Friday, February 26, 2021

88 - The Ethics of Social Credit Systems

Should we use technology to surveil, rate and punish/reward all citizens in a state? Do we do it anyway? In this episode I discuss these questions with Wessel Reijers, focusing in particular on the lessons we can learn from the Chinese Social Credit System. Wessel is a postdoctoral Research Associate at the European University Institute, working in the ERC project “BlockchainGov”, which looks into the legal and ethical impacts of distributed governance. His research focuses on the philosophy and ethics of technology, notably on the development of a critical hermeneutical approach to technology and the investigation of the role of emerging technologies in the shaping of citizenship in the 21st century. He completed his PhD at the Dublin City University with a Dissertation entitled “Practising Narrative Virtue Ethics of Technology in Research and Innovation”. In addition to a range of peer-reviewed articles, he recently published the book Narrative and Technology Ethics with Palgrave, which he co-authored with Mark Coeckbelbergh.

You can download the episode here or listen below.You can also subscribe on Apple PodcastsStitcherSpotify and other podcasting services (the RSS feed is here).


Show Notes

Topics discussed in this episode include
  • The Origins of the Chinese Social Credit System
  • Historical Parallels to the System
  • Social Credit Systems in Western Cultures
  • Is China exceptional when it comes to the use of these systems?
  • The impact of social credit systems on human values such as freedom and authenticity
  • How the social credit system is reshaping citizenship
  • The possible futures of social credit systems

Relevant Links

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Technological Mediation of Morality: Explained

3D Ultrasound - Does this change our moral perception of the unborn child?

People have been talking about the death of privacy for at least three decades. The rise of the internet, mass surveillance and oversharing via social media have all been seen as knells summoning it to the grave. In our everyday behaviours, in our choices to use platforms that engage in routine and indiscriminate digital surveillance, we supposedly reveal a preference for digital convenience and social interaction that indicates a willingness to sacrifice our privacy. Despite this, privacy advocates claim that privacy has never been more alive than it was before. Indeed, they argue that it is precisely because privacy is under threat, and because we are forced to make compromises with respect to privacy in our day-to-day lives, that we should care about it more than we did before.

This is just one example of how technology seems to have an effect on our moral values. On the one hand, the creation of new technologies — in this case the internet and smart devices — has created new opportunities for tracking, surveillance and spying. This puts privacy in the vice. On the other hand, the increased pressure on privacy activates it in our minds and makes us worry about it more than ever. We respond by calling for new social norms with respect to the use of surveillant technologies, as well as legal reforms and protections.

Philosophers of technology sometimes explain this phenomenon by using the concept of technological mediation. The idea, in brief, is that technology mediates our relationship to the world: it changes how we perceive ourselves, our actions and our relationship to the world. This, in turn, has an effect on our moral perceptions and actions. Technology is never really value neutral: it comes loaded with moral significance and meaning. But its value-ladenness is not something beyond our control. All people involved in the design and use of a technology have some say in the moral significance of that technology.

In this article, I want to explain this concept of technological mediation and how it affects our moral reasoning. I’ll do so in three parts. First, I will briefly explain Don Ihde’s classic theory of human technology relations. Second, I will outline Peter Paul Verbeek’s key insights into the technological mediation of morality. Third, I will consider the practical significance of the technological mediation of morality.

This may all sound a little dry and theoretical, but I promise it is interesting and may change how you think about technology.

1. Don Ihde’s Four Types of Human-Technology Relationships

”Mediation” is one of those fancy academic terms that can be obscure to outsiders. If my experience is anything to go by, academics love to throw the word into some otherwise banal sentence to make their thoughts sound more sophisticated than they really are. So, for example, you will commonly hear people at conferences say something like “Facebook mediates our perception of social reality”, to which others will nod their heads in agreement as though that says something informative or significant.

It doesn’t have to be so obscure or fancy-schmancy. The etymology of the term ‘mediate’ lies in the Latin verb for ‘to be placed in the middle of’ and that’s a pretty good first approximation of what academics mean when they talk about technological mediation. They mean that technological artifacts place a layer of some sort between humans and the world around them — that the technology stands between us and the world. This then has an effect on how we perceive the world. Consider, a trivial example: my eyeglasses. I wear them on my head everyday. They mediate my perception of reality: they bend light rays in such a way that I can see more clearly. Without the mediation provided by my glasses, I would have much poorer eyesight.

