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retread| Ethics as Politics 5 May 2007

Posted by EDITOR in ABD, Philosophy, Politics, Relationships.
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Retreads are quality posts from yesterweeks that are given a second run on Saturdays. Here’s an ABD piece from 26 Oct 2006.

For some time now, I have stopped looking for the perfect solution in politics. This does not mean that one does not exist, but only that such a prospect is no longer frightening to me. More recently, I have been wondering whether the same might be true about the politics of marriage.

The ancient Greeks concluded, at least on one reading, that there is no solution to the problem of politics. As political beings, we are led by our nature (i.e., our needs and our aspirations) to establish cities. And yet political communities constrain that nature. Some cities do so by enforcing a particular conception of excellence (thereby impinging on the personal freedoms of anyone who varies from the standard). Others do so by denying that any such standard exists (thereby reducing virtue to a matter of taste and human beings to beasts). But there is no perfect form of government—one that will serve our needs without undercutting our aspirations.

I am increasingly drawn to a similar conclusion about sexual politics. The feminist mantra—“the personal is political”—suggests that the fundamental question of politics (“Who should rule?”) can be equally applied to the private sphere. Men have traditionally ruled the family, the argument goes, but doesn’t that deny the freedom and aspirations of women? Why should men rule and not women? Why not both? Or neither?

I am not convinced that the idea of male headship is unproblematic. By sanctioning male authority, don’t we increase the risks of domestic abuse? Even where polygamy is justified, isn’t it psychologically straining on women? At the same time, however, I am not convinced that a radically egalitarian marriage is either possible or desirable. I do not have the conceptual resources to elaborate on this intuition, but it seems to me that women want respect more than they want equality. And the first doesn’t necessarily follow from the second.

So where does that leave us? Without getting into a debate about the final superiority of traditional versus modern marriages (or of democracy versus other forms of government), I want to raise the possibility that there is no solution to the problem of sexual politics, just as there is no solution to the problem of politics more generally. Politics raises a question that it cannot itself answer.

Raising such a possibility uncovers the insight that, just perhaps, the answer to the problem of politics lies rather in ethics. The Prophetic mission of character building takes on a new significance:

I was sent (only) to perfect good character.
– Prophet Muhammad, on him be peace (Malik’s Muwatta)

In the absence of institutional solutions, we still have ethical concerns. If there is no perfect way to distribute power, perhaps we should stop worrying about redistributing power and focus instead on the character of the person who holds power. Rather than questioning the legitimacy of rulers and speaking to them as fellow citizens, perhaps we should speak to them simply as rulers—and encourage them to be good ones. Simonides in Xenophon’s brilliant dialogue On Tyranny employs just this strategy.

Rather than speaking to men as fellow human beings, perhaps we should speak to them as men—and encourage them to be better ones. “Be a man!” hits a different rhetorical note than “Be a human being!”, and it has its own effect. Women have been employing this strategy since the beginning of time.

All of this leads me to wonder whether the only way out of the problem highlighted by “the personal is political” is to reverse the mantra.

The political is personal.

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