Can there even be an abortion debate?

Pro-life advocates cannot coherently advocate that abortion is wrong while also arguing that it is necessarily illegitimate to commit any acts of civil disobedience in defence of the unborn.

Here is what I think is a valid argument:

(P1)       There exist instances where civil disobedience (i.e., disobedience of laws and even minimal violence) may be legitimate to correct grave injustice.
(P2)       If there exist any instances where civil disobedience may be legitimate to correct grave injustice, then state-sanctioned mass murder is such an instance.
(P3)       Murder is the deliberate killing of an innocent person.
(P4)       If the unborn are innocent persons, then abortion is state-sanctioned mass murder.
(P5)       The unborn are innocent persons.
(C)          Therefore civil disobedience may be legitimate in cases of abortion.

March for Life 2015, Washington D.C.
March for Life 2015, Washington D.C. Source: Flickr.

The question of whether abortion should be legal is precisely a question about (P5): if the pro-life camp is correct, then abortion just is the state-sanctioned murder en masse of unborn human beings. What I therefore find somewhat strange is the idea that the abortion debate should purely be a civil debate (i.e., a debate where both parties argue their case before the body politic and accept its judgements without recourse to any extra-legal methods of achieving one’s ends). But if someone accepts (P1)–(P4), then the correctness of the pro-life position would necessarily entail that individuals are not bound to submit to the diktats of the body politic and are entitled to use extra-legal methods to prevent abortion. In other words, it is not coherent for a pro-lifer to think that a “civil debate” (as defined above) on abortion is even coherent: if the pro-life position is amenable to civil debate, then it cannot be correct. Symmetrically, a pro-choicer cannot think that a “civil debate” is coherent: if they are unwilling to grant the possibility that their opponents could be legitimate in using civil disobedience to achieve their ends, then they are unable to grant the possibility of their opponent’s arguments at all. Both of these conclusions follow necessarily, unless one abandons at least one of (P1)–(P4).

The problem is that (P1)–(P4) are simply not controversial. It seems that almost nobody will want to say that North Korean dissidents, e.g., are acting illegitimately, which gives us (P1); (P2) seems likewise trivially obvious (do we really want to argue, e.g., that a dissident North Korean family that helps the to-be-executed to flee to South Korea are acting illegitimately?); (P3) seems likewise non-controversial unless one is going to tie oneself in contortions; and (P4) is analytic on (P3) given that abortion laws simply are the state’s sanctioning of abortion and given that abortion occurs at a large scale (depending on the country, generally at least in the thousands or tens of thousands per year in places like Australia, up to 850,000 in places like the United States [1]).

So, to insist that the legality of abortion be decided by civil debate (as defined above) is then seemingly precisely to insist that the legality of abortion need not be decided at all, since (P5) could not be true if abortion was able to be decided by civil debate.

To be clear, nothing in my argument above would indicate that civil disobedience is morally obligatory in respect of abortion, nor that pro-life advocates should not argue their case before the body politic. It is simply to argue that pro-life advocates cannot coherently advocate that abortion is wrong while also arguing that it is necessarily illegitimate to commit any acts of civil disobedience in defence of the unborn.


[1] “Induced Abortion in the United States”, Guttmacher Institute, https://www.guttmacher.org/sites/default/files/factsheet/fb_induced_abortion.pdf.

The atomised-individual dynamic

Karen Stenner’s The Authoritarian Dynamic is a seminal collection of evidence on when and how authoritarianism affects polities, but the nuance that she offers above and beyond previous investigations into authoritarianism begins to invite questions about whether it is “authoritarians” who are truly the voters that should puzzle political psychologists.

Karen Stenner’s 2005 The Authoritarian Dynamic received an unexpected jolt into the spotlight on 8 November 2016. Almost every poll had predicted that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election; almost every credible pundit had argued that Trump was unelectable. And then, as if out of nowhere, a sizeable chunk of the US population elected the vulgar former head of a reality show into the Oval Office. Who could have predicted such an event? As it turns out, Karen Stenner.

