Sex, Violence, and Morality

“That’s not right!” hollered my neighbor Bob, as we argued in my garage. We were building feral cat houses, and I wanted to take some structural shortcuts. Shortcuts, of course, when compared with the “proper” or “correct” way to frame a roof; although, of course, this wasn’t any old roof. It was a feral-cat-house roof, which is a fraction of the size of a “real” roof. The whole “house” was less than eight cubic feet. Did the rules still apply?

Thus begins our investigation into morality, or, the rules of living. There is a lot of confusion around this topic among the masses, if not the intellectual elite — although I believe they, too, struggle as well, hindered by the political fashions of the era.

First of all, there is no “right” and “wrong.” There is life and death. Morality refers to the rules that people agree to, because they believe those rules will help keep peace, normalcy, stability, the “status quo.” When someone breaks those rules, it is usually thought that he or she ought to be reprimanded. Why? Because they disrupted the stability of the group, community, society.

But, again, these are rules we agree to. They are not rules that already exist. Living creatures exist to live, which is why they go to such lengths to reproduce: it is really the only purpose we’re here for. So if someone does something to threaten the stability of the group, it is thought that the group’s survival is at stake, even if indirectly. But just a hint of such an idea is enough to make the group act, sometimes drastically.

Perhaps this is why sex and violence are so taboo: the first means reproduction and the second, survival. But of course, reproduction is merely an attempt to keep surviving, if only genetically. Our television screens are filled with these subjects, as bemoaned by so many. Yet if you want to get people crying, or cheering, or frightened, or longing, what other subjects than those which cause such deep emotion in all of us — and that, because they remind us of our own frailty, and also of our own purpose, our deepest, whether we acknowledge it or not, concerns.

The laws regarding violence and reproduction are controversial, sometimes famous, always numerous and often complex, for, once again, these are the things we care about most (think Roe v. Wade, The Second Amendment, etc. — at least in the U.S.). But do they deserve such attention, and are they really that important?

Well, of course they are. If someone was allowed to kill me without consequence, I may not be here right now, and I would not be able to write this essay. And for me, at least, that would be unfortunate. If couples could only bear a single child, I would never have existed (of course, this is only unfortunate to think about after I’ve already existed). It is not that murder doesn’t matter, or that laws regarding rape and violence should be more lenient. However, a middle-aged man copulating with a 9-year-old girl is not wrong in itself; we have merely decided that it should not be done, and are (usually) willing to punish anyone who does it.

What if, on the other hand, our attitudes toward, say, a 55-year-old woman molesting an 11-year-old boy were very different? What if this was not condemned, but encouraged? What effect would this have on the boy? If these acts affect the children negatively, isn’t that, at least partly, because we believe they are bad — this being something that the child, even if not initially, understands?

But if it was practiced widely, and considered healthy, what would be the consequences?

In many places in the world, prehistoric peoples existed in states of scarcity and uncertainty. Nature was, and is, dangerous: disease, weather, wildlife. Each member of the group, and each belonging, was highly valued. If a few members could not reproduce, the whole group might go extinct in the foreseeable future.

We still live in a state of uncertainty and scarcity. We don’t need to, but it’s how we’re wired, and so we’ve created worlds and societies in our own image, reflecting our own psyches. For so many of us, to give to a stranger still feels like a loss to ourselves. Even if it’s something so small, and even though we may flourish perfectly without it, our prehistoric fears cloud our understanding.

There is no good or bad, only better and worse. But defining better and worse requires one to first define one’s goals and values — and for so many of us, the goal is survival. Is it yours?