Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Different worlds

I stumbled upon an older piece from Alan Jacobs, titled Lena Dunham’s Inviolable Self.  Jacobs contrasts the value system of the novelist Jane Austen with that of Lena Dunham, the creator and star of HBO's show Girls.  

In an essay called “Leading a Life,” the philosopher Charles Taylor points out that there are two distinct senses in which we may say that an idea or a belief or a moral account is incommensurable with some other idea or belief or moral system. “The first is where we have to make a choice with two different goods at stake” goods that are different enough that we have difficulty knowing how to weigh them together in the same deliberation.”  It could be argued that the difference between Austen’s world and the world of many fans of
Girls is of this kind: For instance, one might say that the good of protecting naive young people from catastrophic moral harm (Austen’s prime concern) conflicts with the good of freely pursuing erotic pleasure.

But the difference goes deeper than that. For Austen, “pursuing erotic pleasure” is simply not a good; and for many fans of
Girls, “catastrophic moral harm” is not a meaningful category.

This is the primary reason why the cultural war will not end.  If Austenians and Dunhamites (for lack of better descriptors) held similar values, but disagreed about how best to handle value conflicts, it would be possible to arrive at a resolution.  But no such compromise can be achieved when we are dealing with what Jacobs calls "radically alien models of the sacred."

Austenians like to point out the disastrous consequences of the sexual revolution: higher rates of illegitimacy and divorce, lower rates of marriage among people who would prefer to be married, ubiquitous pornography, and on and on.  We are surprised that, when made aware of these unfortunate facts, our opponents remain steadfast in their support of what Jacobs dubs the "inviolable self." 

This might be infuriating, but it shouldn't be surprising.  If one believes that pursuing erotic pleasure is a good and catastrophic moral harm is not a meaningful category, the effects of the sexual revolution are unrelated ephemera. To us, it sounds insane to say the Dunhamite philosophy of sex has nothing to do with the divorce rate.  To them, it sounds equally insane to connect the two.

It's tempting to try to attack this belief straight on.  After all, the self is not inviolable, and very few of our actions have no impact on others.  But Jacobs cautions against this route.  He quotes Kierkegaard, who enjoins: “an illusion can never be destroyed directly, and only by indirect means can it be radically removed.”

In other words, to tell a Dunhamite that his promiscuous sexual pursuits cause harm will be seen as an attack.  Who are we to tell him what he can do in the privacy of his own home? 

So what can we do?  Like Austen, we can tell stories that reveal moral goodness and truth.  We can create, as Jacobs says, "better fictional worlds, by which I mean fictional worlds that rhyme with what is the case, with what is true yesterday, today, and forever." 

He closes his piece wonderfully:

At the end of After Virtue , Alasdair MacIntyre writes, "We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another "doubtless very different" St. Benedict." I wait, with all the patience I can muster, for another Jane Austen.

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