We need to talk about sex, part 7

Another long absence — they’re killing me at my job, I tell you. Anyhow, this is the seventh part in a series of posts I’m doing about the liberalization of sex laws throughout the West. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 can be found here. Part 3 can be found here. Part 4 can be found here. Part 5 can be found here. Part 6 can be found here.

Why do I think “mutual consent” will ultimately be a poor basis for restricting adult sexual choices? It comes down to a question of teleology.

“Teleology” is a fancy philosophical term which simply means the study of things and ideas with regard to their purpose. The “telos,” or teleological purpose, of a car is to transport people and cargo from point A to point B faster than could be achieved with natural methods of locomotion, such as walking or riding a horse.

What is the telos of human beings? This is a key question, because the answer provides a compass for navigating moral dilemmas. When we are faced with two or more contradictory moral pathways, teleology is often the deciding factor: What is the ultimate destination we are trying to reach?

Starting with the establishment of Christian supremacy back in the Dark Ages, Western culture’s traditional answer was: A harmonious relationship with our Creator. Even non-Christians in the West largely shared this conception; even Western societies which held a more skeptical view of the state’s role in religious affairs — the U.S., Great Britain, and post-revolutionary France — still held quite religious views about the nature of society, as distinct from the secular institution of government. John Adams — a major critic of mixing church and state — nevertheless wrote that “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

For Christians, the aim of “society” was to usher in God’s Kingdom, whether here on Earth or up in Heaven (the exact specifics of how this was supposed to work have been a subject of intense debate among Christians since the earliest days of the church, but I think this thumbnail description accurately summarizes the theological views of the vast majority of the faithful).

This vision of human destiny was memorably summed up in the final lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy, when Dante has entered Paradise and finally beholds God at the center of the Universe:

But now was turning my desire and will,

Even as a wheel that equally is moved,

The Love which moves the sun and the other stars.

It might be worth pointing out here that Beatrice, Dante’s guide through Paradise, or Heaven, was apparently based on a real woman whom Dante may have had a crush on. Thus we see that in the traditional Western conception, sexuality itself is ultimately seen in the context of an eventual reconciliation with God.

Today, of course, the fashion among the learned is to dismiss all of this as gibbering Sky God nonsense. Fine. But “what is our purpose?” is not an optional question, because the answer is a foundation stone for society. And for any person who does not live alone on a desert island, society — the arrangements we develop in order to live together and to allow our institutions to function — is not optional.

When I ask, “what is mankind’s purpose?”, choosing not to answer is an answer in itself, which will lead to predictable real-world outcomes, just as entering “0” as a value in a physics formula leads to predictable real-world outcomes. If we choose the null response to the question of teleology — the null response can come in many forms, but the functional outcome is the same — then the answer to what is our telos, our purpose, reverts to the individual.

That is all fine and good and it has inspired much stirring art, poetry, and song, both lamenting man’s existential fate and celebrating his freedom and indomitable spirit. But existential struggle, however useful it might be for individuals, cannot form the basis for society. For us to achieve anything higher than a Hobbesian state of bellum omnium contra omnes, society must still have some animating purpose.

It does not have to be an “animating purpose” as presented, for example, in Marxism: a great eschatological goal for which all mankind must unite to achieve. I just mean that, if you and I are to live together peacefully as neighbors, we have to have some general consensus about why we’re bothering to work and cooperate, instead of enslaving or killing each other — or simply avoiding all contact.

This is more than just a simple social contract; it precedes the social contract, because a social contract is impossible without some shared vision of “the good life.” No social contract is possible if your vision of the good life requires the crushing or diminishing of me and my kin.

A broadly shared, mutually-compatible notion of teleology — “the good life” we are all striving for — must be part of the foundation of any workable social contract.

In the absence of an explicitly Judeo-Christian teleology, then, our social contract must zero in on some other teleological imperative. While there are a multitude of alternatives we could turn to, the answer we’ve gradually settled on is one of radical individual autonomy. We define “the good” as the maximum possible freedom for the individual to exert their will upon the universe in pursuit of personal pleasure and self-conception.

If this is the standard we adhere to, if this is the goal — if this is our conception of humanity’s Eschaton, be it theistic or non-theistic — then other, competing goals will be sacrificed to achieve that end.

Now, it’s important to understand here that these goals won’t be sacrificed immediately, or even at the first sign of conflict. Change happens slowly. Decent and polite folks do not much want to hassle their neighbors, even if they regard them as retrograde bigots. As much as is possible, nice people of all persuasions will gravitate towards a social contract which can be stretched to include as many of their friends and neighbors as possible.

But this balance cannot be maintained indefinitely. As long as our different utopias remain in the distant future, we can agree to disagree. Society, though, does not remain in one place. As some once-unthinkable ideas start to attain substance and even a small measure of approval, people’s calculations begin to change. I’ve written before about how changing conditions on the ground can radically alter the political calculations of different groups within society, and I think this applies just as much to our sex laws. If radical individual autonomy, including sexual autonomy, is to be our guiding principle, then as we close in on the possibility of complete sexual liberation, it naturally follows that competing values, such as religious orthodoxy, will be required to yield.

Not just passively yield, either — any religious believers who want to have normal intercourse with society will be required to positively affirm these new values, just as “normal” Christians are now expected to salute the flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance. As Erick Erickson has written, “you will be made to care.” You will not be given the option of refusing to take a side, any more than you can currently refuse to take a side on, say, racial segregation. You have that right in theory, of course, but exercising that right in a specific way will bar you from any kind of participation in normal life.

Of course, that still leaves believers with the freedom to largely withdraw from society, like the Amish or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This is what Rod Dreher has been talking about the past year or so with the so-called “Benedict Option” for Christian orthodoxy. This might indeed be the way the Christian church is headed, but it won’t change the direction of society.

Coming next: The practical implications of all this.

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