Author Archives: Claire Creffield

Motherhood and Moral Luck, Philosophy and Atrocity

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.

Being in Uncertainty

Like millions of people I watched Felix Baumgartner’s space jump last Sunday. He leapt from a tiny capsule pulled 24 miles into the sky by a helium balloon. He fell to the ground from the edge of space, breaking the sound barrier, and several records, in the process.

I found his achievement moving and compelling. And this surprised me because quite often I find extreme feats of this sort rather sterile, and perhaps a little bullet-headed.  When someone walks across the Antarctic, or climbs Everest without oxygen, it seems to involve a chest-beating determination to assert oneself against nature. The self-assertion makes it seem a small inward-looking response to the largeness and awesomeness of the world. It reminds me of the character in William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin who takes huge pride in surviving against the odds on a tiny rock in the middle of the ocean,  staving his hunger with vile rock-dwelling creatures and sheltering himself by squeezing into a tiny jagged hole. The astonishing twist in that story shows  his pride in that narrow victory to be the very same thing as his failure to see and appreciate something much larger and more beautiful than his deluded and debased survival.

Golding’s novel has a belief in God at its centre. So as an atheist, I read it at arm’s length. I can’t share its central vision.  Some or all of Baumgartner’s jump team are atheists too. That’s the message I took from mission control’s reassurance to Baumgartner that “his guardian angel” was with him. The notion of a guardian angel is so kitsch, so primitive and so not a part of most religious people’s  experience of faith that it seemed to me that these colleagues of Baumgartner were stating their atheism at the same time as they indulged an (entirely understandable) need to supplicate (someone, something) for their friend’s survival.

That these scientists felt drawn to this playful but clumsy invocation of a supernatural entity in which they probably disbelieved gives me a clue about why I found Baumgartner’s jump so moving.

There is an atheist’s plight, I think. Not for all atheists, but for some atheists most of the time, and perhaps even for most atheists some of the time. The plight is this: there is no God, but sometimes invoking the concept of God seems a very compelling way indeed of doing justice to the strangeness, the beauty and the peril of our lives.

An atheist invoking God in response to peril can easily be seen as a momentary weakness, a panicked irrationality, so it is not terribly interesting. More interesting is the way an atheist might feel when contemplating the strange empty  infinity and complexity of the universe and the sheer oddness of being a conscious presence within it. We might not be at all tempted to say that the idea of God needs to be invoked to explain the universe. But the idea that God exists and that we humans are in a state of separation from that God can seem like a very vivid way of experiencing our awe in the face of a not-yet-fully-explained universe and also of capturing  some central philosophical problems. The idea of a God from whom we are separated and whom we strive to rejoin (the idea of a fall followed by redemption) has in the past lent philosophy some of its fundamental structure. Hegel’s self-positing spirit, for example, is a version of God coming to self-knowledge through a process which involves first the generation and then the overcoming of separateness.  And even if we eschew Hegelian ways of thinking,  the idea of a God that we must strive to rejoin feels like a rich metaphor for the traditional philosophical project of characterising reality in a manner which makes it both independent of us and yet within our knowledge. The truth (if it is a truth) of the atheist’s claim that there is no God sometimes seems like poor compensation for the loss of the religious worldview –  because that worldview is a very beautiful and metaphorically fertile orientation to the strange condition of being conscious in the world.

So, just as Baumgartner’s colleagues summoned the idea of a guardian angel to fill the space left by their disbelief in God,  I too look around for metaphors to fill the space left by my own disbelief in God. And Baumgartner’s endeavour at the physical margins of our world, the point where it joins the universe, seemed to fit the bill. Where Pincher Martin, in Golding’s novel, squeezes himself into a small hole on a small rock and feels big, Baumgartner took himself to the edge of the largest possible space to (in his own words) “see how small he was.” It was (corny expressions seem unavoidable here) an encounter with the infinite. The symbolism of falling also has poignancy. It speaks of a chosen passivity, a surrender, very different from the assertive striving  of a Pincher Martin, and very resonant with Christian mythology. Finally the sheer pointlessness of jumping from space seems a rather heroic defiance of the meaninglessness that threatens to engulf us when we look at a vast universe empty of mind: it embraces meaninglessness joyfully and colonises it with purpose.

