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.

Leave a comment ?


  1. I have not read the book you mention.

    Although it is clear that in conventional terms, a mother’s role is much more absorbing than that of a father, that does not tell the whole story or even at times half of that of the parent-child relationship, which after all, is one between two human beings and as unique and special as any other between two human beings.

    That is, the father’s individual relation between any given child may be more intense and psychically intimate than that of the mother, in spite of the fact that from a distance it appears that it follows the parameters of conventional male parenting, just as the mother’s relation to that child may be less intense.

    So much goes on beneath the surface in a parent-child relationship that it is difficult to draw conclusions about any given relationship from gender stereotypes.

  2. My first thoughts on reading this was “Is it really that difficult?” I have not read the Williiams article nor the Kevin book. I am familiar with the life of Gauguin of whom I would say is too extreme and distasteful character to represent an example of manhood generally. Like Socrates I concern myself with lack of knowledge and understanding and wish I could grasp things more readily and with greater penetration. Personally I am a mature man with grown up children and off hand cannot think of anything in my life or that of my family which has been remarkably unpleasant or remarkably pleasant. Just ordinary like millions and millions of others. In this connection I am wondering if you are basing your judgements in this matter from a review of extreme cases not the usual run of life so to speak.
    I have spoken of ordinary people here but nevertheless every difference makes a difference and you mention rightfully, in my opinion, “thought experiments that deliberately discard as much as possible of the white noise that is the stuff of life.” So if we reinstate that stuff of life back into people we do find behavioural differences but a multitude of causes, what harms one relationship will not harm another it may even benefit it and so on. Out of this it seems difficult to extract many important generalisations so far as family affairs is concerned or what one should do in life. I am not enough of a social scientist to develop a decent argument here but it is always the macabre, the unusual, the distasteful the reprehensible which hits the news headlines or becomes the subject of a learned paper or a best seller and I am somewhat concerned that we have a tendency to judge humanity and write about it with judgements formed from extreme circumstances. The vast number of people just jog along more or less happily from birth to death.

  3. Claire Creffield,

    “Is philosophical reasoning too glib, too abstract, too trivialising to intrude on tragedy?”

    But this raises a question which is the complete reverse. That philosophy reduced to vanilla scented Hallmark aphorisms. Philosophy abstracted to the point it is removed from the world – removed from conflict – removed from its’ direct implications for beings and their world. Does philosophy have any place in being glib. Is its’ true domain the deadly serious, the non-trivial – the atrocities? And anything else trivialises philosophy. Even to a dangerous extent.

    Now. Moving on. We need to talk about Lionel. The whole premise of her novel (and film, if you don’t like to read), is that the mother is a good suburban middle-class woman, who does nothing wrong, but whose child is spontaneously evil, and goes on to commit mass murder. It’s a novel – and maybe Lionel Shriver holds something more to it than it just being pure fiction.

    Shriver recently wrote an article for The Guardian in defense of Nancy Lanza. It’s fair to defend her in that no one knows precisely what happened in the Lanza household – giving her, and other suburban middle-class women immediate and pure, holy mother status is not appropriate either. Though Adam Lanza’s actions are indefensible and beyond any possible justification – they were the result of his being-in-itself, and his being-in-the-world.

    The reality is the suburban mother is not a pure being beyond reproach. Some of these women – who we are to assume to be “ordinary” for their position in the material world – can be deeply psychotic tormentors. And this is the premise of another great work of art; Hitchcock’s Psycho. Yes, we assume Norman Bates is in the territory of the deeply abnormal – though we’re left in no doubt that the tormenting voice of his mother – who was not a murderer – is culpable in the production of Norman’s monstrousness.

    We do not know if Nancy Lanza was a Mrs Bates. But it is a fair though traumatic question to ask. And maybe Socrates has little to say on the phenomenon of the psychotic suburban soccer mom. And the phenomenon of the sons of these women committing a specific form of atrocity (school spree killings), with ever increasing regularity is to indicate they are neither unique or purely spontaneous. The philosophy of school shooters itself needs to be discussed – as there is philosophy there. The solipsistic nihilism is not coming out of a vacuum.

    Something nurtured the monster in Adam Lanza. There was a philosophical basis somewhere. In all probability it was an idealogical and philosophical conflict in-the-world of Nancy and Adam, that reached its’ conclusion in a horrific explosion of violence.

