Tuesday, March 3, 2009



Morality complicates Western discourse about sex. In weeks past, I asserted that "sex is stupid" because it really is not very complicated from a purely physical standpoint. After all, the abstract idea of two people in a naked, passionate embrace is almost laughable. Nonetheless, human beings talk about sex, they fantasize about it and they allow it to profoundly influence their lives. I suppose this has to do with biology. Even if the act is stupid, human beings have to do it in order to propagate the species. To that extent, nature made us attach particularly strong importance to sex. Nature even allowed sex to subdue our reason and temporarily allow pure instinct to overwhelm our minds.

But today I do not want to talk about sex from a biological perspective. Rather, I want to focus on the crushing moral baggage that obscures any rational discussion on the subject. Morality is hard to define. I have tried to define it in the past and I have encountered difficulty. For my purposes today, I am content to say that "morality" means all those long-held social beliefs, customs, traditions and judgments passed down within a particular society concerning those things that are "good" or "bad." In this context, I do not intend "good" and "bad" as absolute terms, but rather as dominant social judgments. What is "moral" in one society may not be in another. Even within particular societies, individuals will always fiercely differ on the meaning of "good" and "bad." Morality, then, implies an average. What does the average person consider "good" or "bad?" In moral questions, the key inquiry is whether something is average. Is it "normal?" A true moralist is a quintessentially "normal," "average" person who feels perfectly justified finding deviance and "wrong" in other people. Applying his "average" moral baseline, he labels others "not normal," "bad" "wrong" or "disgusting." Morality requires judgment. It establishes a standard by which to judge others. Good moralists do not hesitate to crucify the "bad." They must; otherwise the whole moral system would collapse.

From a Western moral perspective, what constitutes "bad?" Morality developed over millennia of human experience. Morality, then, draws its strength from tradition. What did our ancestors consider "bad?" And why was it bad? This has nothing to do with metaphysical, rational abstractions concerning "pure good" and "pure evil." No; morality is much more intuitive than theoretical postulation. Morality is for "average men," not "exceptional thinkers." In fact, most moral judgments originated not in reason, but rather in emotion. I believe that, at bottom, moral judgments evolved from strong feelings of disgust. When our ancestors smelled a dead animal or a pile of dung, they did not like the smell. Their faces contorted. They could not breathe. They felt nauseous. Perhaps they vomited. They associated the unpleasant smell with the judgment "bad," and whenever they encountered other bad smells, they labeled them "bad," too. If their fellow man smelled, then he, too, was "disgusting." If he did not clean his waste, he was "disgusting." His smells caused the same, viscerally awful experience they felt when they encountered a rancid dungheap. Over time, those "gut reactions" refined themselves into moral judgments.

Disgust drives these judgments. Morality, then, represents the end result of collected experience involving disgusting things. What began as simple sensory revulsion evolved into a subtle code that judges virtually all human behavior. Not surprisingly, sex found its way into the moral code. In the West, sex became something about which to feel revulsion, disgust and horror. Moralists taught children to feel shame and embarrassment whenever sex entered the discussion. Sex was "dirty," they heard. Sex was "disgusting." Sex was "sinful." Sex was "dreadful" and "smelly." Even today, children learn to think that "sex is nasty." When they hear about people having sex, they say: "They are doing the nasty."

"Nasty" voices a devastating moral judgment. True, modern colloquialisms have weakened its original meaning. But the definition fits perfectly in the moralist's lexicon. According to Dictionary.com, "nasty" means: "1. physically filthy; disgustingly unclean; 2. offensive to taste and smell; nauseating; 3. offensive, objectionable; 7. morally filthy, obscene, indecent." Dictionary.com v. 1.1, "nasty" definition. Here, we see the link between smell, disgust and morality. "Nastiness" first and foremost involves "cleanliness." Things that are "unclean" are "disgusting," "offensive to smell" and hence "immoral." Morality takes these concepts a step further. As the definition shows, once something is "smelly," "filthy" or "unclean," it is also "offensive" and "objectionable." What begins as mere sensory unpleasantness transforms into something "objectionable." In other words, if something smells bad, it is "disgusting" and "immoral." By contrast, if something smells good and is clean, it is "moral" and "good." It is no accident, then, that moralists chose to label sex "nasty." If something is "nasty," it is "dirty" and "disgusting." And if something is disgusting to an average person, it must be "immoral."

There is nothing refined about this analysis. It simply reflects the average man's judgment concerning how something smells, and whether he considers that smell "disgusting." Yet this is the sensory basis of all moral judgments.

Morality judges everything. We can be forgiven for overlooking its profound influence on virtually every human enterprise. Because morality draws its strength from tradition, it can be difficult to appreciate its presence within the deepest grains of our civilization. We must deconstruct human experience and unravel history to truly see morality's origins. When we do, we are surprised to see how basic it is. And we see that morality is also disingenuous, especially when it comes to sex.