I don’t want to spend too long teasing out the symbolism of the jump. Instead I want to ask a question. It seems from the above that we (or many of us) have a need for what might be called aids to reflection, aids to the contemplation of certain fundamental features of our presence in the world. If a belief in God is not available to us as a supplier of such aids, we look for it elsewhere. What I want to ask is this: Can a religious person endorse this status of religion as being, not the provider of truth but simply a provider of resources for reflection? If we reject every distinctively religious claim (that there is a god, that there is a soul, or an afterlife, or reincarnation …), if we say that religion offers us no truths of its own but only resources for the contemplation of the truths of science and philosophy, and if we say that religion is not even the only supplier of such resources because art and literature and jumping men are also resources, might it still be possible to be religious? Note that I’m not asking  a question about the value of religion, considered from outside the religious perspective. I’m asking whether the religious perspective itself can survive a certain view of its status. In a review of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists John Gray quotes  Keats to suggest that “the heart of religion isn’t belief, but something more like what Keats described as negative capability: ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.” But can a religious person really and wholeheartedly subscribe to such a view?

I think that this question translates into (at least) three more specific questions (only very roughly formulated here):

(1) Is it really true that a religious practitioner can give an entirely “non-creedal” account of religion, one that does not claim there to be any distinctively religious truths  and states that religion is simply not about belief? Quakerism, for example,  advises us to “remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way.” But is it, in fact, possible for a religious person consistently to sustain this religious non-cognitivism?

(2) If religion turns its back on the notion of religious beliefs, can it still maintain a distinctive territory for itself, or does it simply become a part of art and literature? If we contemplate God without asserting his existence, and derive very important lessons from the contemplation, what – if anything – makes this different from contemplating, say, Achilles, or Hamlet, or Dorothea Brooke?

(3) A version of religion which denied the existence of God, and of every single other supernatural phenomenon, would be a very profoundly revisionist one. It might be one that almost every single religious practitioner rejected. Is such extreme religious innovation coherent? Or does religion have to be defined in terms of (certain very general) widely shared features of people’s actual religious practice?

Perhaps these questions seem unmotivated: if one rejects religious belief, why struggle to find common ground with religion? That might very well be a good question. But the extremity of the current antipathy between atheism and faith seems to call for an exploration of different, happier and more mutually enriching forms of interaction between them.  So I’d be grateful for any comments that considered the three questions above. If John Gray and Keats are right, and religion is, not about belief but about “being in uncertainty,” are those questions the right ones for the project of making sense of religion so-conceived? How could they be better formulated? What further questions are there for that project? What direction might the answers take?


St Peter’s toes

This summer I visited Rome for the first time. Like most visitors to the city I was keen to anchor my diffuse knowledge of ancient Rome by actually seeing the actual, real remains of the old city. I wanted a direct encounter that book learning could not give me. But as I wandered around the Colosseum and the imperial fora I was disappointed. Although the ruins were so stunningly numerous and rich, so generous in the detail they provided to the onlooker, I didn’t (of course!) find the real ancient Rome there. It seemed to me that it was more convincingly present in books that I had read. And indeed it seemed that “the real Rome” was doomed to be always elsewhere: when I am reading about it, I can imagine it lurking in fallen buildings, and when I finally get to see the fallen buildings, it runs coquettishly away back into the books.  Freud reports a feeling of “derealisation” on seeing the Acropolis, and although he gives his own very characteristic Freudian explanation for this, invoking his personal biography, I suspect that his feeling was very much like mine, and that the kind of disappointment I felt is not at all uncommon.

My disappointment was inevitable because my desire to encounter “the real thing” was inchoate and absurd. Apart from anything else, I was making the physical a kind of talisman for the real. I wanted a broken marble column to present the reality of a lost civilisation to me with an immediacy that a sentence from Pliny, say, can make us yearn for but cannot itself supply. That is a lot to expect from stone.

However ill-defined it might be, this quest for “the real” is pervasive. Tourists are notorious for it. At its most discreditable, it is the quest for the real, authentic culture and traditions of a region, a demand which is profitably supplied by the provision of ersatz, commercially generated resemblances.  But that particular anthropological quest is just one example of something more generic. What we are often trying to get hold of when we travel is “the real” itself. This imperative is made clear when we see tourists crowding around, say, Michelangelo’s Pieta, which can be barely glimpsed beyond its barriers and behind its bulletproof glass. I assume that excellent reproductions afford much better opportunities to explore it. But we want the real thing. The ancient Colosseum, too, can perhaps be better glimpsed in the CGI reconstructions of it that graced the film Gladiator. But we want the real thing.

