The Beehive and the Stew: Prostitution and the Politics of Risk in Bernard Mandeville’s Political Thought
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This article examines two discussions of prostitution by eighteenth-century social theorist Bernard Mandeville and argues that how a society perceives and names risk reflects less about concrete dangers than about desires to preserve social order. Mandeville addresses his writings to anxious members of a commercial society who were specifying risk and assigning blame against a backdrop of widespread corruption. His calls for the legalization of prostitution expose the pervasive moral uncertainty and vice that animate a commercial society and raise questions about the purported social benefits yielded by the persecution of prostitutes, who Mandeville represents as simply one class of vicious commercial actors among many. His work suggests that the public designation of prostitution as a moral risk is a feeble attempt both to soothe generalized fear about the immorality of commerce and to buttress a cherished social order. Mandeville’s writings thus can be interpreted as an early engagement with the politics of risk and blame.