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16.6.03

Another post from Ampersand has got me thinking (this limited internet thing means my sources of inspiration are a bit more limited these days). After watching Beauty and the Beast, he comments on the apparent injustice of cursing the entire castle -- turning the servants all into furniture and such -- as a punishment for the prince/beast's sin. This remark reminded me that in much of the premodern material that I've read, recalling particularly the Old Testament and Greek mythology, this same ethic is operative. The family or clan is the moral unit, rather than the indivdual, as we're accustomed to. For example, it makes perfect sense in these cultures to punish a person by killing those close to him or her (especially sons). Curses and blessings are typically bestowed on a person's "house," i.e. their servants and family. This makes a certain sense insofar as we grant the premodern assumption that servants (and in a different sense, other relatives, particularly a wife or heir) are, to some degree, the master's property. Even today we punish people by doing things to their property (e.g., by fining someone), and a crime of property damage is not a crime against the piece of property involved (as it might be from, say, an animist perspective), but a crime against the owner, and likewise a crime committed by property (e.g your dog attacking someone) is presumed to be the responsibility of the owner. Blame and harm flow freely across the relationship of ownership.

Modern individualist ethics seem to have swung all the way in the opposite direction, treating people as almost completely independent of each other. Interpersonal relationships are now treated as impervious to the flow of blame, and largely impervious to the flow of harm (the flow of harm may be taken into account when something done to one person harms another person who, due to the barriers of blame, is considered innocent -- for example, the effects of a prison sentence on the convict's children. This could even be conceptualized as a strategy for stopping the flow of blame, so that the children don't suffer for the sins of the parents. But we would never accept harming a person by harming his or her relatives the way we would harm his or her property).

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