Ignorance and Myopia

by Jason Stotts

When I first started studying philosophy, I was surprised at how committed I was to beliefs that I had never really considered.  In fact, I seemed to be trapped in a web of ideas that I had obtained through the culture through a kind of mental osmosis.  I was committed to this and that, but had never considered the issues and whether I was right to be so committed.  Now, some of the beliefs I stayed committed to after reflection, like my beliefs in the sovereignty of the individual, the value of capitalism, and the ethics of egoism.  With these views, I came to understand them at a much better level and in a clearer way.  I no longer believed them merely because I had believed them at one time, I had reasons for my beliefs and arguments to support them.

Other beliefs, I shed completely.  I was never a religious person: I had always questioned the existence of any sort of god, but I still thought that there was a possibility that there might be one.  Moreover, I thought of religion as a benevolent force and as something that, while I didn’t participate in it, was a force for good in the world.  This, obviously, I have seen past to the true nature of misanthropic nature of religion (especially the Abrahamic religions).

Another belief that I used to hold, and which may surprise some of my readers, is that there was something wrong with “the homosexuals.”  I didn’t know many gay people growing up and had this vague idea that they were somehow “broken” in some way.  Of course, how could I not think this, since they were living in a violation of nature and flatly flaunting the biological functions of their bodies?  Yet, once I learned even just a little about human anatomy and psychology, I quickly realized how silly and ignorant homophobia really is.

Unfortunately, few people ever question their beliefs and I think one reason is that they are afraid to see how little justification they really had for them to begin with and how ignorantly they had actually been living their lives.  However, ignorance (lacking knowledge) is not necessarily a moral failure.  While there are some things that a person can reasonably be expected to know, and evasion of things that one should know is a moral failure, one cannot be expected to know everything.  The moral obligation a person does have is to be constantly learning and growing as a person and to not evade looking into issues that will impact their lives.

I preamble like this to set the context for this: one of my major realizations as I started to study sex in a serious way was how little I actually knew about it. The more I learn about sex, the more I realize I didn’t know and how much of what I did “know” was actually just wrong.  Not only that, but my thinking about sex was locked into our cultural assumptions and a very definite conception about what sex is and should be.

I think the ignorance that surrounds sex is absolutely astounding.  People tend to think that the way we think about and view sex here in our culture and time is the way it’s always been and the way it has to be.  That’s just silly.  For example, did you know that:

– In ancient Greece, males were the symbols of beauty and females were not?

– There are cultures where the family name passes through the female line, because any child of the woman is definitely in the genetic family whereas a child of a man may or may not be (this solves the problem of lineage).

– Biologically our bodies evolved to be polysexual (non-monogamous) and the evidence for this is overwhelming (cf: the coronal ridge of the human penis, the size of the human testicles, the different functions of sperm, the cervical crypts in the vagina, the signaling function of breasts, etc).

– Men who do not orgasm frequently enough are much more likely to die of prostate cancer?

– Men have not always been the more sexually aggressive sex?  In some cultures (including our own), women were the more sexually active sex and the sexual aggressors.

– That in ancient Greece, a man who only had sex with women or only had attractions to women would have been a cultural outcast?

I think that people who don’t consider sex from a broader perspective are simply being ridiculous.  How can you claim any sort of legitimacy about a sexual position when all you understand is your own culture in your own time and place?

Consider this article by Alyssa GoldsteinWhen Women Wanted Sex Much More Than Men: And how the stereotype flipped.

In the 1600s, a man named James Mattock was expelled from the First Church of Boston. His crime? It wasn’t using lewd language or smiling on the sabbath or anything else that we might think the Puritans had disapproved of. Rather, James Mattock had refused to have sex with his wife for two years. Though Mattock’s community clearly saw his self-deprivation as improper, it is quite possible that they had his wife’s suffering in mind when they decided to shun him. The Puritans believed that sexual desire was a normal and natural part of human life for both men and women (as long as it was heterosexual and confined to marriage), but that women wanted and needed sex more than men. A man could choose to give up sex with relatively little trouble, but for a woman to be so deprived would be much more difficult for her.

It’s a short overview of some of the ways in which our Western views about the nature of sexuality have changed in the last couple of hundred years.  There are lots of books about this kind of thing like Sex at Dawn.  There are also lots of books about changes in human physiology and cultures like Sperm Wars, Dover’s Greek Homosexuality, etc.

The problem, though, is that people who are woefully ignorant of sex, nonetheless feel entitled to talk at great length about it as though they were experts.  These people often can’t name the parts of the body involved in sex and don’t even understand basic bodily functions like reproduction (like those idiot christians who think that a woman who is raped can’t get pregnant, because their god would never go down into that tainted uterus to deliver a soul).  Nevertheless, these ignorant people feel entitled to opine about the morality of sex.

Morality does not come from an imaginary sky-friend.  Morality is about helping people live the best kinds of life open to them and this involves understanding human nature and the facts surrounding it.  Unless someone understands the physiology of sex, the psychology of sex, the history of sex, and even the philosophical implications of sex, then they shouldn’t be trying to construct a system of sexual ethics.  Yet, this is precisely what is going on.  These…”experts” can’t even understand their own urges and bodies and yet, try to tell us how to live our lives.  They can’t understand that sex has changed throughout the ages and think it has always been the same.  Their ignorance leads them to have a particularly pernicious kind of myopia where they can’t see that their simple-minded views are not necessarily true.

The point I’m trying to get at is that ignorance, not knowing things, leads you to not see the broader picture as you often cannot see what you don’t understand.  In sex, this is particularly problematic as people try to reason from the way things are right now to human nature and try to posit immutable laws on little to no evidence.  This is just completely intolerable.

So, ward yourself against the myopia from ignorance by trying to learn as much as you can and challenging your beliefs and making sure you understand the reasons why you believe things.  Especially with regards to sex.  Just because things are a certain way in our culture right now does not mean they have always been this way or that this is the best way to live.  You need to look at sex throughout time and different places and then decide what works best in your life.

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