Adultery, strip clubs, flirting, and virtue

I’m talking about sexuality in my CORE 350 ethics class at Felician. It’s a minefield. The subject is hard to talk about anywhere, but especially in a classroom–and especially in a classroom at a Catholic college. There’s the simultaneous danger of being so candid that you offend someone, or so anodyne that you sound out-of-touch and irrelevant. Never mind that the professor is himself a walking stereotype of some sort–a divorced middle-aged academic who manages to make everything he says on the subject either sound dreadfully abstract or else really dirty. But of course, that’s what makes the topic so much fun.

Our first text has been the Commentary on the Sixth Commandment (against adultery) from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I’ve tried to impress upon my students the fact that I’m neither hoping to inculcate Catholic moral doctrine in them, nor discussing the Catechism simply to tear it down, but just using it a source of authoritative moral teachings on the subject so as to figure out what to make of what it says. Teaching it is a good exercise for me because I find so much of what it says so ridiculously implausible: I have to work a bit to make it plausible to them. But I’ve been surprised to find some scattered agreement as well. Of course, the same thing might be said about my students’ beliefs about sexuality, as the following conversation illustrates.

Today’s in-class discussion focused on lots of things–marriage, procreation, homosexuality, etc.–but ended with a free-wheeling discussion of adultery. Here’s what the Catechism says about it:


2380 Adultery refers to marital infidelity. When two partners, of whom at least one is married to another party, have sexual relations – even transient ones – they commit adultery. Christ condemns even adultery of mere desire.170 The sixth commandment and the New Testament forbid adultery absolutely.171 The prophets denounce the gravity of adultery; they see it as an image of the sin of idolatry.172

2381 Adultery is an injustice. He who commits adultery fails in his commitment. He does injury to the sign of the covenant which the marriage bond is, transgresses the rights of the other spouse, and undermines the institution of marriage by breaking the contract on which it is based. He compromises the good of human generation and the welfare of children who need their parents’ stable union.

I was in a casuistic mood, so I decided to ask my students what counts as a case of adultery. I found their answers bizarre, but then, I find most people’s views on sexuality bizarre (except my own). The question was intended to elicit their views, not to to tease out the official view of the Church. Incidentally, some demographics: The class has 30 students in it, and consists predominantly of women aged 18-21, a few men of the same age, a few women in their 30s and 40s, and a few nuns in their 30s, I would guess. Since we’d discussed homosexuality earlier, and the Church’s definition of adultery presupposes heterosexual marriage, the conversation was about heterosexual marriage.

Here are their answers:

1. Is sexual intercourse with someone outside of the marriage an instance of adultery? –Yes.

2. Is oral sex….? –Yes.

3. Is phone sex….? –Yes.

4. Kissing on the lips…? –Yes.

5. Flirting without physical contact…?–Yes.

6. Ogling a member of the opposite sex…? –Yes (though there was dissension on this one).

7. Going to a strip club…?–No (?!)

I don’t know about you, but these answers make no sense to me. Or perhaps I mean that I can make sense of them–in the sense of figuring out the underlying rationale–but that they strike me as incoherent.

The most glaring incoherence seems to me the one between (7) on the one hand, and (5) and (6) on the other. Let me ignore the apparent incoherence between (6) and (7), since it’s not entirely clear to me that the people asserting (7) were also asserting (6). But the people (young women) most vehemently asserting (5) were also vehement about asserting (7), and that really does strike me as incoherent, or least as wildly mistaken. The claim here seems to be that if you flirt with someone, you are cheating on your marriage because it involves “thoughts or feelings” of an adulterous nature, thereby (I suppose) falling under Christ’s condemnation of the “adultery of mere desire.”

That seems to me an implausible conception both of marriage and of adultery, but let it go for now. I can see the rationale for it, assuming that one adopts implausible conceptions of both marriage and adultery–very rigoristic ones. What is hard to see is why the very person who adopted such a conception of flirting would then turn around to insist that strip clubs didn’t involve adultery.

But that is explicitly what they said. They believed that men go to strip clubs to “admire female beauty,” and that doing so is sexually innocuous, whereas flirting involves something like emotional attachment and lust, which is clearly adulterous. In other words, the average patron of a strip club patronizes, say, The Harem or Satin Dolls in the detached way that a hifallutin aesthete might go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to “admire the beauty” to be found in the paintings of J.M.W. Turner–or, maybe more precisely, in the portraits of John Singer Sargent. Put yet another way, the average patron of the average Jersey strip club is going there for an experience no different from the guy who goes to the Frick Collection to gorge his lustful eyes on Lady Agnew of Lochnaw:

Somehow, I doubt it. I have a sneaking suspicion that my female students have been fooled by their boyfriends into thinking that the strip club experience is more of an exercise in aesthetic formalism than it really is. Who knew that there were so many budding Nick Zangwills in the strip clubs of north Jersey? Let’s hope that the ASA is on the case.

Anyway, the dispute in question turns on a straightforwardly factual matter. If flirting is adultery because it involves the wrong thoughts and desires, then if going to a strip club either involves the same thoughts and desires (or more intense versions of the same ones), on this conception going to a strip club is (even) more obviously a case of adultery than flirting. I leave the rest as an exercise for the social psychologists or strip club enthusiasts out there.

Personally, I take the answers to questions (1)-(3) to be fairly obvious, though I’ve met people who would contest (3), and I suppose Bill Clinton in his own way famously contested (2), as did many of his defenders. It’s an interesting question what exactly ties (1)-(3) together, though I suppose the general answer is obvious: sexual activity (involving contact) by one married person with someone outside of the marriage.*

I don’t think (4) is obvious. I agree that kissing someone who isn’t your spouse is wrong, but personally, I don’t think it’s a case of adultery. (A small minority of my students agreed, but most disagreed.) Part of the issue here turns on turpitude, and part on–for lack of a better term–phenotypic dissimilarity. I think “adultery” should be reserved for serious offenses, and though I think kissing is an offense, it isn’t nearly as serious as having sex with someone. So it ought to be separated somehow. Further, though kissing is obviously sexual I think there’s an obvious phenotypic difference between an act that can in principle lead to orgasm and one that can’t. So I think the concept of “adultery” ought to reflect that. One student pointed out (correctly, I think) that there are cultures or contexts in which kissing on the lips is not thought to be a sexual act at all. There’s another reason for thinking that kissing and adultery are distinct.

