An Invitation to Hand-Wringing

Thomas Nagel

  • BuyThe View from Here: On Affirmation, Attachment and the Limits of Regret by R. Jay Wallace
    Oxford, 279 pp, $45.00, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 994135 3

This interesting, careful and occasionally outrageous book explores the complex interaction and competition between the attitudes of affirmation and regret that are almost inevitable as we look back on our lives and celebrate or deplore the conditions and choices that have made us what we are – that underlie our successes and failures, and our personal attachments. R. Jay Wallace’s aims are very broad and his conclusions radical, but he begins by examining closely several examples of the phenomenon, real and imaginary, that are already familiar from recent philosophical literature.

First example: the young girl’s child. A girl of 14 decides to have a child, though she is clearly not in a position to care for it adequately, as she would be if she waited until she was an adult. The decision also disrupts her life and limits her opportunities in ways that having a child later would not. But she loves the child, and despite its disadvantages the child itself is glad to have been born. Neither of them can wish the child did not exist, or regret the young girl’s decision to give it birth. Yet it seems that it was a decision she should not have made.

Second example: disability. An amputee dedicates himself to becoming a world-class athlete and competes successfully in the Paralympics. Or a person born deaf finds the meaning of his life through immersion in the kinds of communication available only to people who lack the ability to hear. The way these people value their lives seems to exclude regretting their disabilities, but does that imply that such disabilities should not be prevented or repaired if possible?

Third example: Gauguin. In his essay ‘Moral Luck’ Bernard Williams imagined an artist, loosely modelled on Gauguin, who abandons his wife and children in France to go to the South Seas, where he achieves the fulfilment of his talent and ambition, producing the work that gives meaning to his life as an artist. While his family continues to have a bitter complaint against him for the way he treated them, he cannot look back on his desertion with regret. Even if he acknowledges that it was morally objectionable, Williams says, it is retroactively justified, for him, as a necessary condition of the creative projects that he most values in life. (If on the other hand he had failed in his own eyes as a painter in Tahiti, he would be forced to look back on the abandonment of his family with nothing but regret and self-reproach.)

Wallace’s title, The View from Here, is a phrase Williams used to capture the contingent and perspectival determinants of our values and commitments. Although Wallace believes that not all practical or value judgments are perspectival in this way, he sets out to investigate the ones that are, and to understand what the affirmation of our contingent lives and attachments commits us to.

He differs significantly from Williams. Notably, Wallace doesn’t believe in retroactive justification of a choice in light of how things turned out later. If someone breaks his promise to drive you to the airport, causing you to miss your flight, then even if the flight crashes with no survivors your friend is not excused: he shouldn’t have broken his promise. The retrospective effects of later outcomes have to do not with justification but with affirmation or regret, which are independent of justification or its absence. Just as you can’t regret your friend’s failure to keep his promise, so the present affirmation of their lives and projects by the young girl’s child, the disabled Paralympic athlete or Gauguin spreads backwards to encompass their historically essential conditions, blocking regret.

Wallace calls this the ‘affirmation dynamic’, but it holds, he observes, only for unconditional affirmations, the kind typified by our attachment to a particular person whom we love, or to the projects that give our lives meaning. It does not apply to conditional affirmations: ‘Thus I might celebrate without reservation the heroism of the firefighter who rescued my kids from the flames, while regretting deeply the negligence on my own part that caused the fire, and which was therefore a necessary condition for the thing that I affirm.’ The conditional character of the affirmation is exposed by the fact that you would much prefer that neither the fire nor the rescue had occurred. (But what about the firefighter? If there were never any fires his professional life would have no meaning, so perhaps he cannot feel unqualified regret.)

Wallace’s general analysis, which applies to a wide range of cases, depends on the insight that different reasons can legitimately govern our attitudes to the same action, event or circumstance when we view it from different temporal perspectives. This has practical implications. Here is what Wallace says about disabilities:

Agents whose disabilities condition the projects that most importantly imbue their lives with meaning might well find that their affirmative attitude toward the lives they have led commits them to affirming their disabilities as well. They cannot wish on balance that they hadn’t suffered from the conditions that disable them, since that would entail the absence from their lives of the very things that enable them to affirm those lives in the first place.

From the fact that such agents have good reason to affirm their own disabilities, however, it doesn’t follow that the condition that they affirm is generally a valuable one, something that in other contexts we have reason to promote or to encourage or to choose for people when there are alternatives available for them.

