Progress and relativism

If morality is relative then by what standard can we say society is or is not making progress?

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© Dave DuBay

Saying that right and wrong are social constructs implies that actions aren’t intrinsically right or wrong. In other words, if human opinion is the essence of morality then we can’t say something is inherently wrong regardless of what some people might think.

That’s a common criticism of moral relativism. But taking this a step farther one can argue that the idea of progress makes no sense because progress implies an external standard along which a person or a society can move from a lower to a higher state. Sure, you can make progress toward your personal goals. But your goals are not universal. Other people or cultures might think your values are wrong.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that anything is permissible under relativism. Every culture and every person (except maybe psychopaths) believes certain things are wrong. So it does not follow that behaviorally secular relativists must be less moral than religious people. After all, Islamists believe Allah wants them to blow people up. On the other hand, there’s no basis for a relativist to claim that their moral beliefs should be considered universal.

But if we do believe certain things are right or wrong no matter what anyone thinks—and most of us do believe this—then we’re implying that morality is objective. If morality is objective, however, then how do we distinguish what really is right or wrong from people’s misconceptions?

This is often solved with an appeal to religion. God establishes right and wrong. And the Bible explains it all. Or the Koran. Or another scripture. It depends on your opinion about which scripture is the true Word of God, and how to interpret that scripture. So we’re stuck in a cycle of opinion.

Scriptures have others problems as well. Should gays and never married women who are not virgins be executed? The Bible says yes (Leviticus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 22:20-21).

Despite apologetics that try to explain it away, it’s hard to honestly say that a perfectly good deity would command such a thing. Further, if humanity has morally progressed beyond such barbarism then humans have morally surpassed the biblical God. This implies that if morality is objective then God didn’t create it.

But could the laws of morality, like scientific claims about the laws of nature, have emerged spontaneously without a divine creator? The problem is that morality necessarily entails conscious intentions, so how does one construct a convincing argument that the laws of conscious intentions emerged by chance with no consciousness or intentionality behind them?

I don’t have perfect answers to these questions. One challenge of being human is that we’re smart enough to ask questions that we’re not smart enough to answer. But I can reach a few tentative conclusions.

A non-theist must accept the implications of relativism or develop a more compelling answer to these questions. But if God exists, and if God is the source of morality, then it seems to me that the best we can do is strive to understand morality while acknowledging that our perceptions are deeply flawed, and that we are easily led astray. And religion, rather than being a corrective, has long been a great catalyst for leading us astray. Scriptures, then, are human attempts to understand God, not the inerrant revelation of God.

We should trust no one who claims to know God’s will. And one should distrust one’s own beliefs about God’s will most of all—the temptation for self-justification is too great. This means that morality is primarily about rigorous self-criticism, which includes the realization that pointing a finger at others is usually just an avoidance tactic.

 

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When consent isn’t enough

Societal expectations of casual sex ignore how many people feel about sex.

© Dave DuBay

David French, writing for the conservative National Review, muses that the inevitable moment for #MeToo has arrived—an “uncomfortable” sexual encounter has been labeled sexual assault. French says this reveals “the defects of modern sexuality.”

He has no interest in defending comedian Aziz Ansari: “Under no circumstances should a man treat Grace the way Ansari treated her. It was wrong. Full stop.”

But our culture sexualizes too many things, French goes on to say, including first dates. Yet, “human beings have a desperate need for a sexual morality that transcends consent.” More specifically,

Even if men and women reject Christian morality and believe that waiting for marriage is a bridge too far, the decision to delay sex until well after the formation of a healthy relationship will protect people from an immense amount of heartbreak.

As old fashioned as this may sound, there needs to be a wider discussion of French’s point. Not sexualizing everyday situations doesn’t mean stigmatizing casual sex—everyone has the right to live their life as they choose. But society’s acceptance of casual sex has morphed into the expectation of casual sex.

The so-called sexual revolution involved many things, and the birth control pill tops the list. The pill enabled women to have sex with much less fear of pregnancy, even to the point where some women declared that they could have sex like men—casually, promiscuously, and without emotional attachment. Never mind that such a view promotes one dimensional stereotypes about men. It also ignores the emotional aspect of sex.

Since the 1960s, pop culture’s portrayal of sex has in many way become more unrealistic. Did people today grow up thinking that they should engage in casual sex like TV stars? Did the absence of emotional repercussions on the silver screen lead people to think there would be no emotional fallout from having sex with a relative stranger?

And do women and men experience this differently? Sociologist David Buss found that although women and men engage in casual sex about as often, women are much more likely to regret it afterwards.  This is true cross culturally, and for lesbians. Buss notes that this seems to involve more than just culture.

This, of course, contradicts the popular progressive claim that biology plays no role with gender, though you’d be hard pressed to find a neuroscientist or biologist who agrees. This doesn’t mean that biological determinism is true, or that culture plays no role. But it does mean that we need to consider the big picture.

For men modern society values quantity—the number of notches on his belt. And as we’ve seen with all the allegations of sexual assault, this can have serious consequences.