How do we feel when we confront all this actuality? We are often frustrated. Looking is not enough. We want to have some satisfyingly full experience of the object in question. One of the things we want is to understand it, and looking at just a few of the synonyms for understanding gives a vivid insight into our anxious appetite for the real. To understand something is to comprehend it, and  the archaic meaning of “comprehend,” – “to take together, to unite; include; seize” – meshes nicely with modern idioms: when looking at something with understanding, we “absorb” it; we “take it in.” We want to have it within us. Tourists taking photograph after photograph seem to be anxiously seeking and failing to reassure themselves that they have absorbed into themselves and now truly possess some iconic bit of reality. Just looking thoughtfully at an object has not given them what they need, so they apprehend it in a purely mechanical way, perhaps with some hope that future looking, at the acquired image, will provide the assimilation that has thus far eluded them.

I didn’t bring a camera on holiday with me, so my own attempts to master a sense of separation from the real involved touching. Where signs did not forbid it, I put my hands on things of beauty or interest that I saw in an attempt to “grasp” them – to experience them more fully, to register my encounter with them more securely.

And that brings me to St Peter’s toes. In St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, there is a bronze statue of St Peter, at least 700 years old, possibly much older. He is shown giving a blessing and holding the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Several of his toes have been worn to flatness by pilgrims over the centuries touching (and kissing) the statue. Pilgrims were the tourists of their day and they are numerous among today’s tourists in Rome. It is interesting to consider the possibility that pilgrims and (other) tourists have a motivation in common. Both groups are seeking a satisfying encounter with “the real.” You could argue that pilgrims are lucky, because they have a relatively clear idea of what this yearned-for absolute is: it is God, conceived as (something like) a universally underlying entity, from whom all particular existences are emanations. And pilgrims have a rich and beautiful set of images and stories that help them to conceptualise an encounter with it. The loss of innocence at the Fall begins our human career as exiles from the presence of the absolute; Christ’s exclamation “Wherefore hast thou deserted me?” is its tragic culmination, and his crucifixion is the means to its transcendence by all of us. The keys held by the bronze St Peter symbolise the possibility of a successful readmission to  the presence of the absolute. When pilgrims touch St Peter’s toes they know what they want: they want him to endorse them and help them in their quest for entry.

Now, regardless of whether it is true or false, that Christian story (of a separation from God and of striving for a redemption that brings a new unity with God) seems to map onto a form of human yearning, a sense of exile and incompleteness that is in some sense prior to religion and can be experienced in a secular fashion. If the Christian story is false (and there is no God, no separation from him, and no reunification either), then pervasive belief in that story cannot be explained by reference to it’s being true, and might well instead be explained in terms of this prior human yearning and sense of exile or separation.

The most plausible explanation for this prior-to-religious sense of a fundamental separation that must be overcome is likely to be a psychological one. But there is one particular manifestation of a secular “yearning for the real” that probably has at least a degree of autonomy from psychological causes. It is our interest in philosophy. Speaking naively, the project of philosophy is to characterise the real, and in particular to give an account of reality that succeeds in overcoming the big mystery that our first forays into philosophy generate: namely, the mystery of how it is that we can have any knowledge of reality at all.

Those first, naive, forays into philosophy occur very naturally to us all, usually in childhood. How do I know if there is anything there at all, really? Am I the only mind? Do you see the same as me when you see something you call “yellow” or feel the same as I do when you feel something you call “pain”? These are intuitively compelling questions that lead us into an equally intuitive and compelling naive philosophical scepticism. As soon as we ask these questions we are cast into a kind of exile from the reality that we had previously been immersed in. Our confidence that we are apprehending reality is shaken. The task of philosophy then becomes the laborious business of rebuilding that confidence, overcoming exile, reuniting us with the real.

It does this either like St Peter by supplying keys of various elaborate sorts that allow passage between our humble consciousnesses and a transcendent reality, or (perhaps more respectably) by providing a critique of the naive questions (together with their naive answers) that prompted our scepticism in the first place. Wittgenstein offers such a critique. When he says that “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday,” he is referring to the fact that just as pilgrims and tourists, on their holy days and holidays, travel far afield to engineer an encounter with the real, philosophers (i.e. all of us, as soon as we ask those first naive questions) take language out of its home territory on a trip of a lifetime which is aimed at finding reality but in fact just problematises it in a way that generates the need for the kind of “therapeutic” philosophy that Wittgenstein practices, which largely involves taking language back home again.

