September 17, 2003


Posted by Curt at 03:32 PM in Feminism | TrackBack

Honestly, despite a general willingness to hold forth on almost anything, I usually have little inclination to weigh in on issues like domestic violence, at least in public forums where sensitive issues like this are likely to quickly degenerate to the level of general abuse. But when I read my brother's post (I admit to not having read the other opinions to which he is responding) it struck a chord with me, perhaps because after a month of reading Kant and Hegel I am perhaps a bit more oriented towards a general consideration of the intersection of the law and morality. The general question which I think is implicit in my brother's query is why and for what reasons extrinsic factors like race, gender or personal relationship between people should affect one's intrinsic obligations either to the law or moral duty. Or more simply, how can the same action be judged differently under different circumstances? I know this is unfair to his specific point, because one can be sensitive to the role of outside factors in general in evaluating the relative merit of an action without necessarily accepting the ones under particular consideration, such as the domestic relations between two people, racism, sexism, etc. This is certainly true, and must be addressed to evaluate the merit of a particular body of laws, such as the domestic violence laws. But I think my brother, as well as anyone with an inquisitive bent, will eventually be led to a consideration of the broader issue which I have posed above. My intuitive feeling is that the reason that laws like the domestic violence laws, laws which make particular provisions for certain groups or particular situations, rather than simply imposing the sort of general obligation for which they seem more suited, is that the moral sense of most people inevitably leads them to personalize moral obligations. One's behavior towards the members of one's family are simply more important to most people than one's behavior towards a stranger on the street, and I for one think this is entirely natural and eminently defensible. I feel that the ties of family or intimate friendship creates a greater obligation among two people than simply their shared humanity, and I have always been very critical of moral systemists like Kant who level these distinctions by elevating moral abstraction above human relations, who advocate the imposition of moral obligation as a logical principle while ignoring our best impulses of love and pity. I think the state of the laws reflects that feeling among the majority of humanity, although I certainly do not equate the law with morality nor do I even think they have or should have the same goals. The law is not the proper place to enshrine these distinctions; it exists to maintain stability within society, and hence is probably the best place of any to formulate abstract, universal duties. However, for a moral individual within society, the situation is somewhat different; it is within the particularities of the individual's own life that he or she must consider the particular implications of their actions and the ways in which their personal existence must deviate from abstract principle. There is a Hebrew word for this, for the proper relation of the individual towards his legal and moral obligations: it is called chesed. It means a loving sense of obligation towards others which may sometimes bend the law or specific moral injunctions, but always honors their spirit. May all of us try to act in the spirit of chesed.