Philosopher-parents: how, if at all, has philosophy affected how you parent? And how, if at all, has being a parent affected your philosophical views? And is there wisdom about parenting to be found in the history of philosophy?
Matt Beard, an associate lecturer at the University of Notre Dame Australia, has started a four-part series about the philosophy of parenting at The Philosopher’s Zone, a program from the Australia Broadcasting Company. (The first installment features guests L.A. Paul of the University of North Carolina and Travis Rieder of the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University.) The introduction to the series states that when Beard, about to become a parent, looked to the philosophers he had studied for thoughts on parenthood, “the result was bleak”:
Matt was used to consulting wisdom built up over two millennia for guidance. No such luck with parenting—unless you’d like to take Plato’s advice to abolish the private family; or to follow Arthur Schopenhauer’s firm belief that it’s an act of sheer cruelty to bring children into the world. So Matt decided to make the philosophical journey himself—surely there must be something out there?
It seems that there’s plenty of contemporary philosophical work on questions relating to parenthood. For example, there’s work on procreative ethics, such as Rivka Weinberg’s The Risk of a Lifetime and the recent collection, Permissible Progeny, edited by Sarah Hannan, Samantha Brennan, and Richard Vernon; philosophical work related to the quality of children’s lives, such as The Right to Be Loved by S. Matthew Liao, and the volume, The Nature of Children’s Well-Being, edited by Alexander Bagattini and Colin McCleod; and work on the political dimensions of the family, such as Family Values by Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift. Perhaps most on point for Beard’s inquiry would be The Philosophical Parent: Asking the Hard Questions about Having and Raising Children by Jean Kazez. (This is far from a comprehensive list; recent article and book suggestions welcome.)
One striking thing about parenting is just how little progress seems to have been made in it, given that humans (homo sapiens) have been doing it over and over again for over 200,000 years. This is not to say there hasn’t been any progress (reductions in rates of child mortality, abuse, etc.), but given that human parenting has happened over 100 billion times, you’d think we would have gotten it down by now. And we haven’t—even granting reasonable disagreement over what to expect of it. Any honest and half-decent parent will admit that it is hard to know whether you’ve figured parenting out; even if a parent ends up with “good results” we don’t know if it was because or in spite of how we parented, and we don’t know how much was owed to luck.
Our condition is one of remarkable ignorance in light of all the experience. So I suppose that’s something parenting has in common with philosophy.