometimes I forget the bigger picture about what sort of person I want them to become.    

     Now, maybe you are saying:  ‘but surely if they are raised doing good things, then that will lead them to become good people’, and that is certainly my hope.  Indeed, Aristotle thinks that when we repeat good actions, that enables us to develop a good character.  However, being a good person is about more than doing the right things.  According to Aristotle, the good person has a certain ‘internal condition’ that not only leads him to act in the right way, but also enables him to be happy while doing it.  Aristotle thinks that this internal condition is virtue.

Doing the Right Thing vs. Wanting to Do the Right Thing

     A few months ago, I had an experience with my son which reminded me that he, indeed, is not yet virtuous.  His younger sister, who had only recently started playing the violin, had a concert one Saturday afternoon.  He and I had a conversation before the concert that went something like this: 

‘What are we doing this afternoon?’

‘We are going to your sister’s violin concert.’

‘What?!  I’m not going.’

‘Yes, you are.  In our family, we support each other.  This is her first concert, and we are going to be there to cheer her on.  Remember, she has gone to all your cello concerts for years now.’

‘Yea, but she only went to my concerts because she wasn’t old enough to think for herself!  I am old enough to think for myself, and I don’t want to go.’

‘But don’t you want to go and support her?’

‘Not really.  I’d rather stay at home.’

‘Son, if you don’t go, I’m taking away all your allowance.’

     So, he went to the concert.   He did the right thing, but he only did it because I threatened him with financial sanctions.  He was pushed by an external force (me) to go; he had no internal motivation to do it. And he certainly was not happy about going.        

Why Virtue?

     Does it really matter if my children grow up to have this internal condition of virtue?  After all, my husband doesn’t really like going to children’s violin concerts, either.   Is raising them with an aim to become virtuous asking too much of a human being?         

     Aristotle thinks that the majority of people will never become virtuous, but that’s only because they haven’t been taught properly how to become virtuous.  And although it’s difficult, he believes that to become a virtuous person is the highest achievement for a human being. 

     As I have mentioned before, Aristotle believes that if a human being is to be happy, he needs to have a certain kind of life, one where he governs his soul, and therefore his actions, according to reason.  

     Now, there are many passions and desires in the human soul.  If a person governs all these parts of his soul according to reason well, that means he is good at doing what is unique to humans.  Aristotle says that we call this man the ‘good man’ because he is good at being human.  This is the man who is virtuous.  The Greek word for virtue is arête, which can also be translated as ‘excellence’.  So, the virtuous person is the person who excels at living the kind of life human beings are meant to live.

     The concept of virtue is at the very heart of the Nicomachean Ethics.  The human good, which up until now we have identified with happiness, turns out to be virtuous action.  So, the virtuous man is the man who achieves happiness.  And if we want to find out what it means to be happy, we need to find out what it means to be virtuous. 

What Is Virtue?      

     So, what does Aristotle think it means to be virtuous?  That question can’t be answered quickly, but a good way to start answering it is to note that Aristotle thinks of a virtue as a habit, or a disposition.  If you have a particular virtue, that virtue inclines you to act in a certain way.  For instance, if you have the virtue of courage, then you are able to do courageous things more easily than someone who does not have courage.  And, with the virtue of courage, not only are you more able to do courageous things, you actually want to do courageous things.

     This, I think, is what is most interesting about Aristotle’s concept of virtue – and what makes it especially relevant for us as parents.  The virtuous person is the one who wants to act as her reason directs.  Consider again Aristotle’s division of the soul into rational and irrational parts:  we have our reason, and we have our passions, desires and impulses.  Now, Aristotle thinks that human action always incorporates both our reason and our desires.  Desire is what ‘moves’ us toward action, but reason is what guides and judges that movement so that we act in the right way.

     The problem is that many people experience conflict between their desires and their reason.  Someone may have a particular desire – say to tell a lie to get out of trouble – and, with her reason, she understands that desire to be bad.  Yet, she still wants to act on that desire.  So, either she struggles to act according to reason, or she just lets her desire overwhelm her reason and tells the lie.  Either way, this person’s irrational side is not inclined to follow her reason.   

