Congratulations, Good Parents: We Will Ignore You

A few years ago, I attended an academic conference on religion and freedom. Many of the academics there were sympathetic to the notion of a free society, and so I was surprised when several of them expressed significant unease with the idea that parents had the right to give their children a religious upbringing.

For one thing, they didn’t feel that bringing up a child in a religion gave that child a genuine choice regarding whether he wanted to be religious or not. ‘Parents say that they will raise their children in their religion, and then let them choose whether they will continue the religion when they are older, but it doesn’t seem to work that way,’ they complained.

Secondly, because they didn’t seem thrilled about children continuing in the religion of their families, I can only presume that they were worried about the influence of religious people in a free society. They thought of religious people as having rigid values, which made them difficult and intolerant participants in public discussion about what freedoms people should be allowed to have in society.

For these academics, there was a conflict between the health of a free society on the one hand, and the rights of certain parents to pass on their ideals to their children on the other. So, rather than valuing and appreciating the role of parents in a free society, my colleagues worried about their role.

Our Unease with Parenting

A friend of mine is a foster parent, who presently cares for a four month old boy. Like most foster children, the story of his parents is tragic. His father is in prison, and his mother is a drug addict. Her use of drugs has affected her to the point where she really has neither the mental capacity nor emotional resources to cope with caring for a child. In fact, she was high when she gave birth, in a stranger’s bathtub.

As a society, we respond with abhorrence to this kind of incompetency in parents, to our credit. However, it strikes me that when we see competency in parents, we usually don’t have a correspondingly intense, positive reaction.  

Why is this? Why do we not celebrate and applaud competent parenting? One reason, as I have argued before, is that we take the process of raising a child for granted. But perhaps there is another reason: incompetent parenting may make us angry and horrified, but competent parenting can make us uneasy.   Like my fellow academics, we can see that there is more going on in the good parent/child relationship than keeping a child safe, fed and clean. Indeed, in this relationship, values are planted in deep. We have no control over this process, and yet, because those children are members of society, the process affects us.

Parenting with Values – But Which Values?

Parenting, in its essence, is surely about passing down one’s values – ways of doing, thinking, and living – to one’s posterity. I have written before that one of our responsibilities as parents is to develop ‘moral reasoning’ in our children, which is the reasoning we use to decide what is good and what is bad. I have also argued that the purpose of parenting is to raise good human beings.  

So, on this view, the family is a realm of morality. So far, so good. Surely most people agree that teaching children what is right and what is wrong is a basic responsibility parents have. Yet, there is a problem: what one parent thinks is right and wrong may be different from what another thinks is right and wrong. Indeed, a parent’s values may be at odds with the dominant values society happens to espouse at the moment.

When this happens, there will be people who don’t want parents – at least, certain parents – to teach their values to their children. The somewhat paradoxical situation arises where we as parents we have a responsibility to teach our children right and wrong, and yet people around us may be unhappy about us fulfilling that responsibility. For instance, I consider it my responsibility to teach my children that abortion is wrong, even though it is allowed under the law. Suddenly, the focus shifts from a recognition of the vital role that parents have in the moral upbringing of their children, to a grudging acknowledgement that parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit.

Liberalism and the Rights of Parents

The fact that our society reserves the right of parents to impart their values to their children is a result, at least in part, of the philosophy of liberalism. Liberalism argues that people will have differing conceptions of the good, and that they should be free to pursue those conceptions – and teach them to their children – as long as they do not bring harm to others whilst doing so. This means that the liberal state makes laws which ensure that people are treated equally as they live their values, while remaining neutral regarding the question of whether their values are good or bad.

That’s the theory, anyway. The problem is that liberals disagree among themselves as to what it means to have a ‘free’ and ‘equal’ society, and even to what extent liberalism can remain ‘neutral’ regarding different conceptions of the good. These disagreements bear directly on the rights of parents to teach their values to their children.

Political liberals think that a free and equal society is one that is tolerant of diverse cultures among its people, even when those cultures promote values other than freedom and equality, or understand freedom and equality in a different way than liberals might understand them. So, for instance, if parents are religious, they should be free to raise their children in their religion, even if that religion promotes ‘illiberal’ practices and doctrines. These ‘illiberal’ practices could include, say, specifying gender-specific roles within a religion which could be seen as supporting inequality between men and women, or preaching ‘limits’ to freedom by teaching that certain actions are not allowed by God, such as abortion or homosexual behavior.

