Happy Birthday, Karl Marx!

Marx by Sam Kaprielov, 76x61cm, oil on canvas, 2015, image used by permission of the artist

Marx by Sam Kaprielov, 76x61cm, oil on canvas, 2015, http://www.samkaprielov.com/

Born on May 5, 1818, few thinkers have been as influential as Karl Marx. Philosopher, theoretician of history, economist, sociologist, journalist, and revolutionary socialist, he was a prolific thinker and writer, widely lauded, criticized, and misunderstood, and all of these especially by those who claim to act in his name.

Too many of the latter have instituted some of the world’s most brutal and deadly regimes, which would have surprised and horrified Marx to no end. After all, his thought was informed and driven by the horrors of overcrowding, filth, pollution, and poverty that the industrial revolution and nascent, unregulated capitalism had wrought in English cities in his own time. While the value of his observations of the plight of the working poor are widely appreciated, as are his explorations of problems with and contradictions within capitalism that earlier thinkers such as Adam Smith had not identified or foreseen, there doesn’t seem to be much hope that his solutions would or could be implemented except by oppressive and tyrannical regimes.

In honor of his birthday, here’s a series of works about Karl Marx, a recent painting by an artist whose work my good friend introduced me to, and a song that I love.

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) ~ a brief bio at BBC: History

Karl Marx, 1818-1883 ~ by Steven Kreis for The History Guide

Karl Marx ~ by Jonathan Wolff for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Marx ~ Melvyn Bragg and guests Anthony Grayling, Francis Wheen, and Gareth Stedman Jones discuss Karl Marx for BBC’s In Our Time podcast and radio series

Karl Marx: Capitalism vs. Communism, Marx and Kierkegaard on Religion Part 1 and Part 2and Austrians and Marx ~ by Stephen West for Philosophize This!

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

~ 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!

Feminist, Abolitionist, Immigrant, Socialist, Atheist, Jew: The Extraordinary Ernestine Rose, Human Rights Activist

5e5b1-ernestinerose2b1In honor of Ernestine Louise Rose on the anniversary of her birth, January 13th, 1810 

Why such a title, you might ask? Feminist. Abolitionist. Immigrant. Socialist. Atheist. Jew. A series of epithets in Rose’s day, they’re still too often used as such. Why be so provocative?

In her life as an activist and orator, Ernestine Rose wasn’t deliberately provocative in any shock-factor sort of way. She wore modest black, gray, and brown dresses, never the bloomers (puffy pants worn under short skirts) that the more ‘radical’ feminists adopted; she never railed against individual capitalists or slaveholders as evil oppressors; she was openly happy in her traditional-style marriage; and while she was not hesitant to respond abruptly, wittily, even sarcastically to insults and bad arguments, she was not given to preemptive personal attacks or calls for violence. Yet in a time when women stayed at home when not accompanied in public by chaperones, she traveled often and often alone; when women were expected to be demure and silent in public, she was a witty, incisive, passionate, and famous public speaker; when most women accepted their assigned roles, she argued and fought for their rights; when slavery was still widely considered acceptable or at a necessary evil, she worked for their emancipation; when many or even most of her fellow feminists did not consider the races and classes equal, she argued that all people should have the same political and social rights; when hierarchical class systems were considered a law of nature, she argued for economic equality; when most people were religious, she was an unapologetic atheist; in an insular and xenophobic Protestant Christian country, she was a cosmopolitan foreigner of Jewish ancestry.

In short, Ernestine was just about as much of an outsider as one could be. Save being black, disabled, gay, or a single woman, she could hardly have belonged simultaneously to more of the marginalized groups of her day, yet even these found in her a champion as well. Feminist, Abolitionist, Immigrant, Socialist, Atheist, Jew can goad us into considering anew why and how these labels are simultaneously uncomfortable reminders of the persistence of prejudice, and remind us that they’re really badges of honor for passionate believers in universal human freedom.

3a25c-ernestine2broseIn spite of many obstacles, Ernestine Rose was a renowned public speaker and debater in her own time, and especially acclaimed for her role among the preeminent leaders of the feminist movement. The abolitionist, socialist, pro-immigrant, Jewish, freethinker, and Paineite (devotees to the life and ideas of Thomas Paine, who had become a target of hatred and slander due to his freethought views) communities also benefited from her staunch and tireless work on their behalf. She was widely praised as an orator, her style described as ‘powerful’, ‘eloquent’, ‘intelligent’, and ‘dignified’, and often sold out even the largest halls. When travel plans or one of her many bouts of serious illness kept her from speaking at conventions and other public events, organizers would worry about the possibility of success without her participation. Yet now she is virtually forgotten, more so than just about any other feminist or abolitionist of the time with her level of fame. How did this come to be?

It was, for Rose, a very similar situation as it was for her hero Thomas Paine, hailed as a father of the American Revolution who wrote Common Sense, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. Both of these great advocates of universal human rights had ideas that were simply too innovative, too outlandish, too challenging for widespread and sustained acceptance. Both inspired great admiration and achieved widespread fame for their abilities and achievements during their lifetime, but after the initial thrill of their progressive ideals wore off, conservative fearmongering that Rose’s and Paine’s ideas would undermine civilized society won the day. Successive generations would come to pick out what they liked from their work and enjoy the benefits, while vilifying Rose and Paine as radicals, corrupters of public morality, and would-be destroyers of civilization.

It’s only within the last fifty years or so that Paine’s reputation (Theodore Roosevelt still referred to him as a ‘filthy little atheist’) has been fully rehabilitated, his contributions widely celebrated. For Ernestine Rose, unjustly in my view, this hasn’t happened. Paine has the advantage of having been a white man, a friend of many of the Founding Fathers of the United States, a believer in free markets, and a deist. For Rose, a woman, a Jew, an atheist, and a socialist, the remnants of bigotry that she so eloquently called on us to overcome still cast a shadow over public memory, as the light of history belatedly re-illuminates the life and work of this extraordinary woman.

To learn more about the great Ernestine Rose, please check out:

About Ernestine Rose ~ by the Ernestine Rose Society at Brandeis University

Ernestine Louise Rose (1810-1892) ~ by the American Jewish Historical Society via the Jewish Virtual Library

Ernestine Rose, 1810-1892 ~ by Janet Freedman for the Jewish Women’s Archive

Ernestine Rose: American Social Reformer ~ by the editors for Encyclopædia Britannica

Forgotten Feminisms: Ernestine Rose, Free Radical ~ by Judith Shulevitz for the New York Review of Books’ NYR Daily

Interview with Bonnie Anderson, Author of The Rabbi’s Atheist Daughter: Ernestine Rose, International Feminist Pioneer ~ by the New Books Network

~ 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, Karl Marx!

Marx by Sam Kaprielov, 76x61cm, oil on canvas, 2015, image used by permission of the artist

Marx by Sam Kaprielov, 76x61cm, oil on canvas, 2015, http://www.samkaprielov.com/

Born on May 5, 1818, few thinkers have been as influential as Karl Marx. Philosopher, theoretician of history, economist, sociologist, journalist, and revolutionary socialist, he was a prolific thinker and writer, widely lauded, criticized, and misunderstood, all of these especially by those who claim to act in his name.

In honor of his birthday, here’s a series of works about Karl Marx, a recent painting by an artist whose work my good friend introduced me to, and a song that I love.

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) – a brief bio at BBC: History

Karl Marx, 1818-1883 – by Steven Kreis for The History Guide

Karl Marx – by Jonathan Wolff for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Marx – Melvyn Bragg and guests Anthony Grayling, Francis Wheen, and Gareth Stedman Jones discuss Karl Marx for BBC’s In Our Time podcast and radio series

Karl Marx: Capitalism vs. Communism, Marx and Kierkegaard on Religion Part 1 and Part 2and Austrians and Marx – by Stephen West for Philosophize This!

~ 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!

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 2, Part 1

Waverly Pl and University at Washington Square, Manhattan, NY

Waverly and University Places at Washington Square, Manhattan, NY, northeast corner

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

I take the E train north from where I’m staying in NYC’s Soho neighborhood of Manhattan to Washington Square. It’s a lovely, warm, and soft day, the sky blue and thickly scattered with puffy, small, wispy clouds like spilled cheap cotton balls.

