Monday, August 09, 2010

Gender, Morality and Modesty Part 1 (Reducing the Human)

Having taken up the subject gender in my silly post last month (I hope everyone knew it was tongue and cheek, although there have been a few people who have worried about me ever since), I return to the subject of gender in a tone of seriousness. However, this time I will be discussing gender in relation to morality and modesty. At least that's where I hope to get by the end of this series. This present post will lay some of the foundation by giving a brief history lesson.

Few people know about the sexual revolution that occurred in Europe during the mid 18th century, but it is crucial for understanding the subsequent contour that gender has taken in the modern West ever since. At the risk of gross oversimplification, there were three main ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment that played out in how people began thinking of gender, morality and modesty. They were

1)    Materialism
2)    Materialistic Determinism
3)    Nature

Let’s start with the first.


Materialism in the philosophical sense does not refer to greedy consumerism.  Rather, it refers to the view that “all entities and processes are composed of—or are reducible to—matter, material forces or physical processes. . . . materialism entails the denial of the reality of spiritual beings, consciousness and mental or psychic states or processes, as ontologically distinct from, or independent of, material changes or processes.” (Concise Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, p. 535.)

At least, that is how the philosophical encyclopedia defines materialism.  Put more simply, the universe of the materialist is one in which everything, including you and me, is completely reducible to physics and chemistry. Human beings are nothing more than a complicated collection of molecules thrown together by a universe that is itself nothing more than a great impersonal machine.

The worldview of materialism (also sometimes called “naturalism”) was popularized at the time of the European Enlightenment. The French physician, Julien Offray de La Mettrie (pictured right), summed it up in 1748 when he wrote a book titled Man a Machine. In this book, La Mettrie argued that human beings were small machines connected to the giant machine of Nature. At death the small machines simply disengage from the big machine and stop working.

A contemporary materialist, Sir Francis Crick, has said much the same thing. Having distinction as one of two co-discoverers of the DNA molecule, Crick described materialism as the ‘Astonishing Hypothesis’ that

‘You’, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. (Sir Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis (New York: Touchstone, 1994), p. 3.)

Not surprisingly, materialism is often associated with atheism (the belief that there is no God) or agnosticism (the belief that we cannot know if God exists), although there is not space to explore this connection at the moment.

Materialistic Determinism

Materialistic determinism is the view that everything, including man’s actions, is pre-determined by physical forces.  We are nothing more than complicated machines, programmed by the laws of nature. Materialistic determinists believe that all our desires, thoughts and aspirations and anything which gives us a sense of significance, are really just the result of an impersonal chain of cause and effect which could never be otherwise.

This deterministic way of viewing of the universe was reflected in Diderot’s “skeptic’s prayer.”  (Diderot, pictured left, was a popular writer during the early French Enlightenment.)  After spending an entire book looking squarely at the consequences of the materialist universe, he closes with a prayer that nods towards the twin worldviews of agnosticism and determinism:
O God, I do not know if you exist. . . . I ask nothing in this world, for the course of events is determined by its own necessity if you do not exist, or by your decree if you do. . . . Here I stand, as I am, a necessarily organized part of eternal and necessary matter—or perhaps your own creation. . . .  (From Diderot’s Interprétation de la nature (1754), cited by Norman Hampson, The Enlightenment: An evaluation of its assumptions, attitudes and values (Penguin Books, 1968), p. 95–96.)


Having convinced themselves that there was nothing to deify in the metaphysical dimension, the eighteenth-century humanists began implicitly to deify the physical realm. “Nature” became a point of moral reference, as Charles Taylor has convincingly shown in his book A Secular Age. Nature effectively became the resident god.  In parody of the rejected Bible, it became customary for 18th century intellectuals to refer to “the book of Nature.”  Rather than turning to the words of the apostles and prophets, one turned to what was empirically verifiable in “Nature’s book.” There thus began to be a lot of talk about “natural religion” as opposed to revealed religion.

What exactly “nature” meant in the eighteenth century would be difficult to say.  In studying eighteenth-century literature, scholars have identified over a hundred uses of the term. “Nature” became a useful variable which, attached to any idea or course of action, endowed it with a dignity that was as effective as it was vague.  (The closest parallel I can think of is how the vague notion of “liberty” is often used in American political discourse.)

