Chastity: not just for religious folk

In this time and place, the secular world does not place a high value on chastity, which seems to be regarded as some sort of eccentric religious virtue.  So long as one avoids disease, and harassment in the workplace, and uses contraception to avoid "unwanted pregnancy", the only touchstone is consent.  (Since paedophilia is still taboo, "consent" is interpreted using a legal fiction that says that those below e.g. 18 cannot consent.)  Married types are often faithful to their spouses, but the unmarried do what they like.

It is true that there are some distinctively religious (as well as some distinctively Christian) reasons to be chaste.  But it is silly to think these are the only reasons.  Traditional sexual morality is not founded exclusively on mystical doctrines about God.  It is also based on practical experience, concerning some basic biological and psychological facts about human beings.  Facts which are going to operate regardless of your opinion about any transcendental realities.  That is why most traditional cultures have discouraged fornication, even those which have quite different doctrines about the gods and the meaning of earthly pleasures.  It is not because they listened to their priests, but because they listened to their grandmothers.

I will however have to assume one mystical dogma in this post, namely that there is such a thing as ethics, which commands do not harm your fellow human being, and that this rule is obligatory.  Furthermore, that ones fellow human beings includes ONESELF, so that the ethical person is first and foremost committed to human flourishing in the one example of humanity which they actually have control over.  Therefore, you cannot excuse a self-destructive behavior by saying "it doesn't hurt anyone else", because if you really love what is good, you will want to see it produced in yourself as well as others.  Besides, by destroying yourself you lose your ability to help other people, and cause anyone who loves you to suffer.

By the same token, it is insufficient if the other person consents, because people sometimes consent to things which are harmful to them.  You have to actually decide whether the act of sex would be beneficial or destructive to the other person.

Next comes the biology and psychology.  The first fact is that sexual passions cause an intense pleasure, comparable in intensity to addictive drugs.  There is nothing inherently wrong in this, but it does mean that we are unlikely to be very sober-minded when making choices about it.  Therefore, whatever principles ethics may suggest, they ought to be enforced by clear and explicit social rules in order to avoid ambiguous situations.

The second fact is that we are a species which pair-bonds through sex, conditioned by chemicals such as oxytocin.  Therefore, the usual consequence of sex is to create a strong emotional attachment between the two participants.  It may be possible to avoid this by deliberately shielding oneself with emotional barriers, but this is unreliable.  And what will happen if one person pair-bonds while the other person keeps their reserve?

Worse still, emotional distancing seems likely to lead to a sexuality based not on love but on a sort of contempt for ones own body, or for other people.  It's worth noticing in this connection, that lust is not always "love", even if by "love" we only mean romantic affection.  Like our sense of humor, lust can even relish cruelty, to oneself or others.  There is a reason why certain words for this act have become curse words.

For these reasons, the ethical person will refrain from casual sex, and will only make love in the context of a genuine relationship based on mutual affection and friendship.

Furthermore, these relationships had better be exclusive if they are to be stable.  Jealousy is another of those awkward facts about human nature which must be taken into account.  It's easy for people (especially immature people who are unaware of their own limitations) to decide that they are sophisticated and mature enough to handle an "open relationship", but the notorious instability of such relationships proves otherwise.  Besides, although jealousy is a vice in most contexts, I do not think it is wrong is this context.  At least, "free love"—the vision of an idealized (almost communist) human nature in which all can be shared equally among close friends, but no one is entitled to private relationships unsuitable for sharing with others—does not at all appeal to me.

Finally, if these relationships are to result in long-term happiness then there needs to be an explicit understanding that the relationship is intended to be permanent.  The alternative is to pair-bond with someone (or more likely, a series of someones), under conditions in which you can reasonably expect that you will eventually be strangers, or even enemies, to that person.

I did not date in college, but I was friends with several couples who dated and eventually broke up.  When people are emotionally involved, but not emotionally committed, it is a trainwreck waiting to happen.  From an objective outside viewpoint, it seems like the heartbreak outweighs the joy.  Modern dating practices are bad enough in this respect, but adding sexual bonding to the mix makes it much worse.

The other awkward little fact about sex is that it makes babies.  As commonly practiced, contraception is not 100% successful.  Even secular-liberal sexual morality recognizes the problematic nature of an "unwanted pregnancy".  Any time a man has sex with a fertile woman whom he is unwilling to marry, he risks making her choose between (a) having an abortion, or (b) having a child grow up with an absent father (and possibly a reluctant mother too).

I believe that (a) is immoral.  But rather than get sidetracked about whether there are "secular" reasons for this, I will simply point out that in any case it is a difficult and likely traumatic decision for the woman to make.  Another one of those awkward facts about human biology is that a pregnant woman's body is full of hormones trying to get her to feel a strong emotional bond to the unborn homo sapiens growing inside of her.

And as for (b), an ethical person should realize that the interests of children in having loving parents is a thousand times more important than their own interest in sexual or romantic thrills.  On the other hand, if in romance you are seeking the deepest interests of the other person, then this interest, like the interest of the child, is best supported by marriage.  A gentleman does not use a lady and then discard her when she becomes inconvenient.  Nor does he abandon his own flesh and blood.

