John C Wright is an absolutely delightful person whose blog posts have given me endless hours of enjoyment and who has recommended many excellent short stories (admittedly, by talking about how they are the Morlockian death of science fiction, but a good recommender is a good recommender, even if it’s wired backwards). I have recently discovered an old blog post of his which purported to lay out natural and worldly reasons why a rational atheist should follow Christian sexual morality. As an atheist libertine, I find this a tremendously interesting proposal and wish to argue with it.
Part 1 and 1.1 are merely explaining Stoicism, so I do not have a response to him. I take up the argument on
1.2, On The Subjectivity of Morals
We can dismiss the claim that moral judgments are all subjective merely by inquiring whether or not we ought to inquire into the claim.
Ought we to inquire whether or not all moral judgments are subjective?
If the answer is no, the question is closed.
If the answer is yes, then ought we to make this inquiry honestly, or dishonestly?
If the answer is that we ought to make this inquiry dishonestly, then (a fortiori) we are not bound the results. For a dishonest thinker is under no moral obligation to accept a conclusion to which his logic drives him; even if he loses the argument, a dishonest thinker is not under a duty to change his mind or mend his ways. For what will impose the moral duty upon the dishonest thinker to conform his thoughts to the conclusions dictated by reason? Why must he be truthful even to himself? Why listen to his conscience?
If the answer is that we ought to make this inquiry honestly, we necessarily thereby acknowledge at least one universal moral duty: the duty to think honestly. This duty is universal because the only other possibility, that we have no duty to think honestly, is not something we honestly can think.
My moral system, I-do-what-I-want-ism, has perfectly satisfying answers to those questions. Whether one ought to inquire whether moral judgments are subjective depends on one’s goals. If one is curious about questions of metaethics, afraid that one might be violating objective morality, or a moral philosophy grad student looking to get tenure, then naturally one should inquire about whether moral judgments are subjective. If, however, one is curious about differential calculus, extremely sleepy, or trying to build their software consulting business, inquiring about whether moral judgments are subjective will not help one reach those goals.
As to whether the question should be pursued honestly: well, if one’s goal is to find out the truth, pursuing questions honestly is generally an effective way of finding out truth. If, however, one’s goal is to prepare a case for a debate with the premise “Resolved: Moral Judgments Are Subjective” or write an essay that will please a philosophy professor known to give A’s only to people he agrees with, it behooves you to approach the task in as dishonest a fashion as necessary. (Naturally, this creates some interesting epistemic problems about whether you should change your mind based on the arguments of debaters, but those are resolvable.)
And why should the moral subjectivist be truthful even to herself or conform her thoughts to the conclusions dictated by reason? Well, why should she lie to herself or fail to conform her thoughts to the conclusions dictated by reason? Because she wants to. There is no point going around doing things you don’t want. And a moral subjectivist with a solid, consistent desire to find the truth is as trustworthy as anyone with a moral duty to do so.
1.3 defines the four cardinal virtues– justice, moderation, prudence, and courage– and defines chastity as the four cardinal virtues applied to sex, thus perhaps creating the only definition of ‘chaste’ in which the word can be fairly applied to me. 1.4 explains the importance of social stigma in enforcing laws and customs, and I agree with it. Section 2 explains the libertine position on sexuality well enough (although I myself would include the necessity of discerning for oneself what sex life contributes most to one’s eudaimonia) and correctly explains that libertines need self-control as well (for instance, to prevent STI transmission and control oneself around desirable people too drunk to consent). Section 3 explains the matrimonial position, in which the only permitted sexual acts are those within the boundary of marriage.
4.1 Is Marriage A Contract?
Mr. Wright holds that marriage is more than just a legal contract.
The first doubt concerning the Libertine position surfaced when these conclusions intruded itself onto my reluctant awareness. In theory, the adultery of Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden should have worked out to the satisfaction of all parties involved. Instead the opposite happened: Rand and Branden became bitter enemies to the end of her life.
It did not work out in that particular case, nor in any similar case that can be brought to mind. Why not?
