Archive for the 'Ethics' Category

Hugh Hefner

by Jason Stotts

It saddened me today to learn that Hugh Hefner died last night. I have written about Hefner before (link) and his role in both civil rights and sexual freedoms. Hefner was a great pioneer in the sexual field and really helped to change our culture for the better with respect to sexuality. For anyone who has not seen it, I recommend the Amazon series “American Playboy” that tells much of Hefner’s story.

What I find most remarkable about Hefner, aside from his strong stance on civil rights and sexual freedoms, is that he wrote and defended his beliefs about sexual ethics in “The Playboy Philosophy.” (For example, you can see him debate William Buckley on sexual ethics here.)

What is so great about this is that he was attempting to shift the debate around sexuality to a philosophic level and out of the emotive reactionism and moral panic of the past. Whether he succeeded or not is moot, but in so doing, he blazed the way for others to write on the topic and helped to shift the culture.

There is a strong sense in which Hefner paved the way for books like mine and I will be forever in his debt for this.

So, thank you Mr. Hefner. You lived your life as you saw fit and made the world a better place in the process.



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“Modern Moral Philosophy” and the Lawgiver

by Jason Stotts

I recently read G. E. M. Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy” for the first time and I think that it is one of the most astute and important essays on ethics that I have ever read. In it, she has three major theses, but it is the second that is the most important and makes the paper a necessary read for anyone interested in ethics. Her second thesis is this:

The concepts of obligation, and duty—moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say—and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of “ought,” ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible; because they are survivals, or derivatives from survivals, from an earlier conception of ethics which no longer generally survives, and are only harmful without it. (p. 1)

She wants to take on the ideas that we have a duty to do, or that morality obligates us to do, certain things for which we can be condemned as “morally wrong” if we fail in them (it is important to emphasize that these are all unchosen duties or obligations and that someone voluntarily choosing to take on a duty or obligation is an entirely different issue). She has in her sights any ethical system that utilizes the concept of “duty” or “obligation,” which is nearly all major ethical systems: in utilitarianism you have a duty to maximize happiness, in Kantianism you have a duty to your unknowable nature-in-itself, in religion you have a duty to obey your god, etc. This is no easy task, for if she’s right, then she will take out all of these ethical systems at the base and render them unsupported.

So, what’s her argument?

First, that many people feel that there is some special psychological force involved in moral “shoulds” that make them different from other kinds of shoulds like “you should put gas in your car.” This special “‘moral’ sense” implies “some absolute verdict (like one of guilty/not guilty on a man)” (p. 5). This arises from an equation between “shoulds” and obligations or duties, “in the sense in which one can be obliged or bound by law” (p. 5).

Second, that this conjunction between “shoulds” and the law has arisen because Christianity has dominated ethics for centuries and it operates via a “law conception of ethics” (p. 5). In this conception of ethics, their god is the lawgiver and his commandments are the law. Of course, this divine law must be obeyed absolutely and is not open to question or amenable to reason.

Third, that failure to do your duty and obey the divine law is not simply to do a single wrong. Rather, it makes a person “sinful” or morally wrong in toto: a person who violates the divine law has become a moral-law breaker or outlaw of the worst kind. This is in marked contrasted with an ethical system like Aristotle’s, which antecedes Christianity, and has no term of absolute condemnation. Rather, Aristotle has terms such as “unjust” or “impious” for discrete acts or terms such as “scoundrel” or “villain” for a person with a bad character, but no way of describing someone who is irredeemably evil.

Fourth, any ethical system that utilizes this framework of duty, but without the idea of the divine lawgiver, has severed the concepts of duty and obligation from the only foundation that might give them meaning. Thus, they are without meaning and illegitimate.

This is an amazing insight and I would rank it among the top most insightful critiques of ethics in the history of philosophy. Certainly it is the most powerful critique of duty-based ethics that I have ever seen and it firmly cuts them off at the base and renders them absurd.

Yet, Anscombe could have made an even stronger case. If she had not been a Catholic (and she was a devout, refused to use birth-control and protested abortion clinics, Catholic), she could have taken the tack that since there is no such thing as a god, the very idea of moral duty to a lawgiver does not make sense. It is, to use her analogy, “as if the notion ‘criminal’ were to remain when criminal law and criminal courts had been abolished and forgotten” (p. 6). Thus, all ideas of moral duty or obligation in this special sense must resolve to absurdity.

