June 4th, 2012 by JasonStotts
by Jason Stotts
Presented to The Atlanta Objectivist Society
At ATLOSCon 2011 in Atlanta Georgia
Saturday May 28th, 2011 at 9:00 AM
This is the speech I presented last year at ATLOSCon 2011. This is the first time I’ve made one of my longer essays available on Erosophia and if you like it, consider donating. If I were to get donations when I post longer essays, I would be more likely to do so.
I. The Importance of Love and Sex for Happiness
“Sex is one of the most important aspects of man’s life.” ~Ayn Rand
I have an idea, a radical idea, but yet a simple one: that sex is part of what it means to live a good life for a person. This should come as no surprise to eudaimonists and Objectivists, but to others it is probably a bit of a shock. For most people, sex is something shameful and dirty, something to be done in secret, with the blinds drawn, the lights off, and about which one should never talk in the light of day. I’m here to say that not only is sex good, but sex is necessary for a good life. Furthermore, that without love and sex, happiness is impossible to achieve.
You see, I like Ayn Rand and Aristotle, think that happiness is more than a simple fleeting emotion. I think that Happiness is more than a pleasant feeling, more than a sense of joy or peace, more than simply being satisfied. Happiness is a much richer phenomenon than that and is better thought of as flourishing, or “living well” for a person. Furthermore, Happiness has several necessary conditions and it is constituted, or made up of, these conditions. Since Happiness has constitutive parts, it is possible to achieve some of the necessary conditions for happiness and to still not achieve complete happiness. Since Happiness is living well for a person, it does admit of degrees.
While I won’t focus on all of the necessary conditions for Happiness here in this speech, we are going to focus on two of the more important ones, love and sex, and showing why and how they are so important. In order to do this, I’m going to elaborate the Objectivist theory of Sexual Ethics. I’m going to elaborate the theory in stages and show how its parts are interconnected at each stage. Further, I’m going to show how sex and love are intimately, pardon the pun, related to Ethics and how Ethics is fundamentally incomplete without them.
Let’s get started.
“Emotions are the automatic results of man’s value judgements
Integrated by his subconscious.” ~ Ayn Rand
The importance of emotions for love, sex, and Ethics may not be immediately apparent for some of you, but let me assure that knowledge of emotions is absolutely critical for understanding love and sex and even helps to expand our knowledge of aspects of “Ethics proper,” like the virtues. Let’s begin by trying to just understand what an emotion is and how it operates.
An emotion is generally agreed to be a kind of psychic phenomenon: rarely do we find emotions flitting about out in nature.  No, they seem to be purely a mental phenomenon. But, they’re clearly not the only kind of mental phenomenon. I think most of us have had experiences of sensations, perceptions, feelings, desires, and perhaps even others. While we probably all have an idea of what emotions are (perhaps you’ve heard of love, hate, sorrow, and some of the others), it’s probably not so clear how they’re differentiated from each other or what makes an emotion an emotion.
In order to understand emotions at a deeper level, we need to understand the emotional process. Although we never experience the emotional process, and I should stress that we do not experience emotions in the way I’m about to describe, it is very much at work subconsciously. As we saw in the epigram, “emotions” are an automatic result from our subconscious, based on our value judgements. The process, then, works as follows: when we are confronted with a situation, our subconscious compares the situation to our antecedent value judgements to determine whether this kind of situation has been addressed before, and, if it has, what effect it will have on the person’s life and well-being, and then there is an emotional response.
Let me give you an example to help you understand the emotional process. [Ask audience to close eyes and visualize how they’d feel.] Let us say that I have a car and that I value my car. Now, let us say that I’ve just walked out of a restaurant and walked to the place that I think I’ve parked, but my car is not there! Because I value my car and it benefits my life, if I were to lose my car, it would be bad for me. Thus, I immediately start to feel sadness. Immediately after, another thought rises and reminds me that sometimes I get mixed up about where I park and perhaps my car isn’t lost after all. This thought changes my emotion from sadness to annoyance with myself for being absent-minded and a quiet optimism that perhaps my car is not lost after all. After searching the parking lot, I suddenly spot my car and rush towards it. This new information causes my emotion to change to relief and joy. I arrive at my car, which is the last in the parking lot of the right kind and try to open the door with my key. But the key doesn’t work: it’s not my car! Immediately, I am crushed and sadder than I was before. What will I do without a car? Oh!, but that’s right, I was dropped off! Suddenly my sadness is gone and replaced by chagrin and relief. I make a call and set up a ride. Now I feel annoyed at my silliness, but relieved that my car is safe and my life isn’t about to take a serious turn for the worse.
This example illustrates just how quickly our emotions can change and what a wide range of emotions we can have in a very short time. But, did you notice the emotional process at work throughout? At each turn, the new information was compared to my antecedent judgments. In this case, that my car was a value to me, and important in my life, and therefore its value, and my judgments about it, caused the emotion that I felt. Thus, emotions are a kind of psychic phenomenon that is the result of a subconscious process comparing information to antecedent value judgments.
This understanding of emotions is very different from many understandings and is a very important part of Objectivism, albeit one that is usually not focused on. While there are others who develop a similar account of emotions, Aristotle in ancient times and Robert Solomon recently, it is still the case that this view of emotions is very much not the norm. However, understanding the emotional process allows us to understand emotions in terms of the antecedent value judgments on which they are based and shows us a way to gradually alter our emotions if we have reason to do so. Furthermore, this understanding of emotions will allow us to understand sexual attraction at a much deeper level, as we will see shortly.
III. Sense of Life
“There are two aspects of man’s existence which are the special
province and expression of his sense of life: love and art.
It is with a person’s sense of life that one falls in love[…]
One falls in love with the embodiment of the values that formed
a person’s character, which are reflected in his widest goals or
smallest gestures, which create the style of his soul[…]” ~Ayn Rand
So, now that we know what an emotion is, we need to turn just briefly to a related idea, that of “sense of life.” Sense of life is a term coined by Ayn Rand and refers to a person’s implicit understanding of, or outlook on, life, the universe, and their efficacy in it. It is a subconscious appraisal of everything and influences all aspects of our life.
While sense of life is important in all human relationships, it is especially so in romantic and sexual relationships. In a large way, our “first impression” of people is determined by our response to their sense of life. It is also responsible for the phenomenon of “love at first sight,” insofar as the concept is legitimate. Our sense of life influences us in ways that we’re not even conscious of: it influences how we hold ourselves, our manner of dress, our grooming habits, our body language: indeed, all of those things that combine to give a person an instant appraisal when they first meet someone else.
I don’t think that love is simple enough to actually begin the first time you see someone, but an instantaneous assessment of a person, and of your potential compatibility with them, most certainly happens and sometimes we do call this thing “love at first sight.” What we’re actually experiencing is perhaps some lust, perhaps some sense of (potential) affection that might at some point in the future turn into love. In effect, we’re experiencing our subconscious telling us “you know, this person seems like they might be a good fit for us and we should look into this more.” Our sense of life reaction is a motivation to pursue the person and to gather more information in order to make a better informed opinion of the person.
While “love at first sight,” based on a sense of life response, can be very motivating to pursue a person, it should not be mistaken for actual love, but should instead be thought of as potential love and as a reason to go looking for more information. Given that sense of life operates the same way as an emotion, we must remember that it only gives us information about ourselves and does not necessarily reveal any information about the person in question: thus, the dictum still applies that “emotions are not tools of cognition” and our sense of life response should be taken as no more than a starting point for love and not love itself.
IV. Sexual Attraction
“Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive
and I will tell you his entire philosophy of life.
Show me the woman he sleeps with
and I will tell you his valuation of himself.”
Now that we understand emotions and sense of life better, we are going to take a look at sexual attraction and how it factors into the equation. In terms of its operation, sexual attraction functions like an emotion. Additionally, it has close ties to sense of life and to love as well. Since time is so limited here, we’re going to leave aside issues of the possibility of “purely” physical attraction, hormones, and the like and focus on how our ideas and judgments, the things within our control, that influence our sexual attractions. We’re going to begin with a concretization.
Let us say, for example, that you see a beautiful woman and you are instantly sexually attracted to her. Now, what if you were told that this same woman had a deadly disease that is easily sexually transmitted, would you feel the same attraction? What if instead of having a deadly disease this woman was the mother of three children; would you be more or less attracted to her than you were initially? Has anything changed about the woman?
Let us say that now you see a rather nondescript man and you feel no attraction to him. Would your attraction to him change if you found out he was an extremely popular musician? What if you were dying of cancer and found out that this man had just found the cure that would save you and countless others? Would you find him arousing then? Did anything change about the man?