  4. JMRC:

    Once again you take the almost Sartrean (or Laingian) position that we are what we make of what they have made of us, that even the most irrational acts express our situation.

    My therapist always said that loving families (and she was not innocent or blind about what “loving” means) produce loving children.

    A lot of the psychology that I read seems to suggest that it’s rather a question of neuro-chemical imbalances or balances or something like that.

    Maybe it’s a little of both.

  5. It seems less pertinent here whether or not Nancy Lanza, Mrs. Bates or Kevin’s mother were in any part responsible for the behaviour of their sons, than that they were clearly responsible for the existence of them in the most pivotal choice a woman makes. Is it because it falls to the woman to make this choice that the responsibility of their children’s choices also falls to them? These are all good examples because in each case, the father is barely mentioned as a possible catalyst for the destruction caused. But mothers are skewered when their children fail.

    Shriver’s book (the film doesn’t do it justice) makes a strong case that the mother could have done little differently, yet she’s still tortured by the neighbours for bringing the boy into the world.

    As for the central question, I think philosophy can help us distance from the tragedy in a healthy way. Analyzing events allows us a temporary respite from feeling the events. It can provide a perspective to grasp hold of when the tragedy is too shocking to bare otherwise. Sometimes dwelling in the abstract can keep us sane when reality is harsh and painful.

  6. swallerstein,

    “Maybe it’s a little of both.”

    I think we know that to be true. But cop outs are cop outs – choosing the model of least resistance (the blameless bio-medical model) when it suits, is a cop out. Once the Laingian cat is out of the bag, it’s impossible to get the cat back in, and pretend there isn’t a cat struggling to escape the Hessian – you can see its paws pushing through the fabric and it’s mewling for escape.

    Even without Laing, you have Hitchcock. No one sees psycho and does not think “if I had a mother like that, I’d go crazy too”. Many people have experienced being bound to a traumatising person – they know there are limits to how much they would be able to take. Would Norman Bates’ mother have vanished had he taken a pill – there is that possibility – did she exist in the first place because he had not, is another question.

  7. JMRC:

    The effects of Hitchcock’s Psycho are neither here nor there. It’s a movie and designed to play on our pyschological intuitions, which may be correct or may not be.

    In any case, I’ve found your comments to be very interesting since you defend Laingian positions, which, as you are surely aware, are not in fashion these days.

    I’m not claiming that what is in fashion is true or the whole story, by the way.

    As I stated before, I think that there are “political” reasons why a Laingian position would be less fashionable than the bio-medical model, not to mention the role of the pharmaceutical industry lobby.

    The “political” reasons have to do with Laing’s questioning of what is normal, of normal family structure and normal love, of the way we are supposed to love and live.

    Laing is very subversive, which of course does not guarantee that he is right.

    When I try to understand people who appear to have left the factory with uneven paint (and I seem to hang out with more of them than with those with a perfect paint job, probably since my own paint job was pure abstract expressionism), I go back and forth from the Laingian to the bio-medical model.

    I’m going to reread Laing. His book, the Politics of the Family, is in the French cultural center library (of all places) and I’ll take it out.

  8. Sheryl Tuttle Ross

    I wonder whether bloggers likewise have an obligation to read or even google search whether there have been any publications on the topic of Motherhood and Moral Luck, say, in the last ten years. I find it frustrating that when the arguments states “philosophers have not discussed….” is not supported by any evidence that the topic of motherhood and moral luck has not been so discussed. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I’ve published an article entitled “Raising Responsibility: Motherhood and Moral Luck” in Hypatia that uses Claudia Card’s observations and theoretical framework on Evils, Atrocities, and gray zones to do so. It just feels like so many voices in the wilderness and not any kind of conversation.

  9. Claire Creffield

    I don’t think I said the issue hadn’t been discussed before, Sheryl! It’s only that I wanted very much to pursue it myself — I usually assume that any philosophical issue I want to pursue has been addressed many many times. In fact I did notice that article coming up on a google search and what surprised me was that the phrase “motherhood and moral luck” didn’t produce lots of philosophical articles/conversations.
    I would certainly be interested in reading your article before I actually write the post I was proposing to write on the subject, if I can get hold of it (I don’t have any institutional affiliation so its hard to get hold of all resources).

