My spouse and I are at an age when it’s not usually much of a surprise when one of our friends calls us to exclaim, “We’re having a baby!” We know exactly what to say. We offer enthusiastic congratulations, gab about baby names, and so on. Probably you’ve heard an exclamation like this too; probably you responded in roughly the same way.
As commonplace as this type of declaration is, there’s something interesting about it. On the face of it, having a baby is something that exactly one person—the person from whom the baby emerges—does. Yet much of the time “We’re having a baby!” and related statements are not taken to be infelicitous. So what gives?
I think ‘having a baby’ is ambiguous. Sometimes that expression refers to one type of event, a biological process, and other times to another, an intentional action. This ambiguity explains why “We’re having a baby!” sometimes sounds weird but other times sounds perfectly natural.
On the one hand, ‘having a baby’ sometimes denotes the biological process (or family of processes) of childbirth, whereby a baby leaves a person’s uterus and emerges alive into the world. It might be more accurate to say that childbirth is something that happens to a person rather than something that someone does. In any case, childbirth is a process of which exactly one person can be a subject. When ‘having a baby’ denotes childbirth, it doesn’t make sense to say “We’re having a baby!”.
On the other hand, ‘having a baby’ sometimes denotes something broader than childbirth. It denotes something like the process of responsibly bringing a baby into the world. As everyone knows, responsibly bringing a baby into the world requires a significant amount of work. The details of what this looks like vary across time and space. In our society, money must be saved; information must be gathered; time must be set aside; doctors must be seen and paid for. Childbirth is normally part of this process, but the process is not mainly a biological one. Rather, it is a complex and protracted intentional action, something people do rather than something that happens to them.
When ‘having a baby’ denotes an intentional action, it makes perfect sense to say, “We’re having a baby!”. After all, most actions can be performed jointly by several individuals, and participants in a joint action can perfectly well use the first-person plural pronoun in describing what they are doing (e.g. “We’re painting a house.”). The action of having a baby is no different. Two or more individuals who harmonize their plans and activities so that a baby can be responsibly brought into the world are jointly having a baby. And those individuals can legitimately say, “We’re having a baby!”.
So we now have an explanation as to why “We’re having a baby!” sometimes sounds weird but usually doesn’t: the expression is ambiguous, sometimes denoting a biological process of which exactly one person can be a subject and sometimes denoting an intentional action of which multiple people can be a subject. Occasionally people exploit this ambiguity in witty ways (“We’re having a baby? I don’t see you doing any pushing!”). But most of the time, we navigate the expression’s ambiguity so effortlessly that we hardly think about it.
A further upshot of this discussion is that we now have available a charitable interpretation of similar expressions that on the surface look rather patriarchal and problematic. Sometimes you hear the partners of people who are giving birth say things like “Our cervix is dilating!” and “Our contractions are five minutes apart.”. While these statements might be used by a speaker to assert ownership over another person’s body, in contexts involving joint action, possessive plural pronouns are frequently used in a way that does not imply ownership.
For instance, suppose that a group of students is putting on a school play. Someone asks the dramaturge how the first dress rehearsal went, and the dramaturge responds dejectedly by saying, “Well, our costumes were great, and our lead was inspired, but everything else was a mess.” Responding to this statement by pointing out that neither the speaker nor the group owns the costumes or the lead would be infelicitous, because the dramaturge’s uses of the possessive merely indicate that the target objects were being used by the group or occupied an integral role in the group’s activities.
Similarly, when the partner of a person giving birth says something like “Our cervix is dilating!”, the partner may be using the plural possessive simply to indicate that the cervix in question is playing an integral role in the joint action of having a baby in which the partner is participating. The cervix normally does play an integral part in the joint action of having a baby (childbirth is normally a part of having a baby, and the dilation of the cervix is normally a part of childbirth), so this use is perhaps only natural.
 To simplify things, I assume that the baby is not, at the time of birth, a person. It’s true that medical professionals often assist and monitor childbirth. But it doesn’t follow that those medical professionals are subjects of the childbirth or that the person pushing out the baby and the medical professionals are together birthing a child. Analogously, my spouse sometimes rubs our pet rabbit’s tummy in order to help the rabbit digest hay. But it doesn’t follow that the rabbit and my spouse are jointly digesting hay.
 Actually, there is a way of reading this according to which it could make sense for someone to say it. To see this, consider the statement “We lifted a table.”. On a collective reading of this statement, the people referred to by the 'we' jointly lifted a table. But on a distributive reading of this statement, the people referred to by the 'we' separately lifted a table (and perhaps they lifted different tables). Similarly, “We’re having a baby!” could mean that we are jointly having a baby, or it could mean that each of us is separately having a baby. My claim is that this statement is infelicitous when read in the collective way. All the statements I’m interested in here should be read in the collective way.
I recently spent a good amount of time in the office of my local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). In my experience, the DMV is an unhappy place. Typically one must go there to pay a tax, take an exam, or do something else unpleasant. One can count on the fact that one’s task will require one to populate a surfeit of detailed forms with the most banal autobiographical information possible, and, on top of that, one will likely have to queue for a long time in a dreary, crowded room with uncomfortable seats only to be told by an official that one has filled out the wrong forms and that one must start the entire process again.