What if you meet a person through correspondence, whether by letter or online, and you are very attracted to his intelligence, his wit, and his ability to see the best in every situation, but find out (upon meeting him in person) that he is also hideous in appearance, would this affect your attraction? What if, instead of being hideous, he instead misrepresented his gender, would this affect your attraction? What changed about the person?
It’s clear that there is something strange going on here: attractions that appear at first to be solely physical are either heightened or destroyed by intellectual considerations, while attractions that appear at first to be solely intellectual are either heightened or destroyed by physical considerations. The issue is not whether your personal attraction actually changed, but the fact that such change is possible based on different kinds of judgments. Clearly, there is a connection between values and sexual attraction.
In terms of the operation of sexual attraction, it is very similar to the way emotions work and the same caveat applies: this is the way that sexual attraction operates and the way that we analyze it, but it is not the way in which we experience our sexual attraction. Just like in emotions, sexual attraction starts with the ideas we have about sex, about love, about what kind of person a partner should be, about what sexual activities are “okay” to do, what a partner should look like, and a whole host of other ideas, some of which may only seem tangentially related to sex. Many of these ideas are formed before we’re old enough to really know what sex is or how love feels. Luckily, few of these ideas are completely fixed and they constantly change as we grow, mature, gain new experiences, make new judgments, make mistakes, succeed: in short, they change through living.
These judgments and ideas we have provide the basis for our sexual attraction, even those attractions that appear to be “purely physical.” Indeed, I’ve always wondered how some people could assert that we are born with a preprogrammed idea of what is beautiful and sexually attractive. If such were the case, then we should expect absolute agreement, or minimally a very strong widespread concurrence, about who is attractive and who is not: and yet we certainly don’t see that in real life.
While there is no doubt that hormones, pheromones, and some natural responses to signs of health can have an influence on our attractions, they are wholly insufficient to explain them. Indeed, I think we all know people who we are sexually attracted to, not because of their physical beauty or characteristics, but because of their intelligence, or passion for life, or integrity and honesty, etc. Conversely, I think we all know people to whom we would be sexually attracted, based on their physical characteristics, but to whom we are not because of other aspects like religious belief, irrationality, lack of virtue, poor decision-making, etc. Our sexual attraction is much more complex than can be explained simply physically and we need to remember to look to our antecedent judgements in order to understand it.
Now, in terms of the connection between sense of life and sexual attraction, it shouldn’t be too hard to see where the connection is going to come in and I hinted at it when talking about love at first sight. Basically, our sense of life acts as a first stage appraisal for compatibility with a person and this, combined with our sexual attraction, gives us a good idea of our compatibility with a person when we first meet them. Our sexual attraction tells us whether we find the person attractive and our sense of life tells us whether we might be a good match with them: together we have the information to make a decision about whether to pursue this person to look for more information or not waste our time. Overall, our sense of life helps to determine our overall compatibility with a person and is very important to sexual attraction, as much of our attraction to other people is at the sense of life level.
“Love is the expression of philosophy
—of a subconscious philosophical sum—
and, perhaps, no other aspect of human existence
needs the conscious power of philosophy quite so desperately.
When that power is called upon to verify
and support an emotional appraisal,
when love is a conscious integration of reason and emotion,
of mind and values, then
—and only then—
is it the greatest reward of man’s life.”
~ Ayn Rand
We’ve already seen how emotions operate and this gives us the framework to understand how love operates. However, knowing how love operates insofar as it is an emotion is something less than knowing what love actually is. I certainly can’t rationalistically move from knowing how love operates to knowing how love would feel and understanding the experience of being in love. If we want to understand love we need to dig deeper and look into what particular kinds of judgments love is a response to. We need to see how love fits more broadly into a human life. And we need to look at the connection between love and sex.
Since love is an emotion, we know it is a response to values. However, which values? What kinds of things does love arise from? Is love simply an excess of friendship? Is it a super degree of affection? We need to begin drawing some distinctions among the things that we call love.
Love can loosely be thought of as a very positive emotional response to a person and a desire for their happiness. In our culture, we have several different prominent kinds of love: love of friends, love of family, and romantic love. In each of these cases, there is a common element of a positive emotional response and a wish for the other to have a happy life. However, there are also important differences. In familial love, we do not choose who is in our family and our love is partly a product of the person themselves and partly a product of their biological connection to us and their impact on our lives. In friendship, the connection is chosen and we love our friend because not only are they pleasant to be around, but also because they help us to live better lives through encouraging us to excellence and by living an exemplary life themselves. True friendship encourages mutual movement towards perfection. We can have a number of good friends, although this number is necessarily small, and each of these friends will have an important impact on our lives.
With romantic love, the relationship is chosen, it is pleasant, and our lover should help us to become a better person as well. However, unlike friendship where our friend has an impact on our lives, our lovers become part of our lives and have a much more fundamental role. With a lover, there is a real sense of shared identity that comes about from shared experience, mutual aims and ambitions, valuing your lover for their sake, and internalizing, or adopting, their ends into your own hierarchy of values. This mutual internalization of your lover’s ends as your own brings a real sense of shared identity and a sense that your lover is very much a part of you: it brings a true sense of intimacy. There is a real sense in which two lovers who are joined in this way are part of each other and this is the source of the idea that when you lose a lover, you lose part of yourself. It is this intimacy and shared identity that is characteristic of romantic love and this differentiates it from other kinds of love.
There is, however, at least one more important differentiator between romantic love and other kinds of love, and that is sex. For Objectivism, sex is something that one does only with a person who shares one’s fundamental values and who is also a personal value. Sex, then, for Objectivism is a celebration of these values, of the people involved, of the body’s great capacity for pleasure, and of existence. Because sex has such close connections to values and is so important in what it means to be a human, it should not be treated lightly. But, you might be wondering whether romantic love is necessarily sexual. The answer for Objectivism is, all other things equal, absolutely yes. Ayn Rand was very clear about this point: “Just as an idea unexpressed in physical action is contemptible hypocrisy, so is platonic love.” (Platonic love is, of course, the doctrine that pure love is not sexual.) If you love someone, but refuse to actualize your love through sex, then you are being hypocritical: you claim on the one hand to love them romantically but refuse to show them this.
Sex and love are extremely selfish values, since your lover is a great value in your life and occupies a special place in a rational person’s hierarchy. At the same time, rational selfishness is also a precondition for love and sex. Everyone is probably familiar with the quote: “To say ‘I love you’ one must first know how to say the ‘I’.” This point is often emphasized, but perhaps not as well understood. It is not simply that a person must know himself and his beliefs, desires, and goals before he can love another, although this is important. It is not simply that he must be acting rationally and pursuing his values, although this is also true. It is these things and more: a person must have his hierarchy of values in order, he must be working on achieving virtue, and he must have a purpose, that is: be engaged in productive work (although this need not be their lifelong career). Basically, the point is until a person has his life in order, he is not ready to love.
Imagine a person who didn’t have his life in order trying to love. He might declare to a woman “I love you because you are honest,” but what if he isn’t actually sure he values honesty? If he is asked by a potential partner what his views on capitalism are, because the potential partner values rational and productive people, and he doesn’t have any views on economics and isn’t even sure he thinks it’s necessary that people work, how do you think this potential partner might respond? At a deeper level: how can you make sure that there is concurrence between your hierarchy of values and the things that you hold dear in life and a potential partner’s if you don’t know yourself, your values, and your desires? Not knowing yourself is a recipe for disaster in dating. It amounts to saying: “I love you, but I have no idea why,” which is hardly the most romantic thing ever said
It is important to know yourself because love is conditional: it is based on values. If those values change in fundamental ways, the love often dies. If, when you first meet your partner, you are both consistent Objectivists and years later, your partner becomes devoutly religious (one might call this change one from rationality to irrationality), then it is unlikely that your love will survive or even that either of you would want it to survive. The conflict that arises between people who have different ideas comes from them trying to merge their lives together anyway and trying to fit pieces together that truly don’t fit. While you can drop a round peg through a square hole if the peg is small enough, a big enough peg just won’t fit without tearing the hole apart. Love is conditional and if those conditions change enough, then love will die.
