Swift on Family Values

by Harry on May 4, 2015

My friend and co-author Adam Swift was on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s show The Philosopher’s Zone yesterday (I think it was yesterday) talking about our book Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships. The podcast is here, and the website for that particular show is here. You can also here him on Philosophy Bites here. There’s much more to the book than the consideration of parental partiality on which these two interviews focus, but I can see why they are excited about that part of it. Listening to both broadcasts I was struck by two things — one, which I did already know, is how good Adam is at explaining a fairly complex set of ideas simply but without oversimplifying. The other, though, was how good (in both cases) the interviewers are. Good interviewers really know their stuff, and use it to prompt the interviewee, never showing off what they, themselves, know. This is a rare case where I know exactly how much the interviewer had to know in order to the interview well, and it is a lot! Anyway, enjoy it.



dr ngo 05.04.15 at 5:02 pm

With due respect to Adam, I was really really hoping this was going to be about Jonathan Swift (on family values).


harry b 05.04.15 at 5:40 pm

Didn’t he just think you should eat your children or something?


Helen 05.04.15 at 10:50 pm

“The other, though, was how good (in both cases) the interviewers are. Good interviewers really know their stuff, and use it to prompt the interviewee, never showing off what they, themselves, know.”

Thank you, Harry. The media in this country tell us daily that the ABC is a irrelevant nest of lefties whose funding should be cut altogether and that RN in particular should be consigned to the dustbin.


Anon 05.05.15 at 3:47 am

@harry b: Consider that people who don’t eat their children confer an extreme social advantage on them as compared to children whose parents do eat them. From an egalitarian perspective, it’s not clear that parents should have the right NOT to eat their children.


harry b 05.05.15 at 12:34 pm

anon — surely there is some sort of self-regarding prerogative not to eat your children (or children in general). Or at least some sort of conscientious objection clause within morality, if, eg, one is a vegetarian?


Ronan(rf) 05.05.15 at 12:54 pm

The book actually sounds very interesting, I might get it for my mother who has always been interested in that kind of stuff and has a birthday coming up. Would you say it’s accessible for an interested layperson, or it it more written for academic audiences ?

I have a quick question on the content of the podcast as well that might sound a little like trolling/(or just ignorance) on my part, but isnt meant to. Swift argues how important the family is in transferring values etc, but primarily (afaict) through the relationships in those families. Do you discount the idea that there is a genetic basis for those values (Swift appears to argue against that claim) ? I’m not sure to what extent there is a genetic basis for things like (what we call) intelligence or certain behavioural norms, what did you find when studying the research etc ?


harry b 05.05.15 at 1:31 pm

I’d like to think that the book is suitable for a wide range of audiences. The reviews say its a must-read for philosophers thinking about the family (!): but maybe with the exception of one chapter (the one that the interviews focus on actually) it should be accessible to a lay audience (I tend to have smart, reasonably attentive, junior or senior undergraduates in mind when I write).

I think it is SO hard to disentangle the genetic from the social that in lots of cases that it is hard to use any findings to reflect on. Its hard to think that the kinds of values we are concerned with (specific religious commitments, moral values, interests in particular sports, music, etc) have a genetic basis, though maybe there is a genetic basis underlying the disposition to BE religious, or something like that. Insofar as values transmission has a genetic basis it falls outside the scope of our analysis I think, because it is beyond the control of the parents (well… in the case of ordinary, natural, conception, anyway).
There’s a whole other question about whether there is a (morally weighty) interest in being able to raise one’s genetic offspring. We struggled a lot with that. Personally, I’m disinclined to think there is, but our theory is agnostic about it, and I think that is ok.


reason 05.06.15 at 2:03 pm

harry b @7
“Insofar as values transmission has a genetic basis it falls outside the scope of our analysis I think, because it is beyond the control of the parents..”

Surely, isn’t this precisely one of the reasons that people choose their partners carefully?


harry b 05.06.15 at 2:09 pm

They choose their partners so that there is a better chance that their values will be passed on genetically? I can see that one might think about physical or personality traits being passed on genetically, or that a partner’s values fit well with one’s own so that it will be easier to transmit those values to the children socially, but do people really think that the children might, literally, inherit their partner’s values? Maybe, I suppose, it just seems a bit optimistic.


reason 05.06.15 at 2:32 pm

harry b @9
This doesn’t have to be conscious. IF values are (partly) genetically determined then picking a partner with appropriate values will have the desired affect of increasing the chance that the offspring will have those values. Sexual selection is after all part of the Darwinian process.


harry b 05.06.15 at 2:49 pm

I see the point, good. If its not conscious, is it still within one’s control? (That’s not a rhetorical question, I can see reasons for saying yes and reasons for saying no — so, maybe more puzzled than rhetorical).


