Now Conor has gotten into the fray and Rod has a response.
Conor tackles the question of whether consent can be the only lodestar of sexual morality, and then tackles my post.
As I said, the consent-sexuality question is to me incidental to the Witt essay. I may have some things to say about that later on, but I want to respond to Conor’s points about my post.
To be frank, I’ve been surprised at the positive reaction to my post because, since I’m the only guy on this thread who doesn’t write for a living (Alan doesn’t count, because tenured professors don’t actually work. KIDDING, Alan. Mostly.) I had rushed it a little bit, and so I want to try and make some things clearer.
Gobry’s proposed remedy to loneliness and Kantian failures in contemporary sexual culture? Christianity. “Treating other people as ends in themselves is a wonderful idea, but why, and how, should we do that? The only answer, it seems to me, is love,” he writes, supplying a link to his interesting, Christianity-influenced notion of what pursuing love really entails.
I actually tried and I’m sure failed to make a slightly more subtle point. I mean, I believe that Christianity is true and awesome and that people should accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
But I was trying to make the following three-step point: 1) we’ll be better off if we’re Kantian (as in, treat people as ends in themselves and not means); 2) the best way to do that is through love; 3) the best way to do that is through Christianity. Implicit in my argument, and I should have made it explicit, is that you don’t have to buy 3 (I hope, for our sakes) to buy 1 & 2. And you don’t even have to buy 2 to buy 1.
(After all, Kant didn’t, and he’s still a pretty great example to follow; though I think Kant’s incredibly austere personal life speaks to the fact that for most people an abstract ideal is not a sufficient spur to moral behavior. Hence, love—which, for you, may or may not be incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ.)
Conor goes on:
I couldn’t help feeling that, even as [PEG] came very close to grappling with the core of Witt’s essay, he ultimately talks right past one of her contentions. “I had made no conscious decision to be single, but love is rare and it is frequently unreciprocated,” Witt wrote. “Because of this, people around me continued to view love as a sort of messianic event, and my friends expressed a religious belief that it would arrive for me one day, as if love was something the universe owed to each of us, which no human could escape. I had known love, but having known love I knew how powerless I was to instigate it or ensure its duration. Whether love was going to arrive or not, I could not suspend my life in the expectation of its arrival.” It won’t [do] to simply tell her that love is the answer. The question her essay interrogates is what we ought to do when, having tried to find romantic love, it escapes us.
Again, this is due to the fact that I was sloppy and made implicit what I should have made explicit, but I think I tackled it in my post.
The reason my post ends with despair is because I do grapple with the question and ultimately find that there’s no good answer in our current culture.
When I say that “love is the answer” I don’t mean just for Witt, but I mean for the whole society. Witt makes clear that she has had long-term relationships that were loving that might have evolved into marriage. Witt states that marriage was once her goal but that it was tantalizingly and terribly just out of her reach.
One problem with current society is that what’s been called “serial monogamy” takes up a longer and longer stretch of our lives. What this screams to me is that people are increasingly afraid of commitment, and I can’t help but think that one reason is that we’re afraid of love. Even pop culture recognizes this. (I’m not trying to paint a picture of halcyon days, here. As a Christian, I believe in original sin, and every era was derelict. But in days when we got married early and stayed married, we were afraid of love in different ways, and through different means.)
Part of the reason for this is the divorce culture, right? One reason we’re all so afraid to get married is because we’re all so afraid to get divorced. No doubt many divorces are justified, but I think it’s also fair to say that a good chunk of the 50% (or whatever) of marriages that end in divorce could have been salvageable, and that if those marriages had been or were salvaged, we would have a stronger marriage culture, at least in the sense that marriage would seem less scary and more approachable.
And part of the reason is that we’re all more generally afraid of commitment. As Eve Tushnet and others have powerfully argued, in our contemporary culture marriage is death. Your wedding day is the day your life ends—all of your interesting life experiences happen before marriage, and marriage is what happens after you’ve “lived your life” and have had all kinds of good, interesting, formative experiences. There’s obviously a case for maturity before marriage, but it seems pretty clear that Witt (and countless others) are collateral victims of this new equilibrium.