This post is not intended to say anything against love.  Chastity is love: it wills the good of its beloved, by controlling sensual desires, for the sake of the beloved's completeness and integrity.

About Aron Wall

I am a postdoctoral researcher studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics at UC Santa Barbara. Before that, I studied the Great Books program at St. John's college Santa Fe, and got my Ph.D. in physics from U Maryland.
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20 Responses to Chastity: not just for religious folk

  1. lavalamp says:

    Aren't modern dating practices pretty strong evidence that humans *don't* pair-bond via sex? Not universally, anyway.

    Hm. Judging from the "varieties" under wikipedia's definition (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pair_bond), pair-bonding is not a very useful word unless you specify which variety you're meaning.

    My reaction to the rest of this is that it seems like a long chain of reasoning unconstrained by evidence, and I generally don't trust anyone to get things like that right, even when I find it convincing.

  2. Aron Wall says:

    "Unconstrained by evidence", eh? And here I was under the impression that my post cited some specific evidence, drawn from neurobiology, my friends' experiences of "modern dating practices", and my own experience as a sexual being. But I guess all that is just anecdotal, and you have some sort of reliable double-blind study which tells us when it is ethical to have sex with people? Or are we supposed to remain agnostics on the question until such a study comes out?

    The chain of reasoning was only long because I had to argue against several different rival conceptions of sexuality (e.g. causal sex, long-term dating sex, open relationships, etc). But the basic idea is quite simple and easy to understand: it's cruel to cause people to become emotionally attached to you, and then reject them. I don't think modern dating is an exception, I think people who date frequently do become emotionally attached (or one of them does), which leads to a lot of heartbreak when they eventually break up. But maybe your friends are completely different from mine.

    I don't expect that my post will be convincing to most people with different viewpoints. It's hard to generalize about complicated human interactions in just 1139 words. But that doesn't mean my reasoning is "unconstrained by evidence", for goodness sake! It just means the subject requires practical judgement and sound wisdom.

    In any case, if you aren't willing to invoke a "long chain of reasoning" when deciding whether or not to have sex with someone, the only alternatives are to invoke a short chain of reasoning, or not to reason at all.

  3. lavalamp says:

    I think my comment sounded much more antagonistic than I actually intended, sorry!

    But the basic idea is quite simple and easy to understand: it's cruel to cause people to become emotionally attached to you, and then reject them.

    I strongly agree with this. I strongly disagree that the only way to fulfill this goal is via Christian morality.

    In any case, if you aren't willing to invoke a "long chain of reasoning" when deciding whether or not to have sex with someone, the only alternatives are to invoke a short chain of reasoning, or not to reason at all.

    I generally agree; I think in practice one ought to make precomittments and periodically evaluate them to see if they're serving your goals. Long chains of reasoning are never correct, but are even less likely to be correct in the spur of the moment!

    And here I was under the impression that my post cited some specific evidence, drawn from neurobiology, my friends' experiences of "modern dating practices", and my own experience as a sexual being.

    I specifically commented about why I don't buy the "pair-bonding" thing (and I was hoping you'd respond to that, but then I added the other sentence as an afterthought and it understandably dominated your response). I am sorry your friends' choices did not work out for them. As for me, judging by my choices thus far in life, I have lived according to the principles you espouse. I can't give it rave reviews thus far.

    If I may ramble on a bit:

    I think the largest problem I have with what I think you're espousing is that there's no recovery mode. Sometimes things just go wrong no matter how careful you are. Practicing courtship or whatever christians are calling it nowadays doesn't guarantee you'll pair up with a compatible person. I really don't think you can know if you're ultimately going to be happy with someone without spending a lot of time with them. Avoiding sex isn't always a magical recipe for not becoming emotionally involved (just like having it is not always a magical recipe for becoming emotionally involved). IMO, getting to know someone is inherently a risky thing:

    “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” -- C.S. Lewis

  4. g says:

    I think there's a lot to be said for something approximating the traditional idea of marriage, but I find the analysis here unconvincing because it's so one-sided. That is, the argument goes: "Sex outside marriage sometimes has bad consequences. Therefore there should be no sex outside marriage." But of course that won't do; having sex outside marriage has both good and bad consequences, and so does avoiding sex outside marriage.

    For example: yes indeedy, dating and breaking up can lead to heartbreak; but so (and, I think, to a much greater extent) can entering into an unwise marriage: the likely results are divorce (which is commonly much, much worse than breaking up with a college girlfriend) or a long and increasingly miserable marriage (which is bad enough that many people choose divorce instead). Does a longer stint in the dating pool make an eventual disastrous marriage less likely? Does a no-sex-outside-marriage policy make people more likely to get married unwisely (rather than something less-committal, which would likely still end badly but probably a lot less badly)? I really don't know; it seems hard to tell; but surely that sort of tradeoff is really important in deciding which approach is better.

