To What Expose Kids?

State courts recently rebuked Texas Child Protective Services and told them to return 440 kids to their polygamous Mormon parents.  The main complaint I’ve heard is that these teen girls can not really consent to polygamous marriage because they were not exposed enough to the rest of the world.   For example, Will Wilkinson:

About kids raised on isolated compounds by religious fanatics … It is tyrannical for parents to attempt to reproduce their ideologies and prejudices in their children, especially when this requires social isolation and emotional coercion. … They just have a political right to not be stopped, within bounds.  Many parents, though they intend the opposite, are in fact guilty of wrongful disregard for the development of their children’s psychological freedom.

Of course responsible parents know they should expose kids to more than just the local neighborhood.  But parents’ judgments on optimal exposure surely depend on their judgments about that outside world.  Someone who sees outsiders as mostly immoral heathens will choose less exposure than we as outsiders would choose for those same kids. 

So is the principle here that parents should go beyond their simple judgment when choosing to what to expose our kids?  For example, should we let polygamists argue for their way of life directly to our kids?  Should we let pedophiles argue their case directly to our kids?  Or is the principle here that we know we are right and those other parents are wrong, obligating us to make those parents give their kids what we judge best?

I wonder, could different cultures make a deal where they each give the other cultures X hours to make their case to their kids?   Of course with many cultures of differing sizes there’d be the issue of what fraction of that time each culture gets to use.  And of course unreasonable cultures might be excluded from the deal. (But what criteria could characterize "reasonable"?)  And if such a deal is not possible, even among some reasonable cultures, what exactly would that say about what we think about who should be exposed to what? 

Added 29June:  Will responds here.

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  • Paul Mohr

    Very good point.

  • http://www.kensharpe.net Ken Sharpe

    I’ve actually thought about this in the past. I think most of culture is either evolutionary (is but not ought), or arbitrary. I think Wilkinson is a man who is trying to maintain the status quo and justifying it after the fact as providing intellectual freedom — freedom to believe in what Will Wilkinson believes in, that is.

    I don’t trust myself to conclude where the line should be, or whether there should indeed be a line. I’m guessing that it makes sense to promote the well-being of members of our society, but I’m not confident that such a line can be easily drawn. Does well-being mean happiness, ability to reproduce, productivity? I’m not sure. Maybe all of them — but within what limits, and in what proportions?

    One example of a cultural norm that gives me pause because it’s so ingrained but possibly counterproductive is pedophilia. It’s vile, and disgusting, and it does irreparable harm to many young people. But in a hypothetical world (supposing VD has been eliminated for the sake of argument), suppose that sex with children is normal, as it was to some degree in Rome. Instead of confusion, shame, and profound mistrust being planted in those we call victims now, there is nothing — just humdrum. Like being forced to eat broccoli as a child when you don’t want to. Of course your uncle did that to you, everyone’s did. It wasn’t pleasant, and neither was the sweater your aunt bought for you.

    The profound devastation of being a victim of sexual abuse comes primarily from the psychological, not the physical, impact of being victimized. If we normalized the practice, then it would be purely physical, and “victims” would be on the same level as victims of broccoli, which I think would be a net benefit.

    That seems like a compelling hypothetical to me, and that’s one of the most extreme cases I can think of that would be disallowed in a discussion like this… which is why I’m not comfortable drawing any real lines about which cultures are fundamentally correct and which aren’t. I don’t think such a thing exists.

  • an

    It’s probably naive to think that reasonableness and truth enter into this. It’s pretty obvious that mormonism is harmful to many of it’s members, and false. Most arguments would be after-the-fact justification and propaganda, because some (many) cultures aren’t really justifiable, but those in power in them do want to preserve the status quo of them existing. If everybody actually wanted to find the best way to raise children there 1) wouldn’t be so many cultures 2) wouldn’t be so many harmful elements in cultures.

