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.

One way to resist this conclusion is rejecting the range of parental authority it assumes. What if someone rejects the idea that parents have any right to impose their own conception of the Good, or more generally their own beliefs and values, on their children? Here are two related ways someone might make out this idea, both of which flow from applying broadly liberal ideals to childrearing by assuming the complete moral equality of children. Specifically, we might begin by demanding that the ability of children to arrive freely at their own beliefs and values not be compromised. Put differently we might insist that children, as children, are entitled to a significant measure of autonomy.

There are two versions of this. One, the more extreme of the two, can be identified with so call Child Liberationists, and literally calls for granting children, or at least older children, considerably more children to live according to their own lights than they have traditionally enjoyed. The less extreme version holds that children rightfully live under the authority of parents and that this includes the rights of the latter to instill certain beliefs and values. These beliefs and values, however, would be limited to those acceptable to (more or less) everyone regardless of their own beliefs about the Good. In other words, parents would be entitled to teach relativity uncontroversial beliefs as informed by science and our shared constitutional tradition, but not beliefs and values specific to the parents’ religious beliefs.

Neither of these, however, really escape the more formalistic kind of Aristotelian picture I’ve sketched. The first fails because it simply defers the shaping of character to other forces that happen to effectively shape a child’s beliefs and values—in practice, we might worry, this will more often than not be a rather shallowly materialistic and libertine popular culture. The problem with the second is, as I’ve argued, that in limiting themselves to the comparatively meagre resources of uncontroversial beliefs and values parents will be imposing de facto a secular liberal conception of the good.

The upshot, then, is something like this. Given children’s need for socialization, any parenting that isn’t desultory and unguided by any principles or values will in some respect be Aristotelian.

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