Posts Tagged ‘Critical thinking’
Of the “Big Three” moral philosophies, virtue ethics seems to be the most problematic. Criticisms and rebuttals of the other two theories, utilitarianism and deontology, are relatively simple to state and understand, or at least I found them so. On the other hand, I was able to easily compile a dozen criticisms of virtue ethics from a very few professional papers on the subject in a short amount of time. That intrigued me. In this paper I intend to defend virtue ethics as the best moral philosophy by addressing several of the excellent criticisms.
The theory is straight-forward: Moral life should have a purpose and lead to happiness. Virtue ethics is about building character. Developing good moral character leads to contentment that comes from “doing the right thing.” This moral theory is not about rules or something called “utility.” Virtue ethics requires a lifetime of practice to develop. The way to become a moral person is to be moral. This theory is more about being or becoming, not so much about doing. It’s about who you are. The concept of the “mean” is crucial to this philosophy. The focus is on balance, moderation and avoiding extremes. Aristotle taught in order to achieve a virtuous and potentially happy character, we must first be taught by teachers and by experience. Later, we then consciously choose to do the best or virtuous things when presented with moral choices. This requires a lot of pondering of our choices and ultimately, feeling about things in a certain way. It is this feeling which causes, motivates or empowers virtuous or good actions.
Perhaps it is this component of feeling that raises such criticism. Those who practice virtue ethics are seeking eudemonia (Greek), a state meaning well-being, blessedness, or for our purposes, a state of human flourishing. That makes it hard to measure and hard to determine when such a state has been reached. How can virtue ethics be useful in a society if the objective is so subjective to the individual? This is just one of the criticisms I will address in this essay. Of course, just because a theory has legitimate criticisms does not negate the value of the theory, especially if favorable rebuttals can be presented. I am going to assume you are familiar with the theory beyond the basics presented in the preceding paragraph and will therefore focus on the rebuttals as the core of the argument advocating my position.
Let’s address the applicability problem right up front. What sorts of actions are morally permitted and which ones are not? What sorts of measureable outcomes are desired with virtue ethics? What are the duties or rules of virtue ethics that can be used in specific moral situations? The difficulty in this objection is that it focuses on a lower functioning level of human nature – having to be told what to do in all situations. Such a lower level is indicative of immaturity. Virtue ethics works best as one seeks to do the virtuous thing partly by avoiding vices. Let’s take the specific example of a raped fifteen year old girl trying to decide whether or not to have an abortion. The moral guidance of virtue ethics would have her avoid vices such as selfishness, irresponsibility or short-sightedness. Abortion is a personal choice but has consequences that reach far beyond the individual. Adoption is an alternative to abortion. Virtue ethics provides moral guidance in this situation by allowing the young mother a choice. She can make a very difficult situation better by applying the moral guidance afforded by seeking the virtues of love, patience, unselfishness, forgiveness, tolerance, kindness and charity. She may choose to raise the child herself but is probably not yet suited to provide the child the best care. She can have the abortion but perhaps she has strong feelings that she might regret her decision. Action guidance from virtue ethics allows her to choose to endure the unwanted pregnancy and give the child up for adoption as being a better choice. The criticism that virtue ethics does not provide action guidance in specific moral situations demonstrates an unwillingness to think things through, weigh the alternatives and make a choice, a process that rule-based systems don’t do well.
Now let’s address the cultural relativity problem. This is not unique to virtue ethics, but seems to be made less difficult by the unique aspects of this theory. You are probably familiar with the example of the differences in how some societies treat their dead. With virtue ethics, we can readily see that something abhorrent to Western civilization like cooking and eating a piece of flesh from your recently deceased grandmother might actually be an acceptable practice because it embodies the virtue of honoring your ancestors. Such a virtue is applicable to most cultures even though we may disagree with the way a specific culture implements it. Another example is the idea of slave-holding. In some cultures it was considered morally acceptable, even virtuous to enslave human beings. Virtue ethics does not necessarily require a static ranking of virtues over time. In the slave-holding example, there is an obvious conflict of virtues at work, which in the minds of some, justified the vice of enslaving another human being against their will (I’ll address the conflict problem and justification problem next). Virtue ethics embraces the idea of community. Our values are determined in large part by the communities to which we belong: nation, family, school, church and private and public associations. We accept that some virtues will hold a greater influence upon us according to the time and place in which we live. We are social animals, grounded in a particular place and time. The ethos of our society shapes our moral views and moral activity. The application of virtue ethics allows for the influence of our community to determine the ranking of our values according to our circumstances.
