On Post-Christian Sexual Ethics

Sexuality, if it’s to have meaning culturally, has to be rooted in what the human person is if we’re to avoid barbarism. I'm not sure, though, whether a meaningful anthropology—one that adequately provides a basis for sexual expression without devolving into barbarism—is impossible on naturalism.

romance_smA friend recently sent me an article titled, "Sex After Christianity" by Rod Dreher published by The American Conservative. In it, the author uses the topic of gay marriage as a jumping off point for discussing a broader cultural shift away from a Christian worldview towards a secular one and the implications that shift will have on the social fabric at large. The article is well constructed and, as one would expect, articulates in a clear way important aspects of the ethical foundation of a generalized American conservatism but takes the discussion beyond mere politics and talks about its philosophical foundations (and contrasts it with that of secularism).

It’s hard to disagree with the author's major premise. Certainly a religious system that makes moral demands and that is believed by a wide body of a given society will create moral center and provide a foundation for culture. Now that the West effectively is in a post-Christian era, was it the abandonment of Christianity that fostered the sexual revolution or vice versa? It’s hard to draw hard-and-fast conclusions about the causal order (and Dreher isn’t entirely clear on that either it seems).

As the author notes, Christianity helped constrain the male eros and that helped foster a “civilized” culture. But I think a large part of the basis for the development of the Christian ethic probably had to do with child bearing and rearing. So if the sexual revolution preceded an abandonment from Christianity, one could possibly point to the growth in available contraception as the key. As humans had more control over when and if they bore children, sex became less about bearing offspring and and the focus could turn more freely to sexual pleasure—the evolutionary order got flipped on its head. Evolutionarily, sexual pleasure appears to be a secondary quality designed to foster the primary “goal” of genetic distribution. Provide a means to control the distribution aspect and the secondary quality now becomes primary. Couple that with scares about overpopulation and its concomitant evils like ecological overuse and abuse, worries about space and having enough food and natural resources to support an over-burdened planet along with very real threats from disease and the like and you have a good argument for actually devaluing bringing more humans into the world. In fact, given all these worries, it’s better not to bear children. What, then, do we do with sex? Anything we damn well please it would seem.

My point is that the change in sexual focus that the author writes about may be less due to a degradation in Christian belief and more about other social factors. I think the degradation in Christian belief seems more to be the product of a nexus of many different social and ideological changes with the possibility for greater sexual freedom being just one of them.

Other comments on what I see as some key ideas in the article:

“For Rieff, the essence of any and every culture can be identified by what it forbids. Each imposes a series of moral demands on its members, for the sake of serving communal purposes, and helps them cope with these demands. A culture requires a cultus—a sense of sacred order, a cosmology that roots these moral demands within a metaphysical framework.”

This is a fascinating set of ideas (particularly that first sentence) and one I’ll have to think more about. I also love the idea that a culture is essentially based on a shared metaphysic (and I'd clarify that this doesn't need to be a supernatural metaphysic) rather than being merely a normative description of what people actually do or the values they end up having. I love that idea and I’ll have to think about it more.

“You don’t behave this way and not that way because it’s good for you; you do so because this moral vision is encoded in the nature of reality.”

I’d tweak this idea just a bit but in a way that probably doesn’t materially change the impact of his comments: “ . . . you do so because this moral vision is encoded in beliefs about the nature of reality.” I think the change actually is all that’s needed – it doesn’t matter much what the actual nature of reality is. All you really need for a cultus is religious belief and not any actually existing God or substance that provides a foundation for religious truth claims about the nature of things. Indeed, if postmodernism is informative at all, it’s on this point: all we have are our beliefs. But this is a philosophical point and doesn’t really impact his argument all that much.

“The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is.”

