Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Morality of attraction

In this episode of the FX series Louie, the eponymous star of the show is out on a date with a woman who he apparently likes and she seemed to like him. They are in a coffee shop and trying to have a conversation when a few jocks come in and start behaving obnoxiously and talking loudly. Louie asks them to quite down. This pisses one of the jocks off so bad he decides to come to Louie's table and harass him and his date. The bully is persistent in his bullying of Louie and is physically intimidating him, trying to instigate a fight. But Louie refuses to fight the younger and much more physically fit man. Eventually, Louie caves in to the bullying and "apologizes" to the bully for asking him and his buddies to quite down.

Louie's date then seem to loose all interest in Louie. She seems to realize consciously that her loss of interest (and presumably sexual attraction) is irrational as getting into a physical confrontation or even risking one by being more assertive would have been foolish for Louie. But she claims she can't help it and wants to end the date. Louie gets angry at this "fickle" change of heart.

This is an instance of what I will call "the luck of circumstantial attraction." But I am more interested in what will will call "the luck of constitutive attraction" (you may now have noticed the analogy with their analogues in moral luck). Many of us are attracted to people with certain features that are culture and time specific. For example, men today, in general, like women that are a little heavier than men did 30-40 years ago. Men also tend to like women a little lighter than men liked women during when Paul Ruben painted his paintings (hence the term "Rubenesque"). Men in different cultures than ours like women that are heavier or lighter than we do in general depending on the one we're talking about. Likewise with many other features, physical, behavioral and psychological. There is a malleability there that is context and time sensitive.

What is the morality of discriminating against someone based on such arbitrary features? Louie seemed to be upset over his dates change of heart and seems to be rightfully upset especially seeing how irrational it is and how much she even realizes its irrationality but do people who are turned out by equally other arbitrary features also have a more justified complaint? Some of us are constitutively not attracted to people of certain disabilities, weights, heights, ethnicities, hair color, eye color, etc, etc. Discrimination based on many of these criteria are unconstitutional in job hiring, etc. But in the case of attraction, we seem to be far more permissive in discrimination here. We not only don't see it as not worthy of legal prohibition but we usually don't even see it as unethical in general. We say "It's a woman's prerogative," etc but is there a good reason to see this kind of discrimination as unethical as well?

I think it depends. Certain physical features that a culture thinks attractive certainly are arbitrary. Consider the practice of African female genital and ancient Chinese footbinding. Having mutilated female genitalia and disfigured small feet is considered attractive in those cultures among the men. Now many feminists have (and I think rightfully so) blamed the men as well as the misogynist culture that produced these practices instead of the women in them who actually perform the acts of mutilation. They point out that, that it is men's desires (attraction for a certain feature) that fuels and are inherently part of the institutions of these barbaric practices. Many feminists have also leveled blame at many men for their desire of some kinds of aggressive porn which either explicitly or implicitly mimic rape. They point out that this enforces and contributes to a certain kind of "rape fetish" and thus may further a rape culture.

Now, men do not actually mutilate their daughters in these cultures. It is the women (mothers and grandmothers) who usually do in cutting of their daughters or the binding of their feet but feminist tend to focus the blame on men even when men do not participate in actual mutilation. Can we here say that it is just a "man's prerogative" to be attracted to any feature he pleases? This doesn't seem to satisfy feminists. I think the feminists are right but I also think that the same line of reasoning can be applied (with certain caveats) to certain other features in our culture. I certainly am not saying that discriminating someone based on weight, height, disability, race, hair color, eye color, etc, are as unethical as desiring only women bound feet or mutilated genitalia. The later practices are far worse and discriminating against women who do not have bound feet and mutilated genitalia produce and contribute to institutions far worse than the former.

But certain practices of arbitrary attraction do produce institutions of discrimination. They may not be as harmful (but some may, at least hypothetically be) as footbinding and female genital mutilation but they are still harmful and unjust. People with certain disabilities e.g., can contribute to relationships as meaningful as any one else. So long as the disability does not inhibit certain normal human functions part and parcel of relationships (of a sexual nature, e.g.) discrimination against people with disabilities in attraction and relationships on that bases does seem to be immoral on much the same bases and for some of the same reasons discrimination against women who have normal genitalia and feet does. It's not just a man's or woman's prerogative as institutions of discrimination may be based on or is behind such discrimination.

Now some disabilities do seem to be justifiably discriminated against in this area. Severe mental disability may detriment the meaningfulness of certain relationships such as romantic ones. Other arbitrary discriminatory practices that individuals may have such as if one has a progressive bent and simply would refuse romantic involvement with a rightwinger also does not seem to be unethical because there is no institution of discrimination against rightwingers behind someone's choice and a relationship between two individuals with such radically opposing views may be justifiably hinder meaningfulness. Likewise with people who are way too overweight or underweight to contribute to normal relationship activities and or should be of health concern.

How do we distinguish between some justifiable case (ethically permissible) of discrimination on some trait and some unjustifiable one? Well, I pointed out two criteria above. 1. If the trait seriously may detriment the relationship for no good reasons and is "arbitrary" like certain weight ranges, height, ethnicity, hair color, etc) and 2. that there was an institution of discriminating against these people beforehand which caused the discrimination in attraction. Now the words "arbitrary" and "detrimental" in the two criteria will have to be specified and given more flesh but I think a workable definition is capable of being formulated for moral purposes. There may also be a 3rd criteria that not only is the discrimination a result of past institutions of discrimination within the culture but contributes to furthering institutions of discrimination towards people with those features.

Of course, I don't think there should be laws against this kind of discrimination but I do think there is reason to be less permissive/tolerant towards it than we are. It may not be helpful to blame those who discriminate this way. Ameliorating such practices of discrimination based on these arbitrary and non significant traits may best be accomplished by monitoring and changing cultural practices at large instead of individual practices (such as fair and accurate media representation). It has been widely known among social, behavioral scientists and feminists that certain kinds of "fetishes" can be created "in the lab" quite easily. A mild but remarkably persistent foot fetish has been created in undergraduate men, e.g. and fetishes for certain kinds of foreign accents have been created in women after only a few minutes of conditioning in the lab. These arbitrary and often persistent fetishes are quite easy to create but I suspect that the malleability of what features we are attracted to in general are as well to balance out any previous biases.