A good moral system must address dilemmas. The requirements of different virtues can bring about conflict because they seemingly point to different courses of action. However, this conflict is only apparent and can be resolved by those possessed with phronesis, translated as practical wisdom. This wisdom comes only with time and through practice, which of course means making mistakes. In reality, virtues do not make opposing demands. One course of action, which some may consider a rule, may outrank another in a particular case. Or it may be that there is an exception to a standard course of action based on the specific circumstances of a moral choice at hand. Over time, the practitioner of virtue ethics will come to know instinctively, or by a feeling, what is the right course of action in this situation. Since the complexities of every dilemma cannot be determined in advance, virtue ethics teaches the skills needed to study the problem out, ponder the choices and make the best decision. At first, this is difficult and prone to mistakes, but over time, it becomes second nature to know the best course of action.
I only have room to address one other criticism of virtue ethics known as the justification problem. In short, how do we justify or ground our ethical beliefs of what is moral? Which of all the character traits are the virtues? Perhaps this is where the idea of the mean comes into play. We can make lists of all kinds of character traits and then note the extremes of each end. While this may be an exercise to teach the skill for the uninitiated, I do not recommend it as a regular course of action. At one end of the spectrum is excessiveness, while the other end represents deficiency. For the virtue of courage we have recklessness and cowardice. For the virtue of work, we can consider laziness on one end and frenetic on the other. The Golden Mean is the virtue that is to be found in between two corresponding vices. As virtue ethicists, our objective is to be somewhere in the middle. Plato gave us the four Cardinal Virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. Aristotle then added five additional virtues of wisdom, courage, liberality, magnificence and magnanimity. There is no master list of virtues because it could never be all-inclusive. This moral theory is not grounded in a list of rules, desired outcomes or even specific virtues, but rather on the idea of balance, moderation and avoiding extremes. Virtue ethics is grounded on a skill of how to choose wisely, which only comes with practice over time.
In conclusion, it is my contention that virtue ethics is a superior moral system because it is more flexible and embraces a wider range of possibilities than rule-based or outcome-based systems, mainly because of the central component of endorsing agent-based choice as the best way to guide one’s life. Just because a person is continent or falls short of a perfect virtue does not negate the value of virtue ethics. There is something particularly admirable about people who manage to act well when it is especially hard for them to do so. They may not yet have achieved eudemonia, but they are still practicing, which is a major part of the theory of virtue ethics. They may fall short of the ideal again and again but continue to seek the goal of perfection through an ever-so-slightly different approach. This may seem repetitive or even counter-productive, but perhaps that is part of the beauty of the theory. Eventually, given sufficient time and effort and with encouragement from teachers and leaders, practice will pay off. The performance will be complete and the practitioner of virtue ethics will reap the benefits of a moral life well lived.
We have limited free will. Within certain limitations, we can make choices and act upon those choices. Our choices are partially controlled and determined by outside forces and by the laws of physics. But we have agency to act within certain bounds of natural laws that exist. We can exercise that agency, make choices and act upon those choices. Logic dictates there is no purpose or meaning to life if we do not have some free will. We instinctively know we have power to act in some things without constraint of necessity or fate. We are bound or limited by physics but we are independent agents within our sphere of influence. We intuitively think or feel we are free. We therefore act at our own discretion. We are capable of responding to random chance with purposeful choices. Thus we can be held morally responsible and accountable for our choices and actions in both the deterministic world of physics and the indeterminate world of observable quantum mechanics that we are still discovering.
Absolute free will is logically incompatible with determinism because we do not control the universe. However, as individuals, we are able to take more than one possible course of action in any given scenario. There are obvious choices in life we can choose to follow. We can conceive and believe things. This proves some free will even though there are limitations on the choices available to us. For example, because I am not a fish, I do not have the choice of living underwater without some sort of breathing apparatus. It is determined beforehand that human life is incompatible with living unaided under water. I am therefore limited to certain pre-determined boundaries if I want to sustain life. In like manner, in some situations I have a limited number of choices I can make because of the randomness of life. I hope I never have to decide what to do if I am in a plane that is about to crash. I would have no control of the physics causing the plane to crash, but I still have some obvious choices I can make and act upon, like remain calm or panic.
As an argument against any kind of free will, consider the views of hard determinism. Determinists believe that our thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviors are all predetermined from the moment that time began at the big bang. A determinist advocates that we do not have any control over the state of the universe or the laws that govern the universe. Free will is an illusion, they say. You may think that your choices and actions have an effect on the universe but you are really no more than an observer. For a determinist, free will is a nothing more than a necessary delusion that allows us to build a society where praise and punishment actually mean something. Compatibilists hold individuals morally responsible for their actions as if they had free will. Although it doesn’t really exist, they say, we can act as if it does, thus providing a necessary condition for moral responsibility – accountability.
