Scientism vs morality

“[L]ook how scientism allows one to escape from the merely human arena of morality with a single bound…”
– David Deutsch


From the archives: Posted on 21st November 1996

Stephen P. wrote:

“Our parenting styles have always tended to be non- coercive, but there are obvious exceptions (danger to the child).”

I wonder what you think these exceptional issues are. One thing’s for sure: they are not “obvious”. For instance, they are not obvious to me: I oppose all coercion of children by their parents. And by definition they are not obvious to your child, for they are situations where your child is so sure that you are wrong that he refuses to comply unless you force or threaten him. What makes him so sure that you are mistaken about his being in danger? Is it that he does not trust you? In that case I put it to you that this lack of trust is far more dangerous to him than any of these dangers over which you are in dispute with him. Or is it that you are in fact wrong in your assessment of certain perceived dangers?

In general the formula “non-coercive, with obvious exceptions (e.g. danger to the child)” does not describe anything especially non-coercive. It is a description of conventional, coercive education. For unless parents are absolute brutes, their coercion is invariably intended in some way to benefit the child, i.e. to ward off “danger” of some sort—even if it is only the “danger” of growing up thinking you can always get your own way, blah blah.

BTW, for those of you who think that physical harm is the only exception, and that this is “obviously” in a different category, think again. Disputes over what constitutes physical harm are merely cultural. Human beings are physical objects and absolutely any effect can be (and regularly is, by parents who feel they require this justification) interpreted as physical harm. For instance, “if you don’t learn to read you won’t be able to read the warnings on bottles or highways and so you will be poisoned or injured”. Recently the dispute between parents who do or do not consider circumcision to be physical harm spilled over onto this List, and of course in the wider, wicked world similar disputes rage about corporal punishment, drugs, suicide and who knows what else. Many effects that I happen to regard as obviously physical, such as being hungry when parents don’t want you to eat, or full up when they do, or being assaulted by other children at school, are conventionally re-interpreted in psychological terms.

“It is hard to disregard the opinions of mental and physical health professionals (including our much beloved pediatrician) as out of date and unhealthy.”

Your dispute with your child is over a moral issue—what he should do, or what should be done to him. These professionals may have some expertise over factual issues. This does not entitle them to pose as authorities on the moral issue. To assume that it does is anti-rational. It is scientism.

Interesting isn’t it? Parents on the whole do indeed find it hard to question conventional authority, especially in regard to their children’s lives. Children do not find it nearly as hard. They tend to rely on the merits of the issue, and on reason rather than authority to distinguish between rival claims (though they end up being nevertheless forced to comply with whatever scientistic or other irrational claptrap happens to have a grip on their family). We must infer that at some point during childhood, irrationality of this kind is inculcated, i.e. that people lose the ability to think certain classes of heretical thoughts. I do not think that this process is inevitable. I think it is mainly caused by the coercion of children.

Now, how does a person who has lost his critical faculties over a given issue regard a person who dares to rely on reason in a dispute over that issue? Perhaps like this:

Catherine had written:

“Children are self-regulating.”

Stephen P. replied:

“IMHO, children are not self-regulating. That would be a rational choice, made before the age of reason.”

So here we are, putting each other’s rationality into question. You have said that your children are not capable of rational choice in areas where you coerce them. Logically, you must say the same of me when (as I do, below) I disagree with you over the very same moral issues as your child does, and where it is “obvious” to you that both he and I are wrong. And I, in turn, have said that you are being irrational in deferring to “professionals” over moral issues, and I have guessed that you have “lost your critical faculties” over the issues over which you coerce your children. Is all this just pointless name-calling? Can it get us anywhere to raise the issue of each other’s rationality?

I think so. Let us look more closely at one of the ideas which, to you, “obviously” justifies coercion.

“As for the idea of a child having candy available ad lib; I see a highly refined chemical that is addictive (physically and mentally), fairly toxic,”

Note the ludicrously inappropriate use of scientific-sounding terms “refined chemical … addictive … toxic” that seem to elevate and justify what would otherwise be the sordid, mundane activity of inflicting one’s own hangups (in this case a vicious food fad) on one’s children.

“with easily noted detrimental effects on behaviour and health.”

The “detrimental” effect on behaviour is mostly imaginary, and what remains is caused by anti-sugar coercion. The effect on health (in normal, healthy children) is nil, unless you count the role that carbohydrates including sugar can play in tooth decay in some people, an issue which is itself often overestimated, as Sarah has mentioned before.

But more importantly, look how scientism allows one to escape from the merely human arena of morality with a single bound:

“This opinion places sugar into the realm of protecting your child’s health rather than parent/child conflict.”

Again, even setting aside the gross factual inaccuracy of your theory about sugar, this is moral nonsense. Supposedly “protecting” your child’s health, welfare, future, life, limb, and anything else good AGAINST HIS WILL is the very essence of the parent-child conflict. And such behaviour is both harmful and immoral.

“I very much support the theory of non-coercion. I believe that my son is happier and better adjusted because my wife and I respect his opinion”

Good. But I’m afraid that’s not non-coercive education. Conventional, coercive education is based on respecting the child’s opinion, but letting him follow it only when you agree with it. Non-coercive education is when he respects your opinion but follows it only when he agrees with it.

“not to mention the positive effect on our own outlook. Above you refer to your son’s perception of efficiency and ease, a.k.a. good job brushing teeth. At some point, this opinion was conveyed to him. I am looking for a strong definition of coercion as it applies here. Ultimately manipulating a child even if by misdirection or negotiation could be called coercion.”

It’s coercion if, at the time when he is brushing his teeth, the impulse not to brush them is still present in his mind.

Some people seem dissatisfied with that definition in practical situations. So here’s a rough-and-ready rule that usually works. It isn’t coercion if, should you suddenly walk into the bathroom and suggest he throw away his toothbrush, he would immediately respond that he wants to brush his teeth (and, preferably, would give you an argument why he ought to). And if you tried to stop him by force he would find ways of secretly brushing his teeth without your knowing. Otherwise, it may well be coercion.

See also:

David Deutsch, 1996, ‘Scientism vs morality’,

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