Why Sexual Morality Doesn’t Exist

His words, not mine.

Whilst I agree that all morality is contrived, Alan H. Goldman, Kenan Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the College of William and Mary, presents his position that sexual morality is not divorced from any morality. It’s not particularly a special case. I agree in principle, but his argument is lacking.


Sexual desire aims directly at the pleasure derived from physical contact

Alan H. Goldman

He states that ‘As other philosophers point out, pleasure is normally a byproduct of successfully doing things not aimed at pleasure directly, but this is not the case with sex. Sexual desire aims directly at the pleasure derived from physical contact. [The] desire for physical contact in other contexts, for example, contact sports, is not sexual because it has other motives (winning, exhibiting dominance, etc.), but sexual desire in itself has no other motive. It is not a desire to reproduce or to express love or other emotions, although sexual activity, like other activities, can express various emotions including love.’

Pleasure is normally a byproduct. 

Sure.

This is not the case with sex.

OK. Elaborate.

Sexual desire aims directly at … pleasure.

I'm still following.

Sexual desire in itself has no other motive, which is pleasure.

Damn. You lost me.

I might agree that pleasure (let’s ignore the fact that this is another weasel word) may be the motivation behind sexual desire, but we don’t really have means to determine motivation or intent, and we certainly can’t assess one attribute over another.

Power is everywhere because it comes from everywhere — Michel Foucault

Foucault may have argued that the motivation is power—perhaps each side is making their own power calculus. Given the state of current knowledge, this is not ascertainable. Prof Goldman may feel that pleasure is the motive; one may even argue that power yields pleasure. I’ll not traverse that rabbit hole.

Later, he asserts that ‘More controversial is whether any consensual sex between willing partners is wrong’. I won’t debate this position, but there is no good way to full assess consent.

I’ll outline a fairly stereotypical scenario—excuse me for opting for a heterosexual situation, but the pronouns are easier to track. Say a man and a woman have met in a social setting—perhaps they’ve been dating for some period—, and they ‘mutually’ decide to engage in sex. We’d call this exercising agency, two consenting adults.

But what of ulterior motives? Following the stereotype, perhaps he feels that he is conquering her, and she feels she is securing a stable mate; or perhaps they don’t feel this at all. What is the actual intent? Not to go full-on Freud, but are they playing out some latent urge? Is this just some deterministic eventuality. There’s really no way to tell. Any story I tell is as speculative as the next.

So, to end on a tangent, a significant problem underlying philosophy, psychology, and jurisprudence is the issue of intent. The term is bandied about on most cop shows and legal dramas, but it is another just another vapid notion that we accept as valid. Of course, if we dispense of the notion, our legal systems would just unravel.

Yet again we’ve reached a point where the only truth is rhetoric.

Advertisements

Happiness and how to defeat it (part 1)

Some Utilitarians claim that humans are happiness maximisers or at least a large component of utility is happiness. Besides happiness (nor pleasure) is not everyone’s goal. Utility maximisation has a near-term bias, and preference theory leaves a lot to be desired.

Utilitarians are not hedonists, per se, but perhaps this is only moderated by the downsides attributed to excess.

Happiness is not a goal…it’s a by-product of a life well lived.

Eleanor Roosevelt

Some people defer happiness in their engagements of so-called labours of love. Stereotypical entrepreneurs, forego near-term happiness in the hope of some future benefit. Given the low probability of even a remotely positive outcome, this is taking a lottery mentality. In the US, much entrepreneurship is reserved for the children of the affluent. This is a hobby, and they typically have several safety nets for the almost inevitable ensuing failure.

In any case, if happiness is a goal, rational choice and homo economicus have surely gone missing.

Four Nobel Truths

Buddhism has its Four Noble Truths:

  • Life is suffering
  • Suffering is due to attachment
  • There is a way to overcome attachment
  • Follow the Eightfold Path

Happiness-seeking is precisely what will ensure unhappiness. One might even argue that this is the general malaise evident in Western society. As Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, and others have pointed out, people rather satisfice, a strategy of getting to good enough. Perhaps this is not letting perfection be enemy of the good, or perhaps this is somehow realising the asymptotic path of diminishing returns ahead.

Happiness should not be a goal; it’s a side-effect, a result of pursuing one’s interests. And happiness is ephemeral. We’re likely all aware of the person who was asking for just one thing to achieve happiness is quickly seeking the next thing because happiness comes with an expiration date.

Ambiguous Aesthetics

That language is arbitrary is tautological, an analytic claim. It’s true by definition. Structuralists, i.e. Saussure, had known this even before the postmoderns, e.g. Derrida, came into the picture.

