The end of Enlightened sex?

Christians talk a lot about the Enlightenment, in the same way that dwellers on the Pacific coast might talk a lot about a past tsunami. The intellectually tectonic shift which the thinking of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant rendered to the Western mind can scarcely be quantified. The theistic roots of our culture’s epistemological and ethical outlook were systematically supplanted by the elevation of reason to the place of deity, and the reduction of deity to the realm of reason. We live amid the aftershocks of that movement even today.

In the wider culture, the Enlightenment is often hailed as an unparalleled good, a kind of emancipation from the terrors and trammels of the Judeo-Christian God, and a welcome reduction of the circumference of the influence of belief on wider society and morals. Lift a popular treatment of atheism, and there you will quickly encounter at least a laudatory paragraph which favourably contrasts the scepticism which followed Kant with the pernicious gullibility and superstition of those who set God at the centre of their thought, and their morals. The Enlightenment is often portrayed as the doting parent of modern humanism, a kind of benevolent ancestor of the virtues and values of our contemporary secular world.

Such thinking is anachronistic at best, and misleading at worst. Historical movements seldom map on to our contemporary times in a way which doesn’t leave some kind of intellectual remainder, and the selection of distant patron saints for our modern practices and thinking is a dubious exercise. Kant, for all of the social revolution that his thinking precipitated, does not of necessity share any DNA with the voices raised most vociferously against faith in our own generation – to claim otherwise is a reduction of his real historical importance, and of the intellectual milieu from which he emerged.

A telling example of this is in the realm of sexual ethics. Kant is often enlisted as the poster-boy for personal autonomy, as a champion of the thinking which gave rise to the sexual ethics which found full flower in the revolution of the 1960s. All of this seems plausible except for one fact – Immanuel Kant was a stolid sexual prude by our modern standards – not by temperament but by principle.

In his recent book, Justice, Michael Sandel provides a stunning snapshot of Kant’s biography and his thinking. Eschewing the patronisingly reductionist treatments which the philosopher often endures at the hands of modern humanists (and evangelicals), Sandel is insistent on demonstrating not just what Kant taught, but how Kant thought. One of the most prominent themes to emerge is the link between Kantian autonomy and human dignity. It was this connection which fuelled the Enlightenment philosopher’s insistence that sexual behaviour should only find expression within the covenant bond of marriage.

Some explanation may be in order here. Our society equates human autonomy with the right to self-determination, with the individual’s freedom to choose their own path, their own principles – without external interference when they are acting within the law. Autonomy in these terms lends license to moral latitude with oneself, with the pursuit of personal happiness at all costs, with the indulgence of material and sexual appetites without restriction or external judgement. Modern autonomy is freedom unfettered, the divorce of principle from practice, a kind of ‘Wiki-ethics’ to which each is free to edit at will. For Kant such behaviour is a denial of true autonomy.

Sandel unpacks this very helpfully. For Kant, ‘to act freely is not to choose the best means to given end; it is to choose the end itself, for its own sake’ (p.109), and this notion of choosing the ‘end’ not just the ‘means’ places some external governance on how humans make truly moral decisions. There are a series of checks and measures which Kant insisted upon to ensure that morality did not simply descend into every person doing what is right in his of her eyes, and among these is the categorical imperative that we treat persons as ends. In Kant’s own words, ‘I say that man, in general every rational being, exists as an end in himself, not merely as a mean for arbitrary use by this or that will’.

This is hugely important for how autonomy relates to sexual ethics. Freedom in the sexual sphere is not to ‘do what I want any old time” (a la the Happy Mondays song of the 1990s), but to follow the imperative of reason. Under these terms only monogamous sexual union can ensure that others are not treated as a means to sexual gratification, but as ends in themselves, with all of the dignity and worth entailed there. Kant sees the network of relational elements that the marriage bond entails as best facilitating a space where individuals can genuinely be viewed as ends rather than mere means.

Undoubtedly the appropriateness of Kant’s application of his own ethic is ripe for debate and contest, but doing dignity to his own philosophical self-understanding means that we most decidedly do not arrive at a post-sexual revolution understanding of autonomy. Where Kant urges necessity, modern humanism emphasises contingency, where early Enlightenment thought insisted on categorical imperatives, modern humanism drives at the hegemonic establishment of hypothetical imperatives.

All of this brings us to a fascinating place, particularly for those of us who neither espouse Enlightenment thought or secular humanism. The truth is that our society’s sexual and ethical mores are not predicated on well thought through or intellectually established premises, but on subjective, egocentric, and reductively affective pressures. This, then, must be defended against not only biblical categories for understanding sexual practice, but against the fountainhead of the Enlightenment to which secular thinkers so readily resort. Modern sexual practice has a form of Kantian principle, but denies the power thereof, and struggles to either prove its pragmatic benefits, or its philosophical pedigree.

The #MeToo movement and the fallout which is following in its wake is insisting on a form of neo-Kantian thought which inevitably draws it into conflict with the sensory ‘autonomy’ that the 1960s have bequeathed to us. The disparity, however, is that #MeToo is not advocating a return to the mutually affirmative environment of marriage but a polarised and surprisingly legalistic view of sexual practices. The space between these ideologies may provide an important forum for a thoughtful, and precisely articulated biblical ethic which outstrips Enlightenment ideas because of its recourse to the transcendent, and provides a beautiful corrective to the de rigeur promiscuity which has informed education and public policy for a generation.

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