     By contrast, the virtuous person has a harmonious relationship between his reason and his passions.  His reason correctly identifies what is truly good, and he also desires what is truly good.  His desires are ‘aligned’ with his reason.    So, doing what is good, for him, is not a struggle.  He has no internal conflict when it comes to doing the right thing.

     In fact, not only does he want to do what is right, he also finds pleasure in it.  By the same token, he feels pain in doing the wrong things.  According to Aristotle, a person finds pleasure in that which they love.  If you love justice, you will find pleasure in just actions; if you love compassion, you will find pleasure in being compassionate.  So, the person who loves virtue in general will find pleasure in doing virtuous acts.

Parenting toward Virtue

     Think of it:  a child who wants to do housework, who finds pleasure in attending a sibling’s concert, who takes great delight in always telling the truth.  These things do happen, but more often, they are the stuff of legend.     

     Actually, according to Aristotle, we cannot expect our children to be virtuous, at least not in the full  sense.  Developing a virtuous character is a process that starts in childhood, but can only culminate in adulthood.  As I will discuss more in subsequent entries, full virtue requires knowledge, experience, and years of practice which children do not have.  So, perhaps it was unrealistic of me to expect my son to come along happily to his sister’s concert.

     Yet, I find that Aristotle’s notion of virtue still plays on my mind as a parent.   The concept of loving justice, compassion, courage, honesty, industry, kindness, unselfishness, respect and all other truly good things seems to me a recipe for success in life.  

    If I think of my children, I can see that what motivates them to action is what they want to do, what they love to do.  If I can teach them to love what is good, then I have given them the most powerful motivator possible to do what is good.

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Clever Children vs. Good Children: Parenting With Values

To what end are you trying to raise your child?  Where are you trying to take your child – not physically – but in terms of his character?  What values are you trying to instill in him?  Does it really matter to you if your child becomes a great statesman, or someone who plants a bomb in a government building?  A great scientist who discovers a cure for cancer, or a serial rapist?  The next Mother Teresa, or a drug dealer?  That is, does it matter to you what kind of person your child becomes and what sorts of ends they try to achieve?

I think most parents would answer ‘yes’ to that question, and this is precisely my point.  I think when we become parents we develop strong beliefs about what is good and bad for our children to do, and to become.  In other words, as parents we have values, and we want to guide our children toward those values.  Furthermore, we see at least some of those values as more than just ‘preferences’.  We don’t merely prefer that our children refrain from planting a bomb in a building or raping people – we believe that these are really, truly evil things to do.  In this way, we see at least some of our values as being based in truth.

It may sound bold to suggest that it is possible for there to be truth behind our values, but it is an ancient idea.   One of Aristotle’s main purposes in his Nicomachean Ethics is to argue that in order for us to achieve the human good, it is essential that we identify the right ends to pursue.  I have explained previously that Aristotle believes that reason enables us to act for an end, so that we can plan our actions such that we live in accordance with our values.  However, what matters a great deal more than this is what our values actually are.

Planning for an End, or Planning for the Right End?

Consider the following example:

Imagine that your 9-year-old son has a tendency to become obsessive about violent computer games, especially the Call of Duty series.  You have never let him play Call of Duty because you think violent computer games are wrong, and you do not have a copy in your house.  Yet, he has developed an obsession with this computer game because he has played it in his friend’s home.  Let’s say this friend’s name is Johnny.

Johnny’s parents do not have the same values as you.  They are nice enough, but they do not see the problem with letting their son play excessively violent computer games.  They do not monitor Johnny’s activity or time on the computer, so when your son goes to his house, you know that he’s doing nothing but playing unsuitable computer games for hours on end.

All your son ever wants to do – all he ever talks about – is going over to Johnny’s house.  You become concerned enough that you decide that your son cannot go over to Johnny’s house anymore.

Then one day, out of the blue, your son asks you if he can go to another friend’s house, let’s call him Oliver.  Oliver is a son of some people who share your values about computer games.  You didn’t realize that your son was friendly enough with Oliver to go over to his house, but you are delighted that he wants to go.  Since they live very close, he asks you if he can walk over by himself.

He’s gone for several hours.  You call Oliver’s house to tell him it’s time to come home, but Oliver’s mom tells you that he hasn’t been there.  You then realize your mistake – he has been at Johnny’s all along.

