One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Going back a bit

As ever...I'll fix the html shortly.
A short while ago I read, and immensely enjoyed 'The Time Traveller's Wife' by Audrey Niffenegger. Others I know have rated it highly too. I'm not necessary claiming that it's great literature - but the convoluted time strand was an enjoyable head fuck. (The film was universally panned, though.)

So I was surprised when two people whose opinions I respect, at least one of whom had read it ( ;-) )1 responded...somewhat negatively. It wasn't just that they didn't like it as a book - there seemed to be a bit more revulsion going on2. It seems the source of the distaste is the ('vile') Wife of the title who ('selfishly') goes all out to conceive a child even though she knows it may suffer by having the same time travelling condition as her husband.

The first thing I have to say is my only thought about the Wife is that she is a little mimsy. (Hiffenegger comes over that way in interviews too). It simply didn't register with me that she was doing something dreadful by having a child, and nobody else I've spoken too commented on that. I don't get the impression that it was a theme or issue for Hiffenegger, either. The having-a-child plot element wasn't, I don't think, in the book for the purposes of either raising a dilemma or showing the Wife in a bad light.

So why the repugnance on one side and blank puzzlement on the other? Is it different worldviews over whether it's acceptable to bring a sick child into the world? Or perhaps its that some of us (like me) have simply demonstrated ethical laxity and failed to pick up an obvious monstrosity. That's what I'd like to explore. I'm not saying that one side is wrong and the other right. It's my view that ethics is (are?) a slippery bugger: many's the time that we can't say for sure what's right and have to accept that others simply disagree. Still - talking about the disagreements can be enlightening.

So here we go...

I want to start with the specific - the book - and then move on to the general - real life.

In the book, The Wife has an overpowering desire for a child (many women do) and suffers multiple miscarriages in her attempts to carry one to term. It gets to the point where The Time Traveller can't bear to see her so distressed and has a vasectomy. Her distress continues until she conceives and bears a child by an earlier, un-vasectomised3 version of The Time Traveller.

Now...if I recall correctly, the Wife's desperation for a child is driven by something more than biology. She knows that she will lose The Time Traveller and wants something to remember him by. So one could take the view that her determination might override other concerns. Such as the concern that the time travelling gene could be passed on to her child. She sometimes sees her husband suffering injuries as a result of his time travel, so she's (arguably, selfishly) weighing up her neediness against a child's suffering.

Except...that's not what it says in the book.

Firstly, note that The Time Traveller seems to have no problem with the possibility of conceiving - or not on the grounds of a child's suffering, anyway. Is he being morally lax? Or is he making a valid decision that a life that contains the same type of suffering as his might nonetheless be worth living. After all there are compensations, like getting to see cool punk bands that you missed the first time around or having al fresco sex with an eighteen year old when you're in your forties.

Secondly (and hear it occurs to me that Hiffenegger might have been addressing the suffering issue after all)...most of The Time Traveller's sufferings are due either to his getting into scrapes because he suddenly turns up somewhere naked or because of the complications of not being able to explain his 'now' circumstances. Plus he can't take any dental work with him when he time jumps. But Hiffenegger fixes that for the daughter, doesn't she? By the time she's ten her condition is widely enough known about to have a name. OK, so it might still be dangerous for a woman to turn up somewhere naked, and maybe she'll get frostbite like her dad - but the risks are reduced. It might mean multiple trips to the dentist, but at least the dentist would understand why. (Although maybe in the US there'd be the insurance issue.4)

And so on to the general.

First I want to deal with the issue of maternal yearnings. The urge to procreate differs from woman to woman (and, indeed, man to man), but on the whole, having offspring is what lifeforms do. We have to accept (surely?) that it's a legitimate urge. I wouldn't call it a 'Right' - after all, some people simply can't have children - but it has to be up somewhere in that territory.

(And note that we don't have to exercise our Rights or right-ish things: some have little compulsion to be part of a well-regulated militia, etc. etc.)

Consequently, on the whole, we don't believe in intefering in peoples' reproductive rights, do we? That's reflected in Articles 12 and 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. As a guiding rule, the decisions of others whether or not to have children are none of our damn business. That's not to say, of course, that we always think people are doing the wise thing by reproducing. Is it wise for a woman who makes her living scavenging on a Lagos rubbish dump to bring a child into poverty, filth and disease? Probably not. But breeding is what people do, and if there's any fault its the wider world for not creating satisfactory conditions for her and her child. Or we might be exasperated at the stereotypical woman on a sink estate who, in a dysfunctional search for meaning and identity, has multiple children who will be brought up in less-than-ideal socio-economic conditions. Or the the Pope-fearing woman who, unlike the majority of European Catholics, follows church teaching and end up with a pew's worth. We don't (do we?) despise these women but understand that they are the victims of circumstance. If their lives were better, they'd tend to have fewer children anyway, but what they're doing isn't usually regarded as immoral.

