Talking about these subjects is almost completely impossible. Nobody wants to talk about them. Not really anyway. They're a little gross, and they're, to be totally honest, a little lame. It doesn't seem like a real serious subject. So you like to look at hot people on the internet and jerk off? Big deal. Every man in the history of time has done stuff like that. And every person today does exactly that. Just keep it to yourself. And I think, in the daylight hours, when you're talking with your friends about it, it doesn't really seem like that big of a deal. And if you said to your friends, "guys, I'm addicted to pornography," they'd probably say, "yeah, so are we, haha!" Of course, if you said to them that you were addicted to drinking or to some other thing, it'd get serious; they'd want to help you. And it's not just how much it affects your life either. That is, if drinking had less of an effect on your life than pornography and masturbation did, people would still be like, "guy, relax, get over it." You would be lame in that you were that affected by pornography and masturbation.
Natural law, of course, says that it is a big deal. As I noted, natural law condemns any perversion of the sexual faculty. By far the most common perversion is masturbation. Regardless of its prevalence, it positively violates the principles of natural law in that the actor intentionally acts contrary to his natural end or good. If the natural end of human sexuality is the creation of life (by ejaculating into a female of the species), then masturbation, metaphysically, is a perversion of this end. It is the intentional use of the procreative faculty in a way that is necessarily contrary to procreation. It's what consuming poison would be to the natural end of eating.
But that's not what I want to focus on here. I'll certainly be noting a lot of natural law principles throughout this post and series, but I want to focus on something a little more nuanced. That is, I want to focus on what masturbation really is and what it means to the individual. And I think the best way to figure that out is to the look at the virtues. Virtues and virtue ethics are what got me into traditional morality. It's what got me into Philippa Foot, which got me into Aristotle, anyway. If I had to make a bold claim, I would say that the concept of virtue is all but dead in the modern world. People will sort of use the word in passing or sarcastically, but it doesn't really have any normative value today. We'll throw around "justice" some, but we're never really concerned with the objective concept of justice as a virtue. It's more used to just get people riled up than it is a philosophical concept. "Vice" is even less popular.
And this is really too bad. I remember I had kind of a big awakening one day. I can't remember if I read this or if this is a famous quote or what, but I remember thinking in my head, "If a good golfer gets a hole-in-one, what does a good person do?" Or something like that. I know it seems goofy, but for a couple reasons, the question really got to me. One, it forced me to evaluate what the word good really means. Is "good" being used the same way there? If yes, what does that mean? If no, what does that mean? More than that, though. It made me try to figure out what makes people good. Getting a good score makes a golfer good, but what makes a person good? Moreover, what sort of things would a person have to have to become good? Strangely enough, this is actually a true story. I remember being on the top floor of my law school library and repeating these questions to a friend of mine. She was like, "what are you talking about?" This sounds really pretentious, but it was mostly just dorky and a little embarrassing.
These answers to these questions, anyway, I think, are related to the virtues. That is, the virtues are the things that both make a person good (the qualities he has to have to count as a good thing), and the things that allow him to be good (the tools required to attain goodness status). And there are obviously virtues for golfers (though, honestly, I've played golf like once, and it was awful experience (a post later on gay people and our absolute Terror of sports)). I don't necessarily know what they are, but they are no doubt related to patience and fortitude. They are the characteristics that allow a golfer to succeed as a golfer, and they are the things by which we measure whether he is a good golfer. Did he get a hole-in-one because of some fluke shot, or did he get a hole-in-one because he possesses all the traits necessary to do so?
And I understand the difference between golf and life. Or at least I understand the common criticisms of the comparison. And of course I didn't mean the question to be proof of anything. I know the claim, though, that people invented golf, so we can determine what a good golfer is, but people didn't invent peopleness, so we can't determine what a good person is. As essentialism shows, though, this actually isn't the case. While there is nothing about the nature of human beings that show what a good golfer is, there is something about the nature of human beings that show what a good human being is. Do note that natural law and virtue are not separate things; they are just more full descriptions of morality. For example, a good parent is a parent who possess all the parental virtues in order to flourish as a thing that is raising an offspring. He would be bad in that he wasn't flourishing because he didn't possess those virtues. But that's sort of missing the point in a way, and it's not the direction I want to take this in.
