Happy Birthday, Moses Maimonides!

Maimonides medallion, photo by T. Horydczak, approx. 1950, sculpture over the door of the gallery of House chamber, U.S. Capitol. Photo public domain via Library of Congress

‘Moses Maimonides… [born on March 30, 1135]… is the greatest Jewish philosopher of the medieval period and is still widely read today. The Mishneh Torah, his 14-volume compendium of Jewish law, established him as the leading rabbinic authority of his time and quite possibly of all time. His philosophic masterpiece, the Guide of the Perplexed, is a sustained treatment of Jewish thought and practice that seeks to resolve the conflict between religious knowledge and secular….’

~ Kenneth Seeskin for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Read and hear more about this great philosopher and religious thinker at:

Jewish Philosophy: Maimonides – Joe Gelonesi interviews Steven Nadler for The Philosopher’s Zone podcast

Maimonides – by Melvyn Bragg and his guests John Haldane, Sarah Stroumsa, and Peter Adamson for In Our Time BBC Radio 4 podcast

Maimonides – by Kenneth Seeskin for Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Maimonides (1138—1204) – by Jonathan Jacobs for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Maimonides (Rambam) and His Texts – by Danny Moss for My Jewish Learning website

Moses Maimonides | Jewish Philosopher, Scholar, and Physician – by Ben Zion Bokser for Encyclopædia Britannica

Oath and Prayer of Maimonides – Bioethics – The Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University website

Sarah Stroumsa on Maimonides – Conversation with Peter Adamson for History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Moses Maimonides!

Maimonides medallion, photo by T. Horydczak, approx. 1950, sculpture over the door of the gallery of House chamber, U.S. Capitol. Photo public domain via Library of Congress

‘Moses Maimonides… [born on March 30, 1135]… is the greatest Jewish philosopher of the medieval period and is still widely read today. The Mishneh Torah, his 14-volume compendium of Jewish law, established him as the leading rabbinic authority of his time and quite possibly of all time. His philosophic masterpiece, the Guide of the Perplexed, is a sustained treatment of Jewish thought and practice that seeks to resolve the conflict between religious knowledge and secular….’ ~ Kenneth Seeskin, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Read and hear more about this great philosopher and religious thinker at:

Jewish Philosophy: Maimonides – Joe Gelonesi interviews Steven Nadler for The Philosopher’s Zone podcast

Maimonides – by Melvyn Bragg and his guests John Haldane, Sarah Stroumsa, and Peter Adamson for In Our Time BBC Radio 4 podcast

Maimonides – by Kenneth Seeskin for Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Maimonides (1138—1204) – by Jonathan Jacobs for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Maimonides (Rambam) and His Texts – by Danny Moss for My Jewish Learning website

Moses Maimonides | Jewish Philosopher, Scholar, and Physician – by Ben Zion Bokser for Encyclopædia Britannica

Oath and Prayer of Maimonides – Bioethics – The Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University website

Sarah Stroumsa on Maimonides – Conversation with Peter Adamson for History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

How a Hackneyed Romantic Ideal is Used to Stigmatise Polyamory, by Carrie Jenkins

There’s no longer anything unusual about wanting an open relationship. Many who consider themselves progressive about sex, gender, love and relationships know this. It’s just that almost nobody in an open relationship wants to be open about it. What’s surprising is that so many people feel the need for secrecy.

I’ve been out as polyamorous for years. Because of this, non-monogamous people who aren’t out often feel able to talk to me about their own situations. When I go to conferences, I can’t help noticing all the philosophers who are in closeted non-monogamous relationships. This discrepancy between reality and socially acknowledged reality can be disorienting; the ‘official’ number of non-monogamous people in the room is almost always one (me).

So what’s going on? No doubt there are several factors at work, but I want to talk about one that’s both powerful and insidious: non-monogamy isn’t considered ‘romantic’.

Romantic love is widely considered to be the best thing life has to offer: ‘failing’ at romance is often construed as failing at life. Amatonormativity is a name for the attitude that privileges lives based around a focal monogamous romantic relationship. What gets called ‘romantic’ isn’t just about classification; it’s about marking out those relationships and lives we value most.

This monogamous ideal is supposed to appeal to women especially. According to the stereotypes, single women are desperate to ‘lock down’ a man, while men are desperate to avoid commitment. There’s nothing new here: monogamy has historically been gendered. Even in situations where marrying more than one woman has been illegal, it has often been normal for men to have mistresses, but different rules have applied to women. This is unsurprising: in a patriarchal society with property inheritance passing along the male line, paternity is key, and enforced female monogamy is an effective way to control it.

