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!