    For another example: to my thinking, an important consideration in favour of more permissive sexual mores is that sex is fun and people want to do it; whereas this fact seems to enter into your analysis only as an explanation for why sex is dangerous and should be restricted. (I do not wish to dismiss that argument; just to point out that it's only one side.)

    There is a sort of claim to have considered both sides where you say "it seems like the heartbreak outweighs the joy", but while you may for all I know have balanced things up very thoroughly and objectively inside your head, none of the details escaped to the blog post.

  5. Darryl says:

    I'm reminded of the point made by John Polkinghorne: given that the personal intimate contact with another individual approaches the most profound expression of the human experience, the willingness to forgo that intimacy in the service of God is a most sublime sacrifice indeed.

  6. lavalamp says:

    In retrospect, I think g has managed to point out the thing that was actually bothering me, as opposed to all that stuff I said. I feel like you wrote the bottom line first and then found evidence that suited it. I feel like if, for example, you had known that our closest relatives emphatically don't pair-bond, that piece of knowledge wouldn't have made it into this post or changed your opinion of the state of the evidence (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonobo#Sexual_social_behavior).

    (For example, if I were to write my equivalent of this blog post, I would have a paragraph about how related primates don't really pair bond, but there's some evidence that humans might sometimes and that this monogamy thing has really been catching on in the last few thousands of years, but probably whatever is causing it is not yet fixed in the genome, if indeed it's biologically and not culturally driven...)

  7. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for all your comments. Let me start by saying that I'm not sure a secularly motivated theory of chastity would end up in exactly the same place as Christian ethics. I do think however that it would have some very significant constraints beyond "consent" and "over 18", and that people who think it doesn't matter very much ethically are just kidding themselves.

    To me, a sane version of sexual morality must begin by recognizing some version of the set of awkward facts alluded to in my post. Traditional sexual morality is an attempt to deal with these issues. Maybe you can do better, but it has to be better as a solution to the psychological problems involved, rather than ignoring the problems and hoping for the best.

    lavalamp,
    It is interesting (and I did know) that our "closest relatives" are rather promiscuous, and frankly I don't much care. I've never been impressed by arguments that attempt to prove something about human ethics from the behavior of other animals. Despite our close biological relationship, there are huge qualitative differences between us and all other primates; notably in our ability to use Reason to self-consciously reflect on what is best. Some chimps rape as well, but that doesn't mean we should. They don't know any better; we do.

    When I said that human beings "pair-bond", I wasn't referring to something you'd prove by making anthropological observations. I was referring to something which one can know by being a human being. Now it's true that different humans might differ to some extent, and all of us are influenced not just by biology but by culture (as we should be). So people's experiences may well differ, but I can say speaking purely for myself that sexual desires have an element to me, of wanting to chain myself up and throw away the key, so to speak---you might discount this for being just one person's perspective, but I'm pretty sure it's not just because of my religious beliefs that I feel this way.

    g,
    I agree that the various issues you mention are all relevant, for the most part, so (speaking hypothetically from the secular point of view) it really just comes down to how strongly we weigh the various factors. (Although from your first sentence, it sounds like your position is not actually all that different from my own.) While it is true that sex is, as you say, "fun", but that seems like a relatively minor consideration in comparison with the other emotional, relational, and procreative features of the act. I also agree that divorce is much worse than the break-up of a dating relationship with sex, so the societal rules I'm advocating for only makes sense if there is also some expectation that couples will not normally divorce (this doesn't necessarily have to be an iron-clad rule, but it has to be strong enough that the rarity of divorce makes up for the greater severity of the bad outcomes). Regarding "increasingly miserable" marriages, obviously such things exist, but a belief in the permanence of marriage makes people more likely to work through their issues, rather than just give up on someone whom they used to love.

    Regarding my post being one-sided, what's the problem with a little bit of advocacy? I could have (with 5000 more words) included a long summary of the things to be said on all possible sides, but then the post would have been much longer and harder to follow. The fact that I didn't state the opposing counterpoints doesn't mean they aren't there, or that they shouldn't be considered in a complete analysis, just that I'm stating some arguments for my own position which I think deserve consideration.

    Darryl,
    I agree with what you say, although I would add that the "sacrifice" pays off insofar as celibacy can increase ones sense of intimacy towards God. This is something I can say from personal experience as someone who was celibate for 28 years, until my wedding 9 months ago. However, this is obviously a spiritual rather than a secular argument. One of the ways in which Christianity does change the moral calculus is that it increases the value of celibacy (we don't consider it a failure mode).

    lavalamp again,
    The St. Lewis quote would be more relevant to this question if Eros were the same as Charity, but it is not. (If it were identical, then it would be my Christian duty to have sex with as many people as possible!) But actually, I do want to tweak my language a little bit in response to your criticism, since I think there's some merit in it.

    The phrases "emotional involvement" and "heartbreak" are in a sense misleading, since it suggests that the point of chastity is simply to avoid pain. But as you say, pain and risk are inevitable in any loving relationship. Even if I have an ideally chaste relationship with my wife, at the end one of us will die and the survivor will have grief. But there's a big difference between death and a breakup/divorce. The sorrow of the former may even be greater, but it does not lead to the sense that the entire relationship was futile. Whereas a breakup causes a grief that is more akin to cynicism and bitterness. It's one thing for the heart to be sad, it's another thing for it to be corrupted.

