I have previously posted about the Kohlberg scale of moral development. Basically, they represent the development of morality in the individual, from obedience to evade punishment all the way to universal ethics based on principles like human rights. Kohlberg believed that we all went through the stages in that order and that, as in psychological development, we could “get stuck” on any of these stages. Basically, even if you don’t believe in these stages as being a natural development, they still provide a way of classifying and differentiating moral justifications and rationalizations.
Kohlberg, by the way, believed that women were morally inferior to men. One of his colleagues, Carol Gilligan, argued that this belief was based on an obsession about abstract ethical principles (an obsession which still exist in the political discourse today), and that the last two stages weren’t necessarily the end point of moral development. One does not have to believe that abstract ethical principles are superior to, for example, a view of ethical problems as a network of relations between individuals. So the top of the scale should be taken with a grain of salt. Abstract ethical principles are one way, but not the only way, to reason about moral issues post-conventionally.
In order to measure moral development, Kohlberg used scenarios and asked open-ended questions about them, evaluating the reasoning behind the answers. I thought these scenarios were interesting, for a couple of reasons. The one about Joe and his father opens some questions related to childism and child rights, which I think is very relevant to this blog. The famous Heinz scenario also opens some questions related to capitalism and property rights. So I want to go through these two scenarios here.
Joe is a fourteen-year-old boy who wanted to go to camp very much. His father promised him he could go if he saved up the money for it himself. So Joe worked hard at his paper route and saved up the forty dollars it cost to go to camp, and a little more besides. But just before camp was going to start, his father changed his mind. Some of his friends decided to go on a special fishing trip, and Joe’s father was short of the money it would cost. So he told Joe to give him the money he had saved from the paper route. Joe didn’t want to give up going to camp, so he thinks of refusing to give his father the money.
I like this scenario because it goes to the core of childism: children’s deeply-held values and desires against parental authority. Granted, this particular scenario is a hypothetical, but it is the sort of conflict that takes place all the time in all sorts of families for all sorts of reasons: parents shutting down their children’s values in favor of their own, whether overtly under the form of orders or outright coercion, or covertly under the form of verbal abuse or blackmail. I think this scenario in particular may have been engineered to make the child’s situation look more sympathetic, although it is not whose side you take that’s important, for the sake of the Kohlberg scale, as much as the depth of your justification as to why you take one side or the other. But as an anti-childist, I am on the side of the child in any conflict between children’s values and parental authority.
1. Should Joe refuse to give his father the money?
1a. Why or why not?
I’m not sure if this question is formulated correctly. After all, we do not know any more about his relationship with his father. If the father is willing to go so far as to alienate his son just for a fishing trip, it doesn’t seem like they’re on good terms, but there could be other factors involved. Whether he should refuse to give the money or not would depend on that relationship, amongst other things. But going on the data from the scenario and nothing else, it seems clear that Joe strongly values going to the camp and does not put a great value on his father going to a fishing trip (and why should he?). So on that basis alone, one would be inclined to answer yes.
As for the place on the scale, the question cannot be answered in terms of principles or rights, because it is a personal matter, not a question of ethics. If the question was “does Joe have the right to refuse to give his father the money,” then that would be a different story (my answer, of course, would be yes).
2. Does the father have the right to tell Joe to give him the money?
2a. Why or why not?
In a sense, this question is trivial: of course the father has the right to tell Joe to give him the money. We have the right to ask people to give us money, but they also have the right to refuse. So I assume that the question really means: does the father have the right to order Joe to give him the money and, as a logical consequence, have the right to enforce that order?
The father does not have the right to give Joe orders on the basis of him being Joe’s father. Apart from his responsibilities and duties as a father, his relation with Joe is one of one human being to another human being, and no human being has the right to simply order another to give them money. Usually this is done as a result of a prior agreed-upon exchange (e.g. of money for services or products, of money for citizenship rights, of money to support some cause or organization), but in this case, we are not told of any prior agreed-upon exchange. Therefore, the answer must be no. There is no justification present for the father to have the right to order Joe to give him the money. Joe is perfectly within his rights to decide what to do with the money, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the father’s responsibilities and duties (and going to a fishing trip has nothing to do with either).
