Not hurting anyone, that I could see…

In our day it is a common claim that morality is about enhancing other people’s (as well as animals’) pleasure, while wrongdoing consists in causing people needless pain. Let us call this principle hedonistic utilitarianism. It is the ethos often invoked to defend homosexuality and pornography. “Hey, you might not like them yourself,” hedonistic utilitarians argue, “but gay sex between consenting adults and watching porn don’t harm anybody. So there’s nothing wrong with them. Plus, they make the people who do them happy. So it’s actually good to allow people this kind of happiness. As long as what they do doesn’t harm anyone else and helps them be content citizens, it is well within their rights to practice gay sex and lose themselves in porn.”

If, however, the norm for morality vs. immorality and right vs. wrong is the impact (i.e., pleasant or harmful) our actions have on people in our so to speak causal ambit, then what makes spying on people immoral?

Insofar as a (skilled) peeping Tom, by definition, does no harm to the people he spies on, then there is nothing wrong with voyeurism. That is, of course, if wrongdoing consists in hurting, frightening, endangering, etc. people, as hedonistic utilitarianism claims. Indeed, we could even imagine a peeping Tom who sprayed a mild hallucinogenic (or whatever), free of harmful side effects, into the rooms of the women he spies on. Then those women would enjoy a few hours of careless bliss (thus, you see, letting their guard, if not their panties, down that much more easily). In which case, our peeping Tom’s voyeurism would not only not be wrong, since it causes women no needless pain, but would also be virtuous, since it gives them gratuitous pleasure.

“Hey, you might not like it yourself,” argues the peeping Tom, “but watching women undress, or just go about their ho-hum business at home, doesn’t harm anybody. So there’s nothing wrong with it. Plus, the drugs I administer makes them happier than would be without them. So peeping on them like I do is virtuous. As long as what I do doesn’t harm anyone else and helps me be content a citizen, it is well within my rights to enjoy the lives of others.”

Thus we see once more that the “philosophical” endorsement of “private” perversion is itself a form of social perversion.


6 Responses

  1. Eliott,

    I do not believe this is a good argument. What’s the difference between watching someone really get killed for entertainment or watching an action movie flick? What’s the definition of “harm”? Mutual informed consent also cannot be divorced from the legal permissiveness and societal sanction of the act.

    On principles universally accepted by theologically conservative Christians, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, (especially) Solomon etc., all “holy men”, nevertheless, fell VERY short of the norms of Christian chastity, and Mosaic law/Jewish tradition unflinchingly backed this up; Christ preached that one husband/one wife was the manifest will of God from day one and such failings were only tolerated due to weakness, as a kind of economia. Godly Hebrew kings had dozens, perhaps hundreds of sexual partners and supposedly King David’s (and others by extension) multiple wives were a blessing from God according the Prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 12).

    I think Christian sexual ethics must stand or fall based on acceptance of the revelation of which it is a part and nothing else. I can argue that pre-marital sex, homosex, or sex with multiple persons MIGHT cause some easily discernible damage to their relationship or their psyche, but that’s only extra incentive to submit to revelation, in my opinion.

  2. PDA:

    Sorry, I can’t make sense of your comment. I think that is my problem, but can you please restate your point?

    To be clear: I am trying to show how the hedonistic utilitarianism driving pro-homosexual ethics and defenses of porn, among other things, is morally bankrupt. I am not defending voyeurism because it doesn’t harm anyone. I am saying that even if something doesn’t harm someone, it can still be wrong. But that kind of claim flies in the face of our age’s “wisdom” about consensual ethics. And as far as those ethics go, the bar is only getting lower every month. We’re seeing the dawn of psychiatrically endorsed pedophilia and the legal ratification of all forms of marriage (which is to say the destruction of marriage). As long as society consents to numerous form of consensual perversion, perversion is considered all right. It’s all just a big dead-end parade in honor of the argumentum ad populum.

  3. Elliot,

    Here’s my point. Suppose we put God’s ideal (sex reserved in blessed heterosexual marriage preceded by absolute chastity) and its polar opposite (rape/molestation) on a 1 to 10 scale, 10 being the absolute best and 1 being the absolute worst. Where would be place promiscuous heterosexuals, the ancient Hebrews and homosexuals on this map? For example, I can’t say that a non-Christian male who sleeps around today is necessarily less respectful of women than an ancient Hebrew who was wiling to stone a new wife who couldn’t demonstrate her virginity and had dozens if not hundreds of other female sexual partners, albeit “married” ones.

