Summer 2011

The Ethics of Rubbernecking

The propriety of the spectacle

Justin E. H. Smith

The salaciousness of the eyes was already well documented in antiquity, though it was not necessarily beautiful and vital bodies that were the object of forbidden regards. In the Republic, Socrates relates the story of a certain Leontius, who, “coming up one day from the Piraeus, under the north wall on the outside, observed some dead bodies lying on the ground at the place of execution. He felt a desire to see them, and also a dread and abhorrence of them; for a time he struggled and covered his eyes, but at length the desire got the better of him; and forcing them open, he ran up to the dead bodies, saying, Look, ye wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.”

Did Leontius have good reason to reproach his organs of vision?

Though I pretend to be treating here of the ethics of something, I must make a confession before going any further: I hate ethics. Ethicists, at least of the applied variety, ask, Ought we? I prefer to start out from the observation, We do, and from there to ask, Why? Ethnic cleansing, rape, genocide: these are all in our species’ behavioral repertoire. If there is to be any realistic hope of eliminating them, it will come from an understanding of their true causes, and a stalwart refusal to lapse too soon into the language of ought and oughtn’t.

Such understanding, I suspect, will best be attained by assuming at the outset that a human being is a certain variety of animal, which, like all animals, is an evolved product of its environment. Its perceptual mechanism has developed to pick out as salient certain features of that environment that bear directly on its short-term well-being. Faces, feces, fire: these are things that grab our attention, and so do blood and corpses. Blood is particularly noteworthy in that it is red. It makes an announcement, and one attended to by a wide variety of color-sighted animals. When it comes out of a human being, blood is somehow always a surprise. It seems too red. It is like nothing else that we, under normal circumstances, produce.

Blood is a paradoxical sign, in that it confirms that there is life in a body (William Harvey thought that blood itself was the source of whatever share of ensouledness is had by animals), even as its irruption into the realm of the visible indicates that the life it sustains is now threatened. It’s the sign you aren’t supposed to see (unless it spills out not onto smooth skin but onto fur, in which case, the thinking has often gone, it’s there for the spilling).

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