Sorry, Ma, You’re Not Moral

Immanuel Kant taught that an action is only a “moral” action if it goes counter to our inclinations. I have always assumed that by this he meant, not that it is a downright bad action, but merely that it does not fall into the category of moral actions, those that are performed because they are right. Funnily enough, in Matthew 5:47 Jesus of Nazareth is recorded in much the same vein: “And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? Do not even the publicans so?” If it comes easily, they both seem to be saying, then no brownie points!

Now, mothers tend to lay claim to lots of brownie points as reward for their parenting. But at the same time they also speak about their mother-love as instinctual. Well, they can’t have it both ways: if maternal love really is instinct and nothing but instinct, then they cannot claim ethical merit for possessing and following it. “Do not even the publicans so?”

Given that a mother should be perfectly capable of recognising that she is just following her nature, which is an ethically-neutral thing to do, what is going on with the cult of the brownie points? The answer lies, as usual, in the human drive for undeserved self-esteem. She wants a double whammy, to be praised on two mutually exclusive grounds at the same time: once for doing what is right, in the strenuous Kantian sense, and again for harbouring maternal love, which makes her a good person.

But wait a moment; there are also such things as bad, neglectful mothers. Our loving mother therefore deserves a certain number of brownie points for not being one. The question provoked in my mind, then – and of course I have no knowledge of what it is like to be a mother – is whether she has overcome inner obstacles to be a good mother. Was she just following her nature, or rising above it? It would follow from the Kantian approach that the most moral woman would be the one who would like to abuse her child but doesn’t. If that is too peculiar for us, then we ought to be Aristotelians instead.

Posted on December 14, 2017 at 16:21 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

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