VI. Romantic Relationships
“I consider marriage a very important institution, but it is important when
and if two people have found the person with whom they
wish to spend the rest of their lives—a question
of which no man or woman can be automatically certain.” ~ Ayn Rand
In many cultures, our own included, when two people are in love, all other things being equal, they will enter into a romantic relationship. Before we start this section, though, it is important to recognize that love is one thing and romantic relationships are another and there is no necessary connection between them. I know this might be a shock to some of you, but sometimes there is love without the people being in a relationship and there are even romantic relationships that are loveless! However, we’re not going to deal with these relationships or unique situations that might preclude a relationship between people who love each other and, instead, we’re going to focus only on what a proper romantic relationship should be, leaving aside all of the other things a relationship could be.
So, what is a proper romantic relationship? The specific form a romantic relationship takes for any two people is going to be completely dependent on their personalities and their style of expressing themselves and their emotions. However, there are still aspects shared by all good romantic relationships.
A romantic relationship is a formal declaration of love between two people who want to be recognized as being important in each other’s lives. These kinds of relationships range from the fairly informal “we’re dating,” to the somewhat more formal “we’re in a serious relationship,” to the very formal relationships of engagement and marriage. The common denominator among these kinds of relationships is the level of commitment they indicate about those in them: the stronger the commitment, the more formal the relationship.
The best kinds of relationships, at all levels of commitment, bear close similarities to love. For example, true love encourages mutual movement towards perfection and a good relationship does this as well. Part of the problem in thinking about this is that in our culture and tradition, love and relationships are equated so strongly that it’s hard to think about one without the other. Yet, we shouldn’t be too surprised by this close connection, as usually those in love want to spend their time together and share their experiences with each other. In fact, I agree with Aristotle that spending your life together (Aristotle calls it “living together,” although it’s pretty clear he didn’t mean it literally) is a key characteristic of relationships., So, two key aspects of good relationships are becoming better people and spending your lives together.
Good relationships also provide psychological visibility to the lovers in them. Psychological visibility is the psychological recognition that one is being seen for who one really is by one’s partner in the way that one wants to be seen. Now, this should come as no surprise, considering that we’ve already discussed that true love is based on a person’s fundamental values and understanding a person at this deep level brings with it psychological visibility. This kind of visibility also promotes respect between partners, as it is much harder not to show respect for someone who you know very well and who is visible to you. It’s much easier to not respect someone who you don’t know well and who isn’t visible as a person to you.
Really, a good relationship is good all the way around for the lovers in it. But, you occasionally hear some rationalistic Objectivists worry that a relationship isn’t for “real individualists” because they claim that relationships stifle individuality. While we can dismiss the concern about individualists being in relationships as pure rationalism, the concern about how to maintain your individuality in a relationship can be legitimate. There must be a balance between the individuality of the lovers, the unity of the relationship, and their shared identity. A relationship of two “indifferent individualists” can hardly be called a relationship at all. On the other hand, a relationship where the lovers lose their individual identities is one doomed to fail, as there will be nothing left to love about each other. There must be a balance between remaining aloof from the relationship and being consumed by it. While this balance can be hard to achieve and can sometimes be precarious, it is important to work to achieve it, such that you end up with a relationship of two individuals who share a life.
“To a rational man, sex is an expression of
self-esteem—a celebration of himself and of existence.”
The objectivist position on sex can be summed up quite succinctly: sex is good., It is not simply a good, but it is one of the highest goods in a human life. In order to understand just why this is, we need to take a deeper look at sex. Luckily, with the framework we now have, this deep look is going to make a lot more sense than it would have had we tried this same analysis before having this framework in place.
Ayn Rand makes the point that sex is connected to values numerous times in her works. A lot of people have a hard time seeing the connection at first blush, but the connection should be pretty obvious by now. Sex is deeply connected to love and sexual attraction; through these things, it is connected to values.
Now, some people might object that it is possible to have sex with someone with whom you do not share values and this is obviously true. But, one might rejoin, “why would you want to have sex with someone for whom you feel nothing and to whom you’re not attracted?” Furthermore, to the extent that one was able to engage in sex with someone who did not share his values, or with a person about whom he was ignorant of their values, one is forced to evade one’s knowledge of this and deceive oneself about the person that one is about to have sex with by projecting the kinds of values onto them that one would like, and would be sexually attracted to, and then responding to these values as though they were actually instantiated in the person: which is a supreme effort of self-deception.
This point is very much related to Ayn Rand’s point that attempting to substitute sexual conquest for self-esteem is self-defeating and is an inversion of sex and its relationship to self-esteem. Sex does not beget self-esteem: sex is an expression of self-esteem. Consider the man who has sex with various women only in order to feel better about himself. To him, his sexual exploits are “conquests,” they are victories over these women and that make him their better and the “victor.” Unfortunately, it’s pretty clear that’s not how this works. Convincing an indiscriminate person to have sex with you is like convincing an obese person to join you at the buffet: it’s simply no effort at all. There is no value in life in having sex with someone for whom you feel nothing and it certainly isn’t a source of self-esteem. In order to really drive this point home, we need to push further in looking at the connection between love, sexual attraction, and sex.
Human beings are not ephemeral souls trapped inside corporeal prisons. We are not some murky white substance attached to the pineal gland. We are also not simply mechanistic bodies. While we can say that we have both minds and bodies, they are integrated and it’s not correct to say that we have “parts,” not in the sense that parts imply separability. While there are aspects of humans that we call “mental” and there are aspects of humans that we call “bodily,” they are nonetheless a unit and we refer to them separately only to facilitate conceptual clarity and not because they are in any way separate or separable. This is important because it means that “bodily” things, like sickness or hunger, also affect my mind. Alternatively, “mental” things, like having a strong emotional response of anger, affect my body. There is nothing that affects only the mind or only the body: they are inseparable and unified. So, too, is the case with sex: sex affects the whole of us as people.
Sex is so much more than a simple wriggling of meat, more than penises, vaginas, anuses, breasts, and all the rest. It’s also more than even physical arousal or orgasm. Sex is intimately tied to how we view ourselves, what we want in a partner, what we think of as the purpose of sex, our cultural attitudes about sex, and our past experiences and choices. It’s simply not possible to disconnect these things from sex. This is not to say that we consciously think about these things during sex or that we can’t try to evade and ignore these things, but rather they are connected whether we want them to be or not. In short, our values are necessarily connected to sex, because sex is in a large way a response to our values.
Sex is an act that is necessarily both mental and bodily, that brings together both aspects of our being into a tightly integrated unit and allows us to experience this integration more clearly than we usually can. In this way, sex is unique in its ability to allow us to experience a heightened sense of our unity, of the connection between our minds and bodies. No other act is capable of this to the degree that sex is. Not only does it allow us to experience our unity of mind and body, it also lets us experience the unity we have with our lover and the sense of deep connection that comes from having sex with someone you love deeply, who shares your values, and who values you greatly.
This deep experience is one of the most profound of human existence. The intense pleasure of the sex act mixed with the intense pleasure of being able to experience a deep sense of your mind-body unity and of the interpersonal unity of your relationship all combine to produce an intense affirmation of your life and your life together with your partner. Sex, in this way, is a celebration of the fact that you exist, your partner exists, you exist together and that in that moment nothing else matters. This is why Ayn Rand says that sex “is a celebration of oneself and of existence.”
VIII. Love, Sex, and Happiness
“If some man like Hugh Akston,” said Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged,
“had told me, that by accepting the mystic’s theory of sex
I was accepting the looter’s theory of economics,
I would have laughed in his face.
I would not laugh at him now.” ~ Ayn Rand
By this point, we should have a pretty good grasp of emotions, sense of life, sexual attraction, love, romantic relationships, and sex. It should also be pretty obvious how all these things fit together and interact. So, at this point we have a pretty good understanding of the framework of the Objectivist Sexual Ethics. The last major question we need to address is the broader question of how this fits into an overall human life and the connections sex has to Ethics.
Our sexuality is part of our human nature: our species reproduces sexually. In order to do this, roughly half of human bodies have one set of sexual organs and the other half have a different set. When these organs are combined in the act we call sexual intercourse, genetic material from the one set transfers into the other and in some cases combines to produce a new human. For humans, sexuality is inescapable. Even if any particular person chose never to have sex, they would still have a body that was sexed, that is: they would be either male or female. Even if they were to badly mutilate their bodies, their genes would still betray their sex. From the moment we are born, to the moment we die, our bodies are sexualized.
The fact that humans are necessarily sexual is important, because if we want to live well as humans, we must take our nature into account. We cannot rationalistically attempt to prescribe what an abstract, disembodied, rational agent might do, as Kant does. Rather, we must look to the reality of our situation and to the necessary conditions for living well, given all of our aspects. Further, the more important any particular aspect of our nature is, the more we must be aware of it in Ethics. Since sex is very important in human life, Ethics must be very cognizant of it.
