Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

SOME RESPONSES

Little by little, my life is disappearing into boxes.  It is very strange.  Meanwhile, let me respond to two questions in the comments section of this blog.

First, Paul asks:  “Curious to know if, as a 19 year old, you were sympathetic to Quine's approach to the problem in 'Two Dogmas'.”

Quine’s famous essay, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” was published in 1951, during my first year at Harvard.  Two years later, Quine included it in a book of essays, called, with tongue in cheek, From a Logical Point of View [part of the refrain of a Calypso song popular at the time – Quine had a rather wry sense of humor.]  I read the essay and then the whole book, but I confess that I was not taken with his line on the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments.  I was much more powerfully impressed with Kant, which I suppose is hardly surprising.

Jerry Fresia asks, a propos this assertion:  “how could there ever be a de jure authority that didn't necessarily undermine the autonomy of the people subject to it?”, what about “the authority of teachers in classrooms, for one, of parents with their kids, for another.....??”

There are two different questions here, and they require quite different answers, one rather simple, the other quite complex.  Simple first.  Teachers do not have authority in classrooms on any plausible vision of education with which I am familiar [I leave to one side catechism classes.]   They have the power to give grades, of course, and they are, we may hope, authorities on the subjects they teach.   But an authority, in that sense, is someone who knows a great deal about a subject and has sufficiently demonstrated that knowledge to make it reasonable to come to him or her for information or guidance in the process of education.  However, at no time do students have a moral obligation to do as such authorities say, or to believe what they say, in contravention of their independent judgment as students.  We are all familiar with the phenomenon of disagreements among people considered authorities on a subject, and it is of course, our responsibility, as autonomous agents, to weigh their statements and eventually decide where the truth is more likely to lie.  This is difficult, not to say life threatening, when the experts are, let us say, oncologists or brain surgeons, but what are we doing when we seek a second opinion if not exercising our obligation to be autonomous?

The relation of parents to children is much more complex.  Here we see most poignantly the logical conflict [and life conflict] between the classical assumption, found in social contract theory and elsewhere, that the moral sphere is one of fully mature, rational agents, and the manifest fact that we are all at one stage or another of the life cycle of birth, childhood, adulthood, maturity, and old age.  The simple reply to Jerry’s question is that parents never have de jure moral authority over their children.  When the children are too young and immature to be and act as fully rational moral agents, the parents are their guardians, charged morally with bringing them to the point at which they can function as fully developed moral agents.  At that point, the children become autonomous.  In effect, if the children are capable of deferring to the authority of the parents, then they are moral agents and ought not to do so.  If they are not so capable, then they cannot, and therefore do not and ought not.


When does the child become an autonomous agent, hence an adult and no longer bound to obey his or her parents?  Ah well, that is the subject of half of the great literature ever written and all of the anguish that parents experience.  About that, I have no special wisdom to offer.  Just the consolation to tormented parents that whatever they do, it is sure to be wrong,

5 comments:

Daniel Langlois said...

'The simple reply to Jerry’s question is that parents never have de jure moral authority over their children. When the children are too young and immature to be and act as fully rational moral agents, the parents are their guardians, charged morally with bringing them to the point at which they can function as fully developed moral agents.'

I have difficulty with this jargon -- 'de jure moral authority'. The phrase 'moral authority' perhaps expands to something like morally legitimate authority. This could be contrasted with political authority, or de facto authority. But there is another contrast between what happens in practice, versus de jure ("in law"). I say that I have difficulty with this jargon, but actually that's fine, if all we are doing is making up words and defining them. Which is as it appears to me. The debate is about jargon, here. So okay, I could offer that the state has authority in the *descriptive sense*. I am just making up my own jargon, and let me explain, that this is to say that the state maintains public order and that it issues commands and makes rules that are generally obeyed by subjects because many of them (or some important subset of them such as the officials of the state) think of it as having authority in the 'morally legitimate authority' sense. I have raised some questions for myself I think -- what is political authority in the de facto sense? I know the Hobbes answer, that this simply amounts to the capacity of a person or group of persons to maintain public order and secure the obedience of most people by issuing commands backed by sanctions. Subjects need not think of the authority as a legitimate authority, on this account. So I might ponder whether the attitudinal component of de facto authority is or is not 'accepted' by me. I can simply make up my mind, because I am defining words. Similarly, I talk about the distinction between de facto and morally legitimate authority. Maybe I decide that I recognize no distinction. This is up to me, to decide. Words mean what I want them to mean!

