Posted by Sappho on January 23rd, 2011 filed in Moral Philosophy, Sexuality
When we call anything a person’s right, we mean that he has a valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of it, either by the force of law, or by that of education or opinion. If he has what we consider a valid claim, on whatever account, to have something guaranteed to him by society, we say that he has a right to it. If we desire to prove that anything does not belong to him by right, we think this done as soon as it is admitted that society ought not to take measures for securing it to him, but should leave it to change, or to his own exertions.
John Stuart Mill, in On Utilitarianism
It recently struck me that I’ve never actually read anything by John Stuart Mill, so I’ve been making my way through On Utilitarianism. I may eventually have something to say about Mill’s defense of utilitarianism in general, or maybe not. In the meantime, this is the passage that caught my eye today. My first thought, as I stopped to think about it more closely, was that I like the way he says “either by the force of law, or by that of education or opinion.” Sometimes I hear people talk as if a right should be defined only as that which should be guaranteed by the actual force of law, and I’ve never found that satisfactory, because, face it, even the basic minimum of being protected from coercion and abuse can only be defended by force of law in the roughest way; it is possible to coerce and abuse people in ways that can’t readily be proven beyond reasonable doubt to twelve of your peers. And education and opinion should still weigh against doing those things.
My second thought was that John Stuart Mill’s definition of right fit well with a blog post I’d planned to write, and set aside. I have a list of these, as I suppose a lot of bloggers must, ideas I’ve jotted down somewhere and never followed through on. This one concerns an argument that Hugo Schwyzer had with another blogger named Miguel about sexual entitlement. Hugo argued that people have “the right to pursue, but not the right to have,” both for happiness in general and for sexual happiness in particular. Miguel, still not satisfied with Hugo’s response to him, linked back to an earlier post of his, to the effect that people are owed, not sex, but the possibility of sex.
Now, that suggestion makes me wince, partly because, while sometimes, even a whole lot of the time, even most of the time, the reason the person you want isn’t willing to consider even the possibility of having sex with you has nothing whatsoever to do with your merits or worth – you’re pursuing someone who’s already taken, perhaps, or you’re not that person’s type – there are those people who aren’t being offered even the possibility of sex because they treat the people they pursue like crap. But let’s set those people aside, and talk, as Miguel does, of people who are being rejected flat, but not because they treat people like crap. Let me, in fact, start with the very example he gives.
I was thinking about this in the context of a piece by Judith Warner, “Like a fish needs a donut.” In her essay, Mrs. Warner describes a disagreeable conversation she had while sharing donuts with two male friends. What she found distressing was that her friends described women they would prefer to date if they were single as being young, hot babes:
“The suggestion from me that men like themselves might actually prefer to date contemporaries, women who’d lived, matured, grown wiser and more human with the experience of parenting, and, at the very least, could recall the 1980s, was met with nothing but outraged looks and half-chewed-donut silence.
‘Why?’ one of them finally said.
‘Why,’ the second one swallowed to spurt, ‘would you want all those complications?’”
As a result of this conversation, Mrs. Warner was disillusioned:
“I spent the following days nursing a sputtering sort of rage.
In fact, I agree with Miguel that Judith Warner is justified in her anger, and I’d also allow that any men who are similarly treated by their female friends (perhaps, as he says, “men who may be shy and not comport with traditional notions of masculinity”) would also be justified in being angry. But I wouldn’t agree on the reason. Miguel argues that
I have a right to have my sexual needs met by some woman, somewhere, at some time – even if I have no right to expect or demand to have my sexual needs met by a specific woman at a specific time. It follows from this that “women,” at least in theory, have an obligation to keep an open mind about having sexual relations with men who stand at different levels in the unspoken social hierarchy – that is, men who may be shy and not comport with traditional notions of masculinity – even if no individual woman ever has the obligation to reciprocate my sexual interest. And the obligation to keep an open mind means that it is wrong for women to develop habits of thought and behavior which are categorically dismissive of the sexuality of men who are not confident and – I hate to use the term – not “alpha males.”
Now, working from John Stuart Mill’s definition of “right” (since it makes sense to me), and my own sense of what should be “a valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of it, either by the force of law, or by that of education or opinion,” I would argue that, no, no one has an obligation to keep an open mind in the sense that Miguel argues. No woman is obliged to be in the least bit open to dating men who are not “alpha males,” if she doesn’t want to. And, similarly, Warner’s friends aren’t obliged to be the least bit open to dating women their own age, if they prefer to pursue women half their age (assuming that said women are of legal age and that the men pursuing younger women are willing to accept being rebuffed by those younger women who prefer men their own age). What they should be obliged to do (and a claim I’d be perfectly happy to see protected “by the force of education and opinion,” if not, obviously, by force of law), is not to insult or shame another person as a sexual being. That, if Warner’s description is accurate, would seem to be what her friends were doing, when they suggested, not just that they weren’t willing to date women her (and their own) age, but that they couldn’t imagine why any man of middle age would be willing to date a woman his own age. And I’ll be happy to accept Miguel’s parallel enough to allow that any woman who was similarly openly dismissive of a man too shy to suit her preferences would be similarly cruel. I think I have a moral right not to have my undesirability flung in my face (assuming I’m not myself refusing to take no for an answer), but not a moral right to have anyone at all actually find me desirable, or even be open to finding me desirable.
On the other hand, though people, in my take, absolutely have the right to categorically exclude other people from their dating pool, they don’t have any particular right to have said excluded people feel warm and fuzzy about them, or continue to be their friends, buddies, and confidants, cheering them on when their love lives go well, and sympathizing with them when their love lives don’t go so well. Particularly if the people you’re categorically excluding are, well, people pretty much like you. So, if Judith Warner’s friends should prefer to exclusively pursue hot, young babes, and if they should pursue said hot, young babes without either feeling entitled to more attention than the hot, young babes are willing to give them or actively insulting the women their own age that they don’t want to date, they have a right to be left alone in any mutual relationships they form. They don’t have any particular right to have women their own age be happy for them, or be their platonic and sexually ignored friends, or think just as well of them as they do of men who are open to dating women their own age. And the same applies when the genders are reversed.