Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Gender, Morality and Modesty Part 2 (Utilitarian Ethics)

R.G. Collingwood once remarked that “The chief business of twentieth-century philosophy is to reckon with twentieth-century history.”

Too often Collingwood’s injunction has been ignored, with the discussion of ideas being insulated from the consequences those ideas have had in the world of space and time.
This is especially true when it comes to ideas affecting gender and sexual morality, which is the topic of my present series of blog posts. I want to eventually comment on the contemporary crisis of gender confusion, but I find I can only do so by first spending some time examining ideas that were forged in the fires of the European Enlightenment. Only by understanding those ideas will we be in a position to adequately address the challenges that face us today.

In the previous post in this series I suggested that various ideas that became popular at the time of the Enlightenment had the affect of reducing human beings to an impersonal machine. In this post I would like to explore how various philosophers tried to temper the severity of this implication and still maintain some vestige of morality, while in the next post we will look at the effect that this had on the idea of gender.

The attempts to provide an alternative code of morality that would be consistent with materialism and materialistic determinism (see my previous post for a definition of these terms) worldview usually relied on pragmatic, utilitarian and sociological considerations. (At the risk of oversimplification, utilitarianism is the view that an action is right if it produces the greatest amount of happiness for the maximum amount of people. For more about utilitarianism, see my earlier post 'Utilitarianism Makes a Comeback')   All such considerations boiled down to either asserting that the individual will be happier by following the rules of sexual morality, or that society will run smoother.  Moral codes and sexual modesty may not be natural, but they are profitable; sexual restraint may not be intrinsic to the human condition, but it is good sense.

Under this scheme of things, there may be good utilitarian reasons for keeping one’s libido under control, or almost under control. This was a position adopted by many who were disturbed by the growing licentiousness of European society. Though they believed that traditional codes of morality could not be rationally defended, nevertheless they saw that society would run smoother if people adhered to them.  This is similar to the way Hobbes, in the seventeenth century, had theorized that the prohibitions against stealing had evolved out of the fact that man discovered thieving to be a nuisance and a hindrance to all human endeavor.  In the interests of social cohesion, therefore, man decided it was reasonable not to steal.  This is a good example of the Enlightenment method of taking man as the starting point and then working everything out in relation to us rather than in relation to any external objective standard.

Similarly, we find Benjamin Franklin (an all-round child of the Enlightenment) giving advice to young men to leave the women alone.  His reason for offering this instruction was because the appearance of virtue is an important business asset and also because the institution of marriage was the most likely source of happiness.  However, Franklin was quick to add, if you must engage in extra-marital sex, it is better to go for the elderly women.  This is because older women present no risk of accidentally producing children.  Further, older women are wiser in the ways of the world and, having “ceased to be handsome” they strive to maintain their influence over men through being tender and amiable.  After all, Franklin points out, all women look the same in the dark anyway.

Spinoza had argued similarly that in one’s own interest you ought to avoid scandalizing the community, “but equally, in his naturalistic philosophy, sexual pleasure, the libido, in so far as it is life-enhancing is a good thing and, in principle, in no way different outside marriage than within it.” (From Jonathan Israel's book Radical Enlightenment)

Hume and the Economics of Modesty

While various philosophers were seeking a pragmatic basis for morality, it is a credit to his genius that the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) managed to find an economic argument for sexual modesty.  His argument starts with the observation that men go through enormous expense, fatigue and restraint for the sake of their offspring.  “But,” he pointed out,
in order to induce men to impose on themselves this restraint, and undergo cheerfully all the fatigues and expenses to which it subjects them, they must believe, that the children are their own, and that their natural instinct is not directed to a wrong object, when they give a loose to love and tenderness. David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III “Of Morals” (Fontana/Collins, 1972, first published in 1739), p. 291.
How then can men be assured that their offspring are really their own?  Given the manner in which copulation occurs, Hume reasoned, a female will always know who the father of her children is.  But the only way a man can be assured of the paternity of his children is by restraining the behavior of woman through cultural taboos.

Men have undoubtedly an implicit notion, that all those ideas of modesty and decency have a regard to generation; since they impose not the same laws, with the same force, on the male sex, where that reason takes not place.

Hume’s argument raises an important question: if our ideas of modesty and decency only exist to restrain women in order that men may be assured that they are the fathers of their children, then is there any point to codes of propriety among males?  Hume deals with this question, and it is interesting that in the end all he can appeal to are “the general notions of the world . . .” These general notions suggest that though standards may be a bit looser for the man, nevertheless men ought to usually abstain from complete sexual indulgence most of the time.
[A]ccording to the general notions of the world, [men] bear nearly the same proportion of the obligations of women, as the obligations of the law of nations do to those of the law of nature. It is contrary to the interest of civil society, that men should have an entire liberty of indulging their appetites in venereal enjoyment; but as this interest is weaker than in the case of the female sex, the moral obligation, arising from it, must be proportionally weaker. And to prove this we need only appeal to the practice and sentiments of all nations and ages.

Notice the recurring theme that society works better if people adhere to standards which, in themselves, have no real justification.  In this purely pragmatic approach to morality sexual ethics become rather like good party politics: it may be practically useful to adopt certain patterns, but we cannot claim that it represents right behavior in any objective sense.

When the happiness of public society becomes the only justification for sexual ethics, is there any reason why I should not give in to my own passions in order to promote my own personal happiness?  In this regard it is significant that the loophole Hume gives to men (i.e., that men bear “nearly” the same obligations of women, that men should not have “entire liberty”, that the moral obligation in men is “proportionally weaker” to the female) was more than large enough for the libido of any man to slip through.  In his own life, Hume did not hesitate to take advantage of this loophole.

Form without Content

The pragmatic approach to sexuality is similar to how people also began to approach religion in the eighteenth century.  Though the materialist philosophers of the Enlightenment all agreed that the doctrines, practices and claims of institutionalized religion were absurd, a good many of these philosophers also felt that society needed these institutions in order to give the common people an incentive for morality.  In other words, though religion might be based entirely on fables, it was still a necessary component to a cohesive society. This was no doubt why Voltaire, though an outspoken opponent of Christianity, still built a church for the workmen on his land.

Clinging to the forms of religion and morality without the content, the result was not dissimilar to the way our own era has developed a pseudo-morality around the need for “safe sex.” The Chastity Movement has generally been content to affirm the thou-shalt-nots of Christian doctrine on entirely utilitarian grounds. (See the last chapter of Katie Roiphe’s  Last Night in Paradise) Though the Enlightenment considered the Christian taboos about extra-marital sex to have no rational basis, still it was better for society if those taboos were generally adhered to. And, of course, they weren’t. Mankind has never needed much encouragement to indulge in this area, and the new philosophy provided the perfect justification.  In his book Radical Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel tells us that

in general, the more radical the philosophical standpoint, the more emphatic the leveling and egalitarian tendencies implicit in ideas which, in turn, generated a growing impulse not just towards the emancipation of woman but of the human libido itself.

As we see from this quotation, the issues to do with sexuality were inexplicably linked with questions about the emancipation of woman.  The traditional codes of modesty could not be challenged without also raising questions about our sexual identity in general.  What does it mean to be a man or a woman?  Do these categories also require a re-thinking in light of the materialist/determinist worldview?  These are some of the questions I will attempt to address in another post.

Further Reading

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