Yesterday I was having a conversation with a couple of perfectly orthodox and conservative Christians about the “moral value” of consensual fornication and the grounds for our outrage against non-consensual sex or rape. While I pointed out that the grounds for outrage should properly be the loss of chastity and being a forced participant in fornication, the conclusion which they keep focusing on is the deprivation of consent, as if consent itself possessed some intrinsic moral value, even if that is consent for fornication, it is better than no consent. Let that sink in, the one who consents to immorality is morally superior to the one who is coerced into it.
The thing is, I actually perfectly understand their position, even as I think it is utterly bizarre. I think there is no better way to understand the Western frame of mind than by reading through John Milton’s Paradise Lost.
I wrote about this somewhere else but to summarise my conclusions. Milton’s Paradise Lost epitomises the Western idea of the inherent value of the subjective agent. There is an inherent value to subjective passion or self-exertion or wilfulness irrespective of the object of that passion or the ends to which one exerts one’s will.
Milton’s Satan is the archetype romantic hero we secretly admire and love. Even after getting blasted out of heaven by an incensed deity, he refuses to give up or let this put him down. He courageously defies the overwhelming forces trying to crush him and magnificently reasserts his will and agency. Standing shoulder to shoulder with his fellow fallen comrades, he rallies his demonic forces to him, encourages them not to give up, and with spirited determination, plots anew his subversion of God’s will.
The fact that Satan is defying the will of God fades into irrelevance. What catches our attention is the admirable way Satan exercises his subjective agency and his defiant willfulness, his spiritedness, his zest for life and action. The fact that such passion is exerted against God is not as important as that he is a creature living large and full of life and passion. To use a contemporary parlance, he’s has a goal, he has a plan, he knows what he wants and he’s not going to let anyone get in his way, even if that anyone happens to be God himself. The point is that he pursues his passion and asserts his subjective agency.
Then we turn to Milton’s Adam and Eve. Eve eats of the fruit from the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil and confesses to Adam. Adam is cries out in dismay that he loves Eve too much to watch her decay and die before him and that he cannot live without her, will God create another Eve for him? Eve is irreplaceable; he would rather join her in death and also eat of the fruit rather than live all eternity without her. Again, what draws our attention is not that Adam is defying the command of God; what entices our sympathy is that Adam is being true to his heart, being “authentic”, and pursues the love and passion of his life, even if that means death and going against the will of God.
So here in Milton’s Paradise Lost, we have for an extremely vivid representation of the _intrinsic_ value of the subjective, of the inherent worth of subjective agency, of passion, of love, of determination, of wilfulness. Even if that agency and passion is directed towards evil and against God, the point is not the end of the agency but its sheer exertion, not the object but the intensity of love, life and passion. This is the eclipse of the objective by the subjective. From here we can understand the logic of the idea that the one who exercises his subjective agency in aid of evil is morally superior to the one who has lost his agency and is forced or coerced into evil.
To come back to the question of consensual fornication, the structure of their thought becomes clearer. The act to which one consents is not really important, what is important is that one retains the power to consent, the preservation of substantive agency, whether one consents to immorality or not, the point is that the ability to consent itself is of inherent value, while the deprivation of agency is virtually a moral fault. The conclusion of this is: if you’re going to be evil, it is morally superior to go into it wholeheartedly than to be coerced and forced into it.
Within the romantic frame, this makes eminent sense. But outside of the romantic frame, this is the height of absurdity. The value of an act or subjective experience is derived from its object. It is not martyrs who honour causes, it is causes which honour martyrs. The value of consent is derivative of the value of the act to which one consents to. Freedom or passion or love or wilfulness is of value only when it is directed towards the good, exerted for the true and lived for the beautiful, these are objectively anterior to one’s subjectivity. But to consent to evil is not elevated by sheer virtue of consent; the consent is condemnable because that consent is directed against the good, the true and the beautiful.
More relevant to our discussion, we see in the Old Testament that the woman who suffers the advances of a man to whom she is not married and cries out for help, is morally innocent and not culpable, because she has been forced into fornication and sin and therefore is not to be blamed. But the woman who consents to the sexual advances of another man is as guilty as the man, and she is to be condemned with him precisely for consenting to fornication and sin. Thus consent to evil and sin has no inherent value, there is simply no moral value to consensual fornication, if anything, it is the woman who consents to fornication who is to morally reprehensible, while the one who is forced into it and who resists who is morally innocent. Nowhere in the Scriptures do we read of an intrinsic value to consent of sin, or of the moral superiority of consensual fornication over forced fornication. The value of the subjective is ultimately derivative of a source anterior and external to that subjectivity, the will of God.
When talking with Westerns about any topic of political, ethical or philosophical interest, it is vital to keep this frame in mind. From left to right, from liberal to conservative, whatever their political, philosophical and even religious beliefs, this Miltonian Romantic assumption is very deeply embedded into their psyche and their thoughts are structured by it.
For us Asians, many of us are still more fatalistic, more materialistic and hived-mind. We still do not have an as heightened view of the value of the subjective as the West, still subjecting the value of the individual or subjective to the value of the whole or the objective. Then again, maybe it’s just me who believes in that horrible Lutheran doctrine that because of origin sin, we have lost the image of God and therefore human agency and subjectivity are inherently worthless until redeemed by the external grace of God.