Following this logic, the universe is deterministic and bound by the laws of physics. Our bodies are bound by those same laws. If you are a materialist, you believe that all behavior is caused by chemical brain states outside of our control. In order for free will to exist, there must be a supernatural agent that is not bound by those laws to inject an input from outside the system; in other words, a God. I wish I could develop this further, but for now I will propose that there are only two arguments against free will. First, if determinism is the true state of things, then the will is not free because all events are caused and our actions are predetermined. Therefore, there is no moral responsibility or free will. The second argument against free will is indeterminism of random events or chance. If all our actions are caused by chance then we have no control, and therefore, again, no free will or moral responsibility. True free will requires we have control of outcomes. However, we do not control the universe or the laws of physics. If you think about it, we control nothing of this world or the universe. To prove free will, we must prove that we can control at least some things, thus becoming independent agents with power to act.
I don’t disagree with all the views of materialists or determinists. In fact, I readily concur with determinists that the laws of the universe are outside our control. I also concur that a large part of our body processes are apparently outside the control of at least our conscious mind and will. I can’t control the motion of the planets, the effects of nature, or prevent myself from dying someday. These things are determined. My bounds are set in these matters and many others. I also concur with indeterminism as it relates to many of the choices with which I am presented in this life. So many things are just random and purely by chance. I come across an object on the freeway that gives me a flat tire. It was pure chance that I happened to come upon that object and embed it in my tire first because I just happened to be there at that place and at that time. Random chance is just part of this life. So many things – most things – are out of my control.
So what do I control? There are many things over which I have control and thus free will. I control my responses to the choices I am presented in life. I can control my thoughts. I can control the things I put into my body. I control the things I say and the things I do. Nobody forces me to act a certain way or respond in a specific manner. I control my attitudes and my beliefs. I decide what I will do with my time, who I will go visit, what work I will do, what I choose to study. I may not choose many of the things that happen to me in this life but I can and do choose how I respond to those situations. I determine the character I build by using my free will adequately. My free will is limited to those things over which I have some control and have choices. I do not have free will when it comes to the laws of physics and nature. They are out of my control. In the things over which I do have control such as thoughts, beliefs and opinions I choose what I want to think about or believe. My thoughts are not caused and are not random. They are purposeful and demonstrate free will, especially when I act upon them. Therefore, my conclusion is that we have limited or adequate determinism and limited but genuine free will.
I’ve been doing some critical thinking about a couple of recent statements made by J. Michael Bailey. He is the Northwestern psychology professor who has been the subject of so much media attention due to the live sex demonstration in his human sexuality classroom last month. You can Google the story if you want the details.
What intrigued me was the challenging nature of the defensive statements he offered when the story became public knowledge. He said that he didn’t expect everyone to agree with his decision to allow the demonstration to take place and that “thoughtful discussion of controversial topics is a cornerstone of learning.”
I happen to be enrolled in a critical thinking class right now so this idea caught my attention. While I don’t agree with his decision, I do agree with his statement. So I expected someone to take him up on his challenge, because he offered it as such. Maybe it is too soon but I have yet to see a serious response to his justification.
An Argument to Illuminate Reasoning
A couple of days after the story broke, professor Bailey continued his defense by saying that he would give an F to those who objected to his teaching method. He wrote that the responses conveyed disapproval but did not “illuminate reasoning.” Apparently he has yet to receive an explanation as to why his demo was a problem.
I hope someone with more knowledge of this subject will respond to his proposal for a thoughtful discussion and offer a few reasons why his demonstration was not the best choice. I’m looking for arguments that will illuminate reasoning and do more than to just express disapproval. I could use it when I argue this in my class.
The Man who would be Queen
A little more background information on professor Baily might be helpful. He wrote and published a controversial book in 2003, The Man who would be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism. He admitted that he had sex with his research subjects and said he thought there was nothing wrong with this.
Coincidently, about that same year he found himself divorced and no longer the chair of the psychology department at Northwestern University. According to published reports from students, he is not a great lecturer, but makes up for it by presenting extremely controversial aspects of human sexuality in his classroom.
Teaching Should Benefit Society
I love to teach so maybe this is an area in which we can agree. Professor Bailey is an educator; therefore I’ll assume that it is his intent to help his students learn. As a professor of psychology, I would hope that it is his desire to prevent psychological damage in his students. After all, isn’t that the objective of studying the subject?
We study human behavior to understand it and to be able to deal more effectively with activities that are disturbing, distressing or problematic for the individual or society. For most practitioners, a goal of applied psychology is to benefit society. A university professor is in a particularly influential position upon civilization.
Pornography in the Classroom
Professor Bailey said he uses pornography in his classroom. “I don’t see anything wrong with showing pornography in the classroom provided it has some purpose in the class. Some can be a little explicit,” he said. “I teach the truth – as I understand it…[which] sometimes conflicts with people’s assumptions. That is controversial.”
Bill Yarber, a researcher at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute and author of the widely used textbook Human Sexuality: Diversity in Contemporary America, said he’s never heard of a naked woman being brought to orgasm in front of a class of students. Watching a video is one thing but seeing a live demo is pushing things.
