Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that liberalism is a tradition that cannot acknowledge that it is a tradition. Whether or not this is true in general, the thought seems to me to capture something of the state of what I’m calling liberal parenting. Making liberal values binding on parenting makes parental authority problematic and, I’ve argued, there are no obvious ways to resolves the tensions that result from within liberalism itself. In this post I’ll consider some of the further difficulties that arise when we conjoin this result with the need to inculcate liberal values themselves.
We can start by contrasting liberal parenting with what I’ll call traditional parenting, acknowledging from the outset that I’m relying a bit on caricatures to make a contrast clear. Traditional parenting is unapologetic about inculcating values and beliefs–to raise children to believe what is true and to pursue what is good is taken to be a basic responsibility of parenthood. To put it in Rawlsian terms, traditional parenting involves the deliberate transmission of a specific comprehensive doctrine. Making a point of raising your child to be a practicing Catholic would be an example. By apparent contrast, liberal parenting would instill in children those habits of mind that would enable them to pursue for themselves the true and the good without having had any particular set of beliefs imposed on them. The problems begin when we acknowledge that if we take those beliefs and values as themselves constitutive a good life–when, to put it in Rawlsian terms, we treat liberalism itself as a comprehensive doctrine–we end up having to conclude that at a certain level of abstraction liberal and traditional parents are doing the same thing. As is often argued, to choose to teach your child the importance of individualism, autonomy, critical inquiry, openness to competing ideas, etc. is to close off access to those kinds of lives that depend instead on the comparatively unquestioned authority of a traditionally shared and transmitted set of beliefs and values.
This is where MacIntyre’s dictum about liberalism applies, as it seems to me a strikingly pervasive response to this state of affairs has been for advocates of liberal parenting to avoid confronting the possibility that there is a level at which their goals are on par with those of the more traditionally minded. There are two avoidance strategies in evidence. One is more prominent in psychology, and has resulted in a number of significantly influential ideas. The other is a more recent move on the part of philosophers.
The psychological move has been to shift the normative authority of liberal values out of the moral realm and into the realm of health. To the extent that both liberal aims and methods of child rearing can be conflated with what is psychologically good for children the burden of defending them is alleviated. In the limit, that that comprehensive liberal values are moral values at all can be obscured, and illiberal parenting can be condemned as unhealthy without having to acknowledge (or defend) any kind of explicit moral judgments about what constitutes a good life or a good person. This strategy is pretty plainly in view in, for example, the more psychological work of John Dewey, and is explicit in Lawrence Kohlberg’s work on moral education.
If we consider the psychological move from a Rawlsian perspective it’s easy to see its attractiveness to liberals. Since judgments about health are ostensively rooted in scientific knowledge, debates about psychological health should be amendable to public reason, meaning that the case against certain child rearing practice and goals can be made from a perspective neutral between comprehensive doctrines. Should it turn out that from this perspective liberal parenting is the most defensible, its advocates can rest easy. As it turns out, the imposition of liberal values is no more than providing what anyone can see is best for children. This, in essence, is the philosophical counterpart to the psychological move, amended by the elevation of autonomy to the position of ur value as it were. Relying less on an overtly psychological understanding of good health, the claim is made instead that autonomy is the one trait that everyone should recognize and value, regardless of their comprehensive doctrines. From here the argument is that liberal parenting is uniquely effective in fostering autonomy, and so to be preferred even among those who reject liberalism as a comprehensive doctrine.