Both religion and philosophy offer us ways of conceptualising and seeking to resolve a profound sense of exile or separation from reality, one that we also seek, rather blindly, to resolve in our daily life  (including, in my case at least, when we travel as tourists). Whatever psychological causes there are for this sense of exile are supplemented by the genuine intellectual concerns that give rise to philosophy. Historically, religion has served both to soothe the psychological sources of perceived exile and to address intellectual concerns about the nature of reality and the place of our consciousness within it. Over the centuries, those intellectual concerns have been inherited by philosophy. But while philosophy is the place to look for answers, religion continues to give us a rich mythology of our quest to apprehend the real. And if the real seems to remain beyond our grasp no matter how hard we study, or how many photographs we take, or how many stones we touch, the Christian story and all of its rich imagery at least gives us the consolation of making our exile a thing of great beauty.

Fiction and Patriotism

In my last post I looked at some ways in which my emotional involvement when watching a sporting event on television was like my emotional involvement when reading fiction. It seemed to me that in both cases there was a similar conscious willingness to suspend my normal commitment to the truth of the matter, for the sake of a story, with suspense and a happy ending.  And I thought that was interesting because it threw a bit of extra light on the so-called paradox of fiction. The paradox of fiction is that we can feel emotionally responsive to characters and situations that we know not to exist, so that our emotions seem to be freed from the normal belief-dependence that we might plausibly think them to have. I argued that when I watch sport I willingly succumb to a narrative of the event that omits some facts and prioritises others to the extent that that narrative is an artifice, aimed not at truth but at building a satisfying, story-shaped experience of the race. I knowingly base my response on a selection of data that I fully believe to be partial and distorting, and in that sense my emotional engagement with elements of the real world seems to have the kind of believe-independence that is involved in the paradox of fiction.

I ended that post by asking whether we sometimes need to allow our emotions this kind of partial autonomy from truth-tracking, not just for the purposes of catharsis, but in order to inform and motivate our truth-oriented engagement with the world. Where situations are complicated and the best outcome is unclear, we need a preliminary stance to guide us, some loyalties that can thrive even in the absence of the kind of beliefs that might warrant those loyalties. Frequently, our commitment to seeking “the truth of the matter” does not mean that we begin our researches in a state of cold, static objectivity. We begin instead in medias res, from some engaged perspective which we know is unlicensed by our knowledge of the facts of the matter but which nonetheless motivates us to care and to act, and then to question our actions, and to question the emotionally charged allegiances that prompted them. If we didn’t start from somewhere, we would never get anywhere.

I said in my earlier blog post that I had had two new experiences courtesy of the Olympic Games, and I’m coming now to the second of those two experiences – an unfamiliar twitch of patriotism. It is patriotism of some sort or another, quite frequently, that supplies us with a ready-made engaged perspective, a preliminary action-guiding source of emotional affiliation that is arguably unlicensed by relevant facts.

The term “patriotism” lacks a well-agreed meaning. It is sometimes taken to involve a set of beliefs about one’s country – that it is superior,  for example, or that it has special claims that trump those of other countries, that it has some “mission” in the world, and so forth.  On another account (and this is the version of patriotism I want to talk about here), patriotism is not a matter of beliefs about one’s country: it is instead an affectionate identification with one’s own country, including a propensity to take that country’s interests as an object of special concern. One might experience that affectionate identification whilst acknowledging that one does not have good reason to do so, and in that case the emotional engagement that one feels with one’s country might seem puzzling. It does seem puzzling: why, for example, should I feel elated by the fact that Britain has hosted a successful Olympic Games, or won 65 medals? I didn’t do it: I contributed nothing to the Games. Why should I throw in my lot with an ill-defined geographic-legal entity within whose jurisdiction I happen to have been born? Patriotism has it in common with the consumption of fiction that it is an arena in which our emotional engagement is not, or at the very least is not fully, warranted by relevant beliefs.

