Virtue and Sex

By Craig Michael White
October 3, 2018

Modern Americans don’t hear a lot about virtue growing up, but they are at least somewhat ready to hear its claims, if put in modern terms. (If you do use the word virtue, I’d say translate it at some point to “excellence.”) If you explain to a young person Aristotle’s idea that if you continually practice courage in small ways, you can become a more courageous person, and then when you are in a difficult spot and cowardice would be awful, you might be far more ready to act with courage, she will understand and quite likely agree. 

Conversely, you may continue, a cowardly act here and there when real courage is called for in a small way might tend to turn you into a more cowardly person. Then, in the important situation, the cowardly act is more likely: you have become, in effect, a bit of a coward, rather than a somewhat brave person, and that too affects how you will act. 


The point can be expanded. What about truthfulness? Wouldn’t telling the truth on a regular basis (I don’t mean, “you look really fat,” and so forth), when it is difficult, tend to make you a more truthful person over time? Conversely, lying whenever it’s easier than telling the truth will tend to make you a liar, someone untrustworthy when the truth is demanded. Self-control: the little actions, again and again, can either make you a self-controlled person, or the opposite. Fairness: choosing what is fair, even when it hurts in small matters, tends to make you more of a fair person, someone who can be trusted to be fair. Common sense (the word “wisdom” works sometimes): wouldn’t trying to practice common sense on a regular basis lead to a character in which it plays a role?


Most of us, despite not studying the cardinal virtues in school, would like at some deep level to be courageous, fair, self-controlled people who make intelligent choices in daily life. Even if we aren’t working on those things, some part of us at least recognizes their value. And even if we are not sure how to get there, when we are asked, “wouldn’t it help to start to practice these qualities in daily life,” we tend to recognize that as a good answer.


If that is right, we are not downright hostile to teleology in matters of character: we can recognize, if prompted, that there could be such a thing as an excellent character and that it is a target worth aiming at, in part because it leads the one who has it to make excellent choices consistently.


Now, it is quite true that there are strong forces in life, reinforced in our culture, that push us away from such cultivation of excellence. Self-control? Well, you only live once, so grab for all the gusto you can. All the delicious food and drink we are constantly urged to consume, and the ubiquitous eye-candy, are a bit hard to square with self-control. We are urged to think the point of hard work and achievement is so that at some point we can “get a little out of control,” as an old song put it. Courage and truthfulness? We all agree in an academic sort of way that these would be good to cultivate, but…enough to make hard choices, and lots of them? Does this kind of excellence really compete, in our minds, with popularity and success? Certainly this kind of countervailing pressure has always existed—think of Socrates’ Sophist opponents, or the cultural waters Machiavelli sailed in—but I suspect an underlying thorough-going materialism, reinforced by floods of clever advertising, and not countered by many credible models of transcendence, makes this anti-excellence pressure stronger now than in many epochs. 


What about sex? There is a long-term goal we share with our broader culture: a faithful, mutually giving committed love. In countless romcoms, those who persist in seeking are eventually rewarded with a faithful love that promises to last. Even the picture of a breakdown, as in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” album, shows our respect for this difficult dream.


Yet how do we expect to reach the goal? Generally by having non-committal flings. Through giving in to desire whenever it hits us. Through the practice of non-commitment. It’s as if the path to being truthful involved telling years of lies, or the path to self-controlled eating lay through years of eating every sweet fatty treat we ever saw. This is the question we might plant like a seed—can we really get to sexual faithfulness through multiple acts of no faith? To commitment by not being committed? To disciplined desire (that sticks to one person) through desire without discipline? To sacrificial love by never sacrificing? Isn’t some other plan more likely to get us there?