A Moral Conversation
August 21, 2014
Stuart W. Mirsky in Ethics, Moral Philosophy, Stuart Mirsky

Over the summer my wife and I tend to get to spend more time together and today we took a long drive which is often the place where I get to apply some of my thoughts on how things are to real life. On the drive home we passed a building in a serious state of disrepair. It used to be a "gentleman's club" which prominently displayed its wares on it's billboard like front, until some of the more morally minded in the local community took up arms over the somewhat audacious displays. Personally I had no objection to the long limbed figures depicted in spike heels (the place called itself "High Heels" as I recall) or the other sometimes quite frank images of the "hostesses" within. But a colleague of my wife's had objected. A single mother, she is raising her boys alone and she felt it was inappropriate for them to be exposed to such images when, driving by with her, they couldn't help but notice. So she joined a petition drive to shut High Heels down and, in time, they succeeded. The result, now, is a derelict building without occupant or purpose. But no more scantily clad gals displayed to the driving public either.

I made this point to my wife and noted that I kind of missed the images. After all, at least from my perspective they were not entirely unpleasant to look at. More importantly, they were nicer to look at than the now decrepit structure that met our eyes as we drove past this afternoon. My wife snarled at me that it was inappropriate and that I shouldn't have been looking at those images either. After all, would I want my daughters or granddaughters to parade about like that? If I wouldn't, she declared, then why would I want other men's daughters to be doing that?

I said, hold on a minute. Everyone is somebody's son or daughter, aren't they and some people do things like that. Why should their being someone's daughter matter if they wanted to do it? It's a free country, after all, I added, and no one was forcing these young ladies to engage in such activities. That didn't assuage my wife's annoyance though. So I tried another tack. I said look here, what you're telling me is that you don't like that sort of thing. But that doesn't say why anyone else wouldn't . . . or shouldn't.

Always snappy with a reply, she said well you can just google that sort of thing on the Internet and look all you want. It doesn't have to be publicly displayed so others, who don't like it, have to see. Well, I agreed, that was true enough but there were some who did like it so why should they have to be denied what they take to be attractive sights and forced, instead, to look at derelict buildings? Never at a loss for a response, my wife asked if I'd display such images on my computer? Of course not, I said. Why, she demanded. Because, I answered her, our grandkids often use my computer and I wouldn't want them to see that. Well, she said, triumphant, it's the same thing. My friend didn't want her boys seeing it on the street when she drove past it.

Of course, she had a point, but I pressed on. "There's a difference," I told her. "My computer is a private affair and what I put on it is within my control. But this was on a public street and no single person has the right to dictate what can be publicly displayed. Besides, I added, the images weren't lewd, they were merely of attractive looking, albeit scantily clad, women. You can see that everyday on television. Why be prudish about seeing it in the street.

"It's what those images represent," she said. "My colleague had to explain to her boys what they were seeing and it embarrassed her for them."

"It embarrassed her for her," I said.

"That, too," my wife agreed, "but why should she have to endure that?"

"Lots of things embarrass or offend us but in the final analysis what right has any one of us to impose our preferences on others? Besides," I added, "isn't this as much about it embarrassing you and making you uncomfortable as it is about her and her boys?"

"Well, I didn't sign the petition," she said.

"But you agreed with it, and now what have we got, a rundown structure in an advanced state of decay because no one else has any use for it, instead of a decently kept up building with images of nice looking women facing the street? What kind of trade-off is that? Besides," I needled her, "isn't this really about the fact that you and your colleague dislike this sort of display even though others, myself included, actually found it pleasant to look at."

"Then go look at it privately," she snapped.

"But aren't you just deciding here to impose your preferences on others? You're trying to universalize your own particular sensibilities by making this a moral matter rather than a matter of your personal preference because, if you recognized that it's just about your preferences, then the obvious solution is to look away or, if you are worried about the kids in your car, take a different road."

"I'm not making a moral judgment," she snapped again. "I don't care what anyone else does, but it doesn't have to be so public so that everyone has to look at it, or else make an extensive detour just to avoid others in their car having to see it."

"There's always something that bothers someone, somewhere," I said. "That doesn't mean anyone can decide for everyone else what they can look at. Personally, I miss the old displays!"

Whoops, that was a mistake. I knew it as soon as I'd said it! She fixed me with one of her toughest stares. I felt it rather than saw it because I was keeping my eyes intently on the cars ahead of us! "Look," I said, "it's one thing to have a liking or disliking for something. We all have that, our personal preferences. But when we try to impose our preferences on others, when we universalize our particular preferences, then we are making the jump from preference to moral judgment. But such a judgment needs a reason because particular preferences don't have universal implications. They are, by definition, applicable only to the person who has them. But once we want to say that this is how I feel about that, and you should feel this way, too, then you need a basis for saying that. That's what separates moral judgments and their expressions from the other kinds of preferences we accept as part and parcel of our daily lives. So what is it about your preference," I pressed her, "that warrants your universalizing it?"

"I'm not doing that," she said. I'm just saying it's disgusting and it shouldn't be publicly displayed."

"You mean you find it disgusting? Well I didn't find those images disgusting," I countered, "and they were much better than what's there now."

"At least it's not that kind of pornographic stuff," she said.

"Titillating, I'll grant you," I told her, "but hardly pornographic."

"Well, you're a pig," she said.