Comprehensive liberals, on the other hand, think that a liberal society should actively promote a certain kind of freedom and equality among its members, even if it means interfering with the beliefs and practices of various groups within that society. So, for instance, they may demand that all children be taught that homosexual behavior is a practice that should be welcomed and celebrated in order to promote equality in society, even if certain parents have conscientious objections to homosexuality due to their religious convictions. Thus, for comprehensive liberals, there may be cases in which parents should not be ‘free’ to teach certain values to their children, in order to have a truly free society.

Can a Free Society Ever Really Value Parents?

Of the two kinds of liberalism, it seems that political liberalism is more sympathetic to parental rights.   Now, I am very much in favor of parental rights. Yet, I would argue we need more than a healthy respect for parental rights in order to show real support and appreciation for parents. This is because it is possible to respect the rights of parents, while wholeheartedly disapproving of what they are actually doing in exercising those rights. And it’s hard to appreciate or value someone when you disapprove of what they are doing.

But surely this is an intractable problem. Freedom in a liberal society means I am free to teach my children as I please, but I am not free to get your support or appreciation as I teach them. In this sense, can a free society ever really value parents?

In my view, there is not a short or easy answer to this question. But here’s why I think it’s important: Parenting is very demanding. It requires life-altering sacrifices of time, money and energy. Children are immature and taxing, and being around them requires you to strive constantly to be a better person. In fact, I would argue that its demands are so great that parents can get depressed and discouraged if they don’t have a good support network.

So, for me, it’s not good enough to look at parents only as rights-bearing individuals. That implies that the best we can do for them is to force ourselves to ignore them, which also means we force ourselves to ignore the importance of what they doing.  And that is surely not only dishonest, but also unjust.

I think we have a greater chance of giving parents real support if we shift the focus back on their responsibility as moral teachers. We may disagree with what they are teaching, but by emphasizing the responsibilities that go with their rights, we can be more honest about the fact that parents are the very foundation of our society. The truth is that nations depend upon them to fulfill their responsibility as moral teachers. We have to find a way to recognize the tremendous importance of parents, without being threatened by them or wanting to control them.

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Could Parenting Be More Important Than Politics?

Since my blog started  two months ago, I have had two commentators cite the following quote by C. S. Lewis:

‘I think I can understand that feeling about a housewife’s work being like that of Sisyphus (who was the stone rolling gentleman).  But it is surely in reality the most important work in the world.  What do ships, railways, miners, cars, government etc. exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes?  As Dr. Johnson said, “To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavor” … We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it.  So your job is the one for which all others exist.’

I love this quote.  I live my life by this quote.  But I think it needs some discussion.

‘The Job For Which All Others Exist’:  Was C. S. Lewis Right?

I did my undergraduate work at Wellesley College, which is a highly competitive all-women’s school.  For some reason, when I reflect on Lewis’s quote, I often think of Wellesley.

Wellesley was full of very ambitious women – who were, I hasten to add, also very lovely (the following is not meant as a criticism of any of them, just an observation).  Most of them had plans to become lawyers, judges, politicians, high powered business women, doctors, journalists, etc.  Yet, I don’t think they saw their future careers as somehow existing for the sake of happy homes in the wider world.  Were they undertaking all that education just to be part of a support network that ultimately focused on enabling families to function well and be happy?

That certainly didn’t seem to be the dominant thinking among our professors and college administrators, either.    Our studies were not for the purpose of generating happy homes in society, were they?  And if they were, then what about the happiness in our own future homes?  It was not a secret that the careers we were going into were grueling and would require everything we had to succeed.  Wellesley was there to prepare us for that success, not so much for success in the home.  And perhaps it was an open secret that if we wanted to be successful professionally, there would be some unavoidable conflicts with success in the home.  (I say it was an open secret, because this conflict always seemed to me to be swept under the carpet).

When successful Wellesley alums came to speak to us, they were always invited to campus because of their success in their profession, not because of their success in the home.  Bankers, lawyers, politicians, academics, activists were all invited to speak.  I never heard them speak of their home lives.

So, my point is that if Lewis is right, then why was my experience at Wellesley the way it was?  If the job we have in our homes, with our families, is the job for which all other jobs exist, then why do we spend nearly all our time preparing for, working at, analyzing, applauding, and rewarding all those other jobs?