The fact that there is more than one thing that a person must do, or have, in order to be happy is the fact that gives rise to the necessary conditions for happiness. The fact that sex is so important in a human life is what makes it necessary for happiness. A life without sex, love, and relationships would be a sad life indeed. I would even go so far as to argue that a life without these things could never be a happy life, that without these things Happiness is impossible. Thus, that sexuality is necessary for happiness. This is hardly a novel idea for a eudaimonist, as Aristotle recognized the importance of certain kinds of relationships for happiness thousands of years ago in his Nicomachean Ethics and Eudemian Ethics.
Because sex is so important in life and to happiness, it is all the more urgent that we take it seriously and that it is integrated into Ethics. Without ethical principles related to sex, individual agents would be in the dark and would be forced to rely on trial and error to try to find good ways to live. This would be fine, except that we only have one life to live and serious errors would forever impede the agent’s chance at happiness, if he even survived the mistake.
Since the end of Ethics is to help us live well, and sex is a necessary part of human life, ethics must have something to say about sex. A system of Ethics that ignores sex is a system of Ethics that is wholly insufficient to try to help us achieve human happiness. Frankly, I find the silence about sex in Ethics to be disturbing. There have been all too few discussions of Sexual Ethics since the ancient Greeks. Yet, we know people struggle with these issues every single day. We know they have questions about how to evaluate the balance between their careers and their relationships, about when it’s moral to have sex, about what sex acts are moral to engage in, about when it’s moral to carry a baby to term, about what love is and how we can understand it, ad infinitum. If these people, and by these people, I mean every human being, can’t turn to Ethics for answers to these questions, or at least for a way to understand sex and it’s proper role in life, then Ethics has seriously failed them.
Furthermore, our understanding of sex influences all other aspects of our lives and impacts the way we live. If we are wracked by guilt in the sexual realm, then we will not be able to live healthy, selfish lives. If we think that we have no right to pleasure in sex, then we will begin to think we have no right to pleasure in other aspects of our lives. Basically, if we accept an altruistic view of sex, we will be led to accept an altruistic view of everything: just as Hank Rearden found out the hard way. We cannot attempt to be good rational egoists and try not to think of sex, it’s simply too important in human life and impacts too much of our identities and our relations with other people. If we refuse to think about sex and Sexual Ethics, then we refuse to think about what it is to be human and we refuse to think about Ethics. We as beings of both mind and body cannot ignore our bodies and hope that Ethics will still go well: it will not.
In conclusion, it is time for us to recognize the necessity of integrating sex for Ethics and its importance for happiness. We simply cannot afford to ignore something so vitally important to human life if we wish to live well.
IV. Topics and Applications
1. Birth Control and Abortion
“A proper, philosophically valid definition of man as “a rational animal,” would not permit anyone to ascribe the status of “person” to a few human cells.” ~ Ayn Rand
The Objectivist position on abortion is clear: if a woman is to have a right to her own life, then she must have a right to determine the course of her life, especially in something so important as sexuality and reproduction. Consequently, she must have complete freedom in her choice in whether to keep or terminate a pregnancy. This is not to say that Objectivism condones any instance of abortion as moral. People should be responsible for their sexual choices and should use birth control if they don’t want to have a child, reserving abortion for instances where birth control or judgment have failed. Nonetheless, the fact that sometimes abortion may be an immoral choice does not mean that it should ever be impermissible or illegal.
The great impact that giving birth would have on the lives of a young couple means that they must carefully consider if and when they want to have children and then take measures to prevent accidental pregnancies if they are to engage in sexual activities. Thus, one might say that Objectivism regards the use of birth control as morally obligatory if one is intending to engage in sexual activities and isn’t ready to take on the responsibility of raising a child. As Ayn Rand says:
“The passive obedience and helpless surrender to the physical functions of one’s body, the necessity to let procreation be the inevitable result of the sexual act, is the natural fate of animals, not of men.
2. The Procreative Standard and the Purpose of Sex
The procreative standard is a religious standard, most ardently defended by the catholic church, that is based on the idea that their god created all things and endowed an end for them. Further, they believe that their god thinks that the only end of sex is reproduction and the only proper purpose of the sexual organs is to bring about reproduction. To go against this “divine order” is an abomination and an affront to their god. I don’t know about you, but I personally love affronting the christian god. Of course, Objectivism, with its emphasis on reason and reality completely rejects all religious doctrines, the procreative standard with them.
A look out at reality would show us that different body parts have multiple functions. For example, the procreative standard decries anal sex as unnatural because the anus is part of the excretory system and, thus, shouldn’t be used for sexual pleasure. On the other hand, the function of the penis is reproductive, so it shouldn’t be used for any non-reproductive acts. Well, I don’t know about the christians, but my penis is involved in more than reproduction. In fact, I’ve never once used it to that end. On the other hand, I daily use it for non-reproductive ends via urination. And I don’t just do this occasionally—I do it every day. So it’s hard for me to understand how the christians might think the penis has only one function or could have only one function. Clearly, in reality, the penis has multiple functions, at least: reproduction, pleasure, and urination.
It’s not just the body parts themselves that the christians think have a function, it is also the act of sex. The christians think that their god endowed sex with the function of reproduction and that other uses are abhorrent. Since we reject their god and their epistemology of faith, we can also reject this argument based on faith. Indeed, in humans, reproduction is hardly guaranteed. Even in the best of circumstances, with both partners trying to conceive, it can take a long time. Furthermore, it’s not like you have a real chance every month as few women actually produce an egg every single month. It’s pretty clear that in humans sex isn’t just for reproduction as if it were, we would expect it to look very different. For example, in chimps, the male inserts his penis into a female, thrusts between 7 to 15 seconds and ejaculates. Dogs, like many animals, only have sex when the female is in heat and is ready to reproduce. Yet, human sex doesn’t usually look like this, which it should if it only had one end and that end was reproduction. Some humans have sex for more than a few seconds at a time and most people have literally no idea when the female is fertile, as human females are receptive to sex throughout their ovulatory cycle. If sex was only for reproduction, then why don’t women only accept sex when they’re fertile? In reality, reproduction is not the only end of sex. In fact, it’s usually not the end of sex.
3. Unnatural Sex Acts
The prohibition against “unnatural sex acts” is very much a product of the procreative standard and christian theology. Yet, even when severed from this explicit link, some people persist in thinking that some sex acts are unnatural and shouldn’t be engaged in by humans. The two most commonly objected acts are oral sex and anal sex. There are all too many people who think that it is wrong and strange to engage in, or even to want to engage in, these acts. Now, we’ve already dealt with the teleological (function) arguments, and seen how these don’t hold water, so it’s time to turn to other objections.
When people object to anal and oral sex, without relying on function arguments, they typically object to these acts being “unnatural.” Severed from the religious function arguments, this means that they think that this behavior isn’t seen in other animals and, therefore, it is also unnatural for humans to do it. Now, this is a very strange argument, as humans do all sorts of things other animals do not do. But, let’s address it head on anyway.
The idea that no other animals engage in oral or anal sex is just factually wrong. Indeed there are many examples of other animals engaging in these behaviors. For example, our closet primate relative, the bonobo, regularly engages in both oral and anal sex, both “heterosexually” and “homosexually.” Now, it’s pretty hard to argue that these animals are acting unnaturally, as though they could understand their nature conceptually, be self-reflective about their actions, make deliberate choices, and then choose to act against their nature. I just think this is so implausible as to render the idea that oral and anal sex is unnatural into its own reductio ad absurdum.
Now, even though we’ve seen that it is “natural,” that really isn’t the deciding factor in our analysis. A rational person wants to know whether these acts will improve or harm their life and, indeed, this is the principle by which we must adhere if we are worried about whether something is moral.
So, we have to ask: is there anything about oral or anal sex that will harm a person’s life? The answer is obviously no. So, we will have to regard them as moral as long as the people engaging in them are doing so consensually, safely, and not harming each other. If this is the case, then these acts are just more ways for partners to give each other pleasure and show how much they care for each other. There certainly is no reason to cut ourselves off from such pleasurable acts and the diversity of pleasurable sex acts that these open to us without a compelling reason and there is pretty obviously not one here.
I want to end this section by reading a passage from Atlas Shrugged, where Dagny and Francisco discover sex together:
She was never so feminine as when she stood beside him, sagging in his arms, abandoning herself to anything he wished, in open acknowledgement of his power to reduce her to helplessness by the pleasure he had the power to give her. He taught her every manner of sensuality he could invent. “Isn’t it wonderful that our bodies can give us so much pleasure?”
