Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.”
1 Corinthians 6:16
A Particular Case Study
I haven’t really written about sex in a long time. But when I spotted the below story found in one of those school “confessions” facebook page, it provoked some intense reflection and thinking for me which I thought would be good to iron out in this note.
I stayed up in school till ’bout 7+ in one of the nights and there wasn’t many people left. I was completing my work when out of boredom I watched this girl studying her stuff. Then, she started sobbing and crying.
So I approached her and she didn’t notice I was around the whole time and tried to wipe away her tears (which were still streaming). I comforted her, asked her what’s going on and we began to talk. Turns out she was quite stressed about schoolwork and her friends who began to turn the clique against her. Her box of emotions spilled, we shared many stories together. And there her eyes stared into mine, and mine into hers, the next moment we knew is that we were kissing and we ‘got it on’ and finished quickly. After a few days I decided to ask her out and shortly after we became lovers.
We graduated and she stayed by my side, supporting me throughout my life in army, uni, work, all the way till now. We are blissfully married and to this day no one knew how we met 😉
How is one to make sense of this? Of course one can be an utter rigorist and simply insist that what he did with her was wrong come hell and high water, despite the fact that it had lead to what it seems to be quite a happy romantic relationship culminating in a happy marriage, and that we should judge that the entire event from romance to marriage was based on a sin.
Now, no matter how rigoristic I may sound, but there would always remain within me that tiny remnant of my “romantic” Anglo-Catholic past and it seems simply too cruel and harsh to just dismiss the whole thing based on a rigorist reading of the divine commandments. I also think that replying that this happens rarely and that in most cases premarital sex often does not lead to such a happy ending is merely evading the need to interpret particularity of this case by resorting to abstracting into a general statistical norm.
Therefore, I wish to approach this from a different angle by first proposing an outrageous thesis which I shall justify step by step. My thesis is this: this couple’s “fornication” is not wrong, and that it was justified retroactively based on the outcome of the act. And my first step towards justifying this would be to consider the interesting philosophical phenomena of moral luck.
Moral Luck and Retroactive Praise and Blame
Moral luck is a phenomenon studied mainly by philosophers and literary academics; it is the paradoxical idea that we can attribute responsibility and praise and blame for events which are beyond our voluntary control. In other words, our moral praise and blame is largely a matter of luck, based on events and circumstances beyond our control.
Moral luck is a very complex and multi-faceted phenomenon but for the purposes of this note, I shall only be considering one aspect. The aspect of moral luck which would be pertinent to our consideration is the idea that we can praise and blame people, not only for their mens rea or what they intended or willed to do, but we attribute praise and blame based also on what they as a matter of fact did accomplish, even if that accomplishment was beyond their mens rea or their control. I shall use two examples. One of them is of my own making which I shall repeat here:
Imagine that there was a drunk driver speeding across town and comes across school crossing with many children walking across it. The children scattered and miraculously enough, they all managed to dodge the drunk driver. Afterwards, if the drunk driver is caught, he would at most be charged with reckless endangerment of life, or drunk driving, etc. Maybe he’ll feel guilty about what might have been, but then after some reflection, he’ll probably just be more careful next time.
Imagine the same drunk driver, speeding across the the same town and coming across the same school crossing with the same children crossing the road. You can even imagine that the driver took the exact same path across the school crossing. But this time, one of the child, instead of deciding to dash say forward, dashes backwards instead, and unluckily! The child is hit by the drunk driver and is killed. The drunk driver is caught, he’s charged with manslaughter, he’s sent to prison where he tormented with guilt for having taken the life of a child, etc.
Naturally, we would judge the man’s reaction in the second scenario to be both appropriate and morally correct. We can’t possibly imagine him coming out of his car to scream at the dead child, “Stupid child! Why did you run that way?” We do think that it is both right and proper for him to feel guilty and take moral (not just legal!) responsibility for causing the death of the child.
But yet, how can we possibly justify his taking of moral responsibility? The driver’s action in the second case is exactly identical to the action of the driver in the first case. The only difference is how the child reacted, which is beyond the driver’s control. Let me put this more clearly:
(1) We believe that there is a difference in moral responsibility in the two cases. The moral guilt of the first case is different from the guilt of the second case
(2) There is however absolutely no difference in the action of the drivers in both cases. The only difference that caused a difference in moral judgment is because of a change in an external circumstance beyond the driver’s control, i.e. which direction the child decided to dash.
