Freedom is not confusing

Somebody wrote, in the critical rationalism Facebook group, in the context of a discussion about Taking Children Seriously (TCS):

Boundary rules are liberating for children, there are few things more confusing than being left as a free agent.

Bullshit. If you’re free then you can just act on the ideas you understand and decline to act in other situations. So then you’re not confused about what to do. You either do stuff or learn more about what to do before acting.

What is confusing is being dumped in a situation where you are expected to act despite your lack of understanding. This is inevitable in coercive education because the people “educating” you don’t allow you to refuse to do stuff. So you will end up acting in situations where you are confused.

An illustration:

I had some slight experience with this when I worked for some eight years with autistic children and adults. We found behaviour modification techniques were appropriate for helping them gain a grip on their dangerous and confusing umwelts. Freedom has a dark side.

The autistic person behaves in some way other people dislike and they want to force them to learn to behave differently. This person may feel confused, but that’s because somebody is forcing him to do stuff he doesn’t want to do. The rational way to address this would be to tackle their moral disagreement explicitly instead of coming up with some pseudo-medical label for the undesired behaviour. But the people who so label him don’t see any possibility that he might be in the right. They cling, instead, to the idea that some behaviour is so obviously right that those who don’t enact it must be unable to think properly. This is not consistent with the critical open society attitude that sees all institutions and behaviour as conventions that we can reject if they turn out to be flawed, see Chapter 5 of OSE.

UPDATE: I want to explain more about my interpretation of the second passage I quoted. “Behaviour modification techniques” for dealing with children whose behaviour has been labelled autistic basically amount to rewarding children for behaviour you like and imposing “consequences” for behaviour you don’t like.

The consequences are not really consequences they are problems that fall into one of two categories. Either something the child does will have some unpleasant that the adult knows about in advance but the adult doesn’t tell the child about it, or illustrate it or take any measures to prevent it. The adult should not be doing this. His role is to help the child to understand and solve problems not to impose them. Imposing a problem is deliberately making a situation worse not better and so it is irrational.

The rewards aren’t really any better. If the child likes doing something the adult should be helping him to find ways to do more of it, not restricting his ability to do it by imposing deliberate restrictions on such help.

Now, if the adult in question is not the child’s parent and he is aware that the child doesn’t want to participate in the activity he is organising then he shouldn’t be making the child participate. Whether he should do anything else is situation dependent, but the minimal standard of behaviour is not to get the child to do something the child doesn’t want to do. If an adult agrees to participate in behaviour modification then he is breaching this standard.

There is a further notable issue. “Behaviour modification” implicitly treats the child as a machine for producing approved behaviour rather than treating him as a person. The alternative to doing this is when a person does something you dislike is to offer him something you think he will prefer, be willing to explain why you dislike his behaviour and be willing to consider that you might be wrong.

Extreme behaviour is sometimes used as a reason for this kind of treatment. In all cases where a child does something extremely dangerous or bad I consider that you should look at their parents. Most parents want to control their children to an extent that no adult would ever tolerate unless they were in prison and probably not even then. Children can be punished for not washing when the parent tells him to, for having the wrong facial expression, the wrong tone of voice, for not eating food his dislikes, for sleeping or not sleeping at the wrong time, for not being interested in what a parent or teacher wants him to be interested in at a particular time (thought crime) and a whole load of other stuff. If some children act in strange ways when they are treated in this way we should be surprised that it doesn’t happen more often.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

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