Saturday, January 15, 2005

It's just a preference

In conversations in both the real and the cyber worlds, one often comes across people who, while looking for love or a reasonable (and temporary) facsimile thereof, make clear members of which ethnic groups they are uninterested in. My experience in this area is mostly limited to the gay world, where it's not uncommon to read or be told that someone isn't interested in blacks or Asians or Latinos or whatever.

This declaration is almost always followed by the caveat, 'It's just a preference.'
Now, it's not just ethnic groups that are picked out in this way, people often also indicate that they aren't interested in overweight or feminine men, etc. While there are surely problems with this, too, I'm thinking mostly about the racial and ethnic categories for now.

What's interesting, I think, about these declarations is that the idea that it is just a preference is supposed somehow to insulate the preferer from any kind of criticism. I think the thought goes something like this: I'm not attracted to black men or Asian men or half-Albanian, half-Aborigine men, but no one can criticize me for feeling or being attracted in that way because it's a preference of mine and I am in no way morally responsible for my preferences. They are just preferences that I am somehow stuck with.

But it's just false that I have absolutely no control over or responsibility for my preferences. Take one wholly non-erotic example: I used to find the taste of yerba mate utterly disgusting; it turns out that the taste of holly leaves is not immediately appealing to the North American palate. But I wanted to be able to drink it, so I trained myself to enjoy it. I cultivated a taste for it. Although I didn't enjoy drinking it, I wanted to enjoy drinking it, so I practiced until I could.

The same can be said of various other tastes and preferences that I have cultivated and inculcated in my life. To some degree one chooses his preferences and decides how much work he is willing to put into gaining them. And, sometimes I have decided that I am unwilling to put in the necessary effort in order to have a preference that I would like to have. So, I would really like to be the sort of person who enjoys poetry, but although I want to enjoy Rilke, I am not willing to put in the effort that would make me a happy poetry-reader--except for epic poetry, which I am able to enjoy.

So, what I am offering is the following observation. If someone doesn't find himself attracted to, for instance, Asian men, this is not just a fact that he discovers about himself, as if his preferences were handed to him and he himself had no part in them. If he isn't attracted to Asian men, this means both that he has a certain preference and he is not willing to explore what work it might take to overcome that preference. So he both isn't attracted to members of a certain group and he has made a decision not to become a person who is attracted to members of that group.

For what it's worth, I don't think that anything like this is the case in sexual orientation, but that's because I think it's wrong to think of being homosexual or heterosexual as a preference. I don't merely prefer men; that isn't a matter of taste, it's something that is a deeper part of my erotic being. I am not saying, however, that there is necessarily something morally objectionable in not being attracted to members of some particular ethnic groups. I'm not sure whether there is something wrong with this or not. I do know that there is something morally problematic in not thinking that members of certain ethnic groups could be one's friends, but whether this carries over into erotic cases, I don't know.

I do know that there is something a little sad in not being able to imagine that there would be a sexually attractive black man or Hispanic man or Asian man or white man. Just as there is something more than a little sad in fetishizing members of an ethnic group, so that one is only attracted to white men or black men or whatever. But this is sad because it points to a lack of imagination and a diminution of the beauty in the world for that person.

Of course, not every Asian man, for instance, is attractive to me, but this no more means that Asian men as such are unattractive than the fact that most white men are unattractive to me means that I don't like white men. But, whatever my preferences, they are my preferences and inasmuch as they are mine, I am responsible for them. So responsible that saying that they are just preferences doesn't make me immune to criticism.

There may be no disputing matters of taste, but there is criticizing them.

Relativistic worries

This week it was time for the first exam in my intersession ethics class. Exams are good as a lecturer, because an exam day is a day that I don't have to teach. I do really enjoy teaching, but at the same time I become extremely nervous right before teaching. The whole experience is a lot like stagefright--or anyway the sort of stagefright I experienced when I was younger and in college or community theater productions. Most days, I get such a serious nervous cough before I teach that I am on the edge of being sick. No matter how long I do it, I still get the same feeling; but I am also exhilarated when a lecture or a discussion is going well, the students are interested, intrigued and maybe a little entertained.

But on exam days, while the students write their answers, I usually take the classtime to read some philosophical book that doesn't directly apply either to the class or to my normal academic interests. So, they were answering questions about moral skepticism and Immanuel Kant and I was thinking about relativism. In fact, I was thinking about relativism and the danger that classes like mine might lead my students to reject ethical thinking altogether.

The way I have always taught ethics has been in two parts. For a while we talk about various traditional ethical theories. I provide the arguments in their favor, the sorts of ethical answers they provide, the problems and counterintuitive results. Then we move on to the next. After we talk about the theories, we talk about various ethical and social issues; I provide or elicit the various positions that people do or might have on the issues discussed. We talk about the arguments for the views and the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments. What we rarely arrive at is anything like a consensus; and I (almost) never tell them what I think the right answers are on any of the issues, concentrating instead on evaluating arguments, justifications and rationalizations.

Not surprisingly, my worry is that my students might come away from the class thinking that, since there are arguments on either side and these arguments all have strengths and weaknesses, there just are no answers. In other words, I'm worried that I might be turning out a group of moral relativists. That, since we don't arrive at any answers, they might just believe that there's nothing more to morality than what they unreflectively believe in any case; ethical thinking doesn't provide them with answers anyway. But, at the same time, I don't think I'm in any position to provide them with answers.

I know what I think about abortion, I know what I think about same-sex marriage, I know what I think about drug use, I'm pretty sure that I am well-justified in my beliefs about these matters. But I don't have anything like certainty about my beliefs. And a philosophy lecturer teaching an introductory ethics class isn't probably the right person to teach someone how to be moral. Aristotle was undoubtedly wrong about a lot of things, but he was probably right in thinking that moral beliefs and practices are habituated through the way in which one is raised and not learned in the way one learns physics. If I wanted to teach them to be ethical, I would take Alasdair MacIntyre's advice and have them read(Jane Austen) novels.

But then I worry that if I'm not giving them answers but I am showing them difficulties with moral arguments I'm not doing much more than destabilizing them in their moral beliefs. So, what good could I possibly be doing? If teaching ethics the way I do has any positive effect, it must be in teaching them that, if they are going to hold others to their ethical standards, they must be able to defend those very beliefs. And, since other people have different beliefs, they need to be able to do a better job than their epistemic competitors do. Otherwise, they have to admit that they have no very good reason for holding the beliefs they do hold dear. That isn't to say that they must give up their morality if they are unable to defend it, but just that they ought to respect those views they can't refute or outargue.

And, maybe this isn't such a bad goal for an ethics class, these days. After all, one way of thinking about the war that we are currently engaged in, is as a war of ideas. But, all too often, the ideas are presented merely as conclusions without support or any need of it. So, if I get a few students to think that they ought to be able to defend their views--even if their defense is never conclusive--maybe I am doing a service to the world.