Saturday, April 5, 2014

Morality: how to help children learn moral reasoning

One way to help your child learn morality is to explain your role towards him.

I want what's best for you

Parent: I want what is best for you.
Child: i know
Parent: Primarily that means I help you get what you want.
Child: But what if I do bad stuff!?
Parent: Why would you "do bad stuff"? Do you mean like you did something bad but you didn't know it's bad? If that's the case, then you're not guilty because you didn't know it was bad. But if you're talking about doing something bad and you know it's bad, then you're guilty. But don't you want to do what you think is good, and don't you try to avoid doing what you think is bad?
Child: Ya!
Parent: And that means that I will do my best to help you get what you want.
Child: But, what if I want something, and you don't like what I want?
Parent: Well, part of helping you get what you want means helping you figure out what's good to want. So for example, if you want to meet Santa, and since that's impossible, it's a bad thing to want and my job is to help you figure that yet.
Child: heh, ya. but that's easy to fix.
Parent: Ok he's a harder one. So lets say one day you wanted me to get water for you right now, and then you found out that I was in the shower. Then it's impossible for me to get water for you right now unless I get out of the shower, put a towel on, get the water for you while I'm cold, and then go back to my shower, all while you sit there watching tv and playing on your iPad. So, do you agree that in this situation you should change what you wanted to something like I'll get the water myself, or I'll have water when dad is ready after his shower?
Child: Ya.
Parent: And it goes the other way around too. I mean that if the right thing to do is for me to change my mind, then I'll do that.
Child: Ok. But what if we don't agree on who should change their mind?
Parent: Well most times we'll both be changing our minds, not just one of us. But anyway let's consider that. When we disagree about who should change their mind, then we should both change our minds to the fallback resolution which is to agree to disagree and leave each other alone without resorting to using force (or coercion).
Child: Oh ya.
Parent: So that means that I'm not restricting you from getting what you want even when I disagree with you that your want is good.
Child: So doesn't that mean that you would let me do something bad?
Parent: Well, what's the alternative? The alternative is for me to force (or coerce) you to do things against your will whenever I think I'm right and you disagree.
Child: Oh! Ya that's bad.
Parent: And the thing is that I could be wrong. So I won't force my opinion on you because that means I could be forcing something wrong on you. 
Parent: So yes, between the two options: (1) stand aside as my kid does something I think is bad, and (2) force (or coerce) my kid to not do something I think is a mistake -- option #1 is the best. Option #1 is reasonable and voluntary. Option #2 is unreasonable and involuntary -- it's acting on whim.
Child: What do you mean by whim


Parent: A whim is wanting something without even trying to find out why you want it.
Child: So having a whim is bad?
Parent: No, but acting on a whim is bad.
Child: Why is it bad?
Parent: Because acting that way means preventing yourself from finding out if you were wrong.
Child: But why?
Parent: Well, if you want something, and if somebody explains to you that it's a mistake and gives you an explanation of how it's wrong, and you disagree but you don't have a reason, and let's say that in this situation you're actually wrong, then how will you find out that you're wrong?
Child: I guess you can't.
Parent: Right. It's impossible to find out you're wrong if you don't expose your reasoning to criticism. And if you don't have reasoning for why you want something, then that means you can't criticize your want (except for criticizing it for not having any reasoning). And that's bad because not being able to criticize it means not being able to find flaws in it, which means that if it is wrong, you can't possibly find out that you're wrong. So you stay wrong forever.
Child: eww!
Child: But what about if I run into the street to get a ball while a car was coming?
Parent: I would scream out to save you and if I'm close enough I'll run to grab you.
Child: But that's against my will! I was going after a ball and you stopped me from getting what I want!
Parent: You mean you don't want me to save your life if you're in danger?
Child: oh, yes I do.
Parent: So then what are you talking about?
Child: Never mind, I was wrong. What's next?
Parent: You were trying to find ways that it's bad for me to not stop you doing what you want.
Child: Oh ya. What about this one? What if somebody asked me to share something of mine, and I said no.


