An Ethic of Nerve and Compassion

The Ethic of Empathy

A couple of days ago, I posted on the subject of the new purity ethic. As I have followed the development of this conversation over the last couple of years, among the things that I have found the most striking is the degree to which progressive evangelical discussions on purity and sexual ethics are governed by what one could term an ‘ethic of empathy’.

At the heart of this ethic is a concern for the feelings and sensitivities of persons and an acute attention to the internal character of people’s experience. The currency for this ethic is the personal narrative and the sharing of feelings. Truth emerges from the empathetic encounter, as people bravely and authentically articulate their stories, in a manner ‘true to themselves’. These stories and the feelings that they express should be honoured as sacred and we should be careful not to invalidate or judge either.

Such an ethic is concerned about anything that might negatively impact upon people’s feelings. This negative impact can take a number of forms. None of us should be made to feel judged, condemned, or defiled on account of our actions, nor should we be allowed to feel that we are suffering the just consequences of past sinful actions. As much as humanly possible, we should all be affirmed and validated in our choices and stories. It is unreasonable to hold people to standards that are painful and unpleasant and especially wrong to maintain that someone has a very demanding moral duty when we have no personal experience of their position. Instead of harsh and judgmental language such as ‘sin’ and ‘fornication’, we need to be prepared to adopt softer and more therapeutic terms, palliating the unpleasant feeling of shame, and, rather than speaking of God’s claim upon us, which can seem demanding and subject us to external judgment and potentially coercion, speak of virtue in terms of the language of self-realization, authenticity, and being all that we can be.

For such an ethic, the sin of non-marital sex takes a backseat to the sin of ‘slut-shaming’. Far, far worse than having sex outside of marriage is the possibility that one should be made to feel really bad, impure, judged, or subject to long term adverse consequences on account of that fact. It is also necessary for us to recognize just how painful and demanding it is for people in certain positions to live according to Christian norms, how difficult for the long term unmarried person to live with the possibility of never enjoying any sexual contact, for the unhappily married person to live out a hopeless existence in a marriage where all of the spark has gone and only bitterness remains, for the gay man to spend the entirety of his life resisting some of his most powerful desires, or certain young divorced persons to be denied the chance ever to remarry by God.

As I observed in my previous post, within such an ethic, we gradually become the measure of our own selves. As this occurs, we cease to be expected to act in accordance with higher norms, principles, and realities, which provide criteria by which our lives can be judged and by which we can be held accountable. As truth is increasingly situated within the incommensurable particularity of people’s subjective narratives, our moral principles become partial truths – true for me, but perhaps not for you – bespoke rules that will sit awkwardly on other’s shoulders.

With this ethic comes a new form of discourse, a greater dependence upon a conversational and self-revelatory style, and typically leads to an overflowing of mutual affirmation. Any truth that claims to be public or objective is treated with great suspicion. When truth is largely situated in the subjective narrative and the immediacy of the feelings that ground it, ‘objective’ truth could only be the tyrannical and power-hungry masquerade of an imperious subjectivity (typically perceived to be that of the privileged white male). In such a context, any impression that the subjective narrative might be invalidated, challenged, or subordinated to a greater narrative will typically be reacted to with outrage, especially if white privileged males are seen to be doing this.

The Critique of the Purity Culture

The purity culture falls foul of this ‘ethic of empathy’ in a number of respects. It is seen to place an onerous burden upon young unmarried people, a burden that very few can live up to, leaving many with a deep sense of futility, frustration, guilt, or personal worthlessness. It shows little regard for the particularity of people’s stories, for the way that some might experience non-marital sex as a minor issue or even as a blessing, or for the particular harshness of its demands upon some. It judges people by a standard beyond their truthfulness to themselves, threatening their autonomy and right to tell and determine the meaning of their own stories. Even adherence to the demands of this culture, despite the claims that one sometimes hears within it, will often leave people trapped within profoundly unhappy marriages. This ethic is seen to be particularly demanding and demeaning in its treatment of women. For many others, a limited pool of marriageable Christians will mean a lifetime of celibacy and childlessness. For an ethic that tends to fetishize feelings and subjective narratives, all of this is unconscionable.

It might be recognized that these charges against the purity culture are certainly not all unjustified. The purity culture can often be legalistic and graceless, feeding a poisonous shame. It can be blind and indifferent to the sorts of demands that it places upon people, many of which could be partially relieved with a little more mindfulness. It often manifests a pronounced and troubling double standard in its treatment of men and women, judging women in an especially harsh manner, making them feel hopeless and worthless on account of past sexual sin or their lack of a spouse. It also can make false promises, teaching a sort of sexual prosperity gospel, suggesting that ‘abstinence’ will lead to marriage to highly eligible partners, to fulfilling ‘sex lives’, and to higher self-esteem.

These faults of the purity culture are well-publicized and, having pointed many of them out in the past, I don’t plan to rehearse them again here. While I firmly hold that we must reject such an abusive purity culture, the ethics of empathy are not the solution.

Chastity as Commitment without Guarantee

Some have read my earlier writing of the subject of chastity to be teaching that sexual abstinence prior to marriage will guarantee a fulfilling and happy marriage, with a rich and enjoyable sex life. This reading has surprised me, as I do not hold such a position at all and believed that this should have been clear to anyone reading my writing on the subject. Apparently not. Let me clear this misunderstanding up now.

The relationship between premarital virginity and marriage is not one between a series of sacrifices and the expected pay-off, but between a state where key virtues are learnt and practiced and values are upheld and another differing state where strong forms of those virtues and values will typically be required. The faithful practice of chastity prior to marriage won’t necessarily make one’s marriage easier or happier, but it can be important preparation for being faithful, committed, self-controlled, and willing to sacrifice for others within the context of matrimony.

As I have observed, marriage is deeply coloured by the tragic and it is a seeming inability to reckon with the tragic that seems to characterize many of the parties in the current discourses concerning purity culture. On one hand we see people who have the peculiar notion that abstaining from sex as an unmarried person will guarantee a happy and sexually fulfilling marriage and who fail to speak openly and truthfully about the extensive evidence that it doesn’t. On the other hand we see people who have the no less peculiar notion that, because marriages can be contexts of great tragedy, suffering, lack of fulfilment, loneliness, and frustration, we can’t really be expected to keep or allowed to impose norms of premarital sexual abstinence and sexual exclusivity and lifelong commitment within marriage. We shouldn’t deny the painful and difficult stories of individuals – these stories need both to be told and to be heard – but these stories, although they should excite our compassion, do not negate the principles of behaviour that we are called to abide by.

My conviction that the faithful practice of chastity is a better preparation for marriage than the accumulation of sexual experience is not founded on the belief that it guarantees anything. There are no guarantees whatsoever. Rather, the practice of chastity is the better preparation for marriage because it trains us in the art of dying to ourselves, living for, and being open to Christ and our neighbour.

The accumulation of sexual experience is about approaching marriage in a manner calculated to maximize the chance of sexual self-fulfilment, so that marriage will be more of a known and negotiable quantity. Chastity is about learning to approach marriage with the sort of self-denying determination and commitment necessary to face whatever it might throw at us, in the recognition that marriage will always have the character of an unknown and unnegotiable quantity.

I do not expect marriage to be a cakewalk. I have no doubt that marriage can often be a far more difficult state than singleness, a place of even more profound loneliness, pain, frustration, sexual dissatisfaction, or hopelessness and that even the very best marriages will have these experiences in them on occasions. However, I don’t believe that marriage is so detached a state from singleness as to render the virtues that I am learning and practicing now irrelevant to it.

