a philosophy blog

Ethics exam question: Whom does mommy get to kill?

Aristotle on matricide

Yet there seem to be some acts which a man cannot be compelled to do, and rather than do them he ought to submit to the most terrible death: for instance, we think it ridiculous that Alcmaeon in Euripides’ play is compelled by certain threats to murder his mother! [Nicomachean Ethics, Bk III, Chap 1., (1110a1)]

Why is this a paradigm case of such acts? What is so special about a mother that wouldn’t also be true of a father or a daughter?

Aristotle is clearly addressing virtue in men. Would a woman feel the same way about her most nightmarish case? What form would supreme moral outrage take for her? It is not mutatis mutandis the same as his.

Moral etiquette in extremis: Sophie’s choice

If she had to kill someone in her family, and the choice was her daughter or her son, who would it be?

(There is a correct answer.)

Posted by luno in Criminality, aristotle, motherhood, female criminality, sex differences, male criminality (Friday April 7, 2006 at 10:53 am)

6 comments for Ethics exam question: Whom does mommy get to kill?»

  1. This blog is amazing. The Bianco Luno stuff; the other amazing links… WHY has it taken me so long to find you? Anyway, carry on. I’ll be visiting more frequently and definitely linking you back at my (much more humble) blog.

    Sophie chooses the younger one to die, doesn’t she (the girl, I think)?

    Comment by Vivenzia — 4/17/2006 @ 7:47 pm

  2. I don’t think Luno has in mind a literal reference to the movie or William Styron’s book. So the choice made there is probably irrelevant. He merely means to evoke Sophie’s dilemma. The correct answer, the one Luno is fishing for here, is, in fact, the daughter, however.

    From the standpoint of the sex-based moral theory he is developing, a mother, if she has to make such a horrible choice, is bound to save her son before her daughter. And, of course, if it was a father in this predicament, the reverse would hold: he would be required to sacrifice his son, all other things being equal. (The biblical story of Abraham and his son, Luno might insist, was no accident. Abraham and his daughter would not have worked.)

    The point Luno is trying to make is that the framework that undergirds moral obligation is determined by the sex of the agent. He conceives of morality as a first constraint against a human impulse to save the self and what mirrors it. In choosing to sacrifice her daughter she is sacrificing herself for her son, the other, the one who is not like her.

    The openness to doing this is the foundation of all morality. But how it gets translated into moral behavior in a given individual will depend on sex.

    Luno keeps hammering this home in many other contexts as well. For example, the injunction not to kill is not the same for a man as for a woman. A woman has a different moral relation to her unborn and even born children than a man to his. Abortion is the taking of another human life. But the taking of certain other human lives is permitted mothers in circumstances where the same could not be said for a father. And this has nothing to do with the personhood of the fetus (let alone its rights) or a woman’s right to her body—these are all misapplied analogies.

    See also Luno’s post, “Mommy has a license to kill, Kant said so”.

    Comment by iaia — 4/18/2006 @ 12:14 pm

  3. Since we are on the subject of killing family members, what about brother/sister killings? Or self-widowing or -widowering?

    I mean, suppose a sister had to choose between the death of another sister or a brother? Extending the present moral logic, if I follow it correctly, it would seem that the choosing sister should allow her hapless sister to die before her brother? Is that right?

    And what about a wife and husband? If one has to decide which has to go, I gather each is bound to sacrifice her- or himself? No?

    Comment by pyrrho — 4/21/2006 @ 12:41 pm

  4. Pyrrho,

    The symmetry breaks down in an interesting way in the cases you describe.

    The cases you imagine involve moral equals of a sort that do not figure in Luno’s Sophie-type case and this leveling of other considerations brings out sex differences with a vengeance.

    In your first case, the sister would not have to save her brother before her sister, but a brother in similar straits would have to forfeit his brother to save his sister.

    For the choosing sister her sister is not a surrogate (as the daughter is for the mother). The “hapless” sister is a genuine other on a par with her brother. Her obligations to them are equal, other things being equal. She has a primary obligation to preserve relationship where she can and in this case she will fail equally either way. She may flip a coin.

    For the choosing brother, however, preserving relationship is not, before all else, a fundamental principle. His first obligation is to serve others and his sister is more of an “other” than his brother.

    Earlier I said, Luno “conceives of morality as a first constraint against a human impulse to save the self and what mirrors it” and that is still true until sex differences kick in. In at least one of your cases, they do.

    Something similar happens in your second example. The husband is bound to serve others even at the price of his life. He really has no moral latitude in the matter. If it’s him or his wife, it will be him: no ifs, ands, or buts. She may sacrifice herself for him but if she doesn’t, she cannot be morally blamed.

    Also, keep in mind, the fact she is his wife (or sister or daughter or mother, etc.) is beside the point. If she were a complete stranger, he would still be bound to the same decision. The fact that she is his wife (one would hope) merely adds emotional emphasis to an already morally determined outcome. All that matters to the latter is that she is female.

    Comment by iaia — 4/21/2006 @ 1:33 pm

  5. I’ve always thought of Aristotle as someone who could have lived in Kansas, his ethics seemed so sensible… but this doesn’t seem like Kansas anymore!!

    What about if it was me or Toto? (Dare I ask…)

    Comment by pyrrho — 4/21/2006 @ 1:43 pm

  6. Toto would be more of an “other,” sorry.

    Comment by iaia — 4/21/2006 @ 10:07 pm

Leave a comment


(required but not published)

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Creative Commons License