Thursday, January 31, 2013

Chastity: PART ONE (Masturbation and the Virtues)

What I've been trying to do so far with this blog is show what good is. That is, I've been trying to present a very basic background of traditional morality so that readers can have a starting point. This is a major part of the blog, and I think it's incredibly important. What I think is equally important though is showing how to be good. This sounds like a pretty lofty, and perhaps even arrogant, goal, but I don't mean in that way. I mean, assuming you are a person who either already accepts what I've been arguing here, or you're a person who thinks traditional moralists are on to something and don't like the way things are going, you're probably going to want to change or fix what you think isn't right. What I want this series to focus on specifically is sexual purity. More specifically, if pornography and masturbation are actually bad, and one wants to be good, how can he escape these things, which are an enormous part of his life? A disclaimer: some things in here could be graphic, but anything that may seem inappropriate in this post or this series, I think, is necessary to the points I'm trying to make.

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.


  1. Will you be covering female sexuality as well? Or will you be focusing on men?

    1. I have more experience with men as I am a man, so men will be the focal point of the discussion. But nothing I'll say will exclude women, nor do I mean to imply that women don't struggle with the same things. I'm just working from my experience (expertise?) outward.

  2. One question: in what situations would one be justified in perverting a faculty for some greater good? For instance, I can imagine situations in which eating poison to induce vomiting would be justified (because you swallowed something harmful, or something). But I've heard that masturbating for medical purposes (to check fertility, etc.) is unjustified. How do we draw the line?

    On a more general note, I've been thinking about this issue of freedom for about a year now, ever since I started shifting from being a libertarian to being a social conservative. And I think that what modern people (especially libertarians) have lost is the idea that you can also be a slave to yourself or to sin, not just enslaved by laws/other people. This shift makes a big difference.

    This difference in view shows through when you hear certain libertarians advocate for things like legalizing cocaine/heroin (because people should have the freedom to do what they want, as long as they're not infringing on the rights of others, etc.). Under their view, that would be a freedom-enhancing reform, because you're freeing people from the coercion of the government. But under the classical/Christian definition of freedom, such a legalization would greatly INHIBIT freedom, because many people would become enslaved to new addictions as a result.

  3. Obviously not sure where you are going with acquiring the virtues yet but it's sounding a bit like you might think it is an act of our will rather than a gift of grace. I hope that's not where you're going.

    Of course, we don't sit around waiting for God to bestow the virtues on us (and continue to sin in the meantime)- we try to live virtuously and pray for grace, knowing we don't merit it through our actions. But if we think we are going to acquire virtue on our own effort, or God is going to grant us the help of grace because we're acting good, then we're in trouble. That's semipelagianism.

    1. Heh, no matter how much you temper (pun?) a statement, people are definitely going to think the opposite of what you mean! No, I don't intend to advocate any heresies. I understand the confusion, sorry.

    2. I thought you might find these passages from the Catechism helpful. Here's Paragraph 1804 from the Catechism:

      "Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.

      The moral virtues are acquired by human effort. They are the fruit and seed of morally good acts; they dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love."

      And here are Paragraphs 1810 and 1811:

      "Human virtues acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace. With God's help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good. The virtuous man is happy to practice them.

      It is not easy for man, wounded by sin, to maintain moral balance. Christ's gift of salvation offers us the grace necessary to persevere in the pursuit of the virtues. Everyone should always ask for this grace of light and strength, frequent the sacraments, cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and follow his calls to love what is good and shun evil."

      It seems that the Catechism is primarily saying 2 things, although I'm hardly an expert:

      1. The human virtues (as opposed to the theological virtues) are attained and perpetuated through human effort. However, we also pray to God and frequent the Sacraments--these things make this attainment and perpetuation easier.

