Sex, Morality, and Modernity: Can Immanuel Kant Unite Us?

Treating people as ends in themselves and "doing unto others..." as a bridge between traditionalists and mainstream American youth.
fire full flickr Sarah Depper.png
Flickr/Sarah Depper

Before I jump back into the conversation about sexual ethics that has unfolded on the Web in recent days, inspired by Emily Witt's n+1 essay "What Do You Desire?" and featuring a fair number of my favorite writers, it's worth saying a few words about why I so value debate on this subject, and my reasons for running through some sex-life hypotheticals near the end of this article.

Until I was 17, the Catholic schools I attended focused on the teachings of the church. Then, as high school juniors, my friends and I studied general ethics under Mr. Holtkamp, a dry-humored man who coached the mock trial team, ran an X-Files fan club, and managed, within a Catholic institution, to give believers and skeptics alike the gift of thinking more clearly and expansively about morality. He'd have smiled to see us the summer after we graduated, when we'd sneak onto deserted beaches and build bonfires on the sand to light our conversations. We burned melaleuca logs, drank lukewarm Bud Ice or Mickey's, and debated our respective Catholicism, agnosticism, atheism, Buddhist flirtations, impulses toward utilitarianism, and everything else about how we ought to think and live. The particulars of the conversations are forgotten. Yet few memories are more precious to me, now that I understand why those nights are forever gone. It isn't that the people, with whom I'm still in touch, love one another any less. If we gathered tomorrow--we're scattered across the country now--we could still talk in the ways that deep friendship permits. But at 18, 19 and 20, as different as we were in our personalities and inclinations, we spoke to one another in the same vocabulary, which we'd learned from the same teachers in the same community, where many of our experiences were alike.

Today the conversations would be harder. In part, this is due to the fact that we now speak different languages. One friend, who was an atheist when we sat around the bonfire and is now an orthodox Catholic, has remained, before, after, and throughout his transformation, a person whose insights about how to live I've valued and benefited from profoundly, despite our constant disagreements. For years, as we were living in different cities, I was surrounded by NYU graduate students. He was surrounded by orthodox Catholics. We'd both done a lot of thinking about sexual morality in our respective lives, but one New Year's Eve, when we found ourselves in the same city for a night, our conversations on the subject were more difficult than they'd ever been before. As our experiences and communities had diverged, so too had our foundational assumptions about what the world is like; and as we explored increasingly complicated paths leading in different directions, we ceased to easily understand one another's field notes.

Eventually, he gave me 14 hours of lectures on Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body. Listening to hours of it made me understand him much better, even as parts of that worldview remain impenetrable to me. As we think and live, the investment required to understand one another increases. So do the stakes of disagreeing. 18-year-olds on the cusp of leaving home for the first time may disagree profoundly about how best to live and flourish, but the disagreements are abstract. It is easy, at 18, to express profound disagreement with, say, a friend's notions of child-rearing. To do so when he's 28, married, and raising a son or daughter is delicate, and perhaps best avoided, presuming that his notions, however absurd, aren't abusive.

I have been speaking of friends. The gulfs that separate strangers can be wider and more difficult to navigate because there is no history of love and mutual goodwill as a foundation for trust. Less investment has been made, so there is less incentive to persevere through the hard parts. Yet all my life, I've learned the most from disagreeing with people I respect (and even people I don't). More than most, I've kept in touch with old friends as our lives and values diverged, and I've grown very close to new people whose perspectives are radically different than mine.

It floors me: These individuals are all repositories of wisdom. They've gleaned it from experiences I'll never have, assumptions I don't share, and brains wired different than mine. I want to learn what they know. This all struck me as my wife and I made the seating chart for our wedding. Our guest list included people who do Christian missionary work; radical feminist activism; futures-trading for an international energy company; home-making; and that's just four people. Surveying everyone who agreed to attend, I wished I could throw two dozen dinner parties, because there were so many conversations I wanted to facilitate, knowing the quirks of people living in very different worlds that would make them fast friends. I knew if they could bridge the language gap, something the wine, camaraderie, and shared purpose of a wedding helps along, they would marvel at insights from one another they'd not otherwise encounter.  

What I love about digital journalism is its ability to facilitate these same conversations, even if, compared to my ideal, they actually happen with frustrating rarity. On the subject of sexual ethics in particular, the dramatically different lived experiences of, say, Dan Savage, Eve Tushnet, Andrew Sullivan, Maggie Gallagher, Caitlin Flanagan, Ross Douthat, Ann Friedman, Ayaan Hirsi Alli, and Ta-Nehisi Coates make me confident that, whenever I read any of them, there is something I don't know and can learn, however different their and my ultimate conclusions. In profiles he's written, Mark Oppenheimer has probably done more than anyone else to get at least some of the people above in effective conversation with one another. The people with whom I'm in conversation about the n+1 essay interact in part because most of us sat, at one time or another, around a digital bonfire Reihan Salam organized. But I've long felt that digital journalism and its participants, myself included, haven't done enough to engage rather than talk past one another on the subject of sexual ethics. There are those frustrating language barriers, few subjects are as fraught, and a desire for privacy quite properly causes everyone to hold back some formative experiences from the conversation. Yet the disappearance of a default sexual ethic in America and the divergence of our lived experiences means we have more to learn from one another than ever, even as our different choices raise the emotional stakes.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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