Featured Philosop-her: Kyla Ebels-Duggan

I am very happy to welcome Kyla Ebels-Duggan as the next featured philosop-her. Ebels-Duggan is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University. She works on issues in moral and political philosophy. Recently, some of her work has focused on the intersection of these areas with questions in the philosophy of education. Her recent publications include “Dealing with the Past: Responsibility and Personal History,” Philosophical Studies, vol. 164:1, 2013, 141-161, and “Autonomy as Intellectual Virtue,” forthcoming in The Aims of Higher Education, Harry Brighouse and Michael MacPherson, eds.

Her post follows.


How Not to Solve the Liberal Dilemma of Childrearing

Kyla Ebels-Duggan

The Amish loom oddly large in philosophers’ reflections on the norms governing childrearing. They’re taken to represent an especially thoroughgoing commitment to communicate their particular normative outlook to their children whole. This places them at one end of a continuum of childrearing practices shared by many parents who seek to give their children a religious upbringing, as well as others—less common, but importantly similar—who look to inculcate various non-religious comprehensive views.

Many people take the Amish approach to childrearing to stand in irreconcilable tension with the central liberal commitment to the autonomy of individuals. This commitment gives rise to a problem that we can call the liberal dilemma of childrearing: the task of raising children seems centrally to involve shaping their values or normative commitments. But, as a general matter, imposing our conceptions of the good on others is thought to be ethically suspect. Children’s particular vulnerability to those primarily responsible for their upbringing arguably makes imposition especially threatening here, even as their need for guidance makes it seem especially necessary. How, then, can conscientious parents both respect their children’s claims to autonomy and responsibly execute their childrearing task?

In a classic article, Joel Feinberg articulates a widely favored response. He argues that children have a right to an “open future,” a right to have options kept accessible until they are adults capable of exercising free choice among them. Feinberg presents securing an open future for children as a superior alternative to teaching them a single worldview or conception of the good, an alternative that solves the liberal dilemma. I understand him as claiming both that ideally conscientious parents aim to give their children an open future, and that children’s entitlement to options can ground state intervention in childrearing practices that do not achieve this aim.

Though broadly shared, both positions embody an important confusion. To get at this confusion, we must consider more closely what it means to have access to options that one can freely choose. If this conception of autonomy is to provide an alternative to teaching a single conception of the good, then simply living according to values one endorses cannot be enough, for surely even the Amish aim to put their children in a position to do this. Their childrearing project will succeed only if their children eventually guide their lives by Amish values of their own accord.

Though the Amish children will thus exercise autonomy in a sense, Feinberg and others hold that their future is not open because they lack access to a range of options. While there are many ways in which a maturing child might be said to have or lack access to options, Feinberg’s leading idea seems to be that of a certain sort of psychological, or we might even say existential, access. Options are accessible to a person in this sense if they seem “live” to her, if she can take them seriously as possibilities for her own life. Thus Feinberg claims that the Amish violate their children’s claims to autonomy insofar as they seek to eliminate from consideration all alternatives to the Amish way of life.

Autonomy, understood as existential access to a range of options, may seem the most natural contrast to attempts to teach a child a single, particular conception of the good. But what should fall within this range? Surely responsible parenting is compatible with, and even requires, putting some possibilities out of psychological reach. For example, many parents self-consciously aim to raise their children to regard everyone as entitled to consideration. If these parents succeed, their children reach maturity with a settled conviction that it is wrong to harm others without very significant reason. This conviction is settled in the sense that they cannot take alternatives, such as thoroughgoing egoism, seriously as a possibility for their lives. But moving that possibility off the table is not only unobjectionable, but also commendable, indeed basic to good parenting.

Anyone who agrees must then sort between possibilities that parents ought to make existentially accessible and those that may or should be closed. This might not seem so hard to do. We think it permissible to exclude egoism because we are confident that treating others with respect is required and not merely an idiosyncratic preference or matter of taste. By contrast, we may find it objectionable to limit children’s options with respect to matters on which we lack confidence or think that there are many valuable yet incompatible possibilities.

But, of course, people disagree about which normative matters are settled as well as which concern areas of value pluralism. Our views about these questions are simply part of our overall normative outlooks. Variety here will lead to derivative disagreements about which options an ideal parent would make accessible, or which a child is entitled to have open. From their own point of view, conscientious parents cannot do better than to rely on their own considered commitments in making such determinations. They will try to give their children existential access to a range of options on matters they judge to be appropriately settled by individual preferences or idiosyncrasies. They will also seek to make a range of possibilities existentially available with respect to questions on which they themselves lack confidence as to which answer is right. It follows that giving children existential access to a given set of options is not an alternative to communicating particular normative commitments, but rather one aspect of doing so.

There are other ways of understanding access to options, but they don’t help the theorist looking to solve the liberal dilemma by providing an alternative to communicating a particular normative outlook. Some conceptions of access place demands on background political and cultural structures, and so lie beyond the immediate control of individuals responsible for childrearing. Others involve imparting skills and information that would be needed to exercise various options. But, like the existential interpretation of access, these raise the question of how to sort between possibilities that children should and should not be empowered to realize. And, again, the conscientious parent can settle such questions only by looking to her own considered convictions.