Parent: So you didn't want to share, but what was your reason?
Child: oh ya, gotta have reasons for what we want. What if I said "...because I said so?"  or "...because!"
Parent: I'd say "because... what? you didn't say why you want it."
Child: Ok how about "...because I want to.. that's why!"
Parent: Well that's wrong because it's circular. You want to because you want to?
Child: lol, oh ya that's stupid.
Parent: Got any other reasons for me?
Child: Well I didn't think that far yet. I didn't think of anything else.
Parent: Ok I'll suggest some details. Let's say your reason for not wanting to share is that you want to play with your iPad right now, and the other kid wants to play with it too. So in this scenario, you shouldn't share it.
Child: Why?
Parent: If he shares his iPad when he wants to play with it, then he can't play with it. So then he's not getting what he wants.
Child: Well this is a conflict. They can work together to resolve it.
Parent: Yes, and how do you think that might go?
Child: I don't know. Kids can be very irrational sometimes. ;p
Parent:  Ya. Adults too though so I don't see the point of singling out kids -- that's a parochial mistake.
Child: What do you mean by parochial mistake?

Parochial mistake 

Parent: Uh.. well I haven't prepared myself for that question. Gimme a moment to think of a reply.
Child: You mean you don't know?
Parent: Well, I do know, but I'm not sure how to say it in simple terms -- which, by the way, means that I don't know it very well yet.
Child: Uh, 'don't know it very well?' What's that mean!?
Parent: Well did you think I can know things perfectly? Like I can't make a mistake about it, or make any improvements to it? 
Child: Uh, I don't know what you mean, but now we're changing subjects so let's put a pin on that one and get back to what a 'parochial mistake' is. 
Parent: K. So a parochial mistake is when you incorrectly judge the scope of an idea and... 
Child: lol, another word I don't know. What does scope mean?
Parent: Well gimme a moment to explain. Be patient.
Parent: Ok I got it. Every idea has a scope. For example, the idea that all people are created equal, is an idea whose scope is all people. So if someone believes this idea, and if he thinks that black people or women should not have the same voting rights as white men, then he is wrong about the scope of his idea. He doesn't realize that his idea also applies to black people and women. This is known as a parochial mistake.
Child: Oh I get. It's like if a parent knows that movies are good for learning, that's true for all people not just adults, so it's parochial mistake for him to think that some movies are bad for kids.
Parent: Right
Child: Ok. Let's get back to something else. We were talking about sharing and I asked about a situation where a kid wants to share my iPad and I don't want that. And I said, what if they don't agree? Then that's a conflict, and they can resolve the conflict. 
Parent: And then I said how do you think that might go? Oh ya and then you said you don't know. So here's some options. The kid could change his mind about playing the iPad right now. Or you could decide that you don't want to play with your iPad now and you're willing to let him play with it. And there are lots of other possibilities too, like maybe you both decide to do something else instead, like play hide-and-seek.
Child: But what if we don't agree on something?
Parent: Well then you should keep trying to find agreement, and that might mean that you should change your minds to agreeing to disagree and leaving each other alone without resorting to force or coercion. That's the fallback resolution.
Child: But then that means that the other kid didn't get what he wanted because that means I kept my iPad and he didn't get to use it.
Parent: Yes he did get what he wanted. He changed his want to leaving each other alone, so that's what he wanted, and that's what he got.
Child: But he didn't get what he originally wanted.
Parent: So he changed his mind? What's wrong with that?
Child: Well don't people get sad about that?

Don't people get sad about not getting what they originally wanted? 

Parent: If you wanted to meet Santa, and then you found out that its impossible to meet Santa, then...
Child: Oh ya, it's stupid to not change your mind when that's the right thing to do.
Parent: Right.
Child: But that's a stupid example anyway. There are things that people get sad about that are real things.
Parent: Well, let's say that you and I want to watch a movie together right now, and let's say we don't agree on what movie to watch. At this point, it's impossible for you to watch the movie you want while I also watch the movie I want while we're both watching the same tv at the same time. So why should we be sad about this? Why not change our minds to watching separately? That is possible while we each get to see the movie we wanted to see.
Child: Ya it doesn't make sense to be sad about that. Better to change your mind.
Child: Ok what if I did things like I didn't want to learn to read? Then I would have a bad life. And wouldn't that be your fault?

What if a child doesn't want to learn to read? 

Parent: Well first of all, why wouldn't you learn the value of reading?
Child: Well, when I was young, I didn't know a lot, and I especially didn't know how valuable reading is.
Parent: Sure but we're all born that way, not knowing the value of anything at all. So how do you think we learn the value of things?
Child: um..
Parent: Well first of all, values are a type of knowledge. So a broader question is: How do we gain knowledge?
Child: Oh I know that! By thinking about it! 
Parent: Yes. And that means making guesses -- like about the value of things -- and refining and refuting our guesses with criticism.
Child: Oh that's that philosophy stuff we read on my iPad!!!
Parent: Right. It's _Why Philosophy?_, by Elliot Temple.
Child: Can we read it now?
Parent: Sure lets do it.
Child: Wait, one more thing first. What if I just wanted to do the easy thing and just do what you say? Because some kids do that and they say they are happy.