Women’s sexuality can also be policed by developing a feminine model that includes a ‘natural’ desire for monogamy, plus social benefits for conforming to that model (and penalties for non-conformity). This model can then be internalised by women as a ‘romantic’ ideal inculcated via fairytales. In a similar vein, rather than allowing only men to have more than one partner, we can instill a subtler cultural belief that men’s infidelity is ‘natural’ and therefore excusable, while women’s infidelity is not.

Our language undermines gender-related optimism about monogamous romantic ideals: there is no word for a male ‘mistress’; romantic comedies are ‘chick flicks’. ‘Romance’ novels are marketed to and consumed by women. Brides are ‘given away’ by men to other men. We never hear about ‘crazy old cat gentlemen’. And how many married men do you know who’ve taken their wife’s surname? These attitudes persist not just in word but in deed: wives in hetero marriages still do more housework than their husbands, even if they earn more (which they rarely do).

Recent growing acceptance of same-sex love as ‘romantic’ has presented challenges to gendered norms. But this has happened alongside another change: monogamy has become an even more powerful ‘romantic’ ideal by including same-sex relationships. And its impact is intensely gendered.

Women who enter voluntarily into non-monogamous relationships are a direct challenge to the idea that women are ‘naturally’ monogamous. They are socially penalised to maintain the status quo. A non-monogamous woman will be portrayed as debased and disgusting – a ‘slut’. When I have discussed my open relationships online, I have been called a ‘cum-dumpster’, a ‘degenerate herpes-infested whore’, and many other colourful names.

My internet trolls focus on sex, partly because presenting non-monogamous relationships as ‘just sex’ makes it easier to degrade them, and partly because women who violate the monogamy norm – whose sexuality is out of (someone’s) control – are a threat to an ancient feeling of entitlement over women’s sexuality and reproductive potential. In contrast, a non-monogamous man is, at least sometimes, liable to be regarded as a ‘stud’.

Apart from monogamy, the only other relationship structure that controls paternity in a similar way is patriarchal polygamy, which is stigmatised in contemporary North America, for reasons including bona fide feminism as well as racism and cultural imperialism. One effect of this is that monogamy is seen as the only fair and liberal alternative.

Actually, there are many alternatives. But to tolerate them is to tolerate widespread social uncertainty about who is having sex with whom. This would extend to everything sex is entangled with, and everything it represents. Our ideals of ‘romantic’ love regulate not just our expectations about sex but also our conceptions of family and the nature of parenthood.

Ultimately, what we call ‘romantic’ is a philosophical issue that touches on the core of who we (think we) are, and what we value. I believe that the ‘romantic-ness’ of romantic love is largely socially constructed, and as such malleable. We collectively write the ‘script’ that determines the shape of the privileged (‘romantic’) relationship style. This script has changed, and will continue to change. But currently that process goes on largely below the radar: we aren’t supposed to see it happening, or realise that we can control it. Romantic love maintains a wholly ‘natural’ image, evading challenge or critical scrutiny by seeming inevitable, incomprehensible and wonderful.

We must get beyond this. We need to question the limits we have placed on what counts as a ‘romantic’ relationship. Freedom to love – the right to choose one’s own relationships without fear, shame or secrecy – is critical, not just for individuals but for us all collectively. Non-conformity is the mechanism that reshapes the social construct to better represent who we are, and who we want to be. Instead of forcing our relationships to conform to what society thinks love is, we could force the image of love to conform to the realities of our relationships.

But it won’t be easy. If the love of a polyamorous triad is seen as ‘romantic’, and hence as valuable as the love of a monogamous couple, then the triad should have the same social and legal privileges as the couple. How could we deny them the right to be co-parents? How could we defend the legal or financial benefits of monogamous marriage, or the lack of legal recourse for anyone fired for being polyamorous? These are the privileges by which we signal to monogamous couples and nuclear family units that theirs are the most socially valuable social configurations.

Nor could we defend the countless ways in which non-monogamous people are stigmatised and rejected. My boyfriend’s father no longer speaks to him about anything but the weather because he is in a polyamorous relationship with me. An extended family member literally prayed over me when she learned that I was non-monogamous, feeling an urgent need to ask Jesus to ‘save’ me from this ‘culture’. Stigma against non-monogamy is beyond a joke: researchers have uncovered assumptions that the non-monogamous are just bad people: less likely to walk their dogs, or floss their teeth.