This widespread ambiguity is not surprising.  Without any fixed reference point, “nature” could mean whatever anyone wanted it to mean.

The Enlightenment Hammer

Ideas have consequences and the consequence of these three ideological co-ordinates (materialism, materialistic determinism and the philosophy of nature) was a sexual revolution that is often overlooked.

It would be an exaggeration to say that this religion of nature allowed people to legitimize any action with the appellation “natural.” Nevertheless, there began to be a slow movement in exactly that direction. One could break all the rules and feel entirely justified for “being natural.” As Becker puts it, summarizing Locke’s views,
If…man [be] the product of nature, then all that man does and thinks, all that he has ever done or thought, must be natural, too, and in accord with the laws of nature.... (Carl L. Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, p. 66)
The determinist Locke himself never went so far as to say that everything is natural because everything is inevitable. However, the followers of Locke had no reservation in moving from a mechanistic view of man to formulating an entirely mechanistic theory of moral values.  Hence, we find Diderot arguing that since man is a part of nature, whatever he does is, by definition, “natural”. In his book The Enlightenment, Norman Hampson discusses how Diderot implied that deformity, whether moral or physical, cannot really be said to be unnatural since it is purely a matter of human judgment with no objective validity.

Similarly, when the philosophy of materialistic determinism was pressed to its logical consequence, we are left with the stark reality that it is impossible to ever act unnaturally. In a determinist’s world, everything we do must be natural because everything we do is the inevitable result of mechanical forces beyond our control.  Hence we find Voltaire (left) writing, “When I am able to do what I will, I am free; but I will what I will of necessity . . .” Similarly, in a letter to an opponent, Voltaire draws the consistent corollary of the determinist’s position, namely that whether one loves truth or does harm, he is acting in accordance with his pre-determined nature:
I necessarily have the passion for writing this, and you have the passion for condemning me; both of us are equally fools, equally the playthings of destiny. Your nature is to do harm, mine is to love truth, and to make it public in spite of you.

We thus begin to get a sense for some of the practical difficulties that began to arise out of the materialist/determinist philosophical matrix.  As time went on, the effects of this new philosophy began to be felt acutely in a myriad of practical areas, not least in the areas of gender and sexual morality.

Such problems are merely part of the larger difficulty that materialism has in giving us any legitimate grounding for a moral life. In his book Idols For Destruction, Herbert Schlossberg articulated this problem, suggesting that those who hold to a materialistic/deterministic worldview must eventually conclude that a morality is a delusion.

Since human beings, along with everything else, are assumed to be all material— “we think with our bodies” —their behavior results purely from external contingencies, not on any supposed sense of moral value… The organism simply acts as the prior contingencies have programmed it (him) to act. Moral categories, therefore, are superfluous in understanding human behavior. They may serve a useful function only as they become tools for the shaping of behavior by the controllers. The moral life, in short, is a delusion, and it often functions only as a hindrance to the survival of the human race. (Hebert Schlossberg, Idols for Destruction, p. 149.)

It was in the area of sexual ethics that the ideas of the Enlightenment become acutely practical. Since determinism implied that anything is natural as long as you are doing it (since no action could have been otherwise in the great deterministic machine), it followed that nature could be used to defend sexual taboos as well as a more licentious approach.  It should hardly come as a surprise if the naturalness of the latter and not the former began to dominate popular thinking as the eighteenth century progressed.

In one of his Encyclopédie entries, Diderot’s personified Nature speaks not merely in defense of sexual enjoyment, but elevates it almost to the status of a moral imperative.  Anticipating objections, Diderot wrote,
If there is a perverse man who could take offence at the praise that I give to the most noble and universal of passions, I would evoke Nature before him, I would make it speak, and Nature would say . . .

Nature then speaks and, of course, she cannot help but be on Diderot’s side.  “Nature is satisfied”, Diderot argued, only when the sexual impulse is allowed to reach its climactic fulfillment.

As Diderot’s comments suggest, the appeal to Nature could easily become equivalent with simply letting one’s passion have free rein.  Yet few eighteenth-century thinkers were comfortable taking things that far.  In all fairness, most champions of the Enlightenment were unprepared for, and even disturbed by, the ramifications their ideas began to have in the area of sexual morals.  It did not take long for such ramifications to begin manifesting themselves.  Jonathan Israel observes that while the political consequences of Enlightenment philosophy did not fully kick in until the 1790s, the sexual consequences of this new philosophy began to be felt as early as the mid-1700s. (See Jonathan Israel's book Radical Enlightenment, Oxford University Press, 2002).

