Juno: a study in wisdom

I finally saw the movie Juno this week — on a plane as I was flying from Ottawa to Winnipeg. I liked it, of course. Kudos to Director Jason Reitman (born in Montreal, Quebec, the son of Ivan Reitman).

In this post, I will use Juno to illustrate the use of wisdom as a substitute for conventional ethical constructs. If my meaning is not clear at this point, read on. The idea was inspired by Roger Ebert’s review of Juno.

Spoiler alert:  if you plan to see the movie but you haven’t yet, you probably won’t want to read my post.

At one point in the movie, Juno (who is sixteen years old and pregnant) seems to be headed for a romantic relationship with Mark. Mark is a married adult:  indeed, he is the would-be adoptive father of Juno’s baby. Roger Ebert comments:

We are led, but not too far, into wondering if Mark and Juno might possibly develop unwise feelings about one another.

I was struck by Ebert’s use of the phrase unwise feelings in this context. Shouldn’t he have said, “… wondering if Mark and Juno might possibly start an immoral relationship“, or “an inappropriate relationship“? Ebert could even have said illegal relationship, given Juno’s age.

In effect, Ebert substitutes unwise feelings for conventional ethical constructs — which I find intriguing.

I think the idea has merit. We live in what is sometimes described as a post-Christian era. I know, there are many conservative Christians in the U.S.A. (relatively few here in Canada), but there are also a great many secular people and adherents of other religions. The result is a lack of consensus on values and mores. The question is, what shall we substitute for the moral framework of the Bible?

We can refuse to substitute anything, of course; but the result would be a highly fragmented society, which may not be a desirable outcome.

Christians will continue to uphold biblical ethics. But what of the broader society? To what extent can wisdom function as a substitute for God’s commandments and the ethical example of Christ?

At this point I should introduce a distinction between wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is the mastery of facts; wisdom describes superior judgement with respect to actions. Knowledgeable people sometimes act unwisely.

Juno is a study in wisdom. (Once again — spoiler alert. I’m about to summarize the whole movie.)

  • Juno wisely decides to put her baby up for adoption, rather than raise it herself at the age of sixteen.
  • She wisely tells her parents that she’s pregnant (instead of hiding it from them as long as possible), thereby gaining the support of adults with valuable experience and resources. (Think of Juno’s mother rebuking the ultrasound technician.)
  • She wisely steers clear of an entanglement with Mark.
  • She wisely decides to let Vanessa adopt the baby, even though Vanessa and Mark have separated. (When Juno saw Vanessa at the mall, she understood that Vanessa really would make a good mother.)
  • Finally, she wisely decides that Bleeker is suitable boyfriend material. (As her father put it — without understanding that he was describing Bleeker — someone who thinks the sun shines out of your butt. Definitely a desireable attribute in a boyfriend.)

I don’t think we can describe Juno as knowledgeable, but she certainly demonstrates wisdom — superior judgement with respect to her actions.

I think a Christian and a secularist could discuss Juno’s options and agree that the above decisions were wise, and therefore commendable.

Ellen Page as Juno
(Ellen Page as Juno)

But there are two events that I have passed over in silence. First, Juno got pregnant the first time she had sex. Oops! Definitely not wise. [Update — Ilona corrects me on this point:  it was Bleeker’s first time, but not Juno’s.]

Second, Juno opted not to get an abortion. And here we see the limits of wisdom as a substitute for conventional ethical constructs. I doubt that wisdom is an adequate standard to guide us when it comes to abortion.

A person is wise when her actions spare her unnecessary trouble. Getting pregnant at age sixteen is unwise insofar as it generates turmoil and lots of practical problems. The decision to put the baby up for adoption is wise insofar as it transfers some of the practical problems to a third party, who is better positioned to cope with them.

Returning to abortion — if avoiding unnecessary trouble is our sole criterion, abortion is wise. But the Christian may not concede that avoiding trouble is the only relevant consideration here.