Now, to be fair to Anscombe, she does even apply her argument to the divine command theorist and notes that even someone using a divine command framework must still justify why we have a duty to obey the divine commands (p. 8). This, of course, students of Philosophy will recognize as a take on the Euthyphro problem. Moreover, she notes that the Kantian move, that one has a duty to oneself-in-itself due to one’s noumenally rational nature will fail to justify the legislative framework, since “whatever you do ‘for yourself’ may be admirable; but it is not legislating” (p. 13), and this does seem to be a completely unwarranted jump.

Thus, I think Anscombe has destroyed the idea of unchosen moral duty or obligation. It makes me curious, though, why this essay isn’t more commonly read or cited. Is it because Anscombe is a woman? Is it because people are loathe to give up their duty-ethics? I do not know the answer to this, but I am certain that philosophy is much the worse for this essay not being better known.

My own position, before reading Anscombe’s excellent essay, was that all duty ethics ultimately end up being no more than systems of punishments of the form “You have a duty to do X and if you don’t, you will be punished”. For this reason, they should not even be considered ethical systems at all, but merely systems of rules and punishments (I argue this in my forthcoming book Eros and Ethos, Chapter 1). While I maintain this position, Anscombe’s idea really explains the force that some people feel for duty-ethics.

An interesting question is why people feel this force in the first place. I submit that it is not because we are used to a legal framework, since few of us have cause to come in contact with the legal system, especially during the years when we are forming our moral beliefs. Rather, it is that many people learned to be moral by having morality imposed on them from the outside as they grew up, by their parents or caregivers. They never took it upon themselves to actually become moral, they simply followed the moral rules they were given in order to conform to a moral code they didn’t understand. Thus, they want to keep having morality be forced upon them, to conform to the only form of morality they know, while simply substituting the moral rules of duty-based systems for the rules of their parents. This is, I believe, the origin of the force that many feel for “moral duty,” although it is only through Anscombe’s argument that we can understand why the very term falls flat.

Thus, for all these reasons, we must reject duty-based ethical systems as being both empty of content (laws without a lawgiver) and as facades hiding a brutish system of punishments. One can, hereafter, say “Do X or I will harm you,” although obviously this is no moral claim, but can no longer say “You have a duty to do X.” Such a claim is incoherent and brutish.

All references in essay to: Anscombe, G. E. M. “Modern Moral Philosophy.” Philosophy, Vol. 33 (124), p. 1-19.

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Eros and Ethos Announcement

by Jason Stotts


After much agonizing over this decision, I’ve decided that I will be publishing Eros and Ethos, my forthcoming book on sexual ethics, as two separate volumes. Thus, instead of:

Eros and Ethos: A New Theory and Application of Sexual Ethics

It will be:

Eros and Ethos: Volume 1, A New Theory of Sexual Ethics


Eros and Ethos: Volume 2, A New Application of Sexual Ethics

There are a number of reasons for publishing Eros and Ethos separately. The primary reason is that each half of Eros and Ethos is as long as most nonfiction books by itself: Volume 1 is around 100,000 words or about 210 book pages and Volume 2 is around 95,000 words or about 200 book pages. So, as you can see, publishing them separately makes sense. Moreover, each can easily stand on its own as a separate book. Most importantly, this means that I can focus my attention on finishing the final drafts of Volume 1 and getting it published right away.

Volume 1 should be released within the next 6-8 months and Volume 2 should follow within the next 3-5 years. After both volumes have been published, I will release an omnibus edition, in probably 7-10 years, that will bring together revised editions of the first two volumes and include another 50-100 pages of original content.

This is really exciting news for me, because it means that Eros and Ethos: Volume 1 will be published soon!

I’m so excited about this. I’m excited for you to see it. I’m excited for it to be in the world. I’m excited about all of the original philosophy that it contains, which has never been done by anyone before. I’m excited to have created something that I think is amazing, new, revolutionary, and a boon for human flourishing.

I’m excited to have done something about which I can be proud.

To give you an idea of why I’m so excited about, and proud of, this project, let me give you just some of the things it includes:

  • A new theory of ethics.
  • A new theory of emotions, including how to understand the connection between a person’s beliefs and their emotions.
  • A new theory of erotic love and better ways to think about love more generally.
  • A new theory of sexual attraction and a full explanation of it.
  • New ways to understand sexual orientation, sexual identities, as well as masculinity and femininity.
  • And much more!
  • AND, most importantly, all of this culminates in a new way to understand sex and its importance in a human life.