But mediation is a little more complex than that. In his now classic work on the philosophy of technology, Technology and the Lifeworld, Don Ihde outlines four kinds of relationships that humans can have with technologies and the world around them. They are:

Embodiment Relations: These arise when humans use technology as an extension of their own bodies/perceptual faculties. My use of eyeglasses and the blind person’s use of a cane are examples of embodiment relations. They are a particular kind of mediation where the technology is an extended part of who we are. Ihde schematises embodiment relations in the following way:
(Humans — Technology) → World
Hermeneutic Relations: These arise when humans use technology to reinterpret or reframe their perception of the world, perhaps by creating new concepts or categories to understand what they are seeing, or perhaps by appropriating old ones to make sense of the new perception. A classic example is the use of processed images in science, e.g. MRI scans or astronomical photography using non-visible electromagnetic radiation. In this type of mediation, the technologies are representing the world to us and we see them as joined to this external world, not to ourselves. This can be schematised as follows:
Humans → (Technology — World)
Alterity Relations: These arise when humans have to relate directly to a technological artifact. In other words, the artifact doesn’t represent or reinterpret the external reality for us; it is, rather, the external reality with which we must interact. The rest of the world fades into the background. The kinds of relationships we have with robots or ATMs are thought to be classic examples of this kind of relationship. In some ways, alterity relations are the antithesis of mediation insofar as the technologies in this instance do not mediate between us and the world. They are, in a sense, the world. Nevertheless, this can still be viewed as a logical extension of mediation. Furthermore how we perceive and understand technologies in alterity relations can affect other perceptions we might have of the world around us. I’ll get back to this later. Alterity relations can be schematised in the following way:
Humans → Technology(World)
Background Relations: These arise when technologies fade into the background and are not seen as something separate from the world. Rather they are just part of the background canvas upon which we experience reality. Artificial lighting and heating are sometimes given as examples of this kind of relation. This may represent the logical extreme of mediation when the technology is no longer seen to mediate our interaction with reality but is, simply, part of the stage on which external reality presents itself. These relations can be schematised as follows:
Humans (Technology/World)


People have built on Ihde’s framework over the years, proposing different kinds of human-technology relations (e.g. augmentation, immersion). But I still think his original is probably the most useful. One of the key ideas to be drawn from it is that how technologies are perceived and understood, and how they mediate our relationships with the world, is not something that is stable or fixed. It depends a lot on our cultural context, experiences and uses of the technology. What might be part of the background for us (e.g. electrical lighting) might be part of the foreground for others (e.g. those coming from pre-electrical societies). And what might have been part of the background for us in one context (e.g. air conditioning) might be something we have to relate with directly in another (e.g. when the system breaks down and needs to be repaired). This instability is important when it comes to understanding how technology mediates morality.

2. Verbeek’s Theory of Moral Mediation

Working from a similar perspective to that of Ihde, Peter Paul Verbeek has developed a theory for understanding how technology mediates our moral perception and engagement with the world. In other words, Verbeek claims that technology not only changes how we relate to the world in a descriptive or non-normative sense, but also how we relate to it in a moral sense. It presents us with new moral choices and moral frameworks for action.

Here’s how he characterises the idea himself:

[The technological mediation approach] studies technologies as mediators between humans and reality. The central idea is that technologies-in-use help to establish relations between human beings and their environment. In these relations, technologies are not merely silent ‘intermediaries’ but active ‘mediators’ that help to constitute the entities that have a relationship ‘through’ the technology… …By organizing relations between humans and world, technologies play an active, though not a final, role in morality. Technologies are morally charged, so to speak. They embody a material form of morality, and when used, the coupling of this ‘material morality’ and human moral agency results in a ‘composite’ moral agency. 
(Verbeek 2013, pp 77-78)


What does all that mean? I think we can break it down and make more straightforward by focusing on three key insights from Verbeek’s work.

The first two insights relate to the effect that technology has on morality. Verbeek claims that technology mediates our moral relationship with the world in two distinctive ways. First, it pragmatically mediates our relationship with the world. This means that it changes the space of options and actions available to us and this, in turn, has moral significance. Consider two ways in which this might happen:

Technology makes options available that once were unavailable - For example the creation of projectile weapons, missiles and ultimately nuclear weapons made killing at distance and at a massive scale possible. Similarly, the creation of the cell phone/mobile phone made it possible to connect with anyone at anytime in (virtually) any place.
Technology can close off options that were once available - For example speed bumps on the road can prevent us from driving at high speeds. Alcohol interlocks in cars can prevent us from driving while drunk. Internet blocking devices can prevent us from surfing the web during work hours.