A commentary from a Catholic blogger about this episode illustrates a typical reaction, “Professor J. Michael Bailey’s Human Sexuality class has nothing to do with psychosexual development, morality, biology — nothing worthy of study; just an excuse for presenting risqué and deviant sexual behaviors as normative.”
Sexual Relations Should be Private
It is my contention that demonstrating the use of a motorized phallus to a group of students is not a legitimate form of sexual education, especially in the classroom. In fact, I will go so far as to say that viewing of pornographic material is equally inappropriate and unnecessary to meet the requirements of human sex education.
I believe that sexual relations should be expressed privately in marriage, between a husband and wife. I therefore believe that all public displays of sexual activity are inappropriate. I believe that pornography is harmful and destructive to the souls of those who create it and those who consume it. It is not needed for sexual education.
Professor Bailey’s demonstration was controversial because as far as I can tell, it was the first time live sex has been used in a classroom setting. But the real issue is how diametrically opposed this is to the values of virtue, modesty and respect for human sexual relations. It is degrading and cheapens it to something undesirable.
Achieving a Fulfilling Love
I think the comment of a student studying to be a therapist who then reported on her human sexuality class says it best for me. She stated that she had become a sexual zombie; that sex meant nothing to her because she had tried it all. She found no joy in sexuality. And yet she wants to become a therapist to fix others like her.
Pornography is any material describing or depicting the human body or sexual conduct in a way that arouses sexual feelings. Pornography degrades the heart, mind and spirit. It robs us of self-respect and the sense of beauties of life. It tears us down and does not lift us up. It does not help us achieve fulfilling human love.
I will be leading a classroom discussion of this current event in my critical thinking class in a few weeks. When I shared my subject with the professor he was pleased and said that I might be surprised to learn how many in the class feel the same way I do. That would be a pleasant discovery that I hope is not limited to my college.
William Shakespeare was arguably the most influential writer in all of English literature. One of his plays, Hamlet, seems to have become so influential that it has profoundly affected the course of Western literature and culture even after 400 years. From Hamlet, I have chosen three themes that Shakespeare developed so beautifully: 1) The impossibility of certainty, 2) The complexity of action and 3) The mystery of life and death. These ideas are further advanced in Tom Stoppard’s existentialist work, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Through absurdity, we are lead to believe that 1) The world is incomprehensible, 2) We are insignificant and incapable of making meaningful choices and 3) We are but players on a stage.
The very purpose of life
In effect, Stoppard’s ideas are the same as Shakespeare’s, illustrated with an equal amount of wit, but in a much more bleak and sarcastic style. I dispute these ideas and in contrast, it is my contention that 1) We can choose what we believe about and do with our lives, 2) We have power to act and can cause things to happen and 3) We can be certain about our choices to act in this life. In fact, making choices and acting upon those choices is the very purpose of life. The process of choosing and acting brings great meaning and fulfillment to our lives and is of significant value to our mental health and happiness. It is by not acting that we forfeit opportunities for growth.
Removing doubt from our lives
When the ghost appears to Hamlet and makes him swear to avenge his father’s murder, Hamlet does not seek that vengeance right away. Hamlet is not sure that he believes the ghost is who he says he is or if he is telling the truth. He is uncertain. He is placed in a difficult situation and wants to be certain that Claudius is guilty before taking action. In an effort to gather support for his sworn course of action, he feigns madness and causes actions that will help him ascertain the veracity of the events related by the ghost. He asks the players to change the production so he can watch the reaction of Claudius when he sees his crime revealed in dramatic form. These are the actions of a very thoughtful and intelligent man. It is obvious that his madness is an act. So it is not so impossible to be certain about things. Perhaps it just takes a little time and planning. A little later Hamlet witnesses Claudius confess his crime in prayer, thus his doubts are removed.
Dealing with uncertainty
In response to the confusion expressed by Guildenstern at the incomprehensibility of the events unfolding around him, the Player in Act II of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead says, “Uncertainty is the normal state. You’re nobody special.” Tom Stoppard purposefully demonstrates for us that Guildenstern does not have all the information he needs to make sense of the world around him. Obviously, Stoppard is relating that we are all in the same boat in that we also do not know of everything in the script, so to speak, except for the small part we play.
To act or be acted upon
Of course we are not really in the same boat as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in that we live in the real world where we can seek out and obtain more information if we chose to do so. They are only actors, figments of the imagination of Shakespeare and Stoppard, with no control over their lives. In a sense, they are being acted upon by the whims of the authors. With their limited viewpoint, life does seem incomprehensible and impossible to be certain about anything. On the other hand, we can discover, learn and choose to be certain in our beliefs about life around us.
