Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Virtue Ethics and Porn

After many days away, I return to you battered and weary. I know a fellow, whom I won't name here, who found himself within the furry community a sole voice against furry porn. I in recent days seem to have found myself, quite reluctantly and without any certainty as to how I got there, a sole voice in bronydom against "clop," the pony equivalent of the furries' internal rot. I don't much like the job and am not adequate to it; may I soon be able to abdicate it to someone else!

After a mostly fruitless argument that consisted largely of insult-hurling, swearing, ironical picture-posting (I had momentarily forgotten that a lot of these guys came from 4chan), and backslapping (amongst my detractors; I had no one around to backslap), I gathered my thoughts to clarify them and then vomited them into a blog post on a brony-related website. I reproduce the post here.


During Sunday’s unpleasantness, one person cropped up who actually knew how to make an argument intelligently without casting insults or using intimidation. In response to my comments condemning pornography (it’s hard to remember how that even started), he said this:

The important claim you're making that I believe most of us do not accept, is that agents have a "proper end or telos". Morality would indeed be simple if agents had such a thing, and we knew what it was. What you should be doing is arguing that agents have a (knowable) telos. Instead, you present that conclusion, which you should be arguing for, as evidence.

When you argue against consequentialism by saying that "any immoral activity can be justified this way", your arguments presumes that consequentialism is wrong. If consequentialism is "correct", then no immoral activity can be justified that way, as anything that can be justified that way is moral by definition. So this also presumes what it attempts to prove.

Very good. We’ll have to start from the beginning; I had no space (nor inclination) to lay out what you ask for in the combox of someone else’s blog, so I have moved things over here where I can get belittled and insulted on my home turf while I bloviate.

As an interesting historical footnote before we begin, Francis Bacon, who began the philosophical project that became a championing of empirical research over all other realms of philosophy, did not reject the existence of final causes (that is, of telos). He merely decided they could be ignored because they didn’t assist him in his goal of dominating nature. Rejecting final causes’ existence outright came later, usually on the assumption that their non-existence had somehow been empirically demonstrated, when in fact it had not, and could not be, because this is not a subject open to empirical observation.

That final causes exist in nature is indicated by what happens when people try to reject them; they inevitably sneak them in again through the back door and end up talking about them without admitting that they are doing so. To use an easy example, we may take the eye; we could describe it down to its last atom, but our description is incomplete until we say that an eye is for seeing. That is its telos, its final cause.

Ethics is about describing what ought to be, and it therefore presupposes a goal (or telos). At present, two positions are on the table: one presupposes that there are no natural goals, and that the “ought” of ethics is whatever we decide we want it to be, or is perhaps what society decides as a group, or is perhaps based on some arbitrary form of moral calculus (such as guessing how much harm something causes). The other, which I am supporting here, is the view that there exist natural goals with which our ethics, in order to be correct, must be in conformity.

(And to those who do not know how to debate without ad hominem, this does not mean I am incapable of realizing that some disagree with my opinion, it has no particular relevance to my religious affiliation, and calling it a form of bigotry is a mere trick intended to silence opposition through shame, a form of bullying. Imagine me as an ax murderer and read this essay through. Now imagine me as a living saint and read it through again. Imagine me as a Christian. Imagine me as an atheist. You will see that the arguments remain the same no matter what I am like.)

The problem with the first position is its arbitrariness. If there is no natural telos for a man, then there is also no objective guide for his behavior--because without an “ought” independent of his preferences to which he has an obligation to conform, he can have any “ought” he likes, and he has no reason aside from personal taste to accept any “ought” proposed to him. This means that there is no obligation binding on him to, say, try to cause minimum harm, or to be nice to people, or to be honest. The reason there must exist an objective telos and therefore an objective ethical standard is because the only logical alternative is no ethics whatsoever. If there were no ethics whatsoever, I would have no basis for condemning pornography or other crude material (or anything else), but my detractors would also have no basis for condemning me for condemning it, because their detractions presuppose some standard to which they believe I am failing to conform. By finding fault with my comments, they implicitly refer to a moral standard they consider me to be failing to meet. If they condemn me while saying there are no standards, or to put it another way, that there is no telos for the human person, they contradict themselves.

We can determine that objective moral standards exist because the alternative is incoherence. We are having a discussion on a certain topic--do we have an obligation to be honest while we discuss it? If we do, then we recognize an objective standard binding on us, independent of our preferences. If we do not, then this discussion, and every other discussion, simply becomes impossible. Merely functioning requires the recognition, at least implicitly, of objective moral standards. This is why I say I have never encountered a relativist who is a relativist consistently.

So, having determined that moral “ought”s exist to which we are obligated, we can begin to explore what they are. The first is to do good and avoid evil; or I could take that a little further and say we have the obligation to pursue the end (telos) of being moral actors who do good and avoid evil habitually--that is, who have virtue and shun vice. This is the telos of a moral agent; in fact, it must be, for it involves a tautology: to be moral is to do good and to avoid evil, so this first moral imperative must be taken as axiomatic.

