PEA Soup is pleased to reboot the Cross-Cultural Philosophy series, thanks to the work of Brad Cokelet.
Can Parents Tell Us Who We Are and What to Do?
Henry James, in his critical work, discusses the origin of his Victorian story “Owen Wingrave” (which Benjamin Britten later turned into an opera). In James’s retelling of the events, James was sitting on a chair in the Kensington Gardens when a “tall quiet slim studious young man, of admirable type” sat on a chair near James and “settled to a book with immediate gravity.” James had been reading about the Napoleonic wars, and he wondered what would happen if the young man in the park who, as one can tell from James’s description, did not seem the soldier type was told that he had to go to war because of inherited and unchosen family legacy.
Should Owen join the army? Is his family’s legacy a good reason to?
According to a certain liberal view of personal choice, that Owen’s predecessors served in the military and wish that Owen do too is not a good reason for him to enroll. Owen can make his own choices in light of his own values and preferences. In contrast, I take it that according to a broadly Confucian view of the importance of xiao, commonly translated as “filial piety,” Owen, or perhaps, his counterpart Ou Wen, may have a very good reason to enroll in that case, a reason that stems from an understanding of what it is to be a good son.
These two conceptions of life choices seem at odds, but in her thoughtful recent “A Tale of Two Owens: Xiao as Trusting Others to Know Who You Are,” Sai Ying Ng suggests that perhaps, there is much less daylight between what she takes to be a version of the liberal individualist view espoused by Bernard Williams and Ng’s own interpretation of “xiao.” In making her case, Ng draws on Williams’s discussion of James’s story about Owen Wingrave as well as on Williams’s remarks regarding the role of advisors in ethical decision-making.
Ng tells us that while Williams does not think Owen would have a reason to join the army if he has no desire whatsoever to do so, he also, in his discussion of the possibility of ethical knowledge, leaves room for seeking counsel from others regarding what to do. Importantly, Williams’s account allows that advisors be picked for supra-individual reasons, and indeed, reasons related to family legacy. For instance, a Catholic may turn to a Catholic priest and ask for advice regarding whether a certain action is “chaste.” The Catholic is reasonable to do so, according to Williams, because he and the priest share certain presuppositions, but Ng adds that family in particular may be the root of it all as a Catholic may be Catholic due to being born in a Catholic family.
Ng goes on to suggest that Williams’s account of decision-making with the help of advisors can be broadened to include family members and for Confucian reasons:
…Ou Wen turns to his grandfather for advice. In so doing, he comes to be persuaded that he ought to join the military. … In Confucian ethical theorizing …[o]ne naturally turns to various members of one’s family, all of whom have known A since birth and have a sense of who A is. Furthermore, Confucian ethical theorizing incorporates the trust that A naturally has towards his family: not only does A trust his family to know who he is, even when A lacks insight into the grounds of their advice, A should trust his family to know who he is. In turning to his grandfather for advice, A shows himself to be xiao—he shows himself to be receptive to his grandfather’s persuasion.
Ng accords families a special role, arguing that parents and grandparents not simply may but should and indeed, regularly would be chosen as advisors if the starting point of deliberation is shared cultural tradition rather than the unique individual with her priorities and goals. There is an implication, mostly implicit, that this is a good starting point.
Shared traditions shape roles and give rise to role-oughts and common values and ways of life. It stands to reason that our elders may know those traditions and the corollary role-oughts better than we do, so if shared traditions are our point of departure, our trust in elders may be apt: they know well what it means to be a son, a daughter, a father, a grandmother, and so on from a traditional point of view, so if these roles are central to our identity from the get-go, then we can trust our elders to know who we are and from here, what we ought to do. Owen’s counterpart, Ou Wen, need not be someone who sees his family’s desire that he join the military as suffocating and constraining; rather, he wants to honor that desire because he trusts that senior family members know who he is better than he himself does. This is Ng’s interpretation of xiao as trust.
Ng’s is a rich and suggestive paper, and I am not sure I can do full justice to it here, but I will share a few thoughts. I believe that there are two main questions one may be interested in:
(1) Is Ng right to interpret xiao as trusting others to know who you are?
(2) If xiao is interpreted in the way Ng suggests, would that result in a rapprochement between the Confucian and the liberal individualist view?
For present purposes, I will leave the first question to students of Confucian ethics and focus on the second.
The first point I wish to note is that I am not sure Williams’s own discussion of Owen Wingrave is relevant to the debate between a Confucian and a liberal individualist. Williams references the Wingrave story in “Internal and External Reasons.” His point in that paper is that if Owen Wingrave has no desire to join the military, if, perhaps, every fiber in his being revolts against the idea, then Owen has no internal reason for joining, that is, no reason that can motivate him to so act.