What chastity gives is not a guarantee of a pleasant and fulfilling marriage, but the formation of character that helps us to be faithful and loving even in a difficult and unfulfilling marriage. As these traits will tend to improve the quality of married life, we should not be surprised that the marriages of those who are chaste prior to marriage will in general prove to be happier and more durable. However, we do not pursue chastity because it is a guarantee of pleasant results, but because it is the form that the life of Christian faithfulness must take. The chief earthly promise attached to this life is not personal fulfilment but suffering.

On Making Judgments Beyond Our Experience

For many of those who place great weight upon personal experience as the locus of truth, the application of frameworks of judgment to contexts beyond our experience can be a cardinal sin. Moral judgments are illegitimate unless we have walked a mile in the other person’s shoes, seen what they have seen, and experienced what they have experienced. For instance, we have never been in the position of the terminally ill person in acute pain, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of euthanasia. We may never have been pregnant in poverty without a partner to support us, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of abortion. We may never have experienced what it is like be trapped in a loveless marriage, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of divorce. We may never have experienced the sexual frustration of living with a spouse who cannot fulfil our sexual needs, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of monogamy. We may never have experienced the hopelessness of the aging unmarried person, so we have no right to speak about the ethics of chastity.

The application of moral judgments to such situations is taken as evidence of a dearth of empathy. We are only equipped to speak of such situations when we have experienced them fully for ourselves and, even then, we must recognize that our experience of such situations is probably incommensurable with that of others. The consequent reticence in all judgment, ethical direction, and articulation of moral norms can be surprisingly pronounced in the context of certain moral debates, perhaps few more so than in the discourse surrounding homosexual practice.

For a younger unmarried person to put forward judgments concerning the morality of chastity and its relationship to the practice and morality of marriage is a sign of considerable hubris on such an account. If anyone has the right to make judgments concerning the morality of sex and marriage, it can only be one who has experienced those realities in all of their potential unpleasantness for themselves.

Yet God does not seem to justify the reticence of many here. The primary teaching on the subject of sex and marriage within the New Testament comes from unmarried men, Jesus and Paul, at least one of whom was also a younger virgin. Jesus and Paul can give difficult teaching on such subjects as divorce, without having to experience the bitterness of an unhappy marriage to qualify them to do so.

The biblical teaching on sex, sexuality, and marriage doesn’t hinge on what it feels like to be married or in a sexual relationship, but on the ends of sexuality, ends which can be ascertained even by the unmarried. In fact, sometimes the ends of sexuality and marriage can best be discerned by the unmarried, as they have an existential distance that can lead to a clarity of judgment and the freedom from the sort of self-serving ulterior motive that can blunt our moral sense. They are also less likely to confuse immediate private ends with greater ends to which those personal ends should be subject. Just as the person in acute pain is probably not in the best position to discuss the ethics of euthanasia, the depressed person to discuss those of suicide, or the businessman lusting after his secretary to discuss the morality of adultery, we are often among the least qualified to judge the moral coordinates of our situations.

Holding Our Selves to Account

The principle of judgment beyond experience is at the very heart of the institution of marriage. Every couple when they get married make profound and binding public vows, promising things whose personal cost they have absolutely no way of ascertaining. For all that one knows, one’s spouse may have a terrible accident within the first year of marriage, leaving you to nurse a mentally disabled spouse and go without sexual relations, deep companionship, and career fulfilment for the rest of one’s life.

One of the reasons why we have marriage vows is because, without being bound by words that articulate overarching principles, the existential potency of one’s ‘personal story’ can become overwhelming, leading one to abandon one’s duty and moral sense. I have no personal awareness of just how difficult it would be to be in the position of the husband nursing a paralyzed spouse, but I commit myself to doing the right thing, precisely so that it will be harder for me to lose my nerve and back pedal if the situation arises. If we are not to make strong normative judgments concerning situations that we have no experience of, we shouldn’t get married in the first place.

One of the very reasons why it can be good to articulate governing principles of behaviour at those times when it is easier to do so is because those public words of moral commitment can come to our aid at points where we have little resolve or our will tends in a very different direction. Personal experience can be one of the most consistently opacifying factors when it comes to moral judgment. I know that, under certain very extreme circumstances, I might consider all sorts of things: euthanasia, adultery, abortion, suicide, or even murder. This is exactly why I am distrustful of the idea that personal experience really provides assurance of moral insight in many areas. Some of the very best people to provide moral insight are those who are detached from the feelings that we are experiencing, because they will be guided by a clearer judgment, rather than swayed by mere sentiment.

Personal stories are some of the most elevated forms of the rationalization of sin and strong feelings are perhaps the greatest motivation to the construction of such narratives. There are rather too many men who have suddenly started to reconsider the biblical teaching on adultery and divorce when they have ceased to be attracted to their wives, their sex lives have fizzled, or they have met someone else that they lusted after. There are principles and values that transcend all of our stories and serve as means of judging and evaluating all of them.

Moral Nerve

Among the threats to Christian ethics in the contemporary world, empathy stands out as one of the greatest. Empathy is characterized by a very low pain tolerance for suffering and discomfort, both of ourselves and of others (I have commented on some of this here). The resulting concern to avoid and alleviate suffering or discomfort can be very dangerous. Furthermore, as empathy involves a profound openness and vulnerability to the feelings and impressions of ourselves and others, it also involves a higher vulnerability and openness to the rationalizing and self-justifying narratives that are often spawned under the influence of such feelings. This vulnerability is especially pronounced when we are close to persons as family or friends. It is also widely exploited by the media to disorient our moral sense by getting us to identify emotionally with criminals, adulterers, fornicators, and other such characters.

One of the marks of a strong moral sense is the capacity to resist the pull of empathy, to hold one’s nerve and moral bearings in the face of extreme discomfort and under immense pressure. As we look through Scripture and Church history we can see that many of the greatest moral leaders of the people of God were characterized by this ability to resist empathy, to be morally unbending – even ruthless – in situations where common human feeling would pull all others towards compromise. Perhaps one of the greatest charges laid at the door of many of the most famous leaders in Scripture is their capitulation to peer pressure, pity, or indulgence. Empathy – a natural identification with and vicarious experience of the feelings of others – lies at the root of many of these failures. This trait, far from being the great prerequisite for moral leadership and insight that many deem it to be, is one of its greatest liabilities.

It isn’t much reflected upon, precisely because it is so scandalous to contemporary sensibilities, but among the chief common traits of the great leaders of the people of God in Scripture is their peculiar willingness to employ lethal force for the sake of what was right: Moses, Joshua, the judges, Samuel, David, Elijah and Elisha, Jesus’s closest disciples: James, John, and Peter, Paul, etc. The Levites and people like Phinehas were even especially set apart for divine service through radical acts of violent ‘zeal’. Far from being the most empathetic persons that were looked to for moral guidance and leadership, it was the least naturally empathetic who were established by God at the head of his people. Kevin Dutton has commented on the way that the traits that are most associated with ‘psychopaths’ are perhaps especially pronounced among many leading saints: ruthlessness, charm, focus, mental toughness, fearlessness, mindfulness, and action.

It is the nerve to resist the powerful pull of feelings upon our moral judgment and will that best equips us to be self-disciplined and to lead others.

Empathy vs. Compassion

While the ability to regulate one’s emotions and resist the pitfalls of empathy is a benefit, the danger is that persons that find this easy are prone to be callous and cruel, something that is definitely not to be celebrated. The true alternative to empathy – the close emotive identification with the feeling of others – is not callousness but compassion.

