Oh coward Conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

Every once in a while, buried in all the fake news and confirmation biases, I find something that rings true. Something that transcends the routine moral admonishments that usually find me wanting. It’s not that I don’t aspire to morality, or whatever, it’s just that I’m sometimes not very good at it: I forget things from time to time, and yell at other people, or the dog.

And anyway, being good only exists in contrast to something else so it’s important to keep other stuff around so you know where you sit. I do not know any moral saints, you understand -they must run with a different crowd- but then again, I’m not sure we’d get along as friends. The American philosopher, Susan Wolf, defines these ‘saints’ as people whose every action is as morally good and worthy as possible, and she writes in her eponymous essay Moral Saints: ‘I don’t know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them.’

It turns out that her essay is the subject for another essay, this time by Daniel Callcut in Aeon, rather than The Journal of Philosophy so I felt less of a stranger in a strange land in reading it:  https://aeon.co/essays/why-it-is-better-not-to-aim-at-being-morally-perfect

Wolf seems to be suggesting that the moral saint would likely never give you a break if you weren’t constantly altruistic, so I enjoyed Callcut’s paraphrase: ‘The problem with extreme altruism, as Oscar Wilde is reported to have said about socialism, is that it takes up too many evenings.’

‘If you don’t have enough time for friendship or fun, or works of art or wildlife, then you are missing out on what Wolf calls the non-moral part of life. Wolf does not mean to suggest that non-moral equals immoral: just because something doesn’t have anything to do with morality (playing tennis, for instance) it does not follow that it is therefore morally bad. The point is that morality is, intuitively, focused on issues such as treating others equally, and on trying to relieve suffering. And good things these are: but so is holidaying with a friend, or exploring the Alaskan rain forest, or enjoying a curry. Moral goodness is just one aspect of the good things in life and, if you live as if the moral aspect is the only aspect that matters, then you are likely to be very impoverished in terms of the non-moral goods in your life.’

I am taken with Callcut’s take on Aristotelian ethics: ‘Aristotle most notably, held views of ethics that encouraged neither selfishness nor selflessness: the best kind of life would be concerned with others, and involve pleasurable engagement with others’ lives, but it would not require impartial dedication to the needs of strangers. Ethics is more concerned with the question of how to be a good friend than it is the question of how to save the world. And, as with good friendships, ethics is both good for you and good for other people. At the heart of Aristotle’s ethics is the ultimate win-win. The best ethical life simply is the most desirable life, and the fulfilment of our social nature consists in living in mutual happiness with others.’

However, some of Callcut’s arguments -and especially Wolf’s- go deeper than what most of us non-philosophers would likely accept, let alone understand. What I took from the essay was that ‘a line has to be drawn between what is morally required of you and that which is morally praiseworthy but not morally required… Morality doesn’t require you to have no other interests besides morality.’ And ‘The fact that you are not morally perfect doesn’t make you a bad person.’ Most of us walk the middle ground.

I remember one cold day a few years ago when I was in town -fairly close to Christmas, I think. The street was full of shoppers, charity Santa Clauses, and on every block, Salvation Army volunteers with their little pots slowly filling with money. Unfortunately, the contrast with the street people among them was jarring -especially the old man and his dog sitting on a busy corner. Everybody passed the two of them without a glance. He had no cup, and he looked too cold to leave his hat down on the sidewalk for donations. Perhaps in his sixties, or seventies, he was unshaven and dressed in a torn, mud-stained grey-brown overcoat and was huddled close to his dog, his hands trying to find some warmth in his coat, while his feet sought refuge under the dog. A rumpled blue toque, obviously too small for him, was pulled over his head, but it wasn’t large enough to cover his ears, and he was visibly shivering.

I had just bought a few presents and could feel some change jangling in one pocket, and my conscience in another, so I decided to empty both of them in the Salvation Army pot nearby.

I glanced at the man and his dog as I walked over to the pot.

The volunteer saw me looking at the man. “I’ve tried to convince him to come to the shelter,” he explained, before I had a chance to empty my pocket. “But he won’t…”

“Can he bring his dog with him?” I asked. The dog was obviously important to him.