The startling conclusion of course is that even though the mens rea or the intention and will and action of both drivers is the same, yet we attribute different blame because of the circumstantial outcome which was beyond their control. Based on the outcome (death or evasion), we attribute blame or exoneration accordingly. Thus, this example demonstrates how one’s actions and deeds can be retroactively justified or condemned based on the outcome of the action.
The second example would be much more pertinent to our present case study, it is an example invented by Bernard Williams based on a real life French painter Gauguin who decided to escape “Western civilisation” by fleeing to Tahiti never to return, and it was there that he produced some of his most iconic and greatest paintings. Now, whereas the real Gauguin only went to Tahiti after he was thrown out by his wife with five children some years after he decided to pursue art full time and renounced the values he shared with them, the fictional Gauguin of William’s invention abandoned his family and children to go to Tahiti to produce his art. Now the fictional Gauguin after having abandoned his family to fend for themselves, like the real Gauguin, accomplished much success in the arts scene with his great paintings from Tahiti and left an indelible mark upon the arts scene.
Now, here comes the killer question. Was Gauguin justified in forsaking the obligations of his family in pursuit of his artistic aspirations? Again the paradoxical answer would be, he would be justified, provided he was successful, which isn’t within his control! If he had failed and flopped as an artist upon abandoning his family and going to Tahiti, he would be reviled as a useless arty-farty bum, who wronged his family and made a mess of other people’s lives, etc. But since he succeeded, therefore the most we can grudging say, “Okay, fine, well done, etc, I suppose it was worth it.” As Williams puts it, “The only thing that will justify his choice will be success itself”. But the moral luck element is precisely that this success is beyond his control, yet his justification or condemnation hinges precisely on such “luck”! (By the way you can always conveniently replace Gauguin with any of your favourite musician, novelists, playwright, etc, who messes up everyone else’s life in order to pursue their art.)
Sex and Marriage; Is there a Command Against Fornication?
To come back to our initial case study, I think that they are justified in their “fornication” because it lead to their happy love affair and eventually marriage. But of course, this is a retroactive justification, it is a judgement made based on its outcome. If instead, for example, the girl from this incident becomes addicted to casual sexual liasions just to be comforted and never marries the guy, then we would retroactively have condemned the initial act of fornication as wrong and as leading done to the path of disaster, etc.
But there are two issues we need to deal with, first, what exactly is “fornication” and whether, from a theological point of view, premarital sex is to be simply equated to “fornication” or are there cases where the two can diverge. Secondly, the “internal” point of view at the moment of decision and what to do when one doesn’t know how one’s choices would turn out. I would deal with the first here.
Many years ago I wrote a note defending premarital sex (I think I’ve lost it :< ) by defending the distinction between premarital sex and pre-wedding sex. My argument, to put it very simply, is that the injunctions against premarital sex only works provided we consider that weddings makes marriage or marks the “boundary” of between being married and not married. I argued against this by two considerations. First is that it is the Western Catholic tradition (of which the Protestants descended from), a marriage is contracted by the couples themselves which the Church recognises after the fact. (Unlike the Eastern Churches where the priest must “crown” or complete the contract by his blessing) And even in the Catechism of the Catholic Church doesn’t really provide any moral reason for for couples to “contract marriage according to the ecclesiastical form” other than purely pragmatic and liturgical reasons of receiving church rights and public recognition, etc. (See the CCC’s “Matrimonial Consent”)
The second reason I gave was that even in the Church of England before the advent of divorce laws in the 19th century, canon law allowed for a marriage to be “annulled”, that is, declared that it never existed in the first place, (unlike divorce where the marriage once existed but is now being undone), should the couple not have consummated their marriage. Thus, in short, sex makes a marrage, and not so much the wedding rite of the church. I point all these out to show that there isn’t any real reason to identify the of marker of being “married” with the wedding rite itself. If the couple mutually agree to be live with each other then such an agreement can very well be considered a “marriage contract” which the Church can later on recognise after the fact. (In Singapore, we can go so far as to say that the agreement to buy a HDB flat together can in fact be considered the marriage contract!)
It is interesting to observe in this respect that the Old Testament shockingly does not actually contain any laws against premarital sex, and if a man sleeps with an unbetrothed woman the law only requires that the man pays the father of the woman and that the man must marry the woman, but there is no command of stoning or even for purification of sins to be made, etc. In effect, one might go so far to say as that premarital sex isn’t a sin in the Old Testament! Of course, the Old Testament also recognises the state of “betrothal” or engagement and if a man or woman is caught sleeping with another person besides the betrothed, then they will be stoned to death, which interestingly suggest that for the Old Testament the “married” line exists at the point of betrothal- and sex.