On March 1, 1926, Margaret Sanger delivered a lecture titled ‘The Need for Birth Control in America’ to New York University’s Liberal Club. It takes a bit of digging to find out where the Liberal Club met at this time, but I finally discover it in a letter written to Sanger’s supporter and sometimes collaborator W.E.B. DuBois. In this letter, dated Nov. 22nd, 1926, the secretary of the Liberal Club, Mary Broger, invited him to address the Club’s open forum on Monday, Dec 6th of that same year. The letter also specified that the Club met at New York University’s Washington Square College ‘at University and Waverly Places’, which is at the northeast corner of Washington Square Park. (Pokorski’s ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger’ Google map has it a little wrong, marking the location of this event near the southeast corner of the park).

NYU's Silver Center at Washington Square Park, at the southeast corner of Waverly and University at the northeast corner of the park

NYU’s Silver Center at Washington Square Park, at the southeast corner of Waverly and University Places at the northeast corner of the park

It’s still unclear exactly where the Club met since there are buildings at the northwest, northeast, and southeast corner of this intersection, and my sources, including the DuBois letter, don’t specify an address. I think it most likely that the Club met in what’s now the New York University Silver Center for Arts and Sciences at the southeast corner of University and Waverly, called American Book Company of the Law Department of New York University in G.W. Bromley & Co’s city atlas of 1923. The buildings that stand at the other corners of this intersection appear to have been all residential, based on that same atlas, just as they appear now. At the southwest corner of this intersection, Washington Square Park pre-dates the 1926 meeting of the Liberal Club by about a century. The Silver Center building was built in 1892.

1926 was a hard year for Sanger. She was long subject to periodic depressions, and some legal setbacks in the birth control movement and the deaths of her sister Mary and her father that year all helped to start the cycles again. But she continued to think, and speak, and write, and plan, and that summer she decided she would present her case for birth control in the context of an international conference. Hoping to make her case to a world audience and influence delegates to the League of Nations, she began planning and organizing a World Population Conference in Geneva which would take place the next fall. It was a great success, and Rockefeller and many other benefactors helped fund the project. Its attendees and speakers included experts from a wide array of scientific fields from around the world, and this would be the first of many more such gatherings where problems of population growth would be studied and addressed.

The soft coolness of the morning has given way to a warm, somewhat humid day.

Webster Hall in October, festooned with pumpkin decorations, New York City

Webster Hall festooned with pumpkin decorations in October, New York City

Two views of Webster Hall's Grand Ballroom, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Above, a Costume Ball probably in the nineteen-teens or early twenties. Below, an orchestra prepares to record 'How to Succeed Without Really Trying' in 1961, public domain via Library of Congress

Two views of Webster Hall’s Grand Ballroom. Above, one of their popular costume balls, probably in the nineteen-teens or early twenties. Below, an orchestra prepares to record ‘How to Succeed Without Really Trying’ in 1961

I continue north (after a little wild goose chase several blocks to the east which turns out to be an out of date or incorrect address), and turn left on E 11th. My destination is Webster Hall at 125 E 11th St between 3rd and 4th Aves. It’s a red brick and brownstone structure, built in 1886-1887, and there’s a deco era small marquee added to the main entryway. The Hall has been restored and rebuilt many times after several major fires, and though its original brickwork, brownstone trim, and terracotta decorations survive, its beautiful old mansard roof is gone. It’s now a nightclub and concert venue. The doors are locked and there’s no one around to let me inside to see its famous Grand Ballroom with its reputed great acoustics. For a time, it was used as a recording studio, which leads to the second accidental Bob Dylan connection I make on this trip. His iconic harmonica backs Harry Belafonte’s 1962 recording of Midnight Special and is Dylan’s first published album recording.

In 1912, Sanger led a march of 119 child refugees from the Lawrence Mills textile strike, from Grand Central Terminal to Webster Hall. It was a difficult and violent strike, and this children’s march was to raise awareness of the plight of the striking families as much as it was to obtain proper shelter, food, and medical care for them. Sanger wrote in her autobiography that these children were underfed and inadequately dressed for the winter weather, and though many were sick, they had still been required to work. When they arrived at Webster Hall, however, they found a banquet all ready and families ready to give these children a caring home until better arrangements could be made for them.

Garment workers, Webster Hall. Bain News Service, P. (ca. 1915) [between and Ca. 1920] [Image] Retrieved from the Library of Congress

Garment workers, Webster Hall, ca. 1915-1920. By Bain News Service. Library of Congress

We think of Sanger today primarily as a feminist and birth control activist, yet she was an ardent Socialist and labor rights activist first. She increasingly distanced herself from her radicalist roots over the years because she believed it necessary to court the middle-class and wealthy for the long term success of her cause. Scientific research and development of effective means of birth control cost a lot of money. It also required influence in high places, to attract doctors and scientists willing to take the risk of working in this field as well as lawmakers, litigators, and politicians to push through legal reforms. Nevertheless, what Sanger observed in her early years as a nurse and activist among poor working families horrified, galvanized, and drove her in her cause for ready access to affordable and reliable birth control, especially essential for the health and safety of working class women and children.

The main entrance of The Brevoort

The main entrance of The Brevoort

I zigzag back east to The Brevoort, once Hotel Brevoort at 11 Fifth Avenue at 8th St. The doorman invites me inside when I tell of that I’m on a historical writing tour, and politely inquires about my subject. He utters a noncommittal ‘hmmm’ when I tell him who it’s about. This building dates to the 1950’s but he confirms that it stands on the original hotel site. There’s a photograph of the original hotel in a glass covered niche in the entryway.

Sanger gave many lectures and speeches at the Hotel Brevoort over the decades. The one I’ll focus on here was held the night before her obscenity trial for distributing The Woman Rebel through the mail. In this speech of January 17th, 1916, Sanger reminded her audience that birth control was not a new thing: it had been widely practiced since antiquity. Even the great philosopher Aristotle, arguably also the first scientist, had advocated it. She wrote more extensively about the history of birth control and its methods in her book Woman and the New Race.

Photo of the original Hotel Brevoort in a glass case in The Brevort lobby

Photo of the original Hotel Brevoort in a glass case in The Brevoort lobby

She also stressed her conviction that there was nothing anti-life about birth control. In fact, birth control prevented death: it prevented the death of mothers in childbirth, much more dangerous then than it is today, especially if you were poor. It prevented the suffering and death of infants and children born into deprivation and disease. It prevented the death of mothers who resorted to abortion, illegal then but widely available in back alleys if they could scrape together five dollars to pay for it. If they couldn’t, they did it themselves, often rupturing the uterus and causing deadly infections. But even this risk was acceptable to women who found themselves pregnant in circumstances so dire that they couldn’t face the thought of raising another child that way. When it came to abortion, in fact, Sanger opposed Aristotle, who promoted it especially in the early stages of pregnancy to prevent social ills such as poverty, overcrowding, and political unrest. In her Hotel Brevoort speech, as in her book, Sanger also reminded her audience that birth control prevented infanticide, another last but not uncommon resort of desperate women, and another acceptable form of population control to Aristotle in certain circumstances.

In other words, contrary to the opinion of her opponents then and now, Sanger considered herself and her movement radically pro-life, as we’ll recognize from her own words in a moment.

Today's incarnation of The Brevoort

Today’s incarnation of The Brevoort

35 and 39 Fifth Ave, Manhattan, NYC, photo 2016 by Amy Cools

35 and 39 Fifth Ave, Manhattan, NYC

My next destinations, just a little ways up Fifth Ave between 10th and 11th Streets, are two buildings which stand shoulder to shoulder, both tall and handsome in their red brick. I especially like the second one, with its beautiful painted terracotta loggia-style embellishments. I’m unable to gain entry to either since they’re now residential buildings not open to the public. These two buildings turn out to have interesting histories.

The first is 35 Fifth Ave, formerly the Grosvenor Hotel, now Rubin Residence Hall of NYU. This 1925 building replaced the earlier 6-story Grosvenor, the first residential hotel in New York City, completed in 1876. Mark Twain lived in the original Grosvenor in 1904 while his new home at 21 Park Ave was being renovated. Another of my favorite novelists, Willa Cather, lived in the building that stands here today, from 1927 to 1932. Sanger stayed here a year earlier, from April to September of 1926, when the new Grosvenor was only a year old. She stayed here again for one month in 1928.