My answer here is not at the conventional level, because I care not one bit whether the law or social standards would be on Joe’s side or on his father’s side. In general, my answers in this scenario are at the post-conventional level simply because I reject the relevance of parental authority and legal authority to moral decisions. Only the fact that parental coercion and legal coercion exist make them important: this importance is not a moral one but a prudential one.
This may seem like splitting hairs, but it is important in this situation. If Joe ultimately decides to surrender his property to his father for fear of retaliation, it is because his context (that his father is an aggressive misopedist, or hates him personally) makes it that moral principles cannot be applied, not that the moral principles have changed. Violence and the threat of violence create a distortion in the moral universe in the same general way that gravity wells distort spacetime. A straight line is no longer straight when distorted by a gravity well, and a desirable action may no longer be desirable when distorted by the threat of violence.
3. Does giving the money have anything to do with being a good son?
3a. Why or why not?
This seems to be a leading question, insofar as it assumes the validity of the “good child” construct, which is related to stage three (social conventions). So let me first preface by saying that I do not believe in the “good child” construct. No child is “good” or “bad”: all children react to the environment and familial context they have been placed in. No child can be blamed for being “bad” or praised for being “good,” because these are all arbitrary standards.
That being said, when we look at what the standards are, we find that being a “good child” ultimately means a child that is obedient, a child that does well in school, a child who follows the social constructs put upon it. Based on this, it seems to me that giving the money has something to do with being a “good son,” insofar as giving the money would show obedience to the father. Since I don’t believe in the “good child” construct, the point is moot anyway.
Like I said, the question relies on the acceptance of the “good child” construct. I reject the premise, and therefore cannot answer the question in a way that would make my answer evaluable on the Kohlberg scale.
4. Is the fact that Joe earned the money himself important in this situation?
4a. Why or why not?
I don’t think the fact that Joe earned the money himself is particularly important in this situation. In order to make the arguments I’ve made so far, all we need to establish is that the money is in Joe’s possession legitimately. If he had stolen the money, then the issues would become completely different (although parental authority would not thereby be automatically justified), but that’s not the scenario we have.
Suppose, for instance, that the money was an allowance given to him for food or leisure. This would not confer upon Joe any more obligation to give his father the money. Actually, it would seem to make the father’s demand even more egregious, since the money was given to Joe to serve an essential purpose. But that still would not alter the arguments I’ve already made. Joe would still value his camp more than his father’s fishing trip. The father would still not have the right to order Joe to give him the money. Joe would still not be a “good son” or a “bad son.”
5. The father promised Joe he could go to camp if he earned the money. Is the fact that the father promised the most important thing in the situation?
5a. Why or why not?
My general answer here is the same as in the previous question. The fact that the father promise Joe he could go to camp if he earned the money has no bearing on Joe’s possession of the money. The scenario is not based on the father no longer permitting Joe to go to camp, but on the father wanting Joe’s money, and the fact that this would entail Joe not going to camp is an incidental effect. Even if the promise did not exist in this scenario, it still would not justify the father taking the money.
Since I see it as an irrelevant factor, it cannot be the most important thing in the scenario. The most important factor in the scenario is that the money is Joe’s money, not the father’s. All arguments have to rest on this basic fact, and the basic principle that no one has the right to order someone else to arbitrarily surrender money. In any other context, we would call that robbery: if it was accompanied by a threat, we would call it extortion. Only the fact that a child is involved clouds our logic.
6. In general, why should a promise be kept?
I think that implicit in the word “promise” is the notion that it should be kept, so the question seems rather tautological to me. A promise should be kept because that’s what a promise is, an assurance that you will do something. So I think a more fruitful way to approach this question would be: in general, what are reasons to not keep a promise?
