Liberal Parenting III

In the previous post I tried to raise some problems for approaches to what I’m calling liberal paternalism as applied to children that turned on treating parent/child relations as fiduciary.  My objections turned on the difficulty in identifying or defining the goods that parents are supposed to safeguard.  While talk of parents holding their child’s “future” in trust is suggestive, it actually does little to clarify the limits of parental authority.  A somewhat different approach to liberal paternalism focuses not on goods that we might hope to be easily specified, but rather on goods as identified by the child in light of her own considered beliefs and values.  It is on behalf of these, the argument would go, that parents should make their child rearing decisions.

As will be immediately apparent, there is a challenge facing this approach that arises from the fact that children (young children in any case) don’t have considered beliefs and values, making it difficult to attach any content to the idea that these should guide a parent’s choices on behalf of the child.  The way around this, some have supposed, is to try to discern these beliefs and values counterfactually–considerations of what beliefs and values a child would have were she more knowledgable and capable of more rational thought should constrain a parent’s current practices.  This move can also be understood as a way of respecting a child’s autonomy.  Though a child may not be currently autonomous, we can consider what she would believe and value if she were.  Hence the liberal demand to defend the autonomy of individuals, or more precisely, the limits on the expressions of authority demanded by the liberal respect for autonomy, would be operative.

The most plausible version of this idea would have us consider a child’s future beliefs and values, or the beliefs and values of the adult she will be become.  These can then be used as a kind of test: that the child’s future self would approve of the decisions currently being made on her behalf establishes their legitimacy.  If by contrast we can conclude the child will grow up to reject a portion of her upbringing, we can conclude the parent is not acting well.

This proposal has problems that parallel those troubling the fiduciary model, starting with indeterminacy.  While it may be plausible to suppose that a child will grow up to be an adult who is glad for her education, allowing us to anticipate a retrospective endorsement of decisions pertaining to her education now, this confidence will diminish as we move into areas about which adults disagree.  Here too sectarian religious eduction might be an example–will the child compelled now to go to a religious school come to endorse the values and beliefs she is being taught?  Perhaps, but perhaps not.  What is perhaps worse, as argued by David Archard, to the extent her future endorsement is in part of consequence of her being compelled go to the religious school now, it’s hard to see how this could lend any legitimacy to her parent’s decisions to effect exactly that.  (Archard calls this “self-fulfilling paternalism.”)  A proponent may try to avoid these problems by arguing that parental decisions that turn on or assume beliefs and values a child might possibly grow up to reject are problematic.  But this is surely much too strong, as way too many seemingly legitimate parental choices might come to be rejected for one reason or another.  (I develop some of these points in some detail in my paper Public Reason and Child Rearing.)

So, if I’m right liberal parenting faces a rather deep problem in justifying and limning the limits of parental authority, and this will apply to justifying the deliberate inculcation of liberal values as well.  I take this in more detail next.

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