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.
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.