Philosophies and belief systems
When the Player in Act III of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead says, “Life is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it,” he is implying that the universe is unfair and does not discriminate between good people and bad; that rewards and punishments are entirely random. But is the world such a chaotic place as Stoppard seems to believe it is as expressed through the words of the Player? We go to great effort to create meaning in our lives, developing belief systems and philosophies that give us comfort and a sense of order. It’s true that we cannot control the elements and we cannot control what other people say or do, but we, all of us, have created philosophies or adopted religious ideas to help us cope with the seeming disorder and confusion. Thus, we create our own sense of order and fairness, especially if we look at this life as only a small part of our existence, a mere blip on the timeline of eternity.
To be or not to be
In what may be the most famous speech in the English language, Hamlet examines the mystery of life and death, weighing the moral ramifications of living and dying. “To be, or not to be,” he poses; to live, or not to live. Is it nobler to suffer a life full of “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or to seek to end one’s suffering through death? He compares death to sleep and thinks of the end to pain, suffering and uncertainty that it might bring. In fact, he decides that it would be better to die than to live with the heartache and shocks of life.
Philosophical inquiry not enough
But then he considers the afterlife and the dread of possibly trading one miserable existence for something unknown but conceivably worse. He concludes that this dread makes “cowards of us all,” and so we thus continue to suffer through lovesickness, hard work, political oppression and a host of other undesirable afflictions common to all in this life. This speech connects several of the main themes of the play, including the idea of uncertainty, inability to act and the mystery of death. Hamlet is deeply passionate and relentlessly logical but he has demonstrated for us the difficulty of knowing truth through philosophical inquiry alone. There must be another way.
The power to act
There is a better way. When we are presented with something new or different from what we previously believed, we can choose to believe it or to reject it. When we choose to believe a piece of information, a theory, a philosophy or even a religion, we then have the power to act upon our new belief, thus causing results either within ourselves or the world around us. We have that power because we are agents unto ourselves. We can cause things to happen of our own free will. In effect, it is the ultimate in scientific inquiry and the empirical method. Once we act or cause action, we can then see the results for ourselves. We then have knowledge. We can now be certain about our choices to act in this life based on the results they bring about.
Experience brings knowledge
Let’s apply this to Hamlet. Presented with the news from the ghost that his father had been murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, he decided to believe it, at least partially, but also decided to obtain greater evidence. He caused the players to act as accusers which rattled Claudius into a confession overheard by our hero. Hamlet then had confirming knowledge, obtained by his own actions. He no longer needed to believe what the ghost said. He was certain of this thing. He acted upon his belief and learned something for himself through his own experiences. He no longer needed to believe what someone else said was true. He now had a personal knowledge.
Ask the right questions
Now let’s apply this to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as presented by Tom Stoppard. These confused gentlemen are small players in the big picture, but we are made privy to some of their thoughts and actions while they are not on stage. When they encounter the Player, we sense that they have an opportunity to learn more about their purpose and meaning from him as he seems to know far more about what is going on than he reveals. If only the pair would ask the right questions, they might get some answers. Alas, they do not and continue to march through the entire book just as confused and bewildered as they began. Because they do not actively seek understanding from a potentially knowledgeable source, they therefore have nothing in which to believe or act upon. Consequently, they are unable to make any significant choices and obtain no confirming knowledge to make sense out of their life. They die meaningless deaths.
Choose what we believe
Finally, let’s apply this to us. We come into this world with no knowledge of the purpose or meaning of our lives. Over time, we are presented with a multitude of explanations, beliefs and philosophies to explain the events that are going on around us. Unlike players or actors on a stage who have no control of their lives, we have been given the ability to makes choices and act upon our beliefs. For example, we can choose to believe that there is purpose and meaning to life and that there is someone who knows the beginning from the end. Acting upon this belief, we seek for more knowledge from others who profess similar beliefs. Again, we are presented with choices as some will claim that their answers are the best. They invite us to act upon their beliefs as well as their requests to support them, often financially. They even invite us to participate in their cause in spreading their views to others.
Act upon our beliefs
Choosing to believe something and then acting upon that belief gives us experience. We can then decide if we like the results of our experiment. We can be certain that something is of value or not based upon our own experience. In the process, we learn a lot about ourselves. We discover what will satisfy us and what makes us happy. We rise to the level of our own desires for knowledge. The critical part of the process is to take action. Unless we act upon our beliefs we can never know for ourselves if it is of any value to us. For example, someone may tell you that seeing a Shakespeare play is an enjoyable and enlightening experience. But unless you go see one for yourself, you will never know. Similarly, the best way to learn something about a life philosophy or religion is to participate in activities that practitioners of that way of life follow.
We can be certain
We can choose what we want to believe, act upon those beliefs and then be certain for ourselves if those beliefs have merit or value. Life does not have to be so complex, uncertain or mysterious, especially if we reduce it to a serious of choices and actions. We choose to believe that an education is of value and act upon that belief by paying for an education and doing the hard work required to get a degree. We are then certain of the value of an education. We may decide that it was a waste of time and money or we may choose to believe that our life has been improved and enhanced by our achievement. After all, most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. The world is not so incomprehensible. We are significant and more than just actors on a stage. We are here to gain knowledge through our choices in life.
