I have long had an interest in the role that what it is like experiences play in moral knowledge and the formation of rational conceptions of the good. I wrote about some of my thoughts in some of my earlier work on Rawls. I have been thinking more about this matter as I have been writing a response to L.A. Paul’s recent paper on the rationality of choosing to have a child (HC).
The argument is, by now, familiar. So, I won’t go into great detail. The upshot is that we cannot make rational decisions to have a child because making such decisions requires knowledge of what it is like to have a child (= phenomenal knowledge) and, before we have a child, we lack this knowledge.
Before I get into some of the problems I have with Paul’s argument, let me say that I love this paper, even if I basically disagree with its conclusion. Not only was it pure fun to read, it raises an important challenge to an assumption that many of us make without even a second thought. And, it does so in a really interesting way, by relying on something that many of us who have had children believe to be true, namely, that there is something uniquely transformative about the experience of having a child.
Ok, so now on to one of my main worries. Paul’s view is that there are no other bases for determining what it is like to HC than the experience of actually having a child of your own. You cannot know what it is like to HC from your experiences with other people’s children, for example.
This seems false. The problem with Paul’s argument is that it seems to conceive of the experience of what it is like to HC as one unified and distinct experience (namely, the what it is like experience of having a child). However, alternatively, one can conceive of the experience of what it is like to HC as being made up of distinct what it is like experiences, for example, of what it is like to care for, what it is like to meet the needs of, and what it is like to play and spend leisure time with, and laugh with and be angry at. While we do not and cannot have experiences of these types in relation to the child we are considering having before having her, we can and have had them with other individuals. From these types of experiences, we can and do know something about what it will be like to have experiences of these types, even if we do not know what it will be like to have these types of experiences with our own child specifically.
To make the point more vivid, return to the case of Mary. As Paul suggests, seeing red will be transformative for Mary. This transformation occurs because Mary, having only experienced black and white, has no experience of what it is like to see colour and, as a result, cannot project from her past experiences to know what it will be like to see red. This is why, before seeing red, she cannot know what it will be like. However, things are different if Mary is in a pink-room and is considering seeing red. If she is in a pink-room, she can, on the basis of her experiences of seeing pink know something about what it will be like to see red, since pink is not only a colour but is also a red-like-colour and she knows this to be the case. So, she can know what feelings, beliefs, desires, and dispositions will be caused by her experience of seeing a red-like-colour. She can know for example, that she enjoys seeing red-like-colours, finds it exciting, and that she desires to see more. Moreover, to the extent that pink is a red-like colour, she can know something about what it will be like to find “red-like-colours” in particular, joyful and exciting. In short, having experiences of a closely related type such as seeing pink, a red-like colour, can serve as basis for knowing what is like to see red and, ultimately, for knowing whether she will value seeing red.
Unless they have never been around children, the situation of most people deciding whether to HC is more analogous to Mary in the pink-room than it is to Mary in the black-and-white-room. We can have experiences of a variety of types that are relevantly similar to the sorts of experiences that we will have when we have a child of our own. For example, we can experience what it is like to touch and to see a newborn. We can experience what is like to care for and to attend to a newborn (after spending significant time with one). On the basis of these types of experiences, we can know something about what it will be like to have the types of experiences that we will have when we have a child of our own. And on this basis, we can know something about whether we will value having a child of our own or not. If all of this is right, then we can make rational decisions to have children.
There is a response available to Paul. She could push the point and argue that the experiences of what it is like to love and care for a newborn that is not your own are phenomenally very different from what it is like to love and to care for a new born that is your own. There is just something phenomenally unique about having these types of experiences with your own child. So, we cannot know what having a child of our own will be like on the basis of our experiences with other people’s children. Similarly, even if Mary has experiences of pink, Paul could argue, Mary cannot know what it will be like to see red. What it is like to see red is very different from what is like to see pink, even though pink is a red-like-colour. Seeing red, specifically, is a unique and transformative experience.
The problem with this approach is that it will make many if not most of our everyday decisions irrational, since something similar could be said of each experience that we have. In some sense, each experience that we have is both transformative and unique. Each experience that we have changes us in some way and is unlike any other experience we have had before it. While I may have seen red before, I have not seen it on this day, in this particular light, and so on. While I may have eaten chocolate ice cream before, I have not done it on this day, in this weather, in this mood, and so on. So, my experience of seeing red or eating chocolate ice cream, or whatever is in a sense unique and transformative. In turn, it would follow, I cannot project my past experiences of seeing red or eating chocolate to know what it will be like, respectively, to see red or to eat chocolate ice cream on this day, at this time, and in this way. So, if we take this rebuttal seriously, it would work to rule out rational decision-making in most cases. It will not only be irrational to choose to have a child but also irrational to choose to see red, to eat chocolate ice cream, to drive your car, to brush your teeth, and so on. This sort of rebuttal pushes too far, since we do not think that our everyday decisions are irrational.