Trigger Warning
If sexist perspectives offend your sensibilities, continue at your own risk. This is not meant to offend, rather just to illustrate, but you’ve been forewarned.

Where it might be most apparent is in aesthetics. So, when describing the appearance of a woman in a positive light—I’m a guy, so indulge me, please—, one might describe her by one or more of these descriptors:

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Margaret Wolfe Hungerford
  • Adorable
  • Beautiful
  • Cute (or Kawaii, if you’re into the Anime culture)
  • Gorgeous
  • Handsome
  • Hot
  • Lovely
  • Pretty
  • Sexy
  • A 10 (or something along an otherwise arbitrary if not capricious scale)

Each of these is a term to indicate some aesthetic quality. Each capturing a connotative notion, and of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Givenchy – Ugly Beauty

Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.

David Hume

I am not going to attempt to illustrate the nuances between these terms. As with any preference-oriented terms, the relationship between and within a given term. What I think is beautiful may not be to you.

What I think is beautiful today, I may not feel is beautiful tomorrow. Speaking in terms of music, there are plenty of songs I thought were ‘good’ when I was growing up, but I don’t like them anymore. Take a look at fashion in the past and how silly it might look now. If you are older, take a look at some pictures of how you dressed in your teens or twenties. You may have felt like quite the chick magnet in the day, and now you cringe and no longer wonder why you spent as many nights alone as you might have.

As a test, gather 100 images of different, say, women—I’m staying with the trend—and rank them from 1 to 100; rate them cute, sexy, whatever. Record your choices. Do this each day for a month and see how steady your choices are. It will be extremely unlikely that there will be no variation no matter how carefully you try to define your classification to remain consistent—and this is just communicating with yourself. Now imagine if you have to consistently convey this to other people.

Cover image courtesy of this article.

Defending Democracy

Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. 

Sir Winston Chirchill

I am not a defender of or apologist for Democracy. Any system is only as strong as its weakest link, but save for the rhetorical promises Democracy is nothing but weak links. Turtles all the way down. It’s another failed Enlightenment experiment. Sure, you can argue that the Ancient Greeks invented democracy—or at least implemented it at any scale—, but specious Enlightenment ideals pushed it forward into the mainstream.

The Achilles’ heel of Democracy is the principle-agent problem, the same one that separates management (CEOs) from owners (shareholders). Incentives are different.

Achilles’ Heel

Plato published his solution is Republic, but this proposal was naive at best. The notion that meritocracy is something real or that we can appropriately understand dimensions and measures in order to create the right incentives is another weak link.

Plato’s Republic

We see the same problem controlling elected officials. Time and again, we elect them, and time and again, they disappoint. We, the People, are the principles, and the elected are our agents. People in the US (and in so-called ‘democratic’ societies) have the vote, and yet—per the oft-cited definition of insanity—, they perform the same action and continue to expect different results; in fact; they are always surprised). At its core, it’s an incentive and accountability problem.

Kenneth Arrow wrote about the Impossibility Theorem, where he proved mathematically that no voting system would yield optimal results. Democracy is cursed with mediocrity. We like to soft-pedal the notion of mediocrity with the euphemism of compromise, another Ancient Greek legacy of moderation. If this makes you feel better, who am I to break the delusion? Cognitive dissonance is a powerful palliative.

μηδέν άγαν

Do Nothing in Excess, Delphic Oracle Inscription

Interestingly enough, many people clamour for term limits (a subversion of democracy) because they can’t help themselves from voting for the same shit politicians over and again. They rationalise it and say it is to defend against the other guy’s vote because they’d have never voted for shit representation.

This is often couched as ‘save me from myself’, but it is just as aptly cast as ‘save me from democracy’. I suppose a heroin addict might have the same thoughts.

Homo Hubris

I’ve been engaging in a bit of friendly dialogue countering a claim citing the demise of atheism with a mate (Neal Mack) at a blog named The scientific case against evolution, but I’ve decided to pose some points here so I can leverage some of my expended energy on my own content.

Although I don’t believe in the supernatural or metaphysical, I’ve got no dog in the race as to how others believe. Where I draw the line, though, is where religious doctrine seeps into the realm of political philosophy, jurisprudence, and governance because then it’s not about a ‘personal relationship’ with God. It’s about imposing that God upon me.

