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27.8.05

The Deontology And Consequentialism Of Masturbation

Hugo Schwyzer recently came out in favor of masturbation. He responds to a post by Bonnie, who argues against masturbation from a conservative Christian standpoint. Bonnie takes a basically deontological position. She says that God creates things for a specific purpose, and that any use of a thing that does not conform to God's purpose is immoral. In this case, the thing in question is our sexuality, and God's purpose for it is to create a bond between a husband and wife. Masturbation obviously does not (except very indirectly) bind a husband and wife together, so it is therefore immoral.

In a follow-up post, Schwyzer offers an interesting rephrasing of the anti-masturbation argument (though he disagrees with this formulation as well). He retains the view that masturbation's wrongness has to do with the fact that it's not two-person sex. But rather than being intrinsically wrong as a misuse of sexuality, he presents it as wrong due to its consequences for two-person sex. Masturbation conditions us to think about sex as being basically about our own pleasure, which makes it more difficult to focus on pleasing a partner when we have two-person sex. Presumably anyone using this argument further believes that the pleasure lost in the resulting inferior two-person sex is greater than the pleasure gained by masturbating. (One might also take a revised utilitarian perspective in which the pleasure of two-person sex is the only pleasure that counts (perhaps because of God's purpose), and so anything that reduces that pleasure is immoral -- similar to the way some people want to exclude sadistic pleasures or other-regarding preferences from the utilitarian calculus.)

What makes this interesting is that the two arguments would require much different responses from a pro-masturbation secularist. In the deontological case, we would have to dig down to some basic assumptions about whether God exists and how we know what (if anything) his purpose in creating sexuality was. Most problematic, from my viewpoint, is the question of whether the purposes or causes of something's creation are morally binding -- if a thing was made for X, does that mean there's anything wrong with using it for something other than X? Couldn't masturbation be as innocent as using a shoe (designed to protect your feet) to squash a cockroach or prop a door open?

On the other hand, the consequentialist argument is best approached in terms of its empirical content. One can imagine ways to examine the factual question of whether masturbating will result in worse sex. The usual objections to consequentialism in general don't seem very compelling in this case, although even if one were to raise them, they are quite different from what would be said against the deontological argument.

The deontological version raises much deeper disagreements between anti-masturbation Christians and pro-masturbation secularists. The consequentialist argument is both more plausible to a secularist, as well as being amenable to empirical demonstration of its central claim. In that sense, the consequentialist argument is more appealing. But things get tricky if someone whose real commitment is to the deontological argument tries to use the consequentialist one in order to win support. Much frustration results when a consequentialist argument is disproven (and their high empirical content typically makes consequentialist arguments very vulnerable to disproof) but nobody changes their mind because they're really deontologists fighting a consequentialist proxy war.

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