But what is the intuition which grounds our common condemnation of premarital sex? Suppose we look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s definition of “fornication”
Fornication is carnal union between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of persons and of human sexuality which is naturally ordered to the good of spouses and the generation and education of children. Moreover, it is a grave scandal when there is corruption of the young.
The objection that “fornication” contradicts the “dignity of persons and of human sexuality” is based on the premise that such “fornication” contradicts the “good of spouses and the generation and education of children”. But why assume that premarital sex would lead to that? What if premarital sex, as in the our present case, leads to their mutual good and comfort, etc?
I guess here our judgement is based on a general statistical one. The argument would be that most people fornicate with no intention or desire of remaining together, and that the motives of premarital sex is not the advancement or growth of a relationship but merely for sexual pleasure sake in a gross utilitarian sense. Thus, in a prudential sense, we mark weddings as the line between married and non-married because that is when one has publicly promise and declared before God and his Church that one intends to remain together till death do they part, and place themselves under the Church or State to be responsible for holding them true to their word (although in vain in today’s world as I’ve wrote in a previous note).
To summarise, premarital sex becomes “fornication” when that premarital sex occurs outside of the course to marriage and outside of that context (no “free love” or experimenting with sex excuse!). However, this is something which we can only judge retroactively, that is, we can only know when premarital sex becomes “fornication” when we see whether they eventually get married or not! Thus our “general” rule against premarital sex, and our identification of premarital sex with fornication, is a statistical one, that most premarital sex do not end up in marriages (again, there really isn’t any divine command against specifically premarital sex).
But here comes the crucial problem. We can’t possibly know whether the premarital sex which one is contemplating of performing, especially in the heat of the moment, is going to lead to a marriage. Here we come to the second issue of “what to do” from the internal point of view at the moment of decision.
The Lord judge Between Us
William’s exposition on “moral luck” was part of his larger program critiquing “morality” as that “peculiar institution” (his critique is brilliant and I highly recommend it). One of the features of morality as that “peculiar institution” is the idea that moral obligations are inescapable, absolute and ultimate. That every action in order to be legitimate must first pass through the supreme judge of morality. But Bernard Williams outright rejects this. He argues that while ethical life is “important”, it isn’t the only thing which is important. (e.g. our Gauguin and his pursuit of art) People desire to lead “meaningful” lives and that ethics, while an important source of meaning and one might go so far to say, is broadly encompassing in all aspects of our lives, isn’t the only source of meaning. Sometimes wives help their husbands in criminal activities because they are passionate in love with their husbands, or hate to see their husbands get caught and come to harm and is trying to protect them, etc. One can of course charge them in a court of law, but before the court of ethics, it maybe the case that their condemnation maybe overturned by an appeal to a “higher court”, the court of romantic love, which, while not requiring our approval, at least calls for our sympathy or empathy.
To approach our present case, we might consider for example, Kierkegaard’s exposition on Abraham’s Sacrifice, where the divine command to sacrifice Isaac overrules the “ethics and morality” against infanticide (“the teleological suspension of the ethical”). To Abraham, it was more “important” to him to trust in the promise of God that Isaac will live, and to demonstrate this trust, than it is to live “ethically” and “morally” by refusing to perform this infanticide. (It is interesting to note in this regard that contemporary interpreters of Duns Scotus point out that Scotus didn’t attempt to derive ethics and morality from divine commands. He believes that ethics and morality can be justified based on reason and natural law. But if Scotus doesn’t derive ethics from divine command, neither does he derive divine commands from ethics, and contends that divine commands occurs freely and independently of ethics and natural law and sometimes goes against them. Although in most cases they coincide, but in some cases they diverge and divine commands trumps ethics.)
So in our present case, let us, if you will, imagine the following fictive internal conflict. The guy sees that the girl is desperately in need of comfort and intimacy, they started kissing, and at this point to reject “going all the way” might very well overthrow whatever progress he had made with her comforting. He may also have developed a liking to her, he perhaps feels protective of her feelings, and wants to be there for her, perhaps he even vaguely wants to get together with her and wants to be the guy to comfort her in her time of need. Now, imagine that these considerations are in his head jostling together with the other consideration that they may regret having sex, it may lead to calamity, or they may never get together again. If he was Christian, prudence would tell him to be more “sure” and the best way to be sure is to get married first, whereby one would be more “assured” that they would be together (although the assurance is a probabilistic one, one cannot be certain that a divorce wouldn’t happen even after the marriage).
