Saturday, March 12, 2022


Stephen Mulhall says that:

Brown’s Hobart Wilson is someone whose inextinguishable vitality is capable of inducing a conversion in others—of suddenly revealing (surprisingly, even shockingly) that what I had hitherto regarded as morality’s unquestionable priority over non-moral values and interests was in fact a deeply constricting refusal on my part to appreciate the turbulent heterogeneity—the sheer unruliness—of our experience of one another and of the world we share. [Maria Balaska, ed., Cora Diamond on Ethics, p. 184]

Mulhall’s words might suggest that vitality is a non-moral value, which in turn might lead one to think that it is, after all, a value, and so could perhaps be added to a list of virtues, or some such thing. This would go against his point about unruliness and the importance of being open to it, however. His point, I take it, is not that there are various values, some moral and some not, but that Wilson’s vitality is a radically different kind of good from moral values. Hence Mulhall’s reference to “turbulent heterogeneity”. We can write lists of heterogeneous values or virtues, but doing so might obscure just how different some are from others. There is something mysterious about Wilson’s vitality, as Diamond emphasizes. Or perhaps the mystery concerns not so much his vitality itself as what is good about this vitality. Why should it seem good that the “currents of life run very strong in him” (Diamond, p. 210)? Not, surely, because such currents are beneficial to social animals. It’s more mysterious than that, although connected with more obviously normal virtue such as Wilson’s allegedly never complaining about his lot.

Diamond begins with a kind of Rawlsian idea from D. A. J. Richards, according to which “we would accept, in an appropriately defined ‘original position’, a moral principle about mutual love ‘requiring that people should not show personal affection and love to others on the basis of arbitrary physical characteristics alone, but rather on the basis of traits of personality and character related to acting on moral principles.’” (Quoted in Diamond, p. 198) Bernard Williams calls this “righteous absurdity” and Rai Gaita calls it moralistic. It is less obviously terrible to me, but I think I see the objection. I take Richards’ point to be motivated by the thought that who someone is, what they are like as a person, should matter in romantic and sexual attraction, not only what the shape or color of their body is, as if they were an object (and as if, perhaps, a robot might be just as good). This does not seem objectionably moralistic to me.

It's really the reference to moral principles, and perhaps just to principles, that spoils things. Without the word ‘principles’ Richards might be taken to be saying only that personality and/or character should matter and that it shouldn’t be only bad or immoral aspects of someone’s personality that attract one to them. Love based on shared racism would not be good, for instance. Another problem with the idea of moral principles here is the initial question that Richards sems to be asking: “What moral principle about mutual love would be most acceptable?” Must we have a moral principle for this? Does everything have to be governed by moral principles?

Things change if the “personal affection and love” in question includes the love between siblings or between a parent and a child. If Richards is saying that no one should love their family members just because they are their family members then that seems moralistic. Or if he would object to love between the last two people on earth just because they were the last two people on earth then that seems obnoxious too. But, as I say, I think it is really the mention of “moral principles” that turns what might be a good thought into a bad one.

It's interesting to relate this to what Amia Srinivasan has to say about the “right to sex.” To what extent are we responsible for who we find attractive? To what extent can we try to change? As Srinivasan says: “[S]imply to say to a trans woman, or a disabled woman, or an Asian man, ‘No one is required to have sex with you,’ is to skate over something crucial.” [Note the word ‘simply’ here. Srinivasan does think it’s true that no one is required to have sex with anyone else.] Personal preferences, she says, are never just personal. That might be going too far—a preference for people with long arms or eyes of two different colors might be purely idiosyncratic, I would think, but her point is that common preferences are often either racist or approximately as bad as racist preferences. A certain kind of rejection of Richards’ idea might obscure this problem.

Srinivasan is eager to avoid any coercion, going farther than I might in that direction. She says, for instance, that “As a matter of good politics, we treat the preferences of others as sacred.” Maybe this is true, as a matter of politics. But if a middle-aged or older man prefers women much younger than himself and insists that they be white and blonde, must we treat this as sacred? Better left alone maybe, although if a close friend or one of his children wanted to suggest to him that there could be something dodgy about his taste in women then I don’t think I would object.

What Srinivasan is really concerned about is not this, though. Instead she wants us to explore, both in thought and practice, I think, the space between a moralizing dictation of politically correct sexual preferences, on the one hand, and a complacent conservatism about existing prejudices, on the other.

Openness to the turbulent heterogeneity and unruliness of the world and its various goods is necessary for such exploration to go well. Without it the exploration (and the thinking it involves) either won’t happen at all or else it will take the form of guilt-driven relationships (possibly only imaginary ones) that one has been convinced one ought to enjoy. What we need, it seems, is neither moralism nor complacency but a willingness to see what is there to be found.

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