Dialogue on fornication

(Part II, which investigates the traditional argument against pre-marital sex, is here.)

(I just finished watching “The Nature of Existence: Companion Series ep. 6” as a freeplay on Netflix. The episode is a series of interviews with public figures about sexual morality, and I was fascinated by the number of persons who argued for sexual freedom from the claim that people are going to do it anyway. What follows is an investigation of that claim.)

A: So, morally speaking, what do you think about pre-marital sex?

B: What is there to say about it? People are going to do it anyway.

A: But that’s hardly a relevant moral point. We might say the same thing about murder, voter fraud, or anything else.

B: That’s not so. Murderers are a vanishingly small percentage of the population who can be cut off and isolated without much difficulty. If we had murder rates like they had 800 years ago, we might need to accept murder and work from there. As it stands, we have a giant percentage of the population exercizing their sexuality without marriage. Accept it as a given and work from there.

A: So you’re saying there’s no point in calling something wrong or right if we can’t do anything about it? Again, this just strikes me as odd, or a fundamental inability to tell the difference between the moral and the practical.

B: Look, morality is the code you want a person to live by. Codes of life need to be practical or achievable.

A: But this amounts to saying they must be ideals – so why do you refuse to set up an ideal with respect to fornication?

B: Ideals need to be achievable too. What’s the point in having impossible ones? Look, maybe there’s some portion of the population that is really capable of holding out for sex until marriage, and maybe it would be ideal for them to wait. I doubt it, and I strongly suspect anyone who is that frigid probably has something wrong with them. Still, maybe celibacy would work for them. But moral ideals have to be applicable to people for the most part, and pre-marital celibacy ain’t.

A: Celibacy is the wrong term, but let that pass. One thing that amazes me here is that you seem to be arguing (with some truth) that a moral code has to countenance what is possible. I suppose you would say that anything could, in this sense, be moral if the social situations are such that we just need to take it as a given.

B: Exactly.

A: So if genocide was, say, just what one did after winning a war, then this would be moral too.

B: Right, I guess.

A: But for all that, we’d still praise a group of people who were the first to defy the trend.

B: Right. But I don’t see how we could condemn them for not defying it. Morality is always contextualized by practical possibility.

A: But is happiness too?

B: What do you mean?

A: Just this: assume we were the sort of society that had to take the command of a genocide as a given. Maybe this would count as moral, but would this shield us from the consequence of seeing life as essentially tribal, arbitrary, and with no intrinsic defense against blind power?

B: No – we’d have to see life that way.

A: But this is hardly a view of life that it compatible with seeing it as intrinsically valuable.

B: Right.

A: And it’s hard to see how deep anyone’s happiness could be if they saw life in this way.

B: Which is exactly what you find in reading about the lives of those in societies like that. The closest you can get to happiness is course pleasure, sexist braggadocio, and crude, drunken violence.

A: So on this account of morality, there is no promise that we will get a happiness, or at least a happiness worth having?

B: Look, you get the best one you can get.

A: The best one you can get without a heroic or semi-heroic effort.

B: Right, the best one practically possible.

A: So on your account of morality, a happiness worth having will always be defined as requiring a heroic effort?

B: Exactly.

A: And by a heroic effort you mean an effort by which a person can separate himself from the world he lives in, defy whatever societal or congenital habits that might drag him down, and live as one exiled from his people?

B: I guess. But then I don’t see how anyone could be happy living like that.


  1. GeoffSmith said,

    December 30, 2013 at 10:49 am

    B sounds like an incoherent mess.

    • December 30, 2013 at 10:58 am

      B is a tool for uncovering the logic of the fact that moral goals to be practically attainable. need to be practically attainable.

      • GeoffSmith said,

        December 30, 2013 at 11:30 am

        I’m not sure what your sentence means. Did you mean “are practically unattainable”?

      • December 30, 2013 at 11:34 am

        No, just missed the finite verb. should read “moral goals need to be practically attainable”

      • GeoffSmith said,

        December 30, 2013 at 11:51 am

        Ah, then I’m not sure (in a non-internet jerk way) what you’re getting at.

  2. thenyssan said,

    December 30, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    B: I guess. But then I don’t see how anyone could be happy living like that.

    C: What if a few people did it together?

  3. YOS said,

    December 30, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    Indulging the appetites repeatedly “vulcanizes” neural patterns originating in the more primitive parts of the brain. These patterns interfere with or disrupt neural patterns originating in the neocortex; iow, they disrupt rational thought. But since human nature is to be a rational animal, this disrupts our very human-ness and makes us a little bit more stupid.

    Click to access Cohen%20%28JEP%2005%29.pdf

  4. Peter said,

    December 30, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    It seems to me that “just accepting it and working from there” at least means acknowledging an ideal and working towards it.

    Maybe 800 years ago people did have to accept that vendettas and violent revenges were an unavoidable part of social reality. If so then the question is, how did we get from there to where we are now?

    Certainly not by saying “look, people are going to do it anyway.”

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