I don’t think that (5) is either wrong or a case of adultery. This claim of mine set off a minor firestorm in class. But there’s a bit of an ambiguity here: you may not have realized this before (and neither, I think, did W.B Gallie), but “flirting” is an essentially contested concept. In other words, there’s flirting and then there’s flirting. Here is a standard definition of the term:


gerund or present participle: flirting
  1. 1.
    behave as though attracted to or trying to attract someone, but for amusement rather than with serious intentions.

The last clause is the key to the definition. X flirts with Y if and only if X has no serious intention of being romantically involved with Y and (I would add) knows that the same is true of Y.

It’s a serious and interesting question whether people are psychologically capable of pulling off flirtation in this sense, and can have knowledge in the requisite sense under the relevant conditions. Maybe so, maybe not. It’s also a serious and interesting question whether, regardless of that, the activity of flirting has any justifiable rationale. Maybe so, maybe not. But if we assume that people can flirt in the defined sense, I think it’s obvious that flirting is not a case of adultery. I happen to think that flirtation has a justifiable rationale: it has essentially the same rationale that joking around has in non-sexual contexts. Flirting is a safe, and I would add, necessary way of acknowledging the presence of sexual tension in relationships that are (or ought) otherwise to be non-sexual, and a safe means of catharsis of the relevant tension. Done properly, flirtation is harmless. It’s just hard to do properly, and harder still in a milieu where no one understands what it’s about, and where it’s equated with adultery. Ultimately, it’s probably safer not to flirt, but better to learn how to do it right.

I won’t belabor the point, but “ogling,” like “flirting” is an essentially contested concept. But it would take a whole new post to get that issue right.

It’s unfortunate that we didn’t discuss so-called “emotional affairs” in class, but alas, we didn’t. The moral status of emotional affairs is increasingly one that we Americans have farmed out to mental health care practitioners, so that the most authoritative answers to questions about them come from sources like WebMD. This makes me wonder whether philosophers should be in the business of competing with rival websites of our own–WebPhD, WebPhil, something like that. But no matter what we say, we’ll never be able to compete with the MDs on reimbursement.

The underlying philosophical issue here is one common to Christianity and Aristotelian virtue ethics, but that involves more psychological complexity than one finds either in the Gospels or the Nicomachean Ethics. Every significant sphere of life, including sexuality, has to be governed in some way by the virtues. But the virtues can’t be understood in a superficially behavioristic or legalistic fashion as demanding conformity with a series of pat prescriptions. They involve acting for the right object, in the right way, at the right time, from the right cognitive, affective, and behavioral dispositions, etc. It’s an enormously difficult job to explicate the latter idea in an informative, non-banal way that’s fully responsive to moral complexity.

Contrary to the Catholic Church, I don’t happen to think that “chastity” is a virtue, and don’t think that “lust” is an offense against it. But some virtues–honesty, integrity, justice, pride–do govern sexuality, and when they do, they require the agent to adopt some beliefs and not others, and by implication, to have some attitudes and not others, and some forms of affect and not others, etc. So one danger is to think that sexual ethics is a matter of mere conformity with a list of behavioral-legal prohibitions. But there’s another danger lurking here: of thinking that full Aristotelian virtue requires suppression of anything that seems like it’s incompatible with observing obvious behavioral-legal prohibitions. In other words, if full virtue proscribes adultery (as I’m sure it does), there’s a tendency to think that full virtue requires the agent to suppress any thought or desire that is, in a vague sense, adultery-positive or adultery-proximate.

In other words, if adultery is wrong, there’s a tendency to think that if a stray thought of adultery floats through my head, that thought is wrong and must be suppressed in the name of virtue. I think that’s a mistake that derives from a mistaken understanding of the way the mind works, and a mistaken account of the nature of virtue. From suppression of that sort it’s a short hop, skip, and leap to repression in the psychoanalytic sense. But repression is a defense mechanism–an offense against honesty, and a subversion of self-knowledge. At a minimum, virtue ethicists have to be more alive then they seem to be to the possibility that virtues can be a means of repression.

Anyway, there’s a lot more to say on this, but I can’t say it all now. I’ve said a bit on the website for my class. I hope to say more in the near future. Our next reading is Thomas Nagel’s famous paper, “Sexual Perversion.” Should be interesting.

Postscript: I edited this post for clarity after the initial submission.

*I rewrote this whole clause for clarity after the original post.

11 thoughts on “Adultery, strip clubs, flirting, and virtue

  1. Teaching sexual ethics with nuns in the room — you are a brave, brave man (or perhaps simply not inculcated with a reverence for nuns in your Catholic boyhood). I’m not sure what to do with the attitudes toward strip clubs; I have never been to one, but I know damn well that “appreciating female beauty” is at best a euphemism for the kinds of ogling that they’re designed to facilitate. I suppose I’m never too surprised by inconsistency in people’s beliefs; it’s the sheer naivete about strip clubs that amazes me.

    Strip clubs and the like do make me wonder, though. Off hand I’d have probably said that patronizing strip clubs wouldn’t constitute adultery, even if it would be an offense against one’s partner. Instead, I’d urge that patronizing strip clubs is contemptible for reasons that operate just as much when someone is single — the kinds of sexuality and the attitudes towards people and people’s bodies that strip clubs cultivate are debased and degrading to the viewer and the viewed alike (when I put together my irrefutable argument for that claim, I’ll be sure to let you know). But it occurs to me that for that very reason, patronizing strip clubs might sensibly be held to be adulterous. If an act of adultery is one that directly harms the marriage relationship itself, then, because the attitudes that one cultivates in visiting strip clubs undermine marriage conceived as an exclusive intimate relationship that has a sexual dimension that is tightly bound up with its emotional and inter-personal dimensions, visiting strip clubs is an act of adultery. I haven’t considered for more than five minutes whether that’s a good way to think about what makes something an act of adultery, and for me nothing rides on whether we take that view or not. But there does seem to me to be a non-accidental relationship between patronizing strip clubs and undermining one’s marital (and quasi-marital) relationships. The connection seems to be considerably clearer than in cases of more mundane ogling, since there is a vastly wider scale within what might count as ogling than there is within what might count as enjoying a strip club.