The moral imperatives are also necessarily the same for every individual and can therefore be said to be universal. The final cause of a thing is bound up with its essence, what it is in itself. Take my example of the eye: what it is, is an eye, and the end of an eye is to see. If it were something else like a hand, its end would not be to see. If the end of a free-willed man is to be a virtuous man, as I have argued above, then the virtue is the same for every man, because every man has the essence of a man.

This takes us to a fundamental problem of metaphysics. Take a look out your window and spot two trees. How is it both can be trees and yet distinct objects? How can you identify them both as trees? In the whole history of philosophy, there have been two coherent answers to this problem, that of Plato and that of Aristotle. Plato proposed ideal forms, so there is a form of tree that each individual tree reflects. Aristotle proposed form and matter as two interdependent metaphysical co-principles existing in each individual being, so each tree has the form of tree, limited and differentiated by the matter of each specific tree. Both of these views have their advantages; I happen to be in the Aristotelian camp, but that need not concern us much, as in matters of ethics Aristotelians and Platonists can arrive at the same conclusions.

Modern man’s ethical errors begin as a metaphysical error. Neither the Platonist nor Aristotelian position on the Problem of the One and the Many is currently in the ascendant; rather, both have been replaced by a view called Nominalism, which addresses this fundamental problem by refusing to address it, considering the designation “tree” to be merely a word, a handy placeholder. This perhaps has the advantage of ending the apparently insoluble debate between Platonists and Aristotelians by merely refusing to entertain the debate, but it fails to answer the core problem--regardless of what words we use to discuss them or whether we even use words at all, there are still two trees out there, and we haven’t answered the question of how they can both be trees. Nominalism begins by confusing words with the things they signify; it is not the word “tree” that’s important in this classical metaphysical problem, but the trees themselves.

Nominalism leads to the dismissal of essentialism, the idea that all beings, such as human beings, have an essential nature. If humans share an essential nature (all of them being human), they also share a final cause, final cause and essence being directly related. If they do not share an essential nature, then they share no final cause either. This view, as is the case with Nominalism generally, proves inadequate: humans must share an essential nature, for if they did not, we would not be able to identify them as human. When we encounter a fellow human and correctly identify him as human, we are admitting implicitly that he shares something essential with us. Essentialism, like so many things I’m referring to in this discussion, must be accepted as axiomatic because denying it leads to absurdity; it cannot be denied with consistency, for anyone asserting that humans have no shared essence and no shared telos still speaks of humans as a group, indicating that he can distinguish them from other animals and abstract from them the idea of human.

So human beings share a human nature and therefore a human end; because humans have free will, they can will their natural end or not. The objective moral law describes human virtue, which is the natural end of man, and is therefore called Natural Law, which must not be confused with what is observed out of doors; Natural Law is the ethical prescriptions and proscriptions binding on man.

In terms of specific behaviors like the sort that prompted this brief essay, we need to look a little closer at how a man works. We find in him the presence of an intellect, of passions, and of appetites. By appetites, I mean desires directed at bodily functions and needs--eating, procreation, and so forth. By passions, I mean the desires for intangibles, such as love.

It is a well-known fact that a man may desire things he cannot have, or that he may desire two or more things he cannot have together, or that he may desire things immoderately (as in the case of my desire to eat a whole pie every day until I grow fat, for example). The passions and appetites have no reasoning power in themselves. As the expression goes, “the heart wants what it wants.” This is true enough, but modern man implicitly holds the belief that the passions and appetites are their own justification, that whatever the heart wants, it ought therefore to get. By contrast, a more sober view holds that the intellect must determine whether the passions or appetites are reasonable or unreasonable, logical or illogical. What standard can the intellect use? The only one which can truly moderate the passions and appetites is the standard of the telos of the passion or appetite in question; no other standard is possible: if telos is rejected, there is no other yardstick against which to measure our yearnings. And if we do not master our appetites and passions with our intellects, our appetites and passions can master us, for they prove unruly, and they grow larger and more exotic in their tastes the more they are fed without moderation.

So, for example, the primary purpose (telos again) of the appetite for food is to nourish the body. Eating is also pleasurable, but for a reason: the pleasure of eating encourages me to eat so that my body will be nourished (and therefore pleasure can be considered a secondary or subordinate end of eating). If I elevate pleasure over nourishment (that is, disregard my appetite’s primary natural end) and eat food excessively, I become a glutton, so I must use my appetite in moderation and refuse to indulge its excesses. If I desire to eat rocks or dung, my appetite is disordered (that is, ordered away from its proper end) and must be resisted. I may even have to force myself to eat things I don’t want for the sake of my health.