He draws the conclusion that deaf parents who are reluctant to authorise cochlear implants for their deaf children are making a mistake:

There is no inconsistency whatsoever involved in being glad that one has suffered a given disability oneself, when one looks back on the life one has led, even while one chooses that one’s children should not experience the same condition in the life that they are just embarking on.

The point applies more widely. Wallace does not discuss abortion, but anyone who is glad to be alive must be grateful they were not aborted. This has led some victims of congenital disabilities that are prenatally detectable to oppose prenatal screening, which can result in decisions to abort, on the grounds that this implies their lives are not worth living. But the affirmation of the value of their birth from the later perspective of the existing person does not by itself determine the reasons that should govern a decision from the earlier perspective of a pregnant woman. There is a painful clash of perspectives here, but no inconsistency. The pregnant woman can acknowledge that if she had the disabled child she would come to love it and would not be able to regret its birth, but that is not a reason for her now to carry it to term.

Wallace’s discussion doesn’t deal only with such fraught cases. He offers a general account of how it makes sense to look back on one’s life, on the good and bad things in it and the various contingencies that determine its meaning. To begin with, there is the question for each of us, whether we can affirm our lives unconditionally. This is not a familiar, everyday concept, and perhaps most people have never asked themselves the question. But Wallace proposes to identify it with the question of whether you prefer on balance that the series of events that constitutes your life should have occurred, as against the alternative that you should not have lived at all. As he notes, this ‘sets a very low standard for application of the notion of the affirmation of a life’. But he believes interesting consequences can be drawn from it.

What kinds of regret are compatible with affirmation of one’s life in this sense? Wallace believes the answer depends on the values that enable a person to look back favourably on his life in the way that he does. It depends on what in his actual life – what projects and attachments and achievements – gives it its meaning. He cannot have what Wallace calls ‘all-in regret’ for the things in his life that were essential conditions for those central elements of meaning, even if they included foolish, irrational or immoral choices, or misfortunes. That was Williams’s point about Gauguin. If he hadn’t abandoned his family, his life would still have been worth living, but it would have been a different life, and the way Gauguin values his actual life and work is incompatible with his wishing it had not included his desertion. As Wallace puts it: ‘His decision was a necessary historical condition for the values that shape his later point of view and ground his affirmative attitude toward the life he has actually led.’ The implied contrast is with other errors, failings and misfortunes that one can simply regret, without qualification, because they did not play a role in grounding the affirmation of one’s life.

Wallace’s view is more complicated than this, however, because it also has a place for what he calls ‘deep ambivalence’. Sometimes we can’t avoid both affirming and regretting something that was objectionable but has played too important a role in shaping our lives to be simply rejected. To take an example of a kind Wallace does not discuss, suppose someone fails to marry his true love: she marries someone else, or dies. He then marries someone with whom he is not in love, has children and builds his life and commitments around these attachments. Though they are intimately involved in the way he values his actual life, he may always wish he had married the other woman, and regret that he didn’t. Yet according to Wallace the affirmation of his actual life spreads backwards to encompass his not having done so, which is its necessary condition. If Wallace is right about this, then deep ambivalence is inevitable in such a case: there is a conflict between valuing one’s actual life and regretting that it wasn’t different.

The same might be said about other contingencies with which most lives are littered – accidents that determine one’s occupation, for example. One’s life can be formed around the pursuit of a particular profession, which contributes largely to what one finds valuable in it, yet at the same time one may wish one had done something else – become a cartoonist rather than an accountant, an anthropologist rather than a chef – which would have given one’s life a completely different kind of value. One can’t feel nothing but regret for having taken a path that grounds the value of one’s actual life, but one may be constrained to ambivalence.

This in fact is what Wallace (disagreeing with Williams) thinks Gauguin should feel. He is not entitled simply to affirm his choice to abandon his family, without regret, in the light of its consequences for his life. As Wallace explains, this is because the claims of his family remain alive and are not affected by his success as an artist. They are not merely claims from the perspective of his past self: they come from other people whom he wronged in the past and who still exist. In this respect the case of Gauguin is different from that of the young mother. Her attachment to her child, and the child’s attachment to life, make it impossible for either of them to regret the child’s birth, and this leaves no one to be the source of a claim on the other side, a claim that would require deep ambivalence on the part of the mother:

The main objections are of a moral nature, and I have suggested that they can be traced to the daughter’s claim to an adequate level of attention and care from the mother who brought her into existence. But the bearer of that claim, the daughter, is also someone who is now deeply attached to the life she has led, and who by hypothesis strongly prefers that life to the alternative scenario that she should not have lived at all. This deprives the deliberative objection of continuing force as a basis either for her or for her mother to prefer, retrospectively, that the decision to conceive should not have been made by the mother.