    Excellent point about virtues and repression, by the way, except for one detail: virtues can’t be means of repression, provided that repression is a bad thing; if a trait or tendency is a means of repression, then it is at best an imperfect virtue, and its harmful effects are to be explained by its imperfection and not by its virtuousness. But that’s just a conceptual point: for any x, if x is a virtue, then it is non-accidentally beneficial and not harmful to its possessor.


    • To take that in reverse order:

      We’re agreeing on virtues and repression; I was just being elliptical in the post. I meant that certain (false) conceptions of virtue can abet or require repression. The underlying problem is that though we might all agree in principle as to the superiority of virtue over enkratia, and might agree in the abstract over what differentiates virtue from enkratia, in practice, the dividing line is not obvious. The fully virtuous moral agent has a “harmonious” internal life, and is entirely free of “internal disorders”; the enkratic does the right thing, but suffers internal disharmony and disorder. Fair enough. But what counts as internal disharmony and disorder? Here is the standard account:

      Like anyone who has developed a skill in performing a complex and difficult activity, the virtuous person takes pleasure in exercising his intellectual skills. Furthermore, when he has decided what to do, he does not have to contend with internal pressures to act otherwise. He does not long to do something that he regards as shameful; and he is not greatly distressed at having to give up a pleasure that he realizes he should forego.

      I don’t disagree with that, but there’s a lot of ambiguous psychological territory between (on the one hand) longing to do what’s shameful and (on the other) never, ever having a stray thought or fantasy that treads the borderline between the paradigmatically virtuous and the paradigmatically vicious. I think virtue ethicists and Aristotelians have a tendency to shrink the territory between the two things and regard the whole territory as undifferentiatedly “bad.” My hunch is that that leads to repression, and ironically, leads to a subtle form of enkratia. To put the matter crudely, I often get the impression that the virtue ethics literature is dominated by people who have equivocal or controversial views about psychology and/or theology (e.g., Original Sin), and lots of the underlying psychological assumptions get ignored or glossed over. An example: Jorge Garcia’s, “Liberal Theory, Human Freedom, and the Politics of Sexual Morality,” in Paul Weithman, Religion and Contemporary Liberalism.

      I agree with you on the problematic character of strip clubs, but I’d be willing to bet that most North American men and many women younger than, say, 45 would find our views preposterous and demand that “irrefutable argument” that neither of us have. I had never thought of myself as a sexual conservative, but I’m only 45 and I increasingly find myself out of step with (i.e., more “conservative” than) the wider culture on sexual matters. My impression is that the rise of the Internet and the fall of third wave feminism has led to a wholesale flattening of the sexual norms that prevailed just a few decades ago. Here’s the locus classicus of the new dispensation.

      On the semantic issue: I don’t think going to a strip club is “adultery,” either. I reserve “adultery” for cases of sexual contact, and would then divide the terrain of offenses against an intimate/exclusive relationship into the sexually charged and the non-sexual, with strip clubbing an instance of the first species. A refusal to deal with one’s persistent anger-management problems might be an instance of the second. There’s no reason to think that every instance of “adultery” in this sense must be morally worse, or more destructive to a relationship, than every instance of the second species of offenses. For cultural and perhaps legal reasons, “adultery” gets the attention, and other things get less.

      Like you, I was focusing on the naivete about strip clubs (and the incoherence between the attitude re strip clubs vs. that re flirting). Still shaking my head over that one.

      Re teaching sexual ethics in the presence of nuns: In all seriousness, I’ve tried very hard to find the pedagogical mean in my classes between gratuitous causation of offense and overly cautious acquiescence to easily offended sensibilities. But my ideal is to teach every class as though anyone (within reasonable limits) could come to class and learn on an equal footing with anyone else–anyone of any culture, any creed, any sexual orientation, any gender, any race, any political ideology, possessing any disability, etc. It’s hard, but it’s been good discipline. That’s why I’ve been so disappointed with what I’ve encountered in, say, Objectivist contexts, where no such discipline seems required of anyone, and my insistence on it has been dismissed as “political correctness.” Anyway, I’ve just found over and over that you can’t really over-learn the lessons of Mill’s On Liberty, chapter 2. I’m not sure what the nuns think of me, but I’m glad they’re there. And I haven’t gotten fired yet.


  2. Discussion of the boundaries between virtue and enkrateia might benefit from considering the question of what it takes for a thought or desire to constitute a motivation that has to be resisted. My impression is that the literature often just assumes that any occasional thoughts or feelings that reason has to reject count as sufficient for motivation, and hence if reason has to do any work to reject a spontaneous desire then the agent is merely enkratic. I doubt that’s even Aristotle’s view, let alone a sensible one. Some people writing on Aristotle’s psychology have made a point of insisting that desires aren’t just feelings or belief-informed feelings, they’re impulses to act, and hence at least in the paradigmatic cases they are things that actually move the agent towards the object of desire. If that’s so, then spontaneous feelings of attraction or stimulation won’t be sufficient to count as full-blown desires. This doesn’t seem ad hoc, either. Phenomenologically, anyway, there seems to be a serious difference between a spontaneous impulse that I reject upon rational reflection and a desire that motivates me to act in a certain way and continues to motivate me despite my rational rejection of it. With the latter, whether or not I act in accordance with that non-rational motivation is not just a matter of whether I rationally reject it, whereas in many cases I have impulses that exert no motivational effect on me once I have rejected them. Part of the virtues of character on an Aristotelian view is having the right kind of spontaneous desires and emotional reactions, but at least an equally important part is having an emotional make-up that is reason-responsive. If we could count on the virtues of character to get things right without the oversight of reason, then we would expect the intellectual virtues to be dispensable once we’ve managed to develop the virtues of character, which neither Aristotle nor experience suggests they are. But that’s what they’d have to be if virtue excluded the possibility of having any thoughts or feelings that reason has to reject.

