11.06.2009

With Apologies for Length, a Serious Question

The Question

A friend who supports the rights of gay and lesbian couples to marry recently commented on Facebook:
"when will America realize that majority vote should not be applied to human rights issues? I seriously doubt interracial marriage would have passed in 1960s if it was put to referendum..."
In so many words, I replied that something about his making the issue a moral issue gave me pause -- after all, it was the emphasis on subjective epistemology that brought homosexuality into the semi-mainstream and out of cultural closet. It's easy to forget, but when MTV featured an openly gay man on "Real World" in (what was that, 1990?) it's first season, people were a little uncomfortable. Nowadays, no sitcom is complete without a gay sidekick, however minstrely he seems.

Anyway, my point was, postmodernism's emphasis on subjective ethics is what gave homosexuality a place in culture. But my friend's appeal relied not on subjective ethics but on an appeal that was idealist (almost objectivist) in nature. My friend was not content to rely on the demos to determine what-Justice-is. He was saying, in effect, "Let me be who I am; but stop being who you are (a bigot)."

The (Related) Digression

With another friend, simultaneously, I've been considering definitions and diagnoses within contemporary psychology/psychiatry. With apologies again for tediousness and length, I'm going to quote an excerpt from my dissertation to disclose my angle & interest in the topic (in blue) :

As Geoffrey Sanborn has demonstrated, Melville was deeply engaged with the problem of the middle space between sanity and insanity at the time he was composing [Moby-Dick]. Through scrupulous archival research, Sanborn proves that Melville read an 1823 article by Sir Francis Palgrave, and that Palgrave’s article was the source for the famous marginalia comments discovered in Melville’s Shakespeare set by Charles Olson in 1933-34. Sanborn quotes from the original Palgrave essay:
In considering the actions of the mind, it should never be forgotten, that its affections pass into each other like the tints of the rainbow: though we can easily distinguish them when they have assumed a decided colour, yet we can never determine where each hue begins…. Madness is almost undefinable. Right reason and insanity are merely the extreme terms of a series of mental action, which need not be very long. (Sanborn’s italics 219)
In his scribbling at the back of the 7th volume of Shakespeare, Melville dropped the “almost” and wrote: “Madness is undefinable” (Sanborn 212).

But Palgrave’s definitions were not uncontested in the first half of the 19th century; in fact, according to Paul McCarthy, most professional psychiatrists were comfortable enough with the term “insane” that they began defining and investigating sub-categories—most interestingly, “moral insanity” (16). In his book The Twisted Mind, McCarthy describes moral insanity has “a mental disease which affects primarily the emotions and may affect the cognitive faculties.” Symptoms include “absence or diminution of feelings to pronounced displays of hatred, fear, or melancholy” (15). As further evidence of Melville’s better-than-superficial familiarity with the contested terminology of his day, McCarthy summarizes the famous 1844 trial of Abner Rogers, a case presided over by Melville’s father-in-law, Judge Lemuel Shaw (52-53). McCarthy reports that Abner Rogers killed the asylum warden at the Massachusetts State Prison while “suffering from delusions and because, in addition, he was driven to commit the crime by ‘an uncontrollable impulse to do violence’” (53). According to the defense, McCarthy writes, “Rogers claimed that he had heard voices stating that the warden would kill him. He therefore acted to protect himself” (52). The verdict would be largely dependent upon Judge Shaw’s definition of two key concepts: insanity and monomania.


If you know me, you'll sense where I'm going with this...

The Synthesis-Question

The concept of "Moral Insanity" is a concept that could not exist within a postmodern schema--this is why behavior like homosexuality, which would very likely have been diagnosed as "moral insanity" in the past, is now considered not a disorder at all. It was the rise of modernism and subjectivism that ended the Victorian era, right?

What I want to know--and this time I mean it!--is what is our epistemological foundation!? Stop jerking me around. Do we believe in transcendent and eternal Justice, or do we believe there is nothing beyond consensus view? And if you insist on having it both ways (as, apparently, most academics do), please explain how you know when to rely on subjective epistemology as opposed to objective epistemology.

The person who is inconsistent in his ideas must either account for his inconsistency or be content to be far less persuasive. When I meet a person who speaks about fragmented and subjective "rhizomatic" ethics when it comes to things like the Ten Commandments, but who speaks about "human rights" idealistically on other matters, I presume that either A) they are unaware of their inconsistent reasoning or B) they are "simply" self-interested subjectivists using the language of objective Rights and Justice to bring about the change they desire to see.

So it was a turn to subjective ethics that led to a revaluation of homosexuality, but now it must be a return back to objective ethics that leads to an understanding that considers gay marriage within a context of human rights. How do we know what is right? Do we let individuals decide?--or do we need to bring the Philosopher Kings back?

2 comments:

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I just read four hours of Walter Ong on Peter Ramus, so I don't have the attention span for this right now. I'll come back to it soon.

In the meantime, my response to the opening paragraphs were that, as a rhetorician, I feel that it is a matter for the demos, even if, as a philosopher, I would prefer this to be a matter of subjective ethics. And, since you know me, you know that in the end I chose rhetoric over philosophy. At least, I think I did.

Casey said...

Wrangler, that's fine. You don't even need to say more. You're the most consistent postmodernist I know -- I have my complaints about that, as you know; but at least you don't turn into a Platonist when turning Platonist might get you what you want.

Although... now that I say that, that's weird. Why don't you turn Platonist when turning Platonist is to your advantage?