Sanger also lived next door at 39 Fifth Ave for a short time in mid-1923, when this building was also only a year old. It was designed by Emory Roth, whose firm designed many of New York City’s most iconic structures, and built in 1922.

1923 was a significant year for the progress of birth control for many reasons, one of which I’ll cover in the next installment of this story of my Sanger journey. Sanger wrote an article for the journal The Thinker in 1924 in which she summarized the trials and successes of the movement of the year before. In ‘The Birth Control Movement in 1923‘, Sanger restates and reaffirms the basic tenets of her movement:

‘…[W]e witness [an] appalling waste of women’s health and women’s lives by too frequent pregnancies. These unwanted pregnancies often provoke the crime of abortion, or alternatively multiply the number of child workers and lower the standard of living.

To create a race of well-born children it is essential that the function of motherhood should be elevated to a position of dignity, and this is impossible as long as conception remains a matter of chance.

We hold that children should be

1. Conceived in love;

2. Born of the mother’s conscious desire;

3. And only begotten under conditions which render possible the heritage of health. Therefore we hold that every woman must possess the power and freedom to prevent conception except when these conditions can be satisfied.

Every mother must realize her basic position in human society. She must be conscious of her responsibility to the race in bringing children into the world.

Instead of being a blind and haphazard consequence of uncontrolled instinct, motherhood must be made the responsible and self-directed means of human expression and regeneration.’

Entryways of 35 and 39 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village, NYC

Entryways of 35 and 39 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village, NYC

I visit many more sites on this long and adventurous day and will return soon to pick up the tale. To be continued….

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!

*Listen to this podcast version here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes


Sources and Inspiration:

10th Street.’ From New York Songlines: Virtual Walking Tours of Manhattan Streets

35 Fifth Avenue, 1926‘. What Was There website

39 Fifth Avenue, Between East 10th Street & East 11th Street, Greenwich Village‘, CityRealty website

About Sanger: Biographical Sketch‘, from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at New York University.

Bromley, G.W. and Co. Atlas of the City of New York, 1921 – 1923, Plate 31. Retrieved from Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division Digital Collection, The New York Public Library.

Chesler, Ellen. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992

Eig, Jonathan. The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2014.

From Geneva to Cairo: Margaret Sanger and the First World Population Conference‘, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project Newsletter #8 (Spring 1994)

Garrett, Y. ‘Jan. 2, 1923 First Legal Birth Control Clinic Opens in U.S.‘ From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Greenhouse, Steven. ‘New York, Cradle Of Labor History‘, Aug 30th, 1996. The New York Times

Kaplan, Fred. The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Anchor, 2005

The Lost Grosvenor Hotel — 35 Fifth Avenue‘. From Daytonian in Manhattan blog

New York University. Liberal Club. ‘Letter from New York University Liberal Club to W. E. B. Du Bois, November 22, 1926‘. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Pokorski, Robin. ‘Mapping Margaret Sanger‘ from The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Regan, Margaret. ‘Margaret Sanger: Tucson’s Irish Rebel.Tucson Weekly, Mar 11, 2004.

Sanger, Margaret. ‘The Birth Control Movement in 1923‘, Apr 1924. Source: The Thinker, Apr. 1924, pp. 49-51. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. ‘Hotel Brevoort Speech,” Jan 17, 1916. From The Margaret Sanger Papers Project at NYU

Sanger, Margaret. Margaret Sanger, an Autobiography. Cooper Square Press: New York 1999, originally published by W.W. Norton & Co: New York, 1938

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version courtesy of Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & CompanyZorea Ph.D., Birth Control

Webster Hall‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Webster Hall and Annex, 119-125 East 11th Street, Manhattan‘. Landmarks Preservation Commission
March 18, 2008, Designation List 402, LP-2273

New Podcast Episode: To New York City I Go, in Search of Margaret Sanger


Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

Hello, friends of Ordinary Philosophy!

From time to time, I take a trip to some corner of the globe, to explore the lives and ideas of great thinkers in the places where they lived and worked. For this series, I follow in the footsteps of thinkers who are no longer alive, since those who are still telling their own stories. But those who are no longer alive in the body live on in the ideas that they pass on, and in the examples they provide for us to follow.

I’m pleased and excited to announce my sixth philosophical-historical themed adventure, a rather impromptu trip to New York City to follow in the footsteps of Margaret Sanger.

Though the timing was spur of the moment, I’ve read and thought about Sanger quite a bit over the years and have some of the research done already for this long-planned trip. So when this little window of time opened up in my schedule, I happily seized the opportunity! As central to the history of women’s rights, free speech rights, and rights to sexual self-determination and privacy as she is, Sanger’s also the most problematic figure in the history of ideas I’ve followed so far for this series, with the possible exception of the brilliant but slave-owning Thomas Jefferson. She’s certainly the first that sparked immediate controversy when I casually mentioned my plans for following her on social media…. Read the written version here:

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!

Margaret Sanger NYC Sites, Day 1 Part 1, and a 100 Year Anniversary

Flyer for Sanger Clinic, Brownsville, Brooklyn, image courtesy of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Flyer for Sanger Clinic, Brownsville, Brooklyn, image courtesy of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project

Tuesday, October 18th, 2016

I start the morning preparing my itinerary for the day as I fortify myself with coffee and the first half of a sandwich.

My first stop is also the furthest east I’ll go this trip, to the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. I take the C train to the Rockaway station, head south on Saratoga, and wander around getting a feel for the neighborhood. It’s predominantly black, solidly working class, with lots of handsome old buildings, mostly well worn with peeling paint. I see lots of mothers and grandparents with strollers and very small children (it’s around noon during work hours), people taking smoke breaks in backdoors, and some very poor and homeless people. Reaching Pitkin’s busy sidewalk, I see shoppers, people going out for lunch, and shop and cafe proprietors in front doorways under brightly colored signs, and I hear many accents and many languages spoken, English, Spanish and French, and many others I don’t recognize. It reminds me of neighborhoods I frequent at home in Oakland. I turn north on Amboy Street, which runs north and south between Pitkin and E. New York Ave.

At 46 Amboy Street, just north of Pitkin, Margaret Sanger opened the United States’ first birth control clinic two days less than 100 years ago today, on Oct 16th, 1916. Though just a  little late for the anniversary, I’m happy to be here at this historic place, humble as it now appears. The clinic was in the tall red brick building to the right of the tan one with the ‘diamond’ pattern on the upper center front of the façade. You’ll find a photo below that shows the clinic as it originally appeared, and here as well.

46 Amboy St, site of Sanger's first birth control clinic

Sanger’s first birth control clinic, given address 46 Amboy St. One thing’s more or less the same: the little pale brick building with the crenelated top still stands next to where the clinic was, as you can see two photos down. The narrower red brick building against and to the left of the larger one, with a sign now identifying it as 42 Amboy, stands on the former clinic site.

46 Amboy St, site of Sanger's first birth control clinic

Another view, angled more like the view in the photo below. The two red brick buildings appear not to be original unless they’ve been changed so much as to be unrecognizable. As you can see from the photo below, there was space between the original clinic building and the tan one, but not so for the current structure. The clapboard building beyond may be original.

Photograph shows women and men sitting with baby carriages in front of the Sanger Clinic, LOC

Women and children sitting with baby carriages in front of the Sanger Clinic, with the white curtains in the windows. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Before opening this clinic, Sanger had trained and worked as a nurse for many years among the poorest and most oppressed Americans, the immigrant and minority working class and poor. Originally a Socialist radical, Sanger came to realize that Marxists, philanthropists, and charity workers alike were making the same essential mistake. Since they failed to identify the root cause of human misery in the slums, the crowded tenements, and the factory floors, all of their well-intended efforts to help were failing and sure to continue to fail. Sanger came to feel this way about her own nursing, which addressed the effects and not the cause, so she turned her efforts to where she believed she could do the most good: birth control activism.