It’s far easier to pretend that this is not really happening. Or that it’s not really a big deal. Perhaps you feel that way right now: perhaps you’re thinking you don’t know any non-monogamous people. But I wouldn’t be too sure. Until quite recently, an awful lot of people thought that all their friends and relatives were straight.Aeon counter – do not remove

~ Carrie Jenkins is a writer and philosopher. She is working towards an MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. Her latest book is What Love Is and What it Could Be (2017). She lives in Vancouver. (Bio credit: Aeon)

~ This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Listen to Carrie Jenkins discuss romantic love with Joe Gelonesi at The Philosopher’s Zone

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Behind the Veil: Rawls, Locke, de Tocqueville, and Human Connection in a Liberal Society

People in a Public Square, cropped, Image Creative Commons CCO Public Domain via PixabayI’ve been listening to this excellent series from a favorite podcast of mine, the Philosopher’s Zone on Australia’s RN (Radio National), hosted by Joe Gelonesi. There’s this recent series called Political Philosophy in the World, hosted by guest host Scott Stephens, which considers and critiques seven important topics in political philosophy. I just listened to the last one, Political Philosophy in the World: Liberalism and the End of the World as We Know It.

In it, interviewee Patrick Deneen offers a series of critiques of liberalism, his own and others’ over its roughly five century history. (We’re speaking here not of liberalism as commonly understood in the U.S., as political positions on the left of the spectrum, but of classical liberalism, a political philosophy which focuses on liberty and the primacy of the individual.) From the beginning, liberal philosophers and their critics have identified and described possible contradictions in the system itself, and ways in which it may end up being self-defeating in the real world. For example, John Locke, a founding father of liberalism, recognizes that it would require a strong state to protect the autonomy of the individual from competitors and from the ‘querulous and contentious’, and that individual autonomy in a marketplace, unfettered by other constraints, will lead to conditions that foster inequality, discontent, and revolution (at about 4:40 and 14:40, then 10:30). Alexis de Tocqueville observes that though individuals enjoy this autonomy at the beginning, they are left weakened and alone by the erosion of those institutions that create bonds of loyalty and affection in a society, such as family, tradition, and belief (at about 15:00). Deneen, in sum, describes these and various other ways in which liberalism can fail to achieve its end of liberating the individual to achieve their potential to the fullest possible extent.

The discussion in its entirety is absolutely fascinating, but my attention is caught particularly by Deneen’s observation of a problem with the great liberal political philosopher John Rawls’ famed ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment (starting at about 19:00). Rawls’ veil of ignorance is a beautifully elegant method of envisioning and crafting a just society. Imagine you’re looking at a society from the outside knowing you’ll be placed in it with no idea what you’ll be: rich, poor, or middle-class; tall or short; intelligent or not; of which gender; outgoing or shy; of which race; employed or not and at what kind of job; and so on. Given this hypothetical situation, what cultural practices, laws, policies, governmental system, economic system, and so on, would you put into place? Behind that veil of ignorance, you’d be motivated to to design a society that’s just and fair, that benefits everyone to the greatest degree possible, since of course, you could be the one who suffers the ill effects of any injustice built into the system.

8694d-justice2bet2binc3a9galitc3a92b-2bles2bplateaux2bde2bla2bbalance2bby2bfrachet2c2bjan2b20102c2bpublic2bdomain2bvia2bwikimedia2bcommonsAs Deneen points out, Rawls, like other liberal political philosophers, recognizes that people in a liberal society may, over time, act not out of true freedom, but as slaves of their individual desires and passions. Since liberalism promotes the idea that society is and should be made of up autonomous individuals freely pursuing their own ends, the values of individuals in that society may become self-serving to the point of destructiveness. This destruction can be of social institutions that provide support and meaning, such as family, tradition, and belief, of liberalism’s own key institutions such as the free markets of goods and ideas, and as we now recognize, of the very environment from which all of this is derived. Rawls posits the veil of ignorance as a way to free ourselves from this trap, by transforming ourselves, in thought, into benevolent, self-effacing avatars of justice. But, Deneen points out, Rawls never really provides an explanation of why we we’d all want to go behind the veil of ignorance in the first place. After all, Rawls’ entire theory of justice-as-fairness as described in his magnum opus A Theory of Justice, which the view from behind the veil reveals to us, depends on the participation of everyone. If even one person remains aloof, that person’s interests and motivations aren’t considered or checked by those of others, which, in turn, is not fair.