Well, polyamory is working out quite well for me and my friends so far. Admittedly, there are bad relationships– as was Rand and Branden’s– but it is not like there are no monogamous relationships that end with people becoming bitter enemies for the rest of their lives. The existence of one bad poly relationship does not mean that all poly relationships are bad, any more than the existence of one bad monogamous relationship means that all monogamous relationships are bad.
One example should suffice to show the difference [between marriages and contracts]. Suppose Mr. A makes a deal with Mr. B that, starting noon on Monday, Mr. A will buy lumber from and only from the lumberyard of Mr. B, forsaking all others. Mr. A buys a load of lumber from yard C that same Monday, but at eleven o’clock. Is he in violation of any provision of the contract, or by the word or the spirit? Has he betrayed or wounded Mr. B in any way? Can Mr. B make any claim for which relief at law can be granted? The answer is no.
By coincidence, this same Mr. A was planning to marry Miss D that same day, also at noon. Five minutes before the wedding is scheduled to take place, Miss D walks in on her promised bridegroom. He is standing with his trousers around his ankles vigorously coupling with one of the bridesmaids, Miss E, whose skirts are about her ears and her ankles about his ears. If the marriage were a contract, Miss D would have no more right to criticize or condemn his behavior than does Mr. B the lumberman. And yet no one of ordinary prudence would suggest she continue with the wedding at this point: we might even think her emotions insincere or unrelated to reality if her reaction were calm and understated.
But this is absurd! While they have yet to engage in the legal contract of marriage, Mr. A and Miss D presumably have made an agreement to be exclusive, even if implicit. (If Mr. A and Miss D have not made an agreement to be exclusive, one would expect her reaction to be more along the lines of “What are you doing? The wedding is about to start! You can fuck Miss E at the reception!”) Not even the most fervent libertine says that it is only unwise to break a legal contract, and one may go about breaking promises with impunity without anyone being angry at you or not trusting you. Now, of course, Mr. A has not violated the legal contract of marriage; if Miss D’s prenup says that she will receive $100,000 in the event of a divorce caused by Mr. A’s adultery, she will not receive $100,000. But he has still broken his word to Miss D, and she is likely to be quite angry at him.
The real question is whether Mr. A has done something wrong if he sleeps with Mx. F before he and Miss D agreed to only see each other. Of course, this is not the case; only a very unreasonable person would say that having a date from OKCupid on Friday night means it is unethical for you to schedule one on Saturday.
In fact, far from proving his point, Mr. Wright’s example proves the opposite of his point! Miss D, though unmarried, is likely to be angry if Mr. A has sex with someone else, because as part of their relationship they are exclusive. The relationship exists before and after they’re married. The only thing that necessarily changes for Mr. A and Miss D because of marriage is their contractual obligations (for instance, Mr. A’s duty to give Miss D $100,000)– which is exactly what you would expect if marriage is a legal contract!
4.2 How Pliant Is Human Nature?
I am somewhat confused by Mr. Wright’s argument in this section. As best as I can figure, he’s arguing that there is such a thing as universal human nature and libertines believe that it is changeable by dint of negotiating a different contract; libertines believe that if you are upset about your partner committing adultery and negotiate an open marriage, you will magically no longer become upset by it.
But that’s not my libertine position at all! Mine is that, when it comes to deciding what things are and are not harmful to me, I have the most motivation to get the answer right and access to special knowledge (my feelings) that other people do not except through my self-report. For that reason, in most (although admittedly not all) situations, the individual is best at working out what is best for them. Which is not to say that they’re infallible, simply that broad social consensus is worse.
I think the crux of our difference here is that I think human nature is much more diverse than he thinks it is. Naturally, there are generalizations: most people are hypocritical and heterosexual. But when a person is making her own life choices, she’s not making them for everyone; she’s making them for herself. Most people being heterosexual is not actually useful information if you yourself know your heart beats only for women.