If Owen did have the requisite motivation – or was swayed by his family’s rhetoric – then he may have or acquire (internal) reasons. Williams insists simply that belief alone will not generate motivation. He writes:
Owen might be so persuaded by his father’s rhetoric that he acquired both the motivation and the belief. But this excludes an element which the external reasons theorist essentially wants, that the agent should acquire the motivation because he comes to believe the reasons statement.
This is important, because Williams is not here asking whether Owen should join the military, whether it would be (objectively speaking) a good and praiseworthy thing if he did, or whether his family can permissibly pressure him to do so. Indeed, for Williams, the “ought” question is a different one from the question about reasons. He writes:
…it remains an obscure issue what the relation is between ‘there is a reason for A to…’ and ‘A ought to…’ Some philosophers take them to be equivalent, and under that view the question of external reasons of course comes much closer to the question of a categorical imperative. However, I shall not make any assumption about such an equivalence and shall not further discuss ‘ought’
But what about Williams’s discussion of advice and the way in which that can be expanded to include the Confucian style parental advice?
I believe that’s of limited relevance to the questions a liberal individualist may wish to ask as well. In making her case for a connection between the two, Ng draws on Williams’s “Who Needs Ethical Knowledge?” There, Williams develops a “local advisory” model according to which it is reasonable for a person to turn to an advisor who shares her own relevant presuppositions. We can easily imagine that a person brought up in the Confucian tradition may believe a parent is the person to turn to here for precisely the reasons Ng gives: Children brought up in such a way may be inclined to trust parents to know better than they themselves do who the children are and what they must do. That inclination may give reasons for action.
The liberal individualist, on the other hand, would likely see several problems here. First, the supposition that parents may know their grown children better than the children know themselves needs empirical support. Our evidence of the internal mental life of others, including our children, is limited. Second, parents may not be concerned with what the child really wants or who she really is at all and may, instead, be too prone to insist that the children pursue the parents’ goals. Thirdly, even if the parents did genuinely want to help the child find the most authentic path, and even if they were in a good position to do so, there is also something to be said for choosing for oneself and making one’s own errors.
All this suggests that parents who put pressure on children to see things the parents’ way may be acting inappropriately from a liberal individualist point of view. The point is persuasively articulated by George Eliot in the novel Daniel Deronda. There, a character named Catherine Arrowpoint falls in love with her music teacher, Herr Klesmer, and tells her parents that she wishes to marry Mr. Klesmer. The parents resist this, especially the mother, arguing that as the daughter of nobility, Catherine cannot marry a man such as Klesmer. The following dialogue ensues:
“I am sorry to hurt you, mamma. But I will not give up the happiness of my life to ideas that I don’t believe in and customs I have no respect for.”
“You have lost all sense of duty, then? You have forgotten that you are our only child – that it lies with you to place a great property in the right hands?”
“What are the right hands? My grandfather gained the property in trade.”
“Mr. Arrowpoint, will you sit by and hear this without speaking?”
“I am a gentleman, Cath. We expect you to marry a gentleman,” said the father, exerting himself.
“And a man connected with the institutions of this country,” said the mother. “A woman in your position has serious duties. Where duty and inclination clash, she must follow duty.”
“I don’t deny that,” said Catherine, getting colder in proportion to her mother’s heat. “But one may say very true things and apply them falsely. People can easily take the sacred word duty as a name for what they desire any one else to do.”
“Your parent’s desire makes no duty for you, then?”
“Yes, within reason. But before I give up the happiness of my life –”
“Catherine, Catherine, it will not be your happiness,” said Mrs. Arrowpoint, in her most raven-like tones.
“Well, what seems to me my happiness – before I give it up, I must see some better reason than the wish that I should marry a nobleman, or a man who votes with a party that he may be turned into a nobleman. I feel at liberty to marry the man I love and think worthy, unless some higher duty forbids.”
It follows from Williams’s account of reasons that if Catherine or someone else in her position had no desire to comply with her parents’ wishes even after the parents tried to instill one or guilt-trip the child, that person would have no reason to act as the parents desire. Ng, like Williams and perhaps unlike strict traditionalists, cedes that. She makes a parallel point about Wingrave: “I do not deny Williams’s conclusion on behalf of Owen Wingrave: if Owen Wingrave simply finds himself with different value priorities his family must accept that Owen has no reason to join the military.” But, importantly, this is not the end of the matter. We must ask whether it is a good idea for children to trust their parents to choose for them and whether parents may appropriately insist that their wishes or social identity give rise to duties that may override a grown child’s own deeper desires. The liberal individualist’s answers are “no” and “no.” I suspect Ng’s answers would be different, so on this score, her agreements with Williams don’t show us how to dispel or adjudicate the conflict between the two views. All can endorse willingness on a child’s part – voiced by Catherine Arrowpoint – to desire to please one’s parents “within reason.” We see the gap between the two conceptions most clearly when we focus on the question of what “within reason” means. Does it include choosing a profession against your natural inclinations? Foregoing the chance to marry the person you love?