Parent scolding child

As the sayings go, if you feel abortion is wrong, then don’t have one; if you don’t approve of gay marriage, then don’t marry a same-sex partner; if you don’t believe that two (or more) adults should be able to engage in safe, sane, and consentual sexual acts, then don’t participate; if you don’t believe that a woman should be able to earn money from sex, then don’t pay her any; and on and on and on and on…


if you don’t approve of gay marriage, then don’t marry a same-sex partner

But don’t impose your sense of morality on me. Keep it to yourself. If it were up to me, I would prefer that there be no religion and no superstition outside of the domain of fiction. But a key reason that these things even work in fiction is the sense that they could be or might be true. It fits into the evolutionary psychology the got humans to where we are instead of withering and dying on the evolutionary vine. But give us time. Homo sapiens sapiens is a relatively young species, and they appear on course to extinguish themselves relatively soon anyway, making all of this moot. Perhaps a more fitting name would have been Homo hubris.

I’ll keep this post short, as I’ve got nothing new to add, and it’s getting late. If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll know that I am a non-cognitivist, and I don’t believe in any objective truth. I also understand—and as Nietzsche pointed out—the difficulty in forming a cohesive society without this orientation and supporting meta-narrative. Yet, this is not my problem.

Talk About Choice, the Body & Consent

This post takes a different approach than the previous two videos. First, I am reversing the video content and my response, so the video content is quoted.

As I listened to the video, I was taken aback by how rife the content was with logical fallacies. In fact, this would be perfect fodder for an introductory Logic 101 class to evaluate for these fallacies. Although I do not call out these fallacies exhaustively, I do highlight some of them.

One common factor of prostitutes is the history of surviving emotional, physical or often sexual abuse and violence.

Given that these are undefined and unqualified, I am not sure that there is any woman who has never had any violence of some degree or another. I presume this should be further qualified that it is directed toward her. I’ll be perfectly frank: I have never dated a woman who has not been raped at least once in her lifetime, some had been several times, and several others had been molested as children. Only a couple of these had any connections to sex work of any form, so it is interesting that this a raised as a vector, first for the over-expansive domain and second without contrast to other women in a sort of control group fashion.

These previous aspects have been suggested to be even stronger than the factor of poverty.

Notice again the speaking in generalities. No facts are being asserted here. We are trapped in a telephone game, where hearsay and speculation dominate the held position. Somebody anonymous person somehow somewhere suggested that some relationship might exist. There is nothing there.

Some poor women will be prostitutes, and others will take underpaid or illegal jobs…

Duly noted. And some will graduate from college and become computer programmers. And so?

…but the ones opting for prostitution will have had a history of sexual violence.

Notice that no claim is being made that this violence is more or less frequent than the cohort not opting for prostitution.

That a middle-class girl may also find herself working as a prostitute because someone taught her that she was worthless.

Wow. So much to unpack here. The narrator, Elly, is asserting a parallel between prostitution and worthlessness. The implication is a person with worth would not choose this profession because she would choose a worthy profession. I wonder where and how this worth is determined.

…and the only thing of value she could do was to give sexual access to men.

So Elly, whether she admits it or not is deprecating women who choose this profession, but she tries to shroud it in language that she feels otherwise.

Now comes the psychobabble about trauma reenactment, as if it were a thing, and in a classic misdirect, she asserts that this is not even her own judgment; in fact, it is the analysis of these women who are clearly qualified to make a professional judgment of this nature in the realm of pseudoscience.

Anecodote: Women come to the conclusion that they’ve been abused their whole lives, so why not get paid for it.

Here is where I break to discuss post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy or anecdotal evidence. Anecdotal evidence is frequently misinterpreted via the availability heuristic, which leads to an overestimation of the prevalence of an occurrence. This is a well-documented logical fallacy. This fallacy is employed when the person arguing has no real data to support their position, so they opt for personal stories, hearsay, and anecdotes. Related to this is confirmation bias, which is the result of, having established a position, only seek out facts that support the position even if these facts are outnumbered by contrary facts by orders of magnitude.

Such thinking is the basis behind anti-vaccination groups and homoeopathy advocates. The best these people can do is to point to themselves or a friend or a friend of a friend who benefited (or was disadvantaged) by some therapy or other action.

Bald assertion: We have a rape and paedophilia culture.

What is the basis for this claim, and what is the scope?

Media culture promotes the message be pretty, be fuckable, or be invisible

Here, we are in full agreement. The technical fallacy here is that for every 10 girls subjected to these messages, 1 becomes a prostitute. Yet even by conservative statistics, at least 1 in 5 women have been raped, 1 in 4 have been sexually abused. So the cause and effect don’t add up. In the US, about 14% of people are officially considered to in poverty.

