Until December 14, 2012, I was thinking quite hard about writing a post for Talking Philosophy on the subject of parenthood and moral luck. Or, rather, partly on parenthood and moral luck, and partly on motherhood and moral luck, since it seems to me that there are some special considerations that motherhood generates in relation to moral luck which don’t always arise in quite the same way for fatherhood.
I’ll outline part of what I thought about writing. But I also want to talk about some reflections which, on December 14, turned me away from posting as I had planned to.
In case any of you aren’t familiar with it, the term moral luck relates to those cases in which we are held to be proper objects of moral praise or blame despite the fact that the outcomes in relation to which we are being assessed depend on factors which are beyond our control. The existence of moral luck is challenging because it undermines a conception we have of morality as being an area in which we are immune from luck: for example, we tend to say that, provided someone acts with good intentions, and with proper deliberation of means and end, she is immune from blame, whatever chance outcome her actions produce. The term was introduced by Bernard Williams in his classic essay “Moral Luck,” in which, famously, he guides our thought on the subject by introducing us to the deliberations of (a somewhat fictionalised version of) the artist Paul Gauguin as he decides whether to abandon the obligations he has to his wife and children in order to travel overseas and pursue his calling as a painter. The abandonment of his obligations is a moral cost which matters to this Gauguin. Whether he will, retrospectively, come to reproach himself for his decision to leave his family depends on how his new life turns out. If it turns out well, and he produces great art, he might regard the decision as justified. If it turns out badly because he is not the great artist he thought he was (Williams calls this “intrinsic bad luck”), he might regard the decision to leave his family as lacking justification. If it turns out badly for other reasons, unconnected with his artistic talent (what Williams’ calls “extrinsic bad luck”), he might regard the decision as untested. Since there is good and bad luck involved in the success or failure of his new life, it will be a matter of luck – moral luck, in Williams’ view – whether he has cause to reproach himself for the decision he made.
I like to think hard about Mrs Gauguin (or at least a somewhat fictionalised version of her) in the story Williams tells. Many or most of us have more in common with her than we do with her husband. This is because we, like her, are likely to find that our greatest moral hazard lies wholly in our domestic lives, not in the world of art. Lacking the belief that we have the capacity to produce epoch-making art, we might think, with good reason, that the hugest decision we make in our lives, the one in which our exposure to moral luck is at its highest, is our decision to have children. The stakes here are almost limitlessly high: Will we be good parents or bad ones? Will our children suffer or enjoy their lives? Will they be good people or bad? And what of the children that our children have? The difference between producing even the greatest art and producing bad art might seem tiny in relation to these uncertainties.
As parents we are painfully exposed to moral luck. That applies of course to all parents, mothers and fathers alike, Mr and Mrs Gauguin both. But there is an element in Williams’ account that suggests the possibility that mothers (in our society) are even more exposed to moral luck in respect of parenthood than fathers are.
To see this, notice that Williams distinguishes between the justification tout court of a life-defining decision and its justification in the eyes of the agent who made it. There is, he says, no external standpoint from which the justification of a life-defining decision can be asserted , no universal currency in which to evaluate it. When we look back on our lives and uphold or refute the grounds of some pivotal decision, we do from a standpoint that has been significantly shaped by that very decision. The question arises: Are the conditions of our society such that, not all of the time by any means but more often than not, a woman’s life is more significantly shaped in her eyes by her decision to have a child than a man’s life is? Is motherhood more likely to become constitutive of a woman’s self-identity than fatherhood is to become constitutive of a man’s self-identity? If so, then a woman is more exposed to the moral luck involved in parenthood than a man is – in the sense that, if her parenthood turns out badly, it is more likely than it is for a man that she has failed at something on which (thanks to social pressures of various sorts) she has staked her self-understanding. Similarly, in the eyes of society at large she might find the assessment of her life more closely bound than a father’s might be to her success or failure as a parent.
I don’t want prejudge the answer to the question as to whether women are in fact more exposed to the moral luck of parenthood in this way, but it seems like an interesting line of thought to explore. Part of the reason I am drawn to it is that, like many women, I do find myself fighting on many battlefronts (some inside me, some outside) to find a sense of self in which “mother” does not loom tyrannously large.
