Wednesday 13 July 2016

Virtue ethics and motherhood

The downfall of Andrea Leadsom as prospective Prime Minister was at least strongly associated with her apparent claim that being a mother gave her an edge over the childless Theresa May.

Putting aside the details of what she said, didn't say and the tone with which she said it, I found the resulting Twitter flood of mockery utterly depressing. Whilst appreciating the inevitability of the brutal knockabout of politics, many comments from people not directly involved displayed a general acceptance of the view that being a mother offered absolutely nothing in the way of a worthwhile experience or endeavour.

Let's consider another way of spending, say, eighteen years of one's life: military service. If a political leader said something along the lines of, 'I think my eighteen years of military service has helped make me a better politician', then I doubt anyone would have objected. It's of course not a knockdown reason to vote for someone. (On the whole, you might suspect that military service would be less important than (say) successfully running one of the more important ministeries.) But it would count for something.

Note a few things here. First, to claim that it gives you an advantage implies that it gives you an advantage over others -and that those others could be (if you wanted to or thought it tactful) be identified. So it is implicitly claiming that, ceteris paribus, you have an advantage over those who have not served. The mere fact of claiming an advantage isn't unreasonable, even if that advantage might be outweighed by other experiences that your opponent has and you haven't. The reluctance to mention motherhood in this way (particularly when May had made it clear that her childlessness was both involuntary and regretted) says more about our implicit acceptance of how important motherhood is to people's flourishing: we expect people (especially women) to be extremely sensitive about failing to have children in a way that we don't consider people likely to be so sensitive about other lacks (such as military service). Paradoxically, the 'horror' that some claimed to have felt about Leadsom's remarks is a testimony to the sui generis importance of motherhood.

But what is that importance? Let's take two aspects. First, it achieves something. Giving birth to a child and rearing it is essential if humanity is to continue. To the extent that we need or want a new generation, we need mothers. It is, we might normally think, right to honour people who achieve an important good. Secondly, it opens up a range of experience that profoundly affects our character and understanding of the world. Going back to the example of military service, fighting in the front line might plausibly be thought to open up an aspect of the world and to produce changes in character that others who had not undergone this might not have access to. This doesn't mean that everyone will be so altered and it doesn't mean that there mightn't be other experiences the importance of which again might outweigh the importance of military experience. But we might once more say that, ceteris paribus, the experience of war is something that would count for something. Turning to parenthood -and especially the experience of motherhood- I find it difficult to see how, normally, such an intense and extended experience wouldn't have a profound effect on people.

For me, the Leadsom stooshie demonstrates yet again how the natural centrality of the family and the experience of parenthood, especially motherhood, is being marginalised. It brought to mind passages in a book I hadn't read for probably around twenty years in which the virtue ethicist Rosalind Hursthouse reflects on the nature and value of motherhood:

So, I conclude, bearing children is intrinsically worthwhile. To do it, and do it well, is to have done something morally significant. Doing it well involves exercising courage, fortitude and endurance, and, moreover, exercising them in the achievement of something worthwhile, not, like being a wall-of-death rider, something worthless. What is done is, I claim, not just worthwhile and significant but morally worthwhile and significant, because of its connection with, on the one hand, the value or sanctity of life and, on the other, with what I have roughly categorised as 'family life' -the field of our closest relationships with other people. For these two areas are the concern of morality if anything is.


Perhaps the general conclusion to be drawn from any serious discussion of 'the worthwhile' is that all of us who lead ordinary lives should consider whether

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

(William Wordsworth)

Then the particular conclusion to be drawn from the particular discussion of the worthwhile we have been going through in this section is that no woman who has borne children well in the ordinary way should say humbly to herself, 'Well, I haven't done anything with my life really; I've “laid waste my powers” ', for she can say, 'I have done this much'. But anyone who has not borne children well might have to say, 'I haven't done anything with my life really'.

[Hursthouse, 1987, Beginning Lives, pp315-18]


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  2. Hear. Hear.

    Anyone who has been a parent knows how challenging the lovable little rag rats can be. (I have an eight and six year old.) One learns all kinds of important character traits raising children, among them, patience and conflict resolution---two traits that will be desperately needed in Britain's upcoming exit from the EU.

    1. Yes, agree! If nothing else, at some level, politics involves the ability to work with people: both other politicans and civil servants and 'the people'. Bringing up children is a peculiarly rich way of learning about others and yourself. Not the onle way, but one that does have unique challenges and rewards.


  3. I had the exact same feeling about this.
    The virtues of motherhood are so obvious, and belong so much both to common sense and to the received wisdom of the ages, that it really speaks to the decadence of our morals that they are held in such little regard.
    I suspect that the main reason why this was such a scandal is the collective guilt we share, and especially the women among us, about the fact that we have increasingly abandoned the family for work and entertainment, which we all know to be a culpably wrong ordering of priorities.