Be forewarned: This essay contains references to masturbation and other sexual acts. Once again by assignment, I examine the social impact of a controversial book first published over forty years ago, at the height of the sexual revolution. I’ve noticed a trend among most of the short stories and books that we have considered this year in our American Literature classes: many of them contain material that would be considered to be shocking or offensive to more conservative readers. Portnoy’s Complaint is no exception. In fact, if Ginsberg hadn’t broken the indecency barrier with his poem Howl a decade earlier, I am certain that Philip Roth would have been charged with breaking some sort of obscenity law. As it was, attempts were made to prohibit the distribution of the book in some countries and many U.S. libraries banned the book as too vulgar. Of course that was in 1969. Today it is considered an American classic.
I would like to address in this essay just what it is that makes Portnoy’s Complaint such an American classic, to discuss its universal appeal beyond the context of the Jewish culture in which the story takes place and to delve into the very important theme of religious influence on sexual thought, development and behavior. I can’t think of any two subjects that are more a part of our American literature tradition than religion and sex. Put them together in the same paper or book and you introduce conflict. Make them one in your treatise and you have broken a taboo. Roth’s book was a bestseller because he did just that. If you aren’t familiar with the novel, it was Portnoy’s Complaint that he could not enjoy sex because of the guilt that he felt from his religious culture. It is my thesis that the majority of American literature addressing this theme is faulty because of an incorrect understanding of the place of sex in religion. In fact, it is my contention that Portnoy’s Complaint is deeply flawed because of the focus on guilt as a direct result of religious culture and upbringing. But then, that’s what makes it so very American.
Alexander Portnoy understood the principle of guilt. He was an expert at guilt. In fact, he was a slave to it. He lived with it day in and day out. And where did he get it? He tells us that it came from his parents. After providing numerous examples he exclaims, “Doctor, these people are incredible! These people are unbelievable! These two are the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time! They render it from me like fat from a chicken!” (p39) Did they do it on purpose? Are they to blame? Perhaps this later observation from Alex makes it clearer. “Doctor, what do you call this sickness I have? Is this the Jewish suffering I used to hear so much about? Is this what has come down to me from the pogroms and the persecution? from the mockery and abuse bestowed by the goyim over these two thousand lovely years?” (p40) In other words, he did not necessarily blame his parents for the guilt he felt; he blamed his religion. He equated Jewish suffering, and in particular, his own guilt, upon his cultural religious history.
At the age of fourteen, coincidentally about the age that most boys are in the midst of puberty, Alex decided that he would no longer participate in the traditional religious practices of his parents. He told them that he would no longer go to the synagogue with them. Since Alex has been masturbating, he has been experiencing guilt. It is clear that he attributes this guilt to his religious culture. In Jewish tradition, masturbation is prohibited, as are impure thoughts and sexual relations before marriage. In the midst of a long-winded diatribe directed at his father but more generally directed at his people, he says, “… instead of crying over he-who refuses at the age of fourteen ever to set foot inside a synagogue again, instead of wailing for he-who has turned his back on the saga of his people, weep for your own pathetic selves … It is coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass– I happen also to be a human being!” (p84) But he could not get away from the guilt he continued to experience because of his ongoing sexual activities.
Portnoy’s Complaint is not just a novel about masturbation or the sexual activities of a young Jewish man. It is really a very Catholic book, which means that the subject matter has universal and widespread appeal. Every young man goes through puberty, and if we are to believe the statistics, the majority of them (90% by some accounts) will have masturbated at least once by the time they are 18, with 60% masturbating regularly during their adolescent years. In America, the land of porn, we have the unique distinction of also being a very religious country. According to recent statistics, 83% of Americans claim to belong to a religious organization even though less than 40% formally participate by attending church regularly. Do you see my point? If the majority of young men masturbate and the majority of people in America have some sort of religious tradition in their lives, then this really is an American conflict that Roth has brought to our attention in such an entertaining manner. It is a characteristically American problem.
Portnoy’s answer to his complaint of guilt was to disassociate himself with his religious practices, a common solution for many young men in America who experience their own crisis of faith. In his case, he continued to have a very difficult time with guilt because being Jewish is more than just a religion. It is also his cultural heritage. He simply could not get away from the terrible feelings of shame and remorse he experienced even though he had renounced his faith. As he so eloquently exclaimed, “Doctor, I can’t stand any more being frightened like this over nothing! Bless me with manhood! Make me brave! Make me strong! Make me whole! Enough being a nice Jewish boy, publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz!” (p 40) Even many years after his vow of non-participation, he still felt like he had to be a nice Jewish boy to please his parents. Even though he had graduated first in his law school class and was a very successful government lawyer, he could not free himself from the control of his parent’s beliefs, especially his mother’s ability to manipulate his feelings after so many years.