      2. These virtues are then elevated and purified by God and allow for fuller communion with him.

    3. I guess I should more clearly explain what I do mean. I mean only that we shouldn't rely on miracles when we are tempted. The amount of Christian men (especially young men) who are surprised and depressed when they constantly fail is not a small number. I have personally known many. I think every day when they go home they expect a miracle, and it doesn't happen. In a lot of ways I think this is actually harmful to their spiritual health as well, expecting that because a person has faith he will necessarily be free of sin. This is all I'm trying to point out.

      What I'm attempting to do here is provide what I can of a how-to to help people get out of the rut that is pornography and masturbation. And at the root of that how-to is the virtues, which I think need to be developed by the moral actor. I get questions a lot about how I stopped. I'm just trying to answer those questions as best I cant.

  4. When I have discussed masturbation with my friends who do not see it as a perverse thing, they often claim that it doesn't make them feel bad, and in fact often makes them feel relief and relaxation. Further, demonstrating to them that masturbation fails to fulfill the end of sexual organs is often met with replies such as "so what? Pens are meant for writing, but if I use one to poke a hole in a box I am not doing anything wrong." What would be your reply to such arguments?

    1. I know you're asking this of Joe but it reminded me of something I heard and could relate to my own experience.

      Self-masturbation can lead to a very harmful sexual self-centeredness. People can become so addicted to their own fantasies and techniques that it makes another person seem unimportant. And so a person may stop trying to relate to another person or even if they find someone may be constantly disappointed and feel something is lacking. As someone who was/is very shy and not particularly self-confident with the opposite sex I could see how I could become one of those people and one day find I had settled for masturbation over a relationship and how pathetic that would make me feel. It helped see the destructiveness of it.

    2. The first thing I'd like to emphasize that I am not arguing that one has to Feel bad about a thing for that thing to Be bad. There are plenty of people who don't feel bad about truly wicked things. I think the response a person has to masturbation varies, depending on his level of maturity, his age, his past experiences, and his outlook on life. All I'm trying to identify in this post is another layer of morality as it applies to masturbation, specifically the concept of virtue.

      In other words, I think a person who rejects something like natural law can still look at masturbation and see it as some sort of flaw. I'm just trying to say that when we see a person who is addicted to something or who has to have something to feel alright, we feel that he is weaker than someone who isn't and doesn't.

      Moreover, I'm trying to identify what it is in people that can make them revolted by masturbation. I come across people (All the time) who don't find masturbation immoral but are often disgusted or embarrassed by their behavior. They'll never say this embarrassment speaks to anything Bigger, but it's an interesting thing in people.

      As to the pen issue, I addressed it, at least indirectly, in an earlier post. PART THREE, I believe, where I discuss the two aspects of life: survival and reproduction. Natural law does not say that you can't use something in a way other than its natural, good end. It merely says that you pervert something when you use it Contrary to its end. In the case of a pen (even though it's an artifact and not bound by natural law), one would not pervert its end (writing) by poking holes in boxes. One might pervert its end by breaking it or emptying it of ink, though. I think most people would even say that these things are "bad" for a pen. What they're really trying to say with the pen example is that masturbation is actually just using your penis in a way Other than its final cause (like poking holes with a pen), so it's not really a big deal. I mean, you're not like Cutting off your penis or making it sterile when you masturbate, right? At least not the way I do it!

      But as I said, most body parts and body functions are about the survival of the organism itself. It would be bad to make your lungs not breathe or your eyes not see, for example, as those would be Contrary to your survival. I genuinely doubt your friends would be okay with a person removing his skin in a way that caused him to die. They would think there was something at least a Little wrong with that. Why isn't this just like using a pen to poke holes, though? Because it's clearly Contrary to the survival of the organism, the final cause of skin. It is not a case of other than. Most tattoos would be morally licit though, generally speaking, because they don't violate the good end of skin.