Is it bad to do what you're parents say? 

Parent: That doesn't make sense though. So the way this kid judges ideas is like I'll label ideas right or wrong based on what my parents judge is right or wrong. And this doesn't work because what happens when the parents are wrong? How will you find out if he's wrong if you don't even try to find out?
Child: Ok.
Child: Wait a minute. I could be wrong too. 
Parent: Yes. So what? Are you saying that because we could be wrong we should just throw our hands up and not even try? 
Child: No. 
Parent: Another problem is that I'm not going to be around forever. If you are dependent on me for everything then you're going to be screwed when I'm no longer here. I mean, what will you do to replace his me as the judgers of ideas? Won't you have to start judging ideas on your own?
Child: Ya
Parent: And since he hasn't had much practice judging ideas on his own, then all of a sudden when his parents die, how will he be good at judging ideas if he hasn't practiced it much?
Child: Ya that doesn't make sense at all.
Child: Ok what if somebody believed something because their friends believe it?
Parent: Well, what if they are wrong?
Child: But what if they are right!?
Parent: Well they might be right, and they might be wrong, but how will you find out which one it is if you don't question their reasons for their ideas?
Child: Wait a minute.. something doesn't make sense. I remember when you told me that caring about social approval is wrong. And I said that I agreed. And you didn't tell me why!
Parent: Actually I tried but you didn't ask enough questions. You basically stopped trying to figure out whether or not it's good to want social approval.
Child: Oh.
Parent: It's possible I'm wrong, so you shouldn't take my word for it.
Child: You mean I shouldn't have believed you?
Parent: Right. You shouldn't agree with an idea unless you agree with the idea's reasoning. So you should have asked more questions. And actually, I should have warned you that it's bad to agree with an idea without criticizing it's reasoning.
Child: So I shouldn't believe you when you tell me things?
Parent: Well I make mistakes too. I might be wrong. And think of it this way. If I tell you a wrong idea, and you believe it without questioning the reasoning of the idea, then you can't find out that it's wrong, and then that wrong idea will be in your mind for your whole life causing lots of problems in your life.
Child: What? Why would one idea affect other parts of my life?

Ideas affect each other 

Parent: Because your ideas are connected. They affect each other.
Child: Can you give an example?
Parent: Well, if you have the wrong idea that you should judge ideas by just taking your parent's word for it, then that'll affect all new ideas that you try to learn. You'll adopt all the mistaken ideas that your parents have. But if you didn't have that bad idea, then you won't adopt all the mistaken ideas that your parents have.
Child: Wow that idea affects like all my ideas then!
Parent: Right. But most ideas aren't that far reaching. Each idea has its own scope.
Child: Oh there's that scope idea again! If you mess up the scope of an idea, then that's a parochial mistake.
Parent: Right. And by the way, I learned that from _Why Philosophy?_. There's lots of goodies in there. I still read it and find new things every time. Oh and...
Child: Really!?!?!
Parent: Ya.
Child: Why are you still noticing new things? Why didn't you notice them before?
Parent: Well, each time that I read it, I'm an improved version of myself. I'm smarter. So each time that I read it, I'm smarter than the last time, and that means I'll be able to notice things that I couldn't notice on previous readings.
Child: Oh so that's why you're reading all the time. I always thought you were reading new stuff each time.
Parent: Nope. The best books should be read many many times. It's the same with movies and tv shows.
Child: Oh ya! When I watch a show the second time, I notice things I didn't notice before. And I didn't know why. Now I know it's because I'm smarter the second time.
Parent: Well that's one possible reason. There's other possible reasons too. Like maybe the reason you noticed a new thing this time is that when you read that part of the book you were really tired and missed it, and this time you're not tired and you didn't miss it.
Child: Oh ya.
Parent: And by the way I was also going to say that I improved my understanding of parochialism from discussions with Elliot and the other philosophers on the Fallible Ideas Discussion Group.
Child: Cool. I wish I could talk to Elliot.
Parent: YOU CAN! And I bet he'd love to talk to you! You just need to start emailing. And then you can email him. And he'll reply. He likes talking to smart people.
Child: COOL! ok, I want to watch Burn Notice again from the beginning. It'll be my third time now! You wanna watch with me?
Parent: Na. I'm gonna read _Why Philosophy?_ again.
Child: K bye.


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