  • Daniel Yokomizo

    Is he asking for as much exposure as parents usually do or real exposure? Because most parents “expose” their kids to a very narrow subset of existing cultures. Also exposure by media does really count? If we count only exposure in loco then there isn’t much difference between the typical middle class kid and a cult kid: both have very narrow definitions of religion (it always surprise me to hear American saying something along the lines: “freedom of religion, but we all believe in the same god”), both aren’t exposed to values really different of their own, both are sheltered from bad things. Over and over I see people surprised when they finally learn about different cultures, religions, etc., it’s particularly disturbing to see people react to some statistics (e.g. average wage in their own countries) as if it couldn’t possibly be true.

    Saying that I think real exposure is good, at least explaining about different religions (abrahamic religions count as one, perhaps one and a half), teaching them a couple of foreign languages so they can at least read in different cultural realities, living abroad is good (or at least moving between states), going up and down the social ladder in the circle of friends is essential (i.e. just “sightseeing the “poor” from time to time doesn’t count). The parents don’t have to say that every culture is good or valid, but it’s sad when people can’t imagine lives beyond their own.

  • Hannes Edinger

    Are we exposing kids to different cultures to offer them a choice? If children are incapable of making any number of life altering choices in the current legal context, how does this differ? This is like an annoying conversation with a psychology undergrad that has just discovered post positivist thought, and they are insisting that you cannot possibly agree on anything because “No, its ALL subjective…”
    Bah, if we are going to have a meaningful conversation here, we are going to have to agree on a few things. Given the current social context, the lines may be a little blurry… but worry not, they are there.

  • Matt Huang

    re: an
    “It’s pretty obvious that mormonism is harmful to many of it’s members, and false.”

    Are you really so ‘naive’ as to think this? What makes mormonism any more harmful than catholicism, judaism, atheism, etc etc?

  • http://causalityrelay.wordpress.com/ Vladimir Nesov

    Adults, formed by their culture, may acquire differences that correlate with their culture, which makes certain decisions right for many adults in one culture, and wrong for many adults in a different culture. On the other had, distribution of morality of newborn children is independent of the culture in which they are born, because it is specified only by their genes.

    For each individual, there is a fact of the matter which environment is better for him, but in practice we must decide by few available pieces of information describing him. The validity of choice depends on how much available information informs us about individual’s morality, and how well it was processed for that purpose.

    The fact that individual is a human is very informative, and allows us to quite confidently answer many questions about individual’s morality. Specifying the gender is also informative. The cultural environment is a fair indicator of adult’s morality, but not an indicator of newborn child’s morality. And of course, just specifying that individual is a human of certain culture leaves vast space of possible moralities, that you’ll need much more information to navigate in.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Or is the principle here that we know we are right and those other parents are wrong, obligating us to make those parents give their kids what we judge best?

    To have a society, at some point you have to draw the line and say, “These are our consensus, though not unanimous, values and rules, and though they may be open to discussion, at present you must follow these rules in our society.”

    (In fact, at some point you may need to draw the line about what other societies teach their kids. Israel lives next door to a country that teaches their children that the most glorious thing they can do when they grow up is to kill Israelis.)

    We may be “wrong”. There may be alternate social systems that would work well. But just because system A works well, and system B works well, doesn’t mean that system (A+B)/2 works well. Sometimes you need to pick A or B and go with it.

    The issue of teaching children is tricky, because dictating what to teach children lends itself to the creation of totalitarian states. My first thought was that telling parents what to teach their children is more likely to be wrong than telling parents what not to teach their children. But we do tell parents what to teach their children. Even home schooling has a required curriculum. Reading and arithmetic, for instance. We don’t allow parents to keep their kids home to work on the farm, unless they’re Amish.

    The Spartan society might not have been possible if the Spartans had not taken each child away from its parents to be raised communally. I think the Spartan society was very interesting, and the world would be poorer without it, and also less Greek and more Persian. I would hate to have been a Spartan, but I would also hate to have been conquered by the Persians. The optimal level of individual and parental freedom was lower in those days, proving that it is context-dependent.

    I have no problem with a country setting itself up like the Spartans, as long as its citizens are allowed to leave. But then, I must ask myself, what is the difference between a small country outside U.S. borders setting up a strange society, and a small cult inside U.S. borders setting up a strange society?

