Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Moral privacy

Sartre talks in one place of a man in an empty hotel corridor who gets down and peeks through a keyhole. He does so because he knows that an attractive woman is in this hotel room and he has the good luck to see her getting undressed. They could do that once upon a time—you can't see anything through a modern keyhole.

Sartre's point is that so long as the person is utterly unaware of themselves they feel no shame. All this not-so-hypothetical guy is aware of is what he is looking at. But then he hears a sound and looks up to realize that another man is in the hallway and has seen what he is doing. Now he is ashamed. Until that moment, he had no awareness of himself as a subject of moral assessment.

(It never seems to have occurred to Sartre to wonder what the woman might be thinking and feeling but you can do similar things with her. You can imagine, for example, her being aware that someone is watching her and secretly enjoying it because she thinks of him as an anonymous stranger. He doesn't have any existence outside his role of fulfilling her fantasy. That would all change the second she became aware of him as some specific guy she knew. Then the purely private sexual thrill would get replaced by social shame.)

Notice the assumptions that are work here. Sartre, without saying it, is assuming that everyone knows what he is talking about from personal experience. And we do, don't we? You can't peek through keyholes anymore but you can find pictures of naked people or people having sex easily enough. And so long as it's just you and your computer in some private space, no one is evaluating you. Especially not you yourself.

If there is any thought that dominates modern morality, it is the notion that doing that is not just something we have all done but it is something we have an absolute right to do.We insist that there be a moral sphere where we are free to choose as we want because it is private. Or is it a sphere where we are free from morality period? Is it a sphere where I can do things without having to think about their moral status.

Ironically, we sometimes think of this moral privacy as a place where I can just be myself even though the self I tend to be in that place is someone I would be embarrassed to have you find out about. Million dollar question: When are we lying? In public or in private?

We're hypocrites about it, of course. Let the sex habits of some celebrity become public and everyone mocks.

Actually, never mind sex, let it become known that a former president likes painting but does so as a private activity that he only shares with a  few close friends and everyone else peers shamelessly and some will mock and hate him for not being good enough at it.

There is a funny tension between our desire to have a private sphere where no one judges us and our willingness to constantly invade the moral spheres of others. Back to the million dollar question: Don't automatically condemn the hypocrisy as the real problem. That is, don't assume that the same morality we apply in public must be applied in private.

Nowhere is the tension weirder than when it comes to style. Some people are flamboyant. They damn well mean to be a dandy, or a prep, or formal, or just like everyone else and they work at it and they damn well don't care who hates them for being what they are.

But most people aren't like that. Most people want to pursue a style the way like a keyhole peeper in an empty hallway. They want to constantly evaluate the style choices of others but never be subject to moral criticism themselves.

So which side of that divide do successful hipster chicks land on? Well, it depends who you think of doesn't it? Think of some person who irritates or threatens you and you will see them in the second category. But think of that girl back in high school who seemed to refuse to play the game and dressed with a sense of conscious playing at style and you couldn't help admire her even though you never had the courage to talk to her or to be her friend. And maybe you later wished you had.

How we evaluate a style is less a function of its success than whether we really believe the person adopting it can pull it off.

[Bonus question: When you think of God, how do you imagine him? He can see everything. When he looks at you does he see cause for shame or cause to love you? Are you a nasty, dirty piece of work who must be brutally shamed into being a better person? Or are you like a child who has failings but whom God loves and wants the best for? It's a lot easier to believe that God exists than it is to believe he loves you as a good father would.]

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