David Deutsch on Respect for Right and Wrong

From the Taking Children Seriously email list (now located here)

Someone wrote on 17/1/01 7:10 pm:

Earlier I wrote asking about the TCS understanding of the word coercion.I appreciate all the comments that came back and I think I have a better understanding of the TCS position on the subject. I have another question that concerns teaching respect for other peoples property. As an older American I have a healthy respect for the rights of people to own and protect personal property. My son and his wife have adopted the TCS ideas of raising children which is fine because its their right and their children and I agree that children are people too.

My question is, how does TCS philosophy teach respect for other peoples property and rights. An example: my son lets his girls, one six and one two, mark on the walls, carpet,etc.,with most any kind of marker. Not just in one room but all over the house. If the house was theirs it would be one thing but they rent. The house belongs to someone else. When they move the owner will have to go to considerable expense to repaint the entire inside of the house and replace carpet. By the way I do not allow my grandchildren to do this or jump on my furniture like a trampoline when they are at my house. How does TCS suggest teaching attitudes of respect for other peoples rights and property?

I really want to understand.

I think there’s something important missing from your conception of respect for property, and of how one acquires respect for property and morality generally. What’s missing is respect for the distinction between right and wrong. That’s ironic because I guess you perceive exactly that lack in TCS.

How can that be? Because the rights and wrongs of *allowing* (and forbidding), though important, are actually only a small part of morality. To mistake them for the whole thing leads to a mere parody of morality, and hence, often, to very bad behaviour.

Take the issue of bouncing on the furniture. Any of the other examples you gave would do equally well: what matters is that there are two people involved, with at least two conflicting initial preferences about what should be done to a piece of property. Where the two people are enemies, where they hate each other’s guts, where they are irrational to the point of inability to function, where they are trapped in compulsive, self-destructive patterns of behaviour — *then* indeed all other considerations usually fall away, and the moral analysis reduces simply to: *what does the owner of the furniture want?* At the other end of the scale, where the disputants know each other well, and like each other, and see themselves as on the same side, and are jointly pursuing the truth and want to do right and avoid wrong, then as I said the issue of whose furniture it is still plays an important role, but not the fundamental one. Under these circumstances the fundamental thing is not whether the owner wants the bed to be bounced on or not but *whether bouncing on it is the right thing to do or not*.

But doesn’t the right thing to do *depend* on what the owner wants? Of course. But do you see that as a means of finding out what’s right, this is completely without content in cases where what the owner wants is itself *to do the right thing with the furniture*. And do you see that it is a sufficient means of finding out what’s right only in cases where all parties have immutable wants and no one gives a toss about what’s right and what’s wrong?

The thing is, there’s a right use for that furniture. It may involve bouncing, and it may not. I happen to think that it almost certainly does, but that’s irrelevant here. The point is only that different people’s preferences in this matter are *conjectures* about what that right use may be.

Some people believe that no such truth of the matter exists. They believe that all that exists are the two conflicting preferences, which in this context they often call the ‘interests’ of the parties, and which they take for granted are immutable, indeed sacred. They do not consider these preferences to be moral conjectures, but infallible statements of fact. They are denying the existence of a substantive moral issue, and thereby immunise from all criticism the particular moral stance that they implicitly take (and wish to enforce on others). That is why I regard such people as not respecting — indeed as denying — the distinction between right and wrong.

Once you understand that in every human dispute there’s a substantive issue at stake, and an objective truth of the matter, but that there exists no mechanical means of choosing which, if any, of the disputants is closer to that truth, but that creativity and criticism are capable of eliminating moral errors and getting closer to that truth, then you immediately see why inculcating any mechanical rule of behaviour, even ‘respect for property’, cannot be morally right and cannot form any part of a genuine moral education. Popper taught us that in politics, “who should rule, and what policy should be implemented?” is never as important as “how can we remove bad rulers and reverse bad policies?”. For exactly the same reason, the purpose of family institutions ought to be to allow disputing parties jointly to discover the truth of the matter, which will in general involve both changing their preferences and creating new options, and not to entrench or ‘respect’ the chimera of a predetermined rule for choosing among existing options — a rule that will always be doing right, by definition, no matter who gets hurt.

— David Deutsch

About Elliot

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