Friday, May 20, 2011


Jean Kazez argues that having children can add meaning to one's life (ht bookforum). Along the way she says that:
In his book How are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest, Peter Singer describes the sense of emptiness that people suffer if they invest all their energy in such things as making money, getting promoted, sports, and shopping. Singer’s paragons of the meaningful life are people like animal activist Henry Spira and Paul Farmer, the extraordinary doctor and global-health leader so fascinatingly described in Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, 
Peter Singer’s paragons of the meaningful life are not focused on their own children, but on all children – ideally, on all people and sentient beings. They deliberately limit their focus on their own children, at least striving to live by the notion that “each counts for one, none for more than one”. This is the real life practice of Paul Farmer. As Kidder tells it, he devotes most of his time to saving the lives of poor patients in Haiti and around the world, seldom even visiting his own daughter, who lives in Paris with her mother,
(which makes Farmer sound terrible, I think, but how old is his daughter?, and how rarely is "seldom"? He might not be so bad at all, despite his saintliness), and that:

A team led by psychologist Douglas Kenrick recently proposed a revision to Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, which pictures self-actualization at the top of a pyramid. Maslow thought the consummately mature human being found his calling, whether it be art or music or poetry (his examples), after taking care of more basic needs (for food and sex, safety, love, and esteem). The ultimate activity, the end of the line, was creative self-expression. In that pyramid, parenthood doesn’t have its own specific level. It’s part sex, part love, but lower in importance than finding your personal calling. In the revised pyramid, parenthood is at the top, with mate selection and retention right below.
Kazez argues, against the suggestion that parenthood is the acme of human life, that many things can provide meaning in one's life:
I suggest that to have meaning in one’s life is (1) to have overarching goals that organise one’s time and energy, making life not just one damned day after another; and (2) to be wholeheartedly committed to those goals – durably, and without constant doubt; and (3) for those goals to be well enough grounded in reality to survive reflection.
This is intended as no more than a rough definition, but it still gives me pause. What's wrong with taking life one day at a time? Why must one's time be organized to be meaningful (if that's the implication)? What do goals have to do with meaning?

I'm involved in raising children, but this is mostly a matter of doing what needs to be done at any given moment. If there is a goal it is ensuring that our children grow up happy, well, and decent, or something like that, but a) the goal is not something I have clearly in mind, and b) it does not organize my time or energy in any clear way. Maybe it dictates how much of my time and energy are spent, but it doesn't add order to my life in the way that the word 'organize' seems (to me) to imply. If anything organizes my time it is the school calendar (my own school and my kids'), not my overarching goals.

It seems to me that the two parts of criterion number 1 come apart. The first suggests something like a hobby or a book project, the second relies quite heavily, I think, on the word 'damned.' What is really at issue is that life not be hateful, not that it be organized. The second criterion, the one about wholehearted commitment, is pretty much the reverse of this: you need to love someone or something. The third criterion looks like a sanity clause: what you love must be a sane enough object of affection that your love will endure. All in all what Kazez seems to me to be talking about is love, and it is perhaps for this reason that her breaking it down into numbered parts or criteria seems off to me. And, yes, having children certainly does give you something to love. So really I think I agree with her, despite these misgivings.

I also agree with her that one can love things other than children. I really wonder how Singer knows that people who invest themselves in making money, going shopping, or sports, feel empty inside.

I hope that some of them do, but I don't see any inevitability that they all will. Nor does self-expression necessarily seem like such a great thing. Some artists are tortured, and some are not that good (although artistic failure might often be a result of failing to express oneself truly--who knows?).

I also wonder whether it is possible for human beings to focus on "all people and sentient beings." I'm sure one can feel a kind of love for all people and all sentient beings, but all the time? In a focused way? It seems more like a momentary experience or else a kind of background to everything else, amounting to something like being happy or being nice. But it doesn't seem possible to have that kind of generalized happiness as the love that gives meaning to your life, perhaps because it gives you no direction, nothing in particular to do. (Providing medical care to children in developing countries is doing something in particular, of course, but that one should do this does not follow from an unfocused love of all sentient beings.)

Surely most of us need other, more immediate, things to love, like particular individuals. And maybe something intermediate for the times when those individuals (they could be animals as well as people, I think) are not around or don't need your attention. This could be some other set of people, or a hobby, or an art, or a sports team, or anything else that you can love.

