Tag Archives: Bernard Williams

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.

Carpe Diem and the Longer Now

So here’s the thing: I like utilitarianism. No matter what I do, no matter what I read, I always find that I am stuck in a utility-shaped box. (Here’s one reason: it is hard for me to applaud moral convictions if they treat rights as inviolableeven when the future of the right itself is at stake.) But trapped in this box as I am, sometimes I put my ear to the wall and hear what people outside the box are doing. And the voices outside tell me that utilitarianism is alienating and overly demanding.

I’m going to argue that act-utilitarianism is only guilty of these things if fatalism is incorrect. If fatalism is right, then integrity is nothing more than the capacity to make sense of a world when we are possessed with limited information about the consequences of actions. If I am right, then integrity does not have any other role in moral deliberation.


Supposedly, one of the selling points of act-utilitarianism is that it requires us to treat people impartially, by forcing us to examine a situation from some third-person standpoint and apply the principle of utility in a disinterested way. But if it were possible to do a definitive ‘moral calculus’, then we would be left with no legitimate moral choices to make. Independent judgment would be supplanted with each click of the moral abacus. It is almost as if one would need to be a Machiavellian psychopath in order to remain so impartial.

One consequence of being robbed of legitimate moral alternatives is that you might be forced to do a lot of stuff you don’t want to do. For instance, it looks as though detachment from our integrity could force us to into the squalor of excessive altruism, where we must give away anything and everything we own and hold dear. Our mission would be to maximize utility by doing works in such a way that would keep our own happiness above some subsistence minimum, and improve the lot of people who are far away. Selfless asceticism would be the order of the day.

In short, it seems like act-utilitarianism is a sanctimonious schoolteacher, that not only overrides our capacity for independent moral judgment, but also obliges us to sacrifice almost all of our more immediate interests for interests that are more remote — the people of the future, and the people geographically distant.

The longer now is a harsh mistress.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Samuel Scheffler, Bernard Williams: here are some passionate critics who have argued against utility in the above-stated ways. And hey, they’re not wrong. The desire to protect oneself, one’s friends, and one’s family from harm cannot simply be laughed away. Nietzsche can always be called upon to provide a mendacious quote: “You utilitarians, you, too, love everything useful only as a vehicle for your inclinations; you, too, really find the noise of its wheels insufferable?”

Well, it’s pretty clear that at least one kind of act-utilitarianism has noisy wheels. One might argue that nearer goods must be considered to have equal value as farther goods; today is just as important as tomorrow. When stated as a piece of practical wisdom, this makes sense; grown-ups need to have what Bentham called a ‘firmness of mind’, meaning that they should be able to delay gratification in order to find the most happiness out of life. But a naive utilitarian might take this innocent piece of wisdom and twist it into a pure principle of moral conduct, and hence produce a major practical disaster.

Consider the sheer number of things you need to do in order to make far-away people happy. You need to clamp down on all possible unintended consequences of your actions, and spend the bulk of your time on altruistic projects. Now, consider the limited number of things you can do to make a small number of people happy who are closest to you. You can do your damnest to seize the day, but presumably, you can only do so much to make your friends and loved ones happy without making yourself miserable in the process. So, all things considered, it would seem as though the naive utilitarian has to insist that we all turn into slaves to worlds that are other than our own — the table is tilted in the favor of the greatest number. We would have to demand that we give up on today for the sake of the longer now.

But that’s not to say that the utilitarian has been reduced to such absurdities. Kurt Baier and Henry Sidgwick are two philosophers that have explicitly defended a form of short-term egoism, since individuals are better judges of their own desires. Maybe utilitarianism isn’t such an abusive schoolteacher after all.

Nietzscheans one and all.

Why does act-utilitarianism seem so onerous? Well, if you’ve ever taken an introductory ethics class, you’re going to hear some variation on the same story. First you’ll be presented with a variety of exotic and implausible scenarios, involving threats to the wellbeing of conspecifics that are caught in a deadly Rube Goldberg machine (involving trolleys, organ harvesting, fat potholers, ill-fated hobos, etc.) When the issue is act-utilitarianism, the choice will always come down to two options: either you kill one person, or a greater number of others will die. In the thought-experiment, you are possessed with the power to avert disaster, and are by hypothesis acquainted with perfect knowledge of the outcomes of your choices. You’ll then be asked about your intuitions about what counts as the right thing to do. Despite all the delicious variety of these philosophical horror stories, there is always one constant: they tell you that you are absolutely sure that certain consequences will follow if you perform this-or-that action. So, e.g., you know for sure that the trolley will kill the one and save the five, you know for sure that the forced transplant of the Hobo’s organs will save the souls in the waiting room (and that the police will never charge you with murder), and so on.

This all sounds pretty ghoulish. And here’s the upshot: it is not intuitively obvious that the right answer in each case is to kill the one to save the five. It seems as though there is a genuine moral choice to be made.

Yet when confronted with such thought-experiments, squadrons of undergraduates have moaned: ‘Life is not like this. Choices are not so clear. We do not know the consequences.’ Sophomores are in a privileged position to see what has gone wrong with academic moralizing, since they are able to view the state of play with fresh eyes. For it is a morally important fact about the human condition that we don’t know much about the future. By imagining ourselves in a perfect state of information, we alienate ourselves from our own moral condition.

Once you see the essential disconnect between yourself and your hypothetical actor in the thought-experiment, blinders ought to fall from your eyes. It is true that I may dislike pulling the switch to change the trolley’s track, but my moral feelings should not necessarily bear on the question of what my more perfect alternate would need to do. Our so-called ‘moral intuitions’ only make a difference to the actual morality of the matter on the assumption that our judgments can reliably track the intuitions of your theoretical alternate — assuming your alternate knows the things they know, right on down to the bone. But then, this assumption is a thing that needs to be argued for, not assumed.

While we know a lot about what human beings need, our most specific knowledge about what people want is limited to our friends and intimates. That knowledge makes the moral path all the more clear. When dealing with strangers, the range of moral options is much wider than the range of options at home; after all, people are diverse in temperament and knowledge, scowl and shoe size. Moral principles arise out of uncertainty about the best means of achieving the act-utilitarian goal. Strike out uncertainty about the situation, and the range of your moral choices whittle down to a nub.

So if we had perfect information, then there is no doubt that integrity should go by the boards. But then, that’s not the fault of act-utilitarianism. After all, if we knew everything about the past and the future, then any sense of conscious volition would be impossible. This is just what fatalism tells us: free will and the angst of moral choice are byproducts of limited information, and without a sense of volition the very idea of integrity could not even arise.

Perhaps all this fatalism sounds depressing. But here’s the thing — our limited information has bizarrely romantic implications for us, understood as the creatures we are. For if we truly are modest in our ability to know and process information, and the rest of the above holds, then it is absurd to say, as Nietzsche does, that “whatever is done from love always occurs beyond good and evil”. It is hard to conceive of a statement that could be more false. For whatever is done from love, from trust and familiarity, is the clearest expression of both good and evil.


Look. Trolley-style thought-experiments do not show us that act-utilitarianism is demanding. Rather, they show us that increased knowledge entails increased responsibility. Since we are the limited sorts of creatures that we are, we need integrity, personal judgment, and moral rules to help us navigate the wide world of moral choice. If the consequentialist is supposed to be worried about anything, the argument against them ought to be that we need the above-stated things for reasons other than as a salve to heal the gaps in what we know.

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