Atticus Dogsbody 05.07.15 at 6:22 am

… Australian Broadcasting Corporation…


reason 05.07.15 at 7:21 am

Used to be Australian Broadcasting Commission – but we live in an age of corporatism.


Donald A. Coffin 05.07.15 at 2:06 pm

Every time I see the title of this post, I have to remind myself, no, it’s not Jonathon Swift on family values. Which could be worth reading, if such a thing exists.


The Temporary Name 05.07.15 at 5:34 pm

OT: A freebie that may be appropriate to different Harry threads. I can’t speak to the worth of it as I haven’t read it (it’s new!) but I’m grateful for the education threads and maybe this gives back a little.


Guidelines for designing teaching and learning for a digital age

The book examines the underlying principles that guide effective teaching in an age when everyone,and in particular the students we are teaching, are using technology.


kidneystones 05.09.15 at 2:08 pm

I read the interview with John Derbyshire in Prospect in full, as well as selections from past articles and books available online. I’ll post the final question from Derbyshire and Swift’s reply in entirety. I’ve no idea whether the tags will work as desired.

The relevant value at stake in this case is presumably autonomy?

Adam Swift’s response strikes me as extremely difficult to defend. I’d have trouble with his argument as a thought experiment. As a suggestion/recommendation for educational and social policies his response is a firebomb. I cited the passage promoting your book on another thread in which Barnes & Noble assert that you and Adam assert that parents do not possess the fundamental right to try to provide advantages for their children. A colleague, in the same thread, asked that you explain yourself more fully, linking his post to short piece in the National Review. I’ve seen enough to see your position as a highly aggressive attack on the authority of a significant subset of all parents – namely parents who raise their children within a faith system that does not fall within your own definition of ‘liberal religious’. Indeed, Swift states explicitly the need ‘properly regulate’ faith and home schooling. I’ve also seen the passages in which you claim that reading to one’s children disadvantages the children of others, and that we need to be aware of the fact. I also read the Limbaugh transcript in full.

I very much hope you will take the time to post a detailed explanation of how critics are twisting your words. Because it seems to me you are forming and advancing a series of highly suspect arguments that severely impinge on the rights of others alongside an attack on bedtime reading that is so silly as to beggar belief. I’m very sorry to learn that Adam has been on the receiving end of some unsavory hate mail. I might easily be able to find people who agree their might be some need in a very few select cases for family services to intercede in a home or faith school, or any school receiving public funding. However, I can’t imagine discussing your ‘disadvantaging others by reading to your own children’ argument with anyone in any situation with anything but incredulity. Am I alone in this? Is there a parent anywhere who feels a twinge of guilt for reading to their children, or who believes that the act of reading to one’s children tilts the playing field unfairly for others?

The hate mail is predictable and quite wrong. The mockery over your claims about reading to our kids is equally predictable and entirely appropriate.


kidneystones 05.09.15 at 2:11 pm

Well, the tags did not work as planned, apologies. One more time on the Prospect quote:

The relevant value at stake in this case is presumably autonomy?


kidneystones 05.09.15 at 2:12 pm

Nope, sorry. Here Adam’s response bolded

Yes. We say that part of the role of the parent is to discharge a duty of care to the child in various ways. And we think part of that duty which parents owe their children is to enable them to live an autonomous life when they reach adulthood. And that rules out certain kinds of upbringing. It doesn’t rule out a liberal religious education in which children are not kept away from alternative possibilities. But we still, in my view, allow parents way too much discretion in shaping their children’s emerging values. We don’t properly regulate either home schooling or faith schooling.


bianca steele 05.09.15 at 2:58 pm


One thing I noticed, listening to the podcasts, is that he part the interviewers picked up on most readily seemed to be the part that was related to theories about “attachment parenting,” which are pretty widely spread but are actually controversial. The idea of reading to your kids at bedtime, comes across more as “you shouldn’t work such long hours that you can’t put your kids to bed every night, at least if you’re not rich enough to hire a nanny,” than as “we should encourage parents to read with their kids, not because it will make them millionaires, but because it’s expected for baseline achievement at work and school.”. I’m sure that’s not the intention, but I wished there had been more critical distance to the theory, which has been accused of encouraging things like women trying to be SuperMom.

I haven’t read the Derbyshire thing, which I’m sure is stupid, and now that I see it linked above, I hope this doesn’t look like piling on. Hopefully (probably?) I didn’t make the same argument he did.


bianca steele 05.09.15 at 3:01 pm

And I’m actually curious about how much attachment theories have penetrated into scholarship that uses psychology (I.e. philosophy, but not necessarily philosophy of science), and how they’re seen versus other psychological theories, if there’s a quick reference or easy way of answering that.

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