Saturday, September 09, 2006

Monogamy continued, or playing around with Kantian ethics

(I wrote this piece several weeks ago and have resisted publishing it, since it presents me in a light in which I prefer not to see myself. I really don’t believe I’m as much of an austere gay puritan as much of this piece may make me out to be. I really hope not! But in the interests of intellectual honesty, I really do feel obliged to publish it. I ask only that the reader read through to the end before he reacts.)

In dialoguing with one of the guys who has read my previous blogs on monogamy, I said I wanted to bring the whole issue out of the context of morality, a point to which my correspondent offered a certain degree of objection. On giving the matter a bit more thought, I have concluded that it is, in fact, probably impossible to divorce moral considerations from the question.

My correspondent discussed the immorality of betrayal, or breaking of vows of monogamy and consequently hurting your partner. But is sexual betrayal any less immoral if you betray your partner in a way in which you can be absolutely sure he’ll never find out? Is a theft or a lie any less immoral if it is never discovered? Also, as I responded to my correspondent, is sexual betrayal any more serious than other types of emotional betrayal, such as breaking confidences? I don’t think so, and I don’t think that considering the issue from the point of view of betrayal alone is ultimately going to get us very far.

We might just have to bite the bullet, risk being branded authoritarian, puritanical prudes, and discuss the morality of sexual promiscuity head on. It’s inescapable that from a Kantian point of view, and most modern ethical systems derive more or less from Kant, sexual promiscuity involves breaking a basic ethical principle, treating another human being not as an end but as a means, treating a man not as a man, but rather as an object. It’s not hard to see how engaging in promiscuous sex, or any type of sex that doesn’t take the humanity of the other person fully into consideration, flies in the face of this ethical system.

I can think of few acts that turn another human being more completely into an object or use him only as a means more thoroughly than casual sex. In fact, I must admit that at least for myself, when I was single and playing around, it was precisely the impersonal nature of casual sexual encounters that made many of them so wildly exciting. The super hot trick is the perfect foil for our fantasies, to whom we have no real responsibility, with whom we can be as free as we can allow ourselves to be. Of course, we wish the casual partner no harm; we even, very frequently, do everything we can so that he enjoys himself, too. But even there, our striving to please is most frequently an exercise of our own power and a source of our own enjoyment. The other guy is just the object that allows us to do this.

One could, of course, argue that since the other guy consents to this situation, he is exercising his rational will and is thereby asserting his humanity. Engaging him on this level, i.e., having sex with him, would not, then, be treating him as a means, but rather as an end. But what is the guy really consenting to? In agreeing to engage in a casual sexual encounter, the other guy, just like you, is primarily thinking of his own gratification. He is generally not thinking about how the other guy is viewing him. He is not agreeing to become a foil for your fantasies. So, he is not really agreeing to what you are proposing. And even if he did, it would still violate the Kantian ethical system in that one cannot morally deny his own humanity.

(I do, of course, dismiss the idea of throwing out the Kantian argument on the grounds that he did, several times, condemn homosexuality. This condemnation is based more on the prejudices and preconceptions of his times than upon his ethical system. This ethical system still provides a vald approach to the problem.)

That being said, we can now return to the issue of betrayal (sexual or otherwise). The immorality of betrayal consists not in the fact of betrayal itself, but rather in its ultimately involving an overt or covert lie. A lie is ultimately the manipulation, without his consent, of another human being, and hence, it denies his humanity. If my partner assumes my fidelity, and if I go on a business trip and have a wild night with a stranger, never confess, and my partner never finds out, I am nevertheless denying his humanity through the covert lie involved; I am manipulating his feelings and beliefs without his consent.

O.K. That’s the logical ethical argument for monogamy. But I have to confess that while I have no intention of cheating on my partner, the whole business strikes me as a bit austere. Kant is almost inhuman in his insistence upon our humanity. I still can’t condemn my friends who enjoy (even obsessively) wild nights at the baths or a dance with a stranger. And as I’ve said in other contexts, if my partner is seduced in a moment of weakness by a pair of fetching eyes, it will not destroy the years of trust and intimacy we have built together. And maybe here we have reached the limits of logic.


Blogger The Gay Species said...

Kant was excessively austere, too rational without any sense of emotion. We have preferences and partialities, because we are humans. Rational calculus -- in any form -- leaves out too much of our human character.

