Some Comments About the Ethics of Contemporary American Culture

11/07/2022

[This is just a speculative inquiry]

There have long been moral intuitions against certain acts that still exist after reflection even though that reflection cannot really reveal why such an act is morally terrible. I believe that some of these intuitions are against practices that are considered completely unproblematic within contemporary American culture, esp. American university/college culture. Here are three examples: (i) Casual sex (ii) Drug use (iii) Alcohol use. I think that when you reflect on these three acts in a totally reductive and physical sense, it is hard to tell why these acts seem wrong if at all. For example, all that happens in alcohol use is that some liquid is going down your throat. In terms of drug use, all that is happening is some substances are being inhaled or inserted in some other way. In terms of casual sex, all that is happening is some physical object going into a hole. How could such things be bad at all from this perspective? I think that there is an explanation that does not just have to do with the probable consequences of such acts (e.g., bad decision-making, diseases, etc.). I am to provide that explanation here.

First, we must look at two formulations of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: (i) “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature” (ii) “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end” (Audi, 2001, “A Kantian Intuitionism,” p. 610). Robert Audi views the former formulation as the “universality formulation” and the latter formulation as the “intrinsic end formulation” (p. 610). Audi notes that “[t]he universality formulation is highly appropriate to testing acts for permissibility, but not particularly helpful in discovering what to do where we have no promising options to consider, since it is at best difficult to arrive at relevant maxims to universalize if one does not have a definite or at least limited range of acts for which to formulate them” (pp. 610–611). Audi further notes that “[t]he intrinsic end formulation is appropriate to both tasks” as it both “articulates a constraint on maxims and thereby provides a test for them” and “sets a twofold aim for action” thereby indicating “if not specific options, at least the directions in which to seek guidance of our conduct” (p. 611). Now, because moral intuitionism does not rest on maxims, Audi and I both note that our account of the categorical imperative in both its formulation is going to have an advantage over Kant’s account, in that, the difficulty that arises with formulating maxims will not arise for us.

Audi notes that it seems that the intuition that arises when reflecting on the categorical imperative is that “we may not use someone exploitatively,” that is, we may not use someone “merely as an instrument” while having the mindset that this someone “matters only in getting the hob done’ it may be damaged in the process and trashed thereafter” (p. 612). Casual sex, then, is not permissible according to this interpretation of the categorical imperative, in that, according to those I’ve spoken to about their having casual sex, the are no feelings between the people of care (in a romantic sense) and that they only matter to one another in that they are instruments of pleasure to one another. I’ve been told stories about the moral horrors that regularly occur within college dorms. For example, I know of this girl who was roommates with my ex-girlfriend. She had this guy who she was friends with benefits and one night he had sex with a different girl in her own bed. This is absolutely deplorable. He obviously only used her as a means, giving no care to her whatsoever. While this behavior should not be illegal, it should be frowned upon, yet it is not within our culture.

There is a question of how much romantic care must then be present. I think that only those slimy proponents of casual sex ask such questions, however, as we can easily go case by case and see when it is permissible and when it is not. No general rule needs to be made. However, I believe that love must be present in a certain sense. My ex-girlfriend, for example, does not, or at least says she does not love me anymore. She speaks of how she has dispensed of me only because I serve her no use anymore. Thus, even though I am in love with her, if we were to have sex, it would be an immoral act, in that, she does not love me. (Obviously, consent is also another condition, but the casual view does not object to that.) It seems, then, that both parties must love the other. Now, love does not mean they care for them now. It is about having a certain assurance and absence of doubt concerning specific attitudes. Let me explain.