Now, if acting according to reason is about planning your actions to reach an end, then you could argue that the child in this example acted according to reason perfectly well. He identified his end, or his value:  to play violent computer games for hours on end.  He identified what obstacles were in his way to accomplish this end:  the parents.  And then he identified how to get around that obstacle:  make the parents think that he was spending time with someone they could trust.

Yet, this doesn’t seem like the sort of thing Aristotle means when he says we must live according to reason.  In order to get a better understanding of what Aristotle means by ‘acting according to reason’, we must make some clarifications about what it is reason actually does.  Aristotle believes that there are two basic ‘jobs’ that a person’s reason performs when he decides how to act.

One job is to decide how to accomplish a goal.  So, for instance, say that my goal is to protect my children from viewing online pornography.  I would research different ‘parental control’ programs to see which one is the most effective.  I would deliberate about the best place in the house to put the family computer.  I would also deliberate about what sorts of rules to put in place which dictate when and where the children can go online on their other devices in the house, so that I minimize the amount of time they spend online unsupervised.  When reason operates in this way, the goal, or the ‘end’, is already given; what reason concerns itself with here is the means to achieve that end.  So, this is called means-end reasoning, or sometimes, instrumental reasoning.

The second function of practical reason is to determine the goal, or end we want to achieve.  My end is to protect my children from viewing online pornography, but why?  Here is where we can see that our ‘ends’ are, ultimately, synonymous with our values.  Why do I value the protection of my children from pornography?  Well, first, I believe that sexual activity is for adults, not children.  I also believe that sex is a private matter and not something for public display.  But beyond that, I believe pornography portrays sex in a very harmful, perverted way.  The connection between love and sex is severed completely, and sex becomes all about gratification and women, especially, become objects of gratification.  Pornography also tends to be very violent, which is again a perversion of a loving sexual relationship.  I don’t want my children exposed to pornography because I don’t want them to grow up thinking that loveless, selfish, violent sex is part of a healthy relationship.  So, I have identified the protection of my children from pornography as a good, or a value, or an end (all these terms are interchangeable in philosophy).  According to Aristotle, I have identified this end with my reason.

So, going back to the example of the 9-year-old boy, he employed his means/end reasoning very well.  But he did not reason well about which end he should accomplish, because he identified the wrong end to pursue.  Aristotle says that when we use our reasoning to accomplish a good end, we are using good reason, or what he calls ‘practical wisdom’.  But when we use our reasoning to accomplish a bad end, our reason is no more than what is called ‘cleverness’.

Are There ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’ Ends?

So, according to Aristotle, in order to achieve the human good, we must use our reason to identify and pursue the right ends.  But this begs the question:  are there even right and wrong ends to pursue in the first place? Say a child uses his reason to plan out how to obtain a weapon and accomplish a school shooting (an event that is happening with an alarming frequency here in the US!).  Surely we could all agree that the ‘end’ of accomplishing a school shooting is a bad end.  But what about the ‘end’ of a child playing excessively violent computer games?  Or the ‘end’ of teenage sex?

We live in a society where we often do not agree on which ends are right or wrong to pursue; in other words, we often disagree about values.  But is this disagreement an indication that the values we hold have no truth behind them?  Do we have to be skeptics about the possibility that there really are good and bad things for human beings to do?

In my opinion, Aristotle would say ‘no’.  The key to Aristotle’s ‘non-skepticism’ about the possibility of the human good is in his idea that reason sets the goals, or ends that we pursue.  Now, this is very important, because influential philosophers who came after Aristotle disagreed with him on this idea that reason sets the ends.  In particular, British philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and David Hume argued that reason could only determine how an end was to be achieved – that is, they believed that reason could only perform means/end reasoning.   For them, reason was not able to identify the end, or what should be achieved.  Instead, they believed that we decided upon our ends based on our desires. This led them to be skeptical about the possibility that there was any truth behind our values.

For instance, they would say that my ‘end’ of protecting my children from pornography comes from the fact that I happen to find pornography distasteful.  I don’t like it.  But my desire to protect my children from it is not based in any truth about the harmfulness of pornography.   Let me try to explain a bit more about the difference between these two philosophical positions.