    I suspect you’re right to exclude things like strip clubbing from the domain of adultery. What interests me is why such things might be objectionable for the same sorts of reasons that acts of adultery are. As for the views about things like strip clubs increasingly dominant among the young hoi polloi, I frequently have thought that I’m something of a sexual conservative just because my views are at odds with what so many people, especially “liberal” people, take to be obvious (perhaps our experiences differ in this respect because I am just over a decade younger than you?). But in this as in so much else, the problem is not so much that I don’t have knock-down arguments (there really just aren’t very many of those outside of straightforward empirical or mathematical disciplines), but that the argument would have to be long and complex, and most people are hardly willing even to hear long and complex arguments out, let alone to take them seriously. But to my mind, the central question is whether we should want sexuality to be integrated with personal intimacy, friendship, mutuality, reciprocity, and love. Provided we do, we have decisive reasons to reject practices that sever sexuality from the rest of those, and certainly cultivating depersonalized and objectifying sexual attitudes will do that (I’m glad to see that you’ll be reading Nussbaum’s ‘Objectification’ with your class; though she doesn’t say much about it, I think her account lays out a good basis for explaining why objectification is bad for the person doing the objectifying). It would be more difficult, I suspect, to convince the unconverted that we really should want exactly that kind of integration. Unfortunately, the people most difficult to convince that we should are people who have never experienced it, and as our culture increasingly makes it more difficult to experience it, such people might come to be more and more prevalent. Hopefully I’m just being cynical about that.


    • Well, as usual, we have another love-fest (so to speak) of agreement on our hands.

      I completely agree with you on enkrateia. In fact, it’s a real hobby-horse of mine:

      My impression is that the literature often just assumes that any occasional thoughts or feelings that reason has to reject count as sufficient for motivation, and hence if reason has to do any work to reject a spontaneous desire then the agent is merely enkratic.

      That’s my impression as well, and it goes beyond sex. It’s a commonplace of psychoanalytic theory (and of psychology) that we’re to some extent the “prisoners” (if you want to call it that) of the constant stream of “mental noise” that flows through our brains. That mental noise flows through us is an involuntary deterministic fact about how brains work. Our brains absorb stimuli, including disturbing and immoral stimuli, and act on them. This action isn’t entirely random; it’s driven by sub- or unconscious forces internal to us but mostly beyond our control. So a distinction has to be drawn between having mental noise and internalizing it, and that distinction has to be integrated with an account of free will and doxastic voluntarism (among other relevant voluntarisms).

      The relevant ethical question is not whether or not mental noise is there, but how to deal with it. This is obvious enough when you’re horrified to find that you can’t get a Katy Perry song out of your head (or even find yourself singing it). But it seems less obvious when you “find” uncontroversially immoral stuff in your head (or counterfactually uncontroversial immoral stuff: stuff that would be immoral if you internalized and acted on it).

      To me, the classic example is Hursthouse’s discussion of the repentant racist in On Virtue Ethics. Simplified version: Take someone brought up in a racist milieu who is inculcated from childhood in racist beliefs. For the duration of his childhood and teenage years, he’s a racist. On reaching adulthood, he realizes that racism is wrong, and decides to changes his beliefs and reform his character. Assume ex hypothesi that he does everything in his power to change both things, but now assume that it’s a deterministic fact about people in this situation that racist mental detritus will afflict them more than it afflicts people with non- or anti-racist upbringings. In other words, the repentant racist has to face specifically racist mental noise with greater frequency than the average person. Does that entail that our repentant racist is enkratic? Hursthouse thinks yes. I think not. A case of this kind has to be distinguished from the sort of cases Kant envisions in the Groundwork, where the person is in the grips of vicious desires that he’s internalized, which he then has to fight in the name of virtue (or in Kant’s case, duty). Textual issues aside, it seems to me that you can’t have enkrateia–or that enkrateia is not a coherent concept–unless it involves culpability. And there is no such culpability in cases like the repentant racist. Here I think I’m at least agreeing with, but perhaps going beyond, what you say about reason-receptivity.

      I’m not sure I’d say that an immoral impulse to act indicates enkrateia. I think “impulse” is equivocal in English between a totally random whim that, all in, you’d never act on, and a desire or want that might move you to action. Memorable example: In “The Roots of Reasons” (Phil Review 109:1, Jan. 2000), Rachel Cohon casually reports that occasionally when she finds herself high up in a balcony, she feels the impulse to fling herself off of it. What I found memorable about the example was that she reported it as though it was the kind of impulse we all from time to time have. Assuming low intensity and low frequency, impulses like that strike me as irrelevant to a judgment of enkrateia. They’re paradigmatic mental noise.

      On strip clubs, you say:

      But to my mind, the central question is whether we should want sexuality to be integrated with personal intimacy, friendship, mutuality, reciprocity, and love. Provided we do….

      As you say, it’s a long argument, but I don’t think it’s just the length that’s the problem. I think it’s a hard argument to make. As you recognize, one objection would be that not everyone will put the same weights on intimacy, friendship, and the rest. Another objection will be that intelligent people can have intimacy, friendship, etc. and have their fun on the side as well (or even spice things up by bringing their significant other to the strip club). The literature is really not set up to respond to skepticism of either kind. In teaching Nagel’s “Sexual Perversion,” I’m struck by how question-begging and hand-waving it is. Nussbaum’s “Objectification” is better, but pretty inconclusive. Scruton’s Sexual Desire is next up on my list. I wonder if it’ll be as good for me as it was for him?