Many college students may feel that they are “in love.” Or that they have a high degree of feelings for one another. They may care for one another to some degree. However, this is not at all sufficient. For example, in the former case of my ex-girlfriend’s roommate. Her and her friend certainly cared about one another in that they were friends. However, they did not care about one another as lovers. Going back to the example of my ex-girlfriend, she only cares for me as a friend (she takes pleasure in seeing me succeed, be happy, etc. and takes some degree of displeasure in seeing me fail, be upset, etc.), she does not care for me as a lover (she has no care for me as a sexual entity, she can fuck other people, has no obligation to me as a moral person, a sexual person). To have such care, I believe, would require a higher type of commitment that can be found in what we call “marriage.” By marriage, I do not mean a relationship legally officiated by the state. Instead, marriage is a state achieved “[o]nly when both partners share each other their ‘person, body and soul, for good and ill and in every respect’” as “their sexuality [can then] lead to ‘a union of human beings’,” in which, they no longer are means to one another but an end as each other (Sandel, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do, pp. 131–132). I believe that when the latter state is achieved, there is nothing morally objectionable to sex. This does mean, though, that lots of sex present in some modern marriages is not actually totally moral. Now, of course, there is a constraint regarding time, however, I believe that this constraint can be easily dealt with through a defeasibility model, that is, if doubts and/or defeaters of the belief that one has attained such a state are present in one of the parties minds, then they do not have justification in engaging in the sexual act. So, for example, when I lost my virginity to my ex-girlfriend, she had convinced me over the course of those months we had been together prior that she wanted to marry me, have kids, etc. (I know I’m gullible in hindsight). I genuinely believed her and for some of the weeks prior to us first having sex I genuinely reflected on, accepted, and came to be confident in the belief that she would be my life partner, I would never be with another woman sexually, etc. I genuinely believed that too (you can ask my friend Gabe; I talked to him for hours upon hours about how to come to terms with that fact, get past doubts [e.g., “the burning feeling]), etc.). After all of that had taken place, I then was ready to give her my virginity. It seemed to me that she held the same beliefs and had no doubts based on her behavior and words. In fact, I still believe that at that time she had no doubts and that if the summer didn’t end we would have gotten married and had children. We even considered each other husband and wife respectively (again, the law is not what makes two people husband and wife in the sense I’m using it).

The constraint above may seem very demanding, however, I do not think any other constraint will result in a totally moral act. For example, I know people that masturbate to pornography and they all have this depressed and regretful feeling after. Though they did not have such a feeling during the act, as their mind was caught up in a frenzy of lust and carnal desire, that would still count as a genuine defeater, in that, it creates doubt concerning the confidence in such a sexual act. (I do not know how to better word this.) Such doubts never arose for me. After the act of copulation was over, my ex-girlfriend described me as being very cute and attractive in the way I looked at her and cared for her post-coitus. From a first-person perspective, I was aware of and never had any doubts.

Audi speaks of conflicts as a problem for any Kantian intuitionism, but I believe that these can be resolved simply through moral intuitions in the same way that conflicts within moderate deontology are solved. Trivial sexual desires, however, are never going to be an overriding reason, in that, almost every pro tanto reason I can think of will override it, including the reason that is the categorical imperative itself. In other words, even if no harm comes from the casual sexual interaction, it is still the case that the categorical imperative has been violated and that itself counts as a reason against the causal sexual act, and the trivial desires that are satisfied and the pleasure derived from sexual satisfaction do not override the reason that is the categorical imperative. Let us now move on to drug and aclohol use.

Many theistic arguments have been made against drug and alcohol use that highlight the fact that drugs and aclohol make our reliable faculties unreliable, in that, their proper function intended by God is disrupted, they no longer are apt (in the sense Ernest Sosa uses the term) in the sense God designed them to be, as well as many other explanations. However, as someone who is agnostic, I am going to take a different approach. I take it to be the case that our faculties are the way by which we come to know things and that, under a reliabilist view of justification, the important fact about our faculties when it comes to knowing things is that they are reliable. Furthermore, I take it that in light of the empirical research regarding drug and alcohol use, both substances make our faculties (or at least some of our faculties) unreliable when used. Also, it seems to be the case that having true beliefs is good and having false belief is bad as well as having knowledge is good. Furthermore, it seems that if something prevents one from attainting that which is good, then it ought to be eliminated. Lastly, it just seems that our faculties properly functioning and being reliable is good.

Following all those previously mentioned propositions I believe we can construct some arguments that go as follows:

P1: If something prevents one from attaining that which is good, then it ought to be “eliminated.”

P2: Knowledge is good.

P3: Unreliable faculties prevent us from attaining knowledge.

C1: Unreliable faculties prevent us from attainting something morally good. (from P2 and P3)

P4: Drugs and alcohol make our faculties unreliable.

C2: Drugs and alcohol make it to where we cannot attain something morally good. (from C1 and P4)

C3: Drugs and alcohol ought to be eliminated, got rid of, etc. (from P1 and C2)

and

P1: If something makes our faculties unreliable, then they are bad.

P2: Drugs and alcohol make our faculties unreliable.

C1: Drugs and alcohol are bad. (from P1 and P2)

There are more arguments that can be made, but I think I’ll stop here.

Lastly, I’ll make a comment about cheating within a relationship: it is bad and you shouldn’t do it.

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Evan Jack

How sweet terror is, not a single line, or a ray of morning sunlight fails to contain the sweetness of anguish. - Georges Bataille