The net effect of this is that technology can thrust new moral choices upon us or, alternatively take them away from us. We have to engage our existing moral values and normative theories to decide what we ought to do in these new circumstances. Is killing at a distance less bad than killing up close and personal? Is it okay to call someone at anytime and in any place or should we limit our connectivity in some way?

In addition to this, technology also hermeneutically mediates our relationship with the world. That is to say, it changes how we perceive and understand aspects of the real world (e.g. the concepts and analogies we apply to it) and this can have an impact on our moral decision-making. This new mode of moral seeing is in addition to any choices that the technology might add or take away.

Verbeek has a go-to example of hermeneutic mediation: obstetric ultrasound. This is a technology that allows people to see the foetus in utero at various stages of development. According to Verbeek, ultrasound images are not presented to us in a neutral way. On the contrary, they encourage us to see the foetus as an independent entity, separate from its mother (though present inside her), and as a possible patient for certain treatments or interventions (most obviously, abortion). Here’s how he puts it:

This technology is not merely a neutral interface between expecting parents and their unborn child: it helps to constitute what this child is for its parents and what the parents are in relation to their child. By revealing the unborn in terms of variables that mark its health condition, like the fold in the nape of the neck of the fetus, ultrasound ‘translates’ the unborn child into a possible patient, congenital diseases in preventable forms of suffering (provided that abortion is an available option) and expecting a child into choosing for a child, also after the conception. 
(Verbeek 2013, p 77-78)


Another example of this hermeneutic mediation might be the combination of the cameraphone and social media. By having a device on us at all times that allows for the recording of our everyday experiences, we are encouraged to see those experiences in a new way. They are not things to be enjoyed in and of themselves. They are now to be seen as opportunities for sharing with others, bragging, self-promotion and monetisation. We suddenly focus on the instrumental value of our experiences, not their intrinsic value.

This leads, in turn, to Verbeek’s third key insight. You may have heard the famous phrase that all technologies/artifacts have a politics (an ideology or set of values embedded within them). The classic illustration of this comes from Langdon Winner’s observation about the bridges over the highways on Long Island: they were not high enough to accommodate buses. Because they were less likely to own cars, Winner pointed out that this excluded poor (black) people from the beaches on Long Island. In Winner’s analysis, this was a deliberate design decision by Robert Moses, the planner behind the road network, who let his values shape their construction.

Verbeek agrees with this basic picture but finesses it somewhat. Technologies are indeed value-laden (“dripping with morality” in one memorable phrase) but their values are not entirely shaped by their designers. Oftentimes technologies are interpreted and used in ways that designers do not anticipate or intend. For example, I doubt that Facebook intended for their livestreaming feature to be used by rampage shooters on mass killing sprees. They probably intended it to be used for more benign purposes. Nevertheless, the technology made this possible. According to Verbeek, while designers have a significant part to play in the mediating effect of their technologies, users and regulators also have a role to play. Users and regulators can appropriate technology for new ends, encourage specific uses of it, and develop new interpretations of its moral significance.

This is both an uplifting and dispiriting thought.

3. Practical Significance of Moral Mediation

What does all this mean in practice? There are a number of key lessons here, some of which have been implicit in the discussion so far but are worth specifying.

First, as should be obvious, technological mediation puts the lie to the neutrality of technology. Technology is not some value-neutral tool over which we have complete moral autonomy. It comes with certain values and choices embedded in its design. A speed bump encourages us to slow down: it is biased in favour of slower driving. A cameraphone with internet connectivity and social media encourages the sharing and archiving of everyday life. You still have some choices as to whether you use technologies for their intended purpose but you often have to fight against the in-built biases.

Second, the fact that technologies mediate our moral perceptions and actions is important when it comes to the risk assessment of new technologies. Oftentimes, technological risk assessments focus heavily on what Verbeek and others call the ‘hard’ impacts of technology: the health risks, the possibility of environmental damage, the safety concerns and so on. These hard impact assessments use existing moral frameworks and evaluative standards (e.g. energy efficiency, radiation exposure) to determine whether the technology falls within acceptable parameters. This overlooks the potential ‘soft’ impacts, in particular the impact on social values and norms. What if the rise of the smartphone undermines the value of privacy? Is that not something we should factor into our risk assessment? Of course it is very hard, in practice, to assess these soft impacts (for reasons I won’t get into here) but they are worth considering nonetheless.