In ancient and modern philosophy, reason is often associated with a kind of objectivity.  Reason is the faculty that we use to understand facts about the world.  We observe the world around us, and through our reason we are able to make sense of these observations by using logical deductions to explain what and why things are.  In this sense, reason is the faculty we use to understand what is true and what is false.  This kind of reason, as I mentioned in a previous entry, is what many philosophers call theoretical reason.

Practical reason, on the other hand, is what helps us to understand how we should act.  Aristotle is quick to point out that understanding how to act is not the same as understanding the hard and fast laws of mathematics; yet, the fact that reason, for Aristotle, is what guides action shows us that Aristotle sees a kind of objectivity about our actions – that is, he believes there are good ways and bad ways of acting. As he puts it, what is ‘true’ in the realm of theoretical reason is analogous to what is ‘good’ in the realm of practical reason.  So, just as reason enables us to understand what is ‘true’, it also enables us to understand what is ‘good’, and this good that reason enables us to comprehend is what is ‘truly good’ for us.

This is very significant, for a few reasons.  First, it means that Aristotle believes that there is such a thing as human nature, because there are certain things that are good for us as human beings, and certain things that are bad for us as human beings.  Second, it means that Aristotle is not a skeptic when it comes to our ability to figure out just what our human goods are.  If our reason is operating properly, we will be able to identify what sorts of things we should value.  When he says that in order to achieve the human good, we must live according to reason, this is precisely because reason is the faculty we use to understand what is good for us, and therefore how to live rightly.

In philosophical terms, Aristotle believes that our reason can help us comprehend substantive goods, which are goods that are morally right for all of us as human beings to attain.

Now, of course, it is possible for us to use our reason wrongly.  We use our reason in the wrong way when we identify bad ends to pursue.  But the possibility of the wrong use of reason should not lead us to the conclusion that reason is incapable of comprehending what is truly good.  Reason can comprehend the good, but only if it has been developed properly.

So, if we go back to the view that reason can decide how to achieve an end, but not what end to achieve, we can see that this is a theory which denies that reason is able to identify what is good for human beings.  People who hold this view promote skepticism about values, by arguing that there is no way we can truly know what is good and bad for human beings.  Sometimes people who hold this view are called subjectivists.  This means that they hold that moral values are subjective, similar to the way our tastes, or preferences, are subjective.

Parenting Toward the Right Ends

As I noted earlier, we live in a society where there is much disagreement on moral values.  We are free to determine our own values and set our own ends.  Now, I value few things more than my freedom, and I count it of the utmost importance that I am free to teach my children the values that I believe are right.  Yet, I also think that this freedom presents a certain dilemma to parents.  It presents a dilemma because the message we can get from political freedom is that it doesn’t matter what sorts of values you teach your children, as long as those values don’t bring harm to anyone.

Of course, in our society parents are expected to teach their children values, but the message is mixed:  Since we are free to determine our own values, it’s unclear how society gauges the relative worth of the values that we choose to teach.

I think Aristotle shows parents an alternative path – a way out of the moral thanklessness to which we are sometimes subject in our society.  In our free society, he stands as a reminder that we can’t confuse the freedom that we have to choose our values with the idea that all values are equal in goodness.  He invites us to ponder what it means to be a human being, which, for parents, is about what it means to raise a human being.  Aristotle thinks that human beings have a nature, and therefore they have substantive goods which they need to achieve in order to be happy.   If you like Aristotle, then as a parent your task is clear:  to raise your children toward these substantive ends.  Nothing could be more important.

Children, Happiness, and Screen-Time

     As a parent, what is it exactly you are trying to do?  Maybe you are trying to raise your child to be really good at school.  Perhaps you are trying to raise your child to be responsible with money, or great at sports, or fabulous on an instrument.  Perhaps you are trying to raise your child to be charitable, or community-minded.  Whatever goals you may have for your child, surely most of us as parents have the same end goal in mind:  we want to raise our children to be happy.