He concludes that it is possible for someone to have an obligation to someone they have not met (e.g. to be a virgin on your wedding night). While I don’t believe in obligations, I do quite agree that if one’s goal is to be a virgin on one’s wedding night then one must refrain from sex even before one has met one’s future spouse. (And this is an example of how eliminating the obligation framework makes confusing questions much simpler.)
4.3 Is Sex Entertainment?
My Christian friend’s comment about the nature of the sex act, that it was merely passing entertainment, was not merely false, it was the closest thing my atheist heart could call a blasphemy. He was saying, in effect, that him jacking his juice into some half-drunk frail whose name he might not remember the next day was the same as my selfless adoration to my better half, my mistress of mistresses and mother of my children.
His argument was that the value placed on sex was a matter to be decided by the will of the parties involved. I was free to treat sex as a paramount and significant part of a long-term relationship if I so willed, but he was also free to treat sex as an entertainment only loosely related, or even unrelated altogether, to any tender emotion, friendship, romance, or devotion.
Consider the musical Rent. (Art is surely one of the highest purposes of the human soul, so I assume Mr. Wright will not find my analogy blasphemous.) Rent is an extremely important musical to me. I have spent an amount of money I prefer not to think about seeing it live; I can sing large parts of it from memory. It has grown with me, my opinions on its themes and characters shifting as I age, and I look forward to see what new layers upon layers of meaning it will have as I age. I have sung it to myself in times of great trouble, and it provides me comfort and succor.
For other people, Rent is a fun, forgettable night out.
Are people who consider Rent to be a fun night out taking something away from my experience of Rent? Are they somehow saying their experience of it is the same as my own? Would it be reasonable for me to say that no one should watch Rent unless their lives are changed by it?
Obviously not. Clearly, different people can have different experiences of the musical Rent, and your forgettable night out takes nothing away from my source of comfort and joy. Similarly, someone else’s sex as entertainment takes nothing away from your sex as devotion.
It was not clear whether he meant (1) this was a mutual decision between him and his lovers, or whether (2) he could decide without consulting her that sex had no meaning, whereupon if she ascribed a deeper meaning to it when he did not, this was merely her tough luck.
He did not say, but I have my suspicions. My suspicion is that the lovers sought by such men are being deceived fundamentally, even if no word is ever spoken. She assumes the sex is meaningful: that she is sharing her inmost soul, and expressing her absolute devotion, and he takes advantage of her tender emotions, which he may or may not share, merely to release some organic pressures.
I suppose my question here is whether the women in question are, for instance, hooking up with men on Tinder, or getting drunk and taking them home from bars, or propositioning them with “so, what kind of bondage do you like?” at the Citadel. I certainly disapprove of people leading others on and saying that they love them when really they do not. But if you are going around sharing your inmost soul and expressing your absolute devotion to some guy you met thirty minutes ago at the bar, then I kind of think this is your own fault, and perhaps you should recognize that casual sex is not for you.
I have listened to locker-room talk from those of my friends who were lady’s men in their youth. One of my best friends—a fellow atheist—joked that not only did he not want to see a girl with whom he had copulated in the morning, he did not want to see her the moment after ejaculation, but would have, if he could have gotten away with it, merely pushed her out of bed and onto the floor the moment his lusts were sated…
If the Libertine position is correct, however, both my casual friend and my contemptuous friend were entirely right, and entirely within their rights, to treat their paramours casually or contemptuously, and the young ladies had neither recourse nor right to complain.
I do not think this is true! After all, most libertines include “informed” as part of “informed consent.” Did he inform the women in question of his desire to push them out of bed immediately after the sex finished, or behave in a manner consistent with this desire? If you seem to appreciate and like someone’s company before you have sex with them, they have a reasonable expectation that you would continue to appreciate and like their company afterward, and if you knowingly don’t inform them of how differently you are wired you are doing something quite wrong. If you want to not interact with someone ever again after the sex is over, that is a perfectly fine and legitimate desire, but you must find someone who shares this desire and not mislead people into thinking more is on offer than it is. (I admit that being on the wrong side of this is one of my failings, and I’ve had to work hard on communicating openly with people about it.)