Obligations towards Children: Education
I did not plan to write a week long series on parents’ obligations towards their children, but it is turning out this way. That series has reached a point where I would like to talk about education. That is: about giving children true beliefs about the world.
So far, my posts have focused on questions of the child’s well-being. I talked about parents making those choices for a child that the child would make for himself if competent.
In the case of “Pillow-Angel Ashley” , this meant choosing medical procedures that would give her a more comfortable life where she can more easily participate with others.
In the case of “Obese Children,” it meant considering their parents as child abusers – harming their children for the sake of their own convenience (unless there was some underlying medical reason for the obesity).
Yesterday, in “Obligations to Children: Happiness and Desire Fulfillment,” I argued that religion provides children with something that has about the same value as living one’s life in an ‘experience machine’ – where a computer feeds one false beliefs in which her wishes are granted. In fact, such a person lives a wasted life, rotting away while spending his time substantially disconnected from the real world.
Today, I wish to write about the obligation to provide children with true beliefs about the world. We recognize an obligation to educate our children in the fact that they are forced to go to school. Yet, we live in a culture where we ‘educate’ them with myth and nonsense. Shouldn’t our teachers be . . . I don’t know, count be as crazy . . . but shouldn’t they be teaching?
In comments to an earlier post, M wrote that, “irrational, imaginary reasons still cause actions.” I think it is important to know precisely in what sense this statement is true, and in what sense it is false, and in what sense it says something important about our obligations to children.
Let me start with the sense in which this statement is not true. Imaginary reasons do not cause action, any more than imaginary physical forces cause physical objects to change their speed and direction through space. If something is going to have an effect in the real world, then that effective thing must itself be real – not imaginary.
Rationality, Beliefs, End-Desires, and Means-Desires
There are two families of root causes of intentional action: real beliefs and real desires.
Beliefs can be irrational; desires cannot. A person’s desires are like his height, weight, blood pressure, hair color, eye color. Desire statements (when true) describe how a person’s brain is wired just like blood pressure statements (when true) describe how his circulatory system functions. A desire cannot be mistaken just as his blood pressure cannot be mistaken – it is not the type of thing where mistakes of this type are possible.
So, talk about irrational and imaginary reasons has to be talk about irrational beliefs and beliefs in imaginary entities. False and irrational beliefs clearly are causes of action. A person (who is thirsty) who falsely believes that a glass contains clean water will drink from the glass – all else being equal. His false belief both explains and causes his behavior.
Having said this, I need to qualify my statement that desires cannot be irrational. Our term ‘desire’ is ambiguous – having two meanings. We use the world for what we value for its own sake or as an end (for what we desire directly, or that which is the object of our desire). We use the same word for what we value as a means, or as a tool. In the first sense, we can talk about a person wanting sex – for no reason other than that she wants sex. In the second sense we can talk about a person who wants sex (even though she dislikes sex) because she wants to have a baby.
Claims about what we desire as a means or as a tool are really shortcut statements about a collection of our end-desires and our beliefs. The woman in the second case above has an end-desire to have a child and a belief that having sex will increase the chance that she will have a child. This combination of end-desire and belief make up the desire for sex as a means.
What we desire as a means can be irrational because the beliefs that make up such a desire can be irrational. A person who believes that drinking motor oil will get her pregnant may want to drink motor oil. Such a want is irrational – not because the desire to be pregnant is irrational, but because the belief that drinking motor oil causes pregnancy is irrational.
Beliefs can also be false; while end-desires cannot. Take any proposition ‘P’. A person who believes that ‘P’ has the mental attitude that the proposition ‘P’ accurately describes the world. If ‘P’ does not accurately describe the world, then the agent is mistaken.
However, even if ‘P’ does not accurately describe the world, the agent who believes that ‘P’ will act as if ‘P’ accurately describes the world. Sometimes, this can lead to disastrous consequences. A person who believes he can fly will act as if he can fly – except when it comes to actually flying. At that point, reality will take over, and the agent’s belief will not prevent him from crashing to the ground.
Another false belief that some people have is that if you believe something strongly enough – if you really wish it to come true – then it will come true. There are billions of people who have died ugly deaths who would otherwise be able to testify to the fact that this is not the case.
False Beliefs and the Thwarting of Desires
Now, I have looked at the sense in which “irrational, imaginary reasons still cause action.” False beliefs still cause action. A person will act on his beliefs regardless of whether they accurately describe the real world.