Third, and leading on from this, in order to meaningfully assess the soft impacts we need to know whether there are particular patterns to moral mediation. In other words, will it be easy to predict the future course of moral mediation or is it simply chaotic and unpredictable? We know, in general, that technology tends to add moral choices and dilemmas to our lives; it tends not to take them away. Indeed, the examples I gave earlier of technologies that eliminate options are all examples of technologies designed to take away an option that an earlier technology made possible. The alcohol interlock takes away the option of driving while drunk, but we would not have had that option if the automobile had not been invented in the first place. Furthermore, the creation of the interlock adds another choice: the choice of whether to use it or not. So it seems fair to say that the net effect of technological innovation is to add moral complexity to our lives, but can we say anything more specific and predictively useful? I’m not sure, but developing detailed case studies of technological mediation and extrapolating lessons from them looks like a good start.

Fourth, and more pessimistically, as Kudina and Verbeek (2019) have argued, technological mediation adds another dimension to how we think about the Collingridge Dilemma. This dilemma is something that is widely discussed in the world of responsible innovation and design. The classic version of the Collingridge Dilemma works like this:

Classic Collingridge Dilemma: When technology is at an early stage of development we have the power to control it, but we don’t know what its social impacts will be. When technology is at a late stage of development, we know what its social impacts are, but we lose the power to control it.


In short, once a technology proliferates in society it will be but it will be too late to do anything about its social impacts. As Kudina and Verbeek argue, there is a moral variation on the dilemma that arises from our awareness of the technological mediation of morality.

Moral Collingridge Dilemma: “[W]hen we develop technologies on the basis of specific value frameworks, we do not know their social implications yet, but once we know these implications, the technologies might have already changed the value frameworks to evaluate these implications.” (Kudina and Verbeek 2019, 293)


This moral variation on the dilemma is interesting to me because it reminds me of what the philosopher L.A. Paul’s has said about transformative experiences. Briefly, Paul has argued that some life choices cannot be rationally evaluated in advance because they transform who we are. Her main example of this is the decision to have children. To know whether having children is a good choice for you, you need to actually have them and acquire the experiential knowledge of what it is like to have a child. No amount of advance reading or consultation with friends will give you this. (Having now had a child, I think I disagree with Paul but let’s set that disagreement to the side for now)

One way of understanding Paul’s argument is that undergoing a transformative experience has an effect on the evaluative frameworks you use to rationally assess different choices. Anecdotally, it does seem to me like having a child changes how you value different aspects of your life. So the metrics you use to evaluate the choice of having a child will be different after you have had the child. What Kudina nad Verbeek are suggesting is that something similar is true when it comes to the development of technologies. The very act of developing and using the technology might change how we evaluate its merits. We could, in short, undergo a kind of moral transformation that makes it nearly impossible to rationally assess a technology in advance.

That’s a pessimistic thought on which to end and I merely offer it as a suggestion. I’m not sure that any technologies have resulted in transformative moral changes. The development of the internet does seem to have affected how much we value communication and connectivity. So much so that many people now demand internet connectivity as something close to a basic human right. But I’m not sure if that is a transformative moral change since we always valued those things to some extent.

It’s something to ruminate on if nothing else.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Does Parenting Style Shape Our Moral Culture?

A moral culture is the set of beliefs and practices in a society that specifies the values and norms that (people believe) ought to be adopted by the people living in that society. There are many different moral cultures. Psychologists and sociologists frequently talk, for example, about honour-based moral cultures. These are cultures in which the moral worth of each individual is not equal. It depends on the honour of each individual. Consequently, gaining and protecting one’s honour is the focal point of the moral beliefs and practices in such a culture. Honour-based cultures are sometimes contrasted with dignity-based moral cultures, which essentially hold that all people are of equal moral worth and this equality must be respected by the society’s moral beliefs and practices.

These are just illustrative examples. The concept of a moral culture is broader than that. Since a moral culture is, in essence, just a particular constellation of moral beliefs and practices, usually held together by some common underlying moral theory or paradigm, we could also talk about individualist, communitarian, and egalitarian moral cultures.

