Good News for Those Who Want to be Judgmental About the Sex Lives of Others!

Some people think the recent supreme court decision supporting marriage equality is a setback for those of us who want to be judgmental about other people’s sex lives.  This is a misconception.  The supreme court ruling is only a set-back for those who want to use the law to impose their judgments about the sex lives of others, but they deserve to be set back, as they are confused.

The notion of using the law to impose personal morality is a poorly thought out project.  Since what we want when we judge other people’s intimate lives is for them to flourish into creative,autonomous individuals, using legal coercion is not just a blunt instrument for defeating our goals.   It is a self-defeating one. The person for example who has sex in the correct way but only because he fears legal repercussions is not having sex in the right way.

Sex is non-verbal communication.  The desire to be judgmental about the sex lives of others stems from the same desire as the wish to be judgmental about the communicative lives of others.  In both cases it is self-defeating to enlist the government’s monopoly on violence to push one’s agenda.  In both cases though it is overly extreme to stand back from being judgmental.  The first duty of friendship is reproof.  A friend would not let a friend express a thought that was foolish, or express it in a foolish way without communicating that opinion.  Similarly we would not want those we care about to be in sexual relationships that we find objectionable: perhaps because they are boring, or coercive, or spiritually deadening, or somehow conducive to the emotional crippling of one or both partners rather than to their flourishing.

Of course sex differs from many other forms of communication in one key respect: it is private.  So the wish to get on a moral soap-box and lecture people about their sex lives is more akin to the wish to lecture them about their poetry than it is akin to the urge to lecture them about their political or scientific speech.  But that is a far cry from saying we should not take a strong moral stand about our neighbor’s sex lives and share it.  Lovers of poetry have strong opinions about poetry: they have examples they love, examples they accept but think could be better, and examples they actually hate.  Lovers of sex, one would expect, would feel the same way.

Needless to say those willing to indulge in this pastime open themselves up to criticism of our own sex lives at the hands of others.  But for those who are either a)exhibitionists or b)interested in the opinions of others about such an important topic, that is not a bug — it is a feature.


6 thoughts on “Good News for Those Who Want to be Judgmental About the Sex Lives of Others!

  1. I’m a little surprised, ELK, at the errors in this piece. Let me help (by the way, loved your Fathers’ Day piece in the NYTimes):
    1. “Since what we want when we judge other people’s intimate lives is for them to flourish into creative,autonomous individuals…” Not true: when we judge other people, we are not interested in what happens to them. When we judge we want to be seen publicly as right. We want to marshal public opinion against them, and (if we’re lucky) shame them. Perhaps even lead the crowd in their punishment.
    2. “The person for example who has sex in the correct way but only because he fears legal repercussions is not having sex in the right way.” Not true: Intent is not the issue. As with kashrut, there is no “spirit of the law,” there is only the “letter of the law.” If a homosexual fears repercussions, legal, social, or even divine, and straitjackets themself into a straight marriage, and has straight sex (or strait sex), as far as the judgers are concerned, they’ve absolutely done the right thing. In fact, they’d be considered particularly virtuous for putting society’s opinion (and, presumably, God’s) over their own happiness and fulfillment.
    3. “The first duty of friendship is reproof.” Absolutely correct. Hence this comment.
    4. “…past-time…” Time to upbraid your assistant (or fire them and hire me instead). The correct word is “pastime”, as in a diverting activity.

    • Thanks for your response and thanks for your kind words about the NYT piece. My personal response to the following and I’m no authority is
      1)Different judges could want different things right? Some could only care about shaming but others could care about actually changing the motivations of the judged, for their well-being. That was the stated goal of the Inquisition for example — not just to force people to kiss a cross but to get them to actually love Jesus Christ. Their are contemporary examples too — if somebody doesn’t get Mom a mother’s day gift we may judge them in the hopes of getting that person to be more considerate in the future, and would not be satisfied with simply rote performance of the duty.
      2)Same as above. This applies to kashrut as well — there is an idea in the Jewish tradition of doing the right thing for the right reason as opposed to for a reward (see Pirkei Avot)
      3-4)Thanks. I am self-assisted and take full responsiblity for all such errors which I will correct.

  2. Mikey says:

    Interesting response from PB. I assumed you were deliberately being coy when you were talking about how people judge others’ sex lives. Or if not coy, then perhaps tongue-in-cheek. Or if not quite tongue-in-cheek then maybe faux naif. Anyway, a thoughtful and liberal defence of judgmentalism (or possibly judgmentisticness?) is refreshing. If you hear someone being judgy you could think “What a dick” or you could think “He only wants the best for the world, we just happen to disagree on what the best way to do that is” and the second one is much more sympathetic and friendly.

    • I was kinda being faux faux naïf. People sometimes claim that they are not judgmental about the intimate lives of others, but it is a rare person who pulls it off, and an even rarer one who pulls it off without paying the (for me) unacceptable price of just not giving a shit about anybody. As for somebody who thinks everybody who is judgmental is being a dick — such a person is being pretty judgmental.

  3. Mikey says:

    Yeah because the word “judgmental” is normally used to mean “is open about their opinions, and those opinions aren’t the same as mine” which everyone knows really, but you were using it to mean “someone who makes moral judgments” which is obviously all of us. And I think you were doing it in a coy way. Or maybe Theroux-esquely.

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