But even if the categorical imperative helps us find a "neutral" center, a place to evaluate our situation and context, then it has served its purpose. But we can never escape Kant's other insight: Either others are "means," or they are "ends." Either each and every human has dignity, worth, and nobity, or else we are instruments for some other purpose.

You cast this dichotomy in terms of your Other, betraying HIM, rather than yourself. You ask if whether HE knows about your indiscretion matters, as if HE was the only victim in whatever chance you might suddenly find yourself. Deference to our Other is certainly a consideration, but in this dynamic, a minimal consideration.

We are all drawn to that exciting moment when hormones, libido, and difference meet, and if we act on it (our unknowing partner aside), only our self and the trick are privy to the momentary escapade. If careful, we only have to account to ourselves. The Partner, not knowing the event, is no worse off or better because of it.

Still, for all our private piccadillos, mutual consent to exploit each other, without regard of a tertiary partner, is still exploitation. And no matter how we recast the situation, both the trick and our selves know that we succumbbed to a moments pleasure. The less said, the less known, the better. Whether we have a partner, or are flying solo, we still have to face Ourself. If we "used" someone to enjoy the moment, and if no one else knows the difference, then the exploitation is harmless.

My point is that, even if one scraps all the disclosure and partners, we still have to face the fact that each of us has willingly "used" the other in a moment of passion. In the final analysis, the "other" merely fades into memory, but we have to live with ourselves having "used" and "been used." We exploited not only another person, but we know we were equallly exploited as well. We were "tools" to each other's momentary excitement, and then, when the dust settles, we have only ourselves to consider. We "used" him just as he "used" us. We can tell ourselves it was mutual, just as the employer tells the employee he accepted the terms, but we know in our inner most self that we violated not only "some one else," the other violated ourselves.

In that naked aggression, we call the "transaction" mutual, when it was nothing of the sort. It may have been great fun, even fabulous sex, but it cost us something very, very personal in the exchange. We lost a sense of our own self-worth as "ends," and became a "means" just as we appropriated the other as a "means." We justify it on some ledger that is not moral, but the reality is that we have violated our own dignity, our own self-worth, our own respect.

It's not that we depersonalized sex, or used each other, it's that we depersonalized our very self. And our homunuclus (or inner self) knows we've compromised something to valuable to mention. And therein lies the rub.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Stephen, Yes. Exactly. Thanks for expanding upon what I was trying to say in perhaps an overly compact form.

3:57 AM  
Blogger Paul Brownsey said...

Hmm...One danger with this sort of argument is that it would seem to apply, not only against casual sex, but also against, say, 'phoning a plumber to fix a leaking pipe. In the words of The Gay Species, each of us willingly uses the other - I use the plumber to get my pipe fixed, he exploits my need to earn a living. So if casual sex is wrong, so is calling the plumber. Really?

Kantian ethics doesn't rule out treating people as means. It rules out treating people ONLY as means: always treat humanity NEVER SIMPLY as a means but also AT THE SAME TIME as an end. (What the latter involves is open to debate.)

9:15 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Paul, the distinction you make is, of course, valid. The Kantian injunction is against using someone ONLY as a means.

But in phoning the plumber and asking him to work for me, I'm not denying his dignity as a rational being. Recognizing his humanity and thereby treating him as an end does not necessarity demand that I develop a personal relationship with him. I am purchasing his training and talents, and both I and the plumber understand the terms of the business relationship and consider them fair. In accepting the contract, he is asserting, not denying his nature as a rational being.

If, of course, I use a plumber who is an illegal immigrant and expect to pay him less because of his immigration status, there is clear exploitation, I am manipulating him though his desperate situation, and his humanity is, in that sense, denied.

Of course, I don't go through this process counsciously when I buy a loaf of bread at the bakery. But at least in a just society, both I and the baker entered into the social contract consciously in exercize of our rational faculties.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Paul Brownsey said...

Yes, Bruce, but I can't see anything in what you say that differentiates the plumber case from the casual-sex case. You say, "But in phoning the plumber and asking him to work for me, I'm not denying his dignity as a rational being." Sure, but in phoning the hot trick and inviting him over for consensual sex while my partner is out I'm not denying the trick's dignity as a rational being, either.

Of course, my session with the trick will be wet and squelchy in a way that my transaction with the plumber won't be, but so what? (Or are you smuggling in here some prior *assumption* that sex is intrisically iffy and shouldn't take place in so-called depersonalised contexts, outwith a long-term personal relationship, etc? But in that case it isn't the Kantian principle of treating others as ends that is the basis for condemning casual encounters.)

