Friday, June 27, 2008

Wollstonecraft: Unmarried and pregnant--man's responsibility, or woman's?

Wollstonecraft opined that men should be compelled to provide for the unmarried women with whom they sleep and impregnate, as long as the women remain sexually faithful to their providers. Such an arrangement she terms a "left-handed marriage" (distinguished from proper marriages which she deems superior and preferable).

Her argument here is difficult to follow. The passage reads:

"...yet when a man seduces a woman, it should, I think, be termed a left-handed marriage, and the man should be legally obliged to maintain the woman and her children, unless adultery, a natural divorcement, abrogated the law. And this law should remain in force as long as the weakness of women caused the word seduction to be used as an excuse for their frailty and want of principle; nay, while they depend on man for a subsistence, instead of earning it by the exertion of their own hands or heads."

As far as I can tell, the exhortation goes as follows:

Unfortunately, contemporary women are weak in moral principles and financial resources.

Women can and should be strong in these respects.

As part of their empowerment, pregnant unmarried women should stop blaming their "seducers" for the sexual activity in which both parties willingly participated.

(Implied) If men do not enjoy providing for their lovers and their offspring, then they should admit that women have sexual and financial responsibilities, i.e. assent to Wollstonecraft's feminist platform.

It is unclear to me how the claim that pregnant unmarried women should stop blaming their "seducers" is compatible with the idea that men should provide financially for their lovers. Wollstonecraft critiqued the contemporary assumption of her wealthy economic class that men were expected to earn money for their families while women were expected to sit at home and look pretty, and she envisioned a future in which women took responsibility for their own lives. The present and the future visions are clear, but her intermediate step--the specific practical recommendation by which the society would arrive at a more perfect future--is not clear at all. She said that men should provide for women until women got sick of the attention and, perhaps, if I read her correctly, until men became feminists (ceasing to use the word "seduction" as an excuse for women's behavior). We need a better-detailed program for social change.

Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (1792) Chapter 4: Observations on the State of Degradation to Which Woman Is Reduced by Various Causes.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wollstonecraft: Fondness and friendship

"To gain the affections of a virtuous man is affectation necessary?" In formulating this question, Wollstonecraft put her finger on an ancient question that even today populates advice columns. Courtship involves playful pretense and mystery to stimulate mutual interest. But when does coquettishness cross the line into affectation, that is, a false persona that hides the true self?
Asking if a woman should "condescend to use art and feign a sickly delicacy in order to secure her husband's affection", Wollstonecraft answered, "Fondness is a poor substitute for friendship!"

In the search for romantic partnership, many people (both male and female) display their own weaknesses and are attracted to weaknesses in others, to some extent because they are searching for a partner who can tolerate, complement, or even fix their problems. This is not an entirely bad desire. Everyone is imperfect, and everyone has needs; these facts certainly influence our choice of partner, and our behavior with our partner! Yet, we have all seen examples of how the simple admission of vulnerability can go awry, in certain couples where one of the partners behaves in a manner that just seems annoyingly fake and therefore desperate.

Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. (1792) Chapter 2: The Prevailing Opinion of a Sexual Character Discussed.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Berkeley: What color is that dismembered body part you are imagining?

In the last post, we quoted a 1772 text from David Hume that referred to compound ideas, that is, the combination of known concepts such as "gold" and "mountain" to generate new ideas and fantasies such as "golden mountains."

Here is a similar idea from George Berkeley, 62 years earlier:

...for myself, I find indeed I have a faculty of imagining, or representing to myself, the ideas of those particular things I have perceived, and of variously compounding and dividing them. I can imagine a man with two heads, or the upper parts of a man joined to the body of a horse. I can consider the hand, the eye, the nose, each by itself abstracted or separated from the rest of the body. But then whatever hand or eye I imagine, it must have some particular shape and colour. Likewise the idea of man that I frame to myself must be either of a white, or a black, or a tawny, a straight, or a crooked, a tall, or a low, or a middle-sized man. I cannot by any effort of thought conceive the abstract idea above described. And it is equally impossible for me to form the abstract idea of motion distinct from the body moving, and which is neither swift nor slow, curvilinear nor rectilinear; and the like may be said of all other abstract general ideas whatsoever.

