The fact is that, despite the emphasis we place on good intentions, we do routinely pass moral judgment on ourselves and others for outcomes that were not intended, not foreseen, and influenced by factors beyond our control. Philosophers call this
“moral luck”, by which they mean that the judgment we deserve often depends not only on our intentions, but on how our actions happen to turn out.
This moral vulnerability to luck is pervasive, because nothing at all that we do as parents is fully under our control.
The moral quandaries we face aren’t dissolved when we find their neurological and evolutionary basis any more than our appreciation of art is undermined by the neurological and evolutionary basis of our perception of depth and color. But the knowledge that we are influenced by these competing psychological processes supports the somewhat comforting philosophical idea that we will never find an entirely coherent, tidy, systematic view of our moral responsibility. We see that it is problematic, unfair, even tragic, to burden people with responsibility for outcomes beyond their control. But equally it would, in the words of philosopher Bernard Williams, “be a kind of insanity” never to experience sentiments like Ariel Castro’s mother—never to feel a need for forgiveness, a need to atone, a sense of being at fault—when our otherwise blameless actions (like giving birth to a child), or our nearly blameless actions (like parenting a child imperfectly) cause unforeseen disaster for others. Rather than attempting to reason ourselves into coherence, we should embark on the more modest task of reflecting on the actual experiences that are the stuff of our moral life so that we can see our untidy morality in all of its contradictory richness. Since we can neither eliminate our responsibility for chance outcomes, nor find clear criteria for when we should accept blame, we ought to shift our focus and ask how we can live with parenthood’s painful uncertainty. What obligations does it place on us? What consolation can we seek?
— Claire Creffield, “Parenthood, the Great Moral Gamble“, Nautilus
I have been reflecting on this a lot as I think about raising a family, although it certainly applies to more than just parenthood. What do you all think, especially those who presently are or will be parents? The article includes some interesting, if sobering, accounts from parents of well known killers and criminals, and how they grappled with this paradoxical view of moral responsibility.
In the end, we can and should make the effort to lead ethical and virtuous lives, which includes taking responsibility — and life lessons — from our mistakes and transgressions. But there is only so much that we and our fellow humans can do in the face of this uncertain and chaotic universe. There will always be externalities and circumstances beyond our reckoning, let alone our control. It is difficult to parse what we are responsible for and what we are not.
Did we or our children fail through some fault of our own? Or was it bad luck? We could never know the alternative possibilities with these or any other outcomes. All we can do is try our best and adapt to the changes and challenges as they come, to be honest and well adjusted to the fact that we never have been, and never will be, in total control of our future or those of the loved ones we try to help and protect. That is both scary and liberating. But again, what are your thoughts?