*

Having polished his concepts on these rather special cases, Wallace proceeds in the final chapters of his book to apply them in a radically extended way, arguing that he and all of his readers, and perhaps even all human beings, are in Gauguin’s position, condemned to regard their lives with deep ambivalence and not with unconditional affirmation. He begins by trying to make the case to his readers, people who like him have comfortable lives, supported by rich institutions that enable them to pursue rewarding projects under conditions of freedom and at least moderate luxury. He says such lives, in the actual world, depend on a global system of extreme social and economic inequality, and are available only to those lucky enough to find themselves and those with whom they associate at the upper reaches of the distribution. Wallace believes these background conditions are so objectionable that they must be condemned even if they underpin the value and meaning of our lives. He calls this the ‘bourgeois predicament’:

Our ground projects are the basis of our affirmative attitude toward the lives that we lead. But their bourgeois character means that those projects implicate us in social and economic disparities that we cannot possibly endorse (not at any rate if we are reasonable and thoughtful).

One condition for this general invitation to hand-wringing is that the impersonal conditions that shape our lives, and not only our own choices and actions, come within the scope of the ‘affirmation dynamic’. Another is the belief that our advantages depend on avoidable global injustice and that a just world would not include lives like ours. Thinking of his own case, Wallace says: ‘It is doubtful that contemporary research universities as we know them would survive if we made a serious effort to address these issues on a global scale.’ Wallace teaches at Berkeley, a public institution that makes enormous contributions to knowledge, both theoretical and practical, which benefit not only its members but the society of which it is a part and the world as a whole. To doubt that such institutions would exist in a just world seems to me pathologically pessimistic. Perhaps slavery was an indispensable condition for the cultural and intellectual flowering of ancient Athens, but we are not in a comparable position.

However, Wallace’s argument does apply to the economic inequality that is such a conspicuous feature of our world, and that has been with us since the beginning of civilisation. It seems clear that a system that gave everyone at least a decent standard of living would depend on some method of financing that substantially reduced the disposable resources of the most affluent, and therefore changed what they could do with their lives. How bad should the recognition of this notionally possible alternative history (‘notionally’ because it has never been a real possibility in our past, whatever the future may hold) make us feel about our actual bourgeois lives? Wallace, embracing what he calls a ‘modest nihilism’, thinks it condemns us to deep ambivalence: ‘There are genuine values that can be realised in our lives, and … these provide a real basis for affirmation, but … these grounds for affirmation are historically and socially connected to comparably weighty grounds for regret.’

If you are sceptical about this, as I am, you may feel that a line needs to be drawn somewhere that limits our implication in the evils of the past that have played a role in creating us and the values that give meaning to our lives. This feeling is powerfully reinforced by Wallace’s final extension of his affirmation dynamic to encompass anything in the past that was a necessary condition of our existence, or the existence of someone we love:

We can … readily imagine that somewhere along the line, the actual ancestors of those we love would not even have encountered each other if not for historical events that were momentously disastrous: a catastrophic and pointless war, for instance, that forced a distant progenitor into the refugee camp where she met her future husband, or a natural calamity of some kind that had a similar effect. Under these conditions, our unconditional affirmation of the person we love will commit us to affirming the objectionable historical conditions that were necessary for the individual person’s existence.

Is someone who wouldn’t have been conceived if Hitler had not come to power in Germany committed by his attachment to his own life to ‘affirming’ the Second World War and the Holocaust? Wallace thinks we may have to affirm the entirety of world history, and suggests that this is the grain of truth in Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence: ‘Only if we are prepared to will the totality of world history can we honestly adopt an attitude of unconditional affirmation toward our lives and the other things to which we are attached. Because for all we know, that attitude already commits us to affirming as well the most catastrophic and egregious aspects of the larger histories in which our lives are caught up.’

In response to this extravagance it does not seem too defensive to suggest that our affirmation of anything, our own existence included, is bounded by a statute of limitations on its reach into the past. We can take much about the world that we have not created, good and bad, as simply given, and limit our affirmations and regrets to what is downstream from that. This would leave most of us with plenty to feel guilty or ambivalent about, and those feelings wouldn’t be diluted in the ocean of our universal implication in the horrors of history.