Perhaps we can go further. Perhaps we can say that patriotism is not only like the consumption of fiction: it is the consumption of fiction. My recent glimmering of patriotism was aroused by a story: the story that the Olympic opening ceremony told of Britain’s progress from rural idyll to industrial powerhouse, under the influence of a class of industrialists explicitly likened to Shakespeare’s Prospero, raising wonders on a mysterious island, relying, not on sorcery like Prospero, but on the stoic endeavours of a heroic working class. It is easy to see that that is not a fully realistic but a somewhat mythic account of British history. Over the years I have been exposed to numerous other popular histories of Britain that are similarly suffused with fiction. And when I am looking at real-world developments relating to my country – domestic politics, my country’s conduct of international affairs, and so on – I am not immune from viewing matters through the prism of such stories, so that I experience my country in a somewhat fictionalised way. I think (although there isn’t space to explore it here) that equally unrealistic myths and legends, and people’s capacity to synthesise these with their perception of real-world events, tend to be at the core of patriotisms everywhere.

A patriotic British citizen feels elated when she has no reason to (it isn’t she who has triumphed, only a part-fictional entity), because she is reading the story avidly. She feels shame and guilt in relation to Britain’s misdoings, even when she has no reason to, and apprehension at the thought of the wrongful actions Britain might yet undertake, because she is enthralled by Britain’s story.

Our patriotic engagement with a nation is like our engagement with a character in a novel. When I read Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell’s role in Henry VIII’s divorce of Queen Katherine and marriage to Anne Boleyn, I feel pleasure in Cromwell’s love of his daughters, apprehension about his capacity for ruthlessness. I travel with the protagonist for the duration of the tale. I share deeply in his concerns, even though they are not mine, and even though I know that the Cromwell that Mantel writes about does not really exist, but is instead a fictional creation, only partly founded in her historical knowledge. Similarly, the character “Britain” in our patriotic stories is a fiction, but that need not stop me caring about that character and adopting its concerns as my own.

In principle, these emotional reactions to the story are capable of  informing our perception of Britain and also teaching us about ourselves, just as our emotional reactions to any great novel help to inform our interpretation of the characters in it and to see ourselves more clearly. Depending of course on the quality of the patriotic stories we tell ourselves (superficial and formulaic fiction tends to leave us pretty much where we started), patriotism might not be something static. Instead it might function as the kind of  preliminary perspective I spoke of above, an affiliation unmotivated by the relevant facts of the matter, which nonetheless motivates our actions, but also causes us to question those actions and refine or even overturn our loyalties.

As it is used, the term “patriotism” tends to be reserved for positive emotional engagement in one’s country – pride, joy, contentment. We perhaps lack a corresponding term for the shame and guilt and apprehension we feel about our country’s misdeeds. But since these negative emotions arise from the same sense of engagement with one’s country as  the positive ones, a rounder, fuller concept of patriotism might embrace them. If patriotism did explicitly embrace such shame, guilt, and apprehension, as well as elation, pride, joy, it would more easily recognised as a source of constructive criticism of one’s country. Patriotism, like all the other story-reading we immerse ourselves in, would be a resource for learning how to act well.



Sport, Stories, and the Paradox of Fiction

Like a lot of British people, I have had two new experiences in the last couple of weeks, thanks to Britain’s hosting of the Olympic Games. One of these new experiences was a twitch of patriotism, felt while watching Danny Boyle’s impressive opening ceremony. The other was the experience of being emotionally engaged by a sporting event. I’ll come back to the patriotism shortly, in a fresh blog post, but for now I want to talk about the emotions involved in sports spectatorship. As I sat agonising about whether British cyclist Bradley Wiggins could pedal a few seconds faster than other cyclists in the Surrey time trials I had two thoughts. One was “How on earth do keen sports spectators  manage to survive this kind of emotional torment every weekend?” The other was a recognition of some similarities between my emotional response to viewing sport and my emotional response to fiction. Simply because I so rarely get excited about sport, I was groping for some sort of precedent to the kind of emotional tension that I was experiencing. And edge-of-the-seat moments in fiction were what popped into my head. Why? Given that the cycle race in Surrey was real and not fictional, how and why was my experience of watching it reminiscent of the consumption of fiction?