Margaret Sanger as a nursing student around 1900, by Boyce Photographer, White Plains, courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College

Margaret Sanger as a nursing student around 1900, by Boyce Photographer, White Plains, courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College

As a nurse, Sanger cared for poor women broken down in health and mind by laboring all night and caring for children all day, often pregnant all the while, often miscarrying, and the infant mortality rates were very high. So were death rates for the mothers, be it from childbirth, diseases secondary to exhaustion and malnutrition, and worst of all, from self-inflicted abortions. The mothers who resorted to the latter were desperate: they had often already watched other children die, or suffer every day from hunger, or forced into the factories or other labor at a very young age in the struggle to survive.

Though there were plenty of organizations trying to help these families, governmental and charitable, they could not keep up since the need was so great and increasing every day. Industrialization, Sanger recognized, encouraged rapid population growth by the ever-increasing demand for more labor and more future customers. And the workers responded to the social pressure by producing more children in hopes that their offspring could help the family by going out to work. But those hopes were often in vain since the population growth always kept up with or surpassed the need for laborers, constantly driving down wages. And so the cycle continued: immiseration through near-starvation wages, families barely keeping up with the cost of feeding themselves if at all, and children deprived of an education and of health as factory and other hard work often left children stunted, with malformed and weak bones and muscles, and often injured by machinery and chemicals.

Sanger thought: instead of trying vainly to keep up with the spiraling misery caused by this cycle, why not get at the root of it? After all, as the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If women were empowered to decide whether to have children, and only as many as their health and financial circumstances would allow, all this misery could be prevented in the first place since parents could adequately care for the children they did have, mother’s bodies would no longer be broken down by constant pregnancy, infants and mothers would more likely survive childbirth, overcrowding and its accompanying epidemics would be mitigated or even disappear, and a reduced labor force would force employers to compete for workers, driving wages up. And as we’ve seen over the decades, high population growth is strongly correlated with endemic poverty, high infant and mother mortality rates, women’s rights abuses, and high income inequality.

But people will never stop having sex, as Sanger pointed out. Sex is just too powerful a force in human nature. Our need for love, for affection, for physical pleasure and release, are too powerful to be squelched, and in fact, shouldn’t be. Love and the need for physical connection are positive things, indeed, two of the best things in human nature. Birth control, thought Sanger, was the answer.

I’ll be exploring Sanger’s ideas on these and other topics in more detail in upcoming essays, stay tuned. In the meantime, the Margaret Sanger Papers Project has a wealth of articles and original works by Sanger available online, and I’ve relied on them more than on any other single resource for my own project. (See below for the links). Thank you so much to the good people at the MSPP, I very much appreciate what you do!

Photobombed in Brownsville, Brooklyn, NY

Photobombed in Brownsville, Brooklyn, NY

Street with handsome row houses on Bergen Street, Brownsville, Brooklyn, NYC

Tree lined street with attractive row houses on Bergen Street, Brownsville, Brooklyn, NYC

Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, near the Rockaway station, 2016 Amy Cools

Street scene at the Rockaway station entrance near the northern edge of the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY

Hipster Gourmet Deli in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Amy Cools 2016.

Hipster Gourmet Deli in Brownsville, Brooklyn. I took this photo on the way to Amboy St, after my laughter subsided enough to take a picture.

I head back to the station, on the way stopping to photograph some scenes in the neighborhood, including an especially pretty row of houses on Bergen Street as a young man photobombs my pic with a laugh and a smile. On the train back, I eat the now rather smashed second half of my egg salad sandwich and write my notes. I transfer a couple of times and head north to Grand Central Station…. To be continued

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!


Sources and Inspiration:

Alter, Charlotte. ‘How Planned Parenthood Changed Everything‘. Time.com, Oct. 14, 2016

Chesler, Ellen. ‘Was Planned Parenthood’s Founder Racist?Salon.com, Wed, Nov 2, 2011

Child Labor in U.S. History‘. From the Child Labor Public Education Project by the University of Iowa Labor Center

Demographics and Poverty‘, Center for Global Development.

Jacobs, Emma. ‘Margaret Sanger Clinic (former): the First Birth Control Clinic in the United States‘. From Places That Matter

Margaret Sanger Papers Project by New York University.

Regan, Margaret. ‘Margaret Sanger: Tucson’s Irish Rebel.Tucson Weekly, Mar 11, 2004.

Sanger, Margaret. The Pivot of Civilization, 1922. Free online version courtesy of Project Gutenberg, 2008, 2013.

Sanger, Margaret. Woman and the New Race, 1920. Free online version courtesy of W. W. Norton & CompanyOakland Tribune Article about Margaret Sanger's NY clinic, Oct 21, 1916 evening edition

Happy Birthday, Karl Marx!

Marx by Sam Kaprielov, 76x61cm, oil on canvas, 2015, image used by permission of the artist

Marx by Sam Kaprielov, 76x61cm, oil on canvas, 2015, http://www.samkaprielov.com/

Born on May 5 1818, few thinkers have been as influential as Karl Marx. Philosopher, theoretician of history, economist, sociologist, journalist, and revolutionary socialist, he was a prolific thinker and writer, widely lauded, criticized, and misunderstood, especially by those who claimed to act in his name.

In honor of his birthday, here is a series of pieces about Karl Marx, a recent painting by an artist whose work my good friend just introduced me to, and a song that I love.

The World Isn’t Fair, by Randy Newman

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), a very brief bio at BBC: History

Karl Marx, 1818-1883, by Steven Kreis at The History Guide

Karl Marx, by Jonathan Wolff, at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Karl Marx, Wikipedia

~ 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!

Freedom, Liberty, and the Inevitable Interconnectedness of Human Life

As a citizen of the United States, I’ve spent more than a little time wondering if it’s entirely a good thing that our culture is so very individualistic.

American individualism does originate from some excellent roots. The colonies that became the United States were largely founded by farmers, entrepreneurs, dreamers, the dispossessed, and others with a bold, adventurous spirit that animated them to cross the seas and start a new life from scratch in an unknown country.

These migrants included religious dissenters who struck out on their own and founded new faiths, devising theological arguments to demonstrate the righteousness of their doing so. Their arguments would later be adopted for secular purposes as they were used, barely altered, to support the right to freedom of thought and speech, and were embraced widely by many independent-minded communities. They were also open to new ideas, and were often more ready to accept innovative moral and political theories of the Enlightenment which emphasized individual rights and self-sovereignty over traditional authoritarian and elitist social systems than were their European counterparts, and more ready and able to implement them. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and The Rights of Man, the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are all essentially Enlightenment documents, embodying that intellectual movement’s conception of human nature and of the just society founded upon individual human rights.

The American project has always depended on free, forward-thinking individuals, and our national creed is founded on these three core beliefs: that individual human lives are valuable for their own sake, and that human rights not only exist, their defense should be our highest priority, and that all legitimate governmental authority originates with the people as a whole. Political systems founded on these beliefs, conceived in Britain and established first in America, reveal the strength of this view, and over time proved that individuals and society alike benefit enormously when the rights and interests of individuals take highest priority.

Over time, as free-market economics and other liberalizing social forces have expanded the rights and opportunities of the individual, some have come to believe that society, as a concept and as an institution, should play a secondary role in matters of public policy and morality. Margaret Thatcher, for one, famously claimed there’s no such thing. ‘Society’, to Thatcher and others whose views of human social arrangements might best be called atomist, is more or less a shorthand term for a population of individuals in a certain place and time. In this view, it’s the individual, not the group, that matters. Focus on protecting the the rights and interests of individuals, they say, and everything else will fall into place.

For one thing, they claim, the more individual rights are emphasized, the better off everyone is. Compare constitutional democracies, republics, and free-market societies which emphasize individual rights with societies that emphasize the interests of the group, and we can see that the former do a much better job overall of enhancing people’s lives. There’s more wealth, less poverty,  more opportunity, and greater autonomy in the former. The reason it works out that way, they argue, is because human nature is naturally individualistic first, and social second. For example, Michael Shermer, a well-known science writer who leans libertarian, argues that just as the individual is the object or target of evolutionary selection (or in other words, what selection acts upon), so it is the individual who should be the object or target of ethical concern and legal protection. (See my response to Shermer’s article here.)

