Friday, July 23, 2010

Midwives’ Connie Danforth Showcases Act Utilitarianism


(This is an essay written for a philosophy class. I’m not quite sure the textbook taught accurate definitions of terms, so take my analysis with a grain of salt. I also had some trouble meeting the minimum limit, so there are a lot of quoted portions.)
The book Midwives, by Chris Bohjalian, is a fictional novel about the ethical dilemma posed to the midwife character Sibyl Danforth and the ensuing legal investigation regarding the morality of her decision, as narrated by the character’s daughter Connie. Believing one of her clients, Charlotte Bedford, to have died mid-delivery, Sibyl performs a cesarean section to save the infant at the expense of the mother, who may not have actually been dead. In order to keep her mother from facing penalties delivered by the justice system, Connie deliberately tampers with evidence, her justification that the woman is already dead and there is no point in having her mother suffer for actions that cannot be changed, which is a form of act utilitarianism. While highly illegal, Connie’s actions are moral in this specific context.
At the heart of Midwives is a conflict between the extreme leftist anarchist midwives and the domineering organizations of the physicians and of the state, which represent “the establishment”. The Danforths and their environment are organic, with the respect of nature and truth of human sexuality and reproduction, and general kindness for fellow human beings. In contrast, the state and organization of physicians is sterile and focused on getting things done in a conventional, orderly fashion, without the same respect shown by the midwives. According to real world writer Candace Johnson of the Canadian Journal of Political Science, midwifery care is “preferred by many women because the experiences of pregnancy and childbirth are validated through holistic approaches to understanding pregnancy and birth and are enhanced or developed through more extensive meetings, discussions and interactions than would be possible under the care of an obstetrician” (Johnson 889-13). As part of the Danforth family, the character Connie is biased in favor of her mother’s environment, and she views the establishment state and organization of physicians as a hostile enemy causing turmoil in her family simply because the physicians disapprove of midwifery. Despite her obvious biases, however, Connie might well be astute in her observations and she is not an unreliable narrator. The state, however coldly, acts out of the belief that Sibyl acted unjustly or irresponsibly in the handling of Charlotte Bedford, and is a force of rule utilitarianism in contrast to the midwife culture of act utilitarianism.
Believing to have seen evidence of a live heartbeat when Sibyl cut into the body, Charlotte’s husband, Asa, has Sibyl taken to court. She is antagonized by the law, which acts as a force of rule utilitarianism to judge her according to the idea of determining morality by whether or not people follow specific rules. “Act utilitarianism judges the morality of an action by whether or not it produces the most utility, or at least as much utility as any other action. Rule utilitarian judges the morality of an action by whether or not the moral rule presupposed by the action, if generally followed, would produce the most utility, or at least as much utility as any other rule” (Nixon 571-568). The state attacks more than Sibyl’s judgment of the actual crisis, and goes into general territory of opposing midwifery for being primitive and subversive, which has the effect of making the midwife culture more subversive. The state focuses on the idea of specific rules and ‘did she follow this’ as opposed to her ability to take charge in the specific circumstance. As such, the state represents rule utilitarianism, which is shown as an enemy force by the narrator Connie, who comes from midwife culture.
Connie describes the way midwives show up to defend her mother by rallying in a way that emphasizes friendship and solidarity. “Doctors do not protest, they lobby . . . And so while doctors made their presence felt in a variety of ways before and during my mother’s trial—they just loved to testify—they did not stand on the steps of the Orleans County Courthouse. That responsibility fell upon the midwives” (Bohjalian 243). She describes how many of the supporters are nursing mothers, and how normal people from outside her mother’s culture refuse to look at their breasts, and so effectively deny the existence of these nursing mothers. “[There] were two babies there my mother had caught in the weeks or months before Charlotte Bedford died, bigger infants between six and nine months old. I watched them at their mothers’ breasts for a moment before I saw something infinitely more interesting to me: Some of the reporters, even the female ones, were trying desperately to talk to members of the group during the recess without allowing their eyes to fall below the nursing mothers’ foreheads. It was as if they were trying to interview the wall behind them” (Bohjalian 257). This shows how Connie sees the people outside of the midwife culture as insecure, a parallel to the coldness of the state, in contrast to the warmness and acceptance in her mother’s culture.