Ok, admittedly, this post has nothing to do with political philosophy (even though this is supposed to be a political philosophy blog!). The next post will draw out, what I see as being, the implications of this discussion for some of the things I am thinking about in relation to transformative experiences and knowledge of justice and the common good.
For other related posts on L.A. Paul’s paper see:
Catrina Dutilh Novaes, Eric Schliesser and Helen De Cruz on New Apps
L.A. Paul and Kieran Healy on Crooked Timber
Update: Eric Schliesser has attempted a counter-objection to my objection at New Apps. I’ve tried to respond in the comments section.
Perhaps Eric (at New Apps) is right and I made a bit of a slip in the last section of the above post, which considers a possible response from Paul. My claim was supposed to be that the problem with the potential response (on Paul’s behalf) is that it will make many if not most of our everyday experiences count as being transformative and unique in the way that having a child is purported to be, since something similar could be said about the transformative nature of our everyday experiences. One could argue that each experience that we have is both transformative and unique. Each experience that we have changes us in some way and is unlike any other experience we have had before it. It seems to follow from this sort of response that I cannot project my past experiences of seeing red or eating chocolate, respectively, to know what seeing red or to eating chocolate ice cream on this day, at this time, and in this way will be like. So, if we take this rebuttal seriously, it would work to rule out projection in most cases. To the extent that most of us don’t find each new experience of eating chocolate ice cream transformative in this way, there seems to be something implausible about Paul’s arguments.
I’ve also responded in the comments section of Eric’s post at New Apps. Knowing Eric, I’m sure he will have a counter response soon!
Meena, are you trucking toward an argument that there is a threshold of like-enough experience such that my decision becomes rational? I.e., I’m taking it that you could make room for a case for saying: Babysitting once is not sufficient evidence that you know what it’s like to have your own child. However, foster-parenting for a year could be ‘rational’ evidence for having a good-enough idea of what it’s like that a subsequent decision to have one’s own child is now rational.
Are you going in that direction?
This is a good question. My first inclination is similar to yours. Babysitting once may not be enough to know what it is like to have a child, but babysitting a few times every week for the same family for a long enough period of time would seem to be. So, I suppose it takes a number of what is it like experience to come to know what it is like to have a certain type of experience. What do think?
Perhaps by “the experience of having a child” Paul refers not to some aggregate of or broad experiential heading under which experiences of more specific states of affairs may fall (e.g., caring for, meeting the needs of, spending time with, etc.) but rather to certain kinds of reflective experiences that often accompany such experiences, at least when had by an agent of certain sort (e.g., a parent rather than a teacher, day care worker, or a non-parent otherwise fulfilling some parental role). On this reading, “the experience of having a child” might well be a singular sort of experience that arises when the locus of reflection on any of the multitudinous other relevant “parenting” experiences is one of emphatic possession: e.g., the experience I have when I reflect upon the experience of caring for, meeting the needs of, spending time with MY child (where the emphatic 1st person possessive pronoun is understood phenomenally rather than propositionally).
Also, we should be blog buddies. http://aestheticsforbirds.blogspot.com/
Hi Christy! It’s been a long time since we chatted! Nice to see you here! I’ve now book marked your blog and I look forward to following it!
Thanks for the comment. If I understand you correctly, I think you’re on to something. It seems right to say that there is a what it is like experience that we have when we reflect on the set of experiences that arise from having a child of our own. However, I am not sure that point helps to avoid my worry. After all, we know what it is like to reflect on other sets of similar experiences (experiences of caring for my niece, meeting the needs of my niece, spending time with my niece). We also know what is like to reflect on the set of those experiences. So, why cannot we not just project on the basis of our knowledge of these reflective experiences to the reflective experiences associated with having a child? Again, they are experiences of the same type. And so it would seem that at least some projection regarding the type of experience is possible.
Meena, many thanks for the helpful blog post! I teach an “Ethics and the Family” class, and I’ve been looking for more resources for the “Should we have children?” unit.
Also, one of my friends, Devora Shapiro, works on issues of experiential knowledge. You might find this paper by her helpful: http://www.pdcnet.org/collection/show?id=socphiltoday_2012_0028_0067_0082&file_type=pdf
Thanks, Marilea, for the link!
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Hi, just wanted to mention, I liked this blog post.
It was practical. Keep on posting!
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