"Maybe," I agreed, "but then that's in the eye of the beholder, too. One woman's 'pig' might be another's Prince Charming."

"Don't flatter yourself," she said.

"My only point is that you've moved from an expression of personal preference to one of general condemnation. You've made a moral move here to impose a standard driven by your individual likes or dislikes on others who may not share them. By shifting to a universal kind of claim (I don't like X and you shouldn't either), you've set yourself up for a demand for justification because such claims need a reason for anyone to think they are more than someone's preference. So how do you justify your objection to the public display of images of lightly clothed women?"

"It's in the context," she said. "It's what those images indicate. They're an invitation to enter the establishment and engage in certain behaviors which are wrong."

"That YOU THINK are wrong," I said. "But what if others don't? What kind of reason can you provide to justify turning this peculiar preference you and your colleague share into something even those of us who don't share it must abide by? You want to impose your standards of appropriateness on everyone driving down this street regardless of what their preferences are. So how do you defend that?"

"I'm not one of your philosophy friends," she said bluntly. "Go argue with them on the Internet."

"You mean instead of looking at half-clad women?" I asked. "But seriously, I really do want to know. How do you make this move from the personal to the moral, to the idea that some personal predilection of yours should be taken on and implemented by everyone, including those who don't share it? What's the basis of your moral claim here?"

"I'm not making a moral claim. I'm just saying I don't like it and I don't want to have to see it and I don't think my colleague or her children should have to either. Or other people's kids either."

"But what about those who do want to? Maybe her sons will ultimately want to, too."

"That," my wife said triumphantly, "is what she's trying to prevent."

"And if others don't want to prevent it in their sons? Or just don't see the necessity of doing that? Or if they, perhaps, want their sons to learn about such things? That's not improbable you know."

"Then they're being disgusting, too."

"So it is about universalizing your particular preferences then, just as I said!"

"I never said that. I'm just talking about preserving my own visual space and the visual space of people like me."

"And imposing that rule on people like me! You want others to adhere to your rules because, if they don't, you can't be comfortable, is that it?

"Maybe," she allowed. "I have as much right to be free of having to look at stuff that makes me uncomfortable as anyone. And to protect my kids and grandkids. You said you'd do the same."

"Not in a public space," I said. "I'd rather leave that out of my moral judgments and, if needed, drive down a different road, though I probably wouldn't if there were no minors in the car, and maybe not if there were, either, because the images weren't all that bad, unless you're being hyper sensitive like some people I know."

"Aha," she leaped on the opening, "but what if they were that bad? What if they were pictures of totally naked women doing, you know, lewd things?"

"Well, I guess there are some images I'd object to, and even be glad for societal intervention," I agreed. "Indeed, there are some images I can think of which could be outright harmful to societal harmony by encouraging the breakdown of standards of behavior conducive to the development and preservation of strong family ties which, I think, are good for our society at large. There are even some I'd consider unpleasant because, say, they are demeaning to women (or to any human being, for that matter) and I wouldn't like to see publicly displayed for their deleterious consequences on kids growing up. I would offer that sort of thinking as a reason to universalize (or at least generalize) my preference within a given society. But the fairly tame images we've been talking about hardly rise to that level. So what gives you or your friend the right, or her friends the right, to decide for me, and others like me, that they do or that we ought to treat them as though they do?"

"So where do you draw the line?" she asked. "I know where I do. Do you know where you do?"

"I'm not sure, myself," I had to acknowledge, "but, apparently we draw our lines in different places. The bottom line, though is what makes our particular lines into lines for others rather than just for ourselves? At what point and for what reason do personal preferences, our individual likes and dislikes, become moral judgments in the game of giving reasons that characterizes moral valuing? The reason I, personally, choose to avert my eyes from something, or choose not to avert them, differs in an important way from a reason why others should. At least one characteristic feature of moral claims is that they are claims about behavior which we think we can universalize, which we think we can turn into precepts for others. To the extent 'moral' designates a certain kind of goodness characteristic ascribable to actions, it must pick out some feature(s), of some actions, that provide an agent with a reason to choose those actions over alternatives. But saying you don't like X can never be enough of a reason to get me to dislike it, too. Actions have lots of features. Some merely make them suitable for the agent because they satisfy the agent's needs or wants, i.e., they justify, as in provide rational support for, claims about, or actions expressing, his or her preferences. That doesn't mean they're not good in certain situations, when the only thing at issue is satisfying some personal need or want, but to be 'morally good,' and not just good in terms of satisfying the agent's needs or desires, there must be something about the action(s) in question that warrants an agent's decision to select that action in a situation in which it is an option without regard to his or personal needs or desires. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about, the universalization that's implicit in moral claims," I said. "What makes any particular preference we have for doing something, instead of something else, relevant for others' decisions, too? How can your preferential feelings matter in my deliberations and, if you think they should, can you say why?"

"Don't you ever talk about anything else but philosophy?" she snapped, totally exasperated with me at last.

"Sometimes," I told her meekly.

"Then shut up and get started."

Well, we didn't talk much after that, I'm afraid, and not much since we got home this evening either. But being of a philosophical bent, I live in hope.


Note: In view of spousal confidentiality issues, the above is neither a complete, nor entirely accurate, account of the actual conversation. But I'm still alive to report on it so I guess it's as close as it's ever going to be.

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