Here I am, back from my vacation and trying desperately to catch up with the accumulated work and all the interesting events in internet-world of the last week. At NewAPPS alone there are quite a few posts I want to react to, in particular Eric’s post on the genealogy of genealogy. But let me start by commenting on the ‘hot topic’ of the moment, at least among philosophy geeks: L.A. Paul’s draft paper on how decision theory is useless when it comes to making life-transforming decisions such as having a child. Eric and Helen already have nice posts up reacting to the paper, but I hope there is still room for one more NewAPPS post on the topic.
Perhaps the first thing to notice, which comes up only at the end of Paul’s paper, is that the very idea of having children being a matter of choice/decision is a very recent one. For the longest part of human history, and for the largest portion of the human population (excluding, for example, some of those who took up religious vows), finding a partner and procreating was simply the normal course of events, no questions asked. (Indeed, Christian faith even views it as a moral obligation.) It is only fairly recently, possibly only towards the end of the 20th century, that having a child became a matter of choice at least for some people, in some parts of the planet. Contributing factors are the availability of contraceptive methods, and a wider range of life options which are now deemed ‘acceptable’, or at least more acceptable than before. (People who choose to remain child-free, in particular women, are still often looked at with suspicion.)
Coupled with the idea of parenthood as a choice came the idea of having a child as a source of happiness. Parenthood is now (often) portrayed as this wonderful, transcendental experience, which brings (or should bring!) endless blissful joy to the parents. Again, if becoming a parent is the normal course of events, it does not matter whether it is a unique source of happiness or not, but once it becomes a choice, how parenthood is ‘sold’ to prospective parents becomes a crucial point. What is more, parenthood is often portrayed as such a transforming experience that those who lack the experience in fact lack some deep knowledge about life as such, as if one can’t really know what life is all about unless one experiences parenthood.
I had a similar conversation with Graham Priest some years ago, and he observed that there are lots and lots of other experiences which arguably are equally transformative, and possibly equally knowledge-procuring, but which are not presented with the same ‘hype’ as parenthood. He mentioned in particular the example of Buddhist monks who spend years and years meditating; arguably, an equally transformative experience, which possibly provides just as much insight into what life is all about (albeit of a different kind). And yet, not many people seem to go around fretting about what they are missing out on by not becoming meditative monks. So this analogy is meant to suggest that the ‘knowledge argument’ in favor of having a child should not be viewed as cogent. But Graham did notice that there is a kind of knowledge that one acquires upon becoming a parent that is in a sense unique, which for example allows for a better grasp of one’s relationship with one’s own parents.
Back to Paul’s paper, what I missed in it is a more precise characterization of what counts as a transformative experience. She mentions having a child, tasting Vegemite for the first time, seeing red for the first time if you are Mary etc., to which I would add being a meditative monk for years. But one may well entertain a conception of transformative experience which views any experience as having this transformative dimension (albeit perhaps to different degrees), in which case what is presented as unique about having a child would seem less clearly unique, thus undermining the main point of the paper.
Another point which, as Eric, I was not so happy with in the paper, is what Eric describes as the ‘Pauline’ conception of becoming a parent, akin to a religious conversion: in a ‘flash’, the very first time one sees and holds one’s new baby, a parent is born. I for one did not in any way become a parent at an instant; in fact, it took me months to gradually develop the phenomenal feeling of being a parent (a mother) when my first child was born. (It is a different story with the second child, but there is still the process of becoming the parent of this new child, besides the parent of the older child. Some people never seem to quite make the transition and remain fixated on their first children.) In those months, I read a book which was then very helpful (I am not sure what I would think of it now): The Birth of a Mother – How the motherhood experience changes you forever (by Daniel N. Stern and Nadia Bruschweiler-Stern). As the subtitle clearly indicates, it is squarely within the spirit of Paul’s analysis of parenthood as a transformative experience; but the book argues for an ‘anti-Pauline’ conception of the process:
This motherhood mindset is not born at the moment the baby gives its first cry. The birth of a mother does not take place in one dramatic, defining moment, but gradually emerges from the cumulative work of the many months that precede and follow the actual birth of the baby. (p. 3/4)
(The book focuses on motherhood, but much – though not all – of what it says should apply to parenthood in general.)
But these are only minor points of disagreement. Most importantly, as Eric, I am very pleased to see increasing attention devoted to parenthood in more ‘mainstream’ philosophy, and Paul has done a great job at discussing parenthood from the point of view of a ‘mainstream’ philosophical topic, decision theory. (Within feminist philosophy, it has been an important topic for years, at least since the groundbreaking work of the late Sara Ruddick.)