    But it's quite true that the risk is always there. You could be the best husband in the whole world and your wife could still leave you and take your kids. But at least you can be the sort of person who doesn't do that to other people.

  8. lavalamp says:

    When I said that human beings "pair-bond", I wasn't referring to something you'd prove by making anthropological observations.

    I don't buy it. You mentioned neurochemistry, so you were referring to something observable. IMO, if anthropology isn't evidence against "pair bonding" then neurochemistry shouldn't be evidence for it. You can observe a species to see if they pair-bond. Humans exhibit a wide variety of sexual behavior, some of which might qualify as pair-bonding, some not.

    Meta on using naturalistic evidence to determine morality: what chimps do in bed is certainly not normative for us. What causes the biggest dopamine spikes in our brains is also not normative. Science can (potentially, eventually) tell us *if* humans pair-bond, but it can never tell us if humans *should* pair-bond. You can't get your morals from observations. (IMO, you get morality from game theory + your desires + everyone else's desires.)

    One of the ways in which Christianity does change the moral calculus is that it increases the value of celibacy (we don't consider it a failure mode).

    IMO, having spent most of my life around christians, stated beliefs and behaviors differ. As in, this ends up just being part of the "...I'm good looking and people like me, darn it" speech people tell themselves to try and cheer up when they're single and lonely. People say it's not a failure mode but act like it is.

    The St. Lewis quote would be more relevant to this question if Eros were the same as Charity, but it is not. (If it were identical, then it would be my Christian duty to have sex with as many people as possible!)

    I will confess to quotemining, I haven't read that particular Lewis book. I'm pretty skeptical of the idea that love can be neatly divided into four categories, and even more skeptical that the ancient greek language happens to reflect the true categories better than our own. Anyway, you seem to have gotten the point I was wanting to make.

    (Also, I don't find your parenthetical as ridiculous as you seem to expect!)

    Whereas a breakup causes a grief that is more akin to cynicism and bitterness.

    I think this isn't even close to universally true.

  9. Aron Wall says:

    lavalamp,
    I meant that one doesn't have to exclusively rely on anthropological observations. Of course I think external evidence such as neurochemistry (and anthropology) are relevant; otherwise I wouldn't have mentioned it. But it's also silly to study human beings from the outside as though one didn't have an even better inside-source for what it is like to be a human being. This inside-source is ones' own experiences, and the reported experiences of others.

    Nor am I making the extreme claim that sex always leads to emotional bonding. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. That's why I discussed both situations in my original argument. (I also mentioned the intermediate case where one person emotionally bonds and the other doesn't.)

    Have you spent any time around Christians who have voluntarily chosen celibacy (i.e. not because they had no alternatives)? Historically, this has been a fairly common minority practice in both Christianity and certain other religions, although Protestantism has (unwisely, in my opinion, although there were some good hisotorical reasons at the time) neglected it. If, even subconsciously, one views celibacy as a failure mode, then I suppose it is more likely to become one.

    Quotemining is dangerous, as is criticizing a book without reading it. If you had read the Four Loves, you would know that the point of the book is not that love can be "neatly divided" into 4 categories. In fact, St. Lewis specifically says that in order for any of the other loves to remain healthy, charity must be mixed in with them. Greek is superior to English only in one specific respect, that it does not use "Love" to mean both charity and Romance. (An image comes to my mind of a student in a language class: "Teacher, before we proceed with this vocabulary lesson, can you prove to me that this language reflects the true categories better than our own?")

    The whole point of chastity is that "being in (erotic/romantic) love" is not always the same as "seeking what is best for you and the other person". That is, that is what is necessary to have a concept of chastity at all. The first and most important point is to acknowledge this. After that comes the secondary question of what is the best arrangement of society, to maximize the odds that these two sorts of love DO coincide.

  10. g says:

    Aron, I regret that your comments on the CSL passage show as little sign of having read the relevant bit of the book as lavalamp's. Lewis is commenting on a passage in Augustine, where A. cites his grief at losing a friend as a reason for avoiding attachment to other human beings (in favour of attachment to God, of course). Lewis's purpose is to disagree with Augustine in the strongest possible terms. The love he is talking about here, saying that one should not avoid for the sake of avoiding heartbreak, is not Agape, but any of the others. As for your parenthetical about having sex with as many people as possible, you might recall that Lewis is at pains to distinguish between (in his terminology) Eros and Venus; between, that is, the complex phenomenon of romantic-and-sexual love and simple lust. If Eros were the same as Charity, and if it were your duty to fill the world with Charity as far as possible, it would not necessarily be best to have as much sex as possible. (Fun though that would be.)

