TOM UTLEY: If you want my advice, a philosopher’s warning that we shouldn’t offer advice is one piece of advice we’d all be well advised to ignore
One of the best pieces of advice I was given in the early years of our marriage was this: ‘Be sure to write your babies’ names on the backs of their photographs, because later you’ll forget which is which.’
It’s a pity I didn’t take it.
At the time, it seemed unthinkable that I could ever fail to recognise our adored newborn offspring, whose features — or so I thought — were seared into my heart and memory for ever.
But today, many decades on, I go through the pile of snaps in my desk drawer and haven’t a clue which of our four boys I’m looking at.
It seemed unthinkable that I could ever fail to recognise our adored newborn offspring, whose features — or so I thought — were seared into my heart and memory for ever
‘There are lots of different reasons why we might seek to intervene — some selfish, others well-meaning,’ warns Dr Farbod Akhlaghi
It becomes a bit embarrassing when their wives and girlfriends ask us to show them baby pictures of their beloved, as one of them did the other day.
‘Well, this could be him. But to be honest, it could equally be any of his brothers.’
These days, of course, the advice I received and ignored all those years ago has become almost redundant since the arrival of the smartphone camera, which automatically records the date of a photograph — a giveaway clue to the identity of the infant subject (except in the case of twins, triplets, etc).
I believe my iPhone is also equipped with facial recognition technology, which puts names to the faces in pictures.
But as a bewildered relic of a bygone age, I need guidance on how to use it.
You should beware, however, of offering me or anyone else advice on more important matters that could change the course of our lives.
Such, anyway, is the conclusion of a philosopher at Christ’s College Cambridge, who writes this week that if we try to interfere in the big decisions made by friends and family, we risk violating their fundamental moral rights.
‘There are lots of different reasons why we might seek to intervene — some selfish, others well-meaning,’ warns Dr Farbod Akhlaghi, in the latest edition of the journal Analysis.
‘But whatever our motivation, we can cause significant harm, including to the people we love most.’
Among the examples he gives of potentially immoral interference are trying to influence the decisions of our near and dear on whether they should go to university, date someone in particular, have children, change career or move abroad.
His theory, if I understand it correctly, is that every one of us, young and old, has a moral right to what he calls ‘revelatory autonomy’, by which he seems to mean the freedom to find out for ourselves how an important decision will affect our lives, without any advice from others, no matter how kindly intended it may be.
Oh dear. If he’s right, I must plead guilty to a far more grievous offence against our poor sons than my failure to identify them in the pictures we took when they were babies.
Turn the page now if you’re easily shocked, but the fact is that Mrs U and I have been trying to influence our sons’ decisions on life-changing matters for as long as I can remember. Indeed, I fear that by Dr Akhlaghi’s reckoning, we have probably done them ‘considerable harm’.
What’s more, I suspect that just about every parent who has ever wanted the best for a child has at some time or other fallen short of this distinguished philosopher’s ideal.
Not only did we advise all our boys that if they wanted to pass their exams and get on in life, they should spend less time on the Xbox and more on their homework.
I advised them that on balance, it was probably better to study at university than not, if only because a degree would offer them a wider range of options for the future
More unforgivably still — in Dr Akhlaghi’s book, at least — I advised all four to go to universities, when at least one of them was in two minds about it.
True, I’d hesitate to offer the same advice today, when so many students emerge from the groves of academe with precious little to show for their time, apart from horrendous debts and an urge to abuse J. K. Rowling, glue themselves to motorways and pull down statues.
But at the time, I advised them that on balance, it was probably better to study at university than not, if only because a degree would offer them a wider range of options for the future.
I also told them that I’d hugely enjoyed my own years as an undergraduate, and I strongly suspected they would too. As it turned out, I was right.
Yet Dr Akhlaghi appears to argue that even by resorting to rational persuasion and citing my own experience, I was infringing our sons’ moral right to make their own decisions, free of any advice.
As he puts it, in that convoluted way favoured by so many modern academics: ‘Offering reasons, arguments or evidence as if one is in a privileged position with respect to what the other person’s experience would be like for them disrespects their moral right to revelatory autonomy.’
I’m sorry to tell Dr A, but even after the boys had graduated — all of them, with respectable degrees from Russell Group universities (Edinburgh, Newcastle, Manchester and Sheffield, if you’re interested) — I kept on interfering.
Take those many months when our eldest was lolling about at home, supposedly ‘job hunting’ — by which he meant drawing circles in red biro around advertisements in the situations vacant columns of newspapers.
After several weeks of this, I ventured to suggest that he might have more success if he actually rang the phone numbers in the advertisements, instead of just circling them.
Was I once again abusing his moral right to be spared advice?
Possibly so, if we are to believe the philosopher’s insistence, in his clunking prose: ‘While rational persuasion respects someone’s ability to reason, even this form of engagement can involve disrespecting their autonomous self-authorship.’
Take those many months when our eldest was lolling about at home, supposedly ‘job hunting’. I ventured to suggest that he might have more success if he actually rang the phone numbers in the advertisements
But on a couple of charges, I plead slightly less guilty. As far as I can remember, only once have I tried to influence our boys’ choices of career.
That was when I passed on to them my journalist father’s one word of advice to me, on the day I told him I was thinking of becoming a journalist myself: ‘Don’t.’
I reckon he was secretly pleased, however, when I ignored his advice and went into the family trade, just as it gave me great pleasure when our eldest, after all that circling of job adverts, finally decided to follow in my footsteps, despite my advice to the contrary.
As for my second Not Guilty plea, I have never tried to influence our young over their choices of whom to date or marry — though I hasten to say that I count myself hugely blessed with the choices they made for themselves.
If Dr Akhlaghi will excuse my offering advice, I would urge other parents not to attempt it either.
On that point, I write with some personal experience (apologies again to Dr A), since my own parents tried hard to discourage me from rushing into marriage with the pretty young barmaid to whom the first words I ever addressed were: ‘A pint of bitter, a packet of crisps and your hand in marriage, please.’
Enough to say that their initial protests — which mercifully melted away when they’d had time to get to know my fiancée — were wholly counterproductive, making me all the more determined to sweep her to the altar.
That was 43 years ago and I’ve never regretted our decision (though my wife may take a different view).
My own parents tried hard to discourage me from rushing into marriage with the pretty young barmaid to whom the first words I ever addressed were: ‘A pint of bitter, a packet of crisps and your hand in marriage, please’
Certainly, time has proved my parents were wrong to caution against our whirlwind marriage.
But by voicing their concerns — born of their wish for my happiness and their experience of less fortunate couples, who had married in haste and repented at leisure — were they really guilty of abusing my fundamental moral right to ‘revelatory autonomy’?
Come off it, Dr Akhlaghi.
Aren’t today’s young quite quick enough to claim victimhood, without having the idea planted in their minds that even well-intentioned advice can be an abuse of their rights?
If you want my advice, this philosopher’s warning that we shouldn’t offer advice is one piece of advice we would all be well advised to ignore.
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