As I've said before, I couldn't survive in a non-monogamous relationship. But I don't think you've managed to pinpoint anything dubious about casual sex by this Kantian argument. So long as my trick knows the score, so long as neither of us pretends to the other that this is more than it is, then I'm treating him as an end even though this is just an occasion for the joint getting off of rocks.

5:05 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Paul, the Kantian argument may hinge, of course, upon one of the more--- from a modern point of view--- problematic aspects of his moral philosophy: the placing of sexual desire outside of reason, and thereby outside of Man's humanity. It is Man's reason that separates him from the other animals and thereby entitles him to be treated as an end. Since sexual desire is outside of reason, by which man is distinguished as human, treating him solely as a object of sexual desire treats him as an object and violates his humanity. In reference to the mutually agreed upon purely sexual trick, regardless of hom much discussion has gone on beforehand,neither of the parties can either offer or accept such an arrangement without denying both his own and the other's humanity.

This, of course, in not the case with the plumber, in which the plumber is treated as a fully rational being and it is the rational part of his being which is being engaged.

5:21 AM  
Blogger Paul Brownsey said...

No, I don't think so.

If sex is 'outside reason', then it is so whether it occurs in a casual encounter or whether it occurs within a long-term relationship.

You seem to think that casual sex always involves treating the other "solely as an object of sexual desire" and violating his and one's own humanity. How do you make that out? I suppose you need an account of what it is to uphold/violate a person's humanity. But it is certainly not obvious to me how casual sex necessarily violates anyone's humanity, provided, in the Kantian phrase, that one also at the same time treats the other as an end; and so far as I can see, that is satisfied by its being mutually agreed upon, neither party is misled as to what is involved, no-one is falsely being assured, etc.

Why do you think that sex outside a long-term relationship necessarily violates anyone's humanity? You might just as well say that having a meal with someone outwith a long-term relationship violates the participants' humanity. (So going for a meal with someone I chat to when stranded at an airport violates our humanity?)

Moreover, can't sex even within a long-term relationship fail to treat the other as an end?

There are two distinctions here that need pulling apart: (1) treating someone not as an end (violating their humanity)/treating them as an end (respecting their humanity); (2) casual sex/long-term relationship. I can't see any good reason for saying that casual sex must equate to violating someone's humanity.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Paul, please take a look again at my original post on this issue. I said at the outset that Kant was a bit too austere for my taste; while my sympathies lie in the direction of his ethics, I do not ascribe to Kantian ethics as strict doctrine.

That being said, Kant is quite clear that one does not have the right to deny his own humanity. It is a violation of Kantian ethics to sell oneself into slavery or to act as a prostitute, even if the act is the product of a reasoned decision. Does one have the right to murder even if it is at the victim's request and no question of euthanasia is involved?
Hence, the trick's consent, if we accept that the act itself denies his humanity, does not seem relevant.

Sexual desire, not sex itself is outside of reason, and by sexual desire is meant purely physical attraction, independent of affection or, if you will, love. Clearly, sex as an expression of the emotional bond between two people hardly denies their humanity. In concrete terms, Paul, I am stimulated sexually as much by my partner's mind and heart as I am by his body (which isn't bad, either).

This type of sexual stimulation is impossible in casual sex. I may even feel wildly in love with the trick during our trist, but he is simply a foil for my fantasies, as I am for his. The only aspect of him that is real is his body, an object. All the rest is all in my (and his) mind.

Clearly, a lot depends upon what we mean by "casual." Sex with someone in a dark room, where you don't even see the fellow's face, is one thing, while having sex with someone with whom you have been chatting and who begins to emerge to you as a person is something quite different.

Paul, please read my disussion on this matter a bit more carefully. I never said that sex outside of a long term relationship violates Kant's, or my ethics. That would be absurd, and would unacceptably rule sex out of developing relationships; under those terms we would return to Victorian norms of sex only after the retationship has been formalized.

It would also rule sex out of the relm of experience of people who for some reason are not yet ready to form long term relationships. Having sex at this stage of their development does not mean, however that it is productive for them to engage in anonymous, dehumanized sex. Even here the ethical imperitive demands that sex be linked to affection and consideration of the temporary partner as an end.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Ernesto Raul said...


