We have been very carefully taught.

So he worked.
He lost weight; he walked light on the earth.  Lack of physical labor, lack of variety of occupation, lack of social and sexual intercourse, none of these appeared to him as lacks, but as freedom.  He was the free man: he could do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it for as long as he wanted to do it.  And he did it.  He worked.  He work/played.
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed

I saw a piece of a TV show today, in which a talk show host was asked by someone in the audience how to explain to her 10 year old son what sex was like.  Oh, my!  What a show he put on, rhapsodizing over how it was literally the most wonderful thing in the world.  I have to admit I was kind of surprised.  Here was an man in his late forties, apparently successful, who seemed not to know anything at all.

I’m a married man.  I have four children. I’m not exactly unfamiliar with the experience.  Sex has been a lurking bogey for most of my life, either the act or the niggling desire.  I have to say it has not fulfilled as advertised.  And I don’t meant that I’ve had some sort of disappointing experience. But my love for my wife is wider than just the right sort of caress.  Our kids are small: a long walk alone in a quiet park is a far grander experience together (and far more rare and costly!) than an evening alone in the bedroom.

But moving beyond interpersonal relations, sex is just too narrow to be the final all-consuming joy.  John Stuart Mill was right when he broke with Jeremy Bentham and said that there were different tiers of pleasure, and that the pleasures of the mind and the spirit were to be valued on a qualitatively higher level than the pleasures of the body.  As Paul said, physical (er…) exercise is of some value, but godliness…!

I shouldn’t be surprised.  I know.  But honestly, it saddens me to think that so many people are manacled to the idea that desire, especially sexual desire, is identity.  I suppose that most people go through a phase around puberty where that feels like it’s true. But they used to learn differently, by culture and experience, so that an adult who talked that way was an obvious embarrassment to himself. Not so any longer. 

3-leg porridge

When I went to college, it was at a school that had some affiliation with the Presbyterian Church, USA, but for all practical purposes, it was a private secular school with a chapel. It wasn’t as though there was a pervasive Christian atmosphere. Pretty much it was standard-issue multi-cultural liberalism.

A part of the core curriculum to graduate was a class in the senior year on Ethics. Of course, I almost failed.

It was really difficult for me to process their way of gauging right and wrong because they weren’t willing to pin themselves to any particular foundation. It should be pretty obvious that Ethics is the sort of thing that starts from a set of key principles and works the implications out from there. But being the sort of school they were, it wouldn’t do to just assert what these principles ought to be. What if I don’t like your principles?

Instead, they gave us some options. Apparently, it’s a modern pluralist idea to try to present ethics on a 3-legged stool, kind of as a “choose-your-own” morality. So they give you Kant, Mill, and Aristotle to teach Duty, Utility, and Virtue. You’re supposed to choose which system of reasoning best fits the situation and your taste. You’re even told that each form of reasoning has its flaws, so that you have to balance each against the others.

It really got me. Confused the daylights out of me. The problem was that in my heart of hearts, I didn’t believe in morally gray areas. Still don’t. There are things that are hard to do, but it’s not usually hard to determine the right thing to do. So how did they get this perfectly balanced porridge? It took me years to get an answer, and I wish I’d written down who it was that popped the bubble of my confusion.

It’s actually pretty pathetic. Every system has its flaws so long as man is the measure of all things. If there is no standard to hold to, there isn’t even any way to come to a wrong answer. And if there isn’t any wrong answer, there can’t be a right one either. But the very point of ethics is to determine right and wrong. If you set up the system so that the goal can’t be achieved, then there’s no wonder that no one ever achieves the goal.

Sin is determined to tie up moral knots because that twistedness deflects you from judgment. It takes a Champion to take the sword of authority to cut through those knots with a simple standard. Continue reading “3-leg porridge”