On Poverty and Fancy Cars

So here’s an argument we’ve all heard:

It would be wrong of me to choose not to help a child in peril in order protect some kind of material good—a fancy car, expensive clothes, etc. Each of us, however, is in a morally comparable position every day, able to help a needy child at the cost of relatively modest amount of money. Specifically, modulo some plausible calculations, by donating $200 or so to an effective charity we can extend the life of a child living in extreme poverty. So, by choosing not to donate the $200, each of us who are in a position to do so are as morally culpable as the person who allows a child to perish for the sake of a car.

Now, versions of this argument—offered most famously by Peter Unger and Peter Singer in various places over the years—have probably done a whole lot of good, certainly more than most philosophical arguments. And I would hardly want to discourage people from donating to the likes of Oxfam. Still, it is a transparently bad argument, or so it seems to me. Keep Reading…

Metaethical Musings II

It seems “a bit” by my blog’s standards isn’t a particularly brief amount of time. Apologies if anyone was waiting on pins and needles for this follow up.

What I am playing around with is something like this. We’re supposing that in the first instance a moral judgment to the effect ‘x is wrong’ is a statement of a social fact. Specifically it points to the fact that x violates a norm recognized by the relevant community and incorporated into its practices. As noted in the previous post, one way to avoid the worry of ethical relativism is to appeal to a trans-cultural good which can be used to adjudicate competing such norms accepted by different communities. If we define what counts as human flourishing in a way that doesn’t depend on the particular values of any one community, or which can be recognized and accepted across diverse communities, we can use that to judge how conducive a given community’s norms are of human flourishing. In a rough way this would capture the strategies of Aristotelian virtue ethics and the Natural Law Theory as understood by Aquinas, but in a way that acknowledges and accommodates the fundamentally social nature of morality as well as the fact of moral diversity. Together these point in the direction of the less metaphysically loaded but still Aristotelianish Capabilities Approach of Martha Nussbaum….Continue

Metaethical Musings

I’ve been reading a book of essays by a legal theorist who draws a lot from philosophy. He supports legal positivism position by appeal to a generic kind of non-cognitivist metaethical position, which he contrasts with moral realism. What interests me is that he defines the latter as holding to some versions of the claim that moral judgments are true or false and this in a way that is “mind independent.”  This is to say he conflates “objective” and “mind independent.” As typical as this is, it strikes me, and has for a long time, as odd. Keep reading…

In Defense of Aristotelian Parenting

If there’s a sense in which Aristotelian parenting is impossible, there’s also a (different) sense in which it is inevitable. If we assume, as I think we should, that it is a fundamental duty of parents to protect and further their children’s interests, then it hard to see how good parents can not approximate a model according to which “wise parents, knowing the good, use their authority to instils habits of behavior which lead to moral development, a practice that in time turns their children towards the good and towards happiness”, as I put in the previous post. If this amounts to something in the spirit of Aristotle, then all good parents are Aristotelian, however they go about defining the Good. Keep reading…

Against Aristotelian Parenting (sort of)

Parenting is a deeply moral enterprise, both in being the locus of a lot of morally significant decisions and actions—it matters a lot how parents treat their children—and in the sense of leading to morally significant results—it matters a lot how children turn out. It is often remarked that despite its moral importance, (Western) philosophers seem to have little to say about parenting. This is true comparatively—philosophers actually say a fair amount about parenting, but much less than they say about many other things, even within ethics.

Aristotle is seen as something of an exception, at least insofar as his remarks about moral education and the acquisition of virtue seem readily applicable to parenting. His account of human flourishing, the role of the virtues in tending us towards the good, the good as defined in terms of human psychology (literally), habituation as the source of the (moral virtues), the taming of the appetites and feelings as a condition of genuine autonomy—all of it lends itself to a natural account of much of what parents try to do. Wise parents, knowing the good, use their authority to instils habits of behavior which lead to moral development, a practice that in time turns their children towards the good and towards happiness.

There’s something right about this, and those who turn to Aristotle for child rearing advice are on some solid ground. But there are also some things wrong with this. Keep reading…

Children Are the Property of Their Parents

Or so thinks Rand Paul. Or at least that what he said: “The state doesn’t own your children, parents own their children.” The context was recent debates about vaccinating children, and on that subject Paul’s comments are alarming enough. Hopefully though he doesn’t really believe children are literally the property of parents. I would guess he means parents have a unique or absolute right to make medical decisions about their children and that this trumps the state’s authority to make medical decisions about children. Keep reading…

New article

I had a paper come out in the Journal of Philosophy of Education. Here’s the abstract:

The ways in we raise and educate children can appear to be at odds with basic liberal values. Relationships between parents and children are unequal, parents routinely control children’s behaviour in various ways, and they use their authority to shape children’s beliefs and values. Whether and how such practices can be made to accord with liberal values presents a significant puzzle. In what follows I will look at a recent and sophisticated attempt to resolve these tensions offered by Matthew Clayton in his book Justice in Child Rearing in the context of general account of the proper limits of parental authority. I argue that Clayton is unsuccessful in ways that point to fundamental and pervasive questions about the place of liberal values in child rearing and education that remain unanswered.

Licensing Parents

Time to shake of the cyber dust and get a bit more active here. So, to that effect, here are some thoughts on a controversial idea…

I read a little piece recently that recommended, among other things, requiring people to get a license before they could have and raise children. This is not a new idea, as various philosophers have argued for something along these lines, most prominently Hugh Lafayette as long ago as 1980. But  there are three trends whose confluence may point to its looking more attractive. First is the growing consensus that good parenting does not come naturally but requires a special expertise. This expertise involve both specialized knowledge of important facts of developmental and child psychology as well as specialized skills in caring for children. Second is an assumption that this expertise is not reliably acquired and passed on from one generation to the next. Rather it’s the sort of thing that must be directly taught by experts—hence the industry of parenting books, magazines, website, classes, and so on. Lastly is the assumption that the state has an essential role in guaranteeing children a minimally decent childhood at least to the extent of protecting them from gross abuse and neglect.  Keep Reading…

Tony Bruckner 1953-2014

Tony Bruckner, who died a couple of weeks ago, was my thesis advisor, having overseen my dissertation on Jerry Fodor and naturalized semantics. I also took a number of courses with him as a graduate student at UCSB. Tony was 61 and doubtless at the hight of his powers—this one of those untimely deaths that just seem particularly unfair. Though my philosophical interests have kind of drifted away from the close, rigorous analytic philosophy he excelled at, I’d like to think I acquired at least some small measure of his truly remarkable ability to work through an argument with exacting care, precision and detail. I’d also like to acknowledge a particularly good bit advice he offered when I began working on my dissertation, which was something to the effect that “you’ve read enough—start writing.” And so I did. One last thing has to be said in any remembrance of Dr. Bruckner: as anyone who knew or worked with him will tell you, he was an uncommonly generous and kind person.