Christopher Nolan’s latest film Interstellar tells a sweeping story, speculating on potential widespread destruction and human potential in the face of such prospects. Despite its scope, it also zeroes in on individual concerns, using the protagonist and his family as the vehicle for considering important ethical questions. One such question centers on the tension between particular and more general moral judgments.
In an early critical scene, Cooper, the main character played by Matthew McConaughey, must decide whether or not to embark on an incredibly ambitious space mission. This mission requires leaving his children behind and risking never seeing them again. But his success in this endeavor could allow for survival of the entire human race, which has few options. A scientist involved in the mission encourages his participation, appealing to Cooper’s obligations to mankind: “You can't just think about your family,” Doyle says. “You have to think bigger than that.” Cooper’s response suggests that he recognizes his responsibility involves both the particular and the universal simultaneously: “I'm thinking about my family and millions of other families.”
One could not blame Cooper had he participated in the mission solely out of a desire to ensure his own family’s survival. But as the above quote suggests, he is also motivated by broader concerns. It seems rather unlikely, in light of Cooper’s character, that he would have refrained from the world-saving mission if he did not have his own family to save. Nevertheless, the fact remains that there is something unmistakably particular and concrete about his driving motivation.
And this particularity is emphasized through the touchingly depicted relationship Cooper has with his daughter Murphy. Despite his visceral aversion to leaving her behind, and his arduous effort to part on good terms, he feels compelled and likely obligated to leave. This tension—between duties to his daughter and his duties to the rest of humanity—raises an interesting question: is Cooper morally obligated to complete this mission, a mission for which he is the best qualified? Even if the mission is a success and he returns, it’s likely that his children will be considerably older. Does he have a duty to leave them behind? In light of all that’s at stake, perhaps he does, but if this is so, it shows something interesting. Parental obligations have their limits. Partiality is permissible, but not sacrosanct.
In the ethics of Immanuel Kant, a person is to follow the categorical imperative, which tells us to act only on those principle we can will to become universal laws. And the principles, or maxims, on which we are to act are to be expressible in universal terms, singular references (like to family) having been expunged. Kant, however, departed on this score from a number of other important ethical thinkers, like Aristotle, who thought that moral judgments are always made in the context of family or polis. Kant’s insistence that such particular terms be replaced with universal ones is an interesting claim, but one that leaves many dubious.
Various feminist thinkers, for example, have emphasized that morality is to be understood in more particular terms than Kant would allow. On their view, moral determinations are to be made in the arena of our relationships, as we take into account all the various concrete details and particular specifics of the richly contextualized circumstances in which we find ourselves. We shouldn’t be guided by universal and abstract moral principles bereft of reference to those we know, those with whom we have cultivated lasting relationships.
They have a point, of course, which makes understandable the protagonist in Interstellar being motivated most of all by a desire to save his own family. But he’s also confronted with a truly universal challenge: the planet is slowly dying, and time for rescue is short. The survival of humanity depends on a successful mission. And this crisis, it seems to us, renders unworkable a desire to care only about his own family. Although most of us won’t find ourselves in so dire a situation, we live in a much smaller world than we used to. We’re aware of human needs that go beyond those of our immediate family, close friends, and nearby neighbors. Because of technological advances, we know about innumerable global needs. If there’s a tsunami in Japan, we can watch it in real time. If there are refugees in the Middle East, we can read tweets about them instantaneously. This makes it less permissible to be indifferent to the needs of strangers. Of course, we care most about our close family members and friends, but this doesn’t license indifference to others beyond those confines. In fact, we can become so fixated on privileging and prioritizing our loved ones that that very partiality can become perverse.
Recently, we read an article about how so many college-aged kids of today’s generation are experiencing a hard time growing up and assuming responsibility. One of the reasons for the phenomenon, it was suggested, is overly protective parenting. Parents are supposed to make their children feel loved and special, no doubt, but parents also have to teach their children that disappointments are inevitable; that, though undeniably valuable, they are not more objectively valuable than others; that achievement requires work; and that failure requires ownership of responsibility. In his examination of Kantian ethics, The Moral Gap, John Hare explains the psychological challenges children face upon realizing they are not the guide of their parents’ moral compass: “It can be a startling lesson for a child who has been the apple of his mother’s eye to discover that his mother is not willing to put pressure on his teacher to get him into a tem, or even to make a scene in the shop to get him the last remaining construction set of the kind he wants for Christmas.” Yet as most parents know, protecting fragile psyches from such hard truths to avoid their kids from experiencing pain is to confer them permission to remain children, if not infantile.
Neglecting the responsibility to impart these truths, however sober, to their children is a recipe for disaster and perpetual adolescence. Rather than an expression of love, it’s to privilege the particular to the neglect of broader truths applicable to everyone. One is implicated in an objectionable form of extreme partiality when her judgments fail to be qualified and regulated by universal truths. C. S. Lewis depicts this insight in a brilliant scene from The Great Divorce, where a mother has so fixated on her son that her “love” becomes idolatrous, blinding her to the fullness of reality in which he exists. Sadly, her extreme particularism costs her paradise and is tantamount to choosing darkness over light.
So the feminists have their points to make, but it’s a mistake to swing the pendulum toward partiality to the exclusion of what remains true for the whole of humankind. Close personal relationships are particularly vulnerable to corruption, or even abuse, when they’re not guided by sound moral principles that apply universally. Every evil in this world is the distortion of something primordially good—wives whose selfless service gets cruelly taken for granted, a healthy sense of self that transforms into pride. Partiality is permissible, but not sacrosanct. Particular obligations obtain, but don’t vitiate more general ones.
Photo: "Hubble Helps Find Smallest Known Galaxy Containing a Supermassive Black Hole" by NASA Goodard Space Flight Center. CC License.