So with this approach, I return to the question whether parents never have de jure moral authority over their children. I don't really care how we define our words, but only that they do get defined. So okay, what is 'de jure moral authority'? First of all, this is probably not a legal concept outlined in the law in so many words, is it? If the question is 'What are a Parent's Legal Responsibilities to a Child?'..then I think the answer would be in different terms. And okay, if that is not the question, then we are back to trying to define words. Is there any way to do it wrong? Just decide..I guess if there is no *authority* on what your *Words MEAN*, then okay, there is no authority..

Daniel Langlois said...

'When the children are too young and immature to be and act as fully rational moral agents, the parents are their guardians..In effect, if the children are capable of deferring to the authority of the parents, then they are moral agents and ought not to do so. If they are not so capable, then they cannot, and therefore do not and ought not.'

I have suggested that a debate about jargon is simply that -- a debate about jargon. I think we might want to try making an extra effort, to notice that something can be merely of language or thought, even though we might suppose that it arose from more worldly considerations. There is a classic example -- economists subscribe to the 'subjective theory of value', but it was hard-won..

So okay, jargon is merely of language or thought. Then, what is 'moral agents'? I am guessing: A moral agent is "a being who is capable of acting with reference to right and wrong." I do not see why an eight-year-old would not be a moral agent. I can anticipate this response: Children, or minors, do not have the full legal capacity of adults. Children are still developing, both physically and mentally, they aren’t considered capable of handling the same rights as mature adults. Fine, but irrelevant. I realize perfectly well, that Children are not allowed to vote, but this is not because they are not 'moral agents'. They also are not allowed to hold property, consent to medical treatment, sue or be sued, or enter into certain types of contracts. But this is not because they are not 'moral agents'.

Let's look at this again: 'The simple reply to Jerry’s question is that parents never have de jure moral authority over their children.'

The question was about the principle of authority and 'to whom do children belong?' The idea was to consider some sort of defense of parental authority. Parents have unique authority over their children because why? First of all, do they? Well, you can say that you don't think so, but I would note that we are quite obviously quibbling about semantics! It's obvious that caring for children requires making decisions on their behalf. There are the obvious obligations of parents to their children. I suppose I might add that these obligations are based on the very nature of the parent-child relationship, or somesuch, though I only mean by that to consider separately, the obligations of the larger community.

The question about parents and children was offered as a special case, or as an analogy, to the relationship between government and citizen, I think. Well, more abstractly, personal relationships create personal dependencies. I might consider how the child’s biological parents are the people with whom that child has the closest personal relationship, the closest personal dependencies. They are the ones with the primary authority to take care of that child. Cross-reference the primary responsibility to take care of that child.

I think such reasoning is kind of specious, only because reasoning is reasoning, and it is the tool for a job. Philosophers don't know more about the ontological properties of things, they know, if anything, less. But they love to quibble about logic and semantics, and the better ones realize that this is their only love. I think Wolff seems like an excellent....father. Seriously! That is my speculation. But I'm the philosopher.

David Auerbach said...

Sorites is a problem everywhere, so no special worry in the case of children (aka minors).

Paul said...

Thanks for your response Professor Wolff. I was impressed by Quine at the age of 19 and still haven't quite gotten over it.

I. M. Flaud said...

I read two dogmas as a teenager also. I had purchased from the old Barnes & Noble Sale Annex a collection of essays, beginning with Quine's and with sometimes rude responses by other philosophers (e.g., "I don't pretend to understand what Snurd means by "post-colonial diasporitis."). I can't recall the title (it wasn't one of Quine's books) and haven't been able to locate a replacement.

As for parental authority--the whole discussion of families and parents for me is unutterably soporific. The desperate boredom of those subjects was enough to keep me from starting a family. I lack the energy and resources also.