In statistics, there is a concept of signal and noise. The problem is that understanding statistics is not natural for humans. It involves the analytical System II, in Daniel Kahneman‘s parlance, rather than the heuristic, System I.  A cognitive problem plaguing people is apophenia, where they read patterns into data that simply are not there. A form of this, called pareidolia, is how people see Jesus’ face in toast.

No body can stand beign penetrated to 10 to 30 male strangers every single day.

So the 10 to 20 customers a night I commented was unrealistic has now morphed into 10 to 30. It is somehow important to note that these are strangers, presumably as a nod to acknowledge that 30 acquaintances would be just fine because there would be enthusiastic consent and mutual arousal. Beware stranger danger.

If indeed prostitution is just a job like any other job, like, say, flipping burgers, then I would wager you would have absolutely no issue switching jobs with a prostituted person for one day and let it be your anus that’s penetrated in the state of non-arousal by 15 men during one night.

O! Europa. Firstly, I wouldn’t trade my jobs to flip burgers let alone be a prostitute. Secondly, there are scores upon scores of ‘typical’ jobs I would have no interest in switching into. Nor would I presume that many others could actually do my job in any case. Why would someone presume that the punter wouldn’t notice the old switcharoo? And what’s with the anal penetration. Some prostitutes will ‘do’ anal for an up-charge, but many—perhaps even most—prostitutes won’t even accept anal at any price. This is about boundaries.

And someone seems pretty obsessed with the prospect of being penetrated by 15 men. I’d chalk this up to a power struggle, a foray into the world of penetration politics. Even gay men discriminate between top and bottom, so it’s rather a submission thing rather than a female thing.

Prostitution is incompatible with enthusiastic sexual consent

Elly runs through a bizarre strawman scenario that is too silly to even repeat here, and then she returns to some Disney Princess fantasy world of wooing and requited love.

She (sort of) acknowledges (without saying as much) that there is a distinction between economic and social spheres. I’d suggest reviewing the Isreali daycare study, where they learned that lesson the hard way. This does not mean that some people don’t blend the two spheres. It also doesn’t mean that a woman might not put out for a hamburger but might be persuaded by steak.

Anecdotally, I am aware of some women who say they would have sex with their favourite celebrity—if only he would ask.

In the end, this has become more and more disappointing. As so much of this material are vast generalisations and practically at the level of conspiracy theories, there is not even a debate to be had. There are so many technical flaws, I feel I need to pull a yellow card. There is nothing to push against except for the lack of structure or method. It’s all so nebulous. It’s all so quixotic, tilting at windmills.

To be honest, I don’t see how this would convert someone on the fence, let alone an opponent. This material is pretty much relegated to echo-chamber choir preaching.

I think I need to get back to the topic of subjectivism and out of the weeds of activist politics.

 

There Are No Accidents

There are no accidents, or so claimed Carl Jung in his work on synchronicity, positing that events may be connected causally or by meaning. Some people see this as the work of some karmic force whilst others use it to suggest that a person is being passive-aggressive.

Karma

In the karmic sense, this means that there is no escaping fate, and, as with Santa Claus, he is constantly watching you, like some personified panopticon. See the short post on karma, too.

I’m not sure if the bible story of Judas and Jesus is really a karmic anecdote, but under this paradigm, everything is a no-fault situation. Judas was fated to betray Jesus. And despite this lack of responsibility, Judas still committed suicide once he realised what he had done and despite it not being an accident.

Passive-Aggression

In the passive-aggressive sense, it is to say the event A may be caused by something in person B’s unconscious mind—and not by some collective consciousness or a Universal Overseer. So, secretly, if Person B accidentally backed into your parked car, it may not be by some conscious volition; rather, it’s because or some deep-seated anger or other ill-will harboured and directed for you.

The problem is that if you accept that there are no accidents, then you—intentionally or otherwise—parked your car in a place where it would necessarily be hit by someone—by anyone. It just happened to be this other person for whom there are also no accidents. So, both parties are blameless. But people love to blame, and they like to defer responsibility.

Verdict

The bottom line is that both of these concepts are a bit sketchy. In a world of no free will, the karma situation might be plausible, but this wreaks havoc on moral-ethical systems. I discuss that in most post on karma.

God is Dead. God is Necessary.

I stumbled upon Professor Jordan Peterson and his defenders of virtue morality, like Dr Stephen Hicks, and I decided to watch some vids.

Full Disclaimer: Not a fan

I ended up on his lecture about Carl Jung.

I’d been interested in archetypal and depth psychology for ages, and I’ve read most of Jung’s work. I still own all of the volumes of his complete works. The difference between me and Professor Peterson is that I take it as metaphor and, by his words, I presume that he doesn’t.