Continued objections to the Amish parents, and those relevantly like them, thus need to be understood differently from the way that they are often presented. Opponents cannot object merely on grounds that such parents teach their children a particular normative outlook. They must, instead, object to the content of the outlook taught, claiming that these parents are imparting normative convictions that are importantly mistaken. The second order character of the relevant disagreement can obscure the need to interpret the objection this way. Feinberg may grant that the Amish way of life, insofar as this consists in a traditional agrarian lifestyle conceived as devoted to God, is a permissible—perhaps even valuable—choice. By extension he may grant that the parents do no wrong in teaching their children to regard this way of living as valuable. But he must object to their communicating the further conviction that it is uniquely valuable, not merely one of many permissible options. Though second order, this is a substantive commitment on the part of the Amish parents, one they presumably find important.

Understanding the objection as depending on the view that the Amish have, and teach their children, the wrong normative commitments, makes each of the two positions I attribute to Feinberg look more problematic. First, consider his claim that the goal of an open future can and should provide guidance to conscientious parents. He suggests that responsible parents would refrain from teaching their children their particular normative convictions, instead seeking to put them in a position to choose such convictions for themselves. But we have seen that this depends on a false dichotomy. Conscientious parents enact their own commitments in determining the options among which children should be educated to choose. Given their normative outlook, Amish parents would not and should not be moved by Feinberg’s argument to change the ways that they raise their children. From their own point of view, they are not denying their children access to any option that it would be valuable for them to have.

Secondly, if Feinberg’s objection depends on a substantive normative disagreement with the parents, the case for government intervention is much less straightforward. Should those who agree with Feinberg be permitted to intervene in the upbringing of the Amish children to replace the parents’ normative outlook with the one they affirm? May they intervene in any religious upbringing on similar grounds? What about the Marxist upbringing that G.A. Cohen fondly describes in If You’re an Egalitarian? While the discussion above does not settle these questions, it undermines a certain way of arguing in support of intervention. The state cannot interfere with parents’ childrearing on the limited grounds that it is protecting children’s autonomy rights. In intervening, it must also assert entitlement to determine important substantive aspects of the conception of the good into which children are educated.

3 responses

  1. Thanks Kyla – Very interesting post!

    So I just wanted to hear more about what kind of intervention you have in mind when you say that the state cannot interfere with childrearing on the grounds that it is protecting children’s autonomy. And more specifically, are you ruling out compulsory education? It seems to me (and to my co-author Rosa Terlazzo) that the liberal state should allow for parents to expose their children to what they take to be deep truths about the world so long as it simultaneously creates a space for children to develop the agential skills required for their future exercise of autonomy–that is, so long as it makes public education compulsory and geared towards the development of critical thinking skills, self-esteem and imagination. In this case, the state is indeed intervening with childrearing on the grounds that it is protecting autonomy, but it is passing no judgement whatsoever on what counts as an acceptable comprehensive commitment. According to this account, the child exposed to a secular family environment and the Amish child are equally owed the opportunity to develop the agential skills required for autonomy through compulsory education, and so the rights of their parents are equally constrained. The upshot is that the state can interfere with childrearing in order to protect the development of autonomy without simultaneously privileging one particular conception of parenthood over another.

  2. Thanks for engaging with my post, Luara.

    I would count compulsory public education as a significant intervention in childrearing. I am very doubtful that such an intervention could be justified merely by appeal to children’s interest in autonomy, where this is understood independently of commitments about, e.g., which normative commitments can be taken for granted, which competing views should be seriously considered, and which possibilities should be entertained as genuine possibilities for the life that one will lead. Those sorts of commitments not only can be, but standardly are, important aspects of people’s overall normative outlook. All are questions on which citizens disagree, and—in my view—reasonably disagree. I don’t think that a comprehensive educational program could remain neutral on them, and in this sense it will not be possible to educate for autonomy while “passing no judgment whatsoever on what counts as an acceptable comprehensive commitment.” If it is going to intervene in this way, then, the state must assert entitlement to determine important aspects of the conception of the good into which children are educated, and enact its judgment over the objections of some (reasonable) citizens.

    That said, I’d be interested in hearing more about your conceptions of autonomy and critical thinking. Perhaps you have a way of understanding these ideas that gets around the problems that I raise in the post.

    • Thanks for your reply Kyla!

      So yes, I believe that the value of critical thinking, self-esteem and imagination can be defended without appealing to the truth of any comprehensive doctrine. The idea is simply that children need to develop certain agential skills in order to engage in the business of developing, revising,and pursuing their own conception of the good in adulthood, irrespective of the upbringing they have been subjected to. Now, parents who not only want to share their conception of the good with their children (which by the way, I take to be a legitimate parental enterprise) but also want to deny their children the skills required for making their life their own would seem to have a conception of parenthood that denies the independent moral status of their children. And I certainly believe that such a conception of the good should count as unreasonable in any society that takes the liberal ideals of freedom and equality seriously.

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