I think this is a key premise for him and one that resonates with me. I think sexuality, if it’s to have meaning culturally, has to be rooted in what the human person is if we’re to avoid barbarism. I'm not sure, though, whether a meaningful anthropology—one that adequately provides a basis for sexual expression without devolving into barbarism—is impossible on naturalism as the author seems to imply. The author is essentially writing about what historically has worked and rightly notes that a belief system that is deeply metaphysical has been highly effective in controlling sexual expression. Certainly, Christianity, and let’s be honest, any religious system that has a deep anthropology, is a kind of shortcut to this. If you can get people to believe that their meaning and essence (from which normative ethics can be derived) is described and mandated from on high, you get what you need in fairly short order. But I wonder if a purely naturalistic anthropology could effectively do the same thing. It seems a deep anthropology could be developed naturalistically. Something like natural law without a divine lawgiver seems doable. What I’m not clear about is whether it could have the same psychological force and staying power to keep us civilized for very long.

I suppose we're going to find out.

Evolution and the Extent of Explanatory Power

While I think many explanatory models built on evolutionary frameworks are very informative and explanatorily sufficient, I’m pretty skeptical of current attempts to develop a grand evolutionary history that is based around reverse-engineering phenotypes to genotypes and genotypes to pre-historic precursors to modern biological functions.

evolution-personA friend recently sent me this article by Micah Mattix titled, "Portrait of the Artist as a Caveman". In the piece Mattix looks at recent attempts to explain and understand art and artistry from an evolutionary explanatory framework. The author makes some important observations many with which I agree (though maybe for different reasons).

While I think many explanatory models built on evolutionary frameworks are very informative and explanatorily sufficient, I’m pretty skeptical of current attempts to develop a grand evolutionary history that is based around reverse-engineering phenotypes to genotypes and genotypes to pre-historic precursors to modern biological functions. We simply don’t have a history of natural selection and never will. (This is part of the reason why I don't think "irreducible complexity" style arguments work either. As critics of this style of argumentation have pointed out, we just don't know how specific mechanisms we see in current organisms might have developed because we don't have a history. IC arguments make inferences about what might have been the case in terms of functional usefulness just as evolutionary historians do about functional development.) The only reason I tend to buy any evolutionary story for any particular explanandum (and I think there are only situational explanatory narratives in evolutionary theory, no explanatory meta-narrative—at least not yet) is because that particular evolutionary story has more explanatory power than any other explanans for that explanandum. And it also has to be in a better position in terms of metaphysics and epistemology than its rivals. It’s a pretty tall order but one that any theory or explanatory model faces.

Evolutionary stories about human psychological properties tend to have the same plot which attempt to break down what we know about some given thing (language, art, reason) into smaller, atomic parts, then make assertions about the role those parts probably played in early humans or pre-human biology, and finally provide a narrative for how those parts formed into what we see today. Even if the explanation is completely coherent and reasonable (and based in the evidence we have at our disposal), it can never be considered history. Just a good explanatory, but ultimately a “just so," story. I'm not implying that this counts against evolutionary explanations at all. Any other model faces the same challenges (and, frankly, there are scant few other options worth considering). But as Mattix tries to point out, when we fail to consider that we're not talking about history but about inferences to the best explanation, we tend to lose sight of the fluid nature of the underlying model and the need for open-mindedness to other explanations and for potential revision to the story—something philosopher Thomas Nagel has argued for recently in his book, Mind and Cosmos.

When it comes to art, I think all we can say is that humans have an artistic impulse and if the current evolutionary narrative is correct, then it somehow developed through the process that theory describes. I just can’t see how we can come up with any story about how it actually formed based on the paltry evidence, and type of evidence, we have at our disposal. Any story will be at best a product of inferential speculation and has, ultimately, to be defeasible and taken with a grain of salt. The point, I think, is not that we shouldn't attempt to develop these stories. Rather, it's to temper the tendency to treat these stories as historical narratives that have enough explanatory strength to marginalize or even prohibit other explanatory models—even non-evolutionary ones (as Nagel and, to an extent, Mattix argue).  

