Monthly Archives: September 2014

Not Sexual Consent

In recent years, in liberal society, sexual ethics has become synonymous with consent. An act is considered ethical if and only if it is consensual, or if you prefer, consent is ethically both necessary and sufficient. But this did not come about by the reduction of sexual ethics to consent. Instead, the definition of consent has expanded to encompass all sexual ethics. This is unfortunate, as it complicates the concept and obscures the ethics.

So what happened? The core of the meaning of consent is agreement to a proposal. We can add, it is assumed that this agreement is knowing and unforced, that is, the consenter understands whatever it is that’s being suggested, wants to do it, and expresses that. Or if you want to go further, consent should be informed (knowing what the consequences are) and enthusiastic. Even with these qualifications, it’s is a fairly straightforward and intuitive concept. It’s pretty much “this is what I really want”.

Consent has always been a fairly central concept in sexual ethics, but it was the BDSM scene that narrowed the focus. After all, it’s widely understood that, generally speaking, hitting other people is unethical, and considered abuse in the context of a intimate relationship, which is a particularly bad thing. But it turns out some people enjoy being slapped, spanked, flogged, tied up, having their hair pulled and so forth. Shouldn’t they get what they want?

The first BDSM formulation of sexual ethics was “Safe, Sane and Consensual”, which seems intended to come across as sensible and reassuring to a sceptical society. Nevertheless, some people inside the scene began to object, both to “Safe”, since some unsafe things are still worth doing, and also to “Sane”, since it seems difficult to objectively evaluate, and perhaps even an arbitrary restriction on states of mind for an activity that is almost intended to change consciousness. These days “Risk-Aware Consensual Kink” is a more popular formulation, a phrase that notably resembles “informed consent”. As acceptance of BDSM has grown, “consent” alone has become the liberal standard for sexual ethics. Sexual behaviour is ethical, we are to understand, if and only if it is consensual.

The problem is that consent cannot bear the weight of all our sexual ethics. For example, a young teenager might be enthusiastic about sex with a much older adult. For example, someone very drunk might be enthusiastic about sex. This is consent under the straightforward meaning, but at the same time, we recognise, though without much examination, that sex in such situations is unethical. So, not willing to abandon our “ethics = consent” model, we tacitly redefine consent: we declare that such people “cannot consent”.

The term cannot consent is borrowed from law, where it actually means “consent is not a defence”. Likewise, in ethics, we have defined cannot consent as “it’s unethical even if they say yes”. And sexual ethics, in turn, is defined by consent…

Worse, consent is considered to be binary: one either does or does not consent to sex: there can be no blurred lines. But there are obviously degrees of intoxication (and age), does that not mean there are also degrees of consent, and therefore degrees of rape? (The phrase “blackout drunk” gets bandied about as some sort of test, but blackout refers to post-hoc memory loss: it’s something that isn’t yet evident at the time someone is drunk, and in any case is only loosely related to the degree of intoxication, so it won’t work as any kind of ethical guide.)

I propose we stop trying to load consent with all of our ethics. Instead, I have a simpler rule:

Don’t have sex if either of you will regret it.

That is, you have a responsibility to prevent bad outcomes for both yourself and your partner. And you are responsible for regret if you ought to have known it would happen, even if you both agreed to sex at the time.

To do this, you have to be able to answer some questions. How can I know? And, how sure do I need to be? What risks are worthwhile? Instead of a false definition between “consensual” and “nonconsensual”, the ambiguity in these questions is now front-and-centre where it can be examined and discussed: there are clearly degrees of regret, degrees of certainty about what will cause it, degrees of reasonability of foresight. Some choices cause more harm than others. Some choices are more likely to cause harm than others. Some consequences can be more easily predicted than others. Some risk of regret is worthwhile, even. It’s tempting to try to banish the ambiguity by saying “if there’s any doubt, then no”, but a little thought should show that this is logically incoherent. There are blurred lines in every ethical issue: it’s unavoidable. What matters in ethics is whether the blur is over here or over there.

This builds sexual ethics firmly on Haidt’s Care/Harm moral foundation, where it belongs. If you have sex with someone, you have to care about them. You have to care about them at least enough to avoid a bad outcome for them. And to do that, you have to learn enough to be confident in your choice. Consent, that is, merely saying “yes”, is simply the main thing to learn about: generally necessary but not always sufficient.

This rule also implies self-responsibility. For example, I argue that if you have a habit of getting very drunk, and then enthusing about sex which you later regret, that is a bad pattern of behaviour that you need to own. You are responsible for avoiding actions that cause bad outcomes for yourself as well as for your partner.

— Ashley Yakeley

Perspectivism and Post-Rationalism

On her blog Darcey Riley plans to delineate postrationality. To get started, she posted a list.