  10. Marie,

    “It seems less pertinent here whether or not Nancy Lanza, Mrs. Bates or Kevin’s mother were in any part responsible for the behavior of their sons, than that they were clearly responsible for the existence of them in the most pivotal choice a woman makes.”

    I get your point but – to blame the woman for conception and giving birth in itself is not a strong argument. Does Hitler’s mother share some culpability for his actions purely through making the pivotal choice in having a child. Then you extend the logic – was the mother of Hitler’s mother culpable in having a child. And all the way back to the primordial mother. Had she never had a child, the world would have been free of human evil – but without her, there would have been no world.

    The Myth of Pandora, places the blame on the primordial mother. In Genesis, it’s Eve. Eve, through her stupidity or inherent evil, makes the pure man fall (his stupidity is excusable as a laudable innocence – but hers is not, she is culpably stupid – a peculiarly mysogynistic allegory) – And the forbidden knowledge is the knowhow to create life. And then the world begins.

    Eve, the primordial mother, creates Adam Lanza, the school shooter.

    “Is it because it falls to the woman to make this choice that the responsibility of their children’s choices also falls to them?”

    Is the child and extension of the woman, or is it a separate being. Putting culpability at the point of conception is probably a little too mystical – yes, the choices in raising the child are important. There’s an apocryphal tale of Stalin. At the height of The Great Purge (when he was killing thousands), he sent a message through Beria to his mother in Georgia. The question “why did you beat me so much as a child?”, to which his mother answered “But look how well you turned out.”

    “These are all good examples because in each case, the father is barely mentioned as a possible catalyst for the destruction caused. ”

    That is true – but in the case of the Lanzas the father had absented himself. This does not mean to say he was not a crucial catalyst. In the case of other school shooters the fathers were not absent. And, in the case of Nancy Lanza, as Shriver has come to her defense, we do not know what was going on in that household – at the same time giving her a ‘get out of jail for free’ card, as Shriver would like to, isn’t right either. Nancy Lanza will only be in the spotlight for a short time – she will be superseded by another mother – it is clearly unfair to designated her as some kind of accomplice. But one thing is for certain – the questioning of these mothers will become harsher.

    Adam Lanza’s father and brother have not got off scotfree – they are the survivors and for the rest of their lives they will have people whispering and speculating as to their possible contribution.

    An interesting point – the sins of the primordial father. Patrick Hitler, the nephew of Adolf. He had children, sons, – but his sons made a pact with each other not to have children – the terror of creating another such monster was too much.

    Ryan Lanza, Adam’s brother – he may have the terror of creating an Adam. And the same for any woman who might bear his child.

    “But mothers are skewered when their children fail.”

    Skewered. A visceral word – straight through the gut. I’ll hazard a guess – I am not making a personal comment or drafting a psychoanlyst’s report. On an intuitive level, well below the conscious, you identify with the primordial mother – the universal mother. You identify Nancy Lanza with the universal mother – a questioning of Nancy Lanza’s mothering abilities you feel as an attack on the universal mother. The experience is literally gut wrenching. So you experience the questioning of Nancy Lanza as you being skewered – you feel it. And I believe this Shriver’s experience too.

    Did I experience the fact that Adam Lanza was male as gut wrenching. I did not. I would have a sympathy for all parties – but I do not identify with Adam’s maleness.
    But men and women do identify themselves with other men and women in this way – they reflexively leap to their defense because they experience the criticism as an attack on themselves. There is a logic to this. If a Jew leaps to the defense of another Jew who is being attacked for being a Jew, then they are defending themselves. If however they defend a Jew on the basis the person is Jewish, and the attack or criticism of the person has nothing to do with the fact they are Jewish, then it’s a little absurd and can lead to the defense of the immoral.

    Yes, it is racist to attack a Jew for being a Jew – it is not racist to criticize a Jew for something they have done. Defending a Jew purely on the basis of the person being a Jew, irregardless of their actions is racist. The distinction should be obvious and clear. And likewise you will have women who will immediately defend a woman on the basis the woman is woman, without first examining what they are defending (I know women who cannot bear to hear a man criticising a woman, even if they hold the exact same opinion of the woman).

    This kind of identification can lead to a crisis, like Myra Hindley – Myra Hindley’s actions were grotesque and indefensible (Myra and her partner were serial killers who tortured and killed children). For British women who at gut level identified themselves with some universality in womanhood, Hindley was deeply traumatising. Also when the scandal of Bernie Madoff broke, there were Jewish commentators who felt they needed to speak on his Jewishness – as if it was relevent. They felt pained.

