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Another instructive and improving tale by the risque but virtuous Peter Cave.
Ms Virtuous: Being kind is a virtue, so you should help this guy, this young Jack-the-Lad, by giving him some money, even putting him up for a few nights. He can then buy decent food – and recuperate and rest after his bad illness.
Mr Self-centred: But by helping him, I’ll be helping him to return to a life-style which is so bad for him. He’s Jack of the road, of no fixed abode; he spends much of his time tripping on acid, the rest on vodka, pornography and poker. As for his talking to turnips, clapping with one hand and his blatant homosexual promiscuity… It’s a morally bad way of life. By helping him recuperate after his illness, so that he gets better more quickly than he otherwise would, why, I’d just be aiding his return to his bad life-style. Why should I help such a person?
Ms V: There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with his lifestyle. It’s his choice. He’s not hurting others, with his drug taking, bohemian life-style and yen for life’s gambles. He’s another human being – in need of assistance from a good Samaritan or, at least, a minimally decent one.
Mr S: But just knowing there are people such as Jack offends me. I and other wholesome people are harmed by his actions. His sexual behaviour is wicked; his support for abortion on demand turns my stomach – as for spending his life drugged to the eyeballs and…
Ms V: Now, now, come off it. If that sort of thing counts as harming you so badly that it justifies you in not helping him, then the whole world could so easily fragment into mutually offensive and offended, mutually non-supportive groups. There are lots and lots of things which people find offensive and might prefer not to happen in their neighbourhood, or worse, next door – be it sheep sacrifice to appease the gods or group sex (with or without the sheep) or even drunkenness; but so long as these things happen behind closed doors, unseen and – okay, except for the bleat of the sheep and the sexual groans – unheard, the offence is hardly oppressive and is certainly outweighed by the importance of individual freedom.
Mr S: Let me modify my position a little. I guess the point I’m really making is that Jack’s life-style is bad for him. He’s not having a good life – a life good for him – by adopting such a ‘Jack of the road’ mode of existence. If he saw things properly, he’d be disgusted with himself. As he doesn’t see things properly, why should I bother? Let Jack hit the road – and hit rock bottom, for all I care.
Ms V: And who says his life is not good for him? While I am not suggesting that people are infallible over what is good for them, you are big enough to recognize that there is a wide variety of ways – ‘experiments in living’, as John Stuart Mill would say – in which people may flourish. It’s just that you disapprove of Jack’s choice. But that’s the life-style which he wants of what’s on offer; he’s clear about the choice. He has not been hit over the head by a hammer or stuffed stoat or had a deviant upbringing. There’s neither reason to think it is bad for him nor reason to think it is not his free choice. The simple fact is that you disapprove of his life-style.
Mr S: Yes, I do disapprove – and I wouldn’t feel good about myself in getting involved. Isn’t that good enough to justify my not getting involved?
Ms V: Maybe for your not wanting to – but not for your not doing so. People such as Jack are not harming others. They are going about their lives just as you go about yours – and sometimes they need help just as sometimes you do.
Mr S: Well, I’ll not pursue whether he harms others, but let him go about his life, then – just don’t involve me in his drugged dance, hooch haze and self-abuse.
Ms V: But he would benefit from your assistance. Any of us can fall ill or on hard times. Even if his life-style were making him more likely to be needing help, that does not show that you may therefore rightly ignore him. After all, the NHS treats smokers for smoking-related illnesses; rescue services rescue damaged mountaineers; and even (dare I say) some taxpayer-funded compensation schemes pay out to people who knowingly risk their money.
Mr S: Hey, there are multitudinous ways of benefiting people. Mademoiselle next door wants the latest Alfa Romeo, Oscar fancies Nicole Farrah party dresses – and I want not to help Jack. Why should it be incumbent on me to help Jack whereas, presumably, you don’t feel that morally I should be satisfying the aforementioned desires of mademoiselle, Oscar or even myself?
Ms V: But with Jack we are talking of need. He needs to be physically healthy; that’s a pre-requisite for his realizing his life-style choices.
Mr S: Well, his life-style choices are themselves unhealthy choices. Anyway, I have entered into no relationship with Jack and others who are similar to him. So, they have no right to my aid.
Ms V: We’re not talking about rights. I agree that they have no right to your food, your cash, your antibiotics – no right to your care. I am saying that you ought to help them because you ought to be kind. You ought to help people out of their suffering when it is quite easy for you so to do.
Mr S: But it means that I have to get involved with him – mingling with him, getting my hands dirty metaphorically if not, almost certainly in his case, literally.
Ms V: A small hardship, but the benefit to Jack will easily outweigh this. Even if it did not, it might still be the right thing to do – for you to help him, given where you’re coming from with your material advantages. After all, it is not as if you have any special objections to helping to feed anonymous people, donating blood, when who knows who will receive the blood and even offering up your sperm via artificial insemination by donor programmes, when the recipients these days could be lesbian couples leading sexual lifestyles of which you so much disapprove.
Mr S: Well, okay, perhaps he should be helped as much as anyone else should – but someone else can do the helping. I’ve got other things on the go.
Ms V: That could be a reason, Mr S; but there is no one else around to help right now – and I know that you would otherwise be doing nothing else of any great value. Helping Jack on this occasion is not causing other people to be deprived of your help; you had no intention of helping anyone else right now.
Mr S: But to date, I have only helped people I like.
Ms V: Hence, I am asking for your kindness. If you felt an affinity for people such as Jack, I should not need to make this appeal.
Mr S: Even if I do assist, I shall be doing it for the wrong reasons.
Ms V: A convenient point to make, Mr S, though if you do the deed purely from the sense of moral duty then some would argue, like Immanuel Kant, that that’s precisely the right motivation. Be that as it may, at least some goodness will come out of it, in that Jack is helped…and you never know, you may get an inner non-Kantian glow through doing this work. Your feelings and character might even change for the better. Show a bit of sympathy, Mr S – and get going. When the going gets tough for the likes of people such as Jack, the tough-minded such as you should get going by way of helping.
Mr S: I’ve been thinking on what you’ve been saying, Ms Virtuous. Yes, you’re right, I should be helping out Jack, even though I don’t want