One small caveat: I realise there is one way in which we think it's reasonable to restrict reproduction. Given the scarcity of planetary resources, I assume we all wholeheartedly approve of China's 'One Child per Family' policy and - modest proposal - would approve of its extension and rigid enforcement in those nations which consume the most resources per capita. (I'll leave that one hanging. It's a whole can of worms and worth a thread of its own.)

Where was ? So far, I think I've been trying to establish that people breed and, in the case of healthy children at least, nobody bats an eye. So are unhealthy children as special case? Is it reasonable to give birth to a child knowing that it will suffer? depends what you mean by 'suffer'. And how much. And whether the sufferer might nevertheless come to find life bearable despite. As Gautama said 'Suffering is inevitable.' But most of us don't take Schopenhauer's5 view that it is 'better never to have been born at all'. On the other hand, most (but not all!) of us would accept that it would be example to terminate a pregnancy on the grounds that an ultrasound scan showed the foetus to be microcephalic. And then there's a middle ground. What if a scan shows conjoined twins? Or a hole in the heart? Or if amniocentesis shows a high chance of Downs Syndrome? All those (potential) children will suffer through their conditions. Interesting questions: Are we compelled to terminate? Are we compelled to have the ultrasound and amnio so we can spot problems before it's too late? I promise you I'm completely, utterly Pro-Choice. I'm the son of an abortionist, after all (my mum was a family planning nurse who provided contraceptive and termination services in Bootle, a deprived, largely Catholic area of Liverpool in the 1970s-80s). On the other hand...we turned down amnio for our own children: we wouldn't have aborted.

So maybe it's a judgement call on how much suffering we're prepared to allow. I'll buy that. But who decides? Is Downs Syndrome bad enough? Is it better or worse than random time travelling? Search me. Shouldn't these issues be judged on a case-by-case basis? Shouldn't the default position be that its the parents who decide?6

Another caveat: parents can get judgements about their children dreadfully, dreadfully wrong and at such time it is reasonable to intervene in defence of the child. (The Univeral Declaration on the Rights of the Child7 has precedence over the UDHR). There have been various cases where, for example, parents and medical staff have disagreed over whether treatment should be withdrawn and the child allowed to die. The point about these differences of opinion is neither side is right. They have to be referred to a Higher Authority, and that's what judges are trained for8. In fact, even if both sides were inclined to agree, in difficult cases, doctors would be ethically negligent not to go to court.

But so far I've only dealt with the 'Shit Happens' cases. The ethical decisions we make when dealing with the happenstances of life are in a different category to our deliberate moral choices. Like when a Time Traveller's Wife deliberately chooses to conceive a child who will likely suffer a medical condition.

Or are they?

Let's allow that The Wife is (selfishly/vilely) privileging her desire for a child over the child's suffering. However, I've tried to establish (to my satisfaction at least - feel free to argue) in the default case where children are likely, as most are, to be born healthy that women are entitled to their own reproductive decisions. Further - even if we could see inside others' minds - their motives for reproduction remain theirs alone. (As a starting point at least. We might have qualms about someone planning to have a child for organ harvesting, sexual gratification, a tasty snack9...). I've also tried to establish that it's damn difficult to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable suffering: at very least there's room for legitimate disagreement. (Hold that phrase: legitimate disagreement. It's OK to disagree ethically - it's inevitable, even.). So if we have a woman who's making a reproductive choice for unknowable reasons but which is hers and hers alone to make, and the acceptability of that choice in terms of the suffering to the child is unquantifiable but is hers and hers alone to judge...well...I guess you can see where I'm going. For myself, I'd have to be pretty certain before I labelled such a decision as vile - there would have to be some pretty obvious extremes. But mainly, these matters demand tolerance - unless one's prepared to be more ethically certain than I ever am.

Let's take a real world example (-ish. I'll not go researching links). There have been cases where congenitally deaf couples have had children knowing that they, too, would be deaf - in fact, some have even advocated positively for their deafness. Are they right? OK - I'm starting to get uneasy myself with this one...but I don't know. (Is deafness more disadvantageous than time travel?). Sure - I'm entitled to my gut feelings...but maybe, just maybe I should get over myself. For example, if I were to discover later that the deaf child turned out to be perfectly happy...could we not say that my gut feelings had been a bit silly?

Time to get philosophical on your asses.