     Funnily enough, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle says the same thing about how human beings in general try to live life.  In his Nicomachean Ethics, he argues that everything we do in life aims at some purpose, which for him is synonymous with some ‘good’ or ‘end’.  Some of our actions are meant to accomplish smaller or lower ends; for instance, I do the laundry because I want my children to wear clean clothes.  However, all of the lower ends we aim to accomplish are done for the sake of something higher, until we come to the highest end in life, the ‘chief good’, which is the thing that we aim at above everything else – the thing that we want ‘for its own sake.’  And that chief good for man, according to Aristotle, is happiness.   

     However, even though we all aim for happiness, Aristotle thinks that many of us will fall short of that goal.  That’s because we misunderstand the nature of happiness.  For Aristotle, not just any old way of life will make us happy.  No, Aristotle believes that you have to live a certain kind of life – indeed, even become a certain kind of person, in order to be happy.

Restrictive Parenting and the Unhappiness of Children

     So often my children seem unhappy.  Let me talk about the issue that seems to cause a great amount of unhappiness in our household:  restricting ‘screen-time’.

     Perhaps like many other parents, have a pressing concern about ‘screen-time’.  I do not wish to stop the march of technology – knowing this to be only a futile exercise – but at the same time, an ipod, iphone,  ipad, smartphone or whatever in the hands of a child or teenager can be a very destructive thing. 

     First, there is the addiction issue.  I have teenagers who live to socialize.  If they lived 30 years ago, there would have been natural limits to the socializing during their waking hours.  But now, from the minute they awaken to the minute they (don’t) go to sleep, they have instant access to hundreds of ‘friends’.  Since socializing is the end of their existence, they see no reason whatsoever to detach themselves, at any point in the day, from the many forms of social media.  There is no other activity they particularly want to pursue, such as homework, family time, reading a book, learning a skill, or practicing their music.  And I don’t think they are the only ones.  If an addiction is defined as something which takes over your life, then most teenagers I know seem to be well and truly addicted to their screens.

     Second, there is the privacy issue, which spills over into what I will call the ‘appropriate’ issue.  With FaceTime, my children can speak face to face, for free, with anyone, at any time, and more to the point, in any location.  So I worry when teenage boys call up on FaceTime, from their bedrooms, scantily clad, wanting to have a very long conversation.  With Snapchat, anyone can take a picture of themselves, clothed or otherwise, in whatever pose they choose, send it to their friends, and then a few seconds later the image is deleted, leaving no way for parents to check up on what their children are doing.  The ‘screen’ has introduced us into a bizarre world in which what is private becomes public, and at times my children need some convincing that there is a difference between the two.

     There are many other concerns I have with screens which I won’t discuss here – for instance, the addictive nature of computer games, especially for boys, and the ever-present danger of pornography – but even these most basic ones are enough for me to be setting restrictions for when the children can have their screens and when they can’t.  No screen during homework.  No screen during music practice.  No screen during family mealtimes.  No screen in the bedroom after 9pm (it comes into Mom and Dad’s room for the night), and so forth.

     The rules, however, are perceived by the teenagers as harsh, demeaning and punitive.  The true extent of their resentment was revealed to me when one of them compared taking away her screen to the performance of female circumcision.  The other one said, ‘My friend would have committed suicide by now with these rules.’  Apparently we as parents are engaging in the extremely brutal – and, according to them, completely unthinkable to anyone else – practice of screen extraction.      

Aristotle’s Happiness:  Align Actions with Values, Not Impulses

     Often I feel alone in this battle. So many other kids seem to have their screens all the time; I know, because they try to contact my kids in the middle of the night!  There have been times when self-doubt has crept in.  Am I doing the right thing by insisting on these restrictions?  Am I fighting the right battle?  Is it worth it to make my children so unhappy?    

    I take heart from Aristotle, who takes a longer term view of happiness than what is happening in the here and now.  This is not to say that I think we should ignore our children’s immediate concerns and feelings; only to say that Aristotle believes that the concept that happiness is something that needs to be learned over time, rather than something that comes about through indulgence of whatever we want to do at any given moment.

     In the last entry I talked about Aristotle’s idea of the human good, which is that man reaches the good for him as a human being when he lives his life according to reason.  As may be clear by now, the human good and happiness, for Aristotle, are closely linked:  those who achieve the human good are those who are happy.