I think one major reason not to keep a promise would be learning new information which makes the promise undesirable or impossible to keep for one or both parties. Person A’s promise to person B to help them move is made null and void by person A throwing their back, for example, or person A learning that a loved one is sick and that they must go see them at the hospital on the same date. If they had known that information at the time the promise was made, they would not have made it.
Another reason would be if the promise was made under duress, but then it would hardly be a promise, as knowing you put someone under duress would surely tell you that there’s no assurance that they will actually follow through.
I suppose a stage 6 answer would be something like “promises should be kept because it is more just for all to live in a society where we can trust each other or rely on each other, because otherwise more callous people would be able to take advantage of others by making false promises” or something of the sort, but I don’t think that’s the right kind of answer.
7. Is it important to keep a promise to someone you don’t know well and probably won’t see again?
7a. Why or why not?
I think it all depends on whether we empathize with that other person. No one is likely to keep a promise to someone they don’t care about and will never see again. But most of us would keep a promise to someone they did care about, even if they would never see them again. I think that the strength of a promise generally is related to the strength of the relation between the parties: a promise made between two close friends is strong, while a promise made between two enemies is not worth a hill of beans (or any quantity of beans, however small).
Is it important? Certainly I would think less of anyone who breaks their promises to anyone, whether they would see them again or not, simply because that shows they are not a very good person. So my answer would be yes. I don’t think the “won’t see again” is particularly important.
8. What do you think is the most important thing a father should be concerned about in his relationship to his son?
8a. Why is that the most important thing?
I think the most important thing a parent should be concerned about in their relationship with their child (no matter the gender of each) is to support, and not interfere in, the natural development of the child. This means that the parent provides the material and psychological support that the child needs (being on the side of the child), while not indoctrinating the child for the parent’s sake.
It is the most important thing because the child’s sole job, the only thing a child should be concerned about, is being a child, and everyone involved in a child’s life should work towards that goal (either by providing material or psychological support, or by preventing undesired indoctrination). There should literally be no goal higher than this for any parent or caretaker. Any indoctrination, any coercion, any demands or orders which do not accord with this goal are wrong. It is not just the most important thing, it is the only thing.
I’m not sure what stage that would qualify as, but it’s definitely not conventional. I don’t believe that social consensus, laws, or social conventions have any bearing whatsoever on the issue of parents’ relationship to their children. The social consensus is that parents should interfere in their children’s lives in order to make them into good adults, and there are no laws against controlling children’s lives (except for things like assault, rape or murder).
9. In general, what should be the authority of a father over his son?
My answer to this question is a direct consequence of my previous answer. The only justified authority that a parent can have over their child is the authority necessary to provide material or psychological support that the child needs (e.g. the classical example of a parent yanking their child out of the road so they don’t get hit, or helping them through rough times). No other parental authority is desirable or justified.
10. What do you think is the most important thing a son should be concerned about in his relationship to his father?
10a. Why is that the most important thing?
Again, I have to repeat myself: the child’s sole job is to be a child. Children should not be concerned with their relationship with their parents. If they like their parents, then all the better. But if they don’t, then they should not be the ones who have to cultivate the relationship. That’s the parents’ responsibility. So my answer, as unsatisfying as it might be, is: nothing.
11. In thinking back over the dilemma, what would you say is the most responsible thing for Joe to do in this situation?
To me this question seems rather similar to question 1, except for the word “responsible,” but I’m not sure what it adds to the discussion. Joe has not done anything that he needs to take responsibility for. If anyone did, it is the father, who should take responsibility for giving orders to his child without justification. The responsible thing for the father to do in this situation is to apologize to Joe and tell him that he (Joe) can do whatever he wants with his own money. There is nothing responsible for Joe to do in this situation, because he didn’t do anything wrong.
Well, I hope you liked my answers. If you disagree with me on one of the questions, then please post your own answer in the comments. Since this entry is quite long, I will keep the other dilemma for another entry.