Sam Kriss was an English blogger who specialized in fulminations against injustice. He had a strong grasp of the dynamics of power imbalances and was full of blazing indignation against those who use their power to oppress others. And yet, a Facebook Note written by a female acquaintance of his describes in sickening detail how he tried to use his power to pressure her into unwanted sexual intercourse. He continually thrust himself on her, aggressively “snogging,” and tried to force alcohol on her, and she eventually had to physically push him off a bus in order to keep him from following her home. It would be too easy to dismiss Kriss as a cynical Pecksniffian hypocrite whose supposed concern for justice was mere façade. But if Kriss really was sincere in his concern for justice, how could he be so unjust to the young woman in question? In a strange but revealing initial response to his accuser, Kriss claims that he did not realize the impact of his actions. Does it beggar belief that someone as attuned to power dynamics as Kriss did not pick up on the signals? I don’t think it does.
Why is it that even men who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of justice seem so often to be shockingly unjust toward women to whom they are attracted? The #MeToo movement has brought many such cases to light.
A key to understanding what was going on with Kriss might be found in a slightly unexpected place: the tradition of virtue ethics going back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. For Aristotle and his followers, justice is a “virtue”—that is, it is a habit—that enables one easily to give to others what is due to them. Acquiring this habit takes practice. But it also requires other habits, other virtues, to which it is connected, and without the support of which it tends to fail.
Two other virtues that are important for the support of justice are courage and what is sometimes called “temperance.” Courage is the habit of controlling fear for the sake of attaining important goals. It is easy to see that if I can’t control my fear, my judgement will be clouded, and it will be difficult for me to exercise justice in certain circumstances. Cowardly officials who won’t stand up to the Mafia spring to mind. Sam Kriss’s problem was perhaps not with courage, but with temperance.
Temperance in the Aristotelian tradition doesn’t just refer to abstaining from alcohol. Rather, it means the habit of controlling desire for pleasures, so that they contribute to one’s happiness. Temperate persons are able to guide their desires to the “golden mean” between too much and too little. They drink enough to enhance enjoyment without becoming drunks. They eat well, but not enough to damage their health. And they have sex with the right partners at the right times, so that they don’t hurt themselves or others. Lacking temperance, it is very difficult to be just in sexual matters, because the strength of passion makes one blind to everything that would limit it. This may have been Kriss’s problem. Since he did not have the habit of directing and controlling his sexual desires, they took control of him, and made him blind to the signals that his victim kept trying to make. He was unable to be just, because he was not temperate.
The #MeToo moment is an opportunity for us to reflect as a culture on what kinds of cultural norms are needed to help sexual intercourse contribute to our happiness rather than damage it. And of course, it should particularly lead us to reflect on how we can prevent men from mistreating women to whom they are sexually attracted. The sexual revolution promised us happy, guilt-free sex, merely by removing some of the cultural restrictions that had previously limited sexual behavior. But #MeToo shows us that we need a deeper reflection on what real sexual freedom would mean.
The sexual revolution conceived of sexual freedom as primarily a kind of negative freedom, a freedom from certain rules. But virtue ethics points us in the direction of a more positive notion of sexual freedom: freedom for a certain way of being human; freedom as the development of our natural powers so that we can use them to enrich our own lives and the lives of others. Think of two experiences of freedom that most of us have had. First, the freedom experienced by children on the first day of vacation. This is an experience of negative freedom — freedom from the discipline of the schoolroom. Second, think of the freedom of riding bicycles, or skiing down mountains. These are experiences of positive freedom, freedom for a certain kind of activity. Such experiences require the discipline of learning how to control a bike, or one’s body on skis. The initial discipline is necessary for the experience of freedom. What would it be like to think of sexual freedom in those terms?
To minds formed by the promise of the sexual revolution, the idea of a call for the virtue of temperance in our sexual lives can easily sound like a call for repression, and the limiting of sexual freedom. But I think that properly understood, the virtue of temperance would lead to a deeper and more satisfying sexual freedom,; the freedom to use our sexual desires to truly enhance our lives and the lives of others. A sexual freedom that would help us realize sexual justice.
To minds formed by the promises of the sexual revolution, the idea of a call for the virtue of temperance in our sexual lives, can easily sound like a call for repression and the limiting of sexual freedom. But I think that properly understood, the virtue of temperance would lead to a deeper and more satisfying sexual freedom, the freedom to use our sexual desires to truly enhance our lives and the lives of others. A sexual freedom that would help us realize sexual justice.