As you may know, I’ve recently been writing quite a bit about the idea of moral change and moral revolution. It is an obvious historical fact that people’s moral beliefs and practices change over time. The more dramatic moral changes — the revolutions — often involve changes in the underlying moral culture. For instance, the shift from honour-based morality to dignity-based morality is often thought to be a significant one. But here’s an interesting question: does parenting style make a difference to moral culture? And can shifts in parenting style precipitate or cause moral revolutions?

I recently came across a paper that addresses these questions. It was by Markus Christen, Darcia Narvaez and Eveline Gutzwiller-Helfenfinger (hereafter ‘Christen et al’) and it was called ‘Comparing and Integrating Biological and Cultural Moral Progress’. The paper looks at a number of different issues in the philosophy, psychology and history of morality. I’m not going to consider them all. But the comments it made about parenting style struck me as being quite important, particularly in light of my own recent reflections on the appropriate ethical style of parenting. So I want to review and critically analyse what they have to say.

I’ll do this in three parts. First, I’ll explain why parenting style might be an important shaper of moral culture. Second, I’ll consider a contrast between ancient and modern parenting styles and how this might be impacting on our moral culture. Third, I’ll consider some problems with the claim that modern parenting style is having a negative impact on our moral culture.

1. Why Does Parenting Style Matter to Moral Culture?

In an earlier article, I set out to explain the ‘mechanics’ of moral change. In that article, I made a few observations about evolution and brain development that seem to bear repeating here.

Very roughly, we would expect evolution to play some significant role in shaping the kinds of rules that we adopt in our lives. After all, it does this for other animals. For example, sea-dwelling Salmon follow reasonably strict rules when it comes to their own reproduction: swimming back to the rivers in which they were spawned to continue the cycle of life.

But one of the interesting things about human evolution is how relatively flexible our behavioural rules actually are. Although there are some things that humans have to do in order to survive and thrive, they are surprisingly few in number. They certainly can’t account for all the things humans think they have to do. Indeed, the rules and norms humans follow in their lives — including oddities such as not eating pork and remaining voluntarily celibate for the purposes of religious devotion — are diverse, culturally contingent, and not always obviously linked backed to evolutionary pressures. How did this diversity arise?

Part of the answer lies in the evolution of the human brain. Instead of coming into the world with a complete set of pre-programmed behavioural rules and fixed action patterns, humans come with a flexible learning machine — the brain — that allows them to create and learn behavioural rules in response to cultural, geographical and other contingent historical factors. Evolving that brain came at a cost. Given the constraints of the human birth canal, human babies cannot be born in a mature and capable state. They have to be born in a helpless and immature state. This makes them highly dependent on their parents, particularly their mothers, as well as their wider families and caregiving networks for nurturance and guidance in their early years.

This results in something of a tension when it comes to human moral development. On the one hand we have a flexible capacity to learn lots of different moral rules, but on the other hand we have evolved to attach to and be dependent on our parents and other caregivers in our early years. This means that the style of parenting to which we are exposed can have an important nudging effect on the kinds of moral rules we are inclined to follow later in life.

This is where the influence of parenting style on moral culture can be observed. Learning styles or behavioural rules are not necessarily equivalent to moral cultures, but they are a substantial part of them. Parents and caregivers provide opportunities for and place constraints on their children. These opportunities and constraints either explicitly or implicitly teach children what to value and what to do. This shapes their future moral beliefs and practices, predisposing them to favour certain forms of moral culture.

This can also have an effect on how susceptible people are to moral change later in life. Intuitively, it would seem that the stricter and more conservative one’s upbringing, the less open to moral change one is likely to be in the future. But this is just a rough guess. One’s disposition to moral change is going to be influenced by more than just parenting style. It will also be influenced by genetic factors as well as other wider social factors. For instance, the moral beliefs and practices that prevail in a time of war or famine might be very different from those that prevail in a time of peace and plenty. This is adaptation is not necessarily linked to parenting style.

2. Ancient versus Modern Parenting Styles

You will notice that in the previous section I equivocated somewhat between parents and wider caregiving communities in some of my comments. That equivocation was deliberate but it needs to be cleared up now before it leads to unnecessary confusion.