The sexual appetite can be evaluated similarly. Just as the appetite for food exists to nourish the body, the appetite for procreation exists for procreating--that is, reproducing the species. The oft-heard counterclaim that sex exists for pleasure and that procreation can be dispensed with cannot be taken seriously; the result of elevating pleasure over procreation is excess analogous to the excess that stems from elevating pleasure over nourishment, but the consequences, as should be evident to anyone not willfully blind, are more severe. It is because of the so-called Sexual Revolution, which elevates the sexual appetite over the intellect and elevates sexual pleasure over pretty much everything else, that one in four adolescents today has a venereal disease, that bastardy is common, that the Western world is strewn with broken homes and broken lives, that divorce is commonplace, that children grow up without fathers, and that men treat women like disposable toys.

The habitual use (or refraining from use) of the sexual appetite in accordance with right reason is the virtue called chastity. Because sex exists for procreation, and because the procreative act always has the possibility of producing new human life in need of nurture, with its own rights and (at least when it reaches the age of reason) obligations, it must be limited to a stable relationship within which new life can be nurtured--that is, marriage, family.

Pornography or other risqué material is antithetical to chastity. It invites the subordination of reason to the sexual appetite and not only elevates pleasure beyond its proper place but stands it alone and eliminates all else. It divorces sexual pleasure not only from marriage or any sort of mutual relationship, but divorces it even from sex. It disorders the appetite, reduces the possibility of self-control, and because it offers intense pleasure easily without immediately obvious consequences, proves highly addictive. It gives men unrealistic views of relationships and of the opposite sex. It also degrades the participants by reducing them to objects of lust to gratify someone else’s pleasure.

That brings me around to this comment from the discussion thread that prompted this post:

By the by, I would note that pornography seems to be single-handedly responsible for the rationalization and normalization of vast swaths of otherwise emotional/instinctive urges in the human psyche, lending itself to tremendous improvements in the stability and happiness of people who deal with it. If this constitutes 'readily apparent harm' to you, I question the openness with which you have considered the question, and worry that there are scales before your eyes. The beneficient psychosocial effects are the ones visible from the surface. I am not ruling out harms hidden beneath the surface, but for you to argue that these things 'have never been more obvious' gives the appearance of coming up with your conclusion before your question.

I’m frankly not sure I can parse that gibberish. The one who wrote it would, at the very least, seem to have the “rationalization” part right. I cannot imagine what the beneficent effects of pornography use are supposed to be, but what I can see in this quote is a celebration of the elevation of appetite over intellect, rationalized with pseudo-psychological jargon. Modern man’s position on ethics might look more persuasive to me if modern man could be found arguing for more fortitude, more compassion, or more self-control, but he is instead always found arguing for more self-indulgence. Suggest chastity to him and, as I learned quite recently, he reacts like a petulant child whose favorite toy a parent has threatened to take away. I confess that this disinclines me to take seriously the alternatives to the virtue ethics I have briefly and inadequately outlined here.

I don’t know where the fellow I quoted gets his ideas; my own sources paint a different picture of pornography’s effects. I have been asked to produce resources on that subject; I am reluctant to do so partly because the person making the request informs me that she has seen other such resources in the past and has dismissed them, so this would appear to be an exercise in futility. Besides that, the available resources of the sort she requests are mostly from psychologists, who usually, though not always, focus on addiction specifically. Nonetheless, I present the following. Third-party sources are linked in the assertions:

Pornography is highly addictive and reduces the capacity for self-control. Porn users gravitate over time to more outré content. Use of adult pornography can lead to use of child pornography. Pornography is linked to sexual dysfunction. People who cease using pornography report improved quality of life. Plenty more, loads more, more than you can stomach, can be found here.

I also refer you to the confession of Martin Daubney, a former pornographer who finally realized what he was doing:

Offering excuses for pornography when Loaded was attacked left me feeling cheap and hollow. I became a person I wasn’t, and, looking back, one I didn’t like. Today, I find myself agreeing with some of my fiercest former critics.

When I edited Loaded, I’d often get asked ‘Would you want your daughter to appear in topless photos?’ and I’d squirm, but feel obliged, but ashamed to say ‘yes’. Fortune gave me a son, but not on my life would I want any daughter of mine to be a topless model.

Looking back at my old job, I think it kept me and my team in a morally retarded state. We became numbed to nudity. We treated our models as crude sales devices.

But pornography does not exist in a vacuum. It is merely an outgrowth of an entire culture gone mad. The wider problems caused by the elevation of the sexual appetite over the intellect, of which commonplace pornography use represents only a small part, are legion. On that score, I recommend the writings of Theodore Dalrymple, who sees those problems up-close and personal. He is also an atheist, so if you are inclined to dismiss everything I’ve written here because I am Catholic (even though I have appealed to no religious authority in this essay), you can listen to him instead. I recommend you begin with “All Sex, All the Time” and “The Quivering Upper Lip.”

Note: Comments containing insults, vulgarity, ad hominem, or images will be deleted.
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