I think we also seem to forget that we can always say, “we just don’t know.” Our drive for causal stories is just too strong (and I'm sure there’s a good evolutionary story for why that is).

If you could get one question answered, what would you ask?

What question would a group of philosophers ask an angel if they could ask only one question?

I came across this joke yesterday. Enjoy!

An angel came down for a meeting of the American Philosophical Association. Greeting the assembled philosophers, the angel offered to answer a single question for them. Immediately the philosophers set to arguing about what they should ask. So the angel said, “Alright, you figure out what you want to ask. I’ll come back tomorrow.” And he left the philosophers to deliberate.

Some of the philosophers favored asking conjunctive questions, but others argued persuasively that the angel probably wouldn’t count this as a single question. One philosopher wanted to ask “What is the best question to ask?”, in the hope that some day another angel might make a similar offer, at which point they could then ask the best question. But this suggestion was rejected by those who feared that no such opportunity would arise and did not want to waste their only question.

Finally, the philosophers agreed on the following question: “What is the ordered pair whose first member is the best question to ask, and whose second member is the answer to that question?” Satisfied with their decision, the philosophers awaited the angel’s return the next day, whereupon they posed their question. And the angel replied: “It is the ordered pair whose first member is the question you just asked, and whose second member is the answer I am now giving.” And then he disappeared.

For more "intellectual humor" go here.

Thanks to Andrew Smith for the pointer.

IAI Video Debate: Did the Linguistic Turn Take Us Down the Wrong Path?

Watch an intriguing debate by top philosophers on how language relates to reality. John Searle, Hilary Lawson, and Michael Potter face each other in this epic war of words.

realityOur friends at The Institute of Art and Ideas have posted a new video debate on the philosophy of language. The panel includes John Searle, post-postmodernist Hilary Lawson and logician Michael Potter. Their website describes the debate as follows: Language has been the focus of philosophical enquiry for the last century. But was the 'linguistic turn' a wrong turn, leading to a barren discipline without 'real world' influence? Is it time for a fresh approach to the big issues, or would this be a capitulation to intellectual fantasy?

Check out the debate and visit IAI for more philosophical discussion.


IAI Video Debate: Is Integrity Still Relevant?

Is personal integrity still a valid idea or is a quaint idea from a bygone era? Pioneering thinkers debate this question in an engaging video on IAI.


Debate HeadsOur friends at The Institute of Art and Ideas have posted a new video debate on ethics. The debate features award-winning novelist Joanna Kavenna, philosopher and Closure theorist Hilary Lawson, and UCL neuroscientist Parashkev Nachev and they debate the limits of integrity in a modern world. Here's the description of the debate from their website:

Personal integrity is still respected, but it has a Victorian quality, and is less valued in our dissembling age. Might this be a fundamental mistake? Could integrity be a basis for morality in a relative world, or is being true to oneself an anachronism?

Check out the video and see more at IAI.

New Blog by David Papineau

Professor David Papineau of King's College London has launched a new blog focusing on philosophy and sports. The posts will no doubt be both informative and entertaining. Check it out!

David PapineauProfessor David Papineau (Department of Philosophy at King's College London), who has written extensively on philosophy of mind and philosophical naturalism recently launched a new blog titled, More Important Than That focusing on the relationship between philosophy and sports. He explained that the title is based on quote from the famous Liverpool soccer manager Bill Shankly who responded, when accused of thinking football was a matter of life or death, ‘No, no, it’s much more important than that."

He writes that in this blog he is, "Aiming to write about a range of topics that will be of interest to both philosophers and sports fans, from countries all around the world.  Tricky.  Future topics may include Mutual Aid and the Art of Road Cycle Racing and Why You Can't Just Decide to Support a Team."

