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,