    “Shriver’s book (the film doesn’t do it justice) makes a strong case that the mother could have done little differently, yet she’s still tortured by the neighbours for bringing the boy into the world.”

    The scapegoating of the mother. Shriver’s mother, is the only survivor they have (her son is in prison) – so they project the guilt of her son onto her. There’s something similar in DBC Piers’ Vernon God Little. Vernon is the only survivor of a school shooting – Vernon finds himself being prosecuted as an accomplice though there is no real evidence to support this claim. The community literally want a goat to slaughter.

    In the case of Shriver’s book, the book may be bigger than the author. Not the view Shriver would take – but what if the narrator, the mother, is an unreliable narrator. What if she is a psychotic who is hiding her own psychotic behavior from herself. Her son’s behavior is seemingly spontaneous – what if this is not so – what if she is editing – that in fact the mode of communication they have developed is twisted, indirect, tit for tat trauma – and that she’s leaving out her bit. It’s even hidden from her – as it is too traumatic to recognise. So, the unreliable narrator is a different reading of Shriver.

    Cognitive dissonance. Everyone is prone to it. The bits of reality that are too traumatic to deal with are pushed completely out of consciousness and replaced with a less traumatic narrative – when this is constant and extreme, the behaviour is psychotic. In the end, even Kevin doesn’t know why he did what he did. Mother and son, could be two psychotics where the reality of their relationship and their behavior is completely hidden from them.

    “As for the central question, I think philosophy can help us distance from the tragedy in a healthy way.”

    It depends on what you are trying to do with that distance. With cognitive dissonance – a palatable narrative is created to replace an unpalatable one. Rationalising a subject to make it more palatable – for the sake of palatability, is something that should be avoided.

    “Analyzing events allows us a temporary respite from feeling the events. It can provide a perspective to grasp hold of when the tragedy is too shocking to bare otherwise.

    Sometimes dwelling in the abstract can keep us sane when reality is harsh and painful.

    What I do, personally, is avoid unnecessarily traumatising myself. Sandyhook was very traumatic – but I avoided reading or dwelling on the gruesome details. In some news stories they detailed the number of bullets in some of the children – this is something I put straight out of my mind and forced myself not to visualise (I’m still concisous of the detail – haven’t gone as far to hide it from myself). It really is the stuff of nightmares. The event itself is overwhelming – but it may not be material to understanding the event. like the film, where you do not see the massacre, you can step back from the trauma just enough until it’s bearable, without having to abstract it.

    Whatever Nancy Lanza’s contribution, I do not blame her. She did not consciously commission an atrocity – and luck is sheer randomness – there is no culpability in luck.

  11. swallerstein,

    Hitchcock was very interested in psychoanalysis. So there is more to Psycho than meets the eye. What is well worth seeing is Slavoj Žižek’s The Perverts Guide To Cinema. He covers the elements of psychoanalysis in several of Hitchcock’s films.

  12. I wouldn’t know what to say about this subject except that guilt and blame are both innate and socialized, that both are extremely uneven, don’t always or even usually correspond. It certainly seems to be the fact that women both feel more guilt over their children’s fates and actions and are blamed more for them, although fathers aren’t by any means immune. But, again, this is highly individual. Some people have more sense of responsibility, are more ambitious for their children and goal-oriented, and are thus more guilt-prone, but they don’t necessarily go together either. This is the subjective point of view. Objectively, you have to consider the environment and larger society, as well as individual experience and innate traits. But people rarely take these into consideration in laying blame. It becomes a matter of opinion, really, and most are influenced by the opinions of the influential: psychiatrists, social workers, churches, government, pundits, media, etc. And then there are so many in this world who literally and coldly decide the life and death of thousands but seem to feel no guilt at all over crimes that dwarf those of any individual in a family. But it is in a context of war, and questions of justification are quickly passed over and forgotten by the public. That is partly why there is such outrage over individual domestic acts of violence. it’s something people can get their teeth into and has a cathartic function. But I’m not trivializing this, and in fact there has to be a correlation between domestic violence and foreign policy.

    On a personal level, life isn’t for the timid, and the weak are, of course, vulnerable. It’s often a case of chickens seeing blood. We know how that works out.