It seems likely that in every society there are certain commonly shared experiences that typify in important ways characteristic features of life in that society and for this reason occupy a special place in the society’s collective consciousness. I think that visiting the DMV is one such experience for those of us who live in the United States. If you live in the United States, then you’ve probably been to the DMV at least once, and you’ve probably experienced a familiar sort of nebulous dissatisfaction with what goes on there. Try telling someone you’re going to the DMV, and you’ll likely get a sympathetic look and a horror story of some sort (similar things happen when you tell someone you’re getting your wisdom teeth removed). The DMV is one of the regular points of physical contact most of us have with the sprawling, depersonalized bureaucracies that form the foundation of our society. The rigidity and impersonality of the process, combined with the prima facie inconsequence of the tasks one is required to perform, tend to grate on creatures like us.
I’d like to suggest that the experience of going to the DMV is a microcosm of the experience of living in a society with a highly complex bureaucracy. In particular, I suggest that the emotional position one finds oneself in at the DMV represents in miniature the emotional position that our society tends to put us in. Let me explain.
The nebulous dissatisfaction one is prone to experience while visiting the DMV is, I think, a natural reaction to a rather bizarre, unpleasant, and perhaps sometimes unreasonable social situation. Normally in social situations dissatisfaction manifests itself in the form of attitudes that are directed at persons. Some of these, such as resentment, indignation, and disapprobation, are rooted in a perceived lack of good will or regard on the part of the attitude’s object towards oneself or others. Other attitudes, such as anger, exasperation, and disdain, are not inherently interpersonal but nevertheless often are directed at persons. Person-directed attitudes such as these play a role in regulating and ameliorating the interactions of individuals who inevitably have different points of view. They partly constitute the affective lens through which we perceive the world and our place in it, and without them human life and relationships would be unrecognizable. The problem is that these person-directed attitudes are often naturally elicited by, and yet inappropriate in, the DMV.
To make my point entirely concrete, let’s consider a specific case. In California, new residents are required to register their vehicles within sixty days, and to be registered one’s vehicle must first pass a rigorous smog test. A certain first-year philosophy graduate student and new California resident discovered that his car could not pass a smog test without expensive repairs, which he could not afford. Consequently, this graduate student delayed registering his car for some time. Eventually, however, this student was compelled to register his vehicle. His visit to the DMV for that purpose was, by most metrics, a disaster. Our hero had to queue for over an hour, bungled the paperwork at least once, and—murderer at the door!—was honest about how overdue his registration was, which resulted in his paying an exorbitant penalty.
I hope it will not take too great a feat of imagination to envision this student’s mental state. He was indignant about having to pay such a large penalty for failing to register his vehicle sooner even though he could not afford to do so. He was resentful that he had to queue so long in order to pay this unreasonable penalty. No doubt these attitudes were less than ideally rational. They were also entirely human and entirely understandable.
The difficulty for our student was that there was no person at which these natural attitudes could be appropriately directed. After all, he would have been mistaken if he had directed these attitudes towards anyone he actually encountered at the DMV. It’s true that DMV clerks were a cause of the unpleasantness. They took his money; they refused to hear his pleas. But, like cogs in a machine, they were not responsible for it. The same goes for the DMV managers and even, I think, individual California legislators, all of whom have little to no effective control over the policies that the clerks are required to enact. The requirements imposed upon the student were social requirements, and yet there was no particular person who was responsible for them. The requirements were a product of the rigid and impersonal machine of state. Our student, then, found himself in an unsettled position. He experienced person-directed attitudes that were in one way apt, and yet there was no appropriate target of those attitudes. There was a mismatch between the student’s emotional repertoire and his social environment, which required him to suppress rather than express his emotions.
All this may strike you as a tad melodramatic. It is. But I think the student’s conundrum at the DMV typifies a much broader phenomenon. Our social lives are structured by bureaucracies that are to a large extent self-standing. Without them our form of life would not be possible. And yet, as is well known, bureaucracies can reify and propagate all manner of injustice, unreasonableness, and idiocy. This is one of the most salient moral problems of our age. Unfortunately, most of our most important moral emotions—indignation, resentment, disapprobation, and so on—are in the first instance person-directed. They are (at least partly) the product of millions of years of evolution in social environments characterized almost exclusively by face-to-face interactions with familiar conspecifics. Our evolutionary history did not equip us with emotional capacities entirely fit for life in our world, and this, I speculate, causes a great deal of discomfort and misplaced emotions. Take a minute to recall some instances when you felt frustration while interacting with a representative of some inept organization, and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.
What is the upshot of all this? If I am on to something here, then we should recognize that it is part of the (post)modern condition that we do not have emotional capacities which fit entirely well with many of the social and moral problems we face. There will be great temptation to direct apt emotions at inapt targets, and a great dissatisfaction when we cannot. I suspect that one of the reasons it is so collectively cathartic to skewer a public figure who has done something wrong, especially when that wrong embodies broader social trends, is that our moral emotions finally have full purchase. But in frustrating situations like our student’s DMV visit where they do not, we must somehow come to grips with the fact that catharsis is unavailable. And we must find a way to navigate these situations without relying unrestrainedly on emotions which, in other social contexts, serve us well.
 These are examples of what the philosopher Peter Strawson called ‘reactive attitudes’. Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment” in Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays, pp. 1-28 (2008).
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