    Returning to your comments on my comments: I think it is grossly unfair to characterize divorce in general as "just giving up" on the other party. I dare say that happens sometimes. All sorts of awful and/or ridiculous things happen sometimes. But in general I don't think people get divorced unless their marriage is very bad. After all, divorce is (as we have agreed) generally an awful, awful experience, and people who get divorced understand that pretty well -- yet they still choose to do it, rather than stay married. I think that tells us all we need to know about what being married is like for them. So, yes, strong societal norms (or outright legal prohibitions) against divorce may well save some marriages that are worth saving, but I fear they do it at the cost of preserving many marriages that (alas) were worth dissolving.

    I suppose there's nothing wrong with one-sided advocacy, necessarily, but it seems to me that there's plenty of that around already and not nearly so much fair-minded impartiality, and the world would be a better place if the relatively few people with minds capable of the latter would use them that way more often.

    It does not seem to me that breakups always, or even generally, produce "a grief that is more akin to cynicism and bitterness". I fear you may be seeing what you want, or at least expect, to see. (I see that lavalamp has said much the same.)

  11. lavalamp says:

    IIRC, at the end of Lewis' "That Hideous Strength", (spoiler) everyone has sex. Just thought I'd throw that out there. :)

    I've not spent time around people actually-single-on-purpose. I'm not impressed with their public record, but it's hard to say how much of that is bias (availability heuristic).

    I don't feel bad quotemining that particular quote as I think it's very clear all by itself, although in general it's not a practice I approve of or engage in. Fortunately, g's description would seem to confirm that it doesn't have some counterintuitive meaning in context.

    The whole point of chastity is that "being in (erotic/romantic) love" is not always the same as "seeking what is best for you and the other person". That is, that is what is necessary to have a concept of chastity at all. The first and most important point is to acknowledge this. After that comes the secondary question of what is the best arrangement of society, to maximize the odds that these two sorts of love DO coincide.

    I strongly agree with all the concepts here, but I'm not sure "chastity" is a good (i.e., unconfusing) label for this. As I read that paragraph, it sounds like your concept of chastity would allow for things like poly-(gamy, gyny, amory, andry, etc) as long as the arrangement maximizes "what is best for you and the other person(s)" (presumably including potential children). I don't think "chastity" generally carries that meaning, but maybe that's just a fact about me.

  12. Aron Wall says:

    lavalamp, I don't have a copy on me right now, but like practically everything else by St. CSL I've read it multiple times, and IIRC, the end of That Hideous Strength ends with a husband and wife being (about to) have sex. Not some orgy in which all of the characters have sex with each other. Want to take bets on which of us is right?

    I do have a copy of the Four Loves in front of me right now, and I think that g's putting the quote in context itself needs to be put in context. In the beginning of the chapter on Charity, Lewis begins by summarizing the message of the previous chapters as follows:

    William Morris wrote a poem called "Love is Enough" and someone is said to have reviewed it briefly in the words, "It isn't." Such has been the burden of this book. The natural loves are not self-sufficient. Something else, at first vaguely described as "decency and common sense," but later revealed as goodness, and finally as the whole Christian life in one particular relation, must come to the help of the mere feeling if the feeling is to be kept sweet.

    Then he begins to discuss in this chapter the potential rivalry between our merely natural loves and love for God:

    But the question of the rivalry, for these reasons long postponed, must now be treated. In any earlier period, except the nineteenth century, it would have loomed large throughout a book on this subject. If the Victorians needed the reminder that love is not enough, older theologians were always saying very loudly that (natural) love is likely to be a great deal too much. The danger of loving our fellow-creatures too little was less present to their minds than that of loving them idolatrously. In every wife, mother, child and friend they saw a possible rival to God. So of course does our Lord (Luke XIV, 26). [By citing Jesus here, CSL obviously accepts that this older view in the most important respects, but he now adds a caveat...]

    There is one method of dissuading us from inordinate love of the fellow-creature which I find myself forced to reject at the very outset...

    [and here follows the passage in which he criticizes Augustine, summarized by g, about giving ones love to things that will pass away]...

    Then he goes on to say that "it remains certainly true that all natural loves can be inordinate" and later in the chapter he talks about the need for natural loves to be transmuted, in fact to die, in order to be raised in Christ.

    In other words, as a result of a change in attitude towards the emotions which occured in the Victorian Era, CSL thinks that we are in danger of unduly elevating purely natural loves in an idolatrous way. The main purpose of the book is to direct us away from that modern idolatry of passion towards a view more like the "older theologians". Nevertheless, he takes a moment to criticize the older theologians like Augustine as going too far in the opposite direction (an error which modern worldly people are very unlikely to make), in order to balance his main thesis with a complementary point.

