The Family as an Arena of Moral Education

(This is part one in my two part series on how rational social institutions contribute to the moral education of citizens. In this post I focus on the family and tomorrow’s post will focus on the bildung effected through civil society.)

Human beings come into the world as creatures determined by their immediately given desires, drives and inclinations. Hegel notes that the educative function of the family has the negative aim of raising children out of their natural immediacy1 and the positive aim of preparing them for self-subsistent, free and rational membership in ethical life, which is the level at which they can leave the family.2

The family secures its members’ participation in the process of Bildung by taking advantage of their natural neediness. For instance, the family satisfies the wants of its children by providing them with shelter, nourishment, clothing, unconditional love; and it furnishes children with objects of unconditional love (their fellow family members). The negative aim of this educative process is achieved through discipline; it functions by deterring children “from exercising a kind of freedom still in the toils of nature and to lift the universal into their consciousness and will.”3

Hegel emphasizes that such liberation cannot be achieved by dealing with children in strictly rational terms.4 Children, having not yet acquired the capacity for genuine reflection, act on immediate fancies and caprices. They are determined to weigh the reasons given them according to their whimsical preferences, so dealing with children in strictly rational terms is to risk their developing into stubborn, insolent creatures incapable of achieving a normative stance towards their sensuous nature.5 For such reasons, parents must demand that their children obey their authority as law. In so submitting to the authority of their parents, children come to learn how to say no to immediacy and how to will in accordance with imperatives, which are essential conditions of moral agency.6 As Hegel puts it, “so far as children are concerned, universality and the substance of things reside in their parents, and this implies that children must be obedient.”7

Hegel further argues that children must experience this feeling of subordination and frustration in order to develop the longing to overcome their immediacy and to will in an objective and responsible way. Wood explains that for Hegel, Bildung necessarily proceeds through an initial moment of frustration and struggle, in which one acts in accord with a conception of oneself as unfree. In so doing, one eventually discovers the falsity of that self-conception. This process of discovery culminates in one realizing one’s inherent capacity for autonomous agency.8

Hegel, in rejecting the play theory of education, argues that it is healthy and proper for a child to be discontented with the callowness of childhood in which he is under the tutelage of others.9 Parents, in disciplining, commanding the obedience of, and caring for their children, raise them in such a way that they come to be dissatisfied with their immaturity and strive to belong to the adult world.10

How does the preceding discussion relate to individuals coming to acquire the capacity for moral agency? In order to get a handle on this issue, we must consider what capacities for adulthood are also required for moral agency.

By adulthood, Hegel seems to have a specific idea in mind that is bound up with his conception of Sittlichkeit. On this reading, an adult is defined as a genuine member of ethical life because he expresses and satisfies his particularity in a way that conforms to what is universal.11

Wood identifies three distinct yet related doctrines captured by this thesis. According to Wood, “the universal” broadly means, for Hegel, the conceptual, the social, and what we have in common with others.12 For this discussion I will frame Wood’s interpretation in terms of capacities required for adulthood and explain how these serve the requirements of moral subjectivity.

1. The universal as the conceptual. The universal here signifies the capacity of adults qua rational social members to transcend their personal feelings and opinions and to reason in conceptual terms in social space with other normative agents.13 Such a capacity for rational reflection is essential to moral agency, seeing as the project of the latter consists in critically evaluating one’s given institutions and norms in light of one’s reflections about what constitutes the good and about what ought to be done so as to promote the good. Children, through obedience to their parent’s authority, come to cultivate such a capacity by having to regularly abstract from what they desire to do and consider what their parents have determined that they ought or ought not to do in a given situation. By regularly appealing to these parental imperatives, one learns how to distance oneself from the immediately given content of one’s will and to discern what duty commands one to do.14 Although it may not be obvious, it is surely the case that such appeals are themselves a primitive form of moral reasoning.

2. The universal as the social. The universal here refers to the capacity adults possess to conform to the rational demands of social life, which largely consists in taking on social roles and dutifully and effectively fulfilling the commitments associated with them.15 If we consider Hegel’s reformulation of Kant’s conception of moral freedom, it is obvious how this capacity of adults is an integral element of moral subjectivity. By disciplining their children, parents cultivate their children’s willingness and ability to regularly and effectively act as they ought to act. Here, punishment serves to incentivize children to develop the habit of successfully overcoming temptation and fulfilling their obligations.

