A logical approach to parenting: Don’t endlessly negotiate

Unthinkable: Scott Hershovitz advocates raising children who ‘eventually we can resent’

Most parenting advice is useless due to a lack of data. Things can sound good on paper but where is the proof that rationing affection for your children makes them more independent, as Dr Benjamin Spock – probably the most influential parenting guru of the past century – claimed?

Or where is the evidence that a “contented baby” shaped by Gina Ford books will grow up into a contended adult. I guess you can look around at the average 18-22 year old, who would have been born when Ford’s method took off, but this doesn’t get beyond the realm of anecdote.

So if you’re a parent, what can you do? Just try to wing it on your own? Or run with someone else’s hunch?

There is an alternative, which is to think less about how to mould your child for the future, and more about whether your actions right now are logical. Think less like a psychologist, in other words, and more like a philosopher.


This is roughly what Scott Hershovitz advocates in a new book Nasty, Brutish, and Short: Adventures in Philosophy with Kids (Allen Lane).

“There is a bit of parenting advice in this book,” he writes, “but most of it is not so practical. Indeed, my main advice is just this: talk to your kids.”

Hershovitz is an American legal scholar, and the book riffs off conversations about ethics and politics with his two sons.

Disciplining children

A fundamental issue Hershovitz grapples with is disciplining children. Is your child obliged to follow your orders? And, if so, how should you treat that child: as someone to be conditioned by incentives and rewards, or as someone who should learn to respond to shame, love and the full gamut of emotions?

A take-away message, he says, is “you’re trying to raise children that eventually we can resent”. However, getting to that point takes a little time – and for Hershovitz the story begins when he was a student in Oxford where he fell under the spell of political philosopher Joseph Raz.

The fact that you know better than me doesn't explain why you've got the right to boss me around

Raz, who died earlier this month aged 83, is famous for his work on the concept of authority. The question Raz asked was: how can someone ever be obliged to do something just because someone else says they should?

“Raz would say if the subject of the authority would do better by listening to the authority, than deciding on their own, then the authority is legitimate and they are obligated to obey,” Hershovitz explains to The Irish Times in a Zoom call from his home in Michigan.

“This view has been extraordinarily influential but I think it’s not quite right,” he continues. “The fact that you know better than me, or that I’d do better if I listened to you, that explains why it might be a good idea for me to do what you’re telling me to do but it doesn’t explain why you’ve got the right to boss me around.”

For example? “I’m cooking Chinese food and somebody happens upon me and they know a lot about how to cook Chinese food and I’m just muddling through and they start barking orders. Well, maybe it’s a really good idea to cook the way they are telling me, and maybe I’ll even be appreciative. But it would also be perfectly open to me to say: Look buddy, get lost! I’m trying to figure this out on my own. I’m having fun.”

Types of authority

In the case of parenting, he says, authority doesn’t come from knowing better, rather it comes from responsibility – having a duty to keep your child safe or to nurture them to their full potential. This kind of responsibility doesn’t apply to other settings so any justification for authority in the workplace or in government, for example, “would look very different”.

Put simply, “parental authority is part of a kind of package deal of parentage”. Practically speaking, he adds, it is okay to bypass negotiations sometimes and just tell his kids to do a certain thing “because I said so”.

With that hurdle out of the way, how should a parent use this legitimate authority?

Here Hershovitz reaches for another Oxford philosopher – Peter Strawson, who argued there were two different ways of looking at people. “You can take an objective attitude to other people; you can see them as objects in the world, subject to laws of cause and effect, as things you might manipulate or control. Or you can be a full participant in human relationships and have reactive attitudes like anger or gratitude or love,” Hershovitz explains.

“Strawson says if you’re doing one thing it’s hard to see the world the other way, and I think this tension comes out a lot when we think of punishment.

“On the one hand, you have deterrents and it’s very much an objective attitude: How can we adjust your incentives so we can elicit the kind of behaviour we want? On the other hand, we talk about retribution – we talk about holding people responsible for their wrongdoing and condemning them for what they have done.”

When they are very young it doesn't make any sense to be angry with them

This tension plays out over the course of childhood as “there is a shift in the way you interact with your children,” Hershovitz points out. “When they are very young it doesn’t make any sense to be angry with them, they are not really in a position to control their behaviour so you just have to take this objective view of them. But, as I say, you’re trying to raise children that eventually we can resent because you’re trying to raise morally competent beings who can be expected to treat people well and do better than they sometimes do.”

Redeeming resentment

Resentment gets a bad rap – Friedrich Nietzsche saw it as a hugely powerful but ultimately ignoble force in society. Should we look upon it more sympathetically as an emotion that needs to be married with reasoning?

“I agree with that entirely. There is a tradition of thinking about revenge as essential to self-respect . . . So I do think there are often good reasons to feel resentment. It also can consume your life, and you want to guard against that, but the solution is not to leave it behind entirely.”

Hershovitz’s thinking on punishment is characteristic of his general approach to philosophy. As a rule, he is not a fan of rules – something which put him at odds with his former mentor Raz.

“I definitely ended up as a critic of his . . . and I think that difference of views between us reflected different dispositions we had as philosophers. He was a kind of system-builder trying to fit things in an overarching framework and I have some scepticism of those sorts of frameworks.”

I'm hoping not to raise Nazis. . . but if you engage kids in the habit of thinking critically that strikes me as a pathway they are unlikely to be on

Hershovitz’s exploration of parental discipline is just a small part of a book rich in ideas and deliberately short of pat answers. Whether his children will have the same taste in open-ended inquiry only time will tell. How would he feel if they turned against him philosophically to become, for example, nihilists?

“I care most that I raise kids who think deeply and carefully about things that are important. So if they have views to which I’d object, if they are prepared to defend them and engage with criticisms that is all I could ever ask for.

“I’m sure there are limits,” he adds. “You know, I’m hoping not to raise Nazis; there are some views beyond the pale. But I also don’t think that’s where these kids are likely to end up because partly if you engage kids in the habit of thinking critically about their own views that strikes me as a pathway they are unlikely to be on.”