In order to appreciate the precise points of tension between the two conceptions under discussion, consider what follows from a liberal view about parental and filial roles and role-oughts. The proponent of the liberal conception does not reject such oughts but rather, insists that a good parent would not try to sway a grown child from making morally permissible choices in the pursuit of her own happiness or else attempt to instill in the child guilt for going against the parent’s wishes (which, again, may well give the child a reason in Williams’s sense). This is because doing so would be hurtful and not what a good parent does.
I wish to mention also that arguably, our loved ones’ moral commitments may give us a much stronger reason to act than their mere wishes and desires. Thus, if Owen wants to enroll in the army but his father is a committed pacifist who would feel his core moral identity betrayed if his son were to kill people, then I think a liberal individualist would agree that Owen has a good reason not to enlist. One may even argue that the reason Owen has is stronger than the father’s reason would be if Owen were the pacificist and the father wanted to join the army since it is plausible that a parent may feel morally responsible for the actions of a child, even a grown child, in a way a child may not feel responsible for the parent’s actions. This issue is important, but I cannot discuss it further here.
There are two final points I would like to mention. They have to do with objective morality. First, there are moral constraints on choices. No one should be joining the Mafia or marrying a charming serial killer and becoming an accomplice. George Eliot accepts this too. Catherine Arrowpoint, as we saw, says that she would sacrifice her own desires if a higher duty demanded it, she just does not think that her parents’ wishes give rise to such a duty. It stands to reason that if one’s child is considering these things, the parents ought to try to intervene and stop the child though what would make the intervention not only permissible but required are moral demands rather than parental desires. But what if the parents themselves are from the Mafia and want the child to be a member too? What would either Williams or Ng say about this?
It follows from Williams’s account of reasons for action that if the child wanted to join the Mafia and had no desire to abstain, or if the parents wanted the child to join and had no desire to stop him, then both would have reasons to ensure the child joins the Mafia and no reason to act otherwise. What would Ng say about a case in which a child born in a Mafia family trusts her parents to tell her who she is, and they say she really is a Mafia member?
Second, I suggested that Williams’s account is not a good stand-in for a liberal individualist view and that even if that account can be brought closer to a Confucian view, the gap between the Confucian and the liberal individualist view remains. However, in closing, I note that Williams’s account can be deployed at this stage to argue that there is no firm ground we can stand on in order to judge one of these conceptions – the Confucian or the liberal individualist – to be better. In the paper on ethical knowledge, Williams asks the question of whether we can extend his local advisory model so that it becomes an account of objective moral knowledge. He says:
Might we extend the practical explication of ethical knowledge so as to get beyond the local advisory model? The only way that I can see of doing so would lie in the Millian idea that the variety of human cultures, with their various thick concepts and ethical practices, should itself be understood in terms of an epistemic division of labour, as a kind of spontaneous and poorly co-ordinated research programme into the best way for human beings to live.
If people try a way of life and they come to abandon it on account of being displeased with the results, then perhaps, that’s evidence it was not a good idea. Williams suggests, plausibly, that this is what happened with communism as a way of life. But if, contrariwise, people try a way of life and stick with it for centuries, that’s a different story. That is the case with Confucianism. I suggested above that the Mafia family case may present a problem for Confucianism, but I am happy to assume that the problem can be handled. My point presently is that Confucian ideas have been around for centuries, much longer than liberal individualism, in fact. If more than one set of cultural norms persists, Williams would say that we have no good objective standpoint from which to judge the relative merits of one over the other. If this conclusion were accepted, then it does not, strictly speaking, matter whether the two views can be brought closer together or not. Traditions and ways of life can be very different from each other without its being the case that one is, objectively speaking, better.
 See the preface to “The Altar of the Dead” in The Novels and Tales of Henry James New York Edition, 1922, p. xxii.
 Ng, 16.
 Williams, “Internal and External Reasons” in Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 108.
 Ibid., p. 106.
 Bernard Williams, “Who Needs Ethical Knowledge?” in Making Sense of Humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 203 – 212.
 George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 207.
 Ng. 24.
 Bernard Williams, “Who Needs Ethical Knowledge?”, p. 209.