  3. I’m inclined to disagree about the repentant racist, though I don’t think Hursthouse spells out clearly enough what makes him enkratic. What the repentant racist has that a virtuous person doesn’t is a deeply engrained, systemic tendency to have certain thoughts, reactions, emotions, and desires that he has to make an effort to reject. He is rather unlike the sort of person that most of us have encountered, one who has absorbed certain subtle prejudices and assumptions about race from frequent cultural representations and sometimes finds these prejudices impinging on his interpretations of people’s behavior, but quickly and easily dismisses them. Many white people, for example, whose interactions with black people have been somewhat limited, cannot avoid certain mental associations between, say, young black males dressed in a certain way and a certain sort of aggressive arrogance, because young black males dressed in that way are so often represented that way in our media. But many of these same white people, upon a minimal amount of experience and reflection, recognize that these associations are at best a highly selective and distorted reflection of reality, and while that recognition may not free them from the association altogether, they rarely or never need to expend much effort to silence thoughts and reactions based on the association, and hence their interpretation and understanding of the young black males they encounter are never seriously threatened by such thoughts and reactions. Now in one respect the repentant racist differs from people like these in the content of the thoughts and reactions that he rejects — they are presumably more paradigmatically “racist” than the associations I have in mind (though those are also racist associations, I would say). But as I see it what makes him but not the people in my example enkratic — and this is the point that Hursthouse, so far as I remember, does not do enough to clarify — is not how objectionable his thoughts and reactions are, and not even simply the frequency with which he has to deal with them (perhaps both cases have to deal with these thoughts and reactions every single time they encounter young black males). It is rather the degree to which the repentant racist’s unendorsed thoughts and reactions get in the way of his thinking, feeling, and acting correctly. And that difference, it seems to me, has to be accounted for in terms of the strength and vividness of the thoughts and reactions. I don’t think the distinction between thoughts and desires that one has internalized and those that one has not can quite do the work that needs to be done, at least without further refinement. Even if the repentant racist has succeeded in rejecting his racism to such an extent that none of these thoughts and reactions are internalized, if he has to expend serious mental effort to prevent them from guiding or distorting his practical engagement with people — an engagement that is both rational and affective — then he is enkratic, and not fully virtuous.

    I don’t think the culpability requirement on enkrateia is legitimate. This is, I think, the same disagreement that you and I have had before about just what the role of culpability in ethical excellence is. I take it that the distinction between enkrateia and virtue is a distinction in ways and degrees of being a good human agent. It is a secondary — not to say marginal or trivial — matter whether a flaw is culpable or not; I can’t see any reason to think that a flaw must be culpable in order to be a flaw. It matters that the repentant racist is not culpable for the flaw that he has to struggle against; this is one reason why enkrateia frequently deserves praise, as it certainly does in his case. But the more fundamental question is: would the repentant racist be better — would he think, feel, and act more correctly, and hence live a life that is better for himself and others — if he were to be rid of his racist impulses altogether? I take the answer to that question to be obvious.

    As for the long and hard argument about sexuality, I don’t think it’s quite that hard, unless we’re judging difficulty by the difficulty of persuading others. The objection from “having fun on the side” strikes me as much less plausible in the case of sexuality than in more frequently discussed cases like lying, theft, cowardice, laziness, or immoderation in food and drink. The thought “I can do this every once in a while or in this trivial case and it will be harmless” is usually just a means of self-deception, but it has the virtue of often being true in the strict sense (more or less often depending on which sort of case we’re discussing). But with sexuality, it is not simply that each occasion of indulgence has a stronger effect in shaping our subsequent dispositions (going to a strip club or watching pornography is more likely to build a general and not domain-specific tendency toward objectifying people and thereby loosening the bond between sexuality and the other ethical desiderata than having a whole box of oreo cookies is to build a general and not domain-specific tendency toward gluttony). It’s also that the indulgence itself enacts that separation in a way that, say, skipping my run on Tuesday need not itself be an act of laziness. In this respect, indulging in objectifying sexuality is more like lying or theft; every act of it (except when lying is justified, as I think it sometimes is) involves neglecting or acting against a good that one should be committed to. Of course, to make good on these claims I’d have to write a whole book, and I’m too busy and incompetent for that. For one thing, these claims depend on some empirical generalizations about psychology that we can’t assess by just thinking about them (though in the case of Internet pornography, at least, there turns out to be good evidence: here and here (the second evidently now requires subscription). Studies like these continue to be controversial, but there is enough confirming evidence to support the sorts of claims I have in mind. Once we grant that sexuality should be integrated with other goods, the sorts of objections you point toward strike me as easily answered.

    The argument for that integration is harder, but I would urge in its favor that one doesn’t need to buy into a bunch of controversial neo-Aristotelian claims of the sort that I would be apt to make in its defense. I think there are good grounds on the basis of Kantian, sane utilitarian, and even desire-satisfaction based theories for deriving the same conclusion. The more difficult question to answer is just what practices are hostile to the kind of integration we should want. I’ve no doubts about strip clubs and at least many kinds of pornography. But what about, say, “polyamory”? I’m firmly opposed to it as a practical matter, but I have no illusions about my judgment on that being decisive. I know it would be inconsistent with a genuine integration of sexuality with friendship, intimacy, and the rest in my own case, and I’m practically certain that it has been in the case of virtually everyone I’ve ever known who has gone in for it. But I don’t know that I have good grounds to say that it’s just flatly incompatible with the rest of the virtues in every realistically possible case.

    In my experience, the greatest challenge to talking seriously about sexual ethics is that so many people in our culture either embrace the notion that mutual consent baptizes anything or they hold on to some set of taboos on no discernibly rational basis. Classes like yours are a good thing if they help people to move beyond those options.


    • The part of your comment that deals with enkrateia does intersect with our earlier discussion (last year) on moral luck.* Let me just deal with that part for now, and come back to the difficult argument about sexuality.

      I think we clearly disagree about the relation between virtue, luck, and the will, but I also wonder if part of the problem is that we’re talking past one another because we’re discussing different topics but using the same words to do so. So let me start much further back than sexuality and see if I can clarify anything.

      It’s certainly true that there are human (and animal) traits of character that are simply good to have, full stop, and bad to have, full stop, and that our having or not having them is partly a matter of factors outside our control. Whether or not a lion is a successful predator is partly a matter of luck, and if lions had free will, it would remain in part a matter of luck. Intelligence (in the sense of g, or general intelligence), musical ability, and athletic ability are all similar. Jacqueline du Pre was a great cellist until she got multiple sclerosis; then her musical abilities deterioriated, and the explanation for that is misfortune, not culpability.