I'm not a big fan of Deontological Ethics which say10 that 'good' is definable by fixed principles, on the obvious grounds that if there are Rules, how the hell do we decide what they're meant to be? Even Kant’s Categorical Imperative requires us to make, I think, quite arbitrary judgements about what is right. I’m not necessarily saying that’s wrong – so long as you’re heart’s in the right place – but we shouldn’t pretend we’re accessing universal principles by so doing. Essentially the Categorical Imperative boils down to Rabbi Hilel’sGolden Rule’ – do as you would be done to. But there’s a big problem with this: What if I don’t want to be treated the same way as you? (“Curse this time travelling! I wish I’d never been born!” ...“Actually – I find its worth all the pain and inconvenience”)

A variant of this has become popular: Scientific or Naturalistic Ethics, the notion that we are all imbued with an ethical sense by nature of our biology. Some, such as Peter Singer and Sam Harris, hold that Morality can be derived scientifically. Singer, for example cites experiments where subjects are example of a train speeding down a track towards a set of points. Down one branch of the track there is someone on the track. On the other there are five. Subjects universally agree that it’s morally legitimate – imperative, even – to operate the points so that the train kills one instead of five. So we’ve established a universal principle. Except…I can see how easily such principles might be overridden. (“What if the five people are Jews?!”) I suggest that all we’ve established is that we make moral judgements, not what they should be.

The suggest that a basic mistake that many people make, not just 'ordinary' people but Deontological Ethicists make is to categorise decisions or actions as 'Right' or 'Wrong'. I don't just mean that people classify various things incorrectly, but that the categories themselves are insufficient. Much of our thinking seems to rest on Aristotelian logic. But maybe on matters of Ethics we need to take a leaf out of the book of Islamic philosophers such as al-Ghazali (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) who categorised the world more subtly - in line with Islamic theology which (contrary to popular belief) doesn't simply categorise behaviour into forbidden/allowed but has various gradations ('ahkam'). Plus, it's probably no coincidence that Fuzzy Logic was invented by an Iranian11.

Then there's Dialectic. Now, obviously as a good Marxist I'm a Dialectical Materialist. But as a way of looking at the world, it's only a means to an end - a way of simplifying problems to the level at which they're tractable. Just so long we realise that the real world is complicated, though, and problems are multivariate. KierkegÄrd preferred to look at it differently. Complexity is irreducible and the truth is not in the decision one reaches, but in the process of grasping towards it. (There is a good Radio 4 'In Our Time' on this. Highly recommended.). Thus some decisions are to be approached with 'Fear and Trembling.' Plus, see my quote at the end of this post.

Except we do, ultimately, come down on one side or another, both as societies and individuals. As societies we derive laws and societal norms which provide us with an ethical framework so that we don't have to think everything through from first principles every damn time. But note that codification does not confer 'Rightness' on ethical principles. Nor, even in democratic societies does it mean that, having reached an agreement, everyone must nuckle down and agree. All that we mean by a 'Law' is something enforced by power - whether the power of a majority or of a priveleged minority with control over truncheons than anyone else. But so what? What I'm trying to say is that we shouldn't expect an ethical consensus stable enough to provide the basis of custom or law. It follows, then, that there will always be people who dissent from some laws, 'agreed' ethical positions or norms of behaviour. If they carry their dissent into action, we should remember that they are not necessarily breaking a moral code, and when we punish them...all we are in fact doing is exercising our superior power to enforce our norms. In fact arguably society needs dissent - including plain, old criminal nastiness - to remind us what we think.12 However...we should always be aware: We may be wrong.

Getting back to individuals. Yes, of course we all have our opinions of what is Good/Bad, Vile/OK, What I'd do/I'd never do a thing like that, etc. I guess my plea is that we choose carefully the occasions when we elevate what may be mere matters of personal taste to the status of morality.

Or am I wrong? Am I weak-willed hyper-liberal moral relativist with no ethical underpinning? Discuss.

However...we're only talking about a piece of Chick Lit, and one's entitled not to like the characters in books. (I don't like anyone in 'The Lord of the Rings', after all ;-) )

I've rambled enough. I'm a rambling man. I shall leave you with some examples, though. Which of these hereditary conditions would you judge sufficiently serious to avoid passing on to a child?

  • Heart disease
  • Huntingdon's Disease
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Being born in a socially deprived area
  • Dark skin pigmentation (face it - it causes genuine hardship!)

Unleash the footnotes...

1 In fairness, the other person cast it aside as Chick Lit...although I still say they should have read on and not been swayed.

2 "This is not a book that can be tossed aside lightly. It must be thrown with great force." Dorothy Parker. Hmm. I'm currently ploughing through 'The Kindly Ones' by Jonathan Littell. At 980-odd pages, it can't be tossed aside lightly. Even if you did, it would land with an almighty thud.