In other words, end-desires identify the ends, goals, or objectives of intentional action and cannot be judged for reasonableness, while beliefs identify the means to accomplishing those ends and can be judged for reasonableness. Means-desires can also be judged for reasonableness, because they contain beliefs. Think of this in terms of planning a trip. Desires pick the destination, while beliefs choose the route.
Using this analogy, we can easily identify two ways in which false beliefs – or a flawed map – can thwart the fulfillment of our desires or keep us from reaching a preferred destination.
(1) The map might to fail to accurately show the available routes. The map says that there is a road through the mountains. It does not say that the road is closed during the winter and there is a risk that travelers will get snowed in. False beliefs may cause a person to take a route towards the fulfillment of his desires that is not open to him – a route that might even get him killed.
(2) The map might incorrectly identify destinations. Our agent might want to travel to New York. The map says that there is a city called New York on the shores of the Potomac River. The agent plans his trip, only to discover that the city he ends up in has no Statue of Liberty, no Broadway, no Time’s Square, no Rockefeller Center. False beliefs may cause a person to think that his desire to help people requires that he burn them at the stake to chase out the demons that reside inside of him. He burns his friend at the stake. Only, there were no demons and his friend suffers for no good reason.
An alternative to (2) exists when there are places marked on the map that are not real. The agent has a map which clearly marks the location of Atlantis and Shangra-la. He plans his trip. He gets to the correct coordinates. Only, the place he was looking for is not there. He has wasted all of that effort for nothing. As an added bit of cruelty, he has convinced many of his friends to follow him. He knows that he has convinced them and they are on their way. Only, he cannot go back to warn them. They, too, are flying or sailing into a dead end.
Any time we fill a child’s head with false beliefs, we mess with the map that they will use to plot the course to the fulfillment of their desires. We mislabel destinations, add destinations that do not exist in fact, or misidentify a route.
Those mistakes are relatively harmless when we make mistakes on those parts of the map that our children will never use. For somebody is planning a road trip from San Francisco to Seattle, a flaw or lack of detail in his map of South Africa or of the Sea of Tranquility on the moon is of little significance. On the other hand, a mistake on his map of Ohio could have serious consequences. We have reason to pay more attention to those parts of the map that will actually be used – to the knowledge that a child will actually use in his life – than on those distant places or facts he will only read about.
This does not mean that we should discourage a curiosity about other places. If our agent has an interest in South Africa or the moon they may acquire an interest in maps far beyond their actual usefulness. Practical knowledge is not the only type of knowledge worth having. However, it is clearly worth having.
In this sense, flawed maps, irrational beliefs, and beliefs in imaginary things, do influence a person’s plans. Sometimes, those mistakes get people killed. Avoiding these mistakes explains why it is important not to have flawed maps or false beliefs. All of those human activities that provide children with flawed maps do them some measure of harm by putting them at risk of suffering the consequences of error.
These flaws include identifying destinations that do not exist (e.g., heaven), mislabeling places that do exist (e.g., calling homosexuality and abomination), failing to accurately describe the routes to those destinations (you can prevent hurricanes by coercing children to pray), or any combination of the above (you can obtain a free ticket for the people that you choose to enter heaven if you fly this airplane into that building over there).
The tragedy in the last example above is not only found in the fact that this person has decided to kill others in order to get to his destination (a fact that is even more evil than it is tragic), but in the fact that he has thrown away his own life. He will not reach the destination he has set out for. His friends and family have no ticket to heaven. He is dead, and his friends and family have less than they had before the attack. Those friends and family have to live in a world filled with even more violence, until they die.
People who truly want to help children find their way through life will equip those children with the best and most up-to-date maps available. Those maps are based on the best information we have available – made by people who have gone to the effort of actually going out and checking to make sure (through experiments and observation) that their maps actually represent the real world as closely as we can make it match.
No sane parent will give their child a map that is 1300 or 2000 years old and older and expect that map to do a decent job of helping that child find her way. The world has changed a lot in 2000 years. More importantly, the map makers living 2000 years ago knew so little about the world, that their maps are practically worthless today. Those who give their children these ancient maps, and tell their children that these ancient maps are necessarily free of all possible error, are raising children who will only get lost in the real world – wasting their life traveling to destinations that do not exist along routes that are closed.
Worse – and this will be the topic of tomorrow’s post – those lost children will end up hurting a lot of other people along the way.