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PPR Research Seminar

Date: 15 December 2010 Time: 4.00-6.00 pm

Venue: Bowland North SR10

Edward Harcourt (Oxford): Love and the Origins of Authority in Infancy

'He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me', Jesus is reported to have said,[1] apparently taking it as obvious that moral authority has something to do with love. Few contemporary philosophers have done much to understand the nature of the connection. This paper argues that in trying to understand it, we need to go all the way back to early infancy.

First of all I examine a psychoanalytic theory of parental authority: it's inadequate, but points us in the right direction. I then draw on some observations of early mother-infant interactions made by attachment theorists to argue that parental authority depends on quality of parent-infant interaction. However, just noting that this link holds - assuming it does - is not enough: the question is why it holds. Adopting a Wittgensteinian methodology of trying to demystify a phenomenon by relating it to more primitive phenomena of which it is an intelligible development, I try to explain infant's obedience to parental prohibitions and commands to more primitive pre-verbal interactions between parent and infant which have a similar structure.

However, early mother-infant interactions are of interest to ethics for another reason: their characteristic excellences and defects echo unmistakeably the excellences and defects of interactions between adults - thus, at their best they echo, albeit in a more primitive form, Kant's description of the citizens of the kingdom of ends 'treating others and themselves only as ends'. But there are differences too. First, rational autonomy - a defining feature of citizens of the kingdom of ends for Kant - is absent from one party to the relationship (the infant). I suggest therefore that we need to introduce a more basic notion of autonomy, of which adult rational autonomy can be seen as a very special case. Secondly, it does not seem to be an accidental feature of the mother-infant pairs who instantiate the pattern of relationship characteristic of Kantian citizens that their relationship is a loving one. So we should perhaps make more room than Kant does in our conception of adult citizenship of the kingdom of ends - that is, in our ideals of adult rational humanity - for the notion of love.

[1] John 14:24


Who can attend: Anyone


Further information

Organising departments and research centres: Politics, Philosophy and Religion PPR


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Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Lancaster University
Lancaster LA1 4YD
United Kingdom

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