3 Is 'un-vasectomised' a real word? Never mind - it doesn't make a vas deferens.

4 Yeah, dentistry is costly in the UK too now - although one would expect Time Travellers to get NHS treatment. I've saved a fortune by managing to get on an NHS dentist's list and cancelling my insurance.

5 I'm fairly sure it was Schopenhauer. Could've been Nietzsche. I'm 99.999% sure it wasn't KierkegÄrd.

6 And, for various reasons, I think ultimately the mother, but I'll leave that subtlety for now.

7 I always use the Plain English version of this. It's lovely!

8 "I could have been a judge if only I had the Latin...the Latin that you need for the strenuous judging exams." - EL Whisty.

9 "Eight pounds and four ounces...Good size for a baby...Damn small turkey, but." Line from a Roddy Doyle book - can't recall which one.

10 Says? Can I have a ruling please on whether Ethics are singular or plural? Or a county in the South East of England?

11 "What have the Muslims given us lately?" "Camcorders and Anti-Lock Braking Systems, Mr Kilroy-Silk."

12 I think there's a criminological theory along these lines, but I'll have to consult the local expert. It sounds like a Jean Genet, Deviance kind of thing.


Sho said...

Oh my. It's a fair old while since I've read the book, and after fairly-recently watching the film (on the off-chance of getting an eyeful of a naked Eric Bana - I'd already heard it was not a good film. I have different ideas about that but they are not for now...)

In fact, the thing that I remember most about the book, and since people here discussing it will have read it (I hope) it's not a spoiler: the thing I remember most is his insistance on how much he needs his feet. Which was a huge red flag to me as soon as he said it and I knew something would happen in that respect.

But now I have to think back to my feelings about it while I read it (in May 2008 according to my online book diary)

So here it is. Since I've become a mother I've found it horribly difficult to read some books. Anne Frank for one - which I pushed on with. The Lovely Bones - which I abandoned before the end of the first page. When the Wife was so adamant that she wanted a child I felt for her - but I also felt that she should have had a lot more consideration for what time travelling actually means.

I should add here that I didn't have the triple test or an amnio for either of my two, even though I was judged (harshly I thought at 33) a geriatric mother for the first.

Firmly in the pro-choice camp, I'm also firmly in the (if you are in a relationship) there are two parents making the child and they both need to be on the same page.

I have a friend who tricked her then (telling word, eh?) husband into having a baby that he absolutely didn't want. She knew when they married that he didn't want any children and why, and said that she agreed. Every time the subject came up, she said she agreed.

And then she did it anyway.

And he pays for the child, but he won't be involved in his life and he is very angry that it lead to the end of their marriage. His 2nd wife left him in the end because he won't have children...

Sometimes I do wonder if some members of my gender really listen to other people. We're supposed to be good at that after all.

For me, and in respect only of the book, the fact that Henry absolutely did not want a child was the killer for me. She cheated on him to get what she wanted. Although she did cheat with 'him' it was still cheating. And he was, IIRC, desperately upset about her being pregnant (less so about the cheating, wasn't there a threesome in there somewhere?)

Having said that, of course, the Henry she cheated with was also cheating on himself, and I got quite angry with him too.

OK I'm all over the place with this. I have to read it again. But in general, I am still Very Cross with the Wife (gawd, I've forgotten her name) and a bit cross with the other Henry.

(and I feel cheated at the lack of nekkid Henry in the film)

And I apologise. I'm overwhelmed by Ed's erudite post. And I'm not at all qualified to talk about literature, novels or anything, being an uneddificated oik.

Edward the Bonobo said...

'Erudite' is far too kind a word. 'Show-offy' is probably nearer the mark.

I'm not sure I picked up that Henry didn't want a child. Didn't he go against the idea when he saw the suffering it was causing The Wife?

Away from the specific and onto the seems to me that many of we men are not as keen on children until women convince us and only really change our mind when we see them. That's because we're dumb.

So here's a thought...should it not be obvious to men that most women want will children at some point and that this is an implicit condition of a relationship? Of course, most men would run a mile at that prospect - although being of limited mental capacity we stay around for the short-term prospect of a shag.

Yes, I'm being provocative here. 'Q: Why do women have breasts? A: So that men will talk to them.' etc. etc.'

But it does raise the quite serious issue that *ultimately* reproductive decisions should be made by women. Ideally, yes, they should be agreed as a couple - but the real world is not ideal.

(But, yes, tricking a man into conception is a low blow. As I say - I don't believe in moral absolutes.)