The higher ed bubble is in large part a function of our collective fear of commitment (and also of economic insecurity, which is a topic conservatives should spend more time on)—college is, for many people, the thing you do when you don’t know what to do. And, for the right social strata, grad school after that. (And/or management consulting or some other job whose main value is that it doesn’t actually commit you to a career path but “opens options.”)
I am thoroughly a dynamist and a fan of innovation and globalization and everything else, but it seems that one nasty consequence of our wonderful modern life is that when there’s so much wonderful stuff everywhere to be experienced, we become paralyzed. It’s possible to welcome our wonderful post-scarcity world and still acknowledge some drawbacks.
I’ve been avoiding the language of disgust, but one very symptomatic and enlightening symbol of this—and a thoroughly disgusting one, I think more than a Kink video—is the recurring pop culture theme of the Groom afraid of getting married (or his friends fearing for him) because it means he’ll never have sex with anyone other than his wife again. This view implies such a devaluation of both sex and human people, and such a distorted view of what human life is about!… Sex (and life) is about having lots of interesting experiences, not about love and self-giving union. A “healthy” sex life is not about self-giving love, it’s about having lots of partners and experiences. As someone who’s been on both sides of that fence, it seems so self-evidently, dead obvious to me that this view is just hilariously false (not even morally wrong, just factually wrong; ie of course sex with a life partner you love is about a billion times better than hookups; real sex with someone you love is ever new, and (dear Lord) sex with a bunch of different partners is always the same) that its emergence is evidence of something really rotten. (It’s also very American; marriage is sacralized—the possibility of adultery or divorce is implicitly rejected—even as it’s emptied of meaning; the tension is between moralism and hedonism.)
Look—obviously I’m not saying everyone should pick a career and get married at 18, but it seems to me that the trends I’m describing are real, and damaging, and worth critiquing.
Anyway—to circle back to Conor’s beginning—how do we critique “hookup culture” or “dating culture” (or however you want to call it)? Are we stuck with a passé traditionalism on one hand, and total laissez-faire (as a smart libertarian, Conor knows that true laissez-faire abhors coercion) on the other? I think Conor is right to point that traditionalism is insufficient, outdated, and impractical (I can rant all I want against kids-these-days, it’s not gonna help Witt), and I think Conor is at least open to the idea that laissez-faire leaves something to be desired—certainly, in Witt’s case, it does.
The answer, it seems to me, is Kant. I happen to believe Kant leads to Jesus, but please just bracket that if it leads you to dismiss Kant.
Also bracket the marriage/chastity question. Is “ends-vs-means” a useful and moral way to think about sexuality? I think so. I think that the case that a prerequisite to treating another person as an ends in themselves through sex is to first make a lifelong monogamous commitment to them is, at the very least, not self-evidently absurd; I think there’s another case that even if it’s not true in all (most?) circumstances society would be better off it it assumed that it’s mostly true. But that question, while important, obscures the bigger “ends-vs-means” question.
The problem with hookup culture and dating culture is that it leads us to—it assumes that we treat each other as means, and not ends. That’s the definition of a hookup, isn’t it? From the point of view of consent-only ethics, hookups are unproblematic as long as they’re consensual, and even good if they’re satisfying. But even if the encounter consenting and satisfying, we’re treating each other as means. I want to have a pleasurable experience—whether it’s with Sally or Jenny or Dick or Harry doesn’t really matter. Unless Sally is totally hot, man. And this is also true of dating, right, insofar as when you’re dating someone you’re really mentally comparing them to your intellectual checklist of the Right Mate so you can have your picture perfect wedding with your house and your car and your kids.
And the fact that a culture of arranged marriage and child brides also treats people as means and not ends doesn’t really change that.
And I realize that once I’ve said that I haven’t really put forth a “solution”. But I do think that as we’re sort of collectively looking for a kind of language that’s appropriate for discussing and critiquing our current sexual culture, the categorical imperative is begging to be used, here.
