📚🤔 Justin’s Comments on William Godwin’s The Enquirer, Part I, Essay XI 📖📝

Godwin has us imagine a parent who recently became convinced that their kids are rational beings. As a result of this, the parent tries to be less authoritarian, and encourages their kids to have rational discussions when there’s a disagreement as to what the kid should do.

If this mode of proceeding can ever be salutary, it must be to a real discussion that they are invited, and not to the humiliating scene of a mock discussion.

J’s Comment: The “humiliating scene of a mock discussion” is a thing that has come up with people trying to implement TCS and “common preference finding,” due to various misunderstandings. Like people sometimes think “common preference finding” means the process whereby you argue your child into exhaustion so that they’ll go along with what you want to do. So Godwin is sort of anticipating a problem from advanced parenting philosophy, though interestingly he frames the chapter as discussing “vice, frequently occurring in our treatment of those who depend upon us.”

A “real discussion”, according to Godwin, involves things like being impartial.

Godwin says that sometimes you’ll resolve the disagreement right away, and there’s no problem. But sometimes you won’t, even though both people are discussing in good faith.

J’s Comment: this is an important recognition of the fact that disagreements won’t always immediately get resolved. Sometimes people expect disagreements to get resolved very quickly, and when they don’t, they attribute this result to the ignorance/stupidity/bad faith of the person they are discussing with.

Godwin says that in that case, the child should be free to take the action he wants to take. But what commonly happens is that parents impose their will on the child. Godwin says that, looking at it from the child’s perspective, it’d be much better to just know you have to obey from the start than to have a whole fake rational discussion where you still have to obey at the end. He also says that the parent comes to the discussion with a pre-formed judgment that the child won’t have much chance of changing.

The terms of the debate therefore are, first, If you do not convince me, you must act as if I had convinced you. Secondly, I enter the lists with all the weight of long practice and all the pride of added years, and there is scarcely the shadow of a hope that you will convince me.

The result of such a system of proceeding will be extreme unhappiness.

Godwin says that if you’re not gonna treat someone as an equal, don’t pretend. Better to be an honest and mild slavemaster than a fake equal. People can endure being a slave, especially if the master isn’t too harsh. But having pretend-freedom while really being a slave is like torture.

J’s Comment: it can really bias people against better approaches too. If you think you have first hand experience of what more “liberal parenting” consists of — being given fake opportunities to argue for control over your own life which never go anywhere — why bother listening to its advocates or trying it?

Godwin seems to say that the way to avoid this issue is to figure out what your non-negotiable points are as a parent and make those clear. Godwin says this doesn’t necessarily take away from young people’s independence.

It is not necessary that in so doing we should really subtract any thing from the independence of youth. They should no doubt have a large portion of independence; it should be restricted only in cases of extraordinary emergency; but its boundaries should be clear, evident and unequivocal.

J’s Comment: if there’s any non-negotiable things, then independence is being encroached. And if the extraordinary situations are so important, isn’t it important to have good arguments to persuade your child about them? Is this like very contingent advice which assumes that the parent is already gonna be authoritarian anyways?

Godwin says parents shouldn’t cling to their past decisions; they should admit they are fallible. But they should be honest about what’s gonna be decided by authority from the get-go.

He concludes:

It were to be wished that no human creature were obliged to do any thing but from the dictates of his own understanding. But this seems to be, for the present at least, impracticable in the education of youth. If we cannot avoid some exercise of empire and despotism, all that remains for us is, that we take care that it be not exercised with asperity, and that we do not add an insulting familiarity or unnecessary contention, to the indispensible assertion of superiority.

J’s Comment: What precisely he means by impracticable is kinda unclear to me, but he does seem to want to maximize the liberty of children to the extent he thinks is possible, so that’s good.

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