Connie grew up in the world of the midwives, taking in their philosophies, including appreciation of human relations and a certain disrespect of the rules. Though her rebellious acts are sometimes selfish, she also acts to help maintain a stable family. Her parents’ relationship is not the most sturdy as relationships go, and Sibyl and her husband Rand often get into fierce arguments, during which they verbally abuse each other. “Unfortunately, there were also those fights that would escalate and become ugly, sometimes because my father had been drinking. He might have been drunk when my mother returned, and he might have been tired and cranky. This was a combustible mix. And while my mother would never drink to catch up . . . when she was hurt she could lash out with a fury that was articulate and verbally violent. I never heard my parents slap or hit each other, but powered by bad scotch and exhaustion, they’d say things as wounding as a fist. Maybe even more so. I’d hear expressions and exchanges I didn’t understand at the time but that frightened me nonetheless because I knew someday I would” (Bohjalian 50). In order to keep the marriage from failing, Connie takes her friend Rollie’s advice, and replaces content of the scotch container with plain water to help keep her father’s temper in check. This is an example of meddling with items in the possession of figures of authority, not out of selfish teenage rebellion, but benevolent desire to protect her loved ones, which is in itself an expression of the philosophy of act utilitarianism.
Connie does, however, tend to express rebellion in ways that are not directly benevolent and rather serve only her own satisfaction. This includes her attraction to Tom Corts, a wannabe bad boy who smokes tobacco and claims to ride motorcycles, which Connie suspects is a lie. She also makes a habit of smoking pot with her friends, an activity that is shared by her mother and a few of her mother’s clients, despite it technically being illegal. It should be noted that because this is promoted by her environment, it does not reflect so much on Connie as an individual, though it doubtlessly has an effect on the way she looks at life. While under the influence of marijuana, she violates her mother’s privacy by reading her diary: “Beside the window was my mother’s desk, and in the moonlight I could see that one of her notebooks was open upon it. Earlier that evening she had apparently been writing. I pushed shut the door, pressing it silently into its frame so no light would escape when I turned on the desk lamp. Had I not been stoned, I like to believe I would have respected my mother’s privacy and left her diary alone, but I can’t say for sure that’s the case. And regardless of whether drugs can or should excuse bad behavior, there’s no question they can often explain it. Hunched over the desk, I started to read, and when I saw what my mother had written about March 15, I flipped back the pages a full half a year” (Bohjalian 284). This is a spontaneous, drug-motivated act of selfishness to satisfy her own curiosity, an egoistic action. Later, however, she uses the knowledge she gained from this rebellious act to commit another rebellious act to save her mother and her family from the ravages of the law.
When Connie realizes that her mother’s notebook is going to be submitted as official evidence, a plan forms in her mind to remove specific entries she suspects the jury will find incriminating. “Did I know exactly at that moment what I would do? I don’t believe so; the idea was only beginning to form. But with merely a vague notion, I still knew what the first step had to be” (Bohjalian 348). This passage suggests that Connie comes up with the idea immediately as a subconscious reaction to the situation. She possesses the desire to see her mother free, understands that the diary could be trouble, and her brain thus has her seize upon the opportunity to keep the incriminating evidence away from those who would potentially use it to put her mother in prison.
“I did read the pages once more in that bathroom, and as I did I reassured myself that I was making the correct decision: I had to do everything I could to protect my mother and preserve our family. Besides, my mother’s conviction would not bring back Charlotte Bedford. It would merely destroy a second woman” (Bohjalian 354). This stems from a utilitarian belief that these actions would be best for everyone. It would keep her family together, her mother out of prison, and would not adversely affect anyone because Charlotte was already dead. Now, her actions can on the face of it be interpreted as egoistic, but this does not appear so beyond the perhaps pervasive psychological egoism if one were to look deeper into the issue. It is noted that Connie herself desires for her parents to get along well and have a good relationship in general, so it could follow that by tampering with the evidence to keep her mother out of jail Connie is in fact working in her own self-interest. This line of thinking falls apart, however, when one considers the fact that Connie puts herself more than anyone at risk when she removes pages that are to be submitted as official evidence. While her mother could look worse off were Connie to have been caught, the brunt of the blame would have been on Connie. She acts, then, out of Kantian duty than out of inclination. The outcome would not necessarily serve her, as in the case of the ethical egoist chess player always trying to get the upper hand, and the action is one motivated by the benevolent desire to help as many people as possible even though she may be adversely affected, which can be summed up as act utilitarianism.
In conclusion, Connie breaks the law to save her mother from a benevolent motivation that is expressed in act utilitarianism. The overall story shows the reader a conflict between act and rule utilitarianism, respectively represented by the midwife culture and the state/the physicians. Connie acts in a way to help her mother and their family despite risk to herself, and Connie is thus good in a utilitarian way rather than egoistically. The state tries to impose judgment based on rules that may have no relevance to the specific case, which shows rule utilitarianism in an antagonistic portrayal. As Connie saves her mother based on act utilitarianism, this is the philosophy portrayed as right.




Works Cited
Bohjalian, Chris. Midwives. Vintage Books, 1997. Print.
Johnson, Candace. "The Political "Nature" of Pregnancy and Childbirth." Canadian Journal of Political Science 41.4 (2008): 889-13. Web. 7 Jun 2010.
Nixon, Mark R. "Ethical Reasoning and Privileged Information: Resolving Moral Conflict." Journal of Business Ethics 13.7 (1994): 571-568. Web. 10 Jun 2010.

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