     Yet, there is more to Aristotle’s concept of happiness.  Aristotle says that the happy man is the man who acts according to reason well.  It isn’t enough for a happy life to sometimes act according to reason, and sometimes not.  Acting according to reason must become a habit for us; it must become part of our character.  So, achieving happiness for Aristotle is a process.  It comes as we gradually develop our reason and learn to be good at using our reason to govern our actions.

     We have already established that to act according to reason means to use one’s practical reason to control the impulses, desires and emotions that we have as part of our human nature, so that we feel them and act on them in the right way.  Along this same line of thought, Aristotle thinks that reason is the faculty that enables us to act for an end, or a goal.  Impulses and emotions make us focused on what is happening right now, and can blind us as to the ‘bigger picture’ – for instance, my child has made me very angry, and I lose my temper, but I haven’t thought about how losing my temper is going to damage my relationship with that child.  It is reason that enables us to look past what our impulses are urging us to do at the present moment, and plan for a longer term goal based on our values – on what is really important to us.

How to Help Children Be Happy 

     Now, what about the child that has a strong impulse to engage constantly (and I do mean constantly) with social media, or play computer games for hours on end?   To state the obvious – although perhaps for some it is controversial – these impulses can interfere with some important longer term goals.  Achieving a good education, developing the ability to concentrate on tasks which don’t provide immediate rewards, building up family relationships by actually giving them your full attention and talking to them when they are sitting right next to you, keeping physically fit, and so on –these are all part of a fulfilling life, and they are all adversely affected with too much screen time.  

   Following these impulses may make your child feel as though he is happy, and all of his friends may be unrestricted in following their impulses.  Furthermore, your child may throw a major temper tantrum when you get up guts to tell him that enough is enough, and it’s time to get some fresh air and interact with the real world.  Yet, no matter what your child’s reaction to the enforcement of your restrictions (and I’ve witnessed some pretty awful ones), I think as parents we have to be confident in the knowledge that the restriction of indulgence is a prescription for long-term happiness.  Stay strong, fellow warriors, and remember that Aristotle is on to something when he argues that true happiness comes from acting on our values rather than on our impulses.

Raising Human Beings

     What does it mean to raise a human being?  As parents this is perhaps the most important question we will ponder.  It is a question that goes beyond our relentless day to day interactions with our children; and yet, those daily interactions will be transformed by answering this question.  As a student of philosophy as well as a parent, I have found that philosophy can shed some light on this issue.

Children and Robots

I have a teenager who, for a long time, seemed to thrive on disobeying me.  Actually, the chronic disobedience started way before she was a teenager.  As my husband and I tried to cope during those early years, we constantly reassured ourselves that all the disobedience would be out of her system by the time she hit adolescence.

Well, we were wrong.  When she was twelve we gave her a very old phone, and told her to only use it at certain times.  She never followed our instructions.  When she was thirteen she got Facebook, and she was only allowed to go on it in certain places, for only a certain amount of time during the day.  She only did what we said if she was being monitored; beyond that, she disregarded our rules.  Then, we started seeing inappropriate comments she would post on Facebook, which sometimes included swear words.  We told her not to use swear words, but when we checked her messages, we saw that she was, again, disregarding our injunctions.  Other adults would contact me to tell me the bad things she was posting on Facebook.  It was embarrassing.

I felt like a bad mother, but at the same time, I didn’t feel I could blame myself for her actions.  I had done everything I could to teach her responsible and upstanding behavior, and I had tried to model it myself.  But it seemed that no matter how much ‘input’ I gave to her in terms of values and expectations, there was not an ‘output’ aligned with those values and expectations.

Then, it struck me.  My child may not follow parental instructions, and that may signal a host of vices on her part, but at the same time, my child is not a robot.  She is something far more complex, far more difficult, but far more wonderful.  She is a human being.

Then, I realized that as a parent I had never really thought about what it means to raise a human being.  Although I consider parenting to be the most important job I will ever have, up to this point I had approached it thinking about my children as individuals, not so much as beings with a common, human nature.  I started to think more about what I could expect of them as human beings, and what they could achieve as human beings.

Aristotle on What it Means to be Human

In pondering this issue, I turned to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.  Although Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics does talk about what humans need to be raised properly, his discussion is based on a more fundamental question:  what does it mean to be a human being?