Even people who are pro-choice cannot reduce the issue to avoiding trouble. A woman might decide to go through with a pregnancy, knowing that it’s going to interrupt her school studies or her career, or cost her a relationship, or otherwise disrupt her life.

Is it nonetheless a wise decision? The pro-choice individual would say it isn’t our place to pass judgement one way or the other. In any event, there’s some other consideration at work here — some value other than the desire to avoid trouble.

In sum:  to some extent, wisdom could provide a useful substitute for conventional ethical reasoning. It provides a utilitarian standard by which to evaluate one’s options:  a standard that the Christian, the secularist, and the adherent of a non-Christian religion may be able to agree on.

But something inside of us rebels at a purely utilitarian analysis of a scenario such as abortion. Other considerations get dragged into the decision, unbidden.

The Christian would see this as evidence of a transcendent realm. A spark of the divine inhabiting the human breast; a God in whom the material universe coheres.

I don’t know what the secularist would say about this issue — I write as a Christian. But it seems that the principle of utilitarianism — wisdom — sometimes fails to provide us with adequate guidance.


10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. juggling mother
    Apr 05, 2008 @ 16:03:56

    I’ve not seen the film…..

    I agree with your definitions of wisdom and knowledge.

    Re abortion vs pregnancy & adoption & was Juno’s decision wise? IMHO Only she can make that decision:-) Whichever she chose, it would have a lasting impact upon her life. Only she could know which she felt would be better for her to live with.

    I know people who had abortions when young (and not so young) who never really thought much about it afterwards. i know some who still mourn their “lost” child 20 years on. I know people who had the child and gave it up for adoption, knowing they had done the best thing possible, and others who are still fighting to gain every scrap of information about their adopted kids lives and who feel their child has been stolen from them. I know people who had hildren in their teens and went on to make great parents, and great people, and others who contribute to the scourges of society. Which way the individual will be is not something that an outsider can tell. People are too complicated for that. Juno was wise in all her other decisions about the pregnancy, perhaps she was wise in that too. It may well have been the best way for her to live her life comfortable with her knowledge of her past.

    Fortunately i never had to make that decision. I hope to instill nearly (but not quite) as much fear of pregnancy in my girls as my mother did in me:-) But who knows, perhaps things would have been better if I’d done it all differently?


  2. JewishAtheist
    Apr 05, 2008 @ 19:50:37

    Good post. I think her decision not to abort was wise considering her feelings for the fetus (“it has fingernails!”)


  3. Bridgett
    Apr 05, 2008 @ 20:29:45

    This is why wisdom is not the only guiding principle and virtue. It is not the only gift of the holy spirit.

    It may not have been wise (conventionally or otherwise) to NOT have an abortion. Wisdom, however, is not the only virtue to consider here.

    It may not have been wise, but it is more a question of justice than wisdom. Her decision was just, and that led her to receive more wisdom and make wise choices, and ultimately, become a more whole human being, in a way that having an abortion and moving on without another thought would not have given her.

    And there may be some wisdom involved in avoiding future regret. But we cannot know what she would have felt like if she had aborted the baby, because it would not have been script-worthy.


  4. aaron
    Apr 06, 2008 @ 03:32:25

    I have to agree with all three of the other posters here — your measurement of wisdom with respect to abortion seems to fail to consider the possibility that given how she feels toward the fetus, and that regret could cause her anguish later (i.e., mental trouble), her choice not to abort may be the wise choice from the perspective of trouble avoidance. All the same, I don’t think one can say that wisdom should be measured solely on such a basis — there seems to be room for a greater meaning in the notion of “superior judgement with respect to actions” than simple trouble avoidance.

    However, if we were to limit the meaning of wisdom thusly, I would think that such a narrow concept cannot serve to replace “conventional ethical thinking” in society — there are too many situations where the “avoiding trouble” choice of action, in the absence of consideration of the impact on others (either because of an internal “moral compass” or due to laws in place to that effect), would not be the ethical one.