Here are some other things that seem to be true of postrationalists:

  • Postrationalists are more likely to reject scientific realism.
  • Postrationalists tend to enjoy exploring new worldviews and conceptual frameworks (I am thinking here of Ribbonfarm’s “refactoring perception”).
  • Postrationalists don’t think that death, suffering, and the forces of nature are cosmic evils that need to be destroyed.
  • Postrationalists tend to be spiritual, or at least very interested in spirituality.
  • Postrationalists like (and often participate in) rituals and magick.
  • When postrationalists are trying to improve their lives/the world, they tend to focus less on easily quantified measures like income, amount of food, amount of disease, etc., and instead focus on more subjective struggles like existential angst.
  • Postrationalists enjoy surrealist art and fiction.

I think I match all the points, and perhaps this:

  • Postrationalists are playful in the face of the absurd.

In short, postrationalists dance. This is a great relief, as I had been toying with an “irrationalist” identity as rationalism annoys me in that way something does when it’s rigorous but misguided. But post-rationalist (with or without the hyphen) is in every way better.

However, the core of my post-rationality is perspectivism. I think this is very loosely Nietzsche’s perspectivism, so credit him but don’t complain if I’m not expounding him correctly:

Truth is only meaningful in the context of some perspective. Truth is a product of thinking, a feeling we get about ideas, and thinking is a human activity, not an abstract activity. Since people think in slightly different ways, which we’ll call their perspectives, they end up with different truths, and these truths can only be understood within those perspectives.

Perspectives have depth. Within a perspective one can find not just rational “beliefs”, but attitudes such as aesthetics and ethics and the like, and there isn’t necessarily a clear categorisation: all of these things are “truth”. This allows people to say this is beautiful and that is ugly, or, this is right and that is wrong, as if they were simply facts. Darcey writes, “actually, intuitions and feelings are really important, let’s see if we can work with them instead of against them”. I’ll go further: intuitions and feelings are inseparable from the texture of truth.

Perspectives have plurality. We adopt different perspectives in different contexts, even as they are part of a larger perspective. Culture is by-and-large commonality between perspectives. This is why cultural difference is so difficult and yet so interesting.

Not even “mathematical truth” can escape this subjectivity. For example, back around the early 1900s there was a debate between two camps, known as the intuitionists and the formalists, on the foundations of mathematics. There were deeper reasons to the debate as the names suggest, but the easiest approach starts with the Law of the Excluded Middle:

  • For any proposition P, either P or not P.

The formalists admitted this rule, while the intuitionists rejected it. To the latter camp, the only way to prove a proposition of the form “P or Q” was to either prove P or prove Q. So what happened? Neither camp “won”; everyone said pretty much everything that can be usefully said, and the two perspectives were transcended into a larger perspective; for example, mathematicians now study proofs themselves as objects. (In particular, proofs that don’t rely on the Law of the Excluded Middle are called constructive.)

All this is not to say that all perspectives are equal: certainly some are better than others. However, exactly which ones those are also depends on one’s perspective. There is no escape…

So if we cannot evaluate perspectives on their truth, without already having a perspective, how do we evaluate perspectives? That is to say, how do we end up with them anyway?

Well, by and large people inherit perspectives from their culture, and evolve them to suit their needs and desires. This might even be a useful approach to mental health: healthy perspectives are those that make people stronger, more effective, more attractive, more powerful, perhaps more successful at reproducing in some Darwinian sense. Really, we humans are more naturally lawyers than scientists, advocates for our interests rather than neutral seekers of truth.

Post-rationalism has space for (pagan) religion in a way that rationalism doesn’t seem to. This is important to me not because religion is “accurate”, but because it is broadly healthy. We know this because of its ubiquity: people naturally tend to be religious, though as Blake pointed out, no one particular religion is natural.

Alain de Benoist says that pagan religion is not a matter of believing in the gods, but awakening to their presence. I consider this awakening as the gaining of a new perspective, one that admits the presence of the gods. For example, the Sun is a god, known by many different names (Sunna, Helios, Saulė, Amaterasu etc.), that one can literally point to on any sunny day. A religious perspective can allow and value all of these without dissonance:

  • The Sun is a ball of hydrogen and helium plasma (per TMBG)
  • The Sun is the source of all energy and life on Earth.
  • The Sun is sacred.
  • I shall give thanks to the Sun.
  • I shall pray to the Sun, and at the right time.
  • It is said, the Sun sulked in a cave until she was lured out by a stripper with a mirror. (for example)

This may seem strange or trite to us, but the development of perspectives is a collective, social process as well as an individual process, and living in a deeply un-pagan culture it’s difficult to enter such perspectives in a genuine way (despite much effort from some quarters).

— Ashley Yakeley