Earlier analysis of the “authoritarian personality”—i.e. a theory that predicted some individuals would consistently express authoritarianism as a deep-seated aspect of their personality—were unable to account for the unexpectedness of Trump’s victory. Indeed, they were unable to account for much at all, since a stable personality trait like “authoritarianism” should predict behaviour consistently across time, and few investigations yielded any real stability in whatever measure of authoritarianism they posited. People did not appear to exhibit particularly consistent racist animosity or willingness to use the strong arm of the state to enforce morality. And indeed, there was little observable anti-establishment sentiment in the US polity in 2015—it would be difficult to attribute Trump’s win to Americans who had acted in a consistently authoritarian way prior to that point.

Here enters Stenner’s concept not of an authoritarian personality but of an authoritarian dynamic. What drives authoritarianism, per Stenner, is not fundamentally racism or a love of strongmen or a punitive moral compass—it is a psychological predisposition towards oneness and sameness. Authoritarians want to be assured that we are all fighting for the same team. Who “we” are is not so salient as the desire for groupishness per se—“it is a groupishness that generally comes from wanting to be part of some collective, not from identification with a particular group” (p.18)[1]. But authoritarians will fail to meet this need for groupishness under conditions of “normative threat”—i.e. a sense of the polity’s coming apart, be it through substantial divergence of public opinion, untrustworthy political leadership, or “diversity and freedom ‘run amok’” (p.17). Authoritarians are not more likely to perceive normative threat than are other citizens, but once they do perceive it, they will immediately man the barricades in defence of a reestablishment of a normative order—indeed, any normative order—that will return the community to a state of oneness and sameness.

Stenner marshals impressive evidence in favour of this point. To measure authoritarianism—i.e. a fundamental desire for oneness and sameness—she uses survey respondents’ endorsement of obedience, courtesy, and respect for elders as childrearing values, as compared with endorsements of the child’s taking responsibility for his own actions, his curiosity, or his following his conscience. Using this apparently minimal measure, Stenner shows that it is specifically the presence of normative threat that drives authoritarians to endorse traditionally authoritarian attitudes, such as an emphasis on “law and order” and a desire to crackdown on “deviant groups and troublemakers”[2]. If authoritarians are encouraged to believe that their polity is united and their leaders are honest, then they are indistinguishable from their more “libertarian” (Stenner’s term, used idiosyncratically) counterparts in their expression of authoritarian beliefs. Further, Stenner derives some impressive real-world results from this minimalist measure: using purely the respondent’s endorsed childrearing values, Stenner can predict a substantially higher level of general intolerance of difference than using almost any other single variable, including years of education, one’s social class, one’s religiosity, or one’s political views. What’s more, she can predict it across a large number of diverse polities—from the Anglosphere through into Eastern Europe through to East Asia. In other words, Stenner appears justified in claiming to have identified a true fundamental psychological contributor to citizens’ authoritarian predispositions the world over.

From this model, Stenner makes some fascinating, if controversial, deductions. For instance, she suggests that the “genocide formula”—i.e. the preconditions for a country’s committing genocide—may not lie so much in average levels of ethnic prejudice so much as in the variance in public belief, since only the latter would indicate normative threat. In Stenner’s 1990–1995 survey data, “none of the six Yugoslav republics displayed especially high levels of authoritarianism on average… But Serbia is unparalleled across the eighty samples in terms of variance in authoritarianism” (p.113). In other words, it may not be deep-seated and widely shared prejudices that drive authoritarian actions. It may simply be that the proportion of the population predisposed to authoritarianism is driven their extremes of behaviour by the presence of normative threat.

Potentially even more controversially, Stenner suggests that “much of what we think of as racism, likewise political and moral intolerance, is more helpfully understood as ‘difference-ism’.” (p.276). Since racial differences, differences in sexual expression, and so on are necessarily socially salient deviations from an authoritarian’s conception of normality, they constitute a normative threat, and it is in that sense—not in the sense of a learned or structural prejudice, nor in the sense of a specific hatefulness towards that minority—that authoritarians’ prejudicial behaviours should be understood.