      I’m not disputing that many traits of character that the tradition has called “virtues” can be conceptualized this way. The thing I would call attention to is that having or lacking these traits is luck-contingent. Good fortune can make it the case that you have the trait, and misfortune can make it the case that you lose it or lack it. More precisely: good fortune can “give” you the good traits, and bad fortune can “give” you the bad, or “take away” the good. I think it’s potentially confusing to call these traits “virtues” and “vices,” but it’s perfectly understandable why people use that terminology for them.

      So as a psychological matter, I wouldn’t dispute the claim that the repentant racist suffers from a certain defect of character. I might go so far as to say that he suffers from a personality disorder. My point is that this claim is not a specifically moral judgment. It’s a psychiatric judgment. Broadly speaking, we don’t have a good term in English for the subject-matter described in the preceding paragraph. In general, it concerns trait-ascriptions relevant to well-being or dysfunction, but there’s no word for that. What I would say is that not all trait-ascriptions relevant to well-being or dysfunction are moral judgments, even when the traits in question are traits of character.

      I think we’re also agreeing that morality calls for judgments of moral responsibility that are tied to agency or will–praise, blame, reward, punishment, culpability, merit, desert, etc. I won’t belabor this point except to say that these judgments can’t coherently be luck-contingent. Whether I’m culpable or not depends on what I do, not on what happens to me. Call this issue the issue of agency-evaluations.

      The point I would insist on is that moral virtue involves a separate third topic partly distinct from both the issue of general luck-contingent trait-ascriptions and luck-invulnerable agency-evaluations. A moral virtue is a trait of character that is luck-invulnerable. Insofar as these traits are related to the traits that are luck contingent, there is an obvious connection or overlap between moral virtue and general well-being. In fact, that understates the point: moral virtue is the most crucial component of general well-being. But where general well-being is subject to the vicissitudes of fortune, moral virtue is only subject to the agent’s having agency. (Obviously, if the agent dies, goes insane, or otherwise can’t exercise his agency, all bets are off for both things, moral virtue and general well-being.)

      As I see it, moral virtues persist across changes of fortune, and determine the agent’s moral standing, where “standing” denotes his (unique, distinctive) moral achievement, and can’t be a matter of forces external to his agency. Misfortune can affect my capacities, and adversely affect my general well-being (that’s what it is), but it can’t affect my moral standing. I cannot, for instance, be less morally virtuous because I have been victimized. Victimization can affect my life prospects for the worse, but it can’t adversely affect my moral standing. It’s not just that I’m not culpable for being a victim (though that’s true), but that there is a part of the agent–part of the agent’s moral achievement–that victimization cannot touch at all.

      So, back to the repentant racist. It’s relevant to the example that the repentant racist is a victim (of a bad upbringing). To simplify the example (for me), imagine that the repentant racist’s childhood culpability is minimal to non-existent. He can never quite bring himself to believe or act like a racist, and yet, due to his upbringing, his head is full of (unavoidable) racist mental noise. Eventually, he decides self-consciously to change that, but he never quite succeeds in damping it all the way down. There’s more noise there for him than there is for most people. But assume ex hypothesi that the noise is just “there,” that it’s not internalized or endorsed. It certainly gets in the way of his life, and so it affects the quality of his life. He has a certain psychological or psychiatric debility.

      But I think there is a fundamental moral difference between having to struggle against an external debility and having to struggle against an internalized desire–even if the external debility is psychological. (A psychological debility is internal to the person’s psychological make-up, but external to his agency.) Aristotelians use “continence” or enkrateia to refer indifferently to both things, but that strikes me as a very problematic equivocation. Yes, the (external) debility in question affects what traits of character we predicate of the repentant racist. He’s got a problem. In fact, it may well be personality disorder derived from a problem involving race. But be that as it may, he is not a racist. Or more precisely: his upbringing cannot make him a racist. If ex hypothesi he ends up being a racist, we have to identify his agent-contribution to becoming one. (I take “racism” to imply culpable internalization, not just being the victim of racist stereotypes that run through your head due to causal factors beyond your control.) He may even be less of a racist (despite the frequency of racist noise in his head, even despite the viciousness of what’s going through his head) than the person with a better upbringing who indulges in one racist inference or stereotype once every few years or so. [Added after posting: In other words, no matter how much work the repentant racist has to do to damp down the racist noise in his head, its presence there doesn’t reflect on his possession of the virtue of justice. Its being there is obviously not a matter of his committing injustice, and his having to work to damp it down has exactly the same moral status as the work that the ordinary person has to do to avoid “ordinary” racist inferences of the kind you mention in your comment.]

      So I have two complaints against your view: for one thing, it makes a person’s moral standing hostage to luck, which obscures the agent’s distinctive contribution to character-formation. For another, it doesn’t allow for a virtue whose function is, precisely: pushing back against the forces of nature, so as to maintain and preserve the boundaries of agency (or “the ego”). Orthodox virtue ethics and orthodox Aristotelianism doesn’t give sufficient weight to the distinctive trait of persistence in moral effort against the forces arrayed against human agency. That’s what I take Randian productiveness and integrity to be (and why I’m attracted to Rand at all). It’s also what I take Freud to be talking about in his discussion of the ego’s struggles against the id and super-ego (analysis is supposed to make the ego “master in its own house”).

      So on my virtue, the moral virtues have to be conceived so that anyone with agency can have them in a luck-invulnerable fashion simply through an exercise of agency. You get honest simply by exercising your agency honestly. You’re just simply by exercising your agency justly. Etc. Less is expected of the person afflicted by misfortune; more is expected of the person who enjoys good fortune. But virtue is equally open to each, and the moral standing of each is in principle the same, in proportion to the degree of effort they exert (“productiveness”) given their situation. The person of good fortune will display virtue in a grander form than the person afflicted by misfortune, but that’s a quasi-aesthetic judgment (or anyway one pertaining to a domain of life for which we lack a good vocabulary), not a moral one.

