Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Moral Lumbyism

The French writer Catherine Millet visited Australia recently. She is famous for a book cataloguing her very promiscuous sex life, including group sex with men and women.

Some Australian commentators reacted unfavourably to the book, noting its "desperate emptiness" and "unrestrained liberation and self-indulgence".

However, Millet found one defender in the Australian academic Catharine Lumby. Ms Lumby believes that Millet's promiscuity is admirable, because it requires "a sense of self which is quite independent of social norms" and because it forced Ms Millet to "rethink the ethics of self and sex from the ground up."

What this means is that Catharine Lumby does not admire a person for following a moral good, but for being "emancipated" from social norms and from pre-existing concepts of morality.

Why would she think this way? The answer is that she is following, in a radically consistent way, the liberal first principle: that we should be self-created by our own reason and will.

If you want to be self-created by your own reason and will, you won't like the idea that you are limited in what you can choose to do by any external code of morality.

This means that you will see morality itself in a negative light as something oppressive to the individual. You will prefer, instead, a more "open" or "fluid" attitude to what is right and wrong, one in which individuals "negotiate" for themselves their own ethical standards according to their personal circumstances and preferences.

Given this general outlook, it's not surprising that Catharine Lumby rejects morality altogether in favour of ethics. She does so on the grounds that "Morality is a blueprint for living that someone hands to you. Ethics is the zone we all enter when we find ourselves, by choice or necessity, negotiating those rules."

Again, the emphasis here is on acting freely according to our own individual will and reason. Morality is condemned because it's a closed system, a "blueprint", that is handed to us, rather than self-constructed. Ethics, on the other hand, is a system open to individual negotiation - and therefore more congenial to the spirit of liberal individualism.

The same spirit of liberal individualism is also given voice when Catharine Lumby urges us to "avoid asserting moral beliefs as moral truths" and instead "accept the principle that there are no givens and that all ideas should be up for debate".


The front-page news in Australia recently has been a sex scandal involving players from different football codes. It seems that some players have become accustomed to participating in group sex (or to put it more crudely, but more accurately, gang-bangs). A number of women have complained that they have been sexually assaulted by players engaged in this activity.

What did the National Rugby League do in response? They hired Catharine Lumby for expert advice! Now remember, it was Catharine Lumby who praised Catherine Millet for engaging in group sex. It was supposed to be an admirable thing for Ms Millet to set herself outside social norms in this way.

It can't be expected, then, that Ms Lumby would ask National Rugby League players to rethink their standards of sexual conduct. After all, for Ms Lumby there are no moral truths to follow, and it is not for her to give players a "blueprint" for how to live their lives.

So what can she ask of the players? One thing that liberals can do in such circumstances is to uphold the idea of individual consent. After all, what liberals want us to do is to follow our own, unimpeded will. It is perfectly within liberal theory, therefore, to insist that we are not forced into any activity, but that we individually consent to it.

It's possible, in other words, for a liberal to believe that "anything goes" but to still react negatively to cases of sexual assault on the basis that someone's consent was lacking (ie their will was infringed). This helps to explain why liberals often view sexual assault as a failure of men to understand the process of consent: what has gone wrong is that men haven't understood that no means no.

Even for many liberals, though, this is not a convincing response to the problem of sexual assault. It ignores the fact that a man might understand a woman's refusal to consent, but attack her regardless.

What liberals have therefore added on to the idea of consent is an emphasis on "respect". The hope is that if a culture of respect is created then no one would act to hurt another. Nor does the notion of "respect" contravene liberal first principles: it says nothing specific about what individuals may or may not do - everything is still left open to negotiation.

The credo of "respect" seems to have already gained ground within sporting clubs. It certainly has at the Hawthorn Football Club, whose team captain, Shane Crawford, said of the sexual assault scandal that,

We just hope that our players are very respectful of everyone and we're pretty confident that's the way it is.

You just hope in general everyone's respectful of people. I think that's all you hope for.


But is Shane Crawford right? Is an ethics of consent and respect enough? Catharine Lumby seems to think so. She is confident in her mission with the National Rugby League because,

There are many people who have expertise that will assist the NRL in its mission to ensure all players treat women with care and concern and respect in all situations. I intend to consult with them.

Others are not so sure. Journalist Andrew Bolt points out that footballers are unlikely to treat the groupies who submit to gang-bangs with respect. He writes:

[Catharine Lumby] has since said what matters isn't that players use women in group sex, but that they treat these women with respect...

Which means, I gather, that she can imagine sportsmen boozily sharing some groupie they've picked up for a gang-bang and treating her with courtesy. As an equal. With respect...

Yes, Lumby really seems to think that's how gang bangs work. Or could, if only we left our sad old morality on the chair with our jeans.

Writer Angela Shanahan makes much the same point,

To tackle the entrenched "culture" of group sex ... the NRL has hired a "gender expert", Catharine Lumby, to devise a program to teach players respect for women in what she has called "the real world of gender politics."

Lumby ... has declared that it is not group sex per se that is wrong, but coercion. Come again? Are players to be treated to earnest dissertations on the concept of "no" in the politics of the orgy? ...

I find it very difficult to see how anyone involved in group sex can have much respect for anyone else ... Yet in the Lumby world view we can rely on female consent as the central factor in any variation of sexual congress to which footballers are partial.


Which is all to say that liberals are left with a very restricted approach to moral issues by their first principles. In general they are led to treat the very notion of morality negatively, as something which impedes individual will; those who break down accepted norms of morality are the heroes in this world view.

When a more positive attitude is called for, liberals are left with concepts like consent and respect. It's difficult, though, to fit such concepts with the demand that we act outside of traditional moral norms - which will usually mean acting in ways which are harmful to ourselves and others.

To act harmfully and wrongly - but to do so with a show of concern: this will too often prove to be the consequence of a radically liberal approach to morality.

And what if we broke with liberal first principles? Then we would no longer need to regard morality negatively, as an impediment to individual will. We could return to a more positive sense of what it means to act according to a moral good.

(First published at Conservative Central, 21/03/2004)

1 comment:

  1. Good post. The acrobatics that take place when the concept of feminist respect for women and encouragement of promiscuity is attempted to be squared. Lots of sex and lots of rape councillors.