I really think that these books have the potential to make the world better and improve people’s lives.

I’ll send out another update once I have a better idea of the publication date, but it’s time to get excited about it.

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Assisted Suicide Now Legal in California

by Jason Stotts

The governor of California, Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown, has recently made the right choice to sign into law a bill that makes it legal for physicians to prescribe lethal doses of drugs for people who are terminally ill and still mentally competent to make the choice to die (LA Times). This is a great step forward for advocates of individual liberty, because there are few crueler fates than being forced to stay alive to suffer before death merely to appease someone else’s religious preferences.

This bill was made possible by Brittany Maynard, who advocated for physician assisted suicide and made headlines as she made this choice herself. Her death was a catalyst for the debate and her struggle really made it possible.

I’m very pleased in this positive movement for individual liberty and autonomy.

On the other hand, the governor also vetoed a bill that would have allowed patients to try experimental medications that have not received governmental approval yet in a bid to try to prevent their death. This is a tragedy and shows a deep lack of principle of Brown’s part. What difference does it make to the man who is dying of a terminal disease if a drug that may save his life may also kill him? The man will die anyway, he should be given the chance to fight for his life if he wishes to. Moreover, these brave people would also help to move forward medical science and help others who may be in the same position later.

So, while there was a significant win for individual liberty, there was also a setback. Overall, if we keep pushing these issues on the underlying principles, we shall keep seeing victories (like my friend Alex Epstein shows).

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News and Other Interesting Things

by Jason Stotts

1. Scientists Celebrate the Weird World of Animal Genitalia

Have you ever wondered what penises look like throughout the animal kingdom? Well, it’s your lucky day. (NSFW? Article on WaPo; more on Twitter)

2. How Many Scientists Does It Take to Write a Paper? Apparently, Thousands 

In less than a decade, Dr. Aad, who lives in Marseilles, France, has appeared as the lead author on 458 scientific papers. Nobody knows just how many scientists it may take to screw in a light bulb, but it took 5,154 researchers to write one physics paper earlier this year—likely a record—and Dr. Aad led the list. (WSJ)

The culture of “publish or perish” in academia has become completely absurd. Academics are forced to spend so much time trying to publish, even on trivial minutia, that they are unable to do real research or focus on their teaching. When you combine this with the fact that students are allowed to judge their professors and this is their only evaluation, you get a terrible mix of pandering professors who care more about what people think of them than they do about the truth.

3. Take My Wife, Please: The Rise of Cuckolding Culture

For those unfamiliar with cuckolding as sexual fetish, try to recall high-school English, and more specifically, Geoffrey Chaucer’s reference to cuckolds in The Canterbury Tales. The traditional Middle English meaning of the word — a man with an adulterous wife — echoes the modern-day fetish: “One cannot be a cuckold if not wed. But I do not therefore asperse your bed; few are the wives who make their husbands sad, a thousand good for every one that’s bad.”

The glaring difference? Dozens of cuckold websites affirm that today’s cucks aren’t just standing helplessly by. They’re begging well-endowed men to have sex with their insatiable wives. (Nerve)

This article isn’t new, but it does a great job of discussing the rise of cuckolding and hotwifing. On the other hand, I actually disagree with the article’s use of “cuckold” and “hotwife.” I think of cuckolding as typically involving humiliation play and/or submission, whereas hotwifing is more of a celebration of feminine sexuality.

4. Olympian to Escort

Suzy Favor Hamilton says she was always just a nice girl from Wisconsin.

Widely celebrated for her athletic pursuits throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, the nine-time NCAA champion and former Olympic middle-distance runner appeared to be the quintessential example of all-American womanhood. Then she fell on the track during the 2000 Summer Olympics, bringing an abrupt close to her running career.

In the following decade, Hamilton struggled to build a new life without sports. She juggled running a real estate business with her college sweetheart, Mark, with making personal appearances on the former Olympian circuit. After giving birth to her daughter, Hamilton was diagnosed with postpartum depression and prescribed Zoloft, which immediately improved her mood. She felt like she was on top of the world.

Then, just before Christmas 2012, she was outed as a high-end Las Vegas escort. (LINK)

This is a really interesting article about a former olympian who turned to sex work. Her story about bipolar and mania might be completely true, but it also feels a little bit like an excuse for enjoying sex work and needing to explain it away. Either way, it’s an interesting story.

