Liberals aren’t sexual relativists

In an article that otherwise makes some good points about conservatives’ “populist” defense of junk food, Rod Dreher just can’t resist taking a swipe at a time-honored liberal strawman:

For conservatives, it may be revealing to compare the defensiveness with which many of us discuss what we do in the dining room to the defensiveness liberals approach discussion of what they do in the bedroom. Liberals, to overgeneralize, believe that what consenting adults do in bed with their bodies is immune from moral judgment. Social conservatives recognize the falsity of this view, understanding that immoderation in sexual matters corrupts individual character and can have deleterious social consequences.

I can see why this neat bit of parallelism may have been too tempting to leave on the editing-room floor, but it just doesn’t wash. A more accurate approximation to the “liberal” view would be that what consenting adults do in the bedroom is not a fit matter for state regulation. But liberals are hardly barred from making moral judgments about sexual relations. This is because consent is a necessary, but not sufficient, criterion for morally appropriate sexual acts. A liberal can easily say, for instance, that a relationship of equality and mutuality is morally superior to one based on humiliation and degradation, even if all the parties involved consent to their treatment.

Dreher here makes the common conservative mistake of assuming that because liberals object to some longstanding moral prohibitions (on, say, homosexual relationships) that they must object to all moral judgment in matters of sex. This only follows if you treat sexual ethics as a seamless whole that can’t be altered without the whole thing unraveling. But liberals typically take a different approach: they look for the deeper, underlying principles that justify a particular sexual ethic and try to prune off the bits that seem inconsistent with those principles, understood in light of changing social contexts and new knowledge. Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant made some particular judgments about sex that nearly all of us (conservative and liberal) would now reject, but we can still use the principles of human flourishing or respect for persons to articulate a consistent sexual ethic.

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7 thoughts on “Liberals aren’t sexual relativists

  1. I think it depends on the liberal. If you’re talking to liberal theologians and philosophy majors what you say is true, but Dreher’s examples of reverse food snobbery don’t sound like they’re exactly articulating the deep underlying principles of their beliefs either. Instead they’re using a typical American insta-response to anyone criticizing their personal habits: “It’s my choice and you have no right to judge!” Since liberals and conservatives are usually publicly criticized for different things, they’ll say that on behalf of different vices.

    I have seen people around the web try to articulate sexual ethics based entirely on consent. But that often carries the underlying assumption that people who put themselves in degrading and abusive relationships must be suffering from Stockholm syndrome or some other mental imbalance and thus aren’t properly “consenting.” Different pathway to the same result, really.

    • You get a similar result with preference-based utilitarianism: is every preference–no matter how sadistic, bigoted, or vicious–worthy of satisfaction? If not, then you have to bring in some other evaluative criteria to decide which preferences should count, and so have moved away from a purely preference-based analysis (which is very similar to a consent-based one).

      More generally, when people say “You have no right to judge” I’m not sure they’re necessarily making some kind of claim about the nature of moral evaluation. Just as likely, I think, they may mean something like “It’s none of your business!” Which is true much of the time! Just because sexual relationships admit of moral evaluation doesn’t mean that we’re in a position to make such an evaluation most of the time. The specifics of a given person’s situation usually won’t be known to us, making moral evaluation murky in many cases.

      • True, that line isn’t always just an evasion (though it sometimes is). But your standing to comment on someone else’s morals isn’t just a matter of how much you know about them, but how much their behavior affects you. That’s one of the major points of dispute here, since Dreher refers to the “deleterious social consequences” of sexual misconduct and, earlier, of overeating. So saying MYOB is a way of saying “I’ve committed no sin against you,” which technically doesn’t mean you haven’t committed a sin in the general sense, but if you say that to enough people it certainly sound like that. I mean, only Dreher knows exactly what he was thinking, but I took all this as more of a comment on society’s ability to set norms than the existence of abstract moral absolutes.

  2. I think most liberals do have standards by which they judge sexual relationships – those with equality of power seem, um, healthier than those where one person has most of the power, at least to me. The issue of the morality of BDSM relationships is interesting, given all the recent attention to the 50 Shades of Grey books.

  3. I might add as Rowan Williams articulated so well in The Body’s Graces, simply because a sexual relationship has societal sanction and approval, say by marriage of persons of different sexes, does not necessarily make the relationship moral…all sorts of ugly things have and are done under that umbrella, and usually to women.

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