Family relationships and moral reasoning

I wrote this in April 2006; for context, I was still living with my parents, with whom my relationship was growing increasingly strained for a number of reasons. While I still agree with the premise that parents should make good-faith efforts to understand their children’s moral reasoning, or to find others to help them understand said reasoning, I would use different language nowadays to construct the argument.

I believe that many things that people consider sacred, such as the (blood-) family, government, laws, religion and patriotism are merely social constructs. They are capable of informing some of our ideas, but they do not define who we are. These constructs have specific sets of ethos, but what happens when an individual born within those paradigms starts to pull away from them? Are they no longer part of that constructed entity because they differ, or are they renegade members of the construct who need to be pulled back in, or are they free agents capable of breaking free of these constructs and forming their OWN alliances with other individuals who are their spiritual kin (in a loose sense) rather than fellow members of a blood-family, or fellow-citizens, or fellow-practitioners of an ancestral religion? The problem with these constructs is that they deny the individual’s free agency in favour of a constructed reality that could be harmful to the individuals within it. There is, yes, a need for a social contract for those able to comprehend it, and punishments and rewards to reinforce those who do not comprehend abstract notions. However, for those individuals intelligent enough and varying enough to break free of those constructs, it must not be so noxious within the construct.

Family is a brilliant example of a miniature constructed society. In Western families, only the parents have voluntarily entered the constructed society. The children they have have not entered by choice, whether they were born serendipitously or if their birth was planned. In most traditionally-run households, the parents are solely responsible for discipline and writing up the social contract that is to be practised in the house. They expect their children to behave in a certain way, and any divagation from their precept (whatever it is) will be met with some sort of consequence, whether it is punishment in a strict sense or a less direct social repercussion. Children in families are far from being free agents. They are completely protected, and are often not participants in whatever the parents’ social contract is. This arrangement is flawed, especially after the youth in question get past the age of twelve, or thereabouts. Families should work on a higher level of moral reasoning if it is possible. A possible conflict of wills arises when the child is at a higher stage of moral reasoning and/or intelligence than his parents. The child will understand things they do not, and might reason on a social-contract or individual-value morality, rather than a community-based or punishment-reward based morality. A parent of a child like this will say ‘If you do not do X as I want it, then X will happen and you will not like it.’ The child will wonder whether the costs outweigh the benefits, or if a parent’s words truly are moral, or are important in the first place. Such an individual will have problems with pat commands like ‘Don’t talk to anyone we have not met first’ or ‘Obey us at all times’ or ‘Never talk back’ or ‘Do your homework’ or ‘Wash your clothes’ or ‘Do not go to X place’ or ‘Go to church with us’ or ‘You must practise our religion because this is a Christian home.’ All these commands are difficult for the child to obey, because they are below his moral reasoning level and so do not appeal to him. Conversely, the child’s level of moral reasoning is difficult for the parent to comprehend because it is beyond theirs, and might frustrate them. Anyway, these commands are horrible for intellectually advanced individuals. I hate them, and always have.

© Finn M Gardiner 2006, 2018. All rights reserved unless otherwise specified.