5. The Victims of Cameroon’s Horrific Breast Ironing Tradition

“Breast ironing” is the Cameroonian custom of massaging young girls chests with hot tools—spatulas and pestles being the most common—in an attempt to flatten their developing breasts. This is done with the intention of postponing their first sexual relationships by making their bodies less attractive to men. Parents often fear that the girls won’t finish their education if they meet a man and become pregnant.

For the most part, the flattening is carried out by female family members, either at home or with the assistance of a healer. The process begins as soon as the girls hit puberty—for some, that means as early as eight years old. The consequences of this can be disastrous for the victims’ health—cysts, breast cancer, and breastfeeding issues are all common, not to mention the abundance of psychological consequences linked to the practice. According to a 2011 GIZ report, one out of every ten Cameroonian girls has been subjected to breast ironing. (NSFW – LINK)

There are so many more kinds of genital mutilation than penile (“circumcision”) or vulval. In fact, if you look hard enough, you can find mutilation of basically every body part for sexual reasons.

This is the interesting story of breast mutilation and the culture that condones and engages in it.

6. In This Remote Village, Some Boys Don’t Grow a Penis Until They’re 12

Puberty can be an awkward time for anybody, but spare a thought for the Guevedoce children of the Dominican Republic, who literally appear to change their sex when they hit adolescence.

As covered by Michael Mosely in the new BBC series, Countdown to Life: The Extraordinary Making of You, the remarkable case of the Guevedoces is a condition that affects just over 1 percent of the boys born in Salinas, a remote village lying in the southwest of the Dominican Republic.

Guevedoces (literal translation “penis at 12”) – who are also called “machihembras”, meaning “first a woman, then a man” – appear to be completely female at birth and are brought up to be little girls.

“When they’re born, they look like girls with no testes and what appears to be a vagina,” writes Mosely for The Telegraph. “It is only when they near puberty that the penis grows and testicles descend.” (LINK)

This is the first I’ve heard about this and I find it incredibly interesting. I’m really not sure what implications to draw from this, but I do think that it shows the incredible power of puberty over the body and this may have implications for the debate around transsexualism, although I’m not sure if I understand how yet. If you’re interested more in the condition that causes this, check out this wikipedia page on it: 5-alpha-reductase deficiency.

6. Intelligent Machines: Call for a Ban on Robots Designed as Sex Toys

A campaign has been launched calling for a ban on the development of robots that can be used for sex.

Such a use of the technology is unnecessary and undesirable, said campaign leader Dr Kathleen Richardson.

Sex dolls already on the market are becoming more sophisticated and some are now hoping to build artificial intelligence into their products.

Those working in the field say that there is a need for such robots. (LINK)

This whole article seems ridiculous. A robot that is not self-aware is no different from a dildo in moral status. If robots ever have consciousness and self-awareness, then we need to have a different conversation about what kinds of rights robots would have (if any).

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Arguing Online About Ethics

by Jason Stotts

Sometimes when I’m arguing about ethics online, I need to remember my Aristotle: “To examine then all the views held about happiness is superfluous, for children, sick people, and the insane all have views, but no sane person would dispute over them.” EE I.3.12b30.

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by Jason Stotts

Not long ago I came across a picture with a quote on it that stopped me cold.


In case you can’t read the picture, it says:

“You,” he said, “are a terribly real thing in a terribly false world, and that, I believe, is why you are in so much pain.”

In fact, even reading it now, knowing exactly what it says, makes my breath stop in my throat and makes me feel like I’ve been hit in the stomach. I can’t look at it for very long without feeling shaken by it. It’s really having an impact on me.

When I first saw it, I was too taken off guard to know what to think about it. But I knew that I had to know. I knew that there was something desperately true here. Something that I needed to know and had overlooked or ignored. As I thought about it, I realized that the thing I had ignored (well, not exactly ignored, but, perhaps, overlooked), was the idea of authenticity. The world is full of people living lives they don’t like, acting as people who they really aren’t, and who are giving up their lives in myriad ways that they don’t even realize. They’re doing it to “conform” or to “not rock the boat” or to “be part of the team” or because it is what’s expected of them by others. They never ask what they really want out of life. They simply go through the motions of living without ever really doing it.

