Friday, November 23, 2007

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 5

Chapter 5 (pages 69-75), “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed”

There’s no rational reason to believe that one segment of mankind is morally superior to another. But many moralists like to think better of groups to which they do not belong, and especially oppressed groups such as “subject nations, the poor, women and children [p. 69]” – or noble savages.

Since the French Revolution, the issue of “the superior virtue of the poor [p. 70]” has been politicized; one form has been socialism’s enthronement of the urban proletariat. Patriots of oppressed peoples and the peoples themselves are thought well of, but once they achieve their independence they are found to be like everyone else. We still hear about the ‘wisdom of the east,’ though.

Views towards women are particularly irrational. Religion had two models, woman as temptress and woman as spiritual being. The Victorians pushed the spiritual theme, with the addendum that woman would be sullied with too much contact with the harsh world of business or politics. The supposed spiritual superiority of women was the flip side of their economic and political oppression.

“Children, like women, were theologically wicked…[p. 72],” and they had to be saved. In the 19th century views toward children again paralleled those towards women -- that they were innocent but spiritual -- and the pleasures that adults took from physical chastisement of children had to be curtailed. Freud has provided a new set of reasons (or rationales) for thinking that children are wicked, however.

The preceding examples show that “the stage in which superior virtue is attributed to the oppressed is transient and unstable [p. 74].” The stage arises when the oppressors “have a bad conscience,” which itself comes about only when their power to oppress becomes insecure. There’s a curious logic that supports their mistreatment of others – suffering makes one virtuous, so it is kindness to oppress. “It was a fine self-sacrifice on the part of men to relieve women of the dirty work of politics [p. 74].” The logic can then be used by the oppressed: because we are more virtuous, we should rule. Eventually, once the oppression ends, everyone can see that the superior virtue was fictional, and that the claim to equality does not need it as basis.

Many of the previous supposedly virtuous groups, having achieved equality, are no longer considered especially deserving. In modern times, however, there remains a tendency to attribute high morality to the proletariat (along with a tendency to admire productive works like dams and power plants). But if we really think that the poor living and working conditions of the proletariat inspire virtue, we would not support economic development. Socialists want it both ways: to proclaim the virtues of the proletariat, while working to change the conditions that engender those supposed virtues.