Personally, I think Francisco was a pretty smart and creative guy. Think about the implications of that.
4. Pre-Marital Sex
This question is much easier than some of the others, as Ayn Rand answered it herself:
[Sex should] involve . . . a very serious relationship. Whether that relationship should or should not become a marriage is a question which depends on the circumstances and the context of the two persons’ lives. I consider marriage a very important institution, but it is important when and if two people have found the person with whom they wish to spend the rest of their lives—a question of which no man or woman can be automatically certain. When one is certain that one’s choice is final, then marriage is, of course, a desirable state. But this does not mean that any relationship based on less than total certainty is improper. I think the question of an affair or a marriage depends on the knowledge and the position of the two persons involved and should be left up to them. Either is moral, provided only that both parties take the relationship seriously and that it is based on values.
The relevant criteria of whether sex is moral is whether the partners care deeply for each other and base their decision to have sex on their mutual values and the values they are in each other’s lives. Thus the young Dagny having sex with Francisco in the woods is perfectly moral because they cared deeply for each other and based their love on shared values. Even though it turns out she didn’t marry him, that doesn’t retroactively make their sexual liaison immoral. I should also point out that Ayn Rand is using the word “affair” in a (now) archaic way to mean only sex outside of marriage, but not in the current definition of extra-marital sex (being married to one person and having sex with another).
Now this isn’t Ayn Rand’s view, but it is my opinion that pre-marital sex is not just morally permissible, but that it’s morally obligatory. Given that sexual incompatibility is one of the leading causes of divorce and you can’t know whether you’re sexually compatible without having sex, it is irrational to enter into a relationship, especially a long term and committed relationship like marriage, without knowing you’re sexually compatible with your partner. To enter blindly into a marriage without knowing whether you’re compatible and simply hoping that you are is foolhardy and a recipe for a bad marriage.
5. Masculinity, Femininity, and Homosexuality
Please see my essay “Sexual Attraction and Philosophy: An Inquiry into the Underlying Operations” for more in-depth treatment of this issue.
This is in some ways an exceptionally easy question and in others a very complicated question. At the Ford Hall Forum in 1971, after presenting her essay “The Moratorium on Brains,” Ayn Rand was explicitly asked about her position on homosexuality during the Q&A section. The question was this:
This questioner says she read somewhere that you consider all forms of homosexuality immoral. If this is so, why?
To which Ayn Rand responded:
[I think homosexuality is immoral] because it involves psychological flaws, corruptions, errors, or unfortunate premises, but there is a psychological immorality at the root of homosexuality. Therefore I regard it as immoral. But I do not believe that the government has the right to prohibit it. It is the privilege of any individual to use his sex life in whichever way he wants it. That’s his legal right, provided he is not forcing it on anyone. And therefore the idea that it’s proper among consenting adults is the proper formulation legally. Morally it is immoral, and more than that, if you want my really sincere opinion, it is disgusting.
Now, people usually try to explain this away by saying that this is “the philosopher” and not “the philosophy.” However, because this was part of a formal lecture, even if during the Q&A, I believe this counts as “Objectivism proper.” My view is further given credence because she differentiates her own opinion “it is disgusting” from Objectivism’s moral appraisal of it as immoral. To regard it as simply an opinion of Ayn Rand’s and not part of Objectivism assumes that Objectivism (the “philosophy”) is silent on the salient issues: it is not. Ayn Rand had reasons for her beliefs and these reasons are in Objectivism proper. Now, I, of course, believe that she was mistaken, but she certainly had reasons for her beliefs.
Her principled argument against homosexuality, if she were to have made one, would be as follows (and here I’m going to be relying merely on the “philosophy”):
Ayn Rand thought that sex was very important in life, as we’ve seen above. She also thought that masculinity and femininity are very important parts of the sex and of the experience of sexual attraction and sexual arousal. She defined the essence femininity as: “hero-worship—the desire to look up to man.” Now, it is important that it is not just any man that a feminine woman can look up to, the man must be at least her intellectual and moral equal: “Intellectually and morally, i.e., as a human being, she has to be his equal; then the object of her worship is specifically his masculinity, not any human virtue she might lack.” Her worship is not for any moral or intellectual quality, or indeed any other human characteristic that she might share. Her worship “is an abstract emotion for the metaphysical concept of masculinity as such.” So, the essence of femininity is worship of the metaphysical concept of masculinity as such. This isn’t particularly illuminating by itself, without knowing what masculinity is and thus we must turn our attention there.
Unfortunately, Ayn Rand never defined masculinity explicitly, although she did think that she had given exemplars of it in her fiction, particularly in Howard Roark and John Galt. Since she didn’t define the term for us, we’ll have to see if we can’t figure out what masculinity is ourselves.
We know that whatever masculinity is, it cannot be something that women could share in. Furthermore, it is not any sort of moral or intellectual thing. So, what could the essence of masculinity be? To find out, we need to turn to that quintessential sine qua non of masculinity: the penis. Certainly, the penis meets most of the criteria for the essence of masculinity that we are looking for, except that we’re looking for some metaphysical quality and not a physical part of a person. But, we can probably take an educated guess and assume that whatever this metaphysical quality is, it arises from the penis. You see, Ayn Rand thought that the penis had a special metaphysical status that it gained from being metaphysically active during sexual intercourse. On her view, the penis is active and penetrates the passive vagina, which is merely receptive. Consequently, the penis working correctly is necessary for sex in a way that the vagina working correctly is not.
Because the penis is metaphysically active in penetration during sex, Ayn Rand thought that this led to the man being the “active partner” in sex. This metaphysical activity is the core of masculinity. The masculine man takes action, he goes after what he wants and gets it. He is vigorous in the pursuit of his values. He is not passive or receptive, rather he is strong of mind and of body so that he can achieve his values.
For example, in response to a letter from a reader claiming that “the rape scene,” and thus Ayn Rand’s view of sex was, a reversion to caveman type psychology, Ayn Rand replied that: “As to your analysis of Dominique’s psychology, you are wrong in explaining it as a reversion to what you call a “caveman type.” It is not a reversion, it is the way any truly feminine woman feels about a truly masculine man. Think that one over.” The implication is clear: the feminine woman wants to be dominated by a masculine man who makes her submit; because the essence of femininity is submission to a masculine man and the essence of masculinity is domination of the feminine. After all, it is not that Roark raped Dominique, it is that Dominique wanted Roark and showed him that she did, but wanted him only if he was a real man and capable of making her submit to him. Inviting him into her bedroom and then smacking him across the face with her whip and drawing his blood when he didn’t come was a challenge to him. Him coming to her and making her submit to him was him passing the challenge. As one final piece of proof, consider Ayn Rand thought that: “I cannot conceive of a rational woman who does not want to be precisely an instrument of her husband’s selfish enjoyment.”
Because masculinity is oriented to femininity, remember it’s essence is domination of the feminine, and femininity is oriented to masculinity, it’s essence is submission to the masculine, to attempt to have a masculine response to another man or a feminine response to a woman is unnatural and a “misorientation.” There is simply no way to morally be homosexual in Objectivism, because it is a perversion of a natural order and thus, must result from “psychological flaws, corruptions, errors, or unfortunate premises” to return to the quote we started with. This misorientation is the source of the “psychological immorality” that Rand is referencing and is the reason she says that “The feeling of friendship is asexual; it can be experienced toward a member of one’s own sex.” The implication, of course, being that real love cannot be experienced towards a member of the same sex, because that kind of love would be a perversion and, thus, not real love. Since a same-sex attraction is a violation of the natural order, it must also be a moral volition.
This is the Objectivist position on homosexuality and I don’t think it’s honest to attempt to explain it away as all too many Objectivists attempt to do. Instead, I think we need to confront it head on and show how some unfortunate errors led Ayn Rand to her position, but how none of these are necessary to Objectivism and that if we correct these errors, then we can salvage nearly all of the Objectivist Sexual Ethics.
