J’Accuse! Dissecting an accusatory comment

I don’t get much time these days to reply to comments as I once did. I used to greatly enjoy responding to comments on MercatorNet, and still miss the discussions and debates.

But ultimately I think my replies were solipsistic. I tried to resist the urge to reply snappily or angrily to insolent or sarcastic replies. I rarely indulged the desire to mock someone for their half-arsed arguments or complete misunderstandings of the issue at hand.  Instead I viewed the comment as an opportunity to check and correct myself, as though I were posing it as a challenge to my own reasoning and beliefs.

Solipsism isn’t always a bad thing. Unfortunately, there are diminishing returns on even the most charitable approach to argument. We must, I think, proceed with the assumption that the commenter will get nothing from the exchange. Only then can we respond freely.

In that vein, reader ayametan posted the following comment in response to my article on religious perspectives on lust:

The consequences of a “lustful” (i.e. natural) life are usually far less than the consequences of not having sex (and here I include mastubation) at all, such as stress, pent-up frustration, boredom, etc., and it removes an outlet for stress.

Sex also plays a crucial bonding role for many couples.

Zac, I find it the epitome of hypocrisy to claim that people who enjoy sex are hedonistic, especially when you work for a Catholic website, and beleive that those of your religion will receive eternal paradise. Nothing I can imagine could be more hedonistic.

Firstly, apologies to ayametan for replying to your comment indirectly. By way of direct reply, it’s clear we disagree on a great deal. Any further elaborations would be contained in the following observations.

The disconsolate reality is that once we adopt an appropriately detached attitude, far too many such comments begin to feel like answers to a question that was never asked. This is not so much a critique of the commenter, but an observation of my own detached response to such comments.

Take the first line for example:

The consequences of a “lustful” (i.e. natural) life are usually far less than the consequences of not having sex (and here I include mastubation) at all, such as stress, pent-up frustration, boredom, etc., and it removes an outlet for stress.

Firstly, I am not a consequentialist. Telling me that the consequences of A are worse than the consequences of B leaves as much unanswered as telling me that I should follow football because it is better than cricket, when really I am uninterested in sport generally.

Therefore we have to ask:

1. Are consequences the only relevant or most relevant factor?

Secondly, I know enough about consequentialism to know that the evaluation of consequences is a vexed question, not only in terms of where to draw the line, but also in terms of how to weigh the relative consequences. It is not self-evident that consequences such as boredom outweigh consequences such as prostitution, for example, but this in turn refers us back to where we draw the line.

Therefore we have to ask:

2.i Where do we draw the line between direct and indirect consequences?

2.ii How do we weight the relative consequences?

Thirdly, the commenter implies an equivalence between the terms “lustful” and “natural”. What is meant by these terms? Do we agree on the definition of either term? Is there an implication that “natural” lends normative weight to the exercise of lust?

Therefore we have to ask:

3. How do we define our key terms? Do we agree on the terms we are using?

Moving on to the next line:

Sex also plays a crucial bonding role for many couples.

I might agree with this, but looking at it critically we have to ask more questions.

4. What is the relationship between sex and lust?

Question 4 is clearly dependent on the answer to question 3.  Question 5 could, if pursued, take us deeper into the various religious systems touched on in my original article:

5. How does bonding relate to the spiritual disciplines contained in the various religions?

I would also envisage question 5 examining in greater depth how these religions deal with the overlap between lust and sex, and how this unfolds through their broader sexual morality.

Moving on to the final paragraph:

Zac, I find it the epitome of hypocrisy to claim that people who enjoy sex are hedonistic, especially when you work for a Catholic website, and beleive that those of your religion will receive eternal paradise. Nothing I can imagine could be more hedonistic.

My first thought is:

6. What is hypocrisy? Does this scenario match actual definitions of hypocrisy?

Followed by:

7. Is this scenario accurate? Does it match my experience and circumstances? Is this a fair accusation?

And then we’re back into the more philosophical domain, which overlaps somewhat with questions 6 and 7, but also with question 3 and maybe others:

8. Am I claiming that enjoyment of sex is hedonistic?

Clearly this question requires answers to question 3 regarding the definition of terms, including now hedonism, as well as question 4 regarding the relationship between sex and lust. We could in fact turn this whole question into a separate subcategory beginning with 8.a. What is hedonism? This would actually be quite pertinent given the concluding assertion:

Nothing I can imagine could be more hedonistic.