I have been thinking a lot about this post on monogomy, usually on the way to work (what else does one do when he is stuck in traffic)? My partner of 4 years and my subsequent boyfriend of 2 years both cheated on me, and it devastated me. The fallacy in your argument is that it is possible to be unfaithful and keep it "secret." It's a cliché, but true: The wife always knows. Unfaithfulness comes out in every corner of the relationship, it is present in every second spent together, it is there under the covers and over dinner. It is undeniable and invasive, and when the cheated partner gets his final evidence (or when the cheater confesses, by his own accord or stupidity) it is, all the same, devastating . . . even though I already knew.

P.S.: I enjoy your blog tremendously, but I rarely know what to say in response since you write so eloquently. Makes me feel inadequate.

P.S., P.S.: Regarding my poems – Canto de Un Amargo and Your Absence – the poems were purposely different (demonstrating the difference between the Latin Heart and the Anglo Existence), although based on the same set of facts. Ironically, the set of facts are exactly what your post is about: Unfaithfulness from a long term partner.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Bruce said...

Ernesto, I mentioned cheating in "secret" only as a theoretical possibility. I agree with you that the partner almost always finds out. But does cheating always have to be as destructive to the relationship as you make out?

I think I can say sincerely that I love my partner very deeply, and I'm sure of the depth and sincerity of his feelings toward me. I have never cheated on him, and never intend to. But I must confess that there have been moments when my resolve has been sorely tested. I am not ashamed of being attracted to other men, nor does it particularly bother me that my partner suffers the same tempataions. As I've said before, we're all made of flesh and blood.

I have, however, resisted because:

1) I would hate myself if I ever hurt my partner in this way (actually, I would hate myself if I knowingly hurt him in any way). As you say, the partner almost always finds out.

2) Cheating would negatively effect my self esteem even under the theoretical possibility that my partner never found out. Engaging in the deception itself would not speak very well for my sense of self worth. Also, even though the other guy understood that what we were doing would go nowhere, that it was just a "trick," I would still be using him as an object and, perhaps even worse, allowing myself to used as such.

That being said, Ernesto, I can imagine situations in which my resolve would weaken. I know also that giving in would not substantially change the intensity of the love I have for my partner. That being the case, why should I doubt his love for me even if his moral reserve momentarily weakens?

It may mean the he (or I) do not always have the strength of our convictions. It may even mean that we suffer from a momentary lapse in intelligence and convince ourselves that our partner will never find out. But momentary weakness and stupidity are not impardonable sins; they are certainly no comment on the depth and quality of our affection, even passion for each other.

But Ernesto, please understand that here I am talking about a momentary and very infrequent lapse, not a protracted, clandestine affair. Morality aside, that would mean that there is something lacking in your relationship that your partner needs. In such a case, honesty would demand an open and mutual reassessment of the relationship.

Again, this need not be devastating, although, admittedly, it frequently is. I, frankly do not know if I would have the courage or strength under such a situation to ask myself what I have not given my partner that has sent him elsewhere. I would probably be too consumed with being hurt.

Also, I don't know if I could carry off the self examination necessary to determine why I chose to give my heart to a person who would treat me this way. We very frequently know, or sense, that something negative is possible, even likely, when we enter into an agreement. But we want it so badly we overlook the threatening aspects; or even worse (and this is really not all that uncommon), we really don't want the situation to be permanent and pick a partner who we know will eventually betray us or disappoint us, so we don't have to take the responsibility of ending it ourselves.

This may sound rather austere, but we are not only responsibile for what we do; we are also most frequently responsible for what happens to us.

Agreed, I can take this position that we are, for the most part, the masters of our own fate because I have lead a rather priviledged and lucky life. But I deal professionally with people who are not in that position (refugees), and I still am convinced that we play a substantial role in determining what happens to us.

(Ernesto, thanks for the compliment on my writing. It's even more appreciated coming from a guy like you, who obviously knows a thing or two about writing himself.)

1:52 AM  
Blogger The Gay Species said...

I apologize for excessive rhetoric to make a simpler point. Obviously, all cognitive actions are by nature instrumental, a means to some other purpose. In this broader sense, even monogamous lovers are "using" each other for the purposes of love (or whatever).

Perhaps hiring a plumber is no different than "hiring" a trick, just another instrumental action in our instrumental lives. But I want to suggest, at least, that they may not be parallel or analogous, for what is obviously a case of special pleading. But if anything qualifies for special pleading, I want to suggest that romantic love is it. And I want to suggest that while sex and love can be distinguished, it often carries a psychological toll. So my claim shifts from reason to emotions, where special pleadings are allowed.