Some such individualists, which often identify as libertarians and some as classical liberals, object to all or most taxation, saying it amounts to a sort of slavery because it forces individuals to pay for, and hence to work for, things they didn’t personally choose to contribute to. Others also object to public debt; Thomas Jefferson famously did so (though as President, the realities of governing the infant nation caused him to mitigate his views) saying it also amounts to further enslavement of future generations by forcing them, through their labor, to pay a debt they played no part in incurring. Still others object to laws limiting the ownership of guns, to the military draft, to eminent domain, to all manner of laws that subordinate the liberties of individuals to the interests of the group.

But there are some problems with these arguments. For one thing, it’s not historically true that societies that have done the most to improve lives focus almost exclusively on individual rights without regard to the interests of society. The laws of the United States, for example, are very concerned with the interests of the society as a whole as well, and are structured so as to find the correct balance between the rights of individuals and the interests and responsibilities of the people. ‘We the people’, a collective term, was chosen to as the introduction to the United States Constitution, not ‘we the individual persons’! In fact, the Bill of Rights, enumerating the rights of individuals, was only added after the Constitution, balancing the rights and interests of the people as a whole, was adopted, though its eventual inclusion was a condition for many states to agree to ratify it. The weakness of the United States government under its original Articles of Confederation, a document paying lip service to the political unity of the states without giving the federal government much real authority, was quickly recognized by leaders of the new nation struggling to maintain its newfound autonomy as it struggled to fund the American Revolution and to pay its debts, defend itself, and establish viable systems of trade. The original problem facing the infant United States, in other words, was too much concern for individual liberty and not enough for the welfare of all. The Constitution was adopted to correct this imbalance.

For another, we find that most societies generally considered anti-individualist and generally referred to as socialist, communist, or authoritarian, have not actually promoted the interests of society over individuals, for all their proclamations that that’s what they’re doing. Historically, they have exclusively promoted the ideology of one individual leader or a small group of elites, and imposed a political structure derived from it on the rest of society by crushing political dissent and severely restricting both individual and collective rights. If their policies ended up harming society as a whole, as they generally did, it didn’t matter much, so long as they carried out the will of the leader or the ruling elites. In fact, these sorts of governments could be better described as hyper-individualistic, promoting the interests of one or a few individuals regardless of the cost to society.

So how do we make sense of it all? How can we live together in societies, as we invariably do, and organize ourselves so that we can be as free as possible from the oppression of government and of other individuals? How do we achieve both negative freedom, freedom from interference, and positive freedom, freedom achieved through purposeful action? For human beings, we find that the ability to live a full and free life is tied up with our interconnectedness with our fellow humans as well as with respect for everyone else as individual persons whose worth is equal to our own. Any definition of human freedom or conception of human rights that doesn’t take sufficient account of both of these is incoherent, and not useful for understanding or for devising a better way of living, for individuals or societies.

To see this, let’s imagine what life might be life if the radical individualist view of human nature we just described won out and society operated on the principle that it (society) didn’t really exist. Imagine if the tax-equals-slavery argument was turned around so it was applied consistently: if those who built our tax-funded cities and infrastructure didn’t expressly consent to our personally using them, we shouldn’t be allowed to use them, since we would be benefiting from the fruits of their labor without their consent. This goes for anything paid for by public debt as well: since consent is central to the argument, it’s the consent itself that matters, not the money per se. In fact,So this would apply to anything achieved by collective action if people were compelled by law to contribute.

So in this scenario, we’d need to remove everything that collective action built and taxes and public debt paid for. Remove most roads and bridges, except the small ones on private property built by their owners. Remove the internet. Remove the armed forces, except for local militias. Remove police forces. Remove the polio vaccine, other vaccines, indeed, all medical advances that were achieved through the NIH and as a result of the space race and wars, both tax-funded, hugely expenses, large-scale government endeavors. Remove public lands, national and regional parks, and so on.
And we’d have to go further: remove all other laws of positive obligation which require us to do certain things, and leave only those of negative obligation, which prevent us from interfering with one another’s personal autonomy. Remove laws which require individuals to care for children, the elderly, the incapacitated, and the mentally ill. Remove Good Samaritan laws. Remove laws which require doctors, product manufacturers, food producers, pharmaceutical companies, and others to provide, in good faith and to the best of their knowledge, goods and services that won’t harm their clients.

Now imagine the ‘free’ life of the individual living in such a society. We go around constantly on the alert, knowing everyone else is armed, and while there might be laws against harming one another, the only ones who can enforce the law is ourselves. We must remain vigilant at all times, knowing that while most people, due to our evolved human nature as social creatures, don’t wish to kill or hurt one another most of the time, there are always a certain number who are able and willing to hurt others to further their own short-term interests. We may be crippled or die early from polio, or tuberculosis, or a virulent flu, or some other microbe-caused illness unless it just so happens that an enormously wealthy, long-lived philanthropist comes along willing to bankroll the decades-long, probably never-profitable project of discovering the microbe that causes it and developing vaccines which must constantly be updated due to evolution. We would probably never have the opportunity to see a buffalo, almost certainly extinct along with many other species killed in droves in the interests of short-term personal gain.

We can only travel roads, such as they are, by permission of the owner, and will likely have to stop often along the way and pay the tolls necessary to fund their building and upkeep. Because of this, most small businesses would have a terribly difficult time getting their supplies in shipped in or their products shipped out and probably never get off the ground, if runaway monopolies, never limited or broken up by government, didn’t eliminate their competition in the first place. Unless enough people happened to band together voluntarily or one extremely wealthy philanthropic person came along to make such a gigantic land purchase at the right time, we could not choose to rest our bodies and feast our eyes at great, rare natural landscapes such as Yosemite and Yellowstone; such places would be closed off at the whim of the owners; only the wealthy could afford the exorbitant entry fees the owner decided to charge; or they might have been destroyed if, say, an owner at some point decided they could make more money with Half Dome by dynamiting it for its rock or carving it into an image of his own face. The internet may have come into being at some point, but was was the case with the polio and other vaccines, the vast expenditures of time, money, and cooperation of effort required to develop it may have prevented it from ever existing except as funded by a superbusiness, and therefore, entirely controlled by it.

None of this goes to show that only a significant level of taxation and a strong government of laws could ever achieve all of the great advances of civilization and promote the use and preservation of natural resources to their fullest advantage. History shows us that while many liberties and freedoms were only ever obtained when governments intervened, it also tells us that many were brought about through other means: revolution and public unrest, markets, social institutions such as religions and universities, and so on. What this thought experiment does reveal is the intimate ways in which our lives are tied up together with those of others: what others chose or don’t choose to do provides opportunities and places limits on our freedom to choose, and vice versa.

This thought experiment also helps us see how easy it is to think that freedom and liberty are the same. I make this disclaimer from here on out: the two are often used interchangeably, in everyday as well as academic use. But I think that’s a mistake: to help explore the importance issues related to them, we need two words that are related to one another but which contain different shades of meaning, and freedom and liberty are ready and widely understood candidates. So, I’ll use them here more or less as I’ve often otherwise encountered them. Freedom, which enables one to actually chose and act upon as many alternatives that will enhance one’s ability to live a good and happy life as possible, can often come into direct conflict with liberty, which allows one to chose from the widest range of options regardless of consequences. Sometimes, when one is granted the liberty to do as they choose, they restrict the freedom of others. Consider the history of states’ rights’ activism in the United States, ostensibly all about promoting the rights of states to make most of their own laws (do states really have rights?), we find it was actually about giving states free rein to effectively strip away the Constitutional rights of certain of its citizens, and granting individuals license to do the same to one another.

Let’s consider libertarianism, a political philosophy which appears to promote personal liberty as the primary object of a society, sometimes to the extent that freedom seems relegated to a side effect or by-product. Why do I say this? Libertarianism calls for far less restriction of individual liberties than any other political philosophy except anarchism, often regardless of consequences except how it effects the liberty of others. A famous example is the issue of gun rights: libertarians generally regard the right to own guns a fundamental individual right, regardless of the evidence that more gun ownership in a population almost always correlates with far higher rates of gun-related death and injury. So while the liberty of people to own guns is protected, the total amount of freedom enjoyed by people is reduced because, of course, no one gets to enjoy freedom while they’re dead (Those who believe in life after death may disagree, but here I’m speaking in matters of law and society, which belongs entirely to the realm of the living.) There are also less demands placed on individual persons to pitch in and create public goods which enhance people’s lives, give people more choices, relieve people of the burdens of merely maintaining one’s survival, and otherwise promote the freedom to do more things even while specific liberties, such as how to allocate all of one’s own earnings, are curtailed. Whether or not more freedom is achieved, then, appears to be almost beside the point, since individual liberties are sacrosanct, not to be limited or regulated regardless of how this affects the total freedom of the individual or of society as a whole.