This is why that quote struck me so deeply, because I feel like I am a real person in a world that is constantly struggling not to be real. A world that has become viciously inauthentic. A world that no longer works for anyone in it. And we all recognize this. We all recognize that women who have children face systemic challenges, yet none of us would want our own mother to suffer. We recognize that many jobs pay workers the bare minimum they can afford to get away with, even when the position warrants more, as though labor were merely a cost and not also what constitutes a company, not truly the soul of the company.

We deny our humanity and the very facts that keep us alive. We hide ourselves from knowledge and ideas that challenge us. For example: although children are sexual, we try to deny this and viciously shame them for it. Although meat is just dead animals, we don’t countenance our food looking anything like animals. Our meat must look like meat, and certainly not like the flesh of animals. We erect walls around ourselves in order not to feel vulnerable, but we shut ourselves away from feeling any of the good feelings as well. We construct desperate walls of unwanted isolation around ourselves. We want to feel connected and be loved and have friends, but we can’t imagine showing our true selves to these people, we thus create fictions of ourselves and base our friendships on this emptiness.

A large part of this inauthenticity that is making the world bad happens because people are afraid to die. Sadly, they feel that if they never quite live, then this will somehow prevent their ultimate death…somehow. The world is bad because people make the world worse through their actions and inactions. From not respecting other people’s rights and property (theft, graffiti), to outright trying to get others to live for them: those who feel entitled to a life they haven’t earned.

The world is not yet lost. In fact, even if it were, as long as life remains, we can always begin again. But how? We must be purposeful in our commitments. We must not just accept our humanity, but embrace it. Even the parts we wish were different. Students of ancient philosophy have probably heard this story, but most people have not.   A student of Heraclitus’ went to his house to learn from him, since he was one of the greatest philosopher’s of his time. The student goes in and finds Heraclitus taking a shit. The student is stunned and tries to apologize and leave. Heraclitus stops him and tells him “there are gods here too.” Heraclitus meant that all aspects of our humanity are good. That there is something magical about being able to take in food, to live off it, and then get rid of the parts we don’t want. Heraclitus meant that life itself is the divine in the world and pooping is an important part of life.

We must also embrace death as that great gift that gives our lives meaning. An immortal life necessarily loses all meaning. If we cannot die, then we cannot truly live. Without death, there is not ultimate answer to “why?” Why are you going to work? Because I need money. Why do you need money? To eat. Why do you need to eat? To live. Without life, there could be no meaning for any action. Without death, a meaningful life is impossible. Without death, life loses all meaning.

I guess, at the end of this, I want people to wake up and engage with their lives. I want you to really live for a change. Show your real self to people. If they hate it, find better people. Don’t let your life slip away from you. It’s the only one you have. This reminds me of one of the most powerful quotes I’ve ever read, which is from Ayn Rand:

“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in the lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists…it is real…it is possible…it is yours.”

Even if you haven’t been living authentically, it’s not too late. Make the choice to take control of your life. It’s the only one you get, you might as well make it awesome.

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Ill-Defined Harm: A Review of Jesse Bering’s Perv

by Jason Stotts


Let me start by saying that overall, I enjoyed Jesse Bering’s new book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us.  Bering does a great job of parsing psychological studies and medical texts in a way that’s easily readable and interesting.  In fact, overall I recommend Perv and think that most people will really enjoy it.  There were even parts that I loved, like in his preface where Bering talks about some of his hard times in his past and says “This book, you might say, is my retaliation by reason.”  I fucking love that line.

In Perv, Bering has two major enterprises: First, he wants to show us that our apparently unique sexual proclivities are actually shared by quite a number of people (you’re more normal than you realize). Second, he wants to elaborate an ethical principle for when perversions are moral or immoral.

For his first enterprise, I think Bering does a really good job.  Consider this passage:

“The problem with zipping up on our dirtiest little secrets, however, is that others are doing exactly the same thing, and this means that the story of human sexuality that we’ve come to believe is true is, in reality, a lie.  What’s more, it’s a very dangerous lie, because it convinces us that we’re all along in the world as “perverts” (and hence immoral monsters) should we ever deviate in some ways from this falsely conceived pattern of the normal.  A lot of human nature has escaped rational understanding because we’ve been unwilling to be completely honest about what really turns us on” (pg. 5).

This is spot on.  This is precisely why it’s so important that people with “unusual” sexual desires be open about them: it creates a safe space for others to come out and lets us know how many other people share our desires.  This is precisely why being gay is accepted now and it wasn’t 50 years ago: some brave souls had the courage to come out and weather the storm to create a safe space and live their lives authentically.  It turns out that most of our “unusual” desires are not so unusual after all.