The other major contribution of Stenner’s work is to distinguish the psychological drivers of authoritarianism, status-quo conservatism, and laissez-faire conservatism (the latter two are Stenner’s terms). Just as authoritarianism is driven by a fundamental psychological need for oneness and sameness, status-quo conservatism is driven by a fundamental psychological need for stability. Status-quo conservatives do not particularly mind however much oneness and sameness there is in the polity, so long as the amount is not very different today to how it was yesterday. Laissez-faire conservatism, by contrast, is perhaps best not given the moniker “conservatism” at all and is identified most strongly by support for specific laissez-faire capitalist policies. Although contemporary conservative parties are often alliances between each three of these drivers as a matter of political convenience—think, for instance, of the Trumpian, moderate, and corporatist elements of the Republican Party—they are largely uncorrelated and separate at the level of individual voters. Contra the often sloppy analysis by political scientists and psychologists, neither status-quo nor laissez faire conservativism are particularly predictive of prejudice once one accounts for a predisposition to authoritarianism.

Stenner’s argument begins to drift, however, when it comes to characterising what authoritarianism (and its counterpart, libertarianism) actually are.

Stenner identifies the fundamental psychological driver behind authoritarianism as a psychological need for oneness and sameness, but she argues the predisposition is content neutral beyond this point: authoritarianism merely means that “whatever it is that we stand for, we must all stand for it” (p.142). Symmetrically, libertarianism is merely the fundamental desire for “freedom and difference” (p.81), and it is that per se that libertarians desire. But it is obvious in neither case why these would be fundamental psychological needs in the first instance—leaving aside briefly libertarians’ need for freedom, there is no obvious reason why anyone would have a need specifically for oneness and sameness, nor for difference. Perhaps appropriately given its title, The Authoritarian Dynamic provides no account of why libertarians would desire diversity other than that they are “excited and engaged” (p.217) by difference. For authoritarianism, however, we see a slightly more fleshed-out picture. Modern liberal democracy engenders a “diversity of lifestyles and beliefs… [which] may be frightening, overwhelming, or isolating for many individuals, who may wish to divest themselves of the fear, stress, or loneliness of their own freedom, and/or to avoid the diverse and unpredictable consequences of the freedom of others” (p.143). This effect is compounded by authoritarians’ tendency to score lower on cognitive tests: in a sense, the diversity of modernity is more cognitive load than they can handle.

There is a strangeness to this case, however, compounded by her specific operationalisation of authoritarianism and her definition of normative threat. In one operationalisation, authoritarianism was measured by choosing the following as important (against the alternative in brackets) on a list of childrearing qualities[3]:

  • “that a child obeys his parents” (“that he is responsible for his own actions”)
  • “that he has good manners” (“that he has good sense and sound judgment”)
  • “that he is neat and clean” (“that he is interested in how and why things happen”)
  • “that he has respect for his elders” (“that he thinks for himself”)
  • “that he follows the rules” (“that he follows his own conscience”)

Recall that Stenner defines authoritarianism as a fundamental preference for oneness and sameness, but a cursory glance over these items appears to bear minimal resemblance, if any, to oneness and sameness so much as to a tendency towards “interdependence” instead of “independence”, to use Markus and Kitayama’s terminology (alternately, towards “collectivism” instead of “individualism”).

Markus and Kitayama’s “interdependent and independent representations of the self” model. Source: Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98(2), 224–253. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.98.2.224.

Stenner may well argue that to define authoritarianism in terms of preference for collectivist over individualist childrearing values is to make our operationalisation “tautological with the dependent variables it is designed to explain” (p.21), as she does for the Altemeyer’s Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale, but there are two responses to this. The first is that this does not address the substantial independence of her operationalisation and any measure of “oneness and sameness”. But the second relates to what Stenner claims to measure, namely the desire for “oneness and sameness” at the level of the polity. In some meaningful sense, a necessary condition for a group’s being a community is that it be defined by a “oneness and sameness” about something: a religious community cannot be a religious community without a substantially shared religious outlook, a town community cannot be a town community without a substantially shared set of social norms, and so on. It is intuitive that individuals who value interdependent childrearing values would value strong collectivism at the local level (i.e. for their immediate community); it is not obvious that they would generalise this to the level of the polity as a whole. Stenner’s analysis of how childrearing values predict authoritarian attitudes, then, would show that individuals who are more interdependent at the local level are also more interdependent at the political level—i.e., individuals tend to see both their local environs and their polities as communities in the sense of “united under one and the same normative framework”, or they tend to see neither as communities in this sense. That her measure of authoritarianism appears to be measuring the desire to have one’s polity be a community becomes doubly apparent when one remembers that Stenner’s definition of normative threat included not only divergence of public opinion, which is a per se threat to oneness and sameness, but also questionable authorities, which are not a per se threat to oneness and sameness but are a per se threat to a community in the thick sense of the word.