My intention is not to pick on libertarianism, since it’s not the only political philosophy whose adherents often fail to recognize the degree to which freedom and liberty can often diverge and to emphasize how much human individuality depends on interpersonal cooperation. While this movement is based on a fundamentally flawed conception of how freedom is best attained, it’s often modified to such as extent that many of its adherents hold very reasonable and enlightened views, and they do right to protest against governmental and corporate abuses of power. We all make such mistakes, on the left as well as on the right of the political spectrum. Many liberals demand more social responsibility in terms of tax-and-spend welfare and government investment in green technology while refusing to vaccinate their children, resulting in epidemics of easily preventable disease, and insist on muzzling people who voice unpopular or uncomfortable opinions by demanding they be fired for what they say in private and disinvited from speaking at universities, and so on. Many conservatives demand that markets remain free from government intervention while voting for legislation that gives corporations free rein to form monopolies and stifle competition, and champion religious freedom while demanding that the religious views of some people take precedence over others in matters of public policy, and enshrined to the exclusion of others in publicly funded spaces, and so on.

I, for one, value actual freedom over actual liberty, since the first is a good which directly affects my ability to live a full and happy life, and liberty is instrumental, valuable only insofar as it promotes actual freedom. And that’s why I, for one, prefer a political system that values freedom over liberty as it simultaneously values liberty as among the most freedom-promoting social good we can bestow on ourselves and one another.

Liberty is not the only way to freedom, far from it. That’s why, politically, I think I could best be described as a progressive, or a democratic republican socialist, since I believe political systems such as these do the best job of balancing individual rights with social well-being, which I think means making the increase of freedom, not just liberty, the primary goal. The reason progressive governments are on balance so successful, I believe, is that they best reflect the reality of the human condition as I’ve just described it: the desire of each individual for complete personal liberty is often in conflict with the ability of each individual to enjoy actual freedom. They protect the individual from unjustified governmental encroachment on their rights; they prevent individuals from encroaching on the rights of one another; they coordinate human efforts in great projects which reap huge benefits for huge numbers of people which smaller-scale efforts are unlikely to achieve; they have a built-in system of public input and of checks and balances through voting, taxation, appointment and hiring of experts in relevant fields of expertise, recall or impeachment of government officials, and so on.

And as we look around the world, where we find societies in which the largest number of individuals and groups enjoy the most freedom and liberty, we also find a constitution with a built-in system for amendment, robust enforcement of the rule of law, equal rights protections which neither the government or citizens are allowed to infringe on, a mixed economy, and a welfare system. And looking throughout history, we fail to find either an autocratic or a libertarian nation that achieved this balance of liberty and freedom through an infrastructure which facilitates both. Either the rights and interests of individuals are routinely ignored and trampled upon by governments in the interests of a few elites (monarchist, communist, and fascist governments fit into this category, even if they present themselves as acting in the name of the people), or individuals routinely ignore and trample upon the rights and interests of other individuals because the government is too weak and ineffectual to defend the people from each other, let alone from other nations (the United States in its first decades of existence, and countless other infant democracies and developing nations). While I find it difficult to imagine how a libertarian or autocratic society could achieve all of these things, I would be interested to see if it could be done. After all, the United States was an experiment in governance, and it did much better than many other nations at protecting individual freedom for many, if not for all; that’s why Abraham Lincoln was so anxious to keep the country together. But frankly, given human psychology and the lessons of history, I’m not holding my breath.

To many, the trick of attaining maximum freedom while simultaneously engendering maximum liberty for all seems like a tall order, if not impossible. That’s why, I suspect, so many of us so readily lean so far to one side or another, since the two seem disparate. But since the two are intertwined and inseparable due to the deep interconnectedness of humanity, for better or for worse, we need to think of the two as just different aspects of the same thing.

There are simple, practical ways of carrying this out, in legislation and in the ways we interact with others in day to day life. When it comes to policy, a good classic example of effectively balancing personal liberty with overall freedom was the old practice of restrictions on carrying guns in American towns. In the country and in their homes, people depended on their guns for food and protection and could have them handy to fight in militias if they choose to join up. However, law enforcement well knew, the close quarters people found themselves in in town could lead to a person with a gun to, in a fit of anger, drunkenness, accident, or poor judgement, permanently remove every freedom another could ever enjoy with the simple squeeze of a trigger. Therefore, when people chose to enter within town limits, they were required to give up their guns so that all could enjoy the freedom of going about their business unhampered by fear, knowing that while in town, no-one’s packing. The liberty of the gun owner was temporarily suspended in favor of the freedom of the many without placing too much of a hindrance on the gun owner’s ability to sustain their daily life. While the distribution of American society has changed, with most Americans now living in urban and suburban communities, a balance different in kind but similar in purpose might be struck. Perhaps all Americans could be allowed to own a gun if and only if they joined a state militia or local reserve branch of the military (as the actual wording of the Second Amendment provides for) so that all gun owners would be registered, trained, recognizable, and publicly accountable.

Thus far, we’ve discussed freedom and liberty extensively without once talking about rights. What are rights, and how are they related to freedom and liberty? A right is a much more nebulous concept, much harder to define or identify, and much more difficult to trace to its origin. For example, is it just something we’re born with? If so, why have human societies differed so much on what they are and whether we even have them, and why must we fight to get them? Are they, then, something we create? If so, why create some and not others? The topic of rights really needs to be the subject of another piece, one which I plan on writing about and about which countless others have written far more ably than I feel sure I ever could. But when we start discussing much more difficult cases in which freedom and liberty conflict, the subject of rights inevitably, and must, come up, if for no other reason that the concept of rights is a cornerstone of American law as it it for all nations who value and promote freedom and liberty. In the meantime, let’s talk about rights as some sort of thing tied up with personhood, we won’t say exactly what, without which persons enjoy neither freedom nor liberty. I think that’s a pretty good starting place, more or less reconcilable with every conception of right I’ve ever explored.

So sometimes, we find that in nature as well as politics, individual human freedom is intimately bound up with the rights and liberty of others, and it sometimes seems nearly impossible to tease out where individual interests, freedom, liberty, and rights begin and end. To explore this, let’s consider an ultimate doozy of a political and moral issues, one that perennially absorbs and divides the public like no other issue: abortion. Particularly, we’ll consider probably the most common argument commonly used in its favor, and perhaps, the most difficult to challenge.

This argument is the bodily rights argument, which holds that an individual’s right to their own body is inviolate. That being the case, a pregnant women has the right to expel or separate anything from her body that she doesn’t want there, just as anyone else would. This must, if that right really is inviolate, includes a fetus. In other words, no-one can ‘force’ a women to remain pregnant if she doesn’t want to be, since that would be a violation of her right to do with her own body as she sees fit.

But do we really believe that our rights to use our own bodies can and should be be unlimited? That’s not the case either. The law, just like other human beings and in fact, nature itself, ‘forces’ us to do things with our own bodies all the time. In fact, there is no such thing as moral or social obligations at all without some sort of demand on our bodies, since, of course, everything we think and do involves its use. For human beings, our freedom, our rights, and our very lives depend on whether or not others support our existence, at least some of the time, with their own bodies. There is no other law that I can think of where the bodily rights argument is the be-all-end-all.

For example, in addition to parental instinct, society uses enforcement of the law to compel parents to care for their children if social expectations haven’t done the trick, and rightly so. A parent must feed, clothe, house, and protect their children, and every single one of these obligations is dischargeable only by the use of the parent’s body, requiring labor, proximity of the parent to the child, and so on. The reason why we demand this is that we believe the child has the right to live, to enjoy the freedom and liberty that only life can bring, but no child can live without the help of their parents or other adults responsible for their care. We would not allow a mother to withhold breastfeeding, for example, if it was the only way a child could survive, or withhold cuddling, embraces, and all other physical manifestations of affection which we know children can’t be deprived of and still grow up healthy. In response to all of this, a bodily rights proponent could object that the fact that the fetus is inside the body, using the resources of the body itself, makes the case of a pregnant woman different and the demands of the fetus more egregious than we can force the mother to accept. However, I don’t see why these objections are particularly compelling, as this is a mere matter of location, not of demands on the body. All parental obligations place significant demands on the parents’ bodies whether or not the fetus’ physical location is within or without; in the case of very young children especially, these obligations hold round-the-clock. In fact, caring for a newborn or offspring of any age is often far more exhausting, far more expensive, demanding, and stressful to the mind and body that rearing a fetus inside the body.