At the moment of decision is the conflict between being the caring, intimate lover (and just do it!) and the prudential lover (stop!), the “morally safer” choice of course would be to be the “prudential lover”. One would be “blameless” for refusing, in the ethical and moral sense. The dangers of being the caring and intimate lover is that this choice would only be justified retroactively. Let us be clear, according to the Christian faith, premarital sex would not be fornication provided it leads to marriage, and the risk of premarital sex is precisely that one does not know whether it would lead to marriage. One can of course simply evade the risk by refusing premarital sex altogether, thereby solving the problem by simply not having it in the first place. Or one can risk premarital sex in the hope sthat it wouldn’t become fornication by ending in marriage in the future.
However, as my phrasing suggests, being the “prudent lover” is… cold and unromantic. He would miss out the chance to be “significant” for her if he doesn’t make love to her at precisely her moment of need for intimacy and comfort. Thus, in terms of “importance” it maybe more important to him to be the intimate and caring lover than it is to be “prudent” and sensible, and he is willing to risk a retroactive judgement or condemnation if it fails to lead to anything more than a one night stand.
Ultimately, philosophers say that sometimes values and importance are “incommensurate”. Two obligations or “importance” can conflict, and there isn’t a “master system” whereby you can weigh the two of them on a common scale, they are literally, “incommensurate”, there is no way of measuring them against each other to derive a solution. One must make an “existential leap” and decide how one wants to define oneself, ultimately, where do we want to locate the meaning of our lives.
To put this in theological terms, sometimes when two rival prophets or Israelites conflict as to what the Lord wants them to do or to whom has been committed the true prophecy, they would simply both go their own way and declare, the Lord will judge between us, that is, we’ll know who is right based on the outcome, and whose prophecy is vindicated in time. Thus when the guy decides to “risk” it, he is submitting his decision, his action and “love” to the judgement and the mercy of God, whereby He may decide to justify his action by their marriage, or condemn it by their falling out, according to the most free, most sovereign, and most arbitrary will of God who has mercy on whom he has mercy and whom he wills he hardens, and condemns.
Although at the end, even our marriages itself is at the mercy and grace of God. Whether we get together in romance or in marriage, we know that we have control only over our own actions, and that if we are truly sincere about spending the rest of our lives with our partner in love, we would pray for God to be merciful and to grace us to be able to be together. The only difference between the premarital state and the post wedding state is that one is “blameless” in the latter should one’s spouse abandon oneself, because one has already declared one’s intention and promise to stay together and submits this contract to the protection and enforcement of the Church as a demonstration of one’s sincerity to remain together. Whereas the former is “riskier” for not being covered by the protection of the church or the state. However, the church in the course of her public preaching and teaching, by very nature of it being public and general would, and should, always discourage premarital sex because of the general statistical norm, although as I’ve argued, they should be able to make allowances for certain very special exceptions. (An interesting proposal would be to draw the “married” line at engagement just like the Israelites did at bethrotal, and consider sexual activity between engaged couples to be legitimate as they prepare to commend their marital desires before the Church)
Conclusion: Righteousness as the Gift of God
When Kant proclaimed that the whole of moral blame and praise is to be located within the mere good volition independently of its outcome, this was simply his Enlightenment humanism attempting to sever human righteousness from God’s sovereign will and grace who alone can justify and grant the gift of righteousness. The argument is seemingly irrefutable today. How can we possibly be blamed for what happens “beyond” our volition beyond our will, choice or decision? Our righteousness must be found solely “within” us, it cannot possibly be a matter of chance, circumstance or events beyond us!
However, the Christian faith understands that righteousness is truly the gift, the unrestrained grace of God, subject to his most free and sovereign will alone whereby He will have mercy upon whom he will have mercy and whom he will he hardens and condemns. Moral luck, in locating the merit and demerit of our actions from beyond our voluntary will or decision to outward circumstances, points to a very vital and important Christian truth. Our integrity, “moral standing” and our righteousness itself is actually the gift of God, it is by His will and grace alone whereby our actions are justified, or condemned, as he is pleased to guide and move the course of Providence and the events and circumstances of our lives.