That was the wrong answer. Instead of rejecting his faith, maybe he should have listened to his father and embraced it, or at least the good parts of it. Alex went to Israel in a spontaneous attempt to find himself, his roots and some peace to his predicament. Unfortunately, he did not approach his quest with the right attitude. To him, it was purely an intellectual exercise. “I set off traveling about the country as though the trip had been undertaken deliberately, with forethought, desire, and for praiseworthy, if conventional, reasons. Yes, I would have (now that I was unaccountably here) what is called an educational experience. I would improve myself, which is my way, after all. Or was, wasn’t it? Isn’t that why I still read with a pencil in my hand? To learn? To become better? (than whom?) So, I studied maps in my bed, bought historical and archeological texts and read them with my meals, hired guides, rented cars—doggedly in that sweltering heat, I searched out and saw everything I could.” (pp284-285) In the middle of his travels, he hits up on the local Israeli girls but finds that he has suddenly become impotent.
Alex concludes that he has been cursed by God, or at least by some sort of all-powerful judge because of the way he treated the women in his life. He resolves nothing and returns to America to a long session with his psychoanalyst, which results in the book we have read. Of course this is a fictional account but it so aptly describes the typical intellectual approach of some to finding answers to the really big questions in life – like how to be free of guilt. I have read the writings of a good rabbi who advocates the need to feel remorse and make amends. If Alex had looked deeper into his faith, I am convinced that he could have found an intelligent way to eliminate guilt that is both rational and practical. Guilt is a universal part of the human condition. It is something that we all feel when we have done something that goes against our own moral beliefs. In Alex’s case, he knew that it was wrong to masturbate, or at least to take it to the level that he did. He also knew that he had hurt each of the women he introduced us to in the book. If he had studied his own religion even just a little bit (how did he ever get through his own Bar Mitzvah?), he just might have learned the true meaning of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, one of the holiest days of the year for his people.
To me, guilt is an indication that you still care about something that you once valued. If Alex didn’t care about these girls and their feelings, why did he keep bringing them up? If he didn’t really believe deep down in his heart that masturbation was wrong, then why did he feel so guilty after all these years? Alex was a good man, an intelligent man, but a confused man. He was confused by the idea that sex was something only meant for personal pleasure. If he would have considered that maybe, just maybe, what his faith taught about sex was worth considering, then maybe he could also have accepted the idea that he could be forgiven for whatever he has done that has caused him so much guilt. In Judaism, sex is reserved for marriage. It is intended to draw the married couple close to one another and to bind them as partners in their family. It is not just Judaism that believes this, so again this is a very catholic book with universal appeal. Alex did not want to get married, because to him, marriage was all about lust.
“Look, at least I don’t find myself still in my early thirties locked into a marriage with some nice person whose body has ceased to be of any genuine interest to me. How much longer do I go on conducting these experiments with women?” (p114) That’s pretty shallow. People do get old. Bodies change. Yet they stay married. Why? Because they are comfortable and happy together. It’s not all about sex. Marriage is more about a relationship, helping each other find happiness, learning and growing together. It’s not an experiment. It’s a commitment to one another. “I have affairs that last as long as a year, a year and a half, months and months of love, both tender and voluptuous, but in the end-it is as inevitable as death-time marches on and lust peters out. In the end, I just cannot take that step into marriage. But why should I? Why? Is there a law saying Alex Portnoy has to be somebody’s husband and father? I simply cannot, I simply will not, enter into a contract to sleep with just one woman for the rest of my days.” (p116)
No, Alex, there’s no law, but you are missing out on wonderful things that come from marriage and in no other way: a sense of security and belonging that lasts. People get married because they love each other. They get married for love. And because you love another person you agree to be faithful to them and to do all you can to help them want to be faithful to you. But he continues, “For love? What love? Is that what binds all these couples we know together– the ones who even bother to let themselves be bound? Isn’t it something more like weakness? Isn’t it rather convenience and apathy and guilt? Isn’t it rather fear and exhaustion and inertia, gutlessness plain and simple, far, far more than that ‘love’ that the marriage counselors and the songwriters and the psychotherapists are forever dreaming about?” (p117)
No Alex, love isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength, but then you’ve admitted that you know nothing about love. You don’t understand that love involves sacrifice and giving and caring. Actually, Alex, love is not convenient at all, it is often very inconvenient. Love is the opposite of fear, it is faith. One doesn’t enter into a marriage relationship at the end of a long series of exhausting sexual escapades, but at the beginning, when sex is a novelty to be discovered together by two people who are committed to each other and want to please each other for a lifetime. I think we can safely conclude that Alex is against marriage. He does not want to be married. He does not want to be faithful to one woman. He seems to think that a marriage will only work as long as there is a strong lust element. Yet, he also complains over and over that he is not satisfied with his lustful, perverted life.