What I want to show is why masturbation makes us feel not quite right. When we're not with friends, and it's late at night, and we feel like we can't get to sleep without looking at some porn, it doesn't feel like no big deal. Or when we constantly have to delete our browser history, it doesn't feel like no big deal. Or when we're sitting there with a mess in our hands, and there's some positively depraved thing on the screen in front of us, it doesn't feel like no big deal. In such cases, we feel more ashamed of ourselves than we ever have. And then we talk to our mothers on the phone later (or pause the video when she calls!) like everything is all normal. But it's not. And I don't think it's bad just because it perverts the natural reproductive faculty. It is bad in that it does that, but I don't think that's really, completely, what we're embarrassed of at the core.
The reason, I think, masturbation is really so bad is that it is a direct violation of the virtue of temperance (and probably fortitude). There's not going to be any clear definition of this virtue, but I may as well try. Temperance is the trait that allows allows a person to be free from the desire to do something, especially something he should not do. It is the ability to not. A person who lacks temperance can generally be called a bad person. Both in the fact that he can't achieve some greater good and in the fact that he lacks the trait itself. This may feel like it's begging the question a little bit, but it's not. We can think of some examples. Addiction to something like cigarettes is bad in that it is harmful to one's health, sure, but it is really bad in that it is an addiction. We can think of some sort of cigarette substitute that doesn't really harm the person. Or some scientific invention that allows the person to smoke all they want without any harmful effects to the body. It would still be bad for the person to be addicted. It would show that he still has a trait that enslaves him, that doesn't allow him to be free. When he says I have to have that, he is something less than a man. The stronger that have to have that drive is, the less he is good.
Real men are good in that they do the right thing, and they are good in that they can do the right thing. Taking the parent example again, a father is good in that he feeds his children. He would be a bad father in that he didn't. But he's also a good father in that he has the patience to be able to feed those whiny, ungrateful brats without slapping them. He has a certain character trait in him that makes him good, something that goes deep down to who he really is. A good soldier is good insofar as he has the traits of a good soldier, the traits that would allow him to walk into a firefight and be willing to die. The traits that allow him to say to himself, "I have never been more scared in my entire life" and then be able to do it anyway. This is not necessarily the action; it is the type of person that he is. Even if he never sees a battle, this is a trait that he possesses. This is who he is, somebody who has the stuff of a hero.
So what about masturbation? Why does masturbation affect people so much? It is, to put it bluntly, pathetic for one to have to look and pornography and masturbate. It shows a man's weakness and his inability to control his own appetites, and more importantly, himself. He is completely unlike a good soldier or a good parent. He is weak. And he is a slave. Masturbation, probably because it's so tied to something as important as sex, makes us realize how truly not special and how not strong we actually are. As we sit there, head in hand (if you will), we have to give in to the impulse until the next time it comes around. To not give in would be torture. When we see the fat slob who gorges himself at the buffet, or we see the pathetic addict who's standing on the street corner, we say we're not like them. But in that moment, when we're giving in, we lack the same exact virtue that they lack. Nothing makes the average man realize this more than masturbation.
So what do we do to fix this? We practice the virtues. The only way to be good is to practice this virtues. The reason the virtues are so interesting is that they are the key to all moral behavior. A temperate man is a temperate man in all cases. He has the character trait that allows him to be temperate in every situation he comes across. I think this is a large part in why celebrities and the like become addicted to substances or lose control of their lives. They never develop the virtue of temperance (and fame is often directly contrary to it), and when given the opportunity (which that world continually provides for) they lack the characteristic to defend against it. I think this is often the reason you see certain traits run together. Criminals are not often temperate people. Regardless of their crimes, they possess disgusting habits that they very rarely have any control over.
Developing the virtues, especially temperance, is not easy. And our culture, and even our religions, don't really help us to develop them. A lot of the popular Christian messages say that one should Trust in Christ or that Christ Will Change Us. Now, I've no doubt that either of those statements are true. What I doubt is what they are supposed to mean. I think people think they mean that we will somehow be miraculously given a special ability to not do what we shouldn't do when the time comes, regardless of who or what we are or who or what we've done in the past. But this, a blind hope, isn't where good behavior comes from. (This is more a philosophical or even psychological claim than it is a theological one.) We are able to do good because we have developed the traits necessary to do good. And moreover, it is having these traits that make us good. When people say that it would be impossible to stop masturbating, they are speaking to something very true. What they really mean is that they lack the traits necessary to not.
What I want to focus on in this series is how to develop virtue, particularly the virtue of temperance. More specifically, I want to focus on chastity, which is the practice of temperance with respect to sexual appetite. It is, in my estimation, the virtue most lacking in the modern world. The worst thing about it, I think, is that lust (the absence of chastity) is so subversive. The nice kid down the street can have a debilitating pornography addiction. Your priest could have unending sexual perversions. Even you're probably unable to stop yourself. And all good people. Not criminals, not cheats, but not well.