I have yet, in fact, to encounter a defense of the bodily rights argument that’s convincing when it comes to abortion and not convincing in other matters. (‘Officer, I refuse to let you arrest me, since placing me in handcuffs and imprisoning me violates my bodily rights.’ ‘No, judge, I didn’t take my mother to the hospital or call 911 when I observed she was having a heart attack since that’s not what I decided to do with my own body.’ ‘May it please the court to note that when my client purposefully slammed their body into that other person, knocking them off the bridge, they were merely exercising the right to do with their body as they saw fit.’ Etcetera, etcetera.)

The inevitable interconnectedness of human life and its intimate relation to human freedom and liberty is what makes all societies function and upon which all law is built. It’s why, when it comes to arguments for unfettered personal liberty, including abortion rights, I don’t accept arguments such as the bodily rights argument as sufficient justification, since such arguments are derived from artificially atomistic, hyperindividualistic views of human nature,. In the case of abortion, it takes further arguments, such as whether a fetus is a person or whether the mother has the right of self-defense against the fetus that’s putting her life in jeopardy, to decide whether or not a mother has the moral obligation to provide for the development of another human life within her body. (I think that there are arguments that justify abortion in some circumstances; I explore this issue more fully in another piece.)

In all matters of law and order, of personal liberty and freedom for all, of the individual and society, the question of what we want to do, what we should do, and what we allow ourselves and others to do can only be satisfactorily and successfully addressed if our answers are informed by the basic assumption that, for each and every one of us, for there to be any I, we depend on them, and vice versa.

*Listen to the podcast reading of this essay here or on iTunes


Sources and Inspiration:

Carter, Ian, “Positive and Negative Liberty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/liberty-positive-negative/

Nussbaum, Martha. “Equal Respect for Conscience: The Roots of a Moral and Legal Tradition”

Shermer, Michael. ‘How Science Can Inform Ethics and Champion Sentient Beings’, Scientific American, Jan 20, 2015 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-science-can-inform-ethics

Thatcher, Margaret. ‘Interview for Woman’s Own (“no such thing as society”)’, Sep 23 1987, archived at MargaretThatcher.org http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689

Wenar, Leif, “Rights”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Ed.), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/rights/

The Myth of the Divide Between Individualism and Collectivism

Mirrored from http://halftimemag.com/articles/web-exclusives/encore-magazine-extras/top-10-marching-moments-of-2008-Details-photos-and-videos.html

What!?‘ you may well ask.

These are diametrically opposed, are they not? Those in favor of one of these views of personal identity, the economy, and public life generally despise the other. Proponents on one side of the ideological divide often shudder at the very thought of being identified with the other. So what could I mean by this?

I’ll start, then, by defining my terms.

Individualism, I think, is easier to define in a way that’s generally acceptable. In this view, protecting the rights and liberties of the individual is the ultimate aim of morality and politics. It holds that each human person has their own integrity of mind and body (and by extension, property) and should not be subject to coercion, harm, or theft. Individualism is preeminent in American culture, and the values associated with this worldview are emphasized by most modern democratic, capitalistic societies. It’s also, at first glance, most consistent with the ideals of the Age of Rights, which places the highest value on the rights of individuals, which should not be infringed on by the state nor by others.

Collectivism is harder to define. The 20th century saw the rise of collectivist, or socialist, states, the largest and most influential of which (ostensibly) valued the society more than individuals. When many think of collectivist societies, they think of Chairman Mao’s China, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, or Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. To my mind, however, these societies were collectivist in name only: since it was the will and interests of one individual or few individuals that were imposed on those societies, usually to the detriment of everyone else. There was little or no willing collective effort for the collective’s sake, little to no public input regarding the collective’s rights and interests, and little to no collective benefit.

For the purposes of this piece, I define collectivism more broadly as the idea that a good society, in which people flourish and live as freely as possible, can only be achieved by some significant level of collective action. In this view, there is such a thing as the public good, and morality demands that everyone should do their part to sustain it. The full details of what the public good consists of and how it can be achieved should be debated by the public, but its characteristics include the idea that all human persons have as much moral worth as much as any other, that all have rights regardless of ‘merit’ (real or perceived) and wealth (or the lack thereof), that all are morally accountable when they fail in their responsibility to protect and nurture those rights, and that the fates of all are intertwined.

It may seem to you, as it does to me, that these conceptions of individualism and collectivism each have their attractions, and each contain some level of truth. Both are ultimately concerned with the well-being of all people, even if they might seem to start from a different end of the spectrum in deciding where the foundation of values should be (with the individual, or with the group). Both focus on human rights. So why are people so divided in their views on this matter, at least as presented in the mainstream media and by political parties?

Perhaps it’s because the arguments that we hear so often present a distorted view. Not only do public figures, pundits, commentators, and even educators offer caricatures of others’ views, they often present a misleading, even simplistic view of their own. Here are some ways I see the how we make [non]sense of the tension between individualism and collectivism, between the one and the many, as manifested in public discourse:

From libertarians and the far right:

– A tendency to systematically overemphasize the individualness of individuals. In other words, they represent individual achievement as attributable entirely, or almost entirely, to the innovation, creativity, and hard work of the individual. But in almost every case, each great ‘individual’ achievement is possible because they had the infrastructure of ideas, innovations, inventions, technologies, and discoveries of those who came before available to build on. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, for example, were able to accomplish what they did because their admirable hard work and creativity enabled them to take the discoveries of mathematicians, physicists, metallurgists, etc, to the next level of technological advancement. The widely-mocked (and admittedly clumsily worded) ‘you didn’t build that’ quote from a 2012 Barack Obama speech was a cynical reaction of the radicalized right against any sort of public recognition that while individual talent and effort are crucial, we also rely heavily on each other in achieving what we do.

– A tendency to underestimate the degree to which a robust morality of social responsibility makes individual freedom not only more expansive, but possible in the first place. Without morality, without a social framework of cooperation, self-restraint from plunder and violence, and the generosity that’s more the rule than the exception in any human group, individual human beings would be left in the narrowly circumscribed situation of the forager and lonely hunter. We would have little time and leisure left to such luxurious pursuits as the acquisition of knowledge, the sharing of ideas, artistic creation, and technological innovation that human beings are so uniquely good at, if we are constantly busy simply feeding ourselves, warming ourselves, and fighting each other off of what little stash of goods we’ve managed to obtain. It may be objected that since human beings naturally desire to better their situation, self-interest would lead to cooperation through the desire to trade. But that only begs the question of why we would engage in fair trade, and not simply plunder if we are the strongest. Why has this instinct for reciprocity has become part of the fabric of the human personality?

From 20th century-style communists and socialists

– A tendency to devalue the importance of the individual out of proportion, and even divorced from, the importance of society. The major autocratic socialist regimes ruthlessly quashed opposition, disposed of enemies, and systematically repressed all but the most insipid, and most propagandist, forms of the arts (and still do! Though not so many). Societies ended up in the odd state of being glorified by their leaders as the greatest in the world, while simultaneously made up of citizens that were each so worthless that any one of them could be legitimately disposed of like so much garbage, if it seemed in the best interests of the state.