But there is another source of my interest in that question – and it is the source of the reticence I felt about writing my blogpost last December. It is Lionel Shriver’s excellent novel, We Need To Talk about Kevin. This novel is a sustained and deeply perceptive fictional account of a woman’s decision to have a child, and of her prolonged and painful reflection on that decision when it turns out very badly indeed. The book is a very rich resource for exploring in detail the issues that Williams sketches briefly in his Gauguin story – deliberation under uncertainly about matters of profound moral importance and of profound importance to one’s life; failure and the analysis of failure. Most of all it revolves on the never-quite-answered question as to whether the woman’s bad moral luck was “intrinsic” or “extrinsic”: Did her life’s project of parenthood fail because it was a flawed one, one that could never have grounded value in her life because she was not the person that project required her to be? Or did it fail because of the brute, extrinsic bad luck of giving birth to a “difficult” (impossibly difficult) child?
As well as providing a source of detailed reflection on the issue of moral luck as presented by Bernard Williams, the book is also a meditation on the ways in which motherhood can have a very different significance in the life of a mother than fatherhood has in the life of a father. The story shows us a mother who finds herself much more relentlessly confined by motherhood than her partner is by fatherhood, with the result that her identity is much more comprehensively consumed than his by the failure of the project of parenthood (even though he is in fact killed by that failure).
As everyone probably knows, this novel centres on a very painful event indeed, a mass killing on school premises by a young man. At any time, this is a subject that both literature and attempts at philosophy ought to address only with great care and reticence. But in the aftermath of the shootings at Sandy Hook last December it seemed impossible to treat this subject abstractly, as a resource for philosophical reflection, impossible to encounter it in any way other than through the concrete responses of horror and shock and pity. So I abandoned my intended piece of writing. As time passes, it does seem to become possible again to write about such things, but not (it seems to me) without some preliminary thought about when and how it is acceptable to touch on matters of such great sadness in the course of doing philosophy. And perhaps we also need some preliminary thought about why it is acceptable to view matters of such great sadness through the lens of fiction.
Is philosophical reasoning too glib, too abstract, too trivialising to intrude on tragedy? It can be conducted in that way. Moral philosophy takes as its subject matter some of the most troubling features of our existence and, for the sake of clarifying our ideas, it refines this subject matter into technical terms (like “moral luck”) and setpiece thought experiments that deliberately discard as much as possible of the white noise that is the stuff of life. For some thinkers no doubt this coolness is a temporary stepping back from deep engagement with the ethical features of their lives, in order to live their lives better. But for many of us it becomes an end in itself. That isn’t wrongful: clarity is worth pursuing for itself. But there is a time and a place for it.
At its best, though, philosophy can restrain its tendency to glibness by taking seriously the Socratic point, that wisdom lies in the awareness of how little we know: rather than expertise, philosophers offer tools for the sustained interrogation of their own ignorance and everyone else’s. When philosophy is conceived in this way its reigning sentiments are bewilderment and hesitancy, amounting to a kind of intellectual pessimism, about the possibility of finding the kind of answers that ultimately satisfy. Those sentiments aren’t out of place at the scene of a tragedy, I think.
Williams avoids the artificial clarity of much analytical philosophy. His account of moral luck emphasises the limited role of rationality in our assessment of our own actions: an “entirely clear-headed agent” might, he says, discard much of the sense of responsibility that we do, in fact, feel for the outcomes of our actions. Rather than rational analysis, he offers a critique of ethical experience. He asks us to reflect carefully on our actual reactions to a range of ethically challenging situations, and to do so without the hope that philosophy will provide all of the solutions that we seek.
This emphasis on lived ethical experience makes Williams’ account not-glib, rich, and humane – the kind of philosophy that we perhaps shouldn’t be ashamed to bring out in the context of a tragedy. And his emphasis on ethical experience is also what makes literature so promising a resource for exploring moral luck. We Need to Talk about Kevin is a case study of ethical experience, offering the depth and richness of experience that is present in life itself, but presenting it with the kind of lucidity that real life rarely offers. Literature also gives us a kind of completeness that we can’t get from observing real life. In a novel people have a relatively small set of characteristics, and every one of these characteristics is present to the reader (provided that the reader reads thoughtfully enough). There is nothing hidden, so all of the relationship between a person’s deliberations, actions, reactions, and self-assessments can be made fast and clear and determinate. There is no similar completeness of revelation in life. Too many variables, too many secrets.
I think I have convinced myself that a blogpost on parenthood – especially motherhood – and moral luck written in the light of a novel about a mass killing at a school, might not be too insensitive in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, and might help a little bit as we grapple with our reactions to the event. And I’ll hope to make such a post at some point.