In the Washington Post, Elizabeth Bruenig writes that,

Sex is a domain so intimate and personal that more harm can be done than in most social situations, and that given that heightened capacity for harm, we should expect people to operate with greater conscientiousness, concern and care in that domain than in others.

She concludes that, “Demanding an expansion of empathy and responsibility when it comes to sex isn’t regressive.”

I would add that empathy and responsibility should be reciprocal. The initiator should be looking for signs that the advances are unwelcome. And in the absence of coercion or impairment, regret after consent is the responsibility of the person who feels regretful.

Fixing our culture is going to take a while. We can begin by educating young people that what they’ve learned about sex from pop culture is often not the way sex is in the real world. Some people are fine with casual sex but others are not, and there is a gender difference which is at least partially biologically influenced.

And we can encourage realistic expectations, such as the assumption that one’s dating partner sees things as casual unless stated otherwise. That means examining our feelings about casual sex, and if need be setting boundaries from the get go such as the old social norm of not going to someone’s apartment on the first few dates, or explicitly telling someone that sex outside of a relationship is not an option.

But individuals can’t go it alone. We need wider cultural support for people who choose these “old fashioned” norms. Pop culture will need to play a leading role.

Are progressives reversing the sexual revolution?

In Armistead Maupin’s 1978 soap opera novel Tales of the City, almost every character (gay and straight) is busy having one night stands in San Francisco. At one point, Brian and Mouse wonder if the next generation of young people will rebel by reverting to Victorianism. But it wasn’t a serious question. It was a silly question they could laugh about.

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But on second thought…

The sexual revolution, consent, and objectification

Raja Halwani, writing for Aeon.co, says that “sexual desire is objectifying – and hence morally wrong.” But he’s not a conservative Christian longing for a return to traditional values.

The left embraced sexual freedom in the 1960s. Today, only a minority of people think premarital sex is wrong, and a slight majority support same sex marriage.

Our grandparents had clarity: if you’re not married heterosexuals then sex is wrong. But as the clearly defined boundaries of the 1950s blurred, sexual assault and rape increased (though these crimes have decreased since the 1990s). And men seemed to benefit more from the sexual revolution because women still had to worry about being labeled a slut.

No means no and increasing awareness about the objectification of women were two responses. But no means no has a loophole. Some claimed that if she didn’t say yes but didn’t no then it’s not rape.

This problem lead to yes means yes. The lack of no is insufficient for consent. But what if the yes is nonverbal? Is that really yes? What if she said yes but later says she felt pressured?

It was decided that the yes must be enthusiastic. But even this is problematic. How enthusiastic? And how do you measure adequate enthusiasm?

There are more gray areas. Do these guidelines apply equally for women to seek men’s consent? If both are equally drunk (but not incapacitated) and agree to have sex, but both regret it the next morning, is only the man at fault? What if the woman initiated? What if the couple is lesbian or gay? Who’s at fault then?

The simple solution: sex is bad

We’re not achieving the clarity our grandparents had. Halwani, however, takes progressive thought to a new level: sex is wrong because sex almost always involves objectification. And, “not even love can fix it.”

So, we’ve come full circle. Sorry, Brian and Mouse, but you may have been more right than you thought.

This line of progressive thought converges with some conservative ideologies. I was raised Catholic. The Church teaches that sex is for procreation and must only happen within the bonds of sacramental marriage.

How did the Catholic Church come to that conclusion? Was it misogyny? Were the Church fathers obsessed with controlling others? These are common progressive beliefs.

But maybe, 2,000 years ago the Church came to a similar conclusion as Halwani is coming to today. Sexuality is such a delicate subject that nothing but firm and clear boundaries will minimize human suffering. Of course, we know that’s not true either, but that’s tangential.

Instead of objectification, the Church spoke about the body being the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the potential for sex to profane that temple. Both notions are concerned that sex can be dehumanizing. So the Church, like Halwani, decided that sex necessarily means compromising one’s purity, or in modern terms being objectified.

Celibacy, or voluntary asexuality today (in contrast to asexuals who actually have no sex drive), is the only way to avoid this compromise. Of course, we need babies for the human species to continue, so Catholic celibacy is for the elite. But the compromise of allowing sex for common folks must be small. Sex must only happen within a Church sanctioned marriage, and it must be about procreation (or at least not artificially close off that possibility). Homosexuality, then, is an obvious abuse of sex because it can serve no other purpose than using someone for your own pleasure.

Will Neo-Victorianism become a thing?

Will progressives latch on to Halwani’s conclusion that sex is inherently wrong? If so, what specific  sexual mores will they advocate? Only time will tell.

But I have my doubts. People like sex. The Catholic Church’s strict standards failed – sometimes with horrific consequences like the recent sex abuse scandal. Nineteenth century Victorianism  didn’t succeed either.

Instead, there might be a fringe group of voluntary asexual progressives who hold themselves up as an elite, similar to vegan’s dietary strictness. But they won’t gain mass appeal. And certainly pop culture won’t embrace Neo-Victorianism – sex sells, after all.