As Laurence Thomas would likely say, there is a certain level of majesty that can be found in the various ways a parent is able to bestow upon his child a good sense of right and wrong. And presumably, this doesn’t end in early childhood, but rather continues to the point that the child has developed into an adult who is capable of taking these learned values and using them independently in the world.
Ok, so we have that established. Parents are integral components of their children’s upbringing, and this includes not only the formulation of a moral compass, but also the use of consequences to ensure that children are held accountable when they fail to meet ethical standards. If your son hits another child, you tell him to go over and apologize. If your daughter takes a toy from a classmate, you make sure that she gives it back. And so on.
So it might make sense prima facie to extend this sentiment to the more extreme cases of children who violate serious laws. And this is just what Thomas has done in his post “On Being a Dad—and Not Just a Man.” In discussing a father in a Parisian suburb in France who turned his sixteen year old son in after learning that he had committed armed robbery, Thomas commends the father’s actions by noting (first) that no betrayal had occurred, and (second) that “what the father did was hold the son accountable…(which is) truly a wonderful gift that parents can bestow upon their children.”
But rather than point immediately to the potential inconsistencies of these lines of reasoning, I should note that there appear to be two main questions at play here. The first involves moral obligation generally: Did the father have a moral obligation to turn his son into the proper authorities upon learning of the criminal act? The second question is more closely tied to the parent-child relationship as Thomas describes it: Did the father have a fatherly obligation to turn his child into the proper authorities upon learning of the criminal act? And perhaps a final consideration could be, should we view the two questions as substantively different?
Frankly, I am not as concerned with the first question as I am with the second, primarily because I think it is with the second question that we find the meat of Thomas’ true discussion. Is it morally obligatory to turn one’s child in when one learns that his child has committed a heinous immoral (and presumably illegal) act? Perhaps. If you believe that we have general moral obligations to report crimes as we see them, you might think that this obligation extends to one’s children by default. After all, justice is justice, and it should be blind to familial ties. Then again, you might think that people don’t have these general moral obligations, and if so, the question of whether one should turn in his child quickly loses muster. Depending on the code of ethics to which you subscribe, your answer should follow suit.
It is with the second question, however, that I find fault with Thomas’ argument. And I do so less on conceptual than on practical grounds. Consider the story we have in play: An older child commits a very serious crime—in this case, he robs a smoking bar with a deadly weapon—and the father learns of it somehow after the fact. I assume the two have whatever heart-to-heart people have in this context, and at some point the father decides that he has a duty to bring his child to the police station in order to turn him in for what he has done. According to Thomas, this indicates not only that the father has a strong sense of moral justice, since the father has taken it upon himself to bring a known criminal to the authorities, but also that the father is displaying a strong sense of fatherly worth by not equivocating on his standards of morality even when the subject in question is his own blood. For Thomas, it is this consistency in judgment and action that he finds praiseworthy, and he concludes the example by claiming that “being held accountable by parents is key to a child’s making responsible decisions for himself.” In other words, the father did his parental duty by bringing his child to justice because he (1) took the child seriously, (2) did not bend in his assessment of the wrongness of the situation regardless of the identity of the perpetrator, and (3) followed through with the moral course of action in order to teach his son the proper lesson for his future development.
But therein lies my problem. In this case, there isn’t going to be any future development, and there won’t be any other lessons. Not from the father, anyway. The son will go to jail for years, during which time the father will likely have extremely limited contact with him—if any at all. What moral education can he expect to espouse to his son once that occurs?
Ironically, I don’t necessarily disagree with the overall point that a parent may have a moral obligation to turn in his children if they commit certain crimes. I simply disagree with the motivation for Thomas’ argument. If I learn that my son has murdered several people over the course of the last year, I may feel the need to turn him in merely in order to protect society from future possible acts of violence. Or perhaps I might find it appropriate to report to the police that my son has committed multiple acts of sexual molestation because I fear for the safety of my other children. I could think of a number of reasons a parent might have for feeling obligated to turn in his children upon learning of immoral and illegal behavior, but not a single one of them has anything to do with a separate obligation the parent has (qua “parent”) toward the criminal child to “do the right thing for his sake.” This way of thinking strikes me as inconsistent at best, and unintelligible at worst. If I turn in my son, I am doing it for someone or something else. But definitely not him.