The video clip is cued to the location where Jordan says, speaking of Nietzsche,

“…‘God is dead, and we have killed him’ led Nietzsche to pose another question, which was: What are we going to do to replace him? Because Nietzsche believed—and I think he was absolutely right about this. I can’t see how it could be otherwise—, he believed that the morality that had structured Western society was predicated on the fundamental axiom of divinity, and so, as far as Nietzsche was concerned, the whole purpose of morality was dependent on that axiom being true—or at least being accepted as true. And when that axiom was knocked out by, say, the conflict between science and religion—because in some sense that’s what did it—, then the whole system no longer had anything to stand on and could become entirely questionable…”

The whole purpose of morality was dependent on [the existence of divinity] being true.

As I’ve said time and again, this is the primary reason people—especially those defending or seeking some sense of status quo, conservative vanguards, and morality warriors—insist on the existence of a real, objective moral centre or a good-enough version of it—one that coincidentally conforms to their worldview.

I’m afraid that I am going to need to hear something well more convincing than that because I’m not buying what these guys are selling.

3 Laws of Behaviour Genetics

Genetics

[EDIT: Researching immediately after I wrote this article, I skimmed—I’ll have to find time to read it later—Turkheimer’s paper Still Missing (PDF, 2011), where he walks back his original assertion.]

The question, “why are children in the same family so different?” is answered, “Because measurable differences in their environment make them that way.”

I finished Pinker’s The Blank Slate the other day, but I didn’t have much time to capture my reflections. I’m already onto my next book, Mill’s Utilitarianism, so I figured I record some thoughts before they become too distant.

In chapter 19, Pinker summarises Eric Turkheimer’s paper Three Laws of Genetic Behaviour Genetics and What They Mean (PDF, 2000):

  1. The First Law: All human behavioural traits are heritable.
  2. The Second Law: The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes.
  3. The Third Law: A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioural traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.

Elaborating on this, he summarises Turkheimer’s assessment on the variance in personality contributable to three factors: genetics, society, and family. According to this theory, variations in personality due accounted for by environment, are composed as

3 Laws of Behaviour Genetics

50 percent accounted for by society (non-shared environment); 40 – 50 percent accounted for by genetics (biology) and 0 to 10 percent attributable to family (shared environment). In his assessment, he was able to eliminate usual-suspect factors like birth order and siblings.

“Genotype is in fact a more systematic
source
of variability than environment.”

According to Pinker, the 0 to 10 percent is generous, and it could just as well be 50% society and the rest is genetics. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for psychoanalysis, a discipline who strongly pushes back on this concept—just with emotional appeal in lieu of science.

Post-Post-Modern Subjectivism

I’ve just finished reading Steven Pinker‘s The Blank Slate. Originally published in 2002 (and re-published with an afterword in 2016), it still feels fresh. Pinker offers compelling rationale for accepting that humans are not blank slates entering the world.

Though I am somewhat of a social justice warrior in principle, I am still a moral subjectivist, a post-modern thinker. Pinker shares his strong feelings against subjectivism, but he provides no evidence of the moral objectivism he advances, relying instead on an emotional appeal; in fact, he employs the same defensive tactic his detractors employ, which is to try to make an empathic connection to the reader.

All he does is to claim that there is an objective morality because everybody feels and knows that X is better than Y, taking a strawman approach. It’s not that I disagree with his Xs and Ys; it’s just that they are subjective not objective measures. He tries to slip in an appeal to popularity by claiming that everybody would (or should) feel this way when push comes to shove.

Nietzsche, I think, had it right in Beyond Good and Evil when he pointed out the dual moral systems of masters and slaves. Although a moral (just) system might be best constructed from scratch in the manner of Rawlsveil of ignorance, we are not starting from a blank slate. The power structures are already in place. There is a possibility for upward and downward mobility, but large jumps are not likely except in the manner of a lottery. Other than this, it’s unlikely that one will move from one quintile to another and even less likely to skip a quintile, especially on the upward trend.

In any case, the issue is not whether some might feel subjectively better; it’s whether—across all possible dimensions—a relative, stable equilibrium can be found. Even here, this is not objective, even if it’s not otherwise arbitrary or capricious. The larger problem is one of epistemological empiricism—apart from the ontological question—, whether we can know that we’ve found the objective truth or if we’ve just settled on something that works for our current station.

As much as I really do like Steven Pinker, and I await his next book, Enlightenment Now, I do so only to read how he couches his argument in support of Enlightenment and Humanism, two concepts I feel are tainted by hubris