Some of the most pertinent factual errors that we need to correct are related to biology, which lead to some of Ayn Rand’s metaphysical claims. Although, to be fair, I don’t know whether this information was available when she was writing and so it may not have been possible for her to have known this. One major claim that she got wrong is that the female sexual organs are passive in sex. It turns out that the female sexual organs are much more active in reproduction than the male sexual organs. In terms of the penis, its function is to deposit sperm by the cervix and hope that it gets to an egg. The shape of the penis evolved to also flush out any other person’s semen that might already be present. That’s about it. In terms of the vagina, it has a much more active role. The vagina is acidic, in order to kill sperm that aren’t fit enough. The cervix acts as an active filter for sperm, blocking some and allowing others through. Not only that, but it can safely harbor sperm in it’s mucus crypts and extend their life in order to allow it a better chance at an egg if it thinks the sperm would be a good genetic match. If a sperm clear all these hurdles and makes it to the egg, it can’t just pick up the genetic trophy. The egg determines which sperm it will allow in and blocks all others. Thus, the female’s body is exceedingly active in reproduction, while the male’s body is curiously passive here: it simply deposits a sperm army and hopes for the best. The most active the penis is in the act of sex itself with thrusting, but it’s not like a woman cannot get on top of a man.
Consider how these facts radically change Ayn Rand’s conception of masculinity and femininity. It might not invert the sexual essences, but it certainly throws some doubt on their physical bases. Now, she might still be able to find a foundation for masculinity and femininity, but it’s hard to imagine what it might be that would justify these concepts as she wants them.
Personally, I think we need to go back to the drawing board on these concepts and tie them to physical bodies as well as societal sex roles, making the concepts culturally dependent, which is what we see in reality when we compare what is masculine or feminine in one culture to another culture. This is not to say that they shouldn’t be based on facts of people’s bodies and on male and female differences, but that this can’t be all there is to these concepts. Furthermore, since we know that there is a natural percent of homosexuals in any population, the concepts of masculinity and femininity need to be able to account for this.
Another question that we might want to raise, even leaving all of Ayn Rand’s original claims in place, is whether the fact that masculinity is usually oriented to femininity and vice-versa means that they are always necessarily so and whether homosexual orientations actually destroy these concepts. I think that we concept could be defined in such a way as to reference the actual facts of reality and be inclusive of both heterosexual and homosexual orientations.
At the end of the day, I don’t think Objectivism’s arguments against homosexuality are reasonable and I think we can reject them for the reasons elaborated.
In order to understand the Objectivist position on promiscuity, we need only to analyze promiscuity and understand what it is. Promiscuity is being sexually indiscriminate. It is an issue of quality and not of quantity. There is nothing in Objectivism that proscribes the number of sexual partners a person may have in their life. Consider Dagny, from Atlas Shrugged: she had several sexual partners over the course of the book (Francisco, Hank, and Galt); yet, one could hardly call her promiscuous, as she had good reasons to have sex with each. Since promiscuity is being sexually indiscriminate, it is clear that Objectivism would reject it as immoral.
With this question we are lucky enough that we don’t have to guess or attempt to extrapolate what Ayn Rand might have thought about promiscuity, since she answered this question explicitly:
Sex is one of the most important aspects of man’s life and, therefore, must never be approached lightly or casually. A sexual relationship is proper only on the ground of the highest values one can find in a human being. Sex must not be anything other than a response to values. And that is why I consider promiscuity immoral. Not because sex is evil, but because sex is too good and too important . . ..” (Ayn Rand, Playboy interview)
We need to just remember that Ethics for Objectivism is based on achieving a rich sense of happiness or living well for an agent. Thus, in order to understand whether something is moral or immoral, we need to ask ourselves how the action will impact our happiness both in the present and in the long term. The concern about promiscuity is that severing sex from values will inhibit an agent’s ability to have true love and intimacy with a partner down the road, things that Objectivism thinks are both necessary and important to happiness.
7. Non-monogamy and Extra-Marital Sex
For a more in-depth account of my thoughts on this issue, please see my essay “On Polysexuality,” an early version of which is available for free on my blog Erosophia.
There is no way to answer this question based on the official Objectivist position. However, we can nonetheless still extrapolate an answer here. Now, one might assume that this is an open and shut issue: that Objectivism is firmly against extra-marital sex and non-monogamy. But, for those wanting to run that side of the argument, a lot of work is needed as there is nothing explicitly in Objectivism that would serve as a prohibition against it. Further, Ayn Rand herself engaged in extra-marital sex with Nathaniel Branden with the consent of her husband Frank O’Connor. Now, let’s leave aside the issue of the “philosopher” and the “philosophy” and just realize that Ayn Rand probably had reasons for what she did and her reasons were certainly influenced by her ideas, which is the origin of her philosophy that she called Objectivism. So, if you flat reject extra-marital sex, you need to provide some kind of explanation for why Ayn Rand made the choice to engage in extra-marital sex repeatedly and over a period of time (it’s not like she had sex with Branden just once) and how this same woman could be so simple as to do something “obviously” wrong and still be the author of Objectivism, which is the basis from which one is attempting to criticize her.
Now, obviously none of the forgoing is an argument for extra-marital sex or non-monogamy and I want to sketch that argument here making it consistent with Objectivism. While there are some serious hurdles to clear in order to morally engage in non-monogamy, it is certainly not impossible.
There is nothing in Objectivism that says a person should only ever have sex with just one person or even one person at a time. Nowhere does Ayn Rand say these things. Objectivism is clear, however, that there are criteria for when it is moral to have sex. If you’ve forgotten these already, please see above. The primary criterion is that there must be shared values and that the people must be a value to each other. Further, the ultimate goal here is happiness and sex contributes to this in an important way. So, you must be careful to never engage in sex in a way that would sever sex from love and intimacy. Otherwise, you could cut yourself off from the possibility of long-term happiness. Engaging in non-monogamy this way would definitely be immoral.
Before you attempt to engage in non-monogamy, I think it’s important to consider why you want to do this and to make sure both partners have legitimate reasons for it and are on the same page. I think that there are certain situations where non-monogamy is more advisable than others. Times when non-monogamy might be a good solution are:
- Couples whose relationship is otherwise good, but who are no longer sexually excited by each other.
- Couples who have very disparate levels of sexual desire, yet who want to be in a relationship with each other.
- Couples where one partner is no longer physically able to have sex.
- Couples where one, or both, partners is bisexual.
There are also times when non-monogamy would be a bad idea:
- Couples who no longer has sex because of deeper issues.
- Couples who have poor communication skills.
- Couples where one, or both, of the partners is insecure and/or jealous.
- Couples who want to be non-monogamous to “fix” their relationship.
- Couples who are long-distance.
These lists are hardly comprehensive, but they should provide an idea of the kinds of situations that would be better or worse for non-monogamy. However, it is important that the reasons that one wants to be non-monogamous are not based on the fact that one’s relationship is failing and one is attempting to evade this by opening the relationship up. The over-arching principle is whether the non-monogamy will improve your long-term happiness or whether it will harm it and so whether it will be moral depends on how it will affect your happiness, not on your abstract situation.
A further question about non-monogamy is what criteria you must have in order to have sex with the new person. Certainly we’ve already seen the general criteria (shared values, value to each other, etc.) above, but we often add to that list the general criteria that of the possibility of a long-term relationship. However, for non-monogamy, that isn’t really a concern, since you already have a long-term partner. Now, it is a concern for polyamory, but we’ll deal with that below. I think being in a relationship that assures that you will be able to meet your need for intimacy and love, actually lowers the bar for other sexual partners as you don’t need them to serve this role and you can focus more on new experiences, pleasure, novelty, etc. So, they don’t need to meet the “good for a long term relationship” criteria, but they do need to meet the general “have sex with” criteria. The ideal partner is still one where there are shared values, overall value alignment, a complementary sense of life, mutual sexual attraction, and an enjoyment of each other’s company. But, since you already have a long term partner, you can ignore concerns about whether or not the relationship would last “forever.”
In terms of practical considerations, in order to be successful in non-monogamy, the partners need to work to achieve and maintain complete, open, and honest communication with each other about their desires, feelings, needs, and any issues they are having. In non-monogamy, like elsewhere, it is important to be completely honest with your partner and yourself about what is going on and to never evade the situation if it begins to get bad, hoping that the problem might go away. Additionally, it is imperative that the partners enter into non-monogamy freely and with the full and informed consent of each other, without threats, coercion, demands, etc. Attempting to force one’s partner into such an important decision shows a complete lack of respect for one’s partner and indicates that the relationship in question is not ready for non-monogamy.
It is also important that the people who want to attempt non-monogamy are secure in themselves and in their relationship, such that they won’t have to worry about being jealous, which is the emotional response to a fear of loss of your values. It is also very important that the people in a non-monogamous relationship are of the kind such that they are disposed to have enough energy and capacity for emotional connection to maintain their other relationships. Those people who don’t have this disposition will shortly find that their non-monogamy is negatively impacting their primary relationship by taking about resources and emotional energy from it.
