06 April, 2008

The Appeal to Experience

Thank God my mother doesn't read this weblog, or I'd never hear the end of this entry.

For some reason I started thinking the other day of the common statement a parent makes to his or her child, "Don't do this. It is a mistake. I am your mother (father), listen to me." Sometimes—well, usually—the parent shortens this to the infamous four-word phrase,

Because I said so!
Many people will gladly inform you that this is a logical fallacy called the appeal to authority.* I suspect that my children will remind me of this quite often once they become teenagers. My son hasn't caught onto that yet, at least not to my face.

From a logical point of view, I concede that this is true. From an ethical point of view, it can be seen as hypocritical. Parents sometimes use this argument when ordering their children not to pursue activities that they themselves did when they were young. I, for example, made a lot of mistakes in my youth that I would very much like my children not to repeat. My wife, being much smarter & in general a better person than I, made many fewer mistakes, but from what I can tell she'd still like her children not to repeat them.

That line of reasoning led me to wonder if there isn't merit in the argument from another point of view: that is, the appeal to experience. By "experience" here I mean "lived experience". For example, a father who started by shoplifting and eventually ran into trouble with the law might have very good reason to tell his child not to shoplift, even if he doesn't have the wits about him to formulate a logically coherent argument supporting his position. Likewise, he might not wish to reveal a past life of crime to his child. In this case, "Because I am your father and I said so" strikes me as a convincing argument. It may not be logical, but the child would be a fool not to heed that kind of advice. Things can look very attractive to children, while a parent can see deeper than the glitter on the surface. Chazz Palmintieri developed a great film based on this point, A Bronx Tale.

I want to highlight this phrase, even if he doesn't have the wits about him to formulate a logically coherent argument supporting his position. Most parents don't have the time to formulate logically precise arguments explaining the rationale behind every decisions. (Or so I'm told. If any parent wants to correct me, I'd love to know how you manage.) Most parents don't even have the educational background to formulate logically precise arguments explaining the rationale behind any given decisions. That does not ipso facto make their decisions any less worthy of respect and submission.

This may be why children exhibit deference to their parents' decisions, even accepting the justification, "Because I said so." They may grumble along the way, but most children I've known will defer to a determined parent. I did, anyway, well into my teenage years even, with the concomitant grumbling. My mother was very determined, more than most. If I were foolish enough to attempt a rational discussion of the question, she would invariably conclude the discussion with Mark Twain's ironic comment,
When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.
My kids also seem to accept my decisions. Well—not the 4 month-old, but she doesn't accept much of anything lately, not even the pacifier. We've wondered if she's started teething.

Of course, I would like my son to make some mistakes. He needs to gain experience, too. I just don't want him to make very bad mistakes. I have found experience to be the best, if the hardest, master. I suspect that our culture fails to appreciate this. How else could a major survey on sin fail to ask about honoring one's father and mother?

*Some go so far as to classify as bullying the phrase, "Because I said so". I refuse to dignify that attitude with any rational argument. It isn't bullying, you hear? Why not? Because I said so.


Nazianzus said...

This is an interesting question with far-reaching consequences, not only for parents and children, but for everyone, since we believe most of the things we believe based upon authority.

I wonder if you discount the natural authority of a parent over his or her child altogether, so that the child must only obey his or her parents when they have had experiences relevant to the questions at hand (?).

There is a difference between saying, "Do not do this" and "You should not do this." The first contains the threat of punishment (such as being put in the corner, grounding, having the television taken away), but the second doesn't necessarily. This is a distasteful subject, but it must be acknowledged. I can agree that the appeal to authority remains a logical fallacy when a parent tells a child "you should not do this." If that is what the parent is going to say, then he or she should be able to back that position up. On the other hand, the parent naturally has the authority to forbid his or her child from doing something (something many debate, I know, but I'm assuming we agree on this point). In this situation, I don't see why it is a logical fallacy to remind the child of the authority of the parent, which exists only for the good of the child.

jack perry said...

Thanks for the comment!

I don't discount the natural authority of a parent over a child at all! I must have miswritten something, because my interest was not meant so much on the logical fallacy, but on the fact that the statement "Because I said so" can incorporate a great deal of truth, fallacy or no.

To be frank, as a parent I lean more towards "Do not do this" than "You should not do this." If my child is asking my advice about something, then I might be inclined to hortatory subjunctives, but if I see my child reaching her hand for a bottle of chlorine then I am more interested in the imperative, along with the concomitant threat.

I suspect (perhaps wrongly) that you and I agree, so perhaps I wrote something wrong to make you think otherwise.

Nazianzus said...

I think I'll chalk it up to my having read the post at 5:00 this morning. We are, indeed, in agreement. And thanks for checking out my blog.