      Enkrateia on my view turns out to be something else entirely. Enkrateia is not a matter of facing obstacles to the grandest exemplifications of virtue, but of having created one’s own psychological obstacles to the exemplification of moral virtue, which one then decides to fight. Put this way (my way), enkrateia is more obviously a moral failing. On your view, by contrast, enkrateia ends up being a defect of character, to be sure, but one that subsumes morally different sorts of people: those who fight obstacles to their well-being they didn’t create but have to confront, and those who fight obstacles that were their doing in the first place.

      *By the way, here are the earlier 2013 posts I did on this topic, along with your comments. I feel like I’m missing one, but this is what I found. Here’s a post on Hursthouse on the repentant racist. Here’s a post on defining moral luck. And here’s one on moral luck, depression, and productiveness.


    • I guess I don’t have much to add to what you say about the difficult argument about sexuality. I mostly agree with you. If we disagree about anything, the disagreement is about the relatively trivial and practically undecidable issue about how difficult it is to make the argument. I was probably conflating the task of making a successful argument and the task of persuading others of the successful argument, though that distinction is itself a difficult one because part of making a successful argument is knowing how to respond to good objections to one’s argument. But as you say, what’s needed is a book-length project on par (in scope or ambition) with Scruton’s in Sexual Desire. And truth to be told, I only know a bit of the literature on sexual ethics; I don’t have a good basis for generalizing about it.

      After five months in a psychology program, I’m inclined to say that the grounds we have for the empirical generalizations we make about human psychology “by just thinking about them” are probably better than the grounds derived from psychological studies. I’m not well-versed enough in the psychological literature to come out and say that, but from what I’ve read in clinical psychology so far, I think there is a case to be made. For one thing, the psychological literature is clogged with facile behaviorist assumptions. When it departs from behaviorism, it often just tests claims that are obvious from ordinary introspection. When it offers up findings that contradict ordinary introspection, there are often good methodological grounds for dismissing the findings precisely because they flout commonsense. On the whole, I’m finding that the psychological literature cannot do for moral philosophers what ethicists often tend to want from it or claim for it–any more than political science or historiography does for political philosophy what political philosophers often claim for them. There are useful findings there, but they’re few, far-between, and highly ambiguous.

      You’re absolutely right that what one finds in students (considered as representative of a cross-section of society) is oscillation between dogmatic taboos and the belief that consent makes everything OK. It tends to be easier to undermine the dogmatic taboos than to challenge the “consent uber alles” assumption. The trick there is to ask why consent is required in the first place, and why consent has to have certain features to count as genuine. What’s wrong with sexual assault? But asking this question is like asking philosophers to account for the use of intuitions and thought-experiments in moral inquiry. It’s a mystifying question because the claim in question seems self-evident, and the alternatives to it seem opaque. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it accounts for the sense of befuddlement in both cases.


  4. I can’t do justice to your response here, but I can say a few things. First, I’m quite happy to abandon the term “moral” entirely because I think it causes more confusion than clarity, but I’m equally happy to recognize that the domain you mark off as distinctively moral is in fact importantly distinct. What I’m not sure we would agree on is whether the moral in that sense deserves the kind of special primacy and dignity that you seem to want to give it, so that it is partially definitive of what a virtue is. As I see it, well-being is the primary notion, and formally, a virtue in the broadest sense is simply a trait that promotes well-being. Rather than distinguishing between moral and non-moral virtues, I would prefer to follow Aristotle in distinguishing between virtues of thought, virtues of character, and virtues of the body (there may be some virtues related to strictly external goods, but these wouldn’t really be features of the person, but features of the person’s relations to externals, so I’ll ignore them here). I don’t think that it’s merely ad hoc to prefer this scheme to the more voluntaristic conception of moral virtues that you seem to favor. Rather, it seems to me truer to a (broadly) naturalistic understanding of what we human beings are, viz. rational animals whose well-being is a function not simply of our wills but of our bodily, emotional, and intellectual engagement with the world. From this point of view, to single out those features of our psychology that are strictly luck-invulnerable and to treat them as distinct sorts of virtues seems unwarranted; their luck-invulnerability per se has no direct bearing on their importance for well-being, and even if it did, it is difficult to see why it would license treating them as the focus of a kind of virtue that is neither an excellent of practical thought nor an excellence of emotional or broadly affective engagement. One suggestion might be that what is luck-invulnerable is precisely the sphere of choice, and that what matters is choice. But while on my view it is crucial that people are legitimately subject to praise and blame for their choices and their consequences in a way that we are not legitimately subject to praise and blame for what falls outside the sphere of our choice, our choices are grounded in our intellectual and emotional dispositions and abilities; we choose what we do because of what we think and want. So the sphere of choice is the sphere of an importantly distinct kind of judgment or assessment (we can call it ‘moral’ judgment if we want), but it hardly follows from the dependence of moral judgment on choice that there is a distinct kind of virtue concerned only with choice in isolation from the intellectual and emotional virtues on which choice depends. So even if choice is luck-invulnerable in the way you suggest (I am, I admit, aporetically agnostic about whether we have libertarian free will), from my point of view it seems arbitrary to assign a distinctive value to the luck-invulnerable sphere of choice and to claim that whatever lies in that luck-invulnerable sphere, but nothing that lies outside it, is the most crucial component of well-being.

    That’s no doubt barely a satisfactory statement of why your view looks strange to me, but it’s a start. As for your objections, I think I can meet both of them. First, in your sense of ‘moral,’ I don’t think my view does make the agent’s moral standing hostage to luck. On my view, as I understand it, ‘moral’ judgment applies only to choice, and choice is the place where we will be as invulnerable to luck as we can be. I do think that whether a person is virtuous is vulnerable to luck, at least in the broad sense, since I think our repentant racist can’t be virtuous. But I don’t see how the luck-invulnerability of his choices counts against that claim. Second, I think my view does accommodate the value of “persistence in moral effort against the forces arrayed against human agency.” For one thing, most of the standard virtues partially involve just that. When those forces are psychological forces internal to the agent, then I deny that the agent can be virtuous, but I do not deny that the agent can be morally praiseworthy, even outstandingly so. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that enkrateia is a good state. It’s just not the best state.