But by now I suppose I am getting very banal, which I take it is a sign that what I'm saying is probably about right. And if Singer and Maslow have got it wrong, then the banal truth is worth saying. 

As for the banner above (suggesting that Manchester United Football Club is more important than one's children and that Douglas Kenrick's team was right about the relative priority of children and one's spouse), it's the kind of thing that people say is funny because it's true. But it's also a joke. It's doubtful that its owners would actually sacrifice their families for their team. But I suppose we don't really know our priorities until they are tested, and that happens, thankfully, rarely. One last thing that might be worth saying is that the idea of having to prioritize might be a mistake. That is, if loving all sentient beings is roughly the same thing as being happy then part of being a good parent might be having this love. An angry or hateful parent is probably not a good one. And loving one's partner is probably ideal if one is to be a good parent too. Equally, loving one's children, I would think, makes one a better partner. And so on. Life, United, Kids, Wife: in no particular order. And with whatever substitutes you prefer for kids and/or wife.   


  1. In no particular order?! Huh.

    Let's just say one hopes one's husband doesn't fly that banner over one's home any time soon ...

  2. Didn't James Mill try this with his son? I seem to recall that the experiment didn't pan out, at least as the son tells it in his Autobiography.

  3. I meant not in an order at all, because they don't compete. If they did, of course, there would have to be some ranking, in practice if not in conscious thought. At least in an emergency. In that case United might not make the top three. And I don't plan on flying that banner any time soon.

    MKR--experiment? I'm not connecting the dots here, I'm afraid.

  4. MKR--do you mean the experiment of raising him with the goal of producing a useful member of society rather than the goal of doing what was best for him as an individual? If so, it did work in a way, just with the cost of giving him a nervous breakdown. And that was fruitful, too, since he went on to develop a new form of utilitarianism as a result. Everybody wins! (Not parenting at its finest in my opinion, but what do I know?)

  5. "I really wonder how Singer knows that people who invest themselves in making money, going shopping, or sports, feel empty inside." - Psychologist Tim Kasser has collected a lot of data on this in The High Price of Materialism:

  6. Thanks, Nik. I guess that pretty much answers that question.

  7. That Kasser book is good. What Kazez says about meaning seems similar to the account Susan Wolf gives in "The Meanings of Lives" (which is a nice little paper and something of which I use the first half in my classes).

    I watched a compelling character study film last night called "Blue Valentine" (with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams). It follows the very difficult end of their relationship (she no longer loves, or can even stand to be around, him), and interweaves this with flashbacks of the beginning of the relationship (which is in itself an uplifting story, which makes the end of the relationship very depressing). The relevant point of the story is that they have a conversation where Cindy (Williams) questions why Dean (Gosling) hasn't done something with his life--he's good at many things, and all he does is paint houses. He responds that all he ever wanted to do is love her and to be Frankie's dad. (Frankie is not his child; Cindy had become pregnant with someone else at just the same time as she met Dean.) He raises what seem like good questions as to why that isn't enough, but it's true that in other ways he seems like quite an underachiever. Part of the problem, perhaps, with their relationship is that this seems to contrast with Cindy's trajectory--she gave up the dream of going to medical school in order to start this family, and it may be that some of her frustration and anger stems from this. But it's a really sad story because he really seems to be losing the center of meaning in his life. (He says something like, "I work so that I can take care of you and Frankie, isn't that enough?") It's clear from the film that Dean can be overbearing at times, but what makes him nevertheless a sympathetic character is the sense he conveys that he has a wholehearted commitment to his family (but there is also something to view embodied by Cindy that he seems at the same time to have lost his way in serving that commitment...) I guess: check it out.

  8. Thanks, Matt. I will check it out.

    I guess if we're talking about meaning in life, rather than the meaning of life, then it is somewhat subjective. Which is why it might be important to consider individual cases (real and fictional), and why I'm inclined to be skeptical of general claims about what does or does not make people feel satisfied. Singer apparently can refer to real data to support his view (unlike Anscombe, who writes off various activities as intertwined with "rewardless trouble of spirit" without any data that I know of) but I doubt that Kasser shows, or claims to show, that no one can be satisfied with a materialistic life. It doesn't seem plausible that there is one best kind of life for everybody. But then I have nothing but intuition to base that on.