Why the New Age Puritans are the enemies of progress
My first and only foray into the student debate was on Valentine’s Day 2013 when I was recruited at the last moment (to replace Peter Stringfellow, among all) on the motion “This House believes that sex has lost all meaning”. I was for.
It turned out as disastrously as you might expect when throwing a beginner with no diploma but a few essays on sexuality in classic literature into the bear pit alongside a former porn actor, the director from an adult film company, two professional lifestyle writers and a woman who had started her own sex shop. My lost side, and my main memory of the evening was getting drunk at the bar afterwards with the porn actor who enthusiastically suggested that I rethink my career path.
But my point was that sex had lost all meaning – and that was something to celebrate. Throughout most of human history, the meaning of sex has been linked to the consequences gender: namely sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. It had associations with sin and danger, something disruptive and harmful that had to be tamed by strict societal codes that curtailed human impulse for pleasure.
As soon as the technology existed to mitigate these consequences – reliable contraception and treatment for STIs – social stigma began to evaporate. Now, I argued, individuals were free to impose any meaning on sex that made sense to them, whether as a marker of a committed monogamous relationship or something else entirely.
[See also: Sex Actually with Alice Levine goes inside the pandemic sex industry]
I was reminded of all this by a recent article by science writer Tom Chivers on innovations that improve our lives and the moral opposition they invariably arouse from those who would prefer our behavior to change. He talks about reports of a new weight loss treatment that actually works, and also cites vegan meat, vaping, carbon capture, and the HPV vaccine – all of which have generated resistance from various sides on the grounds that ‘they are in a way “cheaters”. ”. Their critics say we should instead encourage more active lifestyles, persuade people to dislike the taste of meat, strengthen smoking cessation programs, fly less and support abstinence.
Chivers, like me, believes that if the technology is there to give people what they want without the harmful side effects, we should embrace it. But not everyone agrees. He writes about the tendency to get confused about why certain things are bad for us: he himself is noble.
In the pre-contraceptive world, I argued in 2013, chastity was considered a virtue because of the negative repercussions of extramarital sex. When these repercussions are no longer relevant, there is nothing virtuous in assigning a moral label to the way consenting adults choose to spend their time. Likewise, today, reducing driving is virtuous because it reduces carbon emissions. But if it were possible to continue driving at the same pace without these negative externalities, there would be no ethical reason to try to restrain motorist behavior.
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The fact that there is a setback to this attitude (look at the virtual silence of environmentalists on nuclear energy – a clean, cheap source of energy that is much safer than fossil fuels) reveals that the debate often fails. not about what we think it is. Something else is happening that is causing people to reject viable solutions to behavior they don’t like.
There is no doubt that the quick fixes may not be as useful as they first appear. Diet pills could have their own side effects, vaping could be more harmful than research currently shows, what if there was another nuclear disaster? And companies tend to go sleepwalking by pursuing “technology first, regulation second” strategies (check out the national security implications of the Internet of Things intrusion if you really want to terrify yourself).
But even when the risks are virtually non-existent, opposition always comes. When the vaccine against HPV (a sexually transmitted infection that is responsible for 70 percent of cervical cancers) began rolling out to adolescents, critics called it a “sex jab” and made argue that even if it saved lives, it would increase promiscuity among adolescents. . (Spoiler: It didn’t.) And a major environmental objection to nuclear power, geoengineering, and other tech solutions to the climate crisis isn’t about security at all. : it is that they do not “dismantle” the structures of the world, but rather allow us to continue to live as we do now, without radically upset our lifestyles.
Essentially, some people enjoy the consequences as a means of imposing their will on society. If you don’t like the way someone is acting, pointing out the bad side effects of their actions is a good way to stop them from doing it. Use technology to eliminate these side effects and morality evaporates – and with it the authority to control others.
[See also: Whose freedom?]
The Covid pandemic has provided this subsection of society with ammunition it could never have dreamed of. For 18 months, the personal choices we make about what to do and who to see have been a near-existential threat. Sunbathing in the park has become an act of societal aggression; hotlines have been set up to allow neighbors to get information about each other; people have advocated for masks to be worn outdoors where they have virtually no benefit in “reminding” everyone that we are in crisis mode.
As the risk has decreased due to the deployment of the vaccine, this power is proving difficult to give up. An IpsosMORI poll released in June found that a significant minority of Britons would like certain restrictions such as closing nightclubs (26 percent) and imposing a 10 p.m. curfew (19 percent) are applied at all times. whatever the Covid risk. Even when the question said there was no safety reason for the restrictions, a quarter of people still wanted to keep everyone from having fun.
Back in the days of my lackluster debut in the debate, I naively believed that the Puritanism with which sexuality has been watched through the ages was in decline. It took me years to realize that humanity craves repercussions: that some people would really prefer others to be harmed for their choices rather than adopt solutions that allow them to continue their behavior without consequence. The focus of judgment changed from hunting and casual sex to eating meat and jet-setting, but the momentum remained constant. And that impulse is the enemy of progress – progress that can cut pollution and reduce obesity and prevent women from dying from cervical cancer.
We will always be tormented by Puritans, and in times of crisis or societal upheaval, the moralizing spy is an opportunity to impose our own personal morality on the rest of us. As we recover from Covid, it’s worth remembering that the most censorious among us don’t hold the ethical height we think we have. No one can claim virtue by making others miserable. And if you really want to reduce human suffering, there are worse ways to go about it than handing out condoms and diet pills.
[See also: I thought I knew where I sat on the bookcase debate – but the random approach has taken me by surprise]