Recent posts include:

Choking, The Yips and Not Having Your Mind Right

Mutual Aid and the Art of Road Cycle Racing

Why Supporting a Team isn't Like Choosing a Washing Machine

Civil Society and why Adnan Januzaj should be Eligible for England (Though He Isn't)

Why Does Test Cricket Run in Families?

If you'd like to be informed of future posts, you can sign up for email notifications at his blog. Congratulations to Dr. Papineau on this new venture and we at Philosophy News wish him best of luck!

Dr. Papineau's latest book, Philosophical Devices: Proofs, Probabilities, Possibilities, and Sets is an attempt to provide simple explanations to some of the more technical terms used widely in philosophical literature.

IAI Interview: Logic and the Linguistic Turn

An IAI interview with philosopher Michael Potter on the origins and limits of modern logic

Our friends at IAI spoke with Michael Potter, Professor of Logic in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge about his forthcoming book, Wittgenstein 1916. In this engaging interview, they talk to him about Wittgenstein, the linguistic turn and the importance of logic to the study of language. In the interview, they discuss the period called "the linguistic turn," Wittgenstein's view of the role of language in philosophy, and the impact modern logic has had on the linguistic turn.

Check out the interview here.

What Can Be Learned from Bertrand Russell’s Life as a Philanderer? Part II

This second of four articles on Bertrand Russell's relationship with women surveys some of the relationships Russell had with women icnluding Ottoline Morrell, Dora Black, and Constance Malleson. His relationships provide an interesting and provacative insight into his complex personality.

Bertrand Russell DrawingII. The Women in Russell's Life

The years that followed saw Russell deluge himself in womanly company. The ladies Ottoline Morrell and Constance Malleson headed the ensemble; and despite Lady Constance’s eminence as an extolled West-End actress, it was the belletristic touch of Lady Ottoline that engrossed Russell’s thirst for self-estrangement. The affair was kindled in 1911, the dawn of a fiercely intense relationship that lasted more than five years. If tradition and conformity lied at the heart of his marriage to Alys, it was surely literature that ran through the veins of his and Ottoline’s liaison. She was a beautiful and well-established aristocrat, known for her influence within the intellectual and artistic circles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Through the course of her youth Ottoline had befriended a number of the era’s illustrious writers, including Aldous Huxley, Siegfried Sassoon, T.S. Elliot, and D.H. Lawrence—together with a number of others whose work had been bolstered generously by her patronage.[1] Given the high regard in which Ottoline held the arts, and Russell’s longing to become that which he could never be, it comes as no surprise that he spent much of their relationship coveting the gifts of those who occupied her guestbook. He envisaged himself in the grip of an intellectual incarceration, the result of a lifelong pursuit of technical perfection, which left him wretchedly inept to express himself artistically. Pen in hand, he sought to release himself by way of Ottoline’s experience and ‘gentle’ guidance.[2] She, too, felt Russell needed saving: ‘I suppose,’ she wrote him in February 1912, ‘in some mysterious manner I do help you to free the gods and goddesses within you—and to help them all sing together well in tune.’[3] He held the banner of the tragic prodigy, faced with a destiny he could not fulfil, falling short time and time again of his own lofty expectations. Once again Russell had insinuated himself into an atmosphere that smothered him, and in consequence found himself isolated behind towering ramparts of disparity. This peculiar dynamic infused every aspect of the Russell-Morrell relationship, and in time Russell’s determination to become a new person for Ottoline’s sake brought their gluttonous amour to an end. He simply ‘could not turn himself into a writer of fiction,’[4] and in this deemed himself a failure, leaving his once ablaze affections for Ottoline to wither into a tepid cocktail of resentment and laxity. From the remnants of this sour beverage of an affair, however, the pair maintained a lazy friendship that lasted to her death in 1938.[5] Russell, meanwhile, continued his transatlantic rampage: woman by woman the female population was all but consumed by the maw of his libidinous appetite.[6]