    So the CSL point lavalamp quoted definitely has the meaning that mere "safety" is not a good reason to refrain from natural loves. But, it does not mean what a modern "free-lover" would like for the quote to mean, that all natural loves are hallowed because they are a form of love, and that to indulge in passion is therefore somehow meritorious. The whole point of the book is to argue against that thesis.

    g is also right to say that CSL draws a distinction between "Eros" and "Venus". But he adds,

    Let me hasten to add that I make the distinction simply in order to limit our inquiry and without any moral implications. I am not at all subscribing to the popular idea that it is the absence or presence of Eros which makes the sexual act "impure" or "pure", degraded or fine, unlawful or lawful. If all who lay together without being in the state of Eros were abominable, we all come of tainted stock. The times and places in which marriage depends on Eros are in a small minority. Most of our ancestors were married off in early youth to partners chosen by their parents on grounds that had nothing to do with Eros. They went to the act with no other "fuel", so to speak, than plain animal desire. And they did right; honest Christian husbands and wives, obeying their fathers and mothers, discharging to one another their "marriage debt," and bringing up families in the fear of the Lord. Conversely, this act, done under the influence of a soaring and iridescent Eros which reduces the role of the senses to a minor consideration, may yet be plain adultery, may involve breaking a wife's heart, deceiving a husband, betraying a friend, polluting hospitality and deserting your children. It has not pleased God that the distinction between a sin and a duty should turn on fine feelings.

    So CSL would hardly endorse the proposition that "being in love" is so noble that we should have Eros for as many people as possible.

    Divorce is "giving up on the other person" in the specific sense of giving up on your relationship to them. This doesn't necessarily mean believing the other person is a worthless individual in general (although this view does sometimes appear as well).

    Indeed, most people who divorce presumably have very painful marriages (although Eros-worshippers will frequently divorce simply because their marriage is no longer thrilling, and they have fallen in love with someone else). But that doesn't mean that their marriages would remain painful a decade later if they worked through their problems. Nevertheless, my main post was speaking from a secular point of view, and from that point of view I acknowledge that some couples are happier divorced than married, and that therefore one cannot reasonably expect secular couples never to divorce. (My secular argument only requires that divorce be exceptional; there have been times and places where this was true, and I suspect that in those times and places the faithful marriages have been at least as happy on average as modern marriages are, partly because they didn't check every 5 minutes to see whether they were still "happy" and "fulfilled".)

    Among Christians it is a different matter, because we have the express words of Jesus on this subject, together with the promise that God will give us enough grace to sanctify our marriage and make it holy---even if remaining married feels like being crucified. That is why, when I married Nicole, I swore the traditional vow, in which I explicitly promised to stay with her regardless of whether it brings me happiness or not. The fact that we made that vow makes a difference in how we view our relationship, even though 9 months out I can report that we are quite happy together.

    lavalamp, I agree that it would be odd to use the word chastity to describe following a sexual ethics diametrically at odds to (our) traditional sexual ethics, for example if it commanded maximizing the number of people you have sex with. But I would feel comfortable describing the decision of a polygamous nomad not to have sex with another man's wives as "chastity". Of course, I don't think polygamy is what's best for people, so you could also say that we would disagree about some of the things which chastity entails. But I don't think the word "chastity" should be used exclusively for those who follow a particular religious code.

  13. g says:

    Aron,

    My recollection of the ending of THS agrees with yours. (I think there is a scene -- presumably the Descent of Venus -- where all the characters are at least in amorous mood; but that's not right at the end and I don't think any actual having-sex is involved.)

    So far as I can tell, neither lavalamp nor I were citing that CSL quotation in defence of the idea that sex is always good, or that natural loves cannot be inordinate, or any of the other (I'm afraid) rather strawmanny things you seem to be suggesting we might have had in mind. Surely the only point lavalamp was making by quoting it is that an argument of the form "one ought to avoid such-and-such because it might result in later heartbreak" is weak, because other things matter more than avoiding heartbreak; and nothing you've said makes it any less to the point.

    What your argument requires (at least prima facie) is not that *divorce* be rare, but that *marriages, or marriage-endings, worse than a college breakup* be rare. It's far from obvious that that's ever been true, still less that it's true in our present society (which is after all where we have to live -- though of course that doesn't mean we all have to behave in whatever ways are most common society-wide).

  14. Aron Wall says:

    g,
    Since, to some extent our conversation got sidetracked onto what CSL really said (even though obviously neither of you consider him an infallable authority), and since I thought that (while your summary was technically accurate) a reasonable reader (such as lavalamp) who hadn't read the book might get a wrong idea of what the main theses of the book was, and why CSL brought the point up, I therefore decided to clarify the context. It's a little harsh for you to read between the lines of my quotes to concoct an argument I never explicitly made, and than criticize that argument I never made for being a "strawman", because it implies statements about your posts which you never made.

    Surely the only point lavalamp was making by quoting it is that an argument of the form "one ought to avoid such-and-such because it might result in later heartbreak" is weak, because other things matter more than avoiding heartbreak; and nothing you've said makes it any less to the point.

    If that was the only point lavalamp was making, then I responded to it above in the paragraph beginning "The phrases "emotional involvement" and "heartbreak" are in a sense misleading, since it suggests that the point of chastity is simply to avoid pain. But as you say, pain and risk are inevitable in any loving relationship." This was a concession to lavalamp's point, which I acknowledged required a clarification or rephrasing of what I meant. You then continued to talk about the context of the Four Loves quote---which is absolutely fine (there's nothing wrong with a thread degenerating into a literary analysis), but please allow me the same freedom.

    What your argument requires (at least prima facie) is not that *divorce* be rare, but that *marriages, or marriage-endings, worse than a college breakup* be rare.