Aristotle discusses this mostly from the concept of what he calls the human good.  What is ‘the good’ for human beings?  If we know what is good for them, and, more especially, what is the ‘highest good’ for them, then we will know what it means to be human, and vice versa.

However, when Aristotle addresses these questions, there is something deeper going on.  For the idea of ‘the good’ for humans is tied up with what he calls the ‘end’ of a human.  The Greek word for end is telos, and it also means ‘purpose’ or ‘goal’.  Nature always acts for a purpose, or an end, and therefore man has an end which is dictated by his nature.  The question of what it means to be a human being is defined by what man’s telos – or end – is.

Man’s Telos and the Function Argument

In exploring man’s telos, Aristotle says that we need to identify what he calls the ‘function’ of man.  The function of a thing is its ‘characteristic activity’; it is what a thing does specifically as that thing.  So, for instance, the function of an eye is sight.  The eye is made up of many different elements, which, when put together in a certain way, operate to enable it to see.  However, we understand what an eye is, not by looking at its constituent parts (although that may help), but by defining what its purpose, or function is – that is, by understanding what it does.  Furthermore, a ‘good’ eye is one that sees well; that is, it performs its function to a high standard.

So, what is man’s function?  What is it that a human being does that is special to him  as a human being?  Aristotle’s answer is to compare humans to other living things (plants and animals), to isolate what is peculiar about humans.  Plants can receive nutrition and grow, so merely staying alive and growing physically is not peculiar to us.  Animals have sensation (pleasure and pain), perception, imagination, and movement.  Human beings, however, have a rational element to their soul which is not present in other living things, so for Aristotle, the function of man ‘is an activity of soul’ in accordance with ‘a rational principle’.

To achieve the ‘human good’ then, which is also to reach one’s telos, is to live according to reason in thought and in action.

Practical Reason

But what does this mean, to live according to reason?

Aristotle believes that as human beings we have different parts to our soul, an irrational part and a rational part.  The irrational part includes involuntary actions, but also our passions, emotions, instincts and impulses.  To act in a way characteristic of humans, we need to govern the irrational part of our soul with our reason.

By the term ‘reason’, Aristotle does not just mean the thought process that allows us to understand concepts such as ‘2 + 2 = 4’.  He calls that ‘theoretical reason’.  There is also ‘practical reason’, which is the reason we use to guide the irrational part of our soul.  We don’t want to be controlled by our impulses, emotions, etc.; rather, we want to control them.  For instance, if we feel angry, we want to be able to control our anger so that we don’t lash out in violence; if we feel fear in the face of a challenge, we want to be able to overcome the instinct to run away.  Animals act on instinct, and in this way they do not have the power to act ‘otherwise’.  Humans, however, through their reason, can overcome their instincts and base their actions on choice.

Furthermore, for Aristotle, it is through our reason that we come to understand what is right and what is wrong.  When Aristotle says that we need to govern our actions through a ‘rational principle’, he means that there are good and bad ways of acting, and we can understand what is the right thing for us to do through our reason.

Parenting Human Beings

So, what implications does Aristotle’s notion of the human good have for raising human beings?  Try this:  if the human good is to live a life according to reason, then raising human beings must entail respect for their developing rationality.  This means two things.

First, I should expect a lot of irrationality.  Since their reason isn’t fully developed, my children will not have great control over their emotions, impulses and instincts.  There will be times when they make bad choices, including the choice to be disobedient.

Second, although they are not yet fully rational, I should expect that they will want to enjoy the privilege of rationality – that is, being able to make choices on how to live their lives.  It is in their human nature to try to use whatever level of reason they do have, even if, again, it means they make a bad choice.

This does not mean that I have to agree with their decisions which I believe to be wrong, let them carry out a course of action that I know will harm them, or neglect to teach them values for fear of ‘forcing’ my own reason upon them.  On the contrary, Aristotle says that children must be taught values – and trained to live those values – or else their reason will not develop properly.

What it does mean, however, is that learning to use one’s own reason rightly takes a long time. During the process, I should expect disagreements, arguments and differences of opinion. I should expect children who test boundaries to see if the notions of right and wrong that I set down for them are those they can one day accept for themselves.

In short, I should expect children who are human beings.