Everyone’s a moralist: But only some people realize it

A colleague and friend of mine, we’ll call him Daniel, lives in one of Washington D.C.’s more marginal neighborhoods. He told me about walking home one afternoon and being offered a sexual favor from a crack addict for the bargain price of $8. This got us talking about prostitution. Then we got derailed into an argument over how best to combat AIDS in Africa.

Daniel, who is intelligent and reliably liberal, complained that teaching Africans to abstain from sex with non-spousal partners — as is done in Uganda — is ineffective and moralistic.

The Uganda campaign — which may be overbearing but has actually been successful — is termed the ABC approach. Abstain from sex until marriage, Be faithful to your spouse, and use a Condom when you have sex with someone other than your spouse.

Daniel favors condom distribution as the best approach to the AIDS epidemic because it does not involve imposing anyone else’s morality on those poor Africans. But Daniel fails to see the obvious: Telling people to use a condom is not a morally neutral act. It’s just as morally imposing as recommending abstinence.

Everyone who advocates sex education is advocating the imposition of a set of values, but only conservatives seem to realize it. In fact, they’re quite up front about it, while liberals like Daniel tend to believe in some imaginary demarcation between ethics and policy that exists only in their heads.

Libertarians offer an alternative viewpoint that is well-considered and, for once, pragmatic. They recognize the value imposition and note that sex education typically is not a legitimate function of government — in part because it is cruel to bind someone’s conscience by forcing them to pay for the promulgation of a moral system they oppose.

This leaves me in a funny position. I understand why James Dobson remains a political lightning rod. But I fail to see why some of the more influential moral figures on the left are not also singled out, in their case for sending us to hell on a bobsled. Our society tends to notice moralism when it’s done by traditional folks, but when the rules of “right conduct” are changed to suit liberal tastes, the new rules are not thought to be moralizing.

You can find many examples of the new, liberal moralizing on campus. Columbia University offers a health question-and-answer Internet service called “Go Ask Alice!” The site contains answers to thousands of questions about sex and the body, with background info and references for further study. While it claims to present a morally neutral approach, the website takes a liberal stance on homosexuality, premarital sex, abortion, and sex education. Colleges all over the country recommend the site, and the American Library Association promotes it as a link for young people.

One visitor to the site wondered whether he was in danger of catching a sexually transmitted disease from a prostitute even while using protection. The writer signed his message “Concerned.” What did Alice say? That the practitioner should use condoms and dental dams with all sex partners, but that there is no good, brief answer to the question.

“It all comes down to activities,” Alice responded, “levels of protection and the level of risk a person is willing to take.” The level of risk a person is willing to take? If a doctor was truly concerned about his patient, he might at least feint to offer an opinion about the risks his patient should take.

Morality and virtue are terms associated with sexual chastity for a reason. Philosophers and theologians have long understood that sex was not just an expression of the body, but an activity that engages the whole person.

Sex affects the soul. If that’s too religious a term, replace it with mental health or emotional well-being. “Go Ask Alice” doesn’t mention the psychological or theological ramifications of behaving like one of Dan Savage’s fetishists, but that doesn’t mean Alice’s advice has stopped short of taking a position — of, in short, moralizing. Following Alice’s advice involves embracing the official moral dogma of the academy, where the cost of one’s life decisions fluctuates with whatever your co-pay for penicillin is.

And then there’s Hollywood. My husband took a flight where the movie Because I Said So was shown. In this lighthearted romantic comedy, the heroine played by Mandy Moore is sleeping with two different men for most of the movie, while she debates their relative merits. On the flight back he saw Catch and Release, starring Jennifer Garner, another lighthearted romantic comedy about a woman who falls in love with a man she catches having sex with a caterer at her fiancé’s funeral — a man who is later revealed to have aided and abetted her fiancé’s infidelity. Both films present, uncritically, a moral code that views casual and fleeting sex in a positive light.

So rare is the movie that breaks this unspoken code that it is likely to stir up serious controversy. Take Judd Apatow’s monster hit Knocked Up, a film which in many respects runs counter to Hollywood’s prevailing moral tide.

Knocked Up has taken a lot of heat from pro-choice activists and a few of their brethren in the media over the choice of its protagonist Allison — a beautiful, talented, upper-middle class woman — to have and raise a child conceived during what was supposed to be a one-night stand. This decision sidesteps real life, the New York Times writes, since nearly two-thirds of pregnancies end in abortion. Lou Lumenick at the New York Post says the “whole flick is also basically a raunchy stealth ad for the anti-abortion movement.”

The movie is indeed raunchy, and yet, interestingly, there is one word too obscene to uttered in this film about immature, foul-mouthed, bong-suckers: abortion. Slate movie critic Dana Steven writes that “Apatow’s reticence on the subject seems to spring less from personal conviction than from the fear of offending his audience’s sensibilities. This kind of Trojan horse moralism is maddeningly common in pop-culture representations of abortion, which seem muzzled, invisibly policed, by either the pro-life lobby or the fear of it.”

The thinking here is that the decision to endure a pregnancy is artificial and inauthentic since this is likely not what would happen in real life. In the world of serious cinema, it is a far graver sin to be inauthentic than immoral. And as long as you can make the case that an artistic choice is reflecting reality, it is not making a de facto moral statement.

Audrey Fisch, a professor at New Jersey City University, has even argued that Hollywood should show more abortions. “By refusing to represent the real lives of women — including the economic and social damage that can come from unplanned pregnancies — Hollywood is fostering a destructive pro-life culture.”

Of course, from an aesthetic point of view, this line of thinking doesn’t make much sense. If the character Allison decided to abort the child, the movie would end about 45 minutes in. And as a result there would be no character development. None of the immature male characters would have grown or developed in any meaningful way. Also, it could be worth considering that the decision to kill one’s offspring might not fit in too well with the mood of a slapstick comedy.

Whether you advocate Allison having an abortion or not having an abortion, whether you advocate abortion-on-demand or the banning of abortion — all of these are moral and (once you complain about it in the New York Times) moralizing positions. There is no escape from thinking or behaving according to a moral code. Which is why I’ve refused to lend Daniel the $8 he keeps asking me for, even though he promises to use a condom.

Mollie Ziegler is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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