Monday, July 18, 2011


My favorite page of The Philosopher's Dog, at least at the moment, is 214 (if that link doesn't work, search for "Ditto" using amazon's "look inside" feature to see the whole page). Gaita rejects the sharp distinction between the moral and the psychological, as well as "the tendency to think that expressions of moral impossibility are really misleading ways of expressing a sense of obligation" as aspects of "meaning-neglect." A merely psychological impossibility might be something like the inability to draw blood from oneself even when one knows it is necessary for medical reasons. One need not have any sense that it would be morally bad to prick one's finger (although, perhaps like Kant, one could have such a sense). I'm not sure what a good example of a moral impossibility that is in no way psychological would be, but perhaps killing someone with the push of a button. It might be fairly easy to get yourself to push the button (the victim is anonymous and out of sight, let's suppose), but you would never do it because of moral considerations, i.e. it would be murder. Gaita gives examples that he thinks are less clear, but that he would not happily call cases of moral impossibility: a woman's sense that she could not just replace a dead child by having more as, she thinks, Vietnamese women could (is it the racist part that makes this not moral impossibility?); Gaita's own sense that it was impossible for him to shoot rabbits when he went out on a day that had a particular effect on him because of its beauty; Orwell's "not feeling like" shooting at a man who was holding up his trousers as he ran.

Replacing a child is impossible, it seems to me, because of what it is, or means, to have a child. Parents tend to love their children no matter what they are like, but what they love is those particular children. If they die then they cannot be replaced. Nothing that means anything to you (except as a mere means), I would think, can be replaced. Although something else might take its place. That is, you can love one cat and then later love another, but you cannot transfer the love you had for the first cat to the second one. That love either dies or stays with its object. We love individuals, not whatever happens to fall under certain descriptions. We don't love, that is, under a description (even if we would love whoever or whatever happened to fall under the description 'my child', 'my pet', or whatever). (I feel as though I'm failing to state the obvious here, but that's what I'm trying to do.)

Gaita couldn't shoot any rabbits that day, or at that moment on that day, because, to put it perhaps too crudely, the mood was all wrong. He was too happy, too in awe of nature to feel like killing any of its members.

Orwell's mood, too, was wrong for killing, but not morally wrong. He saw the man under the wrong aspect, under the wrong concept (fellow trouser-wearer, fellow man, something like that, rather than Fascist or enemy or threat), in the wrong mood to feel like shooting at him.    

Each of these cases is related to morality, involving love, awe, and empathy respectively. But the last two aren't exactly generalizable or convertible to any principle, and the first one is more like a logical impossibility than a moral one. Although the logic of love is not wholly distinct from our psychology or morals.

Gaita wonders whether these cases of impossibility:
like the impossibility that we should consign our dead to the rubbish collection or that we should routinely number rather than name our children, [...] are impossibilities that structure and are structured by that part of the realm of meaning in which morality is embedded.
The impossible acts are unthinkable, that is to say, in an important way. I've been starting to think in terms of something like ethical hinge-propositions, and what Gaita says here might seem to fit that way of thinking. But it has its dangers, such as the danger of leading us to think of morality as an isolable structure with its own scaffolding or foundation, and the danger of thinking of these foundations as more real than they are. I might explore this idea more though.   


  1. you might take a look at 'the family, sex and marriage in england 1500-1800' by lawrence stone -

    though at the moment i can't say where because i don't know where my copy is. it has some discussion of the possibility that prior to certain developments in the nuclear family, parents may have been less attached to their children through infancy because early death was so common, which is correlated with the frequency with which names would be 're-used'. i'm afraid i can't remember the specifics well enough to say how much it would speak to 'replacing' children, though i think it's in a pretty up-front place.

  2. Thanks, j., I'll check that out. There's a similar point made in the recent popular book about Montaigne (is it called How to Live?), but I'm not sure (without having first read any of Stone's book) whether people really thought of themselves as replacing the children they lost or whether they just kept having more kids. Anyway, I should read the book rather than speculate.

  3. I'm not sure about one child "taking the place" of another, rather than coming to have his or her own place in one's life. The idea seems more plausible in the case of pets, though this might not be the same for everyone or in every case, as, e.g., with Rhees' response to Danny's death, as I describe in the last section of my paper on Rhees and animals.

    I'm inclined to say that Rhees was not being sentimental, and that might raise questions about whether someone who thought that a dead pet, at least one with some personality, could be replaced is somehow lacking in sentiment, or missing something. But maybe it depends on the nature of the relationship??? (Could we say "it depends" in the case of a child???)

  4. I (think I) agree. I shouldn't have said "take the place." What I meant was something like this: if the death of a child or a pet (I don't mean to equate the two) leaves a hole in your life then nothing will fill this hole (assuming the pet is something like a dog rather than, say, one of many small fish that you never really cared much about). But something else might come to occupy roughly the same place in your life and affections. That might sound wrong too, but I would emphasize the word 'roughly.'