Sunday, December 01, 2002

So just why are sexual perversions wrong?

Eve Tushnet has an interesting post on homosexuality where she points out the difficulty of maintaining that homosexuality is wrong if one accepts contraception:

1) Contraception. Once you accept that heterosexual couples can choose to eliminate the unitive-as-reproductive aspect of sexuality, it becomes a lot harder to figure out what could possibly be wrong (other than "eeuugghh, gross") with same-sex canoodling. There's a good essay on this in Same-Sex Matters: The Challenge of Homosexuality--Patrick Fagan's "Inversion of Heterosexual Sex." Once pleasure, rather than personal physical and reproductive unity, is considered the primary purpose of sex, it's hard to make a case against masturbation, homosexuality, promiscuity, or sundry kinks and fetishes.

She is exactly correct, as usual. If the purpose of the sexual act is pleasure, then there is no reason why male-male sex or female-female sex or female-male-dog-sheep sex is wrong. All could presumably be pleasurable, to some degree. This shows the problem inherent in the dominant ethical theory of the day, Utilitarianism. This theory, originating in the Sophists, developed in Epicurus, and reappearing among English writers such as Hume, Bentham, and John Stuart Mill, teaches that pleasure is good and pain is evil. The goal of human action ought to be to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Utilitarians claim that their theory is not mere egoistic hedonism because we all have a feeling of sympathy: we feel pleasure when others feel pleasure. So the supreme principle of Utilitarianism is one ought to act so as to promote the greatest pleasure for the greatest number of people.

Sex leads to pleasure, and so should be promoted for as many people as possible. For this reason, contraception was necessary. It is fitting, perhaps, that the first Christian church to allow contraception was the Anglican church, since Utilitarianism developed in England. Contraception is absolutely necessary, since it allows sex to become merely a pleasurable activity, and not the possible creation of new life. Now, there is no reason to restrict sex to the boundaries of marriage, since there need be no raising of children. Therefore, heterosexual sex is fine and dandy, and since it is pleasurable, it should be promoted as much as possible.

Now, it is not only heterosexual sex that is pleasurable. Lots and lots of forms of sexual activity are fun, and all of them can be rendered sterile with enough hormones or latex, so there are no fetishes or kinks which could legitimately be thought to be bad, under Utilitarianism rules. Gay sex, lesbian sex, bestiality (recently promoted by famed utilitarian Peter Singer), even sex between adults and children could all be pleasurable. They could all be mutually pleasurable, which is all that is needed for them to be morally acceptable. "If it makes you happy, then it can't be that bad," as Sheryl Crow says.

Utilitarianism is the dominant moral theory of the day, but that doesn't mean that it is right. In fact, it is almost unbelievably silly, so silly that the only reason it can flourish as it has is because it promotes pleasure, which indeed is something we all want. But it is still silly. Let me give you a few reasons why:

1. Utilitarianism requires us to judge a proposed course of action by the amount of pleasure each alternative generates. Utilitarians speak quite casually of adding up pleasures, as if it were a math problem. But this is patently absurd. Mill himself admits that pleasures and pains are non-homogenous, and therefore are incommensurable. Does the pleasure of scratching an itch count as much as the pleasure of reading philosophy? Does the pain of heartbreak hurt as much as a torn fingernail? There are no common units! It is like adding meters to coulombs, or feet to bananas. Pains and pleasures can't be added.

2. The concept of pleasure is so broad as to be meaningless. Varied things such as itch-scratching and heroic self-sacrifice are all put under the class "pleasure." A word that can mean everything clearly means nothing.

3. Utilitarianism cannot explain adequately why I should care for other people. It presumes that I have a feeling of sympathy with my fellow-man. What if I don't? Why shouldn't I exploit others for my own pleasure? Utilitarians cannot give me a good reason why not.

4. Utilitarians cannot explain self-sacrifice, since my jumping on the grenade gives me no pleasure. If utilitarians are correct, then we are all fools to admire heroes who sacrifice their lives for others. What pleasure do they gain from that?

5. Utilitarianism requires us to judge between actions by the amount of pleasure they will create in the future; we are to choose the most pleasurable course. But none of us can predict the future. Utilitarianism therefore requires us to do the impossible. "Even the very wise cannot see all ends," as Gandalf says.

6. The concept of pleasure is not only broad (see #2), but narrow. It fails to take into account that human excellence is far more important than human pleasure. It is better to lead a life of virtue without pleasure than a life of pleasure without virtue. If it were otherwise, we would applaud deadbeat dads, who take the pleasurable, nonvirtuous path.

7. Utilitarianism cannot explain why slavery, infanticide, torture, rape, child-abuse, or any number of terrible actions are in fact wrong. If enslaving black Americans increases the sum total of pleasure, we should do it. If babies get in the way of the general pleasure, they should be eliminated, as Peter Singer and others (including one member of the Watson-Crick DNA team, I forget which one) have proposed. If prisoners can be tortured to get confessions, they should. If the rapist gets lots and lots of pleasure, and his pleasure is more than the woman's pain, he should rape. Ditto for child-abuse.

Utilitarianism fails to recognize that there are basic human goods that must be respected, but that cannot be easily mapped onto the concept "pleasure." A far better approach is that of natural law, which attempts to use reason to determine what are the proper goods of the whole human person. Contraception and all the other sexual perversions are wrong because, as pleasurable as they may be, they diminish the human person.

No comments: