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 noted 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 and intuitive 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. In a couple of respects, it is impossible now to be an Aristotelian parent, and most of the significant moral challenges parents face in contemporary liberal democracies are beyond the reach of an Aristotelian approach. Or so I’d like to argue.

To begin with an easy point: the appeal of Aristotle depends on his abstractness, and the more attend to the details of his account of happiness as the chief good, of this or that virtue, or the process of instilling proper habits, the less obvious and attractive his view looks. This is less a comment about Aristotle than an acknowledgment of the culture distance between ancient Greek culture and our own. Suffice to say, modern Aristotelians in general face the task of updating his account of human nature, biology, gender, rationality, and so on. Would-be Aristotelian parents need to do this as well.

This task though, points to a much deeper problem, which is that in a pluralistic society, one marked by competing reasonable conceptions of the good, how Aristotle would have to be updated is itself a contentious issue. Take gender. I think (and hope) few people will  endorse Aristotle’s beliefs about women and men tout court. Still, plenty of people will follow Aristotle in distinguishing the natures of men and women, and these folks may comfortably entertain gender specific virtues. Others, however, find both these ideas anathema, and reject the very idea that gender is rooted in an immutable nature, never mind the idea that traits considered admirable in men should not be seen as admirable in women as well. So do good, modern Aristotelian parents teach gender roles or not? And if they do, which gender roles?

A very tempting answer, and indeed a basically correct answer, is that it is up to parents to sort these question out according to their own beliefs and values. Catholics parents can update Aristotle according to Catholic beliefs and values, and they will work to instill Catholic virtues. Muslim will update Aristotle according to Muslim beliefs and values, tree-hugging new agers according to their beliefs and values, New Atheists according to… and so on. Each can teach their children about gender according to the parents’ convictions. But by now Aristotelian parenting has become a schema, a formalism whose key positions are occupied by variables ranging over the reasonable beliefs and values co-existing in modern pluralistic societies. Aristotle has become….a political liberal? More to come.

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