Pleasure, pain and sex …

So, yesterday in my response to Coyne’s list of things that make him angry, I argued in response to his anger about religions  that restrict sexuality that what reflects our humanity is not pleasure or the pleasure of sex, but in fact our ability to restrict those sorts of things, and subordinate those instincts to rationality and other goals.  This, of course, could be taken as being anti-pleasure or anti-sex, and so I thought I’d take a moment to spell out what my actual thoughts on the matter are.

I’m not against pleasure.  Pleasure is, well, pleasant.  And I’m not opposed to seeking pleasure or avoiding pain.  I do both, fairly frequently.  But, to me, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain are not, in and of themselves, inherently good or useful goals.  They aren’t always what we should do, and they aren’t always the right thing to do.  It seems obvious to me that seeking pleasure isn’t always morally right; rape is an obvious case of this.  And it always seems obvious to me that sometimes we should accept pain in order to do what’s right.  If someone wanted to torture me to tell them where to find someone so that they could kill them, my fervent hope would be that I would be able to say “Go ahead; I’ll tell you nothing.”  I’m not sure I actually could do that — I’m only human, after all — but I certainly thing I ought to do that, and that it would be a weakness if I didn’t.

And, in general, most people seem to agree.  No one accepts “It makes me feel good” as an excuse when someone does something that we think is morally wrong, and most people understand but regret it when someone does something that we think is immoral to avoid pain.  So the only way to make a case that seeking pleasure and avoiding pain are in and of themselves worthy or the most worthy goals to pursue is to claim that what it means to be moral is just to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  As we’ve just seen, at the individual level that doesn’t seem to work.  We all seem to accept that individual pleasure and pain is not synonymous with right.

Enter the utilitarian view and other similar concepts, that argue that what is right is what achieves the most pleasure and the least pain for everyone.  But this has a problem.  The problem is that the biggest benefit to taking any hedonistic viewpoint is that everyone can agree that pleasure is desirable (at least in some way) and pain is undesirable.  So if you use that as the basis for your morality, you won’t have too much trouble getting people to accept — at least in principle — that your underlying principles are desirable (some will disagree, but that will usually be for other reasons or because they have other underlying principles, not because they don’t think that people want pleasure and want to avoid pain).  However, that only works at the individual level.  While even a staunch egoist will accept that their own pleasure and pain are worth desiring, they may have issues with accepting that the pleasure and pain of others matters.  Moving from the individual to everyone loses that basic agreement.  There are ways to fix that up, but they end up looking an awful lot like a Hobbesian Social Contract, where we all agree to care about the pleasure and pain of others because that impacts our own pleasure and pain.  Which leads to the quite justified stance that you’ll care about the pleasure and pain of others only to the extent that it facilitates your own pleasure and pain, and so you would quite happily rape someone if you thought you could get away with it, and have a significant net gain of pleasure.  Which, of course, is not what we wanted.

Okay, after that digression, for me pleasure and pain are indifferents, in the Stoic sense.  They are neither virtuous nor vicious, neither inherently good nor inherently bad.  Following from Seneca, then, my view is that as long as I don’t do anything vicious to get pleasure or avoid pain, I can get as much pleasure and avoid as much pain as I want.  And since for the Stoics virtue and vice are tightly tied to rationality and irrationality, as long as I seek pleasure and avoid pain rationally I’m okay.  To put it more simply, my view is that I will never do anything immoral or stupid to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain are things I want, but I’ll give up pleasure when it makes sense to and take pain when it makes sense to.  This, to me, doesn’t seem like an anti-pleasure stance, but really about putting pleasure and pain in their rightful places, keeping in mind those faculties — reason and morality, for example — that make me human.

Now, onto sex.  Sex is, of course, one of the greatest pleasures we can experience.  But the pleasure it provides — being pleasure — is still an indifferent.  I still won’t do something immoral or stupid to get sex.  But sex has a little more to it because there’s more involved in sex than just pleasure.  There’s reproduction, and relationships, and love and all sorts of things.  For me, meaningful sex is preferred over casual sex; anything done with meaning is better than something done just for a pleasurable experience.  But this doesn’t mean that casual sex is bad and should never be done.  After all, sometimes having ice cream as a meal is okay.  You just shouldn’t make a habit of it.  And the same thing can be said for casual sex.

Here’s really what I don’t want to see.  I would find it very sad if the following situation could occur:  You have two people who are not in a relationship (and are just friends) who are planning on going out later that day, and have a few hours to kill.  As they kick around what to do, they suggest watching a movie, playing cards, playing a board game … or having sex.  And they decide to have sex with no more meaning or emotion or importance attached to that than they would attach to any of the other activities.  Personally, I think that sex really should mean more than that.  I could be wrong, but that’s my own personal view.

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