Empathy and compassion are commonly equated with each other. However, I believe that a very important distinction can be drawn between the two. Empathy is an emotive bond with the feelings of others, which takes those feelings as its object, seeking to relieve discomfort, pain, and suffering. While this can often be a good thing, it manifests a number of dangers, not least the inability to gain a broader moral sense of a situation or effectively to cast judgment upon sympathetic wrongdoers.

Rather than being an immediate and emotive connection to other people’s suffering, compassion is a moral relation to other people’s suffering, one mediated by a moral framework. Given the immediacy of empathy’s relation to the other party’s feelings, it tends to be reactive in its attempts to address pain, fastening on the most immediate or visible cause, which is often merely a symptom, rather than the root problem. In contrast, compassion is responsive rather than reactive to the pain of others and involves an impulse to carefully considered action to address others’ pain.

Compassion takes for its object the good of persons, not their feelings. Pursuing the good of ourselves and others will often involve more acute discomfort, or continuing suffering, when that suffering could easily be avoided by taking another route. The empathetic individual, bound up with the feelings of the other person, can be deeply reluctant to cause them further or exacerbated pain, even though that pain may be in their good. By contrast, compassion has sufficient nerve to wound the other person for the sake of their good, like the surgeon prepared to cut into the patient in order to save their life.

When we are suffering, we all too typically want empathy, a non-judgmental validation and sharing of our feelings, stories, and situation. We are less keen about compassion, because compassion, while still involving concern for us, can often invalidate our preferred subjective impression and interpretation of our situation, place it within a broader moral framework, and orient it towards ends that may not be comfortable for us.

An Ethic of Nerve and Compassion

In place of the ethics of empathy, I am arguing for an ethics of nerve and compassion. On the one hand, a robust ethical sense requires an immune system, which can regulate our attachment to the feelings and impressions of others. Such an immune system enables us to resist empathy and pity in certain instances, while leaving us able to identify with others’ feelings in appropriate situations and to an appropriate degree. Empathy binds us to other people’s emotional states. True compassion is only possible for those who are capable of cutting themselves loose, regulating their feelings, and then relating to the other by means of a moral commitment, rather than a purely reactive and affective bond.

The ethic of empathy, bound up with other people’s feelings, struggles with the notion of chastity and the condemnation of fornication. It blanches at the discomfort, shame, and guilt that this causes people and seeks to palliate these, while downplaying the notions that create them. By contrast, the ethic of compassion recognizes that the solution is not to dull the pain of these negative feelings, but that it is appropriate that we should feel shame when we do something shameful. The solution is not to remove our feeling of the nail, or just to sympathize with the sufferer’s experience of their plight, but to remove the nail itself. Christ can address all of our sexual shame at its very root, rather than just numbing our awareness of it. Our shame is a healthy thing, inasmuch as it alerts us to the fact that something is wrong.

This ethic of nerve and compassion does not take its key bearings from feelings, but holds all of our feelings and stories subject to higher principles. It devotes itself to the service of those principles and publicly binds itself by them. It places commitment prior to experience and judgment over feeling. It desires to be held accountable by others and is suspicious of raw feeling and empathy, always testing them against its principles.

As an ethic of compassion, it is radically and uncompromisingly committed to people’s good, even when that good is a painful one. It has a deep concern for others’ pain and suffering, but knows better than to try to remove this altogether. Where it is impossible or inappropriate to remove people’s suffering completely, it will seek to minimize their pain, be present to them in it, and bear it with them.

In the arena of Christian sexual ethics, an ethic of nerve and compassion will be aware that God will often call us to a painful path and that we cannot truly attain to our good without being prepared to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ. By holding our nerve and judgment, we help others to hold theirs, maintaining our commitment, but being present to them in a shared struggle. In such a manner we will become better masters of ourselves and leaders of others, venturing into the future on the basis of a committed response to God’s truth and call, rather than a fickle and reactive relation to experience, feeling, and circumstance.

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40 Responses to An Ethic of Nerve and Compassion

  1. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Shorter version: Christianity is not compatible with utilitarianism.

    • bravelass says:

      I haven’t read the post yet, had to comment on this comment first ;-)

      When I was getting an MA in philosophy at the local Evangelical seminary, I wanted to do my thesis on Dorothy L Sayers. This was disallowed because there was no one who could serve as advisor! Instead, I was prodded into doing my senior work on John Stuart Mill’s “The Subjection of Women”. It will not surprise you to learn that both my mentor and thesis advisor are feminists.

  2. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Thinking on this essay: if you’re every going to republish this in a book or something, you need to emphasize the more positive aspect of this. We’re not just against a utilitarian pleasure/pain ethic, but in favour of something else. That doesn’t always come across here. I know what you are talking about, but others may not. Writing about the positive aspect might require some poetry of you too, which can be hard to do, but from what I’ve occasionally seen in your writing you may be up to it.

    • Yes, this piece isn’t intended to be a comprehensive presentation of my position on this subject, but a rather more occasional response to a number of issues raised by an e-mail correspondent. As you say, a more positive alternative would require much more fleshing out.

  3. Matt J. says:

    Good grief. This is pretty good stuff and (to jump to a rather different example) is behind the root of much poor modern parenting as well. We (especially father’s now) are highly attuned to empathize with our children. Great, but what do we do when they are hurting? React and go for whatever quick fix will alleviate the immediate pain right now without regards to the long-term effects. We also tend to rule out responses that may, in the immediate moment, cause more pain.

    Example: We distract the toddler throwing a fit instead of giving them a spanking. It feels good (and just and noble and smart and loving!) AND even fixes the problem quickly. But in the end it treats just the symptom and the parent is now cursed to do the same tomorrow, or perhaps later that hour. It never ends and demands an increasing amount of cleverness on behalf of the caretaker each day. We have empathy but no nerve.

    So how can we have nerve without being cruel? It seems a tight rope to walk and good examples to imitate are in short supply. I admit that I have been loathe to take my queue from some men I know with backbone because I detest their occasional callousness. But if not, then what am I left with?

    • It is definitely a tightrope and it should provide no excuse for the development of callousness. Our guiding principle must be people’s good. This isn’t about shutting ourselves off from people or practising a lack of concern, but about training ourselves in a different sort of concern, a principled and moral concern. Part of this training will involve the development of a higher tolerance for our discomfort and that of our children, but this entire process will be guided by a deepening of our concern for and reflection upon their good. The callousness that you describe is quite contrary to this good and arises from the mere negation of empathy, rather than the disciplining and regulating of empathy by the practice of compassion.

  4. Paul Baxter says:

    Oddly enough, last night I was reading Martha Nussbaum on the distinction between empathy and compassion. Upheavals of Thought is a fine book, and it sounds like you may have read it is as well???

  5. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    You might be interested in this article, which has similar ideas:

  6. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    This ethic is seen to be particularly demanding and demeaning in its treatment of women.

    There is another tightrope here. Sexual sin does seem to be particularly damaging to women, not necessarily in a spiritual sense but in their abilities to perform their role as a wife. As distasteful as the used tape metaphor is in some respects, it does capture a certain amount of truth. Every time we have sex with someone we bond with them and disengaging our emotional entanglement with that person will tend to make us emotionally callous. This always makes it at least a little more difficult to bond with the next person. This phenomenon seems to be particularly true of women, who tend to have a harder time separating love and sex than men. So, at least as a purely prudential matter, I would be much more cautious in counselling a man thinking of marrying a women with multiple partners than vice versa. Again a very difficult and painful issue.