    I’m not sure that “conventional ethical thinking” is in need of an overhaul. Any society that any of us would wish to be a part of has to consider the impact that an action has on others — I don’t see many religious or non-religious people arguing otherwise. That idea may be connected to or even derived from religion (e.g., the Golden Rule), but I see no reason why a belief in God is necessary to live by it (then again, many societies, e.g. feudalism, had a belief in God but wouldn’t meet the modern definition of “conventional ethical thinking”). All that’s needed is (a) empathy of one’s fellow humans; and (b) the recognition that the absence of such an approach could hurt the individual later.

    Where the conflict lies over a matter such as abortion is that society cannot agree on whether the fetus is an individual that qualifies for protection. I don’t see that a change in ethical standard, such as what you throw out for consideration, is going to resolve that matter.

    (BTW, I have not seen the movie.)


  5. Stephen
    Apr 07, 2008 @ 15:46:49

    • Juggling Mother & Aaron:
    You really should see the film. It’s one of the most perfectly executed movies I have seen in a long time: genuinely funny and a moving drama, too.

    • Juggling Mother:
    I accept that different people have different emotional responses to abortion and adoption. I like to think that morality goes beyond a subjective emotional reaction, although it’s obviously a major factor in how people make this particular decision.

    • Aaron:
    I don’t think one can say that wisdom should be measured solely on such a basis — there seems to be room for a greater meaning in the notion of “superior judgement with respect to actions” than simple trouble avoidance.

    Good point. I simplified the definition of wisdom for the sake of my argument here. It was intended only as a starting point for discussion.

    I’m not sure that “conventional ethical thinking” is in need of an overhaul. Any society that any of us would wish to be a part of has to consider the impact that an action has on others — I don’t see many religious or non-religious people arguing otherwise.

    I’m not so sure about that. In practice, “looking out for #1” is an imperative that often guides people’s actions. If people in general were concerned about the welfare of others, governments would propose the radical redistribution of wealth and people would enthusiastically embrace the idea. In practice, a lot of people adamantly oppose any such policy.

    I think there has been a worrisome fragmentation of society as we transition to a post-Christian era. Christians sometimes get rather apocalyptic about this. They argue that society is still living on residual Christian values, but as Christianity recedes into the distant past those values will inevitably collapse because there is no longer anything underguirding them. In my view, that’s a legitimate worry — but only time will tell.

    Regardless, I think we need to come up with new language to guide us in our moral deliberations. It was in that spirit that I proposed “wisdom” as an ethical construct — however inadequate a proposal it may be. (I’m aware that wisdom, as an ethical principle, doesn’t help us with respect to abortion. I conceded as much in the post.)

    Your notion of emphathy for one’s fellow humans is also a good proposal. Usually that approach is presented as a kind of social contract: most people realize a net benefit if everyone agrees to respect everyone else’s interests.

    But in this post I only intended to make a modest proposal: that wisdom (meaning, at least in part, the course of action that best minimizes trouble) is a standard that religious and non-religious people could agree on. It’s a starting point, but obviously only that.


  6. Zayna
    Apr 07, 2008 @ 18:17:08

    To comment or not to comment…that is the question.

    When I first read this post I was flooded with thoughts I wanted to express, with thoughts I had forgotten and with even more thoughts that made me afraid and want to forget I ever even read it.

    For starters, I have not seen the movie.

    But I have been a pregnant teenager (16 when I gave birth to my first child), a single mom, and then a pregnant single mother who opted for abortion and a pregnant married mother…meaning I was seven months pregnant when I got married.

    Yeah, so that’s what I mean by I don’t even know where to begin to comment…but there is so much I want to say about it.

    I also don’t want to start rambling or end up sounding like a complete idiot, which I am not.

    I know that getting pregnant three times before even being self-aware enough to know whether or not I even “wanted” to try my hand at parenting doesn’t bode well for my morals.

    I just wanted to point out at all this theological discussion about shoulds, woulds, coulds and whether or not wisdom is involved…in the end do very little to help the young women out there who find themselves pregnant with little or no support.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about it…of course we should and I am glad to find a place where this kind of thing actually gets discussed.