The commenter’s accusation that the desire for eternal paradise amounts to hedonism is by no means novel. It is better known in the context of psychological egoism: the claim that all actions, including supposedly altruistic ones, are ultimately selfish. The standard example given in undergrad philosophy courses is that Mother Theresa was not truly selfless, but acted selfishly on the belief that helping others would earn her a heavenly reward.

The accusation is not usually crafted around hedonism, as hedonism is typically described as the belief in pleasure as the only, or primary good, and there is debate over to what degree this belief would facilitate or be compatible with long-term delay of gratification, or with the allegedly hedonistic endorsement of non-hedonistic moral standards.

But as the philosophy teachers will explain, the bigger problem with defining all action as selfish is that it diminishes the descriptive power of the concept itself.  Clearly there are meaningful differences in behaviour for which the terms “selfish” and “selfless” have arisen. It’s all very well to argue that “selfless” is an empty category, but that doesn’t negate the distinction between acts for which those two terms first arose.

If we were to pursue this further, it would lead us to the question:

Q. What do we mean when we say that an action is selfish?

That’s a lot of questions contained within one brief comment. To be fair, my article also left many questions unanswered. But for me it is important that an article be the product of my own best attempts to ask and answer the right questions for myself. Too often, I find that commenters seem to have done little of this work for themselves before attempting a critique.

I think many people comment without realising the questions implicit in their opinions, accusations, and conjectures. It is rare to find someone sincerely asking questions that can be answered, because those who are sincere are either capable of finding the answers for themselves, or else, perhaps, they are more justifiably preoccupied by their own questions and interests.

If nothing else, I think philosophy can give us an appreciation for the immense difficulty of knowing. Confucius put it well:

“When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it – this is knowledge.”




Terrifying moral dilemmas

A regular interlocutor and occasional sparring partner over at MercatorNet asked for my opinion as an ethicist on a difficult moral dilemma: should couples who are, or suspect they are, genetically predisposed to terminal illness or other serious disease avoid having children?

For me these questions hit close to home. It is not difficult to imagine having children with serious illnesses or disabilities, though it is undoubtedly more salient for people who have witnessed and experienced the same in their families for generations.

Difficult cases such as these seem overwhelming when considered in isolation. It does indeed appear prudent and reasonable to avoid having children in order to avoid certain or highly probable disease.

However, ethics forces us to think not only of the outcomes, but of the principles behind an action. This is reasonable in part because our ability to assess outcomes is heavily constrained. For example, how do we correctly weigh the value of a life lived for thirty years, cut short by illness?
Even in a strictly consequentialist sense, we are not equipped to predict what medical advances or discoveries may come in the future.

In terms of the principles behind the action: at first glance, simply avoiding having children does not appear to be as bad as, say, actively killing people in order to root out genetic faults or variables either in utero or in vitro. The harm done is not to the non-existent offspring (assuming non-abortifacient contraceptive methods or alternatively NFP methods).

The harm done is to the marriage, and to the otherwise-would-be parents themselves. The nature of the harm or error is multifaceted and not obvious. It ranges from the simple harm of missing out on the fulfillment and enrichment that offspring provide, to the perhaps more ‘existential’ harm of adopting a worldview in which one is able and morally required to act with certitude and control in regard to circumstances and outcomes that are generally speaking beyond both our knowledge and our true control.

However, this last point broaches on terrain typically regarded as ‘religious’ and not encouraged in public debate. But I would say nonetheless that if the purpose of life is to avoid suffering and delay death, then perhaps such actions are a noble sacrifice. But if the purpose of our life is more than that, or better yet, the context of our life is broader than suffering and death, then we may have hope that such painful moral dilemmas are not as closed and complete as they appear.

I think the melancholic temperament is well-suited to ethics because it searches always for the principle or ideal behind an action. Melancholics are not good with ‘exceptional circumstances’ or arbitrary redrawing of boundaries. If we decide as a society that it would be wrong for children with certain disabilities to not be born, then an ethicist should (quite rightly) start to look for the operative principle behind such a conclusion.

The melancholics are, I think, merely more sensitive than most to the principles that exert constant albeit imperfect influence on all humans. That is why the eugenic fantasies may begin on ‘safe’ territory with the killing of severely disabled infants or the execution of the very worst serial criminals, but they tend to end with the elimination of those unlikely to achieve good university GPAs, and the culling of people with minor impulses toward rebellion or unconventional behaviour.