George Will's been taking a beating lately–His character, his general ignorance of that of which he comments upon, and, our favorite, his logic have all come under increasing attack recently. Today we can give him a pass on his column. Its silliness is not entirely his fault. For some reason he devotes his column to fawning over the relatively uninteresting analogy between past sexual morality and the supposed moralizing about food by one expert in philosophy at the Hoover institute, Nancy Eberhardt who we are told by Will is "intimidatingly intelligent."
The idea seems to be that in the past we moralized sex, but left food to be a mere matter of taste. Now we moralize food, but leave sex to be a mere matter of taste. I think probably both claims are false, though I'm willing to bite that we have stopped moralizing a lot of sex, and some moralize a lot of their choices involving food.
But, then we run into this sort of confusion:
Most important of all, however, is the difference in moral attitude separating Betty and Jennifer on the matter of food. Jennifer feels that there is a right and wrong about these options that transcends her exercise of choice as a consumer. She does not exactly condemn those who believe otherwise, but she doesn’t understand why they do, either. And she certainly thinks the world would be a better place if more people evaluated their food choices as she does. She even proselytizes on occasion when she can. In short, with regard to food, Jennifer falls within Immanuel Kant’s definition of the Categorical Imperative: She acts according to a set of maxims that she wills at the same time to be universal law.
In heavy-handed contrast:
Even without such personal links to food scarcity, though, it makes no sense to Betty that people would feel as strongly as her granddaughter does about something as simple as deciding just what goes into one’s mouth. That is because Betty feels, as Jennifer obviously does not, that opinions about food are simply de gustibus, a matter of individual taste — and only that.
Most important of all, Betty feels that sex, unlike food, is not de gustibus. She believes to the contrary that there is a right and wrong about these choices that transcends any individual act. She further believes that the world would be a better place, and individual people better off, if others believed as she does. She even proselytizes such on occasion when given the chance.
And to beat the horse within an inch of its life:
Most important, once again, is the difference in moral attitude between the two women on this subject of sex. Betty feels that there is a right and wrong about sexual choices that transcends any individual act, and Jennifer — exceptions noted — does not. It’s not that Jennifer lacks for opinions about sex, any more than Betty does about food. It’s just that, for the most part, they are limited to what she personally does and doesn’t like.
And to make it clearer still:
As noted, this desire to extend their personal opinions in two different areas to an “ought” that they think should be somehow binding — binding, that is, to the idea that others should do the same — is the definition of the Kantian imperative. Once again, note: Betty’s Kantian imperative concerns sex not food, and Jennifer’s concerns food not sex. In just over 50 years, in other words — not for everyone, of course, but for a great many people, and for an especially large portion of sophisticated people — the moral poles of sex and food have been reversed. Betty thinks food is a matter of taste, whereas sex is governed by universal moral law of some kind; and Jennifer thinks exactly the reverse.
Fortunately she doesn't draw any substantial conclusions from this. With that sort of genial Brooksy, "foibles of the human race exposing, concealed smirk," she contents herself with running this analogy to its exhaustion while ignoring relevant points of disanalogy, and doing little more than pointing out this curious social change, which perhaps seems to be neither curious, nor a social change, with closer scrutiny. But she closes with this whopper of a post hoc propter hoc fallacy wrapped in a bacony strip of psychoanalyzing explanation and deep-fried in a vat of greasy rhetorical questions:
The rise of a recognizably Kantian, morally universalizable code concerning food — beginning with the international vegetarian movement of the last century and proceeding with increasing moral fervor into our own times via macrobiotics, veganism/vegetarianism, and European codes of terroir — has paralleled exactly the waning of a universally accepted sexual code in the Western world during these same years.
Who can doubt that the two trends are related? Unable or unwilling (or both) to impose rules on sex at a time when it is easier to pursue it than ever before, yet equally unwilling to dispense altogether with a universal moral code that he would have bind society against the problems created by exactly that pursuit, modern man (and woman) has apparently performed his own act of transubstantiation. He has taken longstanding morality about sex, and substituted it onto food. The all-you-can-eat buffet is now stigmatized; the sexual smorgasbord is not.
In the end, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the rules being drawn around food receive some force from the fact that people are uncomfortable with how far the sexual revolution has gone — and not knowing what to do about it, they turn for increasing consolation to mining morality out of what they eat.
Perhaps it's just me, but I find it surprisingly easy to avoid this conclusion.
5 thoughts on “Where’s Foucault when we need him?”
And for my part, I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that Will’s been either talking to Sokal or reading Freud.
If only we could teleport matter the way Will teleport’s ideas, without ever touching any part of the intervening space …
Just to add to the list, the “hard to avoid conclusion” that isn’t strikes me as rather overt ignoratio elenchi: the premises just don’t connect to it.
I am still unclear what the relationship is between food and sex. Or what Kant has to do with any of this. Peter Singer, animal rights moralizer supreme, is a utilitarian.
That’s the first thing that struck me Jem. Couldn’t one make utilitarian arguments for food and sex? Most of the food arguments I hear are along those lines. And besides, the most strident food moralizers I know eat a lot of meat.
On the most charitable reading of her view, I think what she means by the somewhat confused reference to Kant is that there is something distinctive about moral norms that involves categoricality of some form. So, the belief that (all) others (in similar circumstances) ought to eat as I eat has a sort of categorical implication that makes it look like a moral norm. This seems be consistent with either a consequentialist or deontological view. It seems to be a meta-ethical claim about the semantics of moral claims–and interpreted in this way, it doesn’t seem wrong to me.
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