I think that people should really give more thought to the issue of non-monogamy as it really is a shame that we are so quick to throw away amazing relationships where no more is wrong than that that sex is no longer exciting: these relationships can be revitalized by new sexual partners! If nothing more is wrong than that you no longer enjoy sex as much with your partner, why throw everything you have together away simply in order to start over with a partner that may or may not be as good of a match?
“[A rational man] knows also that there are no conflicts of interests among rational men even in the issue of love. Like any other value, love is not a static quantity to be divided, but an unlimited response to be earned. The love for one friend is not a threat to the love for another, and neither is the love for the various members of one’s family, assuming they have earned it. The most exclusive form—romantic love—is not an issue of competition. If two men are in love with the same woman, what she feels for either of them is not determined by what she feels for the other and is not taken away from him. If she chooses one of them, the “loser” could not have had what the “winner” has earned.”  ~ Ayn Rand
I should start this section by admitting that I currently have reservations about polyamory. I have my doubts about whether a person is able to have multiple deep and intimate loving relationships and to maintain these over time. However, the fact that I cannot imagine this being successful might not say anything more than that I’m not very imaginative. I will, nevertheless, lay out the conditions under which it could be morally practiced and attempt to make this entirely consistent with Objectivism.
I think it’s obvious that if you want to morally love more than one person at a time, then you must be able to minimally clear all of the above hurdles in the section on non-monogamy. If this can’t be done, then polyamory shouldn’t even be attempted.
The primary difference in criteria involved is one of degree and not of kind. The criteria is that one cannot allow having multiple lovers to impact the intimacy of your primary relationship or, if you intend to engage in polyamory without a primary relationship, whether or not you can be intimate in a deep way with at least one partner such that they can satisfy your need for a deep kind of relationship in order to be happy. The concern is that unless a person has a lot of free time and emotional energy, that it is likely that his intimacy with his primary partner will suffer. Now, it is factually true that different people have varying levels of emotional energy and that perhaps some people have a sufficient amount so that they could engage in these behaviors without it negatively impacting their primary relationship. If such is the case, then they can clear this hurdle. If they do not, it would be immoral as it would prevent them from having the kind of deep relationship and love that is necessary for happiness. However, this is a concern more with the particular people in polyamory and their dispositions than it might be with polyamory itself.
In the epigram above, Ayn Rand makes it clear that if a woman is in love with two men and if she chooses one of them, then the other should not be offended, as he could not have taken the place of his competitor. However, Ayn Rand clearly says “if” she chooses one or the other; the implication is obvious that the woman need not choose. Otherwise, Ayn Rand would have said “when she chooses…” and not if. If you think that this is reading too much into word choice, Ayn Rand was very careful with her choice in words and thought carefully about the philosophical implications of her word choices. Furthermore, she also says in the epigram that: “Like any other value, love is not a static quantity to be divided, but an unlimited response to be earned. “ It’s pretty clear to me that Ayn Rand thinks it’s possible for a person to maintain multiple romantic loves at the same time. Now, whether it’s moral or not depends on how engaging in polyamory affects one’s long-term happiness.
As a practical matter, if a person wants to engage in polyamory, they must decide whether they want equivalent relationships or a primary/secondary type relationship setup. Each has advantages and disadvantages. I think it’s much more likely to be able to achieve happiness maintaining a core primary relationship, but again it’s up to the people involved and their dispositions.
I find it extremely fascinating that some in Objectivism want to decry BDSM as immoral and as some sort of perversion. The reason I find it so fascinating is because BDSM ideas run rampant through Ayn Rand’s fiction. You can find BDSM ideas in nearly all of her fiction: in Atlas Shrugged, sex for Dagny usually leaves bruises or even draws blood, in The Fountainhead, Dominique and Roark enjoy hurting each other and “the rape scene” is pure dominance and submission. One of the most imaginative and graphic BDSM scenes occurs in The Night of January 16th where in court, Magda reveals of Karen Andre that her and “the Match King” (Bjorn Faulkner) shared a very nontraditional sex life:
“MAGDA: I tell you. He had a platinum gown made for her. Yes, I said platinum. Fine mesh, fine and soft as silk. She wore it on her naked body. He would make a fire in the fireplace and he would heat the dress and then put it on her. It cooled and you could see her body in silver sheen, and it been more decent if she had been naked. And she ask to put it on as hot as she can stand, and if it burned her shameless skin, she laughed like the pagan she is, and he kissed the burn, wild like tiger!”
I mean, really, if you want to deny BDSM, you’re going to find it hard to do on the basis of Objectivism. I also strongly do not think you can explain the BDSM away as simply a plot device to show tension. While it may be used this way, there are all too many books that show tension without the use of BDSM and it appears too frequently in Ayn Rand’s fiction to say that it’s not a common theme. Furthermore, some of the BDSM is simply too creative and original to simply be a plot device: the burning platinum gown is certainly a novel device.
I think part of the reason that some people want to deny BDSM as immoral is because they just don’t understand it and if they don’t understand it, then it cannot be rational and, therefore, it cannot be moral. Yet, this seems to me to be merely a failure of understanding and imagination on the part of the objector and not a defect of BDSM.
In order to understand BDSM, it is important to understand that BDSM is a broad category of actions and behaviors that all revolve around the idea of “power exchange.” The acronym stands for Bondage and Discipline/Dominance and Submission/Sadism and Masochism, the acronym for which would be BD/DS/SM and if you condense that down, you get BDSM.
BDSM is too broad to provide an explanation for the entire category here, but luckily we need not attempt to describe and understand the whole thing in order to broadly understand whether it can be moral. I think that the first thing that one must understand is what the person is trying to achieve through BDSM. If a person is simply trying to expand their sexual horizons and enjoys BDSM because it is different than his regular sex life, then I can see nothing wrong with it. If he engages in BDSM because he either has too much or too little control over his life and the lives of others, and uses BDSM to balance out this situation, then I also see no problem with that. If he is ashamed of his sexuality and feels as though he must be forced or humiliated in order to be sexual, then this is morally problematic as the person in question is acting from a bad psychological condition and needs to re-evaluate his ideas on sexuality, not exacerbate them through BDSM. So, we might say that the first stage of moral analysis is to understand the person’s motivation for engaging in BDSM and whether their reasons stem from life-affirming sources or not.
Regardless of a person’s intentions, the second criterion is how BDSM impacts their life and body. We need to make a distinction here between two different, although related things: hurting and harming. To hurt a person is to cause them pain. To harm a person is to damage or destroy a part of their body. While generally harming a person hurts, being hurt is not always being harmed. The distinction is important as there is nothing immoral about gaining pleasure or sexual satisfaction from the use of pain or extreme sensations during sex. There is, however, something very obviously wrong about damaging your body in order to do so.
Furthermore, I should point out that the kind of “pain” that one experiences in BDSM is not always painful. It can be intense, it can be overwhelming, it can even be pleasant, but it is not always painful. This is because for many things, the context determines whether a sensation is painful or pleasant. For example, if I were to manipulate a woman’s unaroused clitoris, even if I were to do it adroitly, she would likely feel pain from this. This is because the sensations would be too intense for an unaroused clitoris and they would be experienced as pain. On the other hand, if I were to adroitly manipulate her clitoris when she was aroused, she would likely experience this same action as pleasurable, perhaps even very pleasurable. There is no difference in the action here or in the sensation, simply in how it is understood by the body based on the body’s state of arousal. It is simply true that pleasure and pain exist on a continuum and that the context determines how we experience it.
While BDSM is a rich and broad issue, and deserves much more analysis than this, I will limit myself to these two principles in order to give a broad moral evaluation. I think more is possible, but perhaps not necessary for our purposes here. At the very least, I think it is important for people to recognize that BDSM can be moral and that there are contexts in which it can improve our lives. At the very least, it is certainly part of Objectivism and was enjoyed by Ayn Rand.
 Rand, Ayn. Playboy Interview [Pamphlet], 6.
 I consider Objectivism to be a eudaimonistic ethic in the Aristotelian tradition, although there are important differences.
 Rand, Ayn. The Virtue of Selfishness, 30.
 Unfortunately, due to time and space limitations, and because a complete understanding of emotions is not our object here, but merely to understand how they fit into Ethics and a broad account of Sexual Ethics, I am going to omit discussion about how our hormones, sleepiness, context, mood, etc., affect emotions. While all these things do have a very large impact on emotions, they are not germane to the discussion here.
