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.