Defining our own good, and living our lives in pursuit of it, is at the heart of a moral life.
It captures an aspect of the liberal attitude to morality, namely that objective goods either don't exist or can't be known to us, and that therefore what matters is a freedom to subjectively define our own good, and not to interfere in others doing the same.
But can this liberal approach work in real life? I'd like to present some evidence that it's not likely to be held to consistently, not even by Dr Cannold herself.
Back in 2005 Dr Cannold had a book published called What, no baby? She herself was married with children at the time, but the book was about the large numbers of Western women of my generation who missed out on marriage and children.
An interesting review of the book, by novelist Joanna Murray-Smith, begins:
"What most women want is actually quite simple. What they want is men. And babies." So writes Leslie Cannold, a researcher and ethicist from Melbourne University, whose book explores why so many women desirous of children fail to have them. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says up to 25 per cent of Australian women of reproductive age will fail to have children, some by choice, others by "circumstance".
So what happened to "defining our own good"? Dr Cannold is suggesting here that there is a good that can be known, i.e. that most women will identify marriage and motherhood as significant goods. Already, Dr Cannold's liberal formula is failing.
It gets worse, because Dr Cannold goes on to recognise that once we identify this good, that a purely individual pursuit of it won't work. There are some goods that require a certain larger context to make them available or achievable: many women, for instance, won't be able to pursue marriage if there aren't sufficient numbers of men willing to marry; the opportunity to marry might also be affected by other values or lifestyles embedded in a culture or society.
Cannold's premise is that the declining fertility rates in Western countries are not due to a lack of desire to reproduce, but rather to circumstances unconducive to baby-having.
Cannold takes a left-wing approach to making society more family friendly, arguing that women didn't marry and have children, despite wanting to, because they would have had to give up professional status, income and security in the workplace in order to do so.
I don't believe that's the best answer (nor does Joanna Murray-Smith), but the point remans that Cannold has been forced to recognise that there are some goods we can know as an aspect of human nature, and that we have to think through the impact of culture and social organisation in upholding these goods (that the framework of society has to be so ordered to allow the most significant goods to be widely achievable).
If we were to stick resolutely to 'self-defining our own good and living our life in pursuit of it' then the possible range of goods would have to be narrowed to those things that can be achieved at a purely individual level, and these things tend to be relatively trivial aims.
Back, though, to Cannold recognising that the framework of society matters. Joanna Murray-Smith doesn't think it adequate to blame women not marrying on workplace organisation alone:
Cannold makes many valid points, but I don't know any woman who allows the unfriendly workplace to win over her maternal desire.
Joanna Murray-Smith thinks the negative effects of feminism should be acknowledged:
While Cannold energetically cites many hazardous influences to (fertile) women's desire to procreate, feminism is the only thing that is excused...
"Waiters and watchers are women who saw when they were young - often in their own mothers - that children threatened all they were being taught to value in life: financial independence, romantic relationships, high-powered careers." Was feminism no part of this?
Which brings me to a comment that any younger female readers should pay particular attention to. In 2003 an Australian journalist, Virginia Haussegger, lamented that she had followed the advice of older feminists in single-mindedly pursuing the goals of a career and independence, but that this had left her childless and unfulfilled.
Dr Cannold's response to Virginia Haussegger is this:
"It is true that feminists urged all women to shed their domestic shackles and seek fulfilment and financial independence outside the home. But what is Haussegger? A brainless puppet? A mindless drone?"
It's another dismissive response to women who were negatively affected by feminism. It's a reminder, too, of the way that some feminists simply expect to make "unprincipled exceptions" to their own beliefs and consider other feminists who don't do this as lacking social skills (it's like they're saying "you should follow path x, that's the belief, but don't blame us if it goes belly up, you really ought to think for yourself").
Finally, notice the phrase that Dr Cannold uses "shed their domestic shackles". That makes it sound as if hearth and home is a kind of prison to escape from. In saying this, Dr Cannold is once again establishing a culture or influence that is likely to discourage young women from committing to motherhood until it's too late.
Joanna Murray-Smith notices the same thing:
There seems to be a complete lack of awareness that her own attitudes may be part of the problem. The author's commitment to mothers is always in tandem with their ability and desire to work. And while there's absolutely nothing wrong with advocating a world that serves both interests, what is missing is acknowledgement of women (and men) of all "classes" who want to parent full-time; choice rather patronisingly described as "misplaced social nostalgia about white picket fences".