This seemingly minor distinction matters immensely when we recall Stenner’s claim that “the targets and content, though not the general form and function, of [authoritarianism’s] expression can vary depending on who ‘we’ are and what ‘we’ stand for” (p.142). This claim will only be true necessarily if it is oneness and sameness per se that they value. If what they value instead is that their polity be a community, then the specific contents of the community’s norms and values will substantially influence which normative orders will cause them to man the barricades.[4]

Note that most of Stenner’s analysis would apply as well to the above framing as to hers—I am not seeking to dispute her empirical results, which are formidable. It is very plausible that those with lower cognitive ability would rely more heavily on the predictability that comes from individuals’ sharing a single normative framework in the one community. If we account for the fact that race has for the past several centuries been an unfortunate dividing block of populations into sub-communities, much of her “difference-ism” analysis is perfectly transparent as “anti–non-community-member–ism”. And, perhaps most importantly, it makes the explanandum of her political psychology far easier to answer: the question becomes less “why are there authoritarians (qua collectivists)?” and more “why are there libertarians (qua WEIRDos)?”.

In case this last remark seems bad-faith, Stenner appears to define as authoritarian anything other than a purely morally relativist individualist liberalism. For instance, Stenner includes as authoritarian coercion a desire for “favourable treatment for those conforming with conventions” (p.90; this would seemingly include, for instance, only extending marriage rights to monogamous couples), sees any religious belief “beyond personal faith and individual codes of conduct… that is, a need to regulate other people’s behaviour” as necessarily authoritarian (i.e. she defines all religious belief as it has always been traditionally understood by religions themselves as necessarily authoritarian), and explicitly includes several items endorsing moral realism in the abstract under her measure of authoritarianism[5]. Stenner explicitly cites a example of how one paradigmatic libertarian (i.e. an individual who selected mostly individualistic childrearing values) differed from the authoritarians in interviews: “I don’t think that people are any more or less moral by today’s standards than people a hundred years ago were by their standards. I just think our standards have changed” (p.235).

If this is her exemplar of authoritarianism’s negative, then it is hardly ambiguous why one might be attracted to Stenner’s formulation of authoritarianism. It is comprehensible (and not at all obviously “authoritarian” in the conventional sense) why a citizen would not want the government to be completely agnostic on the question of the good life. It is comprehensible why a citizen would want the polity to be (even if at a minimal level only) a community, and not simply a legal structure with associated institutions. Stenner argues that “authoritarians are never more tolerant than when reassured and pacified by an autocratic culture” (p.334), but in light of the above, this is perfectly limpid—her statement is equivalent to noting that authoritarians do not want their government (i.e. the body that determines their schools’ curricula, has an outsized impact on social norms, and determines funding decisions for key norm-making bodies) to be wholly morally relativistic. In Stenner’s analysis, only an individual willing to wholly abandon community at the political level and willing to wholly embrace atomised-individualistic politics will register as truly non-authoritarian.

This does not repudiate that authoritarians in the sense Stenner describes—i.e. those who have no allegiance to any specific normative order but merely oneness and sameness per se—do in fact exist. We simply have no means in Stenner’s operationalisation of distinguishing them from those with an intuitive sense of moral realism, from those who adhere to any collectivist set of norms, or even merely those who do not want their government to be entirely neutral on conceptions of the good. As such, perhaps our takeaway from The Authoritarian Dynamic should not be determining how to address “the negative consequences we all suffer on account of [authoritarians’] neglect and discomfort” and instead should be to consider that some of them might have a point.


[1] All page-number references are to: Karen Stenner, The Authoritarian Dynamic, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), paperback edition, ISBN: 978-0-521-53478-9.

