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November 26, 2005

Function, Norms, and Dildos

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

Pam Spaulding at Pandagon brings my attention to the Rev. Willie Wilson, who argues for the immorality of lesbian anal strapon dildo action* with the memorable phrase, "Your butt ain't made for that!"  The idea that being anally penetrated by another woman's strapon dildo runs contrary to the true function of the butt is consistent with a significant strand of Christian sexual philosophy.  St. Thomas Aquinas held that the proper function of the penis was as an instrument of reproduction, since God had designed it for that purpose.  Ejaculating into things other than human vaginas -- for example, mouths, anuses, animals, and even one's hand for purposes of masturbation -- was thus regarded as immoral.

Christian philosophers aren't the only people who think that facts about morality are tied closely to facts about function.  You sometimes hear this from people who have gotten a little too excited about evolutionary biology and think that morality is in some way based on biological function.  Either way, there's  no reason to think that the notion of purpose or function has any bearing on morality.  (This seems a completely obvious point to me, but then I spend most of my waking hours around philosophers, and I don't know if it's obvious to normal smart people.)  To offer an illustrative example, the function of a frying pan is to fry things.  But if a burglar breaks into my home and I drive him away by whacking him repeatedly with a frying pan, the fact that it was a frying pan and not some object with a more whacking-oriented function with which I whacked him doesn't contribute any wrongness to the action.

When we say that something has a function, we usually mean that its creator intends it for a particular kind of use or that it can be used effectively in some particular way. But there's not necessarily anything wrong in using objects in a way their creator didn't intend -- see the frying pan case.  And the fact that something can be used effectively in one way doesn't mean that it shouldn't be used in any other ways.  Perhaps you really need to get some other thing done, and the object in question is the best thing you've got for doing that. 

*I foresee that this post is going to be a lightning rod for incoming perv search traffic.  Well, at least the pervs will learn something before they go find some lesbian strapon dildo anal action. 

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Comments

I agree completely. Biological morality is completely unacceptable, not that anyone uses it except to confirm preconceived opinions. Is it immoral to remove an appendix?!?!

Posted by: Sandals | Nov 27, 2005 1:21:43 AM

That's one hell of a title, Neil. Almost as good as "Rum, Buggery, etc."

Posted by: TJ | Nov 27, 2005 2:00:11 AM

"Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash?" yeah. Good Pogues album by that name too.

In philosophy, the "A, B, and C" title form is pretty common. "Functions" and "Norms" are the kinds of words one sees -- "Dildos" is much less common.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Nov 27, 2005 2:24:51 AM

Biological morality is a pretty neat and clean way to get your decision making problems out of the way. That is, until you realize that humans both evade and follow biology in many ways every day. If God meant me to run at 60 miles an hour to Virginia he'd have made me a SUPER AMERICAN CHEETAH!

Posted by: perianwyr | Nov 27, 2005 8:01:30 AM

...Pandagon brings my attention.....lesbian anal strapon dildo action

No surprise there...

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 27, 2005 8:13:07 AM

I'm guessing that you don't have much sympathy for Aristotle's ethics, then?

Posted by: Dr Pretorius | Nov 27, 2005 11:38:26 AM

The sad thing is that the dildo is created for just this purpose.

Anyway, nice post. I especially loathe EP enthusiasts who don't manage to get the concept of flexiblity of function, if you will. I mean, our mouth surely evolved to eat before we talked, but that doesn't make eating more moral than talking.

Posted by: Amanda | Nov 27, 2005 1:15:24 PM

That's right, Dr. P. No fan of the Aristotle here. The discipline of ethics has come a long way.

Hearing Amanda praise your post bashing various hotsexophobes is like hearing Michelangelo praise your painting, or hearing the other Michelangelo praise your skill with nunchucks.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Nov 27, 2005 1:58:45 PM

Read Biological Exuberance if you want to see all the freaky ways our animal brethren like to get down. Homosexuality, masturbation and anal sex are not only common in th eanimal kingdom but in some species more common than boring old coitus. The fundies who sa animals only do it for procreation once again don't know their ass from their elbow.

Posted by: Keith | Nov 27, 2005 5:06:54 PM

So, what standards would a typical liberal use to decide if a sexual practice was perverted? Are there any or is everything relative? Better question, is there *ANY* practices that liberals consider perverted? If so, why? If not, why?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 27, 2005 6:14:10 PM

Fred, the sexual practices I regard as immoral are those where not all the participants consent, or where one participant desires to harm another. There's also sexual practices that are dangerous and risky (say, unprotected anal sex with an IV drug user).

The category of 'perversion' isn't really one that I find useful in thinking about sexual morality.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Nov 27, 2005 6:35:07 PM

Just as a general point, a whole sort of creativity is precisely the 'perverse' use of materials for other than their intended (or at least, stated in merchandising materials) purpose.
Much contemporary art exploits this sort of material 'perversion'....
And sex, gay or straigt, is most interesting to me when we find new and different ways to use (and avoid abusing) our materials.
Why do I find myself thinkin' about Yeats's line from 'Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop': "And love hath built his mansions in a place of excrement..."

Posted by: Mr. Bill | Nov 27, 2005 7:02:49 PM

Not that I wish to take any position pro or con regarding Lesbian anal dildo adventures, not for love or money, but it's pretty clear that what "nature" did "intend" for human beings is an average life expectancy of about thirty years. "Civilized" and "natural" are strict antonyms.

Posted by: W. Kiernan | Nov 27, 2005 7:36:21 PM

The category of 'perversion' isn't really one that I find useful in thinking about sexual morality.

