Please, go read Conor Friedersdorf’s lengthy meditation on – well, he covers quite a number of topics, from the difficulty sustaining a post-collegiate conversation about the cornerstones of one’s life to the sexual ethics of extreme pornography (which is where this conversation began), to the social purpose of condemnatory language. I endorse wholeheartedly his early statement that this, this kind of back-and-forth searching dialogue between people who speak quite different languages, is precisely the promise of web journalism, and something I wish I saw more often. If nothing else, Emily Witt should be very pleased with the conversation she started.
The heart of Conor’s essay, though, is about Kant, and whether, per Pascal Emanuel Gobry’s suggestion, Kant provides a common language for traditionalists and modernists to talk to each other so that, while they may not agree, they may at least come to mutual understanding. Specifically, a Kantian approach to sexual ethics would go beyond demanding mere consent, but would demand that, in our relations, we treat each other only as ends, never as means, regardless of whether either of us is willing to be treated merely as a means.
Conor illustrates what that means in practice with the following example:
Imagine that Sean meets Jessica. Soon they decide they are in love with one another.
After six months, he moves into her apartment. It’s spacious and comfortable. Another six months passes. Gradually, he realizes that he doesn’t love her anymore and wants to break up. But the day he planned to do it, he loses a freelance client. Moving out would now mean finding a shared apartment rather than a studio of his own. He decides to keep dating Jessica for another couple months, until a new client comes on and he can again afford his own place. He has treated her as a means rather than an end. I’m confident that many secular modernists with consent-focused notions of sexual morality would agree that Sean has acted like an immoral jerk.
That’s certainly my moral intuition.
Now imagine that Sean instead told Jessica, “I never would have believed it when we moved in together, but we’ve somehow grown apart in the last couple months, and I think we should break up.”
And Jessica replies (however implausibly), “I’d miss you terribly if you left now. So stay here until you’ve saved enough to move to a better apartment. You don’t love me anymore, but I know you still enjoy the sex, and it’s my desire to keep you around a bit longer. I still love you, even if you don’t love me, and while your continued proximity may ultimately just make it harder for me to get through the breakup, I desire it anyway. What do you say? Let’s sleep together right now.” Once again, even most non-traditionalists would agree that the more moral thing for Sean to do is to refuse this offer. Perhaps that intuition is partly rooted in Kantianism.
You see his point? In the second example, if the relationship continued, both sides would be consenting, and yet there’s still something wrong, from a Kantian perspective – because, we might say, Sean is just “using” Jessica. (Or, perhaps, he’s letting himself be used. After all, in this scenario he is basically letting her pay him for sex – the payment is the right to stay in their affordable apartment – so that she can prolong for herself the illusion that their love hasn’t died.)
But I’m skeptical, as I usually am, of rule-based morality of this sort. So let’s change the scenario a bit. Suppose, instead of being a couple who’ve been dating six months, they are a married couple with a six-year-old child. And Sean wakes up to find his love has gone cold.
What, now, would Kant suggest?
Well, if you take his ideas about sex seriously, this isn’t actually that hard a problem – but Conor doesn’t take those ideas terribly seriously (nor do I). So: what would Kant advise?
Suppose Sean were to tell his wife, Jessica, that he’s fallen out of love with her and wants to break up – the way the six-month-dating Sean did in Conor’s hypothetical. That would be honest. It would mean not treating her as a means, I suppose. But what would it mean for his dependent daughter? To treat a child as an end can’t just mean honesty in interpersonal relations. It must mean ordering one’s life, in a fundamental way, around the child’s primary needs. Is it possible that breaking up a marriage is doing so?
I won’t say it can’t be – there are marriages that are worse for children than divorces. I won’t even say that it’s a rule that it’s better (for the children) to stay married if all that’s wrong is that love has died. I know people who grew up in such marriages who disagree, who wish their parents had divorced and ended the torment of living with two people causing each other so much pain. But, at a minimum, I would say there’s a big problem with a rule that says: the only moral choice for Sean is to break up the marriage, because anything else would be treating Jessica (or himself) as a means, without bringing the child into the equation as a primary factor.
So let’s say Sean decides to stay, for the sake of his daughter. Now what? Should he tell his wife he no longer loves her? Or should he lie? No, he’s not allowed to lie; that’s using her as a means, not an end. So she knows he doesn’t love her. Can he now seek extra-marital satisfaction, but stay together as parents? Well, is there any way to do so that doesn’t involve treating the other woman as a means rather than an end? Presumably not. So: does his wife have any obligations to satisfy her husband sexually? Even if it causes her pain to sleep with a man she knows doesn’t love her? Presumably not as well – that sounds like a textbook case of using each other as a means rather than an end. Even if she could rationalize putting aside her own pain so as to do a service to him, what possible excuse does he have other than his own needs? So what we’re left with is marriage as a kind of prison sentence: two people obliged to stay together in sexless, loveless mutual solitude. What a wonderful environment in which to raise a child. Maybe they should break up after all.
You see where I’m going with this. Kant’s ethics are an ethics of distance. They are animated by a fear of transgression that militates against intimacy, particularly sexual intimacy, most particularly a sexual intimacy intended to last a lifetime. Once we enter this particular dark wood, I don’t think Kant provides much of a map. Indeed, the whole “map” metaphor probably needs to be chucked.
Later on in his piece, Conor says: “It seems to me that, whether we’re talking about a three-week college relationship or a 60-year marriage, it is equally possible to treat one’s partner as a means or as an end (though I would agree that “treating as means” is more common in hookups than marriage).” I think that parenthetical is debatable. Well, I won’t opine on what is common in hookups; I don’t have enough direct experience (college was a while ago). But precisely because of the prolonged intimacy of marriage, it’s almost unavoidable that you wind up treating one another as means rather than ends, at least some of the time. Frankly, the real work of marriage is avoiding getting used to so doing.
What we should be concerned with is not rules but with cultivating a sensitivity to the qualities of our relationships. The right thing for Sean to do isn’t to ask “what actions would or would not constitute treating Jessica as a means rather than an end, because I don’t want to do anything that would transgress that line” but “what is it going to take to make this marriage work – work as well as it possibly can – because, for my daughter’s sake if not for mine or my wife’s, I don’t want it to fail.” That internal conversation – and, ideally, conversation with Jessica – needs to be as honest as possible. Which means leaving everything on the table, at least initially – including the possibility that the marriage can’t be saved, but also including the possibility that saving it will require some real creativity – rather than prematurely closing off options by saying, “but that would be wrong.”
And that applies equally well to six-month-Sean. In Conor’s hypothetical, Sean and Jessica are going to break up. The only question is whether they are going to break up now, or in a couple of months, after he’s agreed to keep having sex with her in spite of their mutual knowledge that the love is gone. Conor’s Kantian explanation for why Sean shouldn’t do this, even with Jessica’s consent, is that it’s using her (or she’s using him) as a means rather than an end. But another road – my preferred road – to the same result would be to say: what’s their relationship going to be like after the extra, say, two months of loveless sex? How will they feel about each other then, in the future?
In Conor’s hypothetical, Jessica says, “while your continued proximity may ultimately just make it harder for me to get through the breakup, I desire it anyway.” So she knows the right answer. What else do we really need to know?