He won’t marry because he doesn’t believe he can or will be faithful. He justifies dumping these girls because he says he knows that he will just tire of them and that he doesn’t want to cause them grief or pain down the road. He tells us that he knows he will have a mistress a few years into the marriage, and asks why “… my devoted wife, who has made me such a lovely home, et cetera, bravely suffers her loneliness and rejection? How could I face her terrible tears? I couldn’t. How could I face my adoring children? And then the divorce, right? The child support. The alimony. The visitation rights. Wonderful prospect, just wonderful.” (p117) He’s already decided that marriage will never work for him. He does not want to get married and probably never will. He does not see that it brings him anything that he is not already getting, because apparently all he wants is sex. Oh Alex, that is such a small part of marriage. You have no clue, you have no idea what joy can be found in a marriage relationship that does not involve the bedroom. You idiot! You’re so smart, but you’re such a schmuck! Grow up!
Get rid of that guilt by forgiving your parents, forgiving yourself and getting on with your life. Decide that you’re going to change your approach to sex and marriage into something much more wholesome. Get a clue from your religion. Talk to your rabbis again. Maybe you should study your theology and discover what it really teaches about how to overcome guilt. You’re not the first person to ever experience this you know. And Alex, thanks for the entertaining novel and for contributing greatly to this very American literary tradition of religion and sex in such a unique way. But couldn’t you have done it without so much obscenity and vulgarity?
Roth, Phillip, Portnoy’s Complaint, New York: Bantam Books,1969
I’ve been reading the arguments on MormonThink.com off and on for several years now. I have a lot of respect for the individuals behind the site, even though most of them choose to be anonymous. I am confident that I have been visited by several of the contributors there or at least by those who read their site and others like it such as Ex Mormon and Post Mormon.
I am by no means a scholar or intellectual. I think I’m pretty smart and that I’m pretty good with logic. After all, I have made a living for thirty years demystifying computers for others. But I know there are a lot of people out there who are smarter than I am and who have the academic credentials to prove it. I like to think that I’m just a regular, average, typical Latter-day Saint.
I like smart, thinking people and especially people who present logical conclusions well, either in writing or verbally. Critical thinking is a skill that I am constantly striving to improve. I confess that I am impressed when someone can speak or write with confidence, especially when it comes to doctrines and practices of the church. That’s why I continue to take college classes each year.
Choosing to believe
But I’d like to take exception with one of the common threads I find in the essays on sites like MormonThink.com. It has to do with choosing to believe. The concept of voluntary or involuntary belief has been discussed by philosophers for millennia. But it’s such a basic part of how I deal with the sort of intellectual issues on Mormon Think that I want to share it with you.
I disagree with those who contend that beliefs are not voluntary acts of will. There is no doubt in my mind that I am a voluntarist when it comes to my beliefs about the church and our history. This is especially true in light of, or in spite of all the fascinating historical facts that I have read over the years that are just not taught to or even known by the majority of the Latter-day Saints.
Invariably I have found that those who label themselves atheists also claim to be involuntarists. I am coming to the conclusion that those who embrace the title of Ex Mormon, Post Mormon or Former Mormon also see their position as involuntary. “It was inevitable,” they say, “based on what I have learned, I had no other choice but to now disbelieve what I had formally believed.”
Well, that’s where we differ. I have spent many years studying the same material that has been so troubling and bothersome to so many of my fellow seekers of knowledge. I can honestly say that my faith has been strengthened and my belief deepened that Joseph was who he claimed to be – a prophet of God – and that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be – Holy Scripture.
I have no doubt that there are many in the church, who, if they studied the same material we have written about on our blogs and websites, would be absolutely freaked out and would soon leave the church. They are either social Mormons only or are not strong in their desire to know more about the history of our church. I don’t think these kinds of people are your typical Mormons.
What’s missing from sites like MormonThink.com, and what you’ll find in abundance on the official church web sites, is the role of faith, and especially encouraging faith. There is way too much emphasis on the intellect and not enough focus on feelings. The section on Testimony and Spiritual Witness relegates the role of feelings of faith as something to be dissected and derided.
Announcing new website
That’s reason why I decided to start my own website, LatterdayCommentary.com. This blog is hosted on that domain, which I registered years ago. It’s not much to look at today. In fact, I almost consider it a prototype. I’ve put together some commentary and links to my essays on some of the same subjects that you will find on MormonThink.com. It will grow with time.
I know that I’m just one of thousands of LDS members who have a website where they share their beliefs and testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. I like to think that I’m not much different from your average Mormon. I grew up as a member of the church but I come from a convert family. And my viewpoint is definitely that of a laid-back California boy.
I’ve been happy as a member of the LDS Church all my life. I loved my mission and I love going to the temple. I love General Conference and I love serving in a local Bishopric. I hope you’ll take a look at my website and then come back here and make some suggestions as to how I can make it better and more useful in promoting the doctrines of our LDS faith to the world.