    • This is indeed a sensitive issue. I have deep problems with the way that the purity culture often seems to be infected by poisonous double standards in this area, having a lower expectation of sexual self-control for men and placing much of the burden of responsibility for uncontrolled male lust upon women.

      That said, men and women are different and some of the relevant differences in this area are not just general differences, but more absolute and universal. In particular, men and women have very different relationships to the sex of their bodies and differing relationships to coitus. Male bodies have one sexual organ, which performs an act of relatively brief duration, an act that drives men beyond their bodies, into relation with a female body. Female bodies, by contrast, have continual reminders of their sex and natural telos, beyond the act of copulation in pregnancy and nursing, experiencing a menstrual cycle, for which there is no clear male analogue.

      Sex occurs outside of the male body and the male’s role in the sexual act is one where his performance is crucial, but once he has performed his brief role, he is done. The male part is one of primary and initial agency. By contrast, sex occurs inside of the female body and the process of procreation achieves its telos over many months in and through her body. Women’s relationship to the sexual act and the process of procreation is extremely different for this reason.

      Sex is associated with male bodily agency, with the wilful interaction of the male body with a female body. However, sex is associated with the female body as a site of receptivity, bonding, and communion. Many of the supposed ‘double standards’ surrounding sexual ethics or expectations relate to this natural difference.

      For instance, male virginity is not just symmetrical to female virginity. Virginity for the male is attached primarily to agency: the non-exercise of his sexual agency. Virginity for the female is attached primarily to the preservation or guarding of her body as a site of receptivity, bonding, and communion. The female virgin has something more to show for her virginity. The male virgin is a nullity, as both sex and procreation occur outside of the male body. The only thing that the male virgin can offer is virtuous bodily agency.

      All of this undergoes a radical spiritual leavening in New Testament teaching, however. 1 Corinthians 6:18 makes clear that, although ‘outside of the body’ in key senses, promiscuous sexual activity can defile the male body, precisely because the body of the Christian man is not a nullity, but is also, like the female body, a site of receptivity, bonding, and communion, as the temple of the Holy Spirit (and member of the ‘bride’ of Christ). As a result, the male body is also a site of communion that can be defiled, and male virginity acquires a much greater meaning.

      It is worth reflecting on the fact that many dimensions of the sexual ethics of the New Testament were in many respects already held by the surrounding culture, but only applied to women. Christian faith gives a new meaning to the male body and hence leads to the universalizing of a sexual ethic that had previously manifested a sharp double standard.

      Even though the wombless body assumes a new value, however, the sharp natural differences between male and female bodies and their relationship to the sexual act are not nullified. This difference is why ‘consent’ in most cases implicitly refers to the consent of the woman, rather than being a symmetrically applied concept. Likewise, the responsibility for the sexual act rests most heavily on the male side, as the male relation to the sexual act is the more agentic.

      The psychological relationship between men and women and coitus cannot be divorced from their differing physiological relationships to coitus and to the process of procreation. While the New Testament equalizes the morality of sexual purity, it does not erase the natural form of coitus, the asymmetry of agency, or equalize psychological relations to sexual relations. Consequently, even though both men and women are equally responsible to God for sexual impurity, the immediate physical and psychological consequences can differ markedly. It will affect men’s relationship with their agency, but will typically take a greater toll on women’s relationship with their bodies.

      We should be sensitive to the differing ways that these things work out and the different forms of damage that they can cause.

      • Yes – the double standard must be distinguished from a recognition of difference.

        From an evolutionary psychology perspective – for what it is worth! – may come a helpful idea.

        Male jealousy (including in morbid jealousy) relates to physical infidelity (a wife having sex with another man), while women’s jealousy relates to emotional infidelity (falling in love with another woman).

        This difference is explicable biologically in terms investment of resources: human men (on average and in ancestral societies) invest resources in their wife’s children and it would be genetically a strong disadvantage raise another man’s children (or, alternatively phrased; it would be an advantage for men to evolve psychological adaptations which would tend to endure that his wife’s children were his own offspring). This men are mainly jealous of sexual infidelity.

        On the other hand, women want to avoid their husband falling in love with another women and investing his time and money in this other woman’s children, at the cost of reduced chances of survival and thriving for her own children – and it would be/ has been genetically advantageous for women to evolve a type of jealousy related to falling in love (rather than having sex).

        Now, even if this is true, it is orthogonal to Christian ethics; but it perhaps illustrates how a situation can arise in which female sexual infidelity is generally regarded as more important than male; as a greater sin and more personally damaging than it would be in a man.

        But it also carries a possible (but unfamiliar) implication that the core male infidelity may be related to ‘falling in love with’ many women – with a tendency to infatuation; and extra-marital infatuation being perhaps more fundamentally damaging to men than promiscuity.

        This is very much speculating, and I have ended-up writing something I hadn’t though of when I started this comment! But I do perceive that there may be something in this idea of infatuation as more immoral in men than is sexual promiscuity – perhaps this is the real lesson of David and Bathsheba, or Solomon and his pagan wives (whereas his ‘purely sexual’ relationship with concubines is unremarked on and uncondemned?)- perhaps the fault was infatuation with a bad woman leading to severely misallocated investment of time and energy, abandonment of principle: in a word evil.

      • M says:

        You’re saying a lot of good things here, Alastair. If a Classicist may make one minor point, I should just like to note that, as you may in fact know, the much-discussed sexual double-standard was not in fact universal in Greco-Roman ethics in St. Paul’s day: many of the Roman Stoics, most notably Gaius Musonius Rufus, a Roman equestrian of Etruscan ancestry who was twice exiled under Nero and Vespasian, denied any sort of double-standard and demanded that men behave with the same sort of self-control that they expected of their wives; Musonius, unlike the early Stoics (men like Zeno or Chrysippus), categorically forbade any sexual behavior except for procreation within marriage; he also encouraged marriage and child-rearing as suitable philosophical pursuits and advocated women’s learning philosophy (which, in his thought, is primarily a practical, indeed even an ascetical, enterprise) in order to make them better, more virtuous matrons and housewives. In any case, that is the impression we are given by the discourses that come down to us under his name, which seem to be the work, late in life, of an unknown disciple of his; they are written in the style of Xenophon and are probably less terse and forceful than Musonius’ own teaching, of which we get snippets (including several brilliant one-liners) from his most famous student, Epictetus (who studied with him while still a slave), but we have no reason to doubt their basic accuracy.

        There’s actually a fair bit of recent work on the Roman Stoics connecting them with New Testament writings; not all of it is terribly insightful (one cannot ignore the very different theological and metaphysical underpinnings to their admittedly similar ethical ideas), but they do demonstrate pretty well that, for those Romans who took the teachings of someone like Musonius (or even the younger Seneca) seriously, St. Paul’s ethical demands would have come as a surprise less for his insistence on sexual self-control (even for men) or on treating slaves fairly, but for his focus on Christ (and him incarnate and crucified, rather than simply as universal Logos, which would have fit well with their own beliefs) as the reason and aim for good ethical behavior.