From liberals:

– A tendency to declare that government should not be in the business of ‘legislating morality’, while at the same time demanding that government demand accountability for some forms of wrong-doing. Government is a moral enterprise by definition. For example, when a law is made that one person may not kill or injure another, it’s made because of a society’s moral position that life is better than death, and that it’s wrong to infringe on another person’s right to live and thrive. Morality, and law, have everything to do with a society’s deciding what people should or should not do; in other words, it’s normative. There are many who try to downplay the relationship between law and morality, including this blogger who described the law as simply a set of rules to ensure that society is ‘harmonious and safe’, while morality has to do with your ‘personal sense of right and wrong’. But this is not at all how law works now, and not at all how law emerged as a product of human psychology as a social. From the beginning, the law has always had to do with retributive, distributive, and restorative justice, though the balance of these three differ from society to society. Laws that attempt to harmonize society, for example, are based on the notion that harmony is better than discord, that people ‘ought’ to maintain harmony by refraining from violence and disturbing the peace. Laws that govern parking originate with the idea that public spaces ought to be used and maintained for the benefit of everyone. Laws that protect people from assault originate from the idea that people have a right to life and health.

– Closely related to the above, a tendency to incoherence as to whether they themselves view government as moral, or morally neutral. Many liberal people decry any governmental attempts to interfere with some behaviors, such as those pertaining to sexuality and drug use, on the basis that these are moral, and therefore strictly personal, issues. But at the same time, they will demand that government regulate or prohibit other behaviors, such as fraud committed by financial institutions, or in the use of torture and the targeting of minorities in stop-and-frisk policies, on the basis that the latter practices are wrong or unfair. Yet all of these issues have everything to do with morality: what we ought and ought not to do, and why. For example, a democratic government is based on the moral norms that every individual has rights and that every individual’s well-being matters. Therefore, a good government is based on the moral norm that every individual should have a say in what their government does. A society with such a government also, by the very fact they have a government at all, think that all members of society have responsibilities to one another. After all, if there is no moral accountability, there are no norms, no law, no society. We end back up where the radical individualists left us: lonely scavengers or predators, without the vast resources social cooperation offers.

So how do we reconcile these seemingly disparate views?

I think we need to realize that the very idea that there is a sharp dividing line between individualism and collectivism is an illusion. In fact, individualism is not only reliant on collectivism, but is a product of it. We get to pursue such energy-expensive, extravagant projects as music, literature, art, government, architecture, and the rest because at some point we started banding together in a network of support rarely seen in other creatures. We rallied to protect our big-brained, long-vulnerable young, share the fruits of the hunt and of foraging, and invented such social-cohesion-strengthening practices as making music, telling stories, taking part in rituals of marriage and burial, and creating art.

And how do we craft societal practices that promote the rights and interests of the free individual, without undermining the collectivism that makes individual freedom possible?

As we have seen, 20th-century-style ‘socialist’ governments revealed how a society is undermined when it 
under-emphasizes the individual and overemphasizes the collective. But given the utter disregard for individual human life, and individual human rights, it’s not so hard to recognize how badly they got it all wrong. When your ideology holds that a great society is made up of individuals that are so worthless that they can be eliminated at the whim of the government, or have no personal rights or value outside of their value as laborers or fulfillers of some pre-determined role, or have no say in what their government or their autocratic ruler does, than the whole society is undermined by being made up of powerless, dehumanized, devalued, uninspired, unmotivated people.

It’s also the case that those social instincts that make us such successful cooperators combine with other instincts sometimes in a way that leads to atrocious behavior. Anti-Jewish pogroms, racially motivated massacres such as those in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and rampages following sports games are such example of violent mass-hysteria. The tendency of people to ‘follow the leader’ in heartless behavior is as thoroughly documented in laboratory studies as it is in the history books. Democracy and reason are the two best tools human beings have come up with to correct the excesses of our strong social instincts. The secret ballot box allows us to participate in governance without coercion or in-the-moment peer pressure, and reason allows us to step back and reflect on whether or not we we’re doing, or what we’re about to do, is really in our own, and everyone else’s, interests. 

Independent-minded individuals, less prone to coercion, herd instinct, and social pressure, are also absolutely essential corrective not only to mass cruelty, but to to entrenched laws and norms that have outlived their usefulness, and whose immorality have been overlooked, explained away, or overridden due to other social interests. Slavery is a classic example of this: a popular desire for attaining personal wealth combined with entrenched racism (the ugly side of tribalism), led a majority in many societies to ignore their own moral sense of sympathy, justice, and beneficence in favor of policies that catered to their baser instincts. It was a few dissenters that reminded society of what morality is for, and how institutionalizing cruelty and indifference to the interests of other human beings harms everyone, that led societies to reform themselves and change their policies to better serve both individual and collective interests.

On the other hand, oligarchic, fascist, and other ultra-capitalist societies, which hold that government’s only job is to enforce contracts, prevent invasion, and prevent people from assaulting one another, also undermine themselves, because they have only a negative conception of freedom as their moral foundation. When a government is structured according to the idea that human beings have few responsibilities to each other than fulfilling contracts and respecting property rights, they become a society where fewer and fewer people are enjoying the fruits of everyone’s labor. For example, monopolies develop (as Adam Smith pointed out), which set prices and wield most of the power over legislators. You have fewer and fewer wealthy individuals and organizations that pay to influence the halls of power, that 
monopolize the dissemination of information trough mass media, while the voices of those that have little or no money to do so are drowned out. You get societies made up that look like the early industrial towns when capitalism first flourished without regulation, where many got rich, while a great bulk of others ended up doing crippling labor in squalid conditions, withe the empty ‘choice’ of accepting such work, or facing privation or starvation. You end up a society that drives down wages for most people while fewer and fewer funnel all or most of the gains made by an economic system to a few, more ruthless individuals that are left at ‘the top’

Because I see individualism and collectivism as intertwined, I’m in favor of a strong democracy and a mixed economy. In a healthy, democratic society, it’s the innovators, the creative geniuses, the ‘weirdos’, that ensure that a society is adaptable, rich in ideas, technologies, and creativity, and does not stagnate and wither away. Human beings succeed not only because we are social, we succeed because we are adaptive and innovative, and it’s the freedom of the individual to come up with new art forms, technologies, ideas, etc, that make a society dynamic. The incentive of improving one’s lot in life through one’s own hard work also fuels the drive to better ones’ self.

A ready analogy for this is the necessity of genetic mutations in evolving a successful, adaptive species. While not all mutations (innovations, new ideas) are beneficial, there are some that are, and without those pioneering one-offs, a population cannot adapt to meet new and challenging circumstances, and does not possess that wonderful variety of traits that make it both capable of much, and fascinating to behold. A society of individuals free to pursue their own goals and protect their own interests, so long as they contribute to the public good and don’t harm others, is that which is likely not only to survive, but thrive. For example, free trade, sometimes derided by modern liberals, is an excellent tool that is both highly individualistic and highly socialistic. It incentivizes and rewards individual innovation and hard work, though an elaborate framework of cooperativeness that includes, but is not limited to, a strong commitment to fairness and reciprocity, a conception of justice that demands recompense for hard work, and a distaste for theft and exploitation. But like all tools, it must be used wisely and well, and within certain parameters.

And this this is why I also believe in such collective projects and institutions as publicly-funded roads, public education, and health care. I believe in regulations such as gun control and strict regulations for drivers, since these don’t prioritize the rights of some individuals to put others in danger for insufficient cause. I don’t believe in society-aggrandizing, anti-individualist enterprises such as war (in most circumstances). After all, you have few rights when you are incapacitated by injury and disease, and none at all when you’re dead. A society that places few restrictions and responsibilities on gun owners and operators of motor vehicles make it all to easy for one individual, in a moment of temper, carelessness, or mental instability to permanently remove all or most rights from fellow human beings. As we can see from (most) heavily-armed, hyper-individualistic societies such as the United States, we kill and injure one another at enormous rates with our guns and our cars. A more morally robust concept of civic duty would lead to the creation of laws based on the premise that a right which bears greater risks engenders a greater burden of responsibility. And since government is a moral enterprise, its laws should not only hold people accountable for doing wrong to one another, but demand some responsibility to do right by each other. 

Why morality requires both accountability and responsibility is another Big Question. Sounds to me like a great topic for another essay…


Some sources and inspiration:

Anderson, Elizabeth. ‘Tom Paine and the Ironies of Social Democracy’, 2012 Dewey Lecture in Law and Philosophy
Darwall, Stephen. ‘Moral Accountability’, 2014, Philosophy Bites podcast

Ellis, Joseph. Revolutionary Summer, 2013

Heath, Joseph. Economics Without Illusions, 2010

Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011

Sandel, Michael. ‘A New Citizenship’, 2009 Reith Lectures