Monday, July 12, 2010

The Virtues and Vices of Libertinism

How do deviations from the “norm” affect society? Are they for the better or for the worse? Can simultaneously “good” and “bad” effects result from such deviations? Such questions should be viewed as immensely important yet I rarely see them discussed, and, when they are, it never really is understood beyond various typical talking points that avoid the controversial implications. I guess that’s one of my main arguments against centralization and in favor of emergent laws: because law is very much an outgrowth of our ethics. And since the knowledge used to define our ethics is invariably hazy, it makes sense to provide centers of experimentation with variation given favor over uniformity. However, it must be understood that challenging the norms of society is both the root of progress and destruction.

“Libertinism,” as I’m using it here, is very broad. It must be understood that such ideas/behaviors are purely relative to the context and in reference to social norms or emergent ethics. For example, homosexuality in San Francisco is not too far out of the norm when compared with Saudi Arabia. Likewise, interracial marriage in modern America is far less controversial than it was fifty years ago. The latter, in both cases, being “libertine” relative to the more modern, liberal time and place.


Libertinism is the root of progress. If people were to live in strict adherence to what was socially “acceptable,” there wouldn’t be much to society besides homogeneity and boredom. Applied to the economic realm, libertine behavior can be viewed as a form of entrepreneurship, a form of risk taking, which involves some chance of reward or profit. It’s clearly the riskier activities that lead people away from the farm and toward the advancement of stimulating activities and life saving technologies. A world without risk taking and cultural subversion would be not only drab, but economically stagnant. It is our willingness to try new methods, to challenge authority, and question the prevailing dogmas that makes life worth living. That is to say contentment breeds hopelessness. And while there is a degree to which certainty is very beneficial, too much makes everything, well, too predictable. (Yes, I’m aware of the tautology and redundancy.)

So whether it be sexual liberation or spiritual inquiry or scientific and technological research, libertinism offers much to be supportive of. Cautious and intelligent risk taking provides the diversity of life so craved by the insatiable human mind and spirit.


But it’s not as if there’s no downside risk involved with libertine behavior. Since such behavior is analogous to venturing into the unknown or shooting in the dark, thoughtful consideration for the consequences of the counter cultural need to be made.

As I understand most [organized] religions, they are a way of institutionalizing and ritualizing adherence to social norms. Such norms are explained and reaffirmed in parables, fables, gospels, and legends. Take, for example, the story of Adam and Eve.

For the few who may not be familiar, Adam and Eve were two people living in a relative paradise. God gives them permission to do as they please on the condition that they would not eat the “forbidden fruit” from the “tree of knowledge”. But curiosity catches up with them and, with a little nudging from the devil, they eat the fruit, and are thusly banished by God from the Garden of Eden -- where everything is awesome -- to where everything sucks.

The specific details are not really important and I’m not even sure if they’re accurate, but it seems as if this story illustrates the problem with libertinism perfectly. Neither Adam nor Eve have a clue as to what the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit would be. Besides that, “God,” symbolic of authority, tradition, morality, social norms, etc, tells them not to eat it. For all Adam and Eve knew, eating the fruit could have done anything from giving them the shits to starting a party in their mouths to ending the world. Given all the costs and benefits implied by the uncertainty of the action, eating the fruit would hardly seem rational. Their libertine venture into the unknown resulted in catastrophe.


Unless my memory fails me, God didn’t prohibit the use of the fruit for other things, say, experimentation. Instead of diving in head first, Adam and Eve could have tried to figure out the properties of the fruit. In this way, they’d be taking smaller, more calculated, more cautious risks that ultimately serve a purpose -- knowledge and the ability to make sane decisions. Perhaps this has a corollary: that knowledge must be earned and can’t be easily ingested. See! Religion isn’t nonsense; it’s just riddled with it.

This could have easily been titled this “The Virtues and Vices of Conservatism” while changing virtually nothing but the subtitles. However, challenging the “left” orthodoxy of anti-traditionalism just seemed like a more enjoyable proposition even if only because I consider myself as part of the “left.” The lesson is that, when playing with new ideas, until sufficient knowledge is acquired, caution is imperative to our success/existence. Because of my anarchism I run into decent number of childish anti-authoritarians who rather blithely treat all authority as equally bad. But, as a child, is it not wise in most cases to follow the advice of your parents who are the most connected and sympathetic to your needs? Over time we learn and acknowledge the fallibility of our parents, teachers, professors, religious leaders, and lawmakers from their various self-contradictions and failures to their outright admissions of error. It is from there that we reevaluate our settings, our leaders, and our knowledge, then proceed with a sometimes clearer, sometimes more confused understanding of our environment.

“But wait! You’re an anarchist and libertarian. How does this make any sense considering you just justified authority?”

Well, here’s Bakunin:

Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognize no infallible authority, even in special questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such an individual, I have no absolute faith in any person. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into a stupid slave, an instrument of the will and interests of others.

Opposing authority for its own sake is not anything more than stupid. Anarchism is about recognizing the fallibility intrinsic to all claims of authority and is what saves us from erroneous directives.

As for libertarianism, it’s actually quite a moderate position in terms of the supposed options when viewed through the theoretical or empirical lens. Since the results of the prohibitions of “libertine” behaviors often leads to the enrichment of their suppliers and the glamorization of the product thats use is considered “libertine,” it hardly seems reasonable to restrict such behavior in a forceful manner. Conflict draws attention and various half witted arguments for and against the activity. Instead of force, oppression, and subjugation, understanding the behavior -- its roots, causes and benefits -- and trying to resolve it or embrace it accordingly is far more efficacious.