      Sex is unique though. As I noted in PART THREE and some in PART TWO, sex and sexual organs aren't aimed at survival, but reproduction. In other words, they have a completely different end or final cause than most other body organs or functions. You don't have to cut off your penis to act contrary to its end (though that clearly would be). You merely have to use it in a way that's contrary to Reproduction. As such, any time you use your sexual organs in a sexual way, it would be contrary (and not other) to use them in a way that is metaphysically (and not accidentally) unable to create life. Such a thing would count as acting contrary to the final, good end of sexuality. It would be Bad. This would obviously rule out masturbation, as your hand, a sock, or a towel aren't metaphysically aimed at the creation of life.

      But you're never going to convince anyone who isn't starting with the same metaphysics. There's an awful lot of nuance, and a lot of misunderstanding. It's a difficult topic! The reason I'm focusing on virtue right now is because I actually think it's a more interesting way to approach the topic.

    3. Could you go more into the distinction between using something in a way "other" than its natural end and in a way "contrary" to its natural end? For instance, I can see why it would be bad to remove your skin--because you could harm yourself and thus go against skin's larger natural end of perpetuating survival. But as you point out, masturbation does not cause irreparable harm that would inhibit future reproduction. It is "not" reproduction, but it can't be said to "inhibit" reproduction.

      Could you go more into this, in layman's terms?

    4. I think the danger for natural law is that the most obvious examples of ends coming from body parts. Eyes see and hearts pump blood, etc. But people get in their heads that this mean the only bad thing to do for natural law would be to "hurt" yourself in sense of Ruining that faculty (cutting out your eyes, ripping out your heart, etc.) But that's not what should be focused on necessarily. While it's true that it's always bad to harm yourself in that sense, sexual perversion has nothing to do with maintenance of the self; it's necessarily about others.

      It may be best to compare to another faculty that isn't related to the self. Communication. Natural law says that the natural end of the communicative faculty is truthful communication. We have a communicative faculty so that we can communicate the truth to others. This is how we flourish as rational animals. As such, Lying would pervert the natural end of communication because lying is necessarily contrary to telling the truth and would likewise count as immoral. But, as everyone knows, lying will not Ruin your communicative faculty. You can lie one second and then tell the truth the next. Regardless, the initial lie will always be condemned as it is necessarily a perversion of the faculty. In other words, the opposite (though this word is tricky) of telling the truth is lying. Any other use of communicative faculty that isn't a lie would be fine. It would merely be an "other" use.

      The same goes with sexuality. You can pervert the faculty through masturbation or anal sex in one moment and then have licit vaginal sex in the next (sounds like a fun night, right?), but the initial masturbation and anal sex are necessarily perversions of the faculty, even if participating in them won't make you unable to reproduce. Similarly, anything that is opposite reproduction (when using the sexual faculty) would be immoral. There aren't actually that many things that would count as opposite or contrary, but ejaculation into something that is metaphysically not-reproductive/metaphysically not a vagina would count.

      Again, the focus is on the ends of the things in question, and not everything has the same end. For most parts of the body, the end is maintenance of the body. But we don't have super-sensitive penises and pheromones so that we can survive or maintain ourselves. Those things are necessarily pointed outward toward another person or people so that we reproduce. As such, the perversion of those faculties would merely require acting in a way that is necessarily un-reproductive, not acting in a way that Harmed the organism.

    5. I think it was very good for you to introduce the issue of virtue into the discussion.

      Humans being the supremely social animal, lack of virtue is ultimately destructive to the individual organism. So, as you rightly point out, frustrating the end of the sexual organ causes no direct physical harm to the individual (necessarily); but his or her ability to thrive in society is diminished by lack of temperance, chastity etc.

      One could argue (and some already have) that the natural end of the sexual organs is not only reproductive but social. Someone might take that up and say that for a homosexual it is a social good to use it how he sees fit. But, of course, that is individualistic in the extreme. The obvious purpose of human genitals is reproduction and cooperation between the sexes.
      We can see the damage done to social cohesion when males and females approach each other as competitors/objects rather than partners/subjects.