      • Thanks for the comment, Bruce. It is in these areas that huge differences between men and women and their relationship to sexual activity are typically ignored: knowledge of paternity is founded upon the knowledge of women’s virginity, fidelity, and sexual exclusivity. Every women knows that a child is hers, but in the vast majority of cases the man’s knowledge of this is contingent upon his assurance that his partner has been faithful and sexually exclusive. A society that devalues the latter virtues will gradually lose the former knowledge. As the knowledge of paternity (and belief in the importance of that knowledge) is lost, the role of the father will be abandoned and children will increasingly grow up uncertain of their paternity. Of course, this is what we are seeing in many quarters of our society. If we want committed fathers we must have sexually exclusive women. Contraception and the ‘liberation’ of female sexuality (i.e. in the form of promiscuity) has the devaluation and abandonment of fatherhood as its counterpart.

        Male sexual exclusivity is also hugely important in many respects, not least because it takes two persons who are not prepared to be sexually exclusive to place female sexual fidelity and paternity in doubt. However, the abandonment of it does not have the same social consequence as the abandonment of female sexual exclusivity. The counterpart of female virginity and sexual exclusivity for men is a broader commitment to spouses and children, one that is physical, emotional, and providential. The reversal of our cultural trends could be initiated by either men or women. If men took the roles of husband and father far more seriously and were much more committed within them, women would be much less inclined to be unfaithful and paternity would not be put in the same doubt.

      • Thanks, M. Some very helpful remarks there.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        The reversal of our cultural trends could be initiated by either men or women.

        Perhaps you could clarify, as I don’t think this is accurate. Women are willing to share, that is they are willing to accept non-exclusive sexual relationships with men, consecutively if not always concurrently, and some men will always be more than willing to sexually “service” more than one woman. Therefore restoring a proper sexual norm from the male side would require a much higher degree of solidarity among males than I think is likely. Even a few male defectors are sufficient to wreck the whole system, while reverse is not true.

        As a side point, it also needs to be noted that women are not on the whole more moral sexually than men: they are just pickier. If a man is sufficiently more attractive than they are, most women will mate with that man without requiring any commitment. Which is why it is possible for one man to be able to sleep with a woman within an hour of meeting her, while another has to demonstrate commitment through a long arduous progress to be with the same woman. This isn’t to say there aren’t any truly sexually moral women. There are. But there are probably just as many truly sexually moral men.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Of course, pragmatically this going to require at least some support from both men and women.

      • I think that both men and women are subject to a prisoner’s dilemma in various ways. Women as a group are better off if they demand marital commitment for sexual relations. However, certain women may feel that they would be better off taking advantage of the gains of less committed sexual relationships, for which there is a high demand, especially when there is contraception to decrease possible consequences, fully expecting to enter into marriages in the future.

        The problem is that, as more start doing this, sexual relations no longer have the value that they once did, and men are not prepared to offer commitment for them. More liberal divorce laws, less assurance of the honouring of paternity rights, and the like also make marriage a less appealing prospect to men. Those holding out for marriage realize that there are fewer and fewer marriageable men, men prepared to be truly committed and that, while the sex market may belong to women, men have much more advantage in the marriage market.

        Women have less and less to offer in the marriage market, so they can find themselves priced out of it. Men face the same problem in other respects. As society starts to provide much more for single mothers, takes on a lot of the burden of child-rearing, and removes the stigma of single parenthood, the value of the poorer man’s provision, commitment, or honour decreases.

        This is the environment that we live in. However, although we are subject to the influences and pressures of our environments, we can resist many of these things as individuals. It is important to remember that both the honourable and committed man and the faithful and chaste woman have things to offer that are highly valuable.

        I suspect that both men and women sell themselves cheaply because they don’t believe that there is much worth saving themselves for and little price to pay if they don’t. Women look at the men around them and they see a lot of men who couldn’t be bothered practising honour and commitment. The few men who do ‘save themselves’ often lack self-respect, robust masculinity, and honour – their ‘virginity’ is an absence of experience, libido, or attractiveness, rather than a manifestation of masculine self-mastery. This isn’t especially attractive at all.

        Most of these men don’t have the self-respect necessary to expect a standard of sexual behaviour from the women around them and to treat as considerably less eligible those who do not respect this standard. As the virginity of these men is more of an absence than a virtue, they have no sense of its value and will sell it cheaply to any woman who will accept them, whatever her sexual history. Those who don’t have a strong respect for themselves will seldom be highly respected by others. In such a situation, women realize that they would be holding out for nothing. Looking for a man with confidence, dignity, and self-respect, they are probably as likely to find one among the non-virgins. Either way they are settling for much less than they would like.

        On the other side, men see that women lack the self-respect to demand a high standard of sexual morality from them. They see that most women have sexual histories and that those who don’t are often insecure, rather than realizing the value of what they offer and expecting men to live up to it. They see that women consistently settle for less and wonder why on earth they should hold out for something that women themselves value so lightly, even those who have it.

        So, where does the shift occur? The shift can occur when either men or women gain the confident self-respect to expect much more from the other sex and to refuse to settle. In the context of marriage, men are actually probably in a better position to do this. The crucial thing to notice is that women, especially Christian women, typically really don’t want a man with a long sexual history: they settle for him. They would far prefer to have a man with evident self-mastery, honour, commitment, self-respect, and confidence. They just don’t believe that there are many such men around, so they settle for less, and behave in the manner that the men that they settle for expect them to.

        The solution is for men to start to be the sort of men that can be confident in their worth and not to settle for less. With such men around, the men with extensive sexual histories that women settle for would be playing much more of a losing game. Women would have much to gain from being chaste and would start to expect more from other men when there was such competition. They would also realize that they would have much to lose if they were unchaste, as chaste men who were genuinely self-respecting would be unlikely to settle for them.

        One of the problems is that there are a host of forces pushing against chaste people developing self-respect and a sense of what they should expect of others. Virginity and chastity are stigmatized or ridiculed in many quarters and people don’t have the self-confidence or independence of mind and will to realize and act as though it held great value and expect others to raise their standards of behaviour. The insistence that no person should be made to feel guilt or shame for fornication, promiscuity, or having a sexual history, be treated as less eligible for marriage, or suffer adverse consequences for prior behaviour undermines this too. People forget that forgiveness does not negate the fact that there are frequently serious consequences that we face for past sins and that, although people should forgive us, this doesn’t mean that they should treat us as if those past actions never occurred.

        An ethic of empathy and sentimentality lacks the nerve that is needed to uphold moral norms of behaviour that disadvantage and hurt those who do not honour them. As a result, it creates a society where moral norms are slowly abandoned, just so that we don’t wound the feelings of people who won’t live up to them. Sadly, this sort of ethic of empathy is quite widespread among Christian virgins, male and female, who are more concerned about not giving offence to those who have not shown commitment to chastity than they are with valuing the virtue.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        1. Women in their 20s, the prime years for finding a mate, are definitely _not_ at a disadvantage in the marriage market. So, they hold the whip hand over most men when it comes to both sex and marriage.

        2. There is no shortage of marriageable men. Most men _are_ willing to offer commitment for a sexual relationship. Only the top men can afford to act differently. So, there is really only a shortage of the extremely attractive men that women really want. (There have been surveys showing that men, more than women, are the ones that want to get married.)

        3. Because women can now support themselves, they are waiting deep into their late 20s and early 30s to settle down. They are waiting around hoping to snag one of the most attractive men, or at least one that is significantly more attractive than they are. It most definitely is _not_ just welfare and such that are creating problems. The crucial problem is women’s employment. Women do not need a man to support them, so one of the crucial bargaining chips the average man used to have in the marriage market is gone. Not surprisingly women are now choosing men based primarily on their sex appeal. Since women are picky in this area, all of them are now competing for a few of the more attractive men.

