The distinguished moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum tries to change the subject in this op-ed. Here’s her opening:
Eliot Spitzer, one of the nation’s most gifted and dedicated politicians, was hounded into resignation by a Puritanism and mean-spiritedness that are quintessentially American.
My European colleagues (I write from an academic conference in Belgium) have a hard time understanding what happened, but they know that it is one of those things that could only happen in America, where the topic of sex drives otherwise reasonable people insane. In Germany and the Netherlands, prostitution is legal and regulated by public health authorities. A man who did what Spitzer did would have a lot to discuss with his wife and family, but he would have broken no laws, and it would be laughable to accuse him of a betrayal of the public trust. This is as it should be. If Spitzer broke any laws, they were bad laws, laws that should never have existed.
A little later, she offers us this nugget of wisdom, comparing prostitutes and professors (indicating thereby a low view of both the mind and the body):
Professors, factory workers, opera singers, sex workers, doctors, legislators — all do things with parts of their bodies for which others offer them a fee. Some people get good wages and some do not; some have a relatively high degree of control over their working conditions and some have little control; some have many employment options and some have very few. And some are socially stigmatized and some are not. However, the difference between the sex worker and the professor — who takes money for the use of a particularly intimate part of her body, namely her mind — is not the difference between a "good woman" and a "bad woman." It is, usually, the difference between a prosperous well-educated woman and a poor woman with few employment options.
It’s true that I shouldn’t sell my thoughts to the highest bidder, saying (or writing) what I think people want to hear in order to make a buck. But my mind, and the capacity it embodies (reason) is meant to be public, meant to enable me to join a community. Nussbaum, who has written ad infinitum (or is it ad nauseum?) on cosmopolitanism (especially its ancient roots in Stoicism) is aware of this. Expressing her nature, one might say, she doesn’t keep her thoughts to herself. She’s trying to arrange a meeting of the minds. I might disagree with her on some counts, but I surely don’t think that I could offer her enough money--any sum of money--to change her mind.
Which brings me to her argument about prostitution. For her, it’s just another way of earning a living. We all do what we can. If we were truly enlightened, if we got over our "quintessentially American" mean-spirited Puritanism (well, at least she didn’t call it Talibanism; I’ll give her that), we’d recognize that our sexual organs are just another part of our body, to be used as we see fit, according to our "values." No natural teleology here. Everything’s exploitable for any end, so long as the partners consent. But, on this view, why should consent matter? What is it that makes us so worthy of respect that our consent should be required?
I suppose also that Nussbaum’s observation that Spitzer might have "a lot to discuss with his wife and family" has to do with the matter of consent (about which, at the moment, she probably knows nothing) rather than about the way he regarded his bodily parts and those of the women with whom he engaged in transactions. Nussbaum presumes that this wasn’t O.K. with his wife and daughters. On what ground? Perhaps the ground that marriage, procreation, and child-rearing have ineluctably "teleological" elements that point to proper uses for our bodies. We don’t regard our spouses as sex workers, nor do we regard our children as potential sex workers. We would, I think regard anyone who held this opinion about his or her spouse and children as depraved. I don’t think Nussbaum is depraved. As evidence, I cite the fact that she believes that Spitzer "ought" to have an issue with his wife and daughters. But this, it seems to me, counts against her argument that prostitution is just another industry, that various parts of our bodies are just profit centers.
If that’s the only defense of Spitzer a smart woman like Nussbaum can come up with, then her side of the argument is in pretty sad shape.