I don’t have a neat answer to these questions, but at the same time I don’t want to abandon Lewis’s insight.  Instead, I want to look at it from a different perspective, by considering it in light of some thoughts from Aristotle.

‘The Job For Which All Others Exist’:  Is it Politics?

Aristotle, too, considered the concept of a ‘job for which all other jobs exist’.   He discussed this concept, though, by using terms like ‘master art’ and ‘highest science’.  The highest science was defined as the science for which all other arts and sciences existed.  Aristotle thought this highest science was politics.

Now, that sounds a little more plausible than Lewis’s view.  Power over millions of people, global fame, the opportunity to practice state craft, change the course of history, influence world events – you know, that sort of thing – surely Aristotle was not far off the mark when he argued that politics was the highest of all the sciences.

Yet, let us consider his reason why politics is the highest science.  In an earlier entry, I explained that Aristotle thinks that everything we do in life aims at some ‘end’, or ‘good’, and that there is a ‘chief good’ in life – the highest end for which all of our other actions are done – which is happiness.  Now, not only is Aristotle interested in what the highest end is for a human life, but he also wants to show which of the disciplines have this highest end as their object.  Surely, whatever discipline studies how to achieve this chief good would be the most authoritative of all the arts and sciences – it would be the ‘master art. ’

Aristotle argues that politics is the discipline which has this good as it’s object.  Politics is the master art because it’s purpose is to achieve the ‘good for man’ – the highest good which all other disciplines are used to achieve.  It is politics that legislates what we should do and what we should not do; in this way, it has a certain conception of what a human life should look like.  Aristotle thinks that the function of the law is to guide us toward our highest ‘end’ of happiness.   Remember that for Aristotle, the happy man is the virtuous man, and the virtuous man is the one who is fulfilling his potential as a human being to be a moral agent.  So, the law is there to help us develop good, virtuous habits, which will make all the difference to the kind of person that we become.

Now, there is a problem here.  To modern ears, the idea that politics is there to direct man toward his ‘highest good’ sounds foreign, even dangerous.  Nowadays, we regard the function of politics to be that of protecting and defending our freedoms, not directing our actions toward some ‘end’.  We value our freedom to direct ourselves – and our families – toward what we understand to be our ‘good’.

This modern conception of politics, indeed, was (and continues to be) the project of the philosophy of liberalism.  As I have mentioned before, liberalism espouses the importance of individual rights and individual liberty, and is considered by most people to be the philosophy upon which our western, democratic society is built.  Although liberalism has a rich heritage incorporating many thinkers, one definitive version of it can be found in the work of the philosopher John Rawls, who wrote A Theory of Justice in 1971.

One basic premise of Rawlsian liberalism is that the freedoms, or rights, that we have in our society should not be based upon any particular conception of the ‘good life’ for human beings.  In other words, governments should remain neutral as much as possible on questions concerning what is a ‘good’ human life or a ‘bad’ human life.  After all, people often disagree on what it means for a human being to be good or bad, or even on the nature of happiness (remember that for Aristotle these are the same thing – a good life is a happy life).  If a government were to have its own conception of what human happiness or goodness was, and then were to police its citizens to live according to that conception, it would deny a certain portion of society the freedom to live their own conceptions.  The state, then, must remain silent on the moral content of what we as citizens try to achieve in our lives, and limit itself to protecting our rights to live as we choose, as long as it is in a peaceful way.

Parenting as the Master Art

Now, maybe you agree with this aim of liberalism, or maybe you don’t.  Whatever your view, I think it is fair to say that something like this version of liberalism has had a very great influence upon our Western democracies.  And if that is the case, then politics can no longer be considered the ‘master art’ under Aristotle’s criteria.  Indeed, if questions of the good life are no longer the concern of politics, but instead have been recognized as an issue of private concern, then surely it is parenting that becomes a prime candidate to replace politics as the master art.

It is in parenting that the question of what it means to be human is at its most urgent.  It is parents who give their children a conception of what a ‘good’ life and a ‘bad’ life for humans might be.  It is parents who develop their children’s moral reasoning, directing them toward a ‘good’ life.  And the strong emotional bond that exists between parent and child means that moral values are transmitted from one generation to the next powerfully, not only by words, but also by feelings.   That is why politics, though clearly important – and here is where Aristotle and I part company – simply cannot achieve for human beings what good parenting can achieve for them.  Parenting is a practice that passes on humanity like no other, and in that sense, it has to be the master art.

I hope C. S. Lewis would agree.