[2] For the full details of Stenner’s measure of right-wing authoritarian attitudes, please see the “Right-Wing Authoritarianism” section here: https://9bb6f4fe-ee8e-4700-aaa9-743a55a9437a.filesusr.com/ugd/02ff25_daa610e921374deab8ade3b99ae8bf9e.pdf

[3] Full details of the operationalisation can be found on Stenner’s personal website here: https://9bb6f4fe-ee8e-4700-aaa9-743a55a9437a.filesusr.com/ugd/02ff25_daa610e921374deab8ade3b99ae8bf9e.pdf

The other operationalisations are very similar in nature, they can be found here (https://9bb6f4fe-ee8e-4700-aaa9-743a55a9437a.filesusr.com/ugd/02ff25_0ad4c453e3a546e680d560ea56d13608.pdf) and here (https://9bb6f4fe-ee8e-4700-aaa9-743a55a9437a.filesusr.com/ugd/02ff25_1be2f9b79a414d4383563540393e7230.pdf)

[4] Stenner’s main counterevidence on this point comes from her Multi-Investigator Study 99 (MIS99), in which authoritarians were primed with a story in which there was “belief diversity” (i.e. Americans, in the abstract, agreed with each other less than before), “stable diversity” (i.e. Americans, in the abstract, disagreed but had a stable society), and “changing together” (i.e. Americans, in the abstract, were in a changing society that was coalescing in its desires). Stenner found that “belief diversity” and “stable diversity” caused greater expressions of authoritarian attitudes and was related to lower levels of desire to preserve the existing political system than was “changing together”—i.e. authoritarians acted more authoritarian when the polity disagrees, and authoritarians are happy to change social structures entirely so long as everyone does it together. Notably, however, the stimuli in this experiment deliberately avoided reference to any specific change in social structure—the language in question was “pulling together” or “falling apart”. Given that my claim is simply that authoritarians are not agnostic to the content of a normative order, not that they are wedded to every aspect, I do not believe that the MIS99 constitutes a decisive blow against my argument. The specific text of the stimuli can be found on pages 46–47 of The Authoritarian Dynamic.

[5] In particular, “There is no ‘ONE right way’ to live life; everybody has to create their own way” and “It is wonderful that young people today have greater freedom to protest against things they don’t like, and to make their own ‘rules’ to govern their behavior.” For any form of moral realism that includes religion, also see: “Some of the best people in our country are those who are challenging our government, criticizing religion, and ignoring the ‘normal way’ things are supposed to be done” and “It would be best for everyone if the proper authorities censored magazines so that people could not get their hands on trashy and disgusting material.”.

Why conservatives should listen to Max Richter

Let’s say you’re a conservative who has begun to worry that he or she might be in an echo chamber. All your friends post about how lefties are just SJWs, and you’re getting worried they might be simplifying things. So you want to listen to some opposing voices: where should you start? I argue: composer Max Richter.

I wrote a thread about this on Twitter, but I purge my Twitter pretty regularly and wanted a more stable version stored somewhere.

Let’s say you’re a conservative who has begun to worry that he or she might be in an echo chamber. All your friends post about how lefties are just SJWs, and you’re getting worried they might be simplifying things. So you want to listen to some opposing voices: where should you start?

Source: Bruno Bollaert, Flickr, link

I think it would be a mistake to follow left-wing politicians as your first point of call, or to follow left-wing media. Just like right-wing politicians and media, they preach to the choir, so you’ll see the obvious flaws in their arguments (c.f. do they know that governments aren’t always beneficent?) and feel like they’re misrepresenting you [a conservative] in about three seconds. There are some excellent left-wing commentators whom I follow and whom I would recommend, but unless you understand where they’re coming from, they too can seem like they just “don’t get it”.

One fairly apolitical starting point I’d recommend would be Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which explores the underlying psychology of political thinking (and why we’re all more biased and less reasonable than we think). But today I want to recommend someone different, someone more overtly political: composer Max Richter.

Richter himself seems quite firmly on the left, and it’s reflected in the political nature of much of his work. The Blue Notebooks, his second album, was a protest album against the Iraq War; VOICES, his latest, is an exaltation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But Richter’s work is rare among contemporary classical music (and among contemporary art more generally) inasmuch as it is overtly political while also being genuinely sympathetic and uncynical. The Blue Notebooks may have been a protest album, but it has none of the angry hubris one can easily associate with protest. It’s an expression of sympathetic and uncynical sorrow—sorrow that things clearly aren’t as they were meant to be. That grief against a fallen world—not a patriarchal world, or a capitalist world, or a racist world, but a fallen world—is something most conservatives can easily relate to.

