Emma Goldman's "The Victims of Morality"

In reply to my dialogue which I posted this morning examining what I perceive to be immoralism’s important contributions to moral thinking and its inevitable limits, a reader sent me to investigate Max Stirner and Emma Goldman. I may have something to say about Stirner in the future if time permits. But for now I simply must say that Goldman’s 1913 short (blog post long) essay “The Victims of Morality” is must read. It is a rousing feminist assault on the brutish, irrational domineering of Christianity and its pet bully, Morality. This is what Ophelia Benson would have sounded like had she only lived one hundred years ago. This is polemics with pure eloquence, principle, perspicuity, and post-Christian panache. It is particularly pleasing to me to read an early 20th Century feminist atheist American woman using Nietzsche’s language of transvaluation and going beyond good and evil.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Name withheld

    For several years, I was pretty good friends with Emma Goldman’s lover from the very early years. Not that this has anything to do with your post, but I suppose it demonstrates that sometimes history seems deep, sometimes it seems shallow.

    • Name withheld

      Sorry, I mispoke: I knew the SON of said person. (Who himself knew Goldman but they were not close)

  • Nurse Ingrid

    Would this be Ben Reitman (or his son, anyway) you are talking about? He was pretty cool.

    Dr. Reitman was a physician but he also rode the rails. He worked with “the homeless” when they were still called “hoboes.” He took care of sex workers in prison, testing and treating them for syphilis. He taught safe sex and harm reduction before there was such a thing. Not sure how he was as a dad, but he was a great role model for me as a healthcare provider.

  • Robert B.

    Wow! What a brutally insightful piece of writing. The next five times I see someone comment on how “confrontational” the “new” atheists and feminists are, I’m going to link them this article and show them what confrontational really means.

    But I have a philosophy question. I clearly see that there’s a difference between morality (as Goldman uses the term) and ethics. (She’s obviously in favor of ethics, the whole essay is a work of ethics, discussing as it does things that are wrong and ought not to happen. But she’s also condemning morality in unmistakable terms.) But I’m not totally clear on what the difference is. What distinguishes morality from ethics? How do you tell an ethical argument from a moral one? Is morality actively bad, intrinsically unreliable, or merely incomplete?

  • The Vicar

    If you’re looking for “Must Read” links, a good one is The Graves of Academe, cranky though it is.

  • The Vicar

    As a kind of side note — I hasten to point out that this isn’t my sole reaction to the piece, or the most important one — it’s interesting that Goldman was, in an inverted way, the slave of the morality she denounces. You might say — in modern terms — that she is a victim of framing; moralists of her time were obsessed by sex (as many moralists are at any time) and so the battle has already been chosen and Goldman had to be obsessed by it too.

    “She must never know the raptures of love, the ecstasy of passion, which reaches its culminating expression in the sex embrace”; sex is the culmination of love? There are several dozen people known to me personally who would disagree, and hundreds of writers. In fact, I suspect that in most first-world cities, you’re never more than 100 meters from someone to whom sex and love are entirely distinct. And I don’t think that’s strictly a modern idea, either — courtly love was, to put it facetiously, all about not having sex, and it certainly isn’t a modern point of view.

    That we associate sex with love is largely an accident of biology; people who age to the point where their sex drives disintegrate don’t stop loving. If you could transfer your consciousness into a robot so that you no longer had a bunch of glands dosing you with chemicals, you would certainly lose your sex drive — which is dependent on a series of biological feedback systems — but I suspect that you would still be capable of love.

    This isn’t particularly limited to Goldman. Read anyone who wrote extensively for a popular audience about morality or civilization or politics roughly a century to a century and a half ago, and it’s amazing how much they sound like parodies of themselves. G. K. Chesterton — who was himself easily parodied — did a good job of capturing the essence of many of them.

    Which of course makes you wonder what patterns of thought we have adopted without being aware of the fact. Certainly the notion of dualism has a strong unconscious hold on a lot of discourse…

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/ Ophelia Benson

    Goodness, there’s a compliment.


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