Like most developments in the Enlightenment, the seeds for this sexual revolution had been planted back in the seventeenth century through such unsuspecting vessels as Locke and Spinoza.  Referring to the new ideal of sensual pleasure that emerged in the mid-eighteenth century, Lawrence Stone suggests that this came as “an unanticipated by-product of Lockean philosophy.” (Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500–1800, p. 327.) Similarly, Jonathan Israel tells us that though Spinoza took little interest in sexual issues, yet the materialistic system he espoused gave an intellectual basis for the movement of sexual liberation.

This should not be taken as implying that everything was rosy in pre-Enlightenment Europe. Medieval and Renaissance texts are filled with explicit and vulgar references to sexual intercourse, adultery and genitalia which rival anything produced in the Enlightenment. The difference is that during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance there remained an underlying Trinitarian consensus. (See Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery.) This consensus provided a fixed point of reference in which sexual codes could be grounded, and it meant that departure from those standards was generally always viewed as sin, even when such deviation was tolerated. This helps to explain the incredible tension we find in courtly love literature between Christian and pagan models of morality. (See Denis De Rougemont, Love in the Western World, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1940).) One of the driving features in the famous medieval legend of Tristan and Iseult is a consciousness that their adulterous relationship is wrong. It is this awareness of sin that gives the story its peculiar tension, pathos and sense of tragedy. To the extent that the Enlightenment rejected the Christian worldview, it undermined the basis for this continuing tension. Instead of sin being treated as sin even by those who embraced it, the very idea of sin became a category mistake for the consistent materialist.

Materialist Sexuality

Remember that materialism asserts that all conditions and forces in the universe are reducible to matter. It thus denies the existence of non-material properties in the universe.  Almost by definition, this leaves men and women without a soul or spirit, since these are non-material. Man is simply a machine—a complex machine, to be sure, but a machine none the less.

Now if this account of the human being is correct, then just as it is impossible to ascribe to man any significance transcending the material world, so it is equally difficult for the materialist to ascribe to sexuality any significance beyond the purely biological.  Once you introduce into sexuality such categories as significance and value, let alone God-given parameters, it is difficult to avoid the implication that there must be some non-material explanation behind it all (that is, an explanation external to the “closed system” of Nature’s predetermined cause and effects). This is a point that materialists are themselves forced to acknowledge. What materialist Paul Churchland said of the evolutionary story applies to any type of materialist account of ourselves:

The important point about the standard evolutionary story is that the human species and all its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process…If this is the correct account of our origins, then there is neither need, nor room, to fit any nonphysical properties into our theoretical account of ourselves. We are creatures of matter. And we should learn to live with that fact. (Paul Churchland, Matter and Consciousness, p. 21.)

Had Diderot been as consistent as Churchland in learning to live with the facts of his materialism, he could not have praised sexual pleasure the way he did in the Encyclopédie article cited earlier.  This passion which Diderot terms “the most noble and universal of passions” can be no more noble than our urge to go to the toilet.  It is a biological fact, perhaps even a biological accident, and that is all.  There can be no special meaning behind sexuality any more than there can be any real significance behind any aspect of the materialist’s universe. We are creatures of matter and nothing more.

In practice, however, many of the Enlightenment’s philosophers were not ready for such radical consequences of their ideas.  Many of them still felt, like Diderot, that sexuality was somehow set apart from the ordinary.  They wanted to believe that there was more than predetermined mechanical forces at work when a man and woman embrace. Furthermore, the old taboos of Christian doctrine still exercised an unconscious primacy over the newly “enlightened” minds, and few wanted a situation of complete moral chaos.  All this compelled the Enlightenment philosophers to find alternative grounds for sexual morals.  But that will be the subject of my next blog post.

Further Reading

The Sexualization of Britain's Youth

Entire series of posts on Gender, Morality and Modesty

To join my mailing list, send a blank email to robin (at sign) with “Blog Me” in the subject heading.

Click Here to friend-request me on Facebook and get news feeds every time new articles are added to this blog. 

Click Here to follow me on Twitter.

Visit my other website: Alfred the Great Society
Post a Comment

Buy Essential Oils at Discounted Prices!