    I am not sure I understand how you distinguish between external psychological debility and internalized desires. If I can struggle against an internalized desire, then presumably for a desire to be internalized is not simply for it to be endorsed and embraced by reason. But then if those desires that I have but do not rationally endorse are internalized, what room is left for non-internalized desires? If they are non-internalized in the sense that they have no impact on my agency (as perhaps the thoughts and associations in my earlier example), then there is no struggle to be had. So I don’t see room for desires that (a) have some impact on my agency and (b) are not endorsed or embraced by reason, yet (c) have some additional feature to distinguish them further from others that share (a) and (b). I am generally suspicious of the metaphor of “internalization,” anyway; I want to ask, if it’s not my desire, then whose is it, and how did it get into my psyche?


    • I’ve found this a very clarifying discussion. I guess I also feel gratified partly to have paid back the debt I said I’d pay back in 2013 (!) when I said I’d address some of your comments from back then on moral luck.

      I think the crux of the disagreement arises from what follows from a commitment to libertarian freedom in the metaphysical sense. I’ve been presupposing a commitment to that throughout what I’ve said, and I take my emphasis on the moral, and my all-out rejection of moral luck, to follow from that commitment. Your agnosticism or skepticism about libertarian freedom makes perfect sense of your puzzlement about my view. On an agent-causal type of libertarianism, there’s a basic ontological divide between agent and non-agent (including psychological states that are not internalized or endorsed by the agent), between what happens and what the agent does, between what had to happen and what could have been otherwise, between what the agent controls and what she doesn’t. On this view, neither “well being” nor “virtue” (nor “character”) are basic; they’re vague and equivocal terms, and without further specification, they lack moral significance altogether. To acquire moral significance, we have to make a distinction between moral well-being, virtue, and character, and non-moral well-being, virtue, and character, etc.

      I suspect that the view I’m describing requires wide-ranging semantic revisions of what I’m called “orthodox” Aristotelianism or virtue ethics, as well as of ordinary moral discourse in English. None of the three is sufficiently sensitive to the relevant distinctions. But contrary to common scholarly belief, neither is Kantianism. Kant is often regarded as a defender of the “special primacy and dignity of the moral,” but I don’t think he really is. His conception of freedom is too metaphysically contorted to allow for the kind of freedom I have in mind, and his moral psychology is too screwed up in other ways to allow for wholesale adoption. I’m always amazed when people cite Kant in this connection and forget that he defended the idea of a “radical innate evil” inherent in human nature (as in Religion within the Limits of Reason). So it’s possible that the view I’m adopting hasn’t really been worked out anywhere. I take it to be what’s distinctive to Rand’s view: it’s not quite Aristotelian, not quite Stoic, not quite Thomistic (or otherwise Christian), not precisely Kantian, not quite Sartrean, and not quite Freudian–but at some level has affinities with all of those views.

      I think the rest of our disagreement turns on the distinction I make between external psychological debilities and internalized desires. At some level, I think this distinction is clear enough. Consider an example: The deterministic effects of trauma are external psychological debilities. The agent’s free endorsement of the content of a desire is an internalized desire. Suppose I suffer a trauma, then suffer PTSD. Suppose it gives me recurring problematic thoughts. That’s an external psychological debility, regardless of the moral status of the thoughts. The thoughts could be “desires” to rape, murder, and kill. Suppose that the agent retains the capacity to endorse or not endorse the “desires.” If he does not, they’re not internalized. To the extent that he endorses them, he internalizes them.

      I’ve put “desires” in scare quotes because I don’t think external psychological debilities really count as desires in the full-fledged sense. As I said, I regard them as “mental noise,” and I don’t regard mental noise as desiderative. So there is no room for “non-internalized desires,” but there’s room for non-internalized “desires.” Put differently, there’s room for non-internalized mental phenomena that at some level resembles desire (and is often mistaken for desire), but isn’t desire. It’s just “stuff that’s there.”

      I don’t think this is entirely alien to, say, Aristotle’s moral psychology. When we go to a tragedy to achieve catharsis, we’re not purging literal desires. We’re purging problematic mental stuff that’s in our heads, and that needs expurgation without its literally motivating us to act (except in the sense that it motivates us to watch and engage with the play). If I’m moved by a performance of Sophocles’ Ajax, it’s because I identify with Ajax. But I identify with him not because I literally have the same desires as him; if I did, I’d be a psychopath, like him. What I have is unendorsed Ajax-like mental noise echoing in my head, whether at low, high, or oscillating volume. To the extent that it’s there, and problematic, but just running around unendorsed, it’s an external psychological debility, not an internalized desire. The way to deal with it is not to try to suppress it directly, but to do something indirect, like go to the theater (or therapy).

      I’ve gone out of order in responding to your comment, but now I can respond to the “two points” in your second paragraph. First point: I think your view holds moral character hostage to luck. You agree that we have choice, and that it’s luck invulnerable, but I’m saying that there is a part of the agent’s character formed by him, and then there’s the rest. The former is luck-invulnerable. The repentant racist can’t be virtuous in your broad sense, but he can be virtuous (is virtuous) in my narrower sense. And I would go on to insist that because he is virtuous, he is not a “racist” (“racist” implies immorality, like “murderer”). Second, I see your point, but I’m disputing the idea that someone can be fully praiseworthy and be in any sense lacking moral virtue. I think it’s a conceptual truth that when you’re fully praiseworthy, you’re in no sense lacking in moral virtue. If you’re still lacking in non-moral virtue, that’s unfortunate, but doesn’t affect your moral standing any more than that’s affected by your being poor, ugly, unpopular, etc. This may be a semantic point, but I don’t think that psychological forces are internal to the agent. If something is a psychological force, it may be in your head, but it’s external to your agency until you internalize it.

      I guess my view emphasizes that if enkrateia is a morally suboptimal state–if it’s morally-less-than-the-best–it’s a defect of reason and character brought about by the agent. In that case, we have to specify what the agent freely does to get into it, and exclude the possibility that you can find yourself in it without having done anything (in the libertarian sense) to get there.


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