Features
02.18.2020
7 minutes

Aristotle points the way to true virtue through free will.

And now, a word from our old pal Aristotle about the porn crisis.

Here is the philosopher in Book 3, Chapter 5 of his Nicomachean Ethics, discussing how we should regard an alcoholic who commits a crime while blackout drunk (my translation, emphasis added):

The source of the wrongdoing was in himself: for he had control over his choice to get drunk or not…. Maybe it will be objected that he is not the kind of person to be careful about such things. But men cause themselves to become careless by living carelessly, and to be unjust or irresponsible by doing wrong or passing their time getting drunk and so forth…. But this does not mean that they can simply stop becoming wrongdoers and start becoming righteous, any more than a sick man can become healthy just by wishing it so.

Aristotle describes a feedback loop involving habit, character, and action. We tend to behave in certain ways because we are certain types of people, and we become certain types of people by behaving in certain ways. No one is born a drunk. But if we freely choose to drink too much, we find ourselves locked in a reinforcement cycle from which we will struggle to recover. Vice, like coronavirus, is easy to contract and miserably difficult to shake.

This describes exactly the situation in which men all over America find themselves with respect to pornography. Almost everyone who grew up with a smartphone grew up with access to an infinite quantity of empty sex on video. And if we thought we could dip our toes into this ocean of filth with immunity, we were wrong. You can check in any time you like, but you can never leave: we are, in staggering numbers, addicted to porn.

Aristotle also knew that this kind of feedback loop doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Our inborn predispositions, the teachings of our parents, and (crucially) our laws help condition and constrain the choices we make as children. Over time, those choices form us into the kinds of people we become as adults. And then it is us, as adults, who make the laws and build the families. Choice, habit, character, society, law: there is no untying the gordian knot into which these things are woven.

Libertarianism is predicated on the lie that you can untie that knot: that our laws can simply stay out of our personal ethics. They cannot and they never have. And so, as Josh Hammer notes, there is nothing inherently wrong or unconstitutional about writing and enforcing laws which restrict the use of porn. I suspect an actual porn ban would be inadvisable. But to throw up your hands about this issue is not to leave the government out of the question. It is to accept a regime which encourages self-destruction, misery, and shame.

However. In our eagerness to recall that government inevitably does play a role in moral habituation, we are apt to forget another Aristotelian truism: there is no such thing as compulsory virtue. The good and the evil are both species of the voluntary. The source of all morality is the individual who freely chooses—primed and trained by his upbringing as he may be—to do this or that, to harm or help, to indulge or refrain. If the state loses sight of this—if it not only encourages but mandates healthy sexuality—it makes morality meaningless.

The consequences of forced sexual ethics can be glimpsed already in the public schools of California, where children are marched through weird catechisms about transgenderism to which they and their caretakers must assent. The horror of such lessons isn’t just the content: it’s the coercion. Strip the individual of his right to choose—no matter how noble your intentions—and what you thought would be justice turns into an empty, glassy-eyed shell of itself.

The porn crisis—as Bedivere Bedrydant and Marlo Safi insist—is a spiritual crisis. Even if it were possible to ban porn altogether, it wouldn’t cure our nation’s real addiction, which is not to porn but to materialism. Having been fed on a diet of poorly digested Marxism and half-understood Freudianism for decades, many Westerners are now constitutionally unable to conceive of themselves as anything more than meat sacks containing chemicals.

Small wonder that such an outlook has produced men who think sex is not a meeting of souls but a pressing of buttons. And yet it’s those men who must be led, not forced, to think of themselves as something more. To shun porn of their own free will. There are long years of difficult work ahead of us, and it is not only legislative work. In schools, in families, in public, we must be unashamed to teach—and to show—that man is more than dust.

is associate editor of the Claremont Review of Books and The American Mind and host of the Young Heretics podcast.

Origin of this feature

Origin

Obscenity Blindness

Pornographic technology has turned sensory overload into sensory degradation.