    Now the question is: How low a point on this scale do we tolerate in terms of social acceptability or legal permissivenes? Society today might stop at a lower different point than the Church, but historically sometimes the former outperformed the latter and the latter outperformed the former.

    I suppose my concern at this point is consistency. For example, St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil in almost Peter Singer-like fashion argue that *ALL* needless consumption is needless exploitation of the needy:

    “The bread you do not use is the bread of the hungry. The garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of the person who is naked. The shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot. The money you keep locked away is the money of the poor. The acts of charity you do not perform are the injustices you commit.” (St. Basil the Great)

    Christ Himself makes some rather extreme statements about the dangers of greed and gluttony in the Gospels; would we argue that these are not serious moral perversions simply because they are extremely widespread today and we persist in them without real pangs of conscience? Moments of lust are surely sinful, but how much more sinful than gluttony and greed? Do our personal levels of abundance change the spiritual equation somehow? Why do we tolerate a 4 out of 10 of ourselves with respect to these sins and demand a 9.5 out of 10 from *everyone* (Christian and non-Christian) on sexual matters? It makes no sense to me.

    If we’re going to quote-mining for proof-texts on homosexuality, then we must do so for slavery also, here’s what we find:

    ‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, ***but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.***” (Leviticus 25:44-46)

    Here’s where it really gets interesting:

    “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property.” (Exodus 21:20-21)

    I think that’s the above situation (to be as generous as possible) represents something FAR short of God’s best although we know the Apostles and many Fathers thought that God-fearing slave masters could in fact exist (I do too incidentally). The Church for centuries tolerated a much LOWER levels of virtue on this matter than most Western non-Christians would today. All I’m asking for is consistency and acknowledgment of reality, no matter what moral standards we end up agreeing on.

  4. Elliot,

    Upon reflection, I see need for further clarification. I cannot see any flaw in your critique of hedonistic utilitarianism, considered by itself. I suppose what I am disputing is its present application. I believe it is very much relevant to our situation, but first and foremost as a critique of the Church itself. Both the Church and secular society suffer from an obsession with sex; the latter looks upon it as the highest good in life and the latter as the *only* realm of serious sin aside from physically killing persons outright, but this is not the Apostolic criterion of true religion, which is love:

    “If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:26-27)

    “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Cor. 13:3-7)

    Sexual lust as idolatry is most certainly dangerous, but that doesn’t negate the fact that greed & gluttony are genuine instances of murder and states of spiritual death, which in their own right demand constant vigilance, but are met with near universal acceptance and silence everywhere I go. This proves beyond reasonable doubt that it is *Christians* and not homosexuals outside the Church who need to be lectured on hedonistic utilitarianism:

    “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. ***But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?”*** (1 John 3:14-17)

    St. Paul penned the pastoral solution to this problem to Timothy nearly 2000 years ago:

    “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” (1 Tim. 6:17-18)

  5. Okay. I guess.

  6. PDA:

    The reason I remain nonplussed about your comments as they relate to this post, is that, while I am glad to see you grasp my argument against hedonistic utilitarianism, I can’t get a fix on where you’re coming from with the rest of your theological points. You seem so insistent on shifting the blame to hedonistic-utilitarian Christians, that you seem to downplay the importance of that ethos in the “secular world.” We don’t live in a Christian world. Non-Christians make the bulk of public policy. If they do so on the basis of bad moral thinking, we need to arrest that error at the root, which is what my post is pointing at. As far as Christians being scandalously worldly, of course, point granted! But I think that is only because so many in the Church have imbibed the ethos I am attacking.

    Anyway, as far as shifting the blame to Christians goes, I thought you would cite 1 Cor 5:9ff:

    “[9] I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men;
    [10] not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.
    [11] But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber — not even to eat with such a one.
    [12] For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?
    [13] God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

    John Stott famously said that we can’t blame meat for rotting, but we can blame the salt for not preserving it (or the butcher for not salting the meat). Meaning: the world, as dead meat, can’t be blamed for doing what dead meat does (i.e., stink and decompose), but Christians can be blamed for not being the salt meant to preserve the meat. I agree. But the point of my post is not to address the blame aspect of hedonistic utilitarianism, but to critique it at bottom.

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