Here's my phenomenological perspective that some will recognize and some repudiate, but it's worth expressing all the same. If we engage in activities by rote, such as pressing a weight 40x times 3x a week for the instrumental purpose of keeping ourselves in shape, that's all well and good. We can even insist we are improving ourselves and/or making ourselves more marketable in the sex marketplace. As a capitalist, I find nothing odd about any of this. The world is our marketplace, and we are its consumers. As long as producers provide product, we find exchange. In this context, sex and flesh are simply commodities used in exchange, just as workouts make a better product (or improve our health). Anyone who has been to a bathhouse or sex club understands this dynamic all too well. The terms and conditions of admittance is to play by these rules. Some are satisfied customers, some not. Maybe more time at the gym is required to improve marketability. Maybe nothing worth purchase caught our eye. Like any good shopper, we'll return, in hopes a new and better stock. These venues are perfectly suited to the commodification of sex and flesh, and by Adam Smith's standards, their survival is evidence of success.

Fundamentally, I don't like this meat-market approach, but many of us do, and I respect that they are good consumers and will patronize those venues that give them a return on their investment. And if they are satisfied customers, business and customers thrive. Everyone is happy, or at least those who like Wal-Mart of Sexemporia "got a deal."

Whether be enculturation or by indoctrination or by biological imprint, some of think that sex may be great fun and all, but it also allows us to be vulnerable, intimate, sharing, and expressive of our deepest being in ways that bench-pressing is not. Repitition on the treadmill is instrumental to a healthier heart beat, but repitition of the commodification of sex depersonalizes, dehumanizes, even exploits something that might be the exception to instrumentality. Most of us get over it, but however we handle the objection, a nagging issue is left unresolved. When does sexual commodity morph into romantic love and how will I know?

This curiosity may have a Marxist cast, but that's not my focus. In the world of commodities is there something that cannot be bought and sold as just another product of capitalist exploitation (which actually does quite well in allocating resources)? But is nothing exempt from commodification? Is there a "me" that no one can purchase, even at the right price? Is there some qualia deep within my being that I alone will give and only to one I choose, where price is not an issue, and who allows it as a gift and not as a transaction? Basically, is there something about or within us that is "not for sale?"

The language of economics helps bring out, I hope, what I suspect we all intuit. In this radically commodified world where everything has a price and somewhere lurks a buyer, is there something residing within me that ia not just another feature in the marketplace? It may have a "price," but money will never touch it. It may have its "costs," but it's truly enjoyable to spend. It may bankrupt or it may lead to wealth, but not the kind Adam Smith was addressing. Whatever is "exchanged" has a different cast, a different color, marked by the reciprocity of giving. No sale occurs. Another "transaction" has not faded into history; the experience lingers pleasantly.

Robert Solomon in his excellent book "Love" tries to appeal to this intuition in another way, but whatever language or tools we use to cull this "different species" from the rest, it seems that no amount of casuistry or self-justification can negate that sex is a component of this experience, and that, when sex becomes commodified, this experience becomes more remote and distant. Simply, anything repeated with mild indifference become banal, and the instrumentality of sex to love becomes more estranged. Neither of us are prudish Victorians (hardly), but we sense that recreational sex repeated endlessly devalues it as an instrument of romantic love, becoming just another instrumental "tool" in the human armamentarium. It's not that we devalue sex, precisely the opposite, it's because we value love, of which sex is instrumentally chief, that sex should not be devalued (commodified, objectified, whatever). It's impersonal, anonymous sex and its cousin recreational sex that devalues love, and sexual intimacy as an instument of love.

If every sexual encounter is romantically-laced and open to further exploration of each individual, then no issue of instrumentality in my sense is of concern. But if it's just a release and for the moment using someone else, however consensual, its exploitation not only of them but a devaluation of our own personhood. For whatever reason, sex separate from romantic love just screws with our psyche. Occasional dalliances are probably great, even in marriages, but the joy of sex may lead to the loss of love. We're not sure that is a good trade-off. The psychological literature seems to validate a concern. Loveless sex damages the psyche, whatever else it may benefit in terms of libido. Our emotional constitution (cf., rational) never reconciles the dissonance, no matter how many times we tell it otherwise.

1:57 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home