    Well, if someone has a dysfunctional marriage, that doesn't necessarily go against the traditional view of chastity, unless one can show that the alternative (e.g. serial dating w/ fornication) would not also be dysfunctional (note as well that this alternative usually involves many breakups). Because presumably, most of the time that marriages don't work out, it's because (at least one of) the people in question is bad at romantic relationships. In other words, there is really a 3-way comparison with celibacy being one of the options.

    Also, if the marriage has producd children (something that many people want), there is another reason to stay together besides the couple's personal happiness.

    It's far from obvious that that's ever been true, still less that it's true in our present society (which is after all where we have to live -- though of course that doesn't mean we all have to behave in whatever ways are most common society-wide).

    Well, I may be influenced somewhat by the fact that I have a large extended family on both sides, in which divorce is completely unheard of, and yet at the same time every marriage seems to me to be loving. In other words, there exists at least one (small, very Christian) subculture which does have its act together in this respect. I'm skeptical of the idea (expressed in popular culture with the phrase "it just didn't work out") that bad marriages are some unpredictable thing that just happens to people. Rather, they are something that can nearly always be avoided if both spouses make good decisions.

    It does not seem to me that breakups always, or even generally, produce "a grief that is more akin to cynicism and bitterness"

    Well, maybe you have different friends than I do. But I think that a majority of the time, when people have an emotionally close relationship and then break up, there is some degree of resentment on one side or the other, especially if the decision to break up was not mutual. Surely you agree with this?

    As with every other decision, you have to play the expectation values before you know what is going to happen. Unless you can identify in advance the relationships which are immune from this phenomenon, it has to be taken into account in all cases.

    I suppose there's nothing wrong with one-sided advocacy, necessarily, but it seems to me that there's plenty of that around already and not nearly so much fair-minded impartiality, and the world would be a better place if the relatively few people with minds capable of the latter would use them that way more often.

    Hmm, I could have "balanced" my post by waxing lyrical about the seeming advantanges of a more promiscuous outlook. But I don't actually believe in that, and from in my own experience it seems to make my friends' lives worse in the long run, rather than better. People should engage in "fair-minded impartiality" when making decisions, but that doesn't mean that all arguments are improved by pretending to give "fair play" to the other side.

    I would rather have balance by opening up the comments section so anyone who actually believes in the other position can have their say. (Of course, I don't believe in tricking people by concealing materially relevant evidence on the other side, but I think people already know that e.g. sex is fun, or that some people like having multiple partners, without me having to say so explicitly.)

    But the fact is you roughly sympathize with my position, since your opening line was

    I think there's a lot to be said for something approximating the traditional idea of marriage, but I find the analysis here unconvincing because it's so one-sided.

    My "one-sided"-ness prompted you to play devil's advocate, poking holes in all my arguments, and I welcome that. But what would you do if you actually had to defend your own position? When arguing, it's a lot easier to play defense than offense. Perhaps you could set a good example, by showing me what a convincing argument would look like, for traditional chastity (or something "approximating" it).

    After all, if you think my argument would have been more "convincing" if it weighed the arguments on the other side (rather than being refuted by said considerations), then it seems that you must think that the anti-chastity arguments (the ones you wish I had done more justice to) can also be answered effectively, to some extent. I assume you didn't just mean that it would be more rhetorically convincing, by making me appear to be more fair-minded.

  15. g says:

    Aron,

    Sounds like we've both been reading more into one another's words than we should. Sorry.

    I agree that the existence and awfulness of dysfunctional marriages doesn't mean that traditional ideas of chastity are bad. My argument -- a few comments back -- was just that since dysfunctional marriages exist and are awful, it's at least credible that an approach involving trying things temporarily before making the commitment of marriage might be better in terms of minimizing heartbreak. (I'm not claiming that it necessarily is; only that you're not justified in just assuming it isn't.)

    I am very glad that your family has managed to avoid dysfunctional marriages. (Assuming you're right in thinking it has, of course.) It may very well be right that any marriage can work out well if both spouses consistently make the right decisions -- but probably some people are just better than others at making that sort of decision well, and those who for whatever reason are bad at it are liable to get into unsuccessful relationships. I suggest that those people's odds of forging successful long-term relationships might be improved by practice.

    Of course I agree that breakups sometimes produce bitterness and cynicism. I certainly wasn't suggesting that anyone should assume that if they enter into a relationship and it breaks up then they'll necessarily escape that. That would be as silly as, say, assuming that if they get married then they'll necessarily escape divorce and/or years of distressingly dysfunctional marriage.

    I wasn't (of course) suggesting that you pretend to give fair play to "the other side", or that you wax lyrical about benefits you don't believe in -- and I'm not sure why you're suggesting I was. If you truly believe that celibacy is a pure win with no drawbacks and no decent arguments against it, then fair enough; I wouldn't then expect you to offer counterarguments you don't see any force to. I'd been assuming (perhaps wrongly) that you can in fact see some counterarguments with some force; and I think a defence of celibacy would be more interesting if it actually weighed the evidence on both sides and explained why the pro-celibacy side comes out ahead.