In our culture, animals are chattel, to be slaughtered, hunted, stuffed, eaten, made into clothes, etc. Would using animals for sex be OK with you? Anything goes? All relative?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 28, 2005 8:30:09 AM

Another question comes to mind. If not changing the cornerstone of society, the family, for the homosexuals amounts to horrible discrimination (as you have stated in the past) then what about those who wish to have other combinations?

There are other groups that, by your standards, are in the lurch and need legal relief. Seems rather one sided if one is to believe your reasons given. what about them?

Don't they count?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 28, 2005 8:41:12 AM

Hello, Mr. Werewolf, the questions above is directed at you because of your assertions.

Do you or do you not have an answer??

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 28, 2005 12:36:20 PM

If not changing the cornerstone of society, the family, for the homosexuals amounts to horrible discrimination...then what about those who wish to have other combinations?

No slipping in a bogus premise, Fred. How is allowing gays to marry going to change "the family"? Will it alter your family relationships in any way?

As far as "other combinations" are concerned: 1)On a practical level, you can't take a legal arrangement between two parties and simply extend it to three or more. By simple count of one-to-one relationships, a group of three is 3x more complex than a pairing. 2) The only US subculture that practices polygamy also treats women pretty much as property. Show an example where such arrangements are made between equal parties and maybe we'll have something to talk about.

Posted by: jackd | Nov 28, 2005 2:58:30 PM

...you can't take a legal arrangement between two parties and simply extend it to three or more. By simple count of one-to-one relationships, a group of three is 3x more complex than a pairing.

Since when does complexity trump what you perceive as a human rights issue? I thought this was important to you. Now you are saying "yeah, but it's just too complicated". Nice try, but you haven't addressed the issue of why other combinations aren't entitled to what you think the homosexuals are.

The only US subculture that practices polygamy also treats women pretty much as property.

So because of your low opinion of polygamists on other issues means that they also are not entitled to what you think homosexuals are? What kind of argument is that? Face it, you have little reason not to include other groups if you are to bestow marriage rights upon the homos.

Your arguments are crap.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 28, 2005 3:35:15 PM

Fred, I got a little bit busy with some other stuff.

My views on bestiality generally agree with Bentham, and can be found here. Basically, I think bestiality is more comical than immoral.

There's some reason not to allow polygamy, given that unequal status is embedded in the relationship.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Nov 28, 2005 6:01:00 PM

There's some reason not to allow polygamy, given that unequal status is embedded in the relationship.

Historically, we've had unequal status embedded in 1:1 heteromarriage. If it were up to me, I'd allow polygamous marriage among uncoerced adults of age 18+, and disallow 1:1 heterosexual marriage of 14-to-17-year-olds in this country, as is legal in many US states -- what do you think, Fred?

Posted by: Hamilton Lovecraft | Nov 28, 2005 7:56:31 PM

I figure once polyamorous types figure out the specifics of things like powers of attorney, which partners' consent is necessary for add-on marriages and divorces, etc, then maybe we can legalize it. Now, most often they seem to make libertarian arguments for it, which would be relevant if FBI agents were busting into polyamorous homes and dragging off second husbands for their crimes, but not so relevant when they're already free to do what they want, but don't have a specific legal structure governing issues like power of attorney and the like, but they don't really have a consensus on how that legal structure can work.

In short: poly marriage: maybe once we figure out what that means, yes. Right now, no.

You assume that everyone here accepts that it's morally acceptable for animals to be "slaughtered, hunted, stuffed, eaten, made into clothes, etc." Not all of us do. Insofar as I find bestiality objectionable, I find it objectionable in many of the same ways that I find the other, "acceptable" things you mention objectionable. However, I think bestiality probably isn't as bad, except in some cases of extreme mechanical mismatch (man/chicken, for instance), but regardless, I don't advocate legal prohibitions on slaughtering, hunting, stuffing, eating, making into clothes, OR bestiality, myself.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Nov 28, 2005 10:26:25 PM

What Julian said.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Nov 28, 2005 10:49:45 PM

Basically, I think bestiality is more comical than immoral.

What's really comical is some kid who thinks he is some mainstream powerhouse of thought on a small board out to change the whole in one fell swoop of the keyboard!
Find me one....just *ONE* major politician, major news media outlet, well respected philosopher or any other mainstream icon that agrees with your outlandish ideas. This is why you are, indeed, an extremist, outlier, radical and probably stupid as well.

Mark Twain said that when he was 17, his father was the dumbest bastart he had ever met. He said that he was amazed at how much that man learned in the next three years. Hopefully, your issues are a symptom of inexperience and youth. Many self-described liberals gain a greater understanding of life and society as they gain more experience. I hope you will too.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 29, 2005 8:56:03 AM

Dude, if only 17-year olds and unusually immature 20-somethings (like me and Neil) believe that the Humean skepticism of naturalistic ethics is sound, then you could have told me sooner! All this time I thought I held a fairly mainstream, normal position. I must admit, though, that it sometimes seems as though there's a conspiracy to keep people like me in the dark about such matters, as if a bunch of website designers, authors, professors, etc had all created a vast Matrix-like alternative reality in which belief in the is-ought gap is a mainstream, and possibly even consensus, view in moral philosophy, not the wacky, immature position that it truly is.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Nov 29, 2005 10:34:28 AM

Dude, if only 17-year olds and unusually immature 20-somethings...

Great strawman. However, I didn't say "only".
I just used that group because that is the category that I believe applies to you. There are other groups who hold these juvenile attitudes as well. Included would be the old hippie in the sixties that still has long hair and rails against "The Establishment". San Francisco and Austin are full of 'em. Perhaps you can think of some more groups...

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 29, 2005 10:39:52 AM

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