Amidst the marrow of the First World War Russell encountered his second wife, one Dora Black, an industrious bluestocking endowed with the progressive philosophy of Britain’s new left wing. They joined forces in 1916 to combat military conscription, an ambition which left Russell held in a six-month incarceration (this time of the physical kind) at Brixton Prison.[7] Upon his release in 1918 he and Dora embarked on something of a travelling splurge, visiting Russia, China and Japan. Illustrated was the pair’s comedic affinity throughout their Japanese sojourn: upon false reports of Russell’s death at the hands of pneumonia, Dora quite satirically informed the press of her companion’s inability to grant an interview on account of his being dead.[8] They travelled together for a number of years, more a cultural investigation than a deluxe retreat, writing regularly on their experiences. Having previously denied Russell’s nuptial advances on the grounds that matrimony restricted the liberty of women, Dora finally ceded to Russell’s wishes upon their return to England in 1921. Given the strength of Dora’s character, and the interests she and her husband shared, one would be forgiven for presuming Russell’s problems here at an end. She fulfilled a role in Russell’s life to which those who precede her would have balked. Together they wrote The Prospects of Industrial Civilization, a feat of collaboration Russell had failed to perform alongside any of his former lovers,[9] and opened a reformist boarding school in West Sussex, an institution which strove to instantiate the educational philosophy of Dora’s In Defence of Children. Dora’s successes came at an expense, however, namely those virtues one could presume attracted Russell to the likes of Alys and Ottoline—ease and normality. Having met more than his match in terms of the progressive ideas of his parents before him, Russell appeared to view Dora’s very liberality as a barrier that stood between them. For the extent of their relationship both Russell and Dora continued to spark relations with other people, a quirk with which he was unlikely to take immediate umbrage; but upon Dora becoming pregnant with another man’s child, the marriage seemed to fall prey to its own progressiveness.[10] The weir of liberal thinking gave way to intense jealousy and bitter resentment, resulting in Russell’s writing of boastful letters describing his youthful conquests across the Atlantic, and his eventual leaving of Dora for their children’s governess, Patricia.[11] He abandoned the campaigns he and Dora had together founded (including their beloved boarding school) and threw himself into the next chapter of his life with bags haphazardly packed.



[1] Simkin, J.. (1997). Ottoline Morrell. Available: www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Jmorrell.htm. Last accessed 31/01/14.

[2] Moran, M. (1991). BERTRAND RUSSELL MEETS HIS MUSE: THE IMPACT OF LADY OTTOLINE MORRELL (1911-12). McMaster University Library Press. 182-3.

[3] Ibid. 184.

[4] Ibid. 187.

[5] Ibid. 181

[6] Coffey, R.. (2008). 20 Things You Didn't Know About... Genius. Available: http://discovermagazine.com/2008/oct/01-20-things-you-didnt-know-about-genius#.UwdJWPl_usU. Last accessed 01/02/14.

[7] Simkin, J.. (2013). Dora Russell. Available: www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/TUrussellD.htm. Last accessed 31/01/14.

[8] Russell, B. (2009). Autobiography. London: Routledge. 365-6.

[9] Simkin, J.. (2013). Dora Russell. Available: www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/TUrussellD.htm. Last accessed 31/01/14.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Monk, R. (2001). Bertrand Russell: 1921-1970, The Ghost of Madness. New York: Free Press. 115.

Press Release: "The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone" (Chicago, April 2014)

Press release on an upcoming book by Scott Samuelson. This new introduction to philosophy is written for everyone, not just academics. Samuelson explores the thought of history's most impactful thinkers to bring philosophy to us an accessible and personal way.

The Deepest Human Life Cover Sometimes it seems like you need a PhD just to open a book of philosophy. We leave philosophical matters to the philosophers in the same way that we leave science to scientists. Scott Samuelson thinks this is tragic, for our lives as well as for philosophy. In The Deepest Human Life he takes philosophy back from the specialists and restores it to its proper place at the center of our humanity, rediscovering it as our most profound effort toward understanding, as a way of life that anyone can live. Exploring the works of some of history’s most important thinkers in the context of the everyday struggles of his students, he guides us through the most vexing quandaries of our existence—and shows just how enriching the examined life can be.

