Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Private values and public consequences -- a battle over values: personal autonomy and public morality


A high school and college English teacher (Erica Jacobs) in northern Virginia wrote an interesting column “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde visit the classroom” on Monday April 16, 2007. The column is here. First, this has nothing to do with the tragedy at VPI (the column had already been published in The DC Examiner on p 28 on Monday) and the apparent metaphor appears as a total coincidence. Nor does my reaction have anything to do with that event. The column title of course a reference to the famous Robert Louis Stevenson novel, a staple of English literature and adapted to the movies at least twice (as mild genre “horror”) early in the history of motion pictures.

The column refers to another famous literary work, Dubliners, by James Joyce (published 1914). That is a collection of short stories set in Ireland around 1900. One of them, “The Dead”, appears to have been loosely adapted to make the recent movie “First Snow” (review) from Bob Yari Productions (with Guy Pearce as the protagonist -- there is also a 1987 independent film of "The Dead" directed by John Huston, not yet on DVD). I have not read the book, but the Wiki summary (of characters and plot situations) certainly supports the columnist’s content that the book provides a good example of how “neither literature nor government exist in a vacuum – private vices have societal consequences” (emphasis mine). A possible close paraphrase could say "public consequences." I thought, somewhat whimsically, that this statement belonged in The Washington Times, not The Examiner.

We often hear social critics commenting on the culture of our movies, television series, and video games, encouraging values ranging from excessive narcissism or “meritocracy” to advocacy of drugs and violence. This seems to have gotten worse, in the eyes of many people, during the age of the Internet with YouTube and social networking sites. To be frank, in the mid 1950s teachers were imploring “junior high school” students “read, don’t watch television.” TV was the enemy then. We survived.

But of course, the idea that private behaviors have public consequences is indeed loaded. The book would contain many examples relevant to Ireland more than a century ago – it’s always safer in school to study a society different from our own, where we can keep some protective distance from our own serious problems. But it’s all too easy to ponder what the statement means today. Back in the 1990s, Oliver North, on his talk show, would defend laws against mind-altering drugs – you have to stop the demand to get rid of incentive for supply. Political libertarians would disagree, of course, and maintain that making a “vice” illegal increases the profit from supplying it. You can certainly say that about prostitution – despite the frequent sweeps by DC police on 14th Street. Conservatives always talk about unwed mothers (in the context of abstinence) and welfare. With other problems, like c.p., it gets harder, because there are real, underage victims.

Gay people are particularly sensitive to notions of "vice". Back in the 1950s, and in some cities up to the 1980s, “vice squad” police (often dressed in coat and tie) would raid gay bars and randomly arrest patrons so that their names could be published in newspapers. (The religious right certainly tried to make HIV a societal consequence of private behavior.) Today, after a half-century of civil rights activism, diversity, and understanding of biological science, we can credibly debate equal rights and responsibilities for gays in areas like the military, marriage, and even parenting. Debate, that is. For some people still have a lot of problems with the intrusion into the institutional and emotional space of the family, which is the buffer between an individual (most of all children) and a most unequal and competitive world. Some people still want to look at this as “vice.”

But what seems to matter is not so much “vice,” but values. Private value systems – which can sometimes sound very judgmental about people--become more public because of open media, now including, of course, the Internet and global search engines.

For we are indeed in a cultural "low pressure system" perfect storm between notions of individual sovereignty (or personal autonomy, a synonym), and protective public morality—a paradigm which protects the mores of society “as a whole” but often seems to serve the interests of established privilege. It’s a complicated thing. Society is more diverse and accepting of different “groups” but harder on individual people in many cases, and it is often harder to raise children or take care of the elderly. The competitive culture has led to what Princeton professor David Callahan calls “The Cheating Culture (the name of his book),” which is a vice of a different kind.

Public morality is often tied to notions of individual shame, and that gets caught up in self-righteousness, and the need to protect some system of beliefs that remain in place no matter what happens beyond one’s own control. We see the most extreme case of this now with radical Islam, and the extremely punitive theories of “virtue” coming from cultures like the Taliban or the writings of Sayyid Qtub. What drives self-righteousness? Maybe it is the idea that you have to “give up” a lot to achieve “virtue” so you want to see others have to “give up” too.

But indeed, controlling vice, as some software engineers would say, probably involves implementing some pretty overloaded methods.

(See also post on utilitarianism on this blog April 2.)

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