The volunteer nodded. “But, only to our shelter on the other side of the city, unfortunately -too far away from where he lives in the park.” He smiled at the old man. “He says he’s waiting for some friends, although I haven’t seen them in a couple of days…” We both stared at the old man. “He just got out of hospital -actually, I think he probably discharged himself. He was worried about the dog.”

“But look at him,” I said. “He’s cold now; he’s going to freeze tonight!”

The volunteer sighed. “He refuses to go back to the hospital, so I offered to drive him and the dog to the shelter in my van, but…” He shrugged.

“Let me talk to him,” I said and walked over to where he sat. I started to extend my hand to greet him, but the dog growled protectively.

“Is there anything I can help you with, sir?” I asked, being careful not to approach any closer.

A pair of sad, rheumy eyes slowly emerged from under the curtain of his lids and stared vacantly at me. His thin, chapped lips twitched and I wondered if he was talking softly to me. His skin was sallow and bruised; he didn’t look at all well. “Dog,” he seemed to be saying, although I couldn’t be sure. But even the effort of whispering seemed too much for him.

“Dog…?” I said, to help him out.

His head slowly nodded. “Dog,” formed on his trembling lips, and then his eyes receded again into his skull, and his head fell forward onto his chest.

I hurried back to the Salvation Army man. “He’s really sick,” I said, and dialled 911 for the ambulance. But before they arrived, the dog began to whine and lick the man’s face.

When the paramedics arrived, it was too late -the old man had died, but the dog wouldn’t let them take him away, so they had to call the SPCA to restrain him.

“What will happen to the dog?” I asked as the official bundled it into his van.

The SPCA man shrugged. “Usually put them down, eh?”

“But…” I struggled for words. “Can’t it be kept for adoption?”

“Too many of ‘em,” he explained, his eyes sad. “And this one’s a bit old…”

I stared at him with disbelief. “But… But the last thing he said to me was… well, he wanted to make sure the dog was taken care of, I think.”

The driver was obviously a kind man. “You can donate some money for a kennel…” he said, and produced a card with the phone number. “Who knows, maybe someone will want an older dog… It’s Christmas, eh?”

I nodded and took the card. The man smiled like he was relieved. “I hate it when we have to put ’em down,” he said, closing the door to the van. “Thank you, sir,” he said, getting into his seat behind the wheel. “I’ll tell them you’re going to phone.”

The Salvation Army man walked over to me as the ambulance drove away and the crowd that had gathered, thinned. “You know,” he said, smiling at me and shaking my hand, “That was the most meaningful donation I’ve seen this Christmas…”

And I think it was the most meaningful gift I’ve ever given…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Eternal Maternal?

Some things are just not said, just not considered. They fall so far outside of our Weltanschauung they are inadmissible. And we take such comfort in their ubiquity that we no longer feel a need to discuss them. They are so self-evidently true, so axiomatic to our understanding of existence that they seem indispensable. Crucial… Even transcending the need for sentience.

Maternal instinct, for example -the irrevocable compulsion of a mother to protect her offspring even at the expense of her own safety. Characterized as selfless and incorruptible, it often escapes the genetic prison of species boundaries. It is one of those rare attributes that has such survival benefits that it blossomed under the rigorous pressures of evolution. It really is, at least in hominid terms, sacrosanct.

Or is it…? Sometimes there is a need for stepping back from the forever-yawning abyss of unquestioning acceptance. After all, what is instinct? Is it just an under-examined behaviour whose pervasiveness has convinced us of its Darwinian utility? Or is it something else –a hope, maybe? A tachistoscopic view of that which we would like to believe has survived the rigours of the collapse of Eden?

A rather obscure article in the Guardian newspaper –one of many, once I discovered it- attempts a more dispassionate analysis of the universality of maternal instinct: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/30/detach-myth-motherhood-from-reality-future-generations?CMP=share_btn_link

It’s addressing the expected attitude of the mother to her baby and the seemingly global societal requirement of her self-effacing altruism towards it –and usually the offspring of others, as well. It’s not attempting to comment on whether or not the woman chose to become a mother –or indeed, whether that might play a major role in her subsequent attitude towards the responsibilities involved. It’s more concerned with the fait accompli.