    I think there is a difference. In organizing your society, you must rely on the behavior of your citizens falling within some distribution that is determined by your policies. People from other countries are marked as possible outliers by their citizenship, and policies can be set up to deal with them. Someone from a different culture, but with a U.S. passport, can get under the radar and be much more disruptive.

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    Isn’t this a simple question of the rule of law? Cult or no, the FLDS are US citizens, and citizens of Texas. The age of consent in Texas is apparently 17, according to various news reports, unless they are legally married with the proper marriage license.

    The state clearly overreached by removing all children, and in the most egregious manner: it should only have investigated and then removed those illegally pregnant girls under 17.

    They are the only ones clearly covered under Texas child and consent statutes, and the only ones that Texas could claim were victims thus of child abuse and/or statutory rape. If an FLDS girl was not legally married, that is, could not produce the state marriage certificate, was 17 or under and pregnant, is it not only then that the state can plainly claim the law was broken?

    Child abuse and statutory rape are crimes as enacted by the valid Texas legislature, according to the proper will of the citizens of Texas who elected it. Thus, it is proper to prosecute them in a republic. But they are not a justification for the state to just walk into my house willy-nilly and remove whoever it pleases, which is the worst form of tyranny.

  • Ian C.

    The parent’s responsibility to the child is to teach it how to survive and make its own way in the world, and to look after it until it can. There’s no obligation to teach it about every subculture or way or life out there, that’s purely optional. Unless some of the subcultures are dangerous and then it should be warned.

    When it is an adult and has the mental maturity to deal with such things it can always discover them for itself.

  • michael vassar

    One major difference between a small country outside of the US and a cult inside the US is that in the latter case, if the culture indoctrinates its members to prey on, exploit, attack or otherwise harm our citizens we have the defensive recourse of dealing with its members collectively keeping them out, while in the case of the cult inside the US its members have the rights of US citizens and can demand of us the much more taxing requirement that we treat them as individuals which requires expensive and uncertain investigation and requires us to strike a much more equal balance of our interest against theirs.
    Also, I’m pretty sure, based on my reading of Greek history that it was MUCH better, judged by my values, to be Persian than Spartan. Some cultures, such as that of the Taliban or North Korea are awful enough that I would be somewhat inclined to support their destruction even at modest cost and even if they are not a threat to us. Sparta probably doesn’t make that cut, but its harder to tell.

  • an

    ‘Are you really so ‘naive’ as to think this? What makes mormonism any more harmful than catholicism, judaism, atheism, etc etc?’

    That it’s false is elementary, and teaching kids false things is harmful. Other things are for example polygamy with underage girls and isolation from the world at large. That it’s -more- harmful than those other things is hard to tell and I didn’t claim it is, though atheism at least has an advantage in the truth thing.

    Of course we probably shouldn’t advocate any sort of cultural absolutism because 1) there are probably many things wrong with our own particular culture 2) because of human nature and power structures it would probably become an excuse for repression, conquest, genocide and other nice things.

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    @an

    I want to be sympathetic to your argument, but at the same time I immediately stop myself and think, wait – “polygamy with underage girls and isolation from the world at large” are exactly the majority human situation from time immemorial until the rise of Christianity, European colonization, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thus I am struggling to clearly articulate the harm. Please help me.

  • an

    frelkins
    ‘I want to be sympathetic to your argument, but at the same time I immediately stop myself and think, wait – “polygamy with underage girls and isolation from the world at large” are exactly the majority human situation from time immemorial until the rise of Christianity, European colonization, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thus I am struggling to clearly articulate the harm. Please help me.’

    Yes, human history is full of harmfulness. I understand your point is that it’s exactly because of cultural absolutism (in Christianity and colonization) that we have progressed to have things like human rights. That’s true, though these things were also used for “repression, conquest, genocide and other nice things”. Though a bunch of detached philosophers can easily find flaws in a culture and point to improvements that would improve life for everybody, when and how to apply absolutism is a risky and complicated thing and I don’t have an answer.

    It’s obviously a fallacy to say that because “polygamy with underage girls and isolation from the world at large” has prevailed before, it’s a good thing, so I take it that’s not what you’re saying.