The problem with Perv is where Bering tries to elaborate an underlying moral framework with regard to perversions.  It is here that his lack of philosophical training emerges.

He starts well enough: “We’ve become so focused as a society on the question of whether a given sexual behavior is evolutionarily ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural’ that we’ve lost sight of the more important question: Is it harmful?” (21). So far, so good.  But, what does “harmful” mean?

First, he’s clear that whatever “harm” is, it cannot merely be in the mind: “Still, it’s only when this ‘mere breath of air’ is manifested in behavior that harm to another person may or may not occur.” (22) So “harm” must be an action.  Moreover, it must be able to be clearly explained: “It’s far easier to assume that all sex [sic] deviants including even some of those who’ve committed crimes, are immoral than it is to show, case by case, how they’ve caused measurable harm.” And, if we want to avoid moral dumbfounding, we must be able to elaborate the reasons why something is immoral (31).

Bering then uses the hypothetical of the necrophilia club and tells us that those who oppose it use some kind of presumption of harm reasoning.  Even after being told that no harm would come to anyone “people still insisted that somehow or another, someone, somewhere, must be getting harmed” (32). He notes that “the damage might even be seen as inflicted on symbolic bodies” (like the church or country), but rejects this saying: “Likewise, pain and distress can occur only at the level of a subjectively experiencing organism (human or animal) in possession of pain receptors and a nervous system able to register emotional trauma, not at the level of an abstract entity without a brain.” (33).  This, it seems to me, indicates that “harm” is either physical pain or emotional pain: that harm = pain.   Moreover, that harm, must happen to an individual and not some abstraction.

Now, Bering takes a weird turn.  He’s been trying to elaborate a moral principle to show when “perversions” are moral or immoral and he is trying to use the idea of harm to underlie this principle.  He then says: “But the concept of ‘perversions’ (or ‘going against what is right’) is entirely a phantom of the moralizing human mind” (66).  He continues, “Oddly enough, a healthy does of moral nihilism is the antidote for so many of the social ills connected to human sexuality.”  Moral nihilism, in case you don’t know, rejects the idea that there could be any kind of truth to morality.  What?! Wasn’t Bering trying to elaborate a moral principle?  These things are clearly not compatible.  In fact, this is the same error Nietzsche made: assuming that all morality was anti-life because christian morality is anti-life and then throwing it all away.

Interesting, even though Bering seems to now be arguing against any moral enterprise, he seems to have not given up on elaborating his moral principles and continues: “In my opinion, the only important point to weigh when trying to decide what is or isn’t sexually appropriate is, again, that of harm.” (88).  But Jesse!, you just told us that morality isn’t even possible and now you’re back to your quest of elaborating a moral principle?  Also, now you’re talking about “appropriateness” instead of immorality?  Is that some kind of substitute?  I guess we’ll have to see.

In the next chapter “It’s Subjective, My Dear” Bering again seems to be suggesting that “harm” is nothing more than pain and, therefore, couldn’t be the basis of an objective principle: “Sadism isn’t the only paraphilic category for which the question of harm can get murky […] a universally objective reality simply doesn’t exist in the present domain; what’s harmful to me isn’t necessarily harmful to you, and vice versa.” (142). Wait: but if harm is pain and sadism and masochism involve pain, do they also involve harm? If they do, they’re immoral.  But you’re trying to tell us how they aren’t necessarily immoral.  Is all harm pain, but not all pain harm?  I guess I don’t understand what harm is after all.

So, is there any objective basis we can use, Bering? “The best predictor of subjective harm—past, present, and future—he found, is the minor’s lack of consent.” (145). Well, that sounds like you’re saying that doing things to a person against their will and where they find this harmful is objectively harmful, especially with relation to children and sexuality.  That does sound like the beginning of a moral principle.  Do you have anything else to say about morality? “Morally, all that matters—and allow me to reiterate that because I feel it’s quite important, all that matters—is whether a person’s sexual deviancy is demonstrably harmful” (166). You’ve really got me confused now!  Is there or is there not an ethical principle at work here?  Are we ethical nihilists?  Is there any meaning to “harm”? I guess we need to press on. Surely we’re about to arrive at an answer that will clear all this up.