 I’m using “psychic” here in its literal sense of being related to the soul or mind, from the Latin psyche, from the Greek psukhe.
 Sensation, for Objectivism, can be best thought of as Aristotle’s proper object of sense (proper sensible), like color for vision, see: De Anima 418a10. However, and this is an important difference, in Objectivism sensation can only be obtained, or brought to the light of consciousness by reducing perceptions to their constituent parts (ITOE, 5).
 Perceptions, for Objectivism, can best be thought of as the combination of the proper and common objects of sense, or what we see when we look out at the world, without applying our conception knowledge by naming or identifying the particular existents as instances of a kind.
 I don’t, here, want to get into a debate about the fine grain differences between psychic phenomena. However, I do want to differentiate sensation from perception in terms of sensations relating to a proper object of sense like color is to vision (cf. with Aristotle’s De Anima, 418a10), whereas perception is of entities, even if the entity is not identified conceptually, i.e. I see “something” over there, but I don’t know what it is, where the “what it is” is a conceptual identification of the kind “it is a dog” or “it is a bush”.
 Rand, Ayn. “Philosophy and Sense of Life,” The Romantic Manifesto, 32.
 See: “Philosophy and Sense of Life,” The Romantic Manifesto.
 Rand, Ayn. For The New Intellectual, 55.
 Rand, Ayn. For the New Intellectual, 99.
 I have serious doubts that there is any such thing as a “pure” physical attraction; that is, one unconnected to a person’s ideas.
 I’m open to the debate about whether widespread concurrence of attraction to certain celebrities can qualify for this point. I think the strongest case could be made for us being born with a natural attraction to signs of health, and I think this might even be right. But, the problem is that signs of health are very dependent on context and culture and certainly are not universal. In the middle ages in Europe, it was a sign of health to be obese, because it means you had access to food. Today, being obese is the exact opposite of a sign of health. So, it’s very much not clear to me that you can build too much out of this idea of attraction to health. Broadly, I strongly agree with it. But, it’s particular forms are very much dependent on culture and context.
 Rand, Ayn. “Philosophy and Sense of Life,” The Romantic Manifesto, 32.
 I do not think that “love of an object” is a valid category of love. At best, one can say “I greatly value this object because it improves my life in such and such way,” but this is hardly love. You don’t wish the object well for its own sake and it is indifferent to yours, since objects don’t have mental phenomena. At best, it’s an extension of the concept of love between people; at worst, it’s a subversion of love.
 I’m considering here only true, or character, friends and not friends of convenience or pleasure. For the distinction and related discussion, see Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. VIII, Ch. 3, 1156a5-1156b5.
 I have a problem with the term “romantic love” as it ties love into a tradition that I do not support. However, I use the term here because it is the clearest way to communicate the idea and in its colloquial usage, the connection to the romantic tradition has been all but forgotten.
 See Aristotle on character friendship, specifically Eudemian Ethics 1236a10.
 This should not be taken literally as Plato does in Symposium 189d-194e.
 Rand, Ayn. For The New Intellectual, 100.
 I need to stress that Ayn Rand is not saying that you should have sex with someone you love at any time they might want or before you are sure of your relationship or of them. She’s saying, simply, that once you’re sure it’s love and that the two of you are right for each other, then you should have sex to show the other person how much you care about them, to celebrate your love, and bring it into reality. This point should not be stretched to absurdity by attempting to claim that it would justify coercion to get sex, as though she’s giving advice to a high school guy on how to pressure his girlfriend into bed. Let us always remember to apply common sense.
 Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead, 376.
 Rand, Ayn. “Playboy Interview” (Pamphlet), 6.
 Aristotle’s discussion is in terms of what we would now call friendship, but philia is a kind of love for the Greeks, so I don’t think it’s implausible to extend it this way.
 This, incidentally is one of the main reasons why I think that long distance relationships are sub-optimal at best and impossible at worst.
 Rand, Ayn. “Of Living Death,” The Objectivist, 530.
 See “Playboy’s Interview with Ayn Rand,” pamphlet, pg. 8, where she says: “I consider promiscuity immoral[…]not because sex is evil, but because sex is too good and too important.”
 Although this point should be obvious, the Objectivist position is not that sex is intrinsically good. Sometimes sex can be qualitatively bad. Sometimes sex can be used to evil ends, like in rape or molestation. This will be elaborated in this section, but the intrinsicist view is a complete misunderstanding of Objectivism. Sex is not always good.
 Personally, I think of the connection between body and mind as analogous to Aristotelian hylomorphism, where the form and matter are inseparable, but can be thought of as distinct for clarity’s sake.
 There is no doubt that we can experience certain things as more bodily or more mental and we may even identify ourselves as people who are more inclined to bodily pursuits or mental pursuits, but this does not change our human unity. Further, we should endeavor to avoid this as it leads us to feel alienated to a part of ourselves or to feel as though we are incomplete.
 Rand, Ayn. “Of Living Death,” The Objectivist, 547.
 We’re leaving aside genetic cases besides XX and XY, like XXY (Klinefelter’s Syndrome) or XYY. These conditions are rare and these people have reduced fertility or inability to reproduce, and thus these conditions are not very prevalent.
 The only few that come to mind from “big name philosophers” are Schopenhauer’s the “Metaphysics of Sexual Love,” Bertrand Russell’s Marriage and Morals, and Thomas Nagel’s “Sexual Perversion.”
 Rand, Ayn. “Of Living Death,” The Objectivist, 515.
 Rand, Ayn. “Of Living Death,” The Objectivist, 515.
 Ryan, Christopher. Sex at Dawn, 230.
 I am sympathetic to those who think the argument should be dismissed on this objection alone.
 This is not to say that oral or anal sex couldn’t cause harm if they are used maliciously or through such a degree of ignorance that physical harm is done. However, in these cases it is not the anal or oral sex per se that is the problem, but rather how it is being engaged in.
 Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged, 106.
 Rand, Ayn. “Playboy Interview” (Pamphlet), 6.
 Rand, Ayn. “An Answer to Readers (About a Woman President),” The Objectivist, 561.
 Rand, Ayn. “An Answer to Readers (About a Woman President),” The Objectivist, 562.
 Rand, Ayn. “An Answer to Readers (About a Woman President),” The Objectivist, 562.
 I’d like to point out that this is absurd. An unlubricated vagina can easily injure a penis. Further, it’s pretty clear to me that women can be active during sex, thrusting themselves onto a penis, enveloping it with their vaginas. Furthermore, it is factually the case that some women dominate some men. This, by itself, is a rather clear counter example to this point and it is something that Ayn Rand would be forced to explain away.
 Rand, Ayn. Letters of Ayn Rand, 277.
 Rand, Ayn. “Of Living Death,” The Objectivist, 532.
 Rand, Ayn. “Of Living Death,” The Objectivist, 517.
 Whether this would still be “Objectivism” is up for debate. Since we’re simply correcting factual errors and not changing any of the principles, it seems to me that a case can be made for it still being Objectivism. Yet, since Objectivism is Ayn Rand’s philosophy, perhaps it would be clearer and less presumptuous to say that it is neo-Objectivism in order to show that it is not Objectivism as Ayn Rand wrote it. I don’t have a strong opinion on the matter, although I am opposed to people attempting to write themselves into Objectivism, so perhaps it’d be best to just call it neo-Objectivism or part of the “Objectivist Tradition,” in the same way changes to Aristotle’s philosophy are considered to be in the “Aristotelian Tradition,” but not actually Aristotle’s philosophy.
 Now, it is true that there are several different kinds of sperm and that the sperm do engage in sperm warfare if sperm from another male are met, but this is not a necessary part of reproduction, while the female’s body is always active in this way. See, for instance, Sex at Dawn (227-229) and Sperm Wars (51-52).
 While it might be possible to engage in non-monogamy successfully, the more important issue here is that your primary relationship is not going to be contributing to your happiness anymore and that one should re-evaluate this first and get that in order before attempting non-monogamy.
 Rand, Ayn. The Virtue of Selfishness, 63. Emphasis added.
 By emotional energy, I mean how much time, focus, concern, care, etc, one person can dedicate to another without wearing themselves down and becoming emotionally drained. While I understand the danger in this metaphorical language, English is simply insufficient to handle this idea currently. Luckily, it should not be too hard for most people to understand the concept I’m trying to reference, as I’m sure most adults have experienced this before.
 Rand, Ayn. The Night of January 16th, 48.
Automatically Generated Related Posts: