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.

With that, back into the breach.

In his latest post on the n+1 article, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry asks, "Are we stuck with a passé traditionalism on one hand, and total laissez-faire on the other?" Is there common ground shared by the orthodox-Christian sexual ethics of a Rod Dreher and those who treat consent as their lodestar? Gobry suggests that Emmanuel Kant provides a framework everyone can and should embrace, wherein consent isn't nearly enough to make a sexual act moral--we must, in addition, treat the people in our sex lives as ends, not means. Here's how Kant put it: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end." Does that get us anywhere?

A little ways, I think.

Imagine that Sean meets Jessica. Soon they decide they are in love with one another.

After six months, he moves into her apartment. It's spacious and comfortable. Another six months passes. Gradually, he realizes that he doesn't love her anymore and wants to break up. But the day he planned to do it, he loses a freelance client. Moving out would now mean finding a shared apartment rather than a studio of his own. He decides to keep dating Jessica for another couple months, until a new client comes on and he can again afford his own place. He has treated her as a means rather than an end. I'm confident that many secular modernists with consent-focused notions of sexual morality would agree that Sean has acted like an immoral jerk.

That's certainly my moral intuition.

Now imagine that Sean instead told Jessica, "I never would have believed it when we moved in together, but we've somehow grown apart in the last couple months, and I think we should break up."

And Jessica replies (however implausibly), "I'd miss you terribly if you left now. So stay here until you've saved enough to move to a better apartment. You don't love me anymore, but I know you still enjoy the sex, and it's my desire to keep you around a bit longer. I still love you, even if you don't love me, and while your continued proximity may ultimately just make it harder for me to get through the breakup, I desire it anyway. What do you say? Let's sleep together right now." Once again, even most non-traditionalists would agree that the more moral thing for Sean to do is to refuse this offer. Perhaps that intuition is partly rooted in Kantianism.

It seems to me that the Kantian insight is exactly the sort of challenge traditionalist Christians should make to college students as they try to persuade them to look more critically at hookup culture. I think a lot of college students casually mislead one another about their intentions and degree of investment, feigning romantic interest when actually they just want to have sex. Some would say they're transgressing against consent. I think Kant has a more powerful challenge.

Yet Gobry seems to suggest that all "hookup culture" falls at least on the spectrum of treating people as means. I disagree with that. Let's say that Suhail and Mariah, both 22, meet one morning while vacationing in the Hawaiian islands. Both are traveling alone. There's an immediate connection between them, and if they lived in the same city, they'd start dating. But he is about to start medical school at Harvard, and she is about to depart for three years of volunteer work educating children in Peru. Each feels genuine attraction to and admiration for the other. Were a mugger to materialize in Waikiki, each would risk their own safety to protect the other. Are they treating one another as a means rather than an end if they spend nights two through six having sex, long conversations about the novels of Alasdair Gray, and leftover roast pig? Their situation is unusual. But I think that "hookup culture" involves mutual feeling and genuine human affection between participants more often than is sometimes imagined. Hookups can, of course, be fraught with the risk of deeply hurt feelings when things go wrong. Then again, so can marriage. It seems to me that, whether we're talking about a three-week college relationship or a 60-year marriage, it is equally possible to treat one's partner as a means or as an end (though I would agree that "treating as means" is more common in hookups than marriage). Kant disagrees, and regards all extra-marital sex as impermissibly treating people as means. This judgment springs from his very particular notions about sex, which are contestable.

Commenting at Rod Dreher's blog, Erin Manning suggests a standard that is closely related to Kant's:

I've been influenced a bit by Catholic philosophy from JPII onward, so my simple definition is this: It is wrong to treat human persons in such a way that they are reduced to objects.

This says nothing about consent: a person may consent to be used as an object, but it is still wrong to use them that way. It says nothing about utility: society may approve of using some people as objects; whether those people are actual slaves or economically oppressed wage-slaves it is still wrong to treat them like objects. What it says, in fact, is that human beings have intrinsic worth and dignity such that treating them like objects is wrong.

And it is also wrong to treat one's own self like an object... doing so can be sinful. This is why Christians don't accept things like assisted suicide, because suicide is a way of treating a human being--one's self or another--like an object, a purely material being with no transcendent worth whose existence may be ended any time that existence becomes difficult or inconvenient... There are things which it is not permissible to do to one's own self, regardless of one's desire... and this includes old sins like drunkenness, porn use, and general profligacy and new ones like gender reassignment surgery and hiring one's body out as a reproductive prostitute/surrogate 'mother' so someone else can artificially manufacture a child.

When I hear "don't objectify people" or "don't treat people as objects" my first instinct is to nod in agreement. But what it means to treat someone as a means, or as an object, turns out to be in dispute. Years ago, I interviewed a sister who was acting as a surrogate for a sibling who couldn't carry her own child. The notion that either regarded the other (or themselves) as an object seems preposterous to me. Neither was treating the other as a means, because they both freely chose, desired and worked in concert to achieve the same end. Nor does it seem intuitively obvious that a suffering, terminally ill 90-year-old is regarding himself as a means, or an object, if he prefers to end his life with a lethal injection rather than waiting three months in semi-lucid agony for his lungs to slowly shut down and suffocate him. (Kant thought suicide impermissible.) The terminally ill man isn't denigrating his own worth or the preciousness of life or saying it's permissible "any time" it is difficult. He believes ending his life is permissible only because the end is nigh, and the interim affords no opportunity for "living" in anything except a narrow biological sense. If we recall the Terri Schiavo case, a complicated controversy, to be sure, it seems at least plausible to me that keeping her on life support in order not to transgress against the larger "culture of life" was as much treating her "as a means" as letting her die. I respect people whose moral intuition is opposite, but their declaring it to be so doesn't persuade me.

Ultimately, Kant only gets us a little way in this conversation because, outside the realm of sex, he thinks consent goes a long way toward mitigating the means problem, whereas in the realm of sex, not so much. This is inseparable from notions he has about sex that many of us just don't share. As Gobry put it, trying to describe how far Kantian concepts actually gets us in the sexual ethics conversation, "We're still lost, but we have a map, albeit a sometimes blurry one."


Since I don't share the traditionalist perspective on all this, it is perhaps unexpected that two Biblical passages fit my moral intuition even better than Kant. "Love your neighbor as yourself." And "therefore all things whatsoever would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." In his response to me, Dreher wrote that "absent any firm, clear prescriptive morality for sexual conduct, desire and consent are the only things one can know and give with certainty." He presumed that I lack any standard more firm than consent that I'm able to articulate (for the perfectly understandable reason that I failed to articulate anything else). But "do unto others..." is extremely demanding, hard to live up to, and a very close fit with my moral intuitions.

"Do unto others" is also enough to condemn all sorts of porn, and to share all sorts of common ground with Dreher beyond consent. Interesting that it leaves us with so many disagreements too. "Do unto others" is core to my support for gay marriage. It's one reason why, if the transgender Glee character Unique had attended my high school, I'd gladly have used female pronouns when addressing her, per her preference. And I don't know think the San Francisco basement scene runs afoul of "do unto others..." The actress not only consented to extreme BDSM, she enjoyed it and wants to do it again. She got paid while people helped her to fulfill her fantasy, and although their fantasies might be different, they would presumably want help realizing them.

Perhaps the Golden Rule, like consent, is "necessary but not sufficient" in sexual morality. I am certainly open to the "not sufficient" part of the formulation. But I can't get there by way of repeated insistence that some sexual acts, like fisting, just are wrong because they obviously violate the laws of God and nature. The great Damon Linker has a particularly powerful argument along those lines:

The key, for me, is to ponder children: is there any parent who wouldn't be mortified to learn that his or her daughter was involved in that SF porn scene? Or even that his or her son was sexually aroused by and participated in it (by attending those events or even watching them online)? I'd say the vast majority of parents would indeed by mortified -- regardless of whether their kids consented, or whether or not they themselves (the parents) rely on consent for moral judgments the other 99% of the time. That's because when one truly loves another person and feels a stake in their good, it becomes impossible not to draw on a richer moral vocabulary -- one involving human ends and ideals or standards of human flourishing (the good). To realize such ends is noble or beautiful or righteous, to fall from them is degrading or base or ugly. We feel it in our bones when we have a stake. And it's that feeling that leads toward a richer moral vocabulary, metaphysics, and ultimately God.

"We feel it in our bones..."

True! In my bones, Linker's argument feels persuasive. Like Dreher, I was uncomfortable at times reading the description of what happened to the porn actress, and like Emily Witt, I would've felt uncomfortable at times had I been there as a journalist reporting on the enterprise.

My intellect, not my gut, insists on playing devil's advocate. (Are our bones always to be trusted?) The sexual behavior parents would be mortified by is highly variable across time and cultures. So how can I regard it as a credible guide of inherent wrong? Professional football and championship boxing are every bit as violent and far more physically damaging to their participants than that basement scene, yet their cultural familiarity is such that most people don't feel them to be morally suspect. Lots of parents are proud, not mortified, when a son makes the NFL.

Should they cringe?

(I don't know.)

On Twitter, Esquire's Tom Junod wrote, "Porn operates in fantasy the way boxing and football operate in fantasy. The injuries are quite real." He is, as you can see, uncomfortable with both. Forced at gunpoint to choose which of two events could proceed on a given night, an exact replica of the San Francisco porn shoot or an Ultimate Fighting Championship tournament--if I had to shut one down and grant the other permission to proceed--what would the correct choice be? My gut reaction would be to shut down the porn shoot. My intellect tells me I should shut down the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The latter is certainly more physically risky, and by the nature of the competition, there is a loser who gets pummeled in a way he doesn't want, even if he volunteered to risk it. And maybe the winner ends up like John Wayne's character in The Quiet Man. I do think Junod is on to something when he suggests that, insofar as there is something morally objectionable here, it's that the audience is taking pleasure in the spectacle of someone being abused, whether that abuse is fact or convincing illusion. Violent sports and violent porn interact with dark impulses in humanity, as their producers well know. If Princess Donna was failing to "do unto others" at all, the audience was arguably who she failed. Would she want others to entertain her by stoking her dark human impulses? Then again, perhaps she is helping to neuter and dissipate them in a harmless way. That's one theory of sports, isn't it? We go to war on the gridiron as a replacement for going to war? And the rise in violent porn has seemed to coincide with falling, not rising, incidence of sexual violence.

On all sorts of moral questions I can articulate confident judgments. But I am confident in neither my intellect nor my gut when it comes to judging Princess Donna, or whether others are transgressing against themselves or "nature" when doing things that I myself wouldn't want to do. Without understanding their mindset, why they find that thing desirable, or what it costs them, if anything, I am loath to declare that it's grounded in depravity or inherently immoral just because it triggers my disgust instinct, especially if the people involved articulate a plausible moral code that they are following, and it even passes a widely held standard like "do unto others."

(That's more than you can say for a lot of first dates.)

Here's another way to put it. Asked to render moral judgments about sexual behaviors, there are some I would readily label as immoral. (Rape is an extreme example. Showing the topless photo your girlfriend sent to your best friend is a milder one.) But I often choose to hold back and error on the side of not rendering a definitive judgment, knowing that occasionally means I'll fail to label as unethical some things that actually turn out to be morally suspect. (I wouldn't willingly or coercively shut down the San Francisco porn shoot or the Ultimate Fighting Championship.) Partly I take that approach because, unlike Dreher, I don't see any great value or urgency in the condemnations, and unlike Douthat, I worry more about wrongful stigma than lack of rightful stigmas. If all I can tell the San Franciscans portrayed in the n+1 article is, "do unto others..." and "secure real consent always," and if that doesn't give me any reason to tell them their BDSM shoot was wrong, that doesn't worry me. As a society, we're still a long way from meeting the "mere" consent + "do unto others..." standard. And even if I mistakenly don't declare the BDSM shoot wrong when it turns out that it is wrong by a standard that I failed to discern... so?

In a society where notions of sexual morality aren't coercively enforced by the church or the state, what purpose is condemnation serving? Some important purpose, by Dreher's lights. He laments my inability to condemn the San Francisco shoot, and his blog occasionally just declares on some subject or other, "Well this is just wrong." Sometimes I agree with him! But when I don't, those are the least persuasive posts. The mode Dreher more commonly operates in could be summed up as, "Look at this intractable problem through the lens of my experiences. Others disagree deeply for these reasons, but I have found x and y so true in my life, and I'm going show you why." He and Alan Jacobs both have a talent for showing you what is wonderful and good and quietly exhibiting what it means to them to be practicing Christians in a way that can't help but make you think, "Damn, there's got to be something true in this if it's inspiring him."

That mode is powerful. It has its analogs in other religious traditions and in many parts of the secular world too. People are great! Erring on the side of failing to condemn permits at least the possibility of people from all of these world views engaging in conversation with one another. I've already explained why there is particular urgency to the conversation about sexual ethics, which happens to be the conversation that makes people on all sides feel condemnation is urgent. It's no coincidence that this conversation was stoked by an essay that essentially said, "Here's what I've seen, the experiences I drew on as I tried to assess it, and the insights only I could glean." Dreher worries about the fact that, despite our discomfort, neither Witt nor I can bring ourselves to say that the sexual acts performed during the S.F. porn shoot were definitely wrong. Does that really matter? My interlocutors perhaps see a cost more clearly than me, as well they might. My bias is that just arguing around the fire is elevating.