        4. Many of these women will have short term sexual relationships with these more attractive men. Other, more respectable types, will wait their turn to have a longer term relationship with these same men. Christian women will tend to remain celibate during this period, but will still often wait a very long time hoping to capture the attentions of one of those few really attractive Christian men out there.

        5. This situation starts to reverse itself once women hit their 30s, sometimes brutally so. There eligible men can be in very short supply.

        6. The central fact of the mating market is women’s pickiness, which applies to both short and long term mating. They want the best. All else flows from that. And it profoundly disadvantages most men in both the sexual and the marriage market, at least in the prime mating years, i.e. when it really counts. (Of course, a few men at the top will make out like bandits, which is why you will hear complaints about “men’s” poor treatment of women and unwillingness to commit. Most of women’s problems in the mating market at caused by dating out of their league.)

        The crucial thing to notice is that women, especially Christian women, typically really don’t want a man with a long sexual history: they settle for him. They would far prefer to have a man with evident self-mastery, honour, commitment, self-respect, and confidence. They just don’t believe that there are many such men around, so they settle for less, and behave in the manner that the men that they settle for expect them to. . . . With such men around, the men with extensive sexual histories that women settle for would be playing much more of a losing game.

        This is where you get things horribly, horribly wrong. Women have an extremely complicated relationship with promiscuous men. On the one hand, the fact that a man has been with a lot of women really, really turns them on. It is absolute certification that he really is one of those extremely attractive men they really want. Women are notorious for pursuing taken men and wanting what other people have. This is even reflected in the perverse advice of pick up artists and such that if you want to get with lots of women you should wear a wedding ring even if you’re not married. On the other hand, a promiscuous male is less likely to commit to a long term relationship, so women can also be a bit wary about them for long term relationships. Now, which of these two opposing impulses is stronger in any particular woman will depend on a lot of things, including her own individual nature. I’d agree that the latter impulse tends to be stronger in most conservative Christian women. However, in the general population, I’d have to say the former impulse tends to prevail, quite strongly. The advantage for men with extensive sexual histories will never go away.

        One thing we have to come to terms with is that, in some respects, female sexuality is even more perverse than male sexuality. Men can be attracted to an evil women if she is sufficiently attractive in other respects (have a look at some pictures of Jodi Arias), but they aren’t turned by the evil itself. Many women, on the other hand, can actually become more attracted to a man _because_ of something evil he has done, like sleep with a lot of women, or engage in displays of violence.

        8. I’m not sure where you’re getting your information on women from.

        I am guessing that you don’t have much experience interacting with women either as close friends or as romantic partners except among more conservative Christian women and perhaps a few others from the upper middle classes, in education if not in income. If that is the case, it would be extremely foolish to generalize about the nature of women from such an extremely narrow sample. Correct me if I am wrong here.

        One should also be extremely wary of taking women’s professed ideals at face value. While all human beings are rationalizers to some degree or another, woman’s conscious mind tends to be much more dissociated from her sexuality than it is in a man. “It just happened.” A man is very conscious and goal directed in what he wants, while women, again notoriously, don’t really know what they want, though they certainly respond to certain things when they are put right in front of them.

      • Matt J. says:

        Alastair, I like your analysis in that long comment, but “The Man Who Was” brings up some substantial charges. In particular, his note on the complicated relationship of women to promiscuous men has a long and proven history. I think Girard’s theory of mimetic triangular desire does a pretty good job of explaining this phenomenon. The fact that other women in proximity will go down on the hot guy makes him, in a powerful, psychological way, MORE attractive rather than repulsive.

        Your representation of women and men carefully and rationally weighing all their mating options sounds a bit too much like something out of an economics textbook. But real people almost never act so scientifically, at least not consistently. It’s so easy to throw monkey wrenches into all this!

        I do think your comments about self-respect and self-control being very attractive (and a big problem for men in the current culture) is right on.

      • Just a note to say that I am currently away for the weekend. I will respond to comments when I return on Monday.

      • Thanks for the comment. Sorry about the delay in response.

        Women may definitely have an advantage when it comes to sex and cohabiting monogamous relationships. However, this really doesn’t tidily translate into an advantage when looking for the quality of commitment that they would want in a marriage, where women have much more need of this than men. Things have probably never been so good for men who want sexual relationships without giving a high level of commitment (like lifelong sexual exclusivity). Many of these men will strongly want to get married at some point, but it is much easier for them to enjoy situations that are cheap commitment-wise for quite some time, taking advantage of women’s prime years of fertility.

        ‘Wanting to get married’ is a very vague claim, subject to many different interpretations. Is it the case that men in a stable relationship are the ones that are most actively pressing for marriage? Does ‘wanting to get married’ mean wanting to get married as soon as possible, or wanting to get married at some indeterminate point in the future? Are we saying that men are more likely to believe that the current marriage market will serve their interests (which might prove to be evidence for the lower level of commitment offered by men today)? Or is this a statement about marriage in the abstract? Whatever it is, I would like to see these surveys.

        Your claim about women wanting to snag one of the most sexually attractive men strikes me as quite unconvincing and perhaps a little paranoid. If anything, men are much guiltier of this than women are. Women are pickier than man on certain fronts (income and social status, for instance), but they have more reason to be. More importantly, however, women are far less picky when it comes to sexual attractiveness than men relative to marriage. Also, while many women may want sexual relations primarily with sexually attractive men, they are generally well aware that these men are not marriage material.

        As marriages are fewer nowadays, occur later, are considerably less durable, and what privilege women enjoy is short-lived, as you yourself point out, it would seem that women don’t have things quite as good as you suggest. The people who have more to worry about the prime mating years are not men but women, and nowadays women are much more likely to spend significant chunks of these years in commitment-lite relationships, which are not stable or certain enough to invite children. I would really like to see you produce evidence to suggest that it is women’s pickiness that is driving this trend of low-commitment relationships, which do not invite childbearing, rather than the raised price and rarer character of high male commitment in the current context. And, given how widespread such relationships are, we really cannot blame this trend on ‘a few men at the top’.

        I disagree with you: women are not attracted to promiscuity per se. Women are rather attracted to men that are desired by other women. I would suggest that this is because female desire is more immediately mimetic in character than male desire. Rather than arousing such desire, promiscuity is permitted and encouraged by it (and so many guys will take full advantage of the fact). It definitely can ‘incite’ women’s desire, but something that incites one’s desires is not the same thing as something that is desired, save in the case of the masochist. Women are widely attracted to traits of strong, confident, and assured agency. These are good traits in principle, but they are also traits that players tend to have in spades.

        The idea that the behaviour of the club-going women that are the typical quarries of pick up artists has much to teach us about the way that women approach choosing a marriage partner is quite unconvincing. Even when it comes to women committing adultery, what needs to be remembered is that the desire of the third party is generally an essential constitutive element of the framework of desire within which the adultery is desired. Remove that third rival party from the equation and the other person loses their appeal, sometimes in the blink of an eye (this works for men too, but in slightly different ways). The way that a person desires their lover is rather different from the way that they desire their spouse. The same can be said of the one-night stand or short term relationship.

        My case is not about the way that women get sexual partners in general, nor even about the way that they get ‘monogamous’ cohabiting partners, but about the way that they find a husband committed to them for life. I do have experience of a wider range of women than you suggest, but we are talking about marriage here, not mating in general, and: 1. The culture of marriage is increasingly class and faith dependent nowadays (the precipitous collapse of marriage among the underclasses, a collapse not seen to anything like the same degree among financially independent women of higher classes, is one reason why I mentioned welfare in particular); 2. The way that and criteria by which marriage partners are chosen differs from that of cohabiting or short term sexual partners and tends to be much more considered and reflective; 3. While women undoubtedly have strong and undisciplined sexual desires that are clearly on display or excited in certain social contexts (much as men do), the idea that such desires are typically their guiding compass for entering into marriage strikes me as borderline misogynistic, but, more importantly, quite mistaken. The psychological and mental processes by which marriages are broken up should not be identified as the same processes and forces by which they are formed and strengthened.