Here are some possible answers that come to mind. First, sport itself, like fiction, has a concentration of “heightened moments” – moments of triumph or defeat, of critical choices, of intense effort against adversity or pain or one’s own personal limits; and, like fiction, it has a final moment of resolution – the end of the competition – in which matters are brought to a fairly orderly and coherent conclusion, a happy ending or a sad one. Second, television commentators routinely build on sport’s inherent drama by supplying us with numerous mini-narratives that make use of standard themes common in fiction. As the camera cuts to a particular competitor, we will be told that he sustained a major injury last year that threatened his future as a cyclist, that he vowed to overcome it, that his mother has said he will not rest until he has won a medal for his country. The commentator has shaped a story for us. It may be a true story, in the sense that it is composed of propositions that are true. But its construction (the selection of some propositions for inclusion, of others for omission) is an artifice aimed at promoting drama, suspense, tension. Third, even though we might feel a little cynical about all this pat storymaking, we seem rather heavily programmed to be receptive to it. When a commentator informed me, at the start of the men’s 400 metre final, that Grenada had never won an Olympic medal, my loyalty for the duration of the race instantly went to the Grenadian runner Kirani James, even though a moment’s reflection told me that there were numerous other available facts that could equally have aroused a loyalty to any of the other competitors in the event. In fact, not only was I receptive to the commentator’s provision of a shaping narrative of the event, I was consciously seeking just such a narrative. I wanted excitement, I wanted to care about the result, and I was consciously willing to found my excitement on the arbitrary bequeathal of salience to the desires of one set of people (Grenadians) rather than another.

This brings me to the reason why I find the similarities between my sports spectatorship and my consumption of fiction rather interesting. Philosophers of literature ask the question “Why do we care about fictional characters?” As we read a novel, we feel anxious, angry, fearful, pleased, relieved, disappointed about the fate of the characters in it. If they are characters who arouse our sympathy, we adopt their needs, wants, interests as our own: we are satisfied when they are satisfied, frustrated when they are frustrated. And all this is the case even though we know that they do not exist. Our intense emotional engagement with a piece of fiction coexists more or less smoothly with our awareness that nothing at all is at stake. This is known as the paradox of fiction. Is there something similarly paradoxical in my emotional engagement with sports spectatorship? Is there, in both cases, a similar parting of company between my beliefs, on the one hand, and my emotional response, on the other? I think that there is. Unlike fictional characters, Kirani James and the people of Grenada really do exist and – let us assume – they will indeed be happier as a result of winning a medal.  But the state of my beliefs as I watched the race did not at all licence my emotional response.

To see this, let’s say that I have a belief that the best outcomes are those that produce the greatest amount of happiness that is compatible with effort and other forms of desert being properly rewarded. In that case, my anxiety that Kirani James should win his race would be sensitive to my beliefs only if I had good grounds for thinking that, compared with the victory of other participants in the race, his victory would produce the greatest amount of happiness compatible with effort and other forms of desert being properly rewarded. In fact had no idea whether it would or not, and more importantly I didn’t care about that when I transferred my loyalties to him. My normal commitment to the truth of the matter was suspended for the sake of my immersion in a story-shaped experience of the race, with suspense and a happy ending.

It might be argued that this is nothing like the experience of reading fiction: all that is happening as I watch the race is that I am forming a preference without good reason, which is something we do all the time. The goals that we adopt do not – or do not always – have to be sensitive to our beliefs about what is, in fact, most desirable.

But something more than simple “plumping” (i.e. unmotivated, unreasoned choosing) was going on as I watched that race. I formed my preference as the result of an engagement with a narrative that I and the sports commentator had evolved between us (about a tiny nation yearning for accolade in the theatre of all the nations), knowing the narrative to be radically incomplete, and knowing it to be shaped by stock narrative themes and by the commentator’s need to deliver, and my own need to consume, a story-shaped experience of the race. It wasn’t an ungrounded preference: it was entirely well-grounded – in a selection of data which I knew to be partial and distorting because I knew it to be an artifice aimed at dramatic tension rather than truth.

If the above considerations hold any water, it seems that the “paradox of fiction,” or something like it, extends also to elements of our engagement with the real world.

And not only are we willing to allow our emotions this particular kind of freedom from the austere demands of truth-tracking, it seems interesting to speculate about the possibility that we sometimes need to grant them this autonomy – not only by retreating into a good book, but sometimes also in real life. Sometimes, in response to complex situations where the best outcome is far from clear, we need to start from somewhere. We need a stance, an orientation, a set of loyalties, something to guide our action even while we are gathering the information that will hopefully  come to inform those loyalties, refine them, perhaps overturn them. Arguably, one such stance is patriotism, and in my next post here I would like to look at patriotism, and the ways in which, like sports spectatorship, it displays something like the paradox of fiction, by eliciting emotional responses in us that we know are unlicensed by the facts.