Morality deems sex "nasty." Yet most people only say this in order to please the public moralists. Privately, people love sex. They absolutely love it. When they think about sex, they think about things they really, really want. They do not think about bad smells, disgust, horror and sin. Rather, they think about passion, overwhelming pleasure and sensory satisfaction. There is nothing "objectionable" or "dirty" about that. No one would call sex with a dream partner "objectionable" or "bad." Most people want their partners to be cleanly, not dirty. Yet when applied to sex, the word "nasty" implies that sex is "disgustingly unclean," "smelly," "objectionable" and thus "immoral."

Is this judgment not at odds with what almost everyone privately thinks about sex? Here we see how foolish morality can be. Morality not only judges; it also judges dishonestly and hypocritically. How can we teach others to say that sex is "nasty" when we privately think it is the greatest thing since sliced bread? How can we judge others "nasty" for having sex when we would very much like to have sex ourselves? Perhaps we think that others' sex is smelly, disgusting, nauseating and objectionable, but not ours. Why the distinction? After all, sex is the same as an abstract matter, no matter who does it: Mary Jane Poppinsky and her husband Al engage in precisely the same activity as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Why, then, do we freely condemn others for speaking about sex when we personally think about it almost as much as eating?

Morality leads to these absurd results because morality is not supposed to be consistent. Again, morality does not derive from rational principles; it derives from individual judgments concerning whether something smells bad. That is a subjective appraisal, not a rational assumption. Because morality derives from such subjective impressions, we cannot expect it to be consistent in every case. In fact, we should expect it to vary with time, circumstance and taste. Moral rules are little more than expressions of taste that have solidified into a "common law" governing "decent behavior." At some point in history, someone thought a particular behavior was disgusting. He forced his judgment on others and eventually it became a moral rule. This is not a reasonable process. Rather, moral rules merely reflect the will of the strong over posterity. Only strong men can enshrine their opinions in the moral code. If a strong man thinks a particular behavior is disgusting, history will remember his opinion, not the weak man who had no objections to the same behavior.

I find moral judgments amusing because they are generally petty and hypocritical. After all, it makes no sense to call sex "nasty" when everyone loves sex. If human beings did not love having sex, our species would vanish. In that light, do moralists really believe their own judgments? Have they really convinced people to be ashamed of things that biology programmed them to adore? Sadly, I think they have. Moral judgments carry great weight, especially among those "average" people whose opinions they ostensibly embody. But there is nothing intrinsically "right" or "wrong" about a moral judgment. It merely expresses a traditional opinion concerning whether something smells disgusting. There is nothing rarefied or exceptional about it.

So the next time you say: "Ewwww, they are doing the nasty," consider whether you, too, have ever thought about engaging in the same activity. Can it be smelly for them, but not for you?

You be the moral judge. I'll stay out of it, because morality is for average people.

1 comment:

SteveW said...

Undoubtedly there is an evolutionary component to disgust generally and as regards sex specifically. People that took a liking to poisonous berries aren't here anymore, and people that were geared to desire the healthy berries are in surplus. Likewise, with sex, many "deviant" behaviors are not healthy behaviors in a low tech society without modern medicine and sanitation. For example, humans can get exceptionally nasty diseases from animals, free and easy sex tends to spread disease through a society quite rapidly, and certain sexual behaviors such as anal sex render side effects like blood to blood contact much more likely. There may be other social selection pressures, such as a society that can't figure out whose baby belongs to whom may suffer bad consequences such as war or high crime.

Of course, in modern society, much of this is irrelevant or even turned on it's head. An affinity for sugar is quite healthy when only raw foods are available, but when this is harnessed directly by the Twinkie or Coca-Cola, it can be profoundly unhealthy. Likewise, with the advent of condoms, birth control, modern sanitation, and an understanding of STDs and how they are transferred, many of the former sexual taboos don't make too much sense any longer. Rational decision making can replace many of the morals and still avoid (in many cases more efficiently) the harms that the morals originally prevented.

In modern society, we see the moral order on sex already collapsing, due to the lack of any true selection pressure any longer.

I think that the other aspect of sexual morality is control. The leaders have often exerted sexual control over the masses - this is an effective form of control. It has exhibited itself in many ways. The Lords in Europe could take first privileges with new wives; religious leaders could control the circumstances in which sex was allowed, and control marriage, divorce, etc.; some societies allow the leaders to take many many wives or concubines, which even more than being available for personal satisfaction it controlled the amount of women available to the general society as a form of controlling the average man.

The moral objections to sex as true moral objections just don't make sense in most cases, especially given the high deviance rate of those that are supposedly in charge of the mess. When you understand that those leaders are trying to control people (you will show up to church and give your money, because then I'll tell you when you can have your sex), and that the moral arguments are concocted to sell the thing to the masses, the picture begins to make a lot more sense.