Thursday, November 09, 2006

Skimpy ethics

What is the ethics of women dressing immodestly? According to feminist writer Barbara Biggs:

I think any woman should be allowed to walk down the street wearing skimpy clothes, or nothing at all, and be free from the fear of rape and harassment. ["Girls who just look available", Herald Sun, 08/11/06]

This sounds at first like a classic statement of modernist liberal ethics. Liberals begin with the idea that we become human only when we are unimpeded in shaping our lives.

This means, though, that any form of "outside" morality will be thought of negatively as a restriction on individuals choosing for themselves.

Therefore, liberals will want to "liberate" the individual from external forms of morality, such as moral codes or traditional moral beliefs.

Barbara Biggs only follows this line of argument part of the way. She goes as far as to suggest that women ought to be able to choose to dress skimpily in public or even go naked. But she doesn't see this as a liberation from a restrictive code of morality.

Instead, she labels such behaviour, even if permissible, as "a bad idea". She is especially concerned about the likely real world effects of a sexually libertine culture on girls:

Nobody tells girls that boys of their age have 18 times more testosterone than they do. Neither young boys nor girls are really taught, or have the life experience to know, how to conduct themselves in a way that respects themselves and the other person ... Nobody tells adolescents that there's sex and love, and sometimes they go together and sometimes they don't.

Barbara Biggs goes on to make a strong case that girls can be influenced by advertising, culture and peer group pressure, so that they act in ways that do not express authentic wants:

Don't we all remember looking around for clues among our slightly older peers and in our culture about what it meant to be grown up, desired and popular ...

I want to shout out to young girls, like someone in a pantomime audience: "Watch out! You're being had! ...

... through these images young girls are being manipulated into thinking that playing up to male fantasies is what they themselves really want and how they should express themselves ...

Do we really think that the girls in the children's clothing catalogues or clips would really, off their own bat, pout and seduce the cameras.

It's not surprising that Barbara Biggs should frame the argument around authentic wants. Once the liberal idea is accepted that the ethical thing is to allow individuals to pursue their wants, then one of the few available ways of criticising people's behaviour is to claim that that they are being manipulated by some external force so that their wants aren't authentic.

In other words, if modernist ethics says "It is moral to do what you want" and a young girl says "I want to dress like Britney Spears", then how does a concerned adult tell her it's not right to do so? Barbara Biggs' answer is to tell the girl "You don't really want to dress like Britney Spears, you're just being manipulated."

I don't like the trend to argue moral issues in terms of authentic wants, but I do agree with Barbara Biggs that peer pressure and cultural influences have a significant influence on how we choose to act, especially when we're young.

This is, in fact, an argument against liberal ethics. The liberal idea is that by rejecting traditional forms of morality we will be liberated to shape our own life as an autonomous agent. The reality, though, is that most individuals won't be any more autonomous, but will become more vulnerable to other influences, including the pervasive effect of a dominant commercial culture.

Similarly, by rejecting traditional moral belief liberal ethics makes each individual start from scratch in developing a moral world view. This is not such a good idea, as it can take a lot of poor moral decisions to learn the necessary life lessons about wise and unwise behaviour.

Consider the case of Barbara Biggs herself:

What I am is a woman with a lived experience of having accepted a grown man's fantasy about what it was to be an attractive adult. I believed that to be lovable I had to sexually please men. I was told this from the age of 14.

I lived that out, having indiscriminate and therefore bad and unsatisfying sex for a couple of decades. It took a couple of decades to work out how to stop shoving my real feelings about it under the carpet and to discover what I really wanted from intimacy.

This - surprise, surprise - was to have a loving relationship with someone who respected, honoured and valued me.

It's not possible to give people "a couple of decades" to arrive at such insights. By then it will often be too late.

It makes a lot more sense for a civilisation to try to preserve moral insight that has been accumulated over time and to pass this knowledge on to the next generation, as a form of guidance. This is only possible, though, when moral traditions are thought of in positive terms, rather than being assumed for ideological purposes to be an impediment to the self-determining individual.

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