Tuesday, April 17, 2012

But It Could Still Bite

"And in general, the world that contraception has made is a world that de-emphasizes the moral weight of the sexual act, while insisting on the centrality of a perpetually-fulfilled libido to human contentment."
Ross Douthat - Slate: The Book Club: Bad Religion: Entry 6: The world that contraception has made.
I was reading Will Saletan and Mr. Douthat write back and forth about Douthat's new book Bad Religion, and this statement, in the most recent entry, struck me as interesting. I, for my own part, am a firm proponent of the idea that most, if not all, virtues are born of necessity. But this, of course, raises the question of what happens to the virtue when the necessity is gone.

Most human beings have a level of libido. And while some are good at ignoring it, others aren't. This is likely a built-in aspect of humanity. After all, humans don't go into heat in the same way that many animals do, and a species of ascetics would be rather short-lived. (In fact, it doesn't take much to see the evolutionary advantage to a strong libido. Those people who greet the thought of sex with an impassioned "meh" aren't known for large families.) But, as with many animals, humans do tend to have a stronger attraction to their own children than they do to the children of others, and many moral prescriptions against sexuality were mainly based around familial relations - in short, no sleeping with people you weren't formally married to. To me, the primary goal behind this was to prevent having a number of children without dedicated caregivers/providers (mostly fathers, since it was generally fairly obvious to anyone around at the birth who the mother of a child was).

But with the advent of reliable contraception, the human libido didn't need to be kept in check so closely to avoid baby booms. So why then should sex remain such a weighty issue? The religious answer to this is that the virtue of chastity wasn't born of necessity, but was handed down, in effect, by the universe itself. So even two people who were incapable of having children, rather than being free to indulge their libidos, had to keep a lid on things or be at odds with the Way Things Should Be. But if you don't believe in a divine lawgiver (especially one whose edicts seem strangely coincident with the needs and wants of certain bronze-age cultures), where does that leave you? Where is the benefit in continuing to be frightened of the bear that you've not only killed, but skinned and made into an attractive throw?

Of course, in a serious of short e-mails back and forth about a book that doesn't have contraception at its core, there really isn't much room to discuss why chastity should be pursued for its own sake when the consequences of being unchaste (the physical ones, anyway) have largely been dealt with. But this is why, for many people, "the Catholic Church’s" (and many others, besides) "teaching on the subject can seem at once obscure, hair-splitting, and willfully unrealistic." It may also explain part of what I suspect Douthat sees a "Bad Religion;" the idea of a wrathful, vengeful deity who seeks to punish anyone who dares to rebel against its cosmic control-freakishness, yet is strangely reluctant to show itself.


Keifus said...

a world that de-emphasizes the moral weight of the sexual act, while insisting on the centrality of a perpetually-fulfilled libido to human contentment.

Good lord, tell me how on earth hanging ourselves up less on each other's sexual behavior doesn't make the world a better place. More than that, contraception helps for making less people, the current surplus of which is kind of making a mockery of that evolutionary advantage (or that Catholic dictum).

Sigh. Ross Douthat's going to end up as annoying a counterpoint to my musical playlist as Rush (not the band) Limbaugh, isn't he?

Aaron said...

I don't think so. He lacks Rush's contempt for all things not Rush. Sure Douthat wants people to believe, but he doesn't come across a being anywhere near as judgemental about it.