Rightly (in my opinion) Berkeley points out that, while one can imagine a human being, one cannot imagine a human being without particular qualities of height, color, etc. This illustrates two meanings of the word "abstract." One can imagine an abstract human, or even an abstract body part such as a hand or head, separated from all context and having no basis in reality; but remove all physical description and sensory reference points from the abstract idea, and it is no longer an image of anything.

I imagine the same is true with virtue. When we imagine virtue, we imagine examples of virtue. The abstract ideas of kindness or honesty would mean nothing if they were so far abstracted as to be no longer grounded in human relationships.

George Berkeley. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. (1710) Introduction, Paragraph 10.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Hume: Ideas are imitations of sense perceptions

David Hume believed that the most direct, "lively" mental images are those caused by sensory impressions, and that the gyrations of the imagination and intellect are weak imitations or hybrids. "All the colours of poetry, however splendid," he wrote, "can never paint natural objects in such a manner as to make the description be taken for a real landscape. The most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation." I am unsure whether I agree with this, particular as, during my morning meditation, my opinions on Hume's book nearly succeeded in crowding out my attention to a bird chirping outside my window.

He also applied this to emotion, pointing out that we can recognize or imagine emotion in ourselves and others without actually feeling that emotion: "A man in a fit of anger, is actuated in a very different manner from one who only thinks of that emotion. If you tell me, that any person is in love, I easily understand your meaning, and form a just conception of his situation; but never can mistake that conception for the real disorders and agitations of the passion." One might add--I wish to point out--that when we hear of others' fortunes and misfortunes we often have our own emotional responses. Thus, when we hear about someone's unjust punishment, we actually become angry on her behalf, and when we watch the hero kiss his beloved on a movie screen, we actually feel the love we imagine he feels.

Many of our mental creations are hybrids in the simplest and most literal sense. "What never was seen, or heard of, may yet be conceived...When we think of a golden mountain, we only join two consistent ideas, gold, and mountain..." And yet, these ideas ultimately must be rooted in experience. He wrote, "A blind man can form no notion of colours, a deaf man of sounds." He also applied this to virtue: "A man of mild manners can form no idea of inveterate revenge or cruelty, nor can a selfish heart easily conceive the heights of friendship and generosity." Though it feels depressing to say so, this seems true to some degree. Why is it that deeply felt impulses and ethical commitments are so difficult to sympathize with in other people who experience them differently? If we were capable of understanding each other better, surely this would promote peace.

David Hume. Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. (1772) Section II: Of the Origin of Ideas.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Smith: Sleeping soundly through famine

Adam Smith wrote of the ordinary man:

If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he will not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. To prevent, therefore, this paltry misfortune to himself, would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them?

A couple weeks ago, when I heard of UNICEF's estimate that 120,000 Ethiopian children will starve to death within the month, I felt disturbed and upset; but what I lay awake thinking of last night was whether my boss would be able to open my PowerPoint presentation on an excruciatingly minor business topic. Smith is not concerned with sleep patterns per se, but with the moral question of whether we would sacrifice our own lesser goods for someone else's greater good.

One might ask if I would exchange my precious PowerPoint file for the lives of the children. I find such formalized questions frustrating, because no bandit will attempt today to ransom the lives of the children by demanding my office effluvia. It seems not even to be a moral question, because it is not a real situation; to me, it seems the real must be the province of the moral.

But without the aid of such silly, fictional questions, how else can I examine myself to discover whether I am willing to sacrifice some of my own small concerns for the urgent, terrifying concerns of others?

Adam Smith. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. eds. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie. (1790, reprint Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975) pp. 136-137. Quoted in "Humanity and Citizenship," by Amartya Sen, in For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism. Martha C. Nussbaum with respondents. ed. Joshua Cohen. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.