In arguing against the idea of using normalcy as a standard for what is moral in sexuality, Bering says: “I hope you’re able to see clearly now, by the way, why the issue of ‘normalcy’ is so morally vacuous and why the question of harm must instead prevail before we can ever hope to make any real ethical progress in these debates” (199).  While we can agree that normalcy is a problematic term in morality and that it cannot be a real standard (consider that if were, if Jews were “non-normal” in a population, then they would be immoral and you could take action against them), we have to worry about how real the idea of “harm” is when what that is has not been elaborated at all!  It is harm of one’s relationship with the christian magical sky-friend?  Is it harm of one’s purity?  Is it harm of one’s shiny soul?  Is it harm of one’s body?  Is it harm of one’s mind?  Is it harm of one’s long-term interests in life?  Without an ethical framework in which to ground harm, the concept is meaningless.

It’s clear that Bering wants to rule out at least some of these, saying: “In adopting a patently false but stubbornly clung-to mythology of human sexuality [from christianity] that makes demons out of natural drives, we’ve entered a stage of moral sickness, not of moral health.” Agreed.  But you’ve yet to elaborate what moral health would be.  At the very best, you’ve given us some of what it is not and a vacuous principle that we might or might not be supposed to believe, depending on if we take your comment about moral nihilism seriously.

Unfortunately, that’s all Bering has to say on the matter.  This leaves us terribly unsatisfied in his second major enterprise in his book.  I don’t know what harm is, I don’t know what moral framework Bering wanted to tap, and I’m not even sure he thinks that morality is a thing, although he frequently argues for it and against different kinds of it.

While there is not much to justify this, I get the idea that Bering believes that as long as perversion don’t cause harm, then they are moral.  Unfortunately, there’s a lot we don’t know.  Are these perversions simply morally acceptable (they don’t hurt me, but neither do they help) or are they actually moral (they make my life better)?  This “harm” he talks about, what kind of harm is it?  Is it simply bodily pain?  Is it economic harm?  Does the harm have to be real harm or can it be only apparent harm?  That is, does it actually have to harm me (whatever that is) or do I merely need to think I was harmed?  Does the harm have to be to others or is self-harm a problem? Does my consenting to self-harm change anything?  There are simply too many questions here that come from Bering’s failure to define what harm actually is.  Simply telling me that perversions are fine when there is no harm is not particularly instructive if we can’t understand the core concept.

While you might think this criticism is misplaced, given that Bering was writing about perversions and not the morality of perversions, the latter is a recurrent theme that he relies on in order to argue that perversions should be more socially acceptable. If it turns out that his principle is flawed, that’s a problem with one of the major themes of his book.

Now, I think that Bering can still save his enterprise, but he needs to commit himself to one of two things: creating a new moral framework that can account for a theory of what a good life is (in order to understand an account of harm) or to explicitly commit himself to an established moral framework and ground his theory of harm there.  You simply can’t use the word “harm” outside of the context of a moral framework without ending up with an empty term, as we’ve seen.  Either way, once he grounds his idea of harm, his enterprise will be much improved.  He could also argue for moral nihilism, but then he would have no reason to object to me rounding up all the perverts and executing them: after all, if there is no morality, such a thing wouldn’t be immoral.  And, yet, Bering does seem like he wants to resist at least this outcome and so he must choose a moral framework to ground his enterprise and give it some substance; substance that it so desperately lacks.

If I can make a suggestion, I think that you take on the position of Eudaimonism, which, if you’ve never heard of it, I could hardly blame you.  The position, though, insists that it is the good and rich human life that is the goal of morality.  This is fleshed out through an account of human nature and of the ways that this is achieved, which we call virtues.  When it comes out, my own book Eros and Ethos will give a full account of it, especially as it relates to sex, but in the mean time I’d be happy to talk with you about it.  You can also see the origins of Eudaimonism in Aristotle, especially his Eudemian Ethics.  But, on the basis of eudaimonism, you can give a full account of harm in the context of the agent’s life and how even bodily pain, as in BDSM, can be perfectly consistent with a good life.  You can also fully elaborate how harmful christianity has been and give a robust alternative to it.  After all, you cannot successfully tear down the old idols until you have new ones to raise in their place, as people need to believe in something.  If we’re lucky, the new thing will be something real: their own happiness and rich lives.

Overall, I still recommend Perv and found it very interesting.  Unfortunately, the depth it was striving for was just unrealized.

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