“On the Nature of Daylight”, the most famous piece from The Blue Notebooks.

Unlike so much contemporary art, Richter’s aim is explicitly to take you with him. Richter is not an elitist, and unlike much of the commentariat, he wants his messages to be open to everyone. As such, his music is transparently beautiful. To be clear, it’s technically proficient and he is situated in an esteemed musical tradition, exhibiting influences from Pärt, Bach, Glass, and many others. But you don’t need to know that, or them, to love Richter. His beauty stands on its own.

Songs from Before is, in my view, Richter’s most beautiful album, and “Sunlight” is one of its most beautiful songs.

In a move conservatives would approve of, Richter unabashedly reaches backwards just as he reaches forwards. He does not seek clean breaks with the past, nor a complete reinvention of musical forms. Instead, he seeks to synthesise modernity and history in a way that brings out the beauty in both. A Burkean composer for our age!

Richter’s Vivaldi Recomposed retains the original’s Baroque character while integrating it with contemporary musical traditions.

Richter’s political vision is also not frantic or ecstatic. He composed Sleep, an eight-hour long orchestral composition that lends to its listener a surreal and almost dreamlike mood, in good part as a reaction against the aggression and intensity of modernity. He sees what we have lost in the march of progress, and he looks to restore it.

On a day when you don’t really have to speak to anyone, it’s worth listening to Sleep the whole way through. It really does feel like you’ve stepped outside modernity for a day and into ataraxia.

Many conservatives, myself included, are somewhat tired of the way many left-wing politicians talk about human rights. There are ever more commissions enforcing ever narrower understandings of The Good on ever broader segments of society. So it can be tempting to write off human rights as a “left-wing” concept. Richter reminds you of why that is impermissible: he reminds you that human rights are based in the fundamental respect for the dignity and divinity of all human beings, and that only our cynicism and anger could have let us forget that.

VOICES has individuals worldwide read sections from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is worth listening to Richter first, so as to understand the sentiment driving him, and then reading his views on politics. If you start with Richter’s music, it is easier to understand that his politics, too, are uncynical and in that sense innocent. His politics know sorrow, understand fallenness, and do not offer cheap slogan-based solutions. But nonetheless they maintain their utopian hope in a better world. If there is something conservatives forget too easily, it is this: while traditions serve us well and progressives are too rash to upend the foundations of society, this world is not as it should be, and it never has been. The utopianism that we reject is often dangerous and hubristic and sectarian, but if we reject utopianism completely and reject the possibility of mending this broken world, we harden our hearts. Understanding that is, I think, key to understanding the best parts of the left, and Richter provides the return to innocence needed to entertain that worldview. “And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

“Mercy”, the first piece composed for VOICES, was originally written against the activities in Guantanamo Bay.

All good societies are judgemental

Activities like casual sex that were formerly prohibited by norms were prohibited in the first instance precisely because of how badly things can go wrong when they’re treated laissez faire. There is no tenable case where casual sex or drugs or polyamory can be completely free of judgement. They can’t ever be “just a bit of fun”.

"If you judge people, you have no time to love them." - Mother Theresa

Over the last year or so I keep having iterations of the same very bizarre conversation about whether it’s a good thing for us to judge[1] people for engaging in activities that were, until very recently, discouraged by “prohibition norms” (i.e. norms that prohibit a specific activity). Here is a caricatured version of the conversation for casual sex:

Me: We should have really strong norms discouraging casual sex and we should be pretty critical of friends and family who engage in it.

Interlocutor: Why are you such a prude? Casual sex is a lot of fun! Why do you want to make fewer people have fun?

Me: Do you think, in cases of casual sex, that there’s a risk of misunderstanding regarding whether consent was given if someone is extremely inexperienced?

Interlocutor: Yep!

Me: Do you think that any event occurring behind closed doors with someone you’re not necessarily close to in the middle of the night is almost necessarily a precarious place for people to be, and that things are likely to go wrong if we encourage that sort of interaction on any large scale?

Interlocutor: Yep!

