I continue to believe that mystery novels and detective thrillers have taken over the role that novels originally had, to teach citizens compassion and empathy for people outside their own families. British society of the 17th Century was able to go beyond clannism and tribalism partly as a result of novels. Does it go without saying that compassion and empathy are directly related to ethics? To care for other people means to do them no harm, which is to say to neither rob, rape nor murder them. Beyond that it means to prevent harm from coming to them, which means to protect them from harmful people by means of law and/or force, but also to protect them from starvation and exposure to the elements by economic means. To do no harm and to protect from harm – that’s the concern of ethics, motivated by compassion.
Interestingly enough, some of the first novels used the plight of women in this educational pursuit. In the early 17th century life for all but well-off families was visibly hard for women. Women worked in the fields and dairies, and as servants in wealthy homes. The work was physically hard and women were vulnerable to attacks by men. Married women bore babies one after another, many of whom died, many of whom killed their mothers in the process. The husbands, themselves hard put to provide money for the family, without many options in life either, were too frequently drunkards and wife-beaters. It’s no accident that the first novels dealt with concerns we now call “feminist”.
Feminist concerns continue to be closely linked with ethical concerns of course, although what constitutes harm is often in dispute. Is it harmful to women to be constantly harassed and threatened by strangers on the web? Is it harmful for women to function as prostitutes? Is it harmful that they are represented as sexual objects in pornography? Is it harmful that they are constantly admonished to be unrealistically thin? Is it harmful if they’re forced to wear makeup and/or high heels to work? These are some of the ethical questions of the early 21st century.
I think none of these would have been asked in the 17th, which is only a measure of shifting landscapes including a greater understanding now that what appears to be choice can be constructed servitude. Prostitutes and porn stars, not to mention women and men in general, are constructed by masculine pressures, controlled by masculine perspectives, subservient to the needs and wishes of POP (people of power).
It has occurred to me, thirty or forty years on, to wonder why early “second wave” feminists didn’t formulate their demands within ethical frameworks. The enslavement of women — inevitable when women don’t have money or the means of earning money — is surely an ethical matter. But then the domestic enslavement of women handed from fathers to husbands (and if necessary to brothers) was constructed by patriarchal culture as a privilege, not a deprivation. Women, at least women of a certain class, were being protected from the dog eat dog working world.
And we need to remember that when women started fighting for “women’s liberation”, they first had to become aware of their lack of liberty. Privilege can mask bondage. This is the power of social conditioning. A weekly allowance, if it’s more than sufficient, is a powerful inducement. Any many men would feign amazement at a woman who would give that up to earn her own living by the sweat of her brow.