Conor’s problem is that this line of thought might lead one to accept either married sex or chastity as the two possible life options, and that that’s unpractical and perhaps even cruel:
Celibacy, pending a change in life circumstance, is the answer that some folks would suggest. For them, the woman who fails find anyone to marry who wants to marry her, like the gay man who can’t find anyone of the opposite sex he wants to marry, is called to struggle and abstain. If one believes that all extramarital sex is contrary to the will of an infallible Supreme Being, that makes sense. I take it that Witt believes otherwise, as do I. “Back in New York, I was single, but only very rarely would more than a few weeks pass without some kind of sexual encounter,” she writes. Without saying anything in favor or against her approach, the details of which are sparse, I’d add that my least favorite thing about Christian sexual ethics, which offer some valuable insights even to secular and deist observers who grapple with the relevant tenets, is the way that it consigns people unable to get themselves in a traditional marriage to a life without sex. They are expected to forgo a most powerful, innate desire, and all opportunities to connect intimately and profoundly with other humans, not because no one will consent to joyfully be with them, but because society purportedly functions best if its norms needn’t accommodate certain kinds of individuals as sexual beings, except as examples of what is sinful and aberrant. That fate strikes me as more lonely than the pornography or hookup culture Witt describes, and consigning people to it has never seemed very Christ-like to me.
I mean, look, if Witt hired me as her lifestyle guru (which would, I think we can all agree, be a terrible idea), I wouldn’t say “First, you must never under any circumstances have sex ever again until your wedding night.”
I think that Conor’s point is important, and Christians have to grapple with it. We might argue that this isn’t exactly what we’re saying, but it’s what a lot of people hear.
That said, a couple points.
First of all, obviously, I think it’s not crazy to think that at least one reason why chastity is so hard these days is because society is so sex-drenched. (And saying so does not mean that chastity wasn’t hard in previous eras, as the history of the Church—its saints as well as its villains—plainly attests.)
Conor finds problematic that the call to chastity means we “are expected to forgo a most powerful, innate desire.” But, of course, this is what Christianity says—we are indeed expected to forgo very powerful, innate desires. Like greed, like pride, like vanity, and yes, lust. In fact, it seems to me that any moral system worthy of the name implies the forgoing of “powerful, innate desire[s]”. (And yes, we agree that plenty of Christians, including the writer, are and have been really bad at foregoing pride and greed and chastity and all the rest.) The idea that to behave morally involves demanding self-sacrifice is, I hope, uncontroversial. (And of course Christians should stop being self-righteous about sex, should stop confusing abstinence and purity, and should stop thinking of sex as dirty. )
Which circles back to Kant. Yes, Christianity (particularly Catholicism) can be legalistic in its insistence on the marital context of sex, for reasons both historical and theological. But we’re not really debating the morality of loving sex, or relationship-embedded sex. There’s a continuum, right. Or maybe there’s not—which seems to me to be the question we’re discussing. If we’re in a consent-only world, then (assuming we have a functioning definition of consent, which is another can of worms) it’s black or white: consensual good; non-consensual bad. If we have a Kantian sex ethic, then we have a continuum; more ends/more means; more loving/less loving; more good/more bad, with, let’s say, shooting extreme porn, watching extreme porn, one-night stands, second-date sex, sex within an uncommitted relationship and sex within a committed relationship at various points along the spectrum. (And by the way, it should be obvious that a Kantian sex ethic is also an ethic of consent, since sex without consent is the ultimate treating-as-means.) We might disagree about where various things are where on the spectrum, or what to call them, or whether some distinctions are meaningful (e.g. unmarried loving sex vs. married loving sex), but at least we’re somewhere. We’re still lost, but we have a map, albeit a sometimes blurry one.
What Witt’s essay screams at me is that we’re lost without a map, we’ve forgotten what a map is, and that this is the map we need.
A common thing to hear from people who push back against the Church’s various rules on sex is Saint Augustine’s well known phrase, ama et fac quod vis, “Love and do what you will.” But if you know Augustine’s life a little bit, you know that to him that certainly didn’t entail liberation from sexual continence. Indeed he knew as well as anyone that a healthy sexual ethic is demanding.
Forget about the Church’s rules for one second. I don’t want to outlaw premarital sex, or get everyone to become a nun.
“Love and do what you will” cannot be “Obey these rules or else burn for eternity”, but it’s absolutely not (might even be the opposite of) just “Do what you will.” Which is what we have right now.
Ama et fac quod vis.