Me: Do you agree that the “best” type of casual sex involves both parties’ genuinely making sure that their counterparty is enjoying themselves, as opposed to a transactional “finish-and-go”-type arrangement, and that it’s difficult to encourage people—especially young people—to consider others’ needs that deeply, especially when (as above) this is virtually always a behind-closed-doors encounter without witnesses and therefore without the obvious judgement of others?

Interlocutor: Yep!

Me: Well it sounds like you agree with me that there are huge issues with most casual sex that does occur, i.e. that you agree that the world is not clearly better when we “judge” casual sex less than we used to.

Interlocutor: Oh, well, I mean, all of the scenarios you mention are bad and obviously I think people should be more responsible and stuff, but you can’t punish everyone just because a few people do it badly!

Me: Ok, sure—I’m happy to accept that I’ve maybe made the wrong trade-off between respecting individual agency and avoiding bad consequences—but do you at least then agree that in your world it’s really important for us to have vocal and frequent conversations with our friends and family encouraging them to not engage in casual sex until they are sure they’re unlikely to do anything unethical?

Interlocutor: Oh, but I mean, it’s just a bit of fun! Why do you want me to be so serious about it?

I have variants of this conversation with respect to nuclear-family gender norms, norms discouraging drug taking, norms discouraging polyamory, etc. The counterarguments start with a nonchalant consequentialist argument from some idealised paradigmatic case, followed by a concession that the idealised case isn’t representative matched with a principled case against restricting the behaviours of well-behaved individuals, followed by a return to the earlier stance of nonchalance in spite of the earlier admission that there are often serious issues with the activity! Astounding!

There seem to be two basic truisms about most rules, be they law or norm:

  1. The rule will almost always be coarser than we would ideally like: we set the voting age at 18 even though some people are probably mature enough to vote by 16 and others still not by 40; it’s polite to cover your mouth and nose for sneezes even when they result from allergies and not from an infectious disease; and people will glare at you for taking your shoes off on a plane even if your feet happen not to smell at all. The question is not “does the rule restrict harmless activities” (it always does) but rather “can we make the rule more fine-grained with publicly available information?”. Everyone can claim their feet don’t smell bad (and therefore that the rule shouldn’t apply to them), but we generally don’t know if they’re lying until after they’d already taken their shoes off. A norm of “only people with smelly feet must keep their shoes on” relies on information that will not be available to anyone except the person the norm needs to restrict—hardly a neutral observer who is free from conflicts of interest!
  2. The only way around this problem of insufficient publicly available information is better people: if we trusted everyone to be honest about their foot odour, we would not need any norm against on-plane shoe removal. The law is not enacted for the righteous but for the sinful, after all.

On truism (1), I’m happy to accept that I might have made the wrong trade-off when I say “when we judge all casual sex really harshly, the reduction in ‘good’ casual sex is worth it because of the ‘bad’ casual sex we’ve avoided”. This is an especially easy claim for me to make seeing as I object to casual sex (and most drug use, polyamory, etc.) on religious and ethical grounds as well as these purely consequentialist ones, but I can fully appreciate that those who don’t share my specific religious and ethical convictions would find this trade-off overly puritanical. So maybe the necessary coarseness of rules really is a reason for us to minimise prohibition norms and the associated judging of prohibited activities. But if that’s really the case, then truism (2) should suddenly become far more important, especially since truism (1) also applies in reverse: the absence of a rule will almost always be coarser than we would ideally like, since it will allow things we didn’t intend or want when we relaxed the rule (e.g. relaxing airport security would certainly relieve us all of a substantial burden when boarding a plane, but it would also presumably make it easier for terrorism to occur).

Stated in other words, this means that prohibition norms must be replaced with “responsibility norms”—i.e. norms explicitly geared to encouraging responsible behaviour around the activity. If you want to avoid judging all casual sex, that means you have to judge specific instances of casual sex instead and have long, vocal conversations with your friends and family where you make sure they’re sufficiently responsible to engage with it sensibly. It means you have to be prepared to judge someone who has casual sex when they weren’t ready to or shouldn’t have in the same way you would judge someone who goes on a continuous 10-hour drive the day after getting their licence or who drives while very hungover and possibly still over the blood-alcohol limit. Activities like casual sex that were formerly prohibited by norms were prohibited in the first instance precisely because of how badly things can go wrong when they’re treated laissez faire. There is no tenable case where casual sex or drugs or polyamory can be completely free of judgement. They can’t ever be “just a bit of fun”.