I have discussed the issues and deeply-rooted cultural assumptions around the decision whether or not to become pregnant in the first place in a separate essay in June 2015: To Have, or not to have ( https://musingsonwomenshealth.wordpress.com/2015/06/02/to-have-or-not-to-have/ ).

No, the Guardian article questions not so much the concept of maternal instinct, as its expanse –or perhaps more accurately, its inexhaustibility. Its sempiternity… ‘[…] maternal instinct is not a switch that exists in every woman, ready to be flipped as soon as she smells a baby. Relationships between mothers and their children are frequently far more fraught than the myth leads us to believe. It shocks us that mothers can be selfish. […]There is scientific evidence to suggest that the maternal instinct may even be contingent on a woman’s circumstances.’

In fairness, I suspect that the article may be a sort of authorial apologia: ‘I myself have had to face down questions from family, friends and even strangers who don’t understand my wish to have only one child. The thought of having more children terrifies me, and has nothing to do with the love I feel for my son. […] a similar argument can be made that maternal instinct may sometimes depend on whether a mother has the support she needs. We’re not a species designed to cope alone. Indeed, we’re at our most social when it comes to parenting, often recruiting many people around us to help. It really does take a village to raise a child. Without any help, it can be desperately tough.’

The author feels that the ‘reasons why women feel the way they do about children is under-studied’ and I certain agree. ‘[…]motherhood is not always an against-all-odds epitome of selfless caring. Sometimes it can involve emotional calculation, weighing the needs of both parent and child. We all assume that a mother always wants the best for her child, above her own needs. What we seem to deliberately ignore is that a child’s welfare can also depend heavily on the mother’s own needs being met.’

Near the end of her essay, I think she makes it clear why she felt it necessary to discuss the topic: ‘For the sake of both mothers and children, we need to begin detaching the myth of motherhood from the reality. It’s unfair of any society to expect women to be the best mothers they can be without economic or emotional support, just because they should love their children.’

I would like to think that as an obstetrician I am not a completely disinterested party in all this –although, of biological necessity, I approach the subject as a non-participant. And now, in retirement, perhaps even more so -I watch from the shadows, as it were, but I’m nonetheless attentive to the roiling milieu. It’s hard to ignore.

I was sitting in the corner of a coffee shop recently, enjoying the relative solitude, when two women sat down at the table next to mine.

“My daughter keeps foisting the kid on me whenever she wants to go out,” one of the women said to her friend.

Emily, you mean?” the friend said with a slow, disapproving shake of her head. “And Jacob…” It was obvious that she objected to a mother –not to mention a grandmother- talking about her family as if they were nameless burdens. Then her expression softened. “My Louise used to do that, I remember. She’d show up at the door unannounced and put Andrew in my arms…”

The first woman took a sip of her coffee and shrugged. “I suppose they all do it, eh Joyce?”

Joyce smiled at the thought. “I used to enjoy the challenge of working Andrew into my day.”

Joyce was a happy person I thought, as I tried to pretend I was reading my book, unaware of their presence. She was probably in her fifties, dressed casually in a grey sweatshirt and dark green track pants, and looking for all the world as if she was enjoying her life.

The woman beside me, however, was tense. I could hear the frustration in the timbre of her words.

“It’s just not fair, though,” she said to Joyce, her voice almost whining.

Joyce’s eyes twinkled even in the soft light of the corner where we sat. “Mothers have to have a break, Mary…”

“Break?” Mary interrupted angrily, “I never got a break, Joyce! I had to bring up two kids all by myself after Ralph left… By myself!”

I could almost feel the exclamation mark slamming onto the table in front of her.

It clearly upset Joyce, and I could see her taking a deep breath before responding. “Wouldn’t you have loved it if you’d had someone to leave them with every once in a while?” Her eyes were spotlights focussed on Mary’s face.

Mary shrugged again. “But I didn’t, Joyce… That’s the point.”

A tenderness suddenly appeared on Joyce’s face and she extinguished the angry glare as she  recalled her eyes. “But Emily does, Mary… And that’s the point,” she said, almost in a whisper.

I’d finished my coffee by that point, so I thought it might seem rude to continue to sit there and listen. But as I l pushed back the chair to leave, I couldn’t help but notice the smile that had finally surfaced on Mary’s face. And something deep inside me smiled, as well; the course of true love never did run smooth