Samuelson begins at the beginning: with Socrates, working his most famous assertion—that wisdom is knowing that one knows nothing—into a method, a way of approaching our greatest mysteries. From there he springboards into a rich history of philosophy and the ways its journey is encoded in our own quests for meaning. He ruminates on Epicurus against the sonic backdrop of crickets and restaurant goers in Iowa City. He follows the Stoics into the cell where James Stockdale spent seven years as a prisoner of war. He spins with al-Ghazali first in doubt, then in the ecstasy of the divine. And he gets the philosophy education of his life when one of his students, who authorized a risky surgery for her son that inadvertently led to his death, asks with tears in her eyes if Kant was right, if it really is the motive that matters and not the consequences. Through heartbreaking stories, humanizing biographies, accessible theory, and evocative interludes like “On Wine and Bicycles” or “On Zombies and Superheroes ,” he invests philosophy with the personal and vice versa. The result is a book that is at once a primer and a reassurance—that many have trod the earth before us, and they have insights into our very souls. 

William B. Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life

“Scott Samuelson is a philosopher with a knack for storytelling.  As a result, The Deepest Human Life is a book that humanizes philosophy and that relates grand philosophical themes to the lives of ordinary people. Not only that, but Samuelson writes in a manner that ordinary people—meaning those without a philosophical background—will find inviting. Readers will come away with a better understanding of some of philosophy’s fundamental concepts and in many cases will also have taken important first steps toward conducting an examination of their own lives.”

Christopher Merrill, author of The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War

The Deepest Human Life is a splendid book for students, writers, philosophers, and anyone interested in exploring the human condition. Samuelson wears his considerable learning lightly, addressing the enduring questions—What is philosophy? What is happiness? What is the nature of good and evil?—in an engaging and accessible manner, reminding readers that the quest for meaning is indeed a matter of life and death. What a marvelous professor he must be. And what good luck to have his wisdom here on the page.”

Stephen T. Asma, author of Against Fairness

The Deepest Human Life is charming and upbeat, but it’s also very poignant in places. Samuelson weaves his personal story of teaching at a community college into the philosophical adventure and shows how philosophy is an approach to life—a practice of self-knowing and self-forgetting—rather than a professional career. The result is a unique introduction to philosophy, composed with a rare voice of humane literary sophistication.”

Pre-order your copy on Amazon



IAI Video: Thinking the Unthinkable

A new video by the Institute of Art and Ideas discussing the limits of knowledge. The power of our thought has transformed the world, and some claim a theory of everything is just around the corner. Others see limits to understanding, things we cannot think. Is there a richer world that lies beyond thought, or is this an empty mysticism that leads nowhere?

croppedimage608342-thinking-the-unthinkablePhilosophy News recently has been introduced to a website with some intriguing videos on philosophy as well as science, politics, and art. This London-based organization is producing  high-quality content that is will inform in an engaging and entertaining way. Here is their mission from their website:

The Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI) is committed to fostering a progressive and vibrant intellectual culture in the UK. We are a charitable, not-for-profit organisation engaged in changing the current cultural landscape through the pursuit and promotion of big ideas, boundary-pushing thinkers and challenging debates.

This sample video features hosts Hannah Dawson, Mark Rowlands, Simon Saunders. Robert Rowland-Smith and focuses on the following topic: The power of our thought has transformed the world, and some claim a theory of everything is just around the corner. Others see limits to understanding, things we cannot think. Is there a richer world that lies beyond thought, or is this an empty mysticism that leads nowhere?

The Panel

Oxford philosopher Simon Saunders, international bestselling author Mark Rowlands and historian of ideas Hannah Dawson attempt to say what some believe cannot be said.