Review of The Lustful Human Animal: Cultural Differences in Sexual Harm and Consent by Jesse Bering

Posted on Posted in Normative Ethics, Reductionism, teaching philosophy, Uncategorized

I came across Jesse Bering’s The Lustful Human Animal: Cultural Differences in Sexual Harm and Consent, the original article can be found here, and wanted to make a few comments. Overall I don’t have any serious bones to pick with author but he does say some very philosophically confused things at the end of the article that are worth noting. Okay, well maybe that is a serious bone in and of itself.

I must admit that philosophically uneducated persons making substantial philosophical claims that are patently absurd is something that does bother.

Which is really why we need universal philosophy education. Everyone is a philosopher, it is just a matter of whether one is a good philosopher or a bad one. Everyone thinks about philosophical issues and has philosophical stances on a range of issues. Not everyone thinks about math or very technical sciences but everyone does philosophy. Anyhow.

He says:

What Malinowski fell prey to in his line of reasoning about homosexuality, and what many otherwise intelligent people still succumb to today, is the naturalistic fallacy—the philosophical error in which “natural” is mistakenly conflated with “good.” There are many things that are natural that are immensely harmful, and vice versa, many unnatural things that have made our lives far more pleasant and positive. Naturalness connotes no intrinsic moral value at all, and normal is only a number.

The many differences in sexuality found across human societies are impressive, as I think you’ll agree. Yet where does this leave us in our ability to discern an “objective morality” out there in the universe—in this case, sexual rights and wrongs that exist independent of our own enculturated biases? If you take God out of the picture (and there’s certainly no obvious reason to include Him, evolutionarily), does an objective morality even exist?

Quite simply, no. Through the rhetoric of righteousness, we’re bullied into subscribing to the delusion that it does—but it doesn’t. We’d also do well to abandon our strange preoccupation with the meaningless question of what is “natural” in human sexuality. Unless we wish to invoke a Creator God who preconceived our loins and prescribed our genitals for reproduction and nothing more, “natural” is a useless construct when it comes to sexual ethics. To gain any moral traction on such slippery issues, while also keeping a clear view of the sheer range of erotic diversity displayed over time and space, we’d do better to devote our efforts and intellects to defining harm in a way that applies not to us as onlookers, but to the subjective minds of those involved.

“Naturalistic Fallacy” does not refer to conflating natural with good as the author suggests. I guess he didn’t read the hyperlink. It refers to an argument made by G.E. Moore in which he claims that there is no natural property that moral goodness can be reduced to. It is an anti-naturalist argument. The argument is that one can ask of any natural property that one might be tempted to think of as morally good “Is it really good?”, which is supposed to show that goodness is a non-natural property.

Moving on, the author then goes on to claim that without God in the picture there can not be any objective morality. This is simply not true, it is actually opposite i.e. depending on God to justify claims of objective morality is philosophically problematic (think Euthyphro dilemma).  Reason is all that is needed to generate claims of objective morality.

Tossed in there with his claims about objective morality and God is the insinuation that evolution somehow makes belief in God obsolete or disproves God’s existence. Evolution makes disbelief prima-facia plausible but certainly doesn’t disprove the existence of God.

6 thoughts on “Review of The Lustful Human Animal: Cultural Differences in Sexual Harm and Consent by Jesse Bering

  1. Yes I agree with some of your points esp about God & Euthyphro dilemma, but I’ve had this argument about THE ‘Naturalistic Fallacy’ before with a Christian, and a TYPE of naturalistic fallacy as in the Appeal to Nature category which is indeed in the wiki link and has some common usage. So on that I don’t think he is off the mark.

  2. Hi Simon, thanks for bringing that to my attention. I didn’t read the wikipedia article closely, it is does talk about other things including the “is-ought problem” and “appeal to nature” both of which are very different from Moore’s naturalistic fallacy. “Naturalistic fallacy” was coined by GE Moore and really shouldn’t be used to denote things that are e completely different. It is unfortunate that Steven Pinker uses the term differently than it should be used. I guess that is a good reason to not use wikipedia for things like this. Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy is a much better resource. In philosophical terms the author should have made reference to the is-ought problem or just frame it in terms of an appeal to nature. It may just seem like semantics but “naturalistic fallacy” is something very specific in philosophy and I don’t think it should be used to mean something totally different. But I guess that is just my opinion.

    1. Hi gauraradert, I do see your point. I think it simply comes down how the phrase rolls off the tongue and descriptive power when describing an appeals to nature fallacy. It just sticks on the tongue whereas naturalistic fallacy sound rights and rolls easily. My compromise is to throw in Naturalistic Type Fallacy in my personal use to try to clarify or maybe use ATN fallacy. Apart from minor philosophical points I generally agree with the thesis. I think its very hard to make ethical judgments about willing sexual partners from across cultural POV. It also speaks to me about the problems of ethical/moral certainty when morally sincerely and intelligent individuals cannot tell the difference between a social normal and a substantively harmful situations.
      PS looking forward to going over your earlier posts.

  3. I definitely don’t have any problems with the authors main point. However, a big part of what I try to do with this blog is call out people that make philosophical errors. It is nothing personal. I think as a society we have a severe deficit of critical thinking and I believe that philosophy should be taught to children along with english, math, and science. So, for me, considering the philosophy deficit we face, I think it is important for people to be educated to use philosophical terms the way they were intended rather than using them for in other ways. But again that is just my agenda in terms of advocating for more philosophy as part of our pre-college and college education system.

    “Naturalistic Fallacy” is catchy. The funny thing is that it is not actually a logical fallacy and Moore’s argument also applies to non-natural properties, so that both parts of the name are a bit of a misnomer.

    As far as what to use in describe the error of this type of thinking the most philosophically correct term would be “the is-ought gap.” Which was first noted by David Hume. It is essentially that “ought statements” cannot be derived from “is statements.” Or less technically moral principles don’t follow from any fact about the world whether psychological, sociological, etc. i.e. it may be a fact that torture causing suffering but this fact alone doesn’t make torture wrong.

    1. Gaurander I do wonder how often a philosophical tern has been appropriated by other fields to use is a philosophical folk sense? ATN or is ought-gap seems a clunking way to highlight this particular situation. BTW while I didn’t finish my Philosophy degree I do agree that a grounding in the basics would be helpful. But the again I’m still to come to come to terms with fundamental disagreements between equally qualified and intelligent philosophers. If they cannot get the basics philosophical questions correct what hope do the lay people have?

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