        A further thing to take into account here is the way that borderline cases tip over, as it is borderline cases that are often the most illuminating and revealing studies. Women, like men, have a natural desire for sexual partners. However, this desire is held in check by various social norms and considerations. Given the choice, many women would like several lovers and a husband, the lovers and the husband being chosen by rather different criteria. The basis on which the lover is chosen can be a very unappealing trait in a husband. The desire of the third party and the jealousy aroused by it can incite desire to new levels and drive a woman to pursue a married man, but this is not what most marriage-minded women are looking for in a husband. The tipping point comes with the cost of the choices of promiscuity and infidelity, for instance. If having a number of sexual partners was a costlier choice when it came to one’s eligibility for marriage, choice of marriage partners, sexual health, or future possibilities people would be less inclined to do it. It is when people don’t feel that they have much to lose that they will make such choices, or where they don’t feel that they have to choose between the player/lover and the husband.

        As this discussion is rather tangential to the original thread, I don’t plan to comment further on it, but feel free to post extra thoughts on it if you would like.

      • Matt J. says:

        Thanks for spending your time and following up on this. That sufficiently clears up most of the questions I had with your earlier analysis. :)

        “The way that a person desires their lover is rather different from the way that they desire their spouse.”

        This. And confusion about this difference is epic to the point that many people don’t even realize there is a distinction. As a young man, I was very confused about this as romantic ideas about one’s lover were largely informing my concept of marriage. My parents had a strong and successful marriage, but so many of the details of it were secret. I never saw them argue or work through disagreement about what to do for the future, or show much affection in public. In short, key components of their marriage were never modeled for me. This is why my wife (of 10 years) and I try to not hide these things from the children (within reason) so they can see how two committed people work through serious disagreements as well as show affection to each other. Observing only half a marriage allows space for the gaps to be filled in with destructive nonsense from other corners.

        Sorry, that is getting even further off topic. I think I’ll try to write about it elsewhere. :)

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        Things have probably never been so good for men who want sexual relationships without giving a high level of commitment (like lifelong sexual exclusivity). Many of these men will strongly want to get married at some point, but it is much easier for them to enjoy situations that are cheap commitment-wise for quite some time, taking advantage of women’s prime years of fertility.
        Are you really so sure that the current is that good for “men” in general, as opposed to a minority of more attractive men.
        Whatever it is, I would like to see these surveys.

        Mark Shea, the Catholic blogger, had a link up, that unfortunately I can’t find at the moment, showing that men were more interested in marriage than sex.

        If anything, men are much guiltier of this than women are. Women are pickier than man on certain fronts (income and social status, for instance), but they have more reason to be.

        Perhaps men talk about “hot chicks” more than women talk about “hot guys,” at least around men. But what is the actual practice? Most men are perfectly aware that they are not going to marry someone who looks like a model.

        Here’s some choice quotes from an article with Lori Gottlieb:

        ‘There’s a survey in the book where men and women are asked, “If you got 80 percent of everything you wanted — of your ideal traits in a mate or partner — would you be happy?” The majority of women said, “No, that’s settling,” and the majority of men said, “Eighty percent? I’d be thrilled; that’s a catch.” . . . Talking to men was eye-opening. Men and women were asked, if they [had] any deal-breakers for going on a second date, what would those be? And men named three. If she’s cute enough … warm and kind … and interesting enough to talk to, she gets a second date. . . .  Women named 300 things that would be deal-breakers for a second date. We’re talking a second date, another two hours with the person. And they were things like, “You know, we were having a really good time, but then he did this Austin Powers impression, and it just so turned me off. I can’t get that out of my head.”‘

        More importantly, however, women are far less picky when it comes to sexual attractiveness than men relative to marriage.

        This could mean a couple things:

        1. Women are less picky when it comes to looks.

        A man’s sexual attractiveness is not based on his looks but on his confidence, charisma, sense of humour and social status, which includes how attractive he is to other women. This is why you often see very attractive women with ugly but charismatic men. Only a tiny sliver of the very best looking men can rely on their looks to attract women. Women are not attracted to money per se, though money obviously tends to correlate with confidence, charisma and social status. So, just because a man does not have any obvious markers of sexual attractiveness to an outside male observer does not mean he isn’t in fact quite sexually attractive to women.

        2. Women worldwide and throughout time have been less picky when it comes to sexual attractiveness when it comes to marriage.

        In societies where material resources are at least somewhat more scarce and/or women are less able to support themselves a man’s ability to provide becomes a major consideration when choosing a marriage partner. Women in those circumstances do often sacrifice sexual attractiveness in order to marry richer men. We in the West do not live under those circumstances.

        they are generally well aware that these men are not marriage material.

        In theory, yes. In practice, no.

        what privilege women enjoy is short-lived, as you yourself point out, it would seem that women don’t have things quite as good as you suggest.

        Well, those prime mating years are when reproduction will or will not happen, so that’s when it, you know, actually counts. I’m not that impressed that the average 45-60 year old male has an advantage over the average 45-60 year old female.

        And, given how widespread such relationships are, we really cannot blame this trend on ‘a few men at the top’.

        It’s true that a men of medium attractiveness will very often take advantage of the women significantly below them in attractiveness, but without really taking these women seriously as marriage prospects. The (mostly invisible) men at the bottom get nothing.

        Women are rather attracted to men that are desired by other women.

        Which is most convincingly demonstrated by promiscuity.

        The way that a person desires their lover is rather different from the way that they desire their spouse.

        This is often true for men. I’m not sure it’s true for women.

        While women undoubtedly have strong and undisciplined sexual desires that are clearly on display or excited in certain social contexts (much as men do), the idea that such desires are typically their guiding compass for entering into marriage strikes me as borderline misogynistic, but, more importantly, quite mistaken.

        Well, most women don’t typically want a husband who will abuse them or cheat on them, if that’s what you mean. There are often other “dealbreakers” as well. But women in rich countries do choose marriage partners much more on their ability to provide sexual excitement than their ability to provide material resources and/or companionship. (Women are more likely to rely on their friends for emotional support than their husbands, for example.) To suggest that the prime positive motivation for women getting married in rich societies is sexual desire is not to suggest that women will necessarily follow their hormones blindly. You’re accusation of mysogyny is uncharitable.

        The basis on which the lover is chosen can be a very unappealing trait in a husband.

        Women are notorious for trying to change their sexy but unreliable lovers into marriage material, and will stick around for quite awhile hoping that these men will mature/be ready to settle down. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it seems pretty clear that women would prefer commitment from the sexy guy. When it becomes obvious that the man cannot or will not change or simply will not commit, the woman will often leave, but this is often after years and years of investment.

  7. Luke says:

    Alastair, these are rich thoughts, I’m glad you put them up for us to digest. I hear some of your previous voice from the reflections of Friedman in “A Failure of Nerve” coming through here. I just ordered the book and am looking forward to reading it, as well as re-reading your series.

  8. Pingback: Whose Experience? Which Story? | Reformedish

  9. Phew! – that strikes me as one of the most important blog posts I have read. Once made, these distinctions are obviously correct, and I’m sure will stay with me.