3. The universal as that which one has in common with others. Finally, the universal here is taken to refer to one’s capacity to identify with and to value one’s character for the essential things it shares with others.16 The ability of the self (1) to abstract from the things that distinguish it from others, or that make it unique, (2) to focus on that which it has in common with others, and (3) to highly value these shared attributes, allows the self to regularly and willingly view itself and others as essentially free, universal beings. This ability is constitutive of moral agency in two ways. First, one can willingly reflect on other human beings from a universal perspective. Second, such a universalistic conception of oneself and others entails that one is therefore capable of seeing oneself and others as deserving of the rights of free personhood, which is part of what constitutes the good at which moral agency ultimately aims.17

Individuals, by growing up in a family, cultivate the ability to value that which they share with others because they share with their relatives a common membership in the family, a deep commitment to the good of the family, and the common bond of unconditional love that grounds the unity of the family.18

The positive aim of the family’s educative process is achieved through instilling in children the principles of ethical life in the form of feeling.19 In this way individuals come to possess some initial ethical content for their moral wills, and they learn how to habitually and efficaciously do their duty. Hegel rejects the Enlightenment view that moral principles should not be taught to those still in the grips of immaturity; as he contends, the capacity for moral reasoning emerges through the process of rationally grappling with some original ethical content and it is further cultivated by working on such content.20 Therefore, to delay the teaching of ethical principles until one reaches moral maturity is to postpone such education until a day that will consequently never arrive:

In fact, if one waits to acquaint the human being with such things until he is fully capable of grasping ethical concepts in heir entire truth, then few would ever possess this capacity, and these few hardly before the end of their life. It is precisely the lack of ethical reflection which delays the cultivation of this grasp, just as it delays the cultivation of moral feeling. (Werke 4: 347)

This returns us to Hegel’s general vision of how the process of Bildung proceeds through a stage of immediate relation to the object, alienation from the object, and rational reconciliation with the object.21 Here the objects are ethical principles. The child proceeds from being in a state of immediate identification with them, in which they are implanted in him by his parents and in which he owns them in the form of emotional dispositions. Next is a stage of frustration and alienation because he comes to see his will as not an extension of his parents’ wills, but as capable of being autonomous, yet he finds himself acting in accordance with principles that come from outside of himself, which he therefore experiences as alien objects. He is justifiably frustrated with this state of being, and his struggle to overcome this alienation seems to initially manifest itself in the rebelliousness of adolescence, as he misguidedly tries to throw off this external authority and to realize his freedom.

As the child continues to mature, he increasingly comes to appreciate that the freedom he recognizes himself as capable and desirous of exercising can only be achieved through membership in the adult world, rather than in rebellion against it. Hence, the maturing child comes to appreciate that acting in accord with these alien ethical principles is essential to adulthood, which is the achievement of true freedom; thus, he embarks on a process of rationally affirming and appropriating these ethical principles in his own way.22

Selected footnotes:

10. Hegel in fact has a more nuanced and less authoritarian view of discipline; see Wood 1998, p. 24.

17. See Neuhouser, 2000, p. 238. Hegel’s realistic and substantive conception of the good “brings together the principles of abstract right with a systematic realization of [universal] human well being.” Hegel’s reasoning here, according to Neuhouser, is that in the modern world “only a state of affairs in which the demands of right are in systematic harmony with general well-being can be fully satisfying to reason and hence affirmable by it as good without reservation. Hegel’s conception of the moral principle entails that moral agency consists in the project of securing the personal freedom of each individual in a way that is consistent with the systematic realization of happiness for all.”

18. The claims here relate to a way, not explicitly accounted for by either Hegel or Neuhouser, in which children, through their membership in the family, come to be able to exercise a moral will. The family raises children to regularly take the good of the family and the interest of their fellow family members as their highest ends, which entails that they habitually subordinate their private wills to that of their family’s general will. Relating to one’s family in this way is an instance of being a moral subject, and it also cultivates within children the ability to will in a universal way and to concern themselves with the freedom and welfare of others. What is said here also holds for parents.

4 Responses to The Family as an Arena of Moral Education

  1. “Without limits and constraints, there is no freedom. With limits and constraints, there is no freedom. Rules are limits and constraints, and so are laws. Without them, there is no self-organization, there is no emergence, there is no creativity or innovation. With them, there is only entropy, simplicity, destruction, and death. Without them, there is only pure energy—if there is even that. With them, there is only pure energy—if there is even that.” — from Diaphysics

  2. Pingback: Civil Society as Arena of Moral Education | The Social Rationalist

  3. Pingback: The Family as an Arena of Moral Education | The Social Rationalist | Moral Education |

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