From within the thought experiment, the motivation to go behind the veil makes sense: since liberalism is meant to promote the liberty and well-being of all individuals, it makes sense to envision and design a society where some individuals are not allowed to enjoy advantages that limit or even destroy the liberty and well-being of others. But this still doesn’t account for why we’d all want to go behind the veil in the first place. In a liberal society in the real world, only those suffering its ill effects will be motivated to do so, since those who have found relative success within its parameters will be ever more motivated to keep the pursuit of their own interests free from the demands and constraints of others until it serves them otherwise.

With the disconnection from other people which liberalism can tend to foster in mind, as described by de Toqueville and Rawls, I picture a whole society of people behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance. Then something in this picture strikes me: behind this veil, all the people are looking in the same direction, encircled around the society they must share. They are united, not separated by competing interests nor from the bonds of family, tradition, and belief. They are cooperating as equals, with a shared goal and a shared ethic: the liberty to achieve the fullest degree of perfection that an individual is capable of, with others’ interests as much in mind as their own so far as possible. These interests can and invariably do include family, tradition, and belief. Those with a narrow view of liberalism often speak only of individual interests as involving the individual pursuit for food and shelter, money, comfort, wealth, and prestige, and dismiss family, tradition, and belief as impediments to human liberty. But of course, this is not necessarily so, as we observe their lasting power and meaningfulness in the real world throughout history and to this day, even where liberalism as an institution is most robust. Material comfort and prestige are not and have never been the only and or even, for many, the primary motivators of thought and action in any society.

Behind the veil, then, is that deep need for human connection fulfilled in the context of an idealized liberalism, that the institution of liberalism in the real world can undermine if uncorrected by the state or by an ethic such as Rawls’ justice-as-fairness. Does Rawls have this picture of a united humanity in mind as he devises his thought experiment, though he doesn’t describe it per se? Perhaps Rawls does recognize this motivation for going behind the veil: our realization that while the pursuit of our own individual interests can be fulfilling, it can also undermine our potential of fulfilling our deepest humanity, not only tied to the destinies of others but with a deep emotional need for deep and lasting connections with one another. Behind the veil of ignorance, we are thus united, connected, bonded, sharing a vision, in a state of equal humanity, of a good and just world for all of us.

*Listen to the podcast version here or subscribe on iTunes

~ Also published at Darrow, a forum for culture and ideas

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Alexis de Tocqueville‘, in Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

Gaus, Gerald, Courtland, Shane D. and Schmidtz, David, ‘Liberalism‘, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Political Philosophy in the World: Liberalism and the End of the World as We Know It.’ from The Philosopher’s Zone Podcast, Sun May 15 2016, Radio National, Australia. Host: Joe Gelonesi

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Uzgalis, William, “John Locke“, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

O.P. Recommends: Political Philosophy in the World Part 1: Human Rights, an interview with Samuel Moyn

Eleanor Roosevelt and Human Rights Declaration, public domain via Wikimedia CommonsIn this fascinating interview, The Philosopher’s Zone Joe Gelonesi interviews Samuel Moyn about the political concept of human rights and its utility. As Moyn points out, though we like to talk abut human rights as if they’re evident and sacrosanct, we actually live in a world where many communities and nations still suffer widespread political and economic corruption, implement policies that foster foster inequality of wealth and opportunity, don’t provide adequate healthcare to many or most of its citizens, fail to prevent or mitigate racism, sexism, violence, even slavery, incarcerate huge numbers of its citizens for even minor  (or some might think non-) crimes, and in other ways don’t live up to the ideal of universal human rights as outlined, say, in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So what are human rights and what does it mean to have them? That’s as tricky a question as it ever was. Though we like to think it’s a given, it’s not at all clear that all, or even most, people agree on even the most basic answer to this question. For one thing, ‘human rights’ starts sounding like such an abstract thing once you start trying to define what thye are.  For another, there’s this big conundrum I see in the human rights theory that I think relate directly to Moyn’s comments.

If human rights are something innate, something we’re born with, then why do so many disagree about what are rights and what aren’t, and why do we have to fight for them? But then again, if we we say that everyone is born with them, then we can and should be outraged when human rights are not recognized and protected.

If they’re something we create for ourselves and one another, than how are we justified in saying that everyone should have them, regardless of context or culture? But then again, if we say they don’t naturally exist so we have to create them, then that motivates us all the more to have to come up with excellent justifications for why we think everyone should have them, and forces us to work all the harder to make sure everyone does.

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Sources and inspiration:

‘Political Philosophy in the World: Human Rights’. Interview with Professor Samuel Moyn by Joe Gelonesi. The Philosopher’s Stone podcast, April 3 2016