And if it sounds too unpleasant to vocally and explicitly dissect whether friends and family are behaving unethically and why, then fine! Join me in the blanket-prohibition norm camp. I am in favour of blanket prohibition norms at least in part because I think puritanism comes more naturally to people than nuance: “did you have casual sex at all” is a far easier question to answer than “did you have casual sex while doing all the specific things you needed to do to make that a safe and mutually beneficial act”. But it’s clear that in either case we should never be comfortable with seeing these things as “just a bit of fun”, because we should never sit comfortably with conditions ripe for deliberately ambiguous consent, outright sexual assault, or transactionalised sex. You could argue (I wouldn’t, but you could) that the heightened likelihood of very bad sex must be tolerated in order to achieve other ends (e.g. not unduly restricting the behaviour of responsible, safe agents), but that is still not an argument for ignoring that heightened likelihood. The available options, on any of these questions, are “create puritanical prohibition norms to stamp the activity out as much as possible” or “have a bunch of really difficult conversations to reinforce the gravity of doing something wrong”. That’s all. There is no good world where these things shouldn’t be judged.

If I were to be really uncharitable in my reading of this, I would say that people hold the “just a bit of fun” view because they don’t think they would ever do anything wrong and they want to avoid having hard conversations with people (since these are always unpleasant). But I think that would be unfair, and inaccurate. I think the bigger problem is that all people’s paradigmatic image of these activities—be it casual sex, drug taking, polyamory, etc.—is monochromatic: the “live-and-let-live” camp pictures a night of harmless fun, and the conservative camp pictures an exploitative interaction with a high possibility of undesired pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and abuse. People are perfectly capable of consciously understanding that their paradigmatic image of these activities is not, in fact, representative (or, at least, the “live-and-let-live” camp is capable of acknowledging this—I certainly know some conservatives who would insist that all casual sex is necessarily terrible), but that doesn’t change the fact that they keep using this paradigmatic image in any future considerations of the topic.

I’m not really sure how to get around this problem. Preliminary psychological work on this stuff[2] would indicate that people either see things as high-risk low-benefit or low-risk high-benefit (i.e. they struggle to imagine that a given activity might be both potentially very beneficial and potentially very risky, so their paradigmatic images will always be clearly net-positive or clearly net-negative). That being said, we (as in Australia) seem to have achieved the right balance on at least some things, such as driving: driving is a clear benefit for the driver (no taxi fare, quicker than public transport, etc.), but we as individuals tend to get very judgemental very quickly when someone tries to drive in an unsafe way (e.g. driving while tired, drink-driving, driving needlessly recklessly), so it’s clearly possible to have selective judgementalism on performance of a given risky activity, at least in theory. I’m just not sure exactly how we would ever achieve this for casual sex or drug taking.


[1] Some clarifications on my use of the word “judge”: I do not mean “judge” in the sense of “look down from on high and say ‘I, as someone holier than you, have deemed your behaviour to be unsatisfactory’”. What I mean is: “You know that your actions violate well-established social norms and/or you know that these actions violate your conscience. I beg better behaviour of you, not by my standards but by yours, and not as a superior, but as one infinitely more wretched and fallen than you”. In other words, people should “judge” in the sense that Alyosha or Zozima from The Brothers Karamazov “judges”—not from on high, but from the assumption that they are the “most guilty of all, and the worst of all men in the world” (p.298, Everyman’s edition). Since this isn’t really concordant with the sense of superiority inherent to the word “judge”, maybe a better word would be “admonish” or “exhort”, since neither of those have the inherent connotation of superiority. But, 95% of the people I have this conversation with don’t know the words “admonish” or “exhort”, so I’m sticking with “judge” in this post.

[2] Finucane, M. L., Alhakami, A., Slovic, P., & Johnson, S. M. (2000). The affect heuristic in judgments of risks and benefits. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 13(1), 1–17. <a href=”https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-0771(200001/03)13:1https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-0771(200001/03)13:1<1::AID-BDM333>3.0.CO;2-S