Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sophistical Arguments Concerning the Return of Sexual Puritanism

Well, there's this.

No time for anything thorough, but let's hit the high points:

Will approvingly discusses Mary Eberstadt, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, who claims that food is the new sex. (How I long for the days when we don't have to hear about x being the new y every time we turn around...). The idea is apparently something like: we're all amoralists about sex and puritans about food. Quoting:
[Food] choices are, for Jennifer [representing folks today], matters of right and wrong. Regarding food, writes Eberstadt, Jennifer exemplifies Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative: She acts according to rules she thinks are universally valid and should be universally embraced.
Now, I haven't read (and have no interest in reading) Eberstadt. (And I'm mostly going to ignore the clumsiness of this invocation of the Categorical Imperative and just go along with it. I mean, for example, "Jennifer" does not "exemplify" the Categorical Imperative, but, say, acts in accordance with it or doesn't, tries to or doesn't.) But the strong suggestion here is:
Liberals don't think we should act in accordance with the Categorical Imperative (or any other moral principle) in sexual matters.
These are common confusions among conservatives. Of course some people are amoralists about sex, but some people are stupid about everything. What we might call the orthodox liberal position on sex is not that sex is some strange realm carved out of our lives in which moral nihilism reigns. Rather, the liberal merely holds that, with regard to sex, the scope of the permissible is greater than the conservative believes it to be. In particular, it can be good in itself and need not be limited to marriage nor aimed at procreation.

One paradigmatic conservative position is that sex is only morally permissible in marriage. Liberals deny this, but they need not (and most do not) hold that anything goes. Most liberals hold, roughly, that sex is like any other activity: we must respect the rights and humanity of persons when we engage in it. What liberals tend to deny is that there is any mysterious quality about sex that makes it subject to the inscrutable rules that conservatives believe to hold in the realm of the sexual. In particular, sex is not inherently dirty and degrading and need not be redeemed by the miracle of reproduction blah blah blah. Sex is different than other activities in certain identifiable ways, and consequently the rules for interaction are a bit different than they are for, say, basketball. But the general idea is the same: treat everyone with respect, make sure everyone freely consents to everything, and so forth. This is nothing like amoralism.

Liberals seem like sexual amoralists to conservatives because conservatives make up all sorts of fictions about sex and then put their sophistry drives into overdrive to come up with crackpot rationalizations for rules that make no sense. In fact, I've long believed that the prevalence of moral skepticism and relativism in our society is a direct result of conservative casuisty about sex. If you hear a conservative going on about morality, you can be fairly sure he's not talking about the deception that took us into the Iraq war, nor about radically unequal distribution of income, nor about civility in political discourse, nor about the amorality of the free market, nor about any other significant moral matter that faces us. Instead, he'll be talking about sex, drugs and/or rock and roll. Consequenty, when you say the word 'moral', students roll their eyes. They've learned that most appeals to morality are bullshit, and they've learned this from listening to conservative puritans.

So, in short, the liberal view does not entail: do whatever and whoever you want, for morality does not apply to sex. Rather, it entails something like: no special, loony, inscrutable rules that don't make a damn lick of sense apply to sex; use the same good judgment you would use anywhere else; treat people always as ends and never merely as means. (Translate this into a non-Kantian idiom if you like.)

With regard to Kant in particular, conservatives often mistakenly say that the liberal view of sex runs afoul of the Categorical Imperative because casual sex which does not aim at something emotional or legal necessarily involves treating others as a means. But this involves a misunderstanding of Kant. Kant recognizes that we can and must sometimes treat others as a means--that's how you treat your waiter when you see him largely as a means to you getting your food. What is impermissible, however, is treating others merely as a means. You must, rather, always see them simultaneously as ends in themselves.

Conservatives like to harp on STDs and pregnancy when they talk about sex, but the liberal view of sex is to some degree idealized. The point is that there is nothing wrong with non-marital sex per se. STDs and pregnancy complicated the picture. I wish liberals were clearer about the fact that we do have moral obligations--both to ourselves and others--to avoid STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and unwise sex. Liberals haven't done as much as they need to to make that clear. But, again, it is a kind of backlash against irrationalist puritanism that's made the pendulum swing in the direction that often appears to approximate amoralism. Many people really are amoralists about sex because they don't think hard about anything. But amoralism is not the position of sensible philosophical liberals. Thoughtful liberals are no happier about 18-year-old college girls getting drunk and having blackout sex with an indeterminate number of fratboys than conservatives are.

That's probably more than enough on this topic for now.


Blogger Alexander Wolfe said...

What at thorough yet succinct explanation. I'm a liberal and I'd say this describes my thoughts on sexuality with about 100% accuracy, but more direct to the point than I could probably manage on my own.

1:07 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Aw, shucks...

1:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your points about sex are well-taken.

I would add, too, that Will - and other conservatives who write about such things - tend to dismiss the morality of food choices out of hand. Why would it be ridiculous to suggest that the finitude of our food resources might morally oblige us to eat less or eat differently? Or that he environmental impact of some food choices would be morally significant? Or the impact in suffering on non-human animals? Maybe none of those arguments are, in the end, persuasive, but we shouldn't respond to them merely by saying "You are confusing preference with morality." Which is almost word for word a quote from a conservative review I once read about a book on the ethics of food.

At this point, see above regarding conservative moral blindness regarding human suffering in its many non-sexual guises.

8:23 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yeah, I agree with that, Spencer, and do so even as someone who is easily annoyed by the lefty food Nazis.

8:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if a book on liberal views regarding sex would be useful for a lot of people...

9:23 PM  

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