Rebirth of Reason


Parenting with Intrinsic Values
by Joseph Rowlands

One of the hallmarks of intrinsic values is that they make rational tradeoffs impossible. Intrinsic values don't share the same standard of evaluation as other values. If you value something as a value in itself, there's no way to say how much more or less important it is to other possible values. If you raise or lower the cost of pursuing an intrinsic value, there's no way to say that the right quantities should change your behavior. If you don't know what relationship the values have with each other, changing the value of one through a change in costs will not make that relationship any clearer.


One area where we see this kind of behavior is in some of the modern views of parenting. There are two views in particular that have been written about but haven't been highlighted as problematic because of their intrinsic valuation. The first area is safety. The second area is education.


The safety issue revolves around parent's being hyper-vigilante when it comes to their children's safety. They stress and worry about everything. They worry about Halloween candy being poisoned or razor blades being put in them. They worry that their children will be kidnapped if they are allowed to play outside alone. They worry they might join a gang, or might suffocate in a plastic bag, or countless other ways of getting hurt or killed.


Worrying about a child's safety doesn't prove anything about intrinsic values by itself. Children can be valued objectively, and their physical safety would be a significant. So worrying makes sense. But there are limits. Some concerns are so improbable that any effort taken to minimize them would be a waste of time. And sometimes the costs of protecting against a concern comes at a significant cost. In these cases, once the costs and improbability are known, we should see a difference in behavior. If safety is valued objectively, we would expect a change in behavior. If safety is valued intrinsically, we would expect no changes and even moral pride in the willingness to incur costs despite the immeasurable benefits.


The common reaction is the latter. Mothers prove their love or superiority as parents by being willing to pursue these "improvements" to safety despite any realistic payoff. The mantra is that no sacrifice is too great and if it could possibly make a difference, not matter how miniscule that difference is, it is worth it.


But this suggests that safety is the only value, and everything else is irrelevant in comparison. In practice, this can't work. Safety can always be increased in some fantastically improbable way. This is an intrinsic value, and it demands the sacrifice of everything else for it.


Intrinsic values are tied to the idea of moral status. In this case, the mother's don't really believe that their actions will have an effect at all. The concerns they are focused on are too improbable or even unrealistic. But the act of trying to protect against them shows the depths to which they'll go in order to protect their children. It isn't about safety, but about proving a point. It's a way of showing how much they care. And there's a competitive element as well. They want to prove they are better parents than others, and they certainly don't want to be seen as worse. So they are willing to take truly bizarre steps in the name of safety.


Education is similar. How far should a parent go in giving her child every possible advantage or opportunity in life? For some, the answer is that there is no limit. They'll rack up as much debt as possible, send them to the best schools, spend every waking hour giving them opportunities to learn.


What about when studies show that success is almost entirely driven by genetics, or that many of these costly endeavors have no measurable results? Does that change their behavior? Does it change the tradeoffs they make?


Of course not. Maybe the effects can't be statistically measured, but if there is any benefit, no matter how small, it is worth it! This is the power of the intrinsic value. And the parent who pursues this path will be considered a better parent, more loving, and even morally superior to someone who recognizes the limited value and pursues other values instead.


Perhaps some of this comes from the altruistic ethics. Parents view every hour and dollar spent on their children as morally good, and every hour or dollar spent on themselves as selfish. This also makes a tradeoff impossible, since a parent's own life is not considered valuable at all.


Even discussing this much would likely be seen as shocking and horrible to many parents. The idea of valuing anything over the safety or education of your child is viewed as monstrous. But this way of saying it confuses the issue. The discussion is over the marginal value of particular increases to education or safety. When both are secured, and parents start wasting time and effort pursuing ends that make no sense, it's perfectly appropriate to suggest that time is better spent elsewhere, including on the happiness of the parent.

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