Nowadays we think of parents (one or two adult individuals) as the primary caregivers for children. But, of course, it is rare for one or two individuals to be solely responsible for the care of children. Children are raised in communities, which consist of extended family members (aunts, uncles, grandparents), peers (friends, neighbours) and social institutions (schools, churches etc). It is these wider caregiving communities, and not just biological or adoptive parents, that raise children.

This prompts a reformulation of the question I asked at the outset. Instead of asking: does parenting style make a difference to a moral culture? It is probably more correct to ask: does caregiving style (where this includes what parents and wider caregiving communities do) make a difference to a moral culture?

This reformulation is important when it comes to understanding the claims made by Christen et al in their paper. Although they make comments about parenting style and, specifically, the role of mothers, in shaping moral culture, it’s pretty clear that they are focused on caregiving as a whole, and not just on what mothers and fathers might do.

So what argument do they make about caregiving styles? They draw a contrast between our ancestral evolved form of caregiving and modern caregiving. Like many psychologists and anthropologists, they assume that humans evolved in small hunter-gatherer bands. Some such bands still exist today and there are ethnographic records of such bands dating back a few centuries. Looking at such hunter-gatherer bands, a particular style of caregiving can be observed. Christen et al argue that this caregiving style is the original, evolved form of caregiving for human beings.

What are the distinctive features of this ancient caregiving style? In her previous work, Darcia Narvaez (one of the co-authors on the Christen et al paper) has enumerated its main features. Four are particularly important:

Affectionate Touch - Children are kept in close (skin to skin) contact with their mothers and breastfeed regularly, often up to the age of four.
Responsivity - Parents are available to respond to their children when they are in distress and regularly do so.
Free Play - Children are given lots of time to play on their own and with other children in a relatively free and open form, often including rough-and-tumble play.
Alloparenting and Social Support - Children are not just cared for by the parents or mothers but by wider social networks within the hunter-gatherer band.


These features are found across most hunter-gatherer bands and, according to Narvaez, they characterise the evolved developmental niche (or EDN) for human beings. In other words, it is to this caregiving style that human development, particularly brain development, has been adapted. Narvaez’s work focuses a lot on the role of mothers and maternal touch within this EDN, but, as can be seen from the list of features just given, this style of caregiving is about more than just mothers. It’s also about the opportunities for free play and social interaction that are given to children.

This ancestral and evolved form of caregiving is contrasted with the modern style of caregiving, particularly the one that has emerged in the USA and that can also be found, to perhaps a lesser extent, in other developed countries. Having read through a few papers by Narvaez on caregiving styles, I’m still not entirely sure what the key features of the modern style of caregiving are, but it seems that they are best understood as the opposite of the evolved style. So, in other words, modern parenting seems to be characterised by less affectionate touch (less, close, physical bonding with mothers in particular), less parental responsivity (children left to cry or left in daycare), less free play and a more isolated parenting style (single or dual parents do the majority of caregiving with some, distant, institutional support). There is also a greater use of punishment and coercion in this form of parenting to ensure that children adopt certain behavioural norms. This seems to be absent from the evolved caregiving style.

What effect does all this have on moral culture? The argument from Christen et al (and supported by Narvaez’s empirical work) is that it is having a noticeable, and arguably negative effect on our moral culture. They claim that the ancestral caregiving style supports a prosocial, ‘engagement ethics’. Children are taught to share and care for other members of their groups. They are taught to have empathy for others; to see themselves as members of supportive communities and not as isolated individuals. They often then look on resources as shared communal property, not something that just belongs to certain people. Contrariwise, the modern caregiving style supports a more isolationist, ‘self-protection’ ethics. Children are taught to see the outside world, including others, as a source of potential threats to their existence. They are taught resources are subject to property rights (some stuff is ‘mine’ and other stuff is not) and not communal property.

There’s more, but that’s the gist of the thesis: the contrasts in caregiving style support very different moral cultures. And one of them, according to Christen et al, is ‘aberrant’ and contrary to human flourishing. No prizes for guessing which one.