    I’m just saying there’s so much more involved with a young woman’s decision to keep her child, abort it or put it up for adoption than just wisdom.


  7. Stephen
    Apr 07, 2008 @ 19:13:49

    • Zayna:
    I’m glad you had the courage to offer a comment. This blog is a safe place to talk about tough topics. I guess I set the tone, but my readers deserve a lot of credit for keeping the dialogue constructive, even when we disagree.

    I just wanted to point out at all this theological discussion about shoulds, woulds, coulds and whether or not wisdom is involved…in the end do very little to help the young women out there who find themselves pregnant with little or no support.

    Well said. Thank you for saying it.

    I once worked on the board of a “maternity residence” (Rehoboth Home): i.e., a place where young women in crisis pregancies came for support. They had little or no support from their families, no one to be a Dad to the baby, no financial resources, often with a history of drug or alcohol problems, and lacking basic life skills. And I mean basic: for example, we had to teach one girl how to cook Kraft Dinner.

    The girls lived in the residence for several months before the baby was born. They received support during labour and delivery. And then they came back to the house for those first few, difficult months, to help them get established as moms.

    I’ll never forget one of the girls who was, uh — let’s just say she had a low IQ. It was her third pregnancy, and the first two children had been taken away by the Children’s Aid society because she wasn’t competent to care for them. The third time around, we were there to offer our support. The Children’s Aid society was still part of the picture. But they were giving her a chance to see whether she could succeed as a parent, with our support.

    Rehoboth Home is a Christian ministry, intended to offer a constructive alternative to abortion. I’ve always maintained that there’s more to being “pro life” than just opposing abortion. Rehoboth Home was a chance for me to put my money where my mouth was.

    You’re absolutely right, it takes more than wisdom to get through a crisis pregnancy. Juno is a fictional character who had strong parental support, and friends who stood by her. The Dad was also willing to be part of the picture, to the extent Juno wanted him to be.

    Lots of young women don’t have those kinds of resources. And all the wisdom in the world isn’t enough if there’s no guidance, no income, etc.

    I know that getting pregnant three times before even being self-aware enough to know whether or not I even “wanted” to try my hand at parenting doesn’t bode well for my morals.

    I’m not about to pass judgement on you.

    First — even though I write as a Christian — I tend to think Christian morality represents a set of ideals that don’t easily apply in the real world ("Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect"). The ideals are valuable insofar as they provide direction for living. But they aren’t helpful if they’re used as a club to beat people who fall short. And we all fall short.

    Second, rightly understood, Christianity is about “grace”. It’s about failing, and starting over; and failing again and starting over again. It’s about growing in wisdom and character through the messy process of living as best we can in less than optimum circumstances. Grace is more than forgiveness: it also involves divine assistance to help us transcend our own limitations.

    As you can see, I approach these issues from a theological perspective. But my theology is informed by real world experience. And it’s informed by my personal failures.

    So, as St. Paul would say … Grace to you, and peace.


  8. Bridgett
    Apr 09, 2008 @ 21:19:31

    fabulous discussion. Good post.


  9. Zayna
    Apr 13, 2008 @ 17:25:02

    Then perhaps you’ve heard of the “Youville Centre” named after Marguerite D’Youville? A school for unwed mothers.

    Founded by Sister Elizabeth Ann Kinsella, of the order of the Grey Nuns, “Sister” to those of us who know and love her.

    Yes, grace to me indeed, I’ve had my share. I wouldn’t be able to talk about this stuff if it weren’t for the opportunities afforded me.

    Thank you.


  10. patrick
    Apr 30, 2008 @ 09:52:57

    i assumed Juno was directed by the same guy that directed Knocked Up because it’s about an unexpected pregnancy, and Michael Cera stars as Juno’s boyfriend (he was one of the goofy kids from Superbad, a close relative of Knocked Up), but it turns out this is not the case


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