  • http://www.xuenay.net/ Kaj Sotala

    an:
    Other things are for example polygamy with underage girls and isolation from the world at large.

    That’s not mainstream Mormon behavior, though. Don’t confuse this splinter group with Mormons in general.

  • http://wasatchecon.blogspot.com Fist of Gork

    You need to get your facts straight. The people that the state of Texas is dealing with are not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose adherents are sometimes referred to as “Mormons”.

  • Wendy Collings

    “Should we let polygamists argue for their way of life directly to our kids? Should we let pedophiles argue their case directly to our kids?”

    No need to. Kids have a habit of growing into adults and speaking out for themselves; from this we already know that having sex too young can cause great psychological harm. Society’s judgement against paedophiles is actually the kids’ own judgement; it doesn’t need to be argued further.

    If polygamy caused the same sort of harm, it would be right to safeguard kids from it. I haven’t heard that it does. But my point is that reality is a better guide than principles when making such judgements on behalf of others.

  • Nick Tarleton

    Seconding Kaj and Gork, calling the FLDS just “Mormons” is misleading.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    To have a society
    I don’t need society! Abolish it! Or, more seriously, may the FLDS elect to secede from our society and form their own?

  • anonymous

    Wendy Collings:

    Society’s judgement against paedophiles is actually the kids’ own judgement; it doesn’t need to be argued further.

    Not necessarily, though – at least one 1998 meta-analysis found that ‘childhood sexual abuse’ does not cause significant harm: “3 out of every 100 individuals in a CSA population had clinically significant problems (compared to 2 out of every 100 in a general population)“. At least according to that study, the deciding factor was whether or not the child considered the act consensual – in other words, sexual actions with children causes trauma if it’s a rape, but it’s also perfectly possible to have consensual, non-traumatic encounters. The paper was loudly and generally condemned, but the journal that published the paper resubjected it into a new round of peer review after the article got into the public eye, and found no methodological errors.

    Objective analysis of the topic is likely to be impossible, considering that any researcher publishing results supporting the hypothesis of paedophilia being harmless is certain to get publicly condemned, regardless of how valid his results are. (And I do not feel comfortable pointing out this study other than with an anonymous comment.)

  • Wendy Collings

    anonymous – I was careful with my wording: “having sex too young _can cause_ great psychological harm”. If it doesn’t always, still the trauma of those who do suffer is too great to risk it.

    Thanks for the pointer to that study, though; I hadn’t seen that before. I can’t accept its findings whole-heartedly; Dallam’s criticism of its sample bias seems particularly apposite. My perception of harm caused comes largely from court news: if you exclude those who stand to gain from taking their abusers to court (i.e. by financial compensation) then I think what’s left counts as data rather than anecdote, and accounts for the most traumatised people left out of Rind et al’s study.

  • http://www.iphonefreak.com frelkins

    @anonymous

    Ok, there may be a difference between a Raymond Radiguet and an 11-year-old girl. I am not sure there is harm in The Devil in the Flesh situation. I think many men might confess to envying Radiguet, altho’ now of course in the USA we would jail the woman for a lengthy term. An 11-year-old girl is clearly a vicious, disgusting crime.

    @ an

    It does remain common in some African and Muslim societies today, does it not?

    I do not believe we have evidence that poly among consenting adults is harmful. Robin’s question is after all focused on children. I agree with you overall, of course it’s wrong.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    An 11-year-old girl is clearly a vicious, disgusting crime.

    Clearly, that designation has more to do with your feelings about the crime than any property of the crime itself.

  • Jim F

    @an
    1) there are probably many things wrong with our own particular culture 2) because of human nature and power structures it would probably become an excuse for repression, conquest, genocide and other nice things.

    Has it occurred to you that your opposition to repression, conquest and genocide might just be cultural norms?

    And that you actually share much with those whom you would disparage, whose ethical system, like yours, are informed by their understanding of life’s meaning, which ultimately, like yours, are based on unproveable assertions.

  • http://hanson.gmu.edu Robin Hanson

    See my added to the post.