Christen et al don’t get into this in their paper but it struck me that what they argue lends support to the thesis developed by Jason Manning and Bradley Campbell in their work on ‘Victimhood culture’. Very roughly, Manning and Campbell argue that we (in the West, specifically the USA) are undergoing a shift in our underlying moral culture. As noted above, we have previously shifted from an honour-based culture to a dignity-based culture. The key contrast between those cultures had to do with how we perceived the moral worth of the individual and the rights and responsibilities that flowed from this perception. In an honour-based culture, worth is something you must gain and maintain: if it is under threat, you have the right to protect your own honour. In a dignity-based culture, everyone has equal moral worth and the institutions of power respect and protect this. Individuals are then free to live their lives as they see fit, with some moral limits involving respect to others. In a victimhood culture, moral worth is, once more, under unstable and under threat (everyone is a potential or actual victim of such a threat). In this case, moral worth is linked to identity and authenticity. Unlike an honour-based culture, however, being a victim in this culture actually adds to your respect. Furthermore, you don’t protect yourself from threats; you look, instead, to authorities (parents, schools, states) to do so. Caregiving style, according to Manning and Campbell, has a role to play in shaping this culture, by setting a certain conception of self-worth and highlighting threats and risks. I think you can see how the protectionist style of parenting could support this.

3. Some Critical Reflections

A large portion of this argument rings true to me. I certainly think that there are aspects of modern parenting, particularly of the helicopter style, that support a self-protectionist ethics. As I have noted before, many parents in my extended peer group (middle-class, college-educated, living in economically developed countries) are highly protective, competitive and interventionist when it comes to their children. They shield them from threats, try to optimise their education and health, while also maintaining full time careers themselves (careers that often mean they are separated from their children for large portions of the day/week). My sense is that this style of parenting induces a lot of anxiety among both parents and children.

This is not to condemn those parents or to suggest that I am immune from these practices myself. I’m not. It’s just what I see in my peer group. This chimes with what Christen et al say about modern parenting. Furthermore, and more significantly, Darcia Narvaez has, in her empirical work, amassed a reasonable amount of evidence to suggest that we can trace the effects of this parenting style through a child’s cognitive and moral development. I recommend reading it and reviewing what she and her collaborators have to say.

Still, I have some worries about the thesis. First, I worry about the over-moralisation of caregiving styles. As noted, it’s very clear from the way they present it, that Christen et al think that modern caregiving style is morally defective or inferior when compared to evolved caregiving style. This argument has a stench of the naturalistic fallacy to me: because we evolved to develop in that caregiving niche that is the one that is optimal, morally speaking, for us. That may be true, and there are ways to make this claim more plausible and remove the whiff of naturalistic fallacy from it, but there are also reasons to think that modern parenting might be a morally appropriate response to changes in social and technological development (Christen et al allude to this themselves).

The modern world is, after all, orders of magnitude more socially and technically complex than what you find in small hunter-gatherer bands. This means that there more opportunities for people in the modern world (more things to do, people to interact with, experiences to have etc) but this comes with increased threats and risks to people’s welfare too (threats from other people, from the choices they might make, and from the technological world that we now inhabit). Being more protective in such a world might be appropriate. Furthermore, I think you could argue that modern parenting represents a reasonable tradeoff between different values and interests. Parents value having rewarding careers and families, children need to be provided for with respect to their education and future. Given these values and interests, more parental investment in work, more reliance on daycare and more separation from children, may be morally preferable. At the very least, if it is morally sub-optimal, it’s not something that parents themselves can easily correct without institutional and legal support (more paid parental leave, cheaper property and education costs and so on).

To be clear, it’s not that I am a huge fan of modern caregiving style. I’m not. I’ve written previously that I think parents can be too protective and too invested in trying to control their children’s development. But I don’t think we can morally condemn it all that easily.

This brings me to a second critical point. I am somewhat sceptical that we can easily delineate between modern and evolved caregiving styles. The presentation given above, and in Christen et al’s paper, draws a sharp contrast between the two styles. We adopt the modern style; others adopt the evolved style. But I imagine, in practice, that the lines are more blurry and the contrast less obvious. It varies from culture to culture, and locale to locale. Speaking from my own experience of parenting, I find that many of the features of the evolved style of caregiving are present, actively encouraged and supported (perhaps to an excessive degree). For example, breastfeeding and affectionate touch have been both advocated for and normalised for my daughter. Furthermore, we have lots of social support from wider family when it comes to caring for her. The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately impacted on this, but it has its advantages too — the main one being that both her parents have been far more involved in her day-to-day care than might otherwise have been the case.

I may just be lucky but the point here is not that my anecdotal experience represents the norm but that caregiving styles are probably not so black-and-white. If that’s true, the effects on moral culture may be more subtle and nuanced than we would expect.