  13. On the subject of moral luck and Motherhood, I hesitatingly cite Von Trier’s
    AntiChrist, even though it is very relevant, because of it’s explicit sexual content and unnerving subject matter and style. Von Trier explores the vulnerability of women in marriage and as parents in an extreme case of a combination of parental, existential and historical guilt and blame. Here is a man and artist who understands very well the thought processes and emotional burdens of women regarding birth and child-care (including possible pre-existing post-partum depression) in contrast with her husband. The husband’s final actions are in keeping with society’s attitude that women’s psychology is unfathomable and can only be put down, finally, as demonic. This movie is a much maligned and misunderstood masterpiece in all respects.

  14. doris wrench eisler,

    “I hesitatingly cite Von Trier’s
    AntiChrist, even though it is very relevant, because of it’s explicit sexual content and unnerving subject matter and style.

    Von Trier explores the vulnerability of women in marriage and as parents in an extreme case of a combination of parental, existential and historical guilt and blame.”

    That’s not really the interpretation that makes the film controversial. One accusation is Von Trier is being deliberately misogynistic – I think he is, but I would assume it’s under an artistic license to be provocative (but he is religious so he may be religiously misogynistic).

    It’s a very dense film. It’s loaded with interwoven allegories. One of the main allegories is the biblical fall of man – though in reverse.

    The characters are just known as she and he (the primordial mother and father, Adam and Eve), their child is Nick (the name could be an allusion to the devil). Nick falls out of a window while they are having sex – the fall and death of man, for the primordial crime of Adam and Eve (there is more to this. later in the film in a backflash she is seen to witness her son climbing out the window, but she does nothing to stop him – instead concentrating on her orgasm. This is another allusion to the biblical allegory – the misogynistic interpretation of Genesis; the woman is responsible for the fall of man because she wanted to have sex).

    After their child’s funeral the couple retreat to a log cabin in the woods, which is called Eden – this is to make the allusion to the biblical allegory explicit.

    “The husband’s final actions are in keeping with society’s attitude that women’s psychology is unfathomable and can only be put down, finally, as demonic.”

    Von Trier is the film maker – the husband is a character he using to tell a story. The husband finds nature unfathomable – nature is chaotic and cruel. When he finds the self-disemboweling fox, who rasps “chaos rains” – this is nature presented as unfathomable and senseless both for the man and the viewer. The woman makes statements at various points – “nature is evil”, “woman are closer to nature” – it is her belief that woman are evil – when he finds the thesis she is working on, it’s her who has determined women to be demonic. In Trier’s Melancholia, Justine says “all life is evil”. Both films are connected.

    The sex in Antichrist is cold and she is driven by a compulsion. She crushes her husband’s testicles and removes her clitoris with a scissor (it’s not a film you’d recommend to your maiden aunt). She is Pandora, attempting to close the box that releases all the troubles of the world.

    He kills her; what if Adam had killed Eve? He burns her body, and the world returns to prelapsarian calm. He has killed the primordial woman – the source of all evil. In the morning, the forest is no longer dark and threatening. He walks through a meadow – he finds a bush with fruit. He eats the fruit, and as he does, hundreds of women with their faces blanked out appear – he has eaten the forbidden fruit. And the fall of man begins again.

    So maybe the whole thing is irredeemably misogynistic.

    “This movie is a much maligned and misunderstood masterpiece in all respects.”

    I don’t think Von Trier wants it to be understood – there are other allegories and I think a few are just red herrings to make it more incomprehensible.

    I don’t think it’s a comment on contemporary domestic life.

    But maybe it is. Maybe there is a connection between what Von Trier was saying and what Adam Lanza did.

  15. To think of a way a child turns out as a matter of luck is bizarre.

    Children do best with two good parents. Not just well-intended but well-performing. Gender does matter in parenting. So does the quality of the marriage.

    Adam Lanza’s mother was overprotective and his father was estranged and emotionally negligent. When misparenting starts early in the child’s life you get deep wounds and very bad outcomes.

  16. Sharon Kass,

    Luck does seem to play an important role. As you yourself point out, the parents have a significant impact on children. But, we do not get to pick our parents-that seems to be a matter of chance. If a person is lucky, they are born into a good family and good circumstances. As such, luck seems to be a very significant factor.

    This, of course, assumes that there is luck in some sense. I usually tend to see “luck” as cases in which chance worked out favorably.

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