    (For the avoidance of doubt, of course I am not trying to deny you the freedom to make one-sided arguments any time you want to. I just think other things would be better.)

    I wasn't purely playing devil's advocate. I honestly don't know what I think is the optimum tradeoff between fun and stability, between exploration and (gosh this word is rather inappropriate here but it's the traditional one in the relevant scientific fields) exploitation, between avoiding heartache from multiple broken short-term relationships and avoiding heartache from broken marriages, etc., etc., etc. I have some sympathy with your view. I have some sympathy with the opposite view. What a more convincing argument would look like: it would look at a bunch of these tradeoffs, as impartially as possible evaluate how they work out, and lay out the answers. I think one can only do this convincingly if one has actually arrived at one's position by considering those tradeoffs impartially, though (as opposed to starting with the desired answer and looking to see what arguments favour it), and depressingly few people on any side of this or any other question have actually done that.

    (So it might be that actually there isn't a truly more convincing argument for chastity -- it might be that when you look at the question fairly it comes out the other way. We both know what the right thing is to do when that happens.)

  16. lavalamp says:

    Don't have time to catch up on the entire conversation just now-- but want to say that I didn't mean to imply THS ends in an orgy. Naturally all the implied sex was between couples. :)

    But, it does not mean what a modern "free-lover" would like for the quote to mean, that all natural loves are hallowed because they are a form of love, and that to indulge in passion is therefore somehow meritorious.

    Just for the record, I wasn't arguing this, or anything like it.

  17. Aron Wall says:

    lavalamp,
    Just for the record, I wasn't arguing you were arguing it. I take "free love" to refer to a very specific philosophy of sexual "ethics", and I'm not going to presume that anyone who criticizes arguments for traditional ethics must therefore endorse "free love" (as though those were the only two options).

  18. Chamaigne says:

    Aron,

    I LOVE this post! It's so well-written and such an important message. All religion aside, it baffles me how our modern culture seems to treat sex as little more than the exchange of pleasurable sensations.

    g,

    Thank you for your arguments, especially the following. (I'm guessing at how to indent the quote...here goes...)

    I think one can only do this convincingly if one has actually arrived at one's position by considering those tradeoffs impartially, though (as opposed to starting with the desired answer and looking to see what arguments favour it), and depressingly few people on any side of this or any other question have actually done that."

    I'm currently working on a research paper that will be the beginning of a book making the same argument as Aron. My perspective differs only in that I'm not a Christian or a believer in any other religion, I was a former (experienced) "free love" hippy-philosopher, who gradually over time learned through sexual experience about all the "awkward facts" about sex that Aron points out. I don't know how possible it is to actually look at sexual ethics trade-offs with complete impartiality, but I very much appreciate your observation that "depressingly few people on any side of this or any other question have actually done [something other than starting with the desired answer and looking to see what arguments favor it]." My goal is to present both (or multiple) perspectives in my writing, but I can say that coming from my experience, my conclusions are exactly what Aron has written. He hit the nail on the head, as far as I'm concerned.

    Thanks for the conversation, as it is very helpful in my research.

  19. Chamaigne says:

    Re: above post - sorry, I didn't follow up on my guess that I was supposed to end the quote with another html tag. So, most of the "quote" above is my response to it.

    [I fixed it for you---AW]

  20. Aron Wall says:

    Welcome to my blog, Chamaigne. Thanks so much for the compliment, and best of luck with your research-project / book. Please feel free to post an advertisement here once it comes into existence.

    With the decline of religion, a lot of common sense assumptions about human nature and ethics (some of which predate Christianity) are also being discarded. This is a shame, but it is hard to resist in a culture which views newer as better. My hope is that people like you---nonreligious folk who believe in chastity---can make common cause with us religious traditionalists to promote a more sane outlook (I mean culturally, not necessarily politically).

    At the same time, I hope that in your own mind, you will give Christianity one or two credibility points for coming down on the right answer about something important. Perhaps this by itself won't be enough, but if it starts getting other things suprisingly right too, perhaps you should start getting worried! But I can't say it nearly as well as my best friend did once in an email:

    I was converted to Christianity for a bunch of reasons. There's a certain sort of "Why did you fall in love with that woman?" quality to wondering why I was converted. I mean, she's *got* to be intelligent, and it helps if she's cute, but a great deal comes in subtle ways. I was impressed by the historical arguments, and it definitely helped that I was impressed by the general philosophical outlook. I was also impressed by a few Christians I met in life and a few more that I met through books, more impressed than I was accustomed to being. If Socrates had claimed to be God I would have taken that possibility very seriously (my love for Socrates is a deep one, has been for some time), but Socrates made nothing like that claim. Jesus, however, did, so I had to deal with that. I'd also say that Christianity started making unexpected and deep bits of sense. It got things right about virtue, about sin, about love, about holiness, and so on. It got more right by far than it should have if it were bunk. I suppose you can think of that as a likelihood argument if you want to. If you want a better exposition of this sort of thing than I can offer, read G. K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy". It has the added advantage of being one of the most delightful things ever written.

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