Sunday, August 20, 2006

Hobbes, Rawls, Gilligan and Housing Discrimination

I left the doctoral program in philosophy at Boston College back in December 1997. There were a lot of reasons, but one was my constant sense of irritation at key philosophers' notions of the "state of nature."

I remember getting into an argument with a professor while discussing Thomas Hobbes' theory that man in his natural state is in a state of "war of all against all," and that life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." More info here.

Being a woman with childbearing potentialities, even at the age of 22, when I did not yet have children, this struck me as ridiculous. No one enters life alone, and no one survives without a great deal of physical nurturance from people tethered by social bonds. The prospect of pushing that perspective against several millenia of hypermasculine thought, through four more years of grad school and whatever the academic job market brought afterward helped me decide to leave.

John Rawls developed a different theory of justice, using a fascinating concept called the maximin rule. Basically, the idea is that when developing a social contract - rules for how a given human society will function - actors operating behind a "veil of ignorance" in the "original position" - not knowing whether they will occupy a high or low position in society - will set up the system so that even the citizens with the lowest status will still have a decent basic standard of living, and reasonable basic access to opportunity and political power.

Some say Rawls Theory of Justice is a thought experiment, as though such things have no relevance to the world of flesh and blood-letting. I continue to believe that the free exercise of imagination is one of the keys to shaping reality in more merciful ways.

I was thinking about Rawls recently on a trip to Hartford, Connecticut, seeing the historic homes of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and right nearby, beautiful brick apartment buildings.

Some of the buildings were in great shape, and others looked run down, and as always, the color of the inhabitants was closely correlated: the darker the color, the poorer the residents, the fewer the resources and energy available to maintain the homes.

It made me think that I would very much like to live in a world in which there are no run-down, "bad" neighborhoods, where every person would be just as happy to live in one place as anywhere else, because they'd all be clean and comfortable, and they'd all have their own unique character - the combined, ever-changing collage of their peoples' personalities.

Carol Gilligan took Rawls' work the next step, when she developed an "ethics of care," founded on women's orientation toward caregiving. Gilligan argued that women's moral approach to life is equal to the justice-based male approach, even though caregiving, like imagination, is traditionally trivialized.

I've also recently found myself wondering if any psychologist has ever studied the functioning of women's brains during conversations, to see if the listening/emotional-engagement part of our brains is more directly tied to the identity part of our brains. It crossed my mind after I got a break from my husband and kids and the other people in my closest social circle, and found myself alone in the psychic space of the car for the first time in weeks.

I think human society is evolving toward an emphasis on Gilligan's approach - the ethics of care and reciprocity - as it becomes clear that justice, in the end, demands cycles of payback that will eventually destroy us all.

Mercy is the other paradigm, and the only way to extricate ourselves from our current global suicide pact.


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