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by Norman S. Care
Rowman & Littlefield, 1996
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 9th 1999

Living With One’s Past

Norman Care is Professor of Philosophy at Oberlin College. He is trained as a philosopher, yet he brings his philosophical skills to a topic with which few other philosophers have grappled, that of how morally to go on with one’s life after having hurt other people. In the last chapter, he gives the most philosophically nuanced interpretation of the much derided Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous that I have seen, and he uses alcoholism as one of his main examples all through the book. There is much to admire in his writing, but at the same time, his approach is evasive in several ways.

What is particularly strange is that he never gives any details about his own life or how he has personally faced this issue. I drew the conclusion from his book that he was (or is) an alcoholic, but I could be wrong. Are the ways he has personally faced the moral difficulties he describes relevant to the quality of his argument? Of course not: the soundness of an argument is independent of who makes it. Furthermore, by staying clear of the details of his own life, he avoids making his book a confessional and self-indulgent mea culpa. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling the book would have been richer if he had included more of himself in his book.

If you have significantly hurt other people in your life, are you ever entitled to get on with your life and attain some peace of mind, or should you spend the rest of your days regretting your actions and attempting the impossible task of trying to make amends for what you have done, bearing the cross of one’s former wrong-doing? That’s the central question for Care, and he examines a variety of topics that help to form an answer. His answer is a qualified yes: those who have hurt others can become morally entitled to forgive themselves for their pasts.

It is this claim that can make the reader suspicious of his motives. I used Living With One’s Past for an upper-level undergraduate class on ethics a few years ago, and I was genuinely surprised how strongly the students disliked this book. They saw it as self-serving and flawed. Furthermore, they saw it as the work of a man who has hurt others and who wants permission to ignore what he has done. They took a stern moral view, and were unwilling to grant him any leniency in their judgments.

For my own part, I like Care’s book. He raises interesting questions using approaches that get too little attention in moral philosophy. He does not cling to grand theories, but rather carefully scrutinizes the details of the ideas underlying our moral feelings and reactions to widely shared experience. It is not easy to say anything in moral philosophy that is neither obvious, stupid, nor meaningless, and Care makes a valiant attempt.

What makes this book simultaneously interesting and frustrating is that Care tries to address the issue without debating whether or not alcoholism is a disease, and he does not discuss very specifically whether an addict has control over her actions. Rather, he suggests that all people tend not to be the rational agents assumed by most mainstream moral theories such as Utilitarianism and Kantianism. People do not carefully and rationally deliberate before deciding what to do, and they do not have full control over their actions. On his view, people are not unitary subjects, but instead, are collections of different modules, with more or less coherence. Thus, Care comments, the major ethical theories of philosophy are not applicable to ordinary people, which is a great failing. He concludes from this that we should not be so harsh and judgmental about people. But the fact that he never faces the question whether alcoholism is a disease means that he has sidestepped the most crucial step in his argument, since he is particularly concerned with alcoholism.

Care makes his argument through the discussion of cases and the work of many contemporary philosophers, such as Harry Frankfurt, John Rawls, and Annette Baier. While he is a clear writer, it might be difficult for readers with no background knowledge of contemporary American analytically-inclined philosophy to follow all the twists and turns of the arguments. It is in the final chapter, with Care’s unfortunately brief discussion of Alcoholics Anonymous, that he makes his most original contribution to the philosophical literature. Some philosophers have looked at the Twelve Step Program of AA and declared them to be self-contradictory, essentially religious in nature, and so not to be taken seriously. But it is here that Care comes closest to laying his cards on the table, in setting out a sincere defense of the AA approach. He writes, at the very end of the book,

AA recognizes the complexity and difficulty of the recovery of agency. It will not help one erase or change the past, but it will help one attempt to achieve a sort of inner calm that will allow one to go forward with one’s life. So we can see that the previous chapters are really an exposition and philosophical defense of ideas that Care takes AA to advocate and teach. As such, Living With One’s Past is one-of-a-kind, and any moral philosopher who wants to enter into serious discussion of alcoholism and addiction should read it carefully.

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Living With One's Past: Personal Fates & Moral Pain