  10. J.L.Erkelens says:

    What an excellent post. I am truly glad you are blogging again with some regularity. What you articulate here is such a crucial insight into one of the great problems that contemporary society poses to us. Especially your remarks on hostility towards the very idea of objective truth outside of the subjective narrative really resonate with me.

    I spent some time as of late working on a critique of the influence of Michel Foucault and post-modernism on the field of history, with its ungrounded assumptions about power and subjugation being everything, and this is basically the issue that one keeps bumping into. There is no reality, no objectivity, only narrative and the lust for power that drives it. This makes, as you explain in the case of this empathy driven sexual ethics, for a way of thinking in which we are all solely guided by our own desires. With objectivity simply being the desires of the powerful made into a formal and binding system. A system that modern society likes to think is totally arbitrary and therefore at the mercy of the visionary reformer.

  11. This is excellent stuff, thank you. I’d second the recommendation to read Nussbaum above (I’d add her Fragility of Goodness if you haven’t come across it – very relevant). Part of what you say links in to something called ‘The Old Testament Heart’, ie the capacity to inflict pain in order to fulfil a compassionately motivated aim. I wrote a bit of a rambling autobiographical post about it, this is the relevant extract: “A few months ago I read an outstandingly good book about survival, by Laurence Gonzales. I liked it especially because it linked in with the neurological work done by Damasio and others which I have been interested in for a long time. I’d like to share this quotation with you – Gonzales is describing a group of people who have been cast adrift at sea in a small boat, and the way in which some of them were mentally ready to do the work of survival, whilst others were ‘losing it’ – and becoming a hazard that would potentially kill everyone. Hard decisions had to be made, and Gonzales quotes another writer in saying this:
    “To survive, you must at some point allow cool to become cold. Stockdale wrote, “In difficult situations, the leader with the heart, not the soft heart, not the bleeding heart, but the Old Testament heart, the hard heart, comes into his own.” Survival means accepting reality, and accepting reality takes a hard heart. But it is a strange kind of coldness, for it has empathy at its center. Survivors discover a deep spiritual relationship to the world….”
    The Old Testament heart is the capacity to inflict pain for the greater good; to keep eyes fixed upon the essential point, and to take the measures needed to ensure long term flourishing. It is when the heart is set wholly on God that priorities find their proper place, and God’s hand guides the blade. It is when will power is allied to idolatry that darkness and destruction descend on the community.” original post here:

  12. Laurie says:

    Hi, just wanted to say this is great, and very well balanced. Subjectivity & personal truth is becoming King in interpretation everywhere at the moment, so this is really a breath of fresh air.

    I agree with the first comment from The Man Who Was re. giving some time to explaining what the alternative is in knowing & subscribing to God’s ‘external’ & perfect law, if you do ever decide to publish this or incorporate it into a wider work. I was also glad to read your penultimate paragraph, which I assume acknowledges Romans 12 (esp. 9-21), which does suggest that often what is necessary is for us to share in one another’s sufferings – not to validate sin or its consequences, but to show compassion even when there is no direct answer (and also, vs 1-2 there are a perfect support for your article).

    I think what strikes me most is that this means in passing judgment or showing compassion we must have a firm and extensive understanding of scripture, and what God has revealed there as his moral law for us. How can we know and dictate what is good for anyone else without truly knowing what He has revealed? I think as much damage is done through Christian leaders and people who are eager to express this kind of judgment with a shallow & lazy understanding, which is something we are all tempted to do (which you allude to with some of the teaching on purity). In other words, I’m glad to see that the classic Bible study application applies here just as well as anywhere else – let’s get stuck into God’s word.

    Great article, thanks for your work – Laurie

    • Thank you for commenting, Laurie! I am pleased that you enjoyed the post.

      I quite agree: a deep and extensive knowledge of Scripture is absolutely essential here. Leaders who pride themselves on their nerve, but lack attention and wisdom are incredibly dangerous.

  13. bethyada says:

    Agree with much of what you have written. I would be cautious about the psychopathic comparison, the former care little for morality at all (and may struggle with moral concepts), the zealous care strongly for morality.

    Something that is worth adding is the idea of distance for those who share experience. One cannot help being affected by an experience and thus share it, but clarity may need distance from the experience to read it rightly. My wife shared with me aspects of a book about a woman’s personal difficulties: though the problem had passed it sounded like she was still too close to the experience to make right judgments.

    • Yes, I only used the term ‘psychopath’ (placing it in inverted commas) because it is Dutton’s chosen term.

      I think that most of us have experienced what it is like to be too close to an experience to think clearly about it at some point in our lives. It is always helpful to have others who care about us to give us clearer perspective at such times.

  14. A bit late, but here goes. I agree with most of your conclusions here, but I’m not sure about the premises. Some quick thoughts. First, I think there are at least occasional calls to empathy (as you are defining it here) in the scriptures; the call to mourn with the mourning and rejoice with the rejoicing comes to mind. So does the command to love our neighbors as ourselves (which is not about feeling what someone is feeling, necessarily–although it doesn’t exclude that–but seems to suggest and even encourage some identification with the selfhood or “I-ness” of someone else).

    Secondly, I don’t think empathy necessarily precludes or undermines moral stringency or standards. That is, I think you are right that it sometimes does–perhaps the majority of the time, at least in our/your culture–but this may not be the result of empathy per se. I am thinking of Arthur McGill’s argument in Death and Life: An American Theology, where he discusses the desire to cure and erase all visible traces of tragedy, death, and decay from our high-powered lives. (Although he is discussing American culture specifically, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to apply more broadly.) There is a strong impulse to erase unhappiness and pain, but I don’t know that that can be traced to an increase in, or embrace of, “empathy” itself as a concept or practice.

    I can think of counter-examples where empathy might support higher moral standards. A hypothetical. I don’t have children, so take this with a grain of salt. Empathizing with my child’s pain at being denied something they want does not necessarily mean I will try to get rid of it, or even that I will want to. I will only try to get rid of it if I think pain is inherently, always bad, or reflect on my own experiences with that kind of whole negativity. If, however, I also remember how formative a similarly painful experience was in my development of self-control and endurance, that kind of empathetic connection seems productive, even good. I can “feel” their pain and take a kind of joy in it nonetheless. Although this is not the one-to-one immediate empathy identified in your post, it certainly seems like a permutation of empathy.

    Of course, I think you’re right that most people deploy “empathy” as a kind of defense against criticism. “Just think how I feel (then you wouldn’t criticize).” (Although you have also probably encountered the opposite problem, similarly frustrating, where people with no knowledge or experience with a subject feel qualified to speak at length with egregious ignorance about it. Some familiarity and experience, even without personal experience, seems necessary to truly moral speech.) But I don’t think “empathy” is inherently hopeless.

    Finally, the value of empathy also depends on the receiving person. In my own experience, depending on the situation, empathy has actually steered me in a better direction rather than justifying my current feelings or actions. For example, you brought up depression and suicide in your post. I suffered from a particularly bad period of depression several years ago. The kind of moralistic sentiments about depression and my responsibility to “look on the bright side”, even well-intended and well-delivered, did not help and sometimes made things worse. It was alienating. In contrast, another fellow-sufferer’s sigh and “I know; I don’t know” gave me a kind of relief that enabled me to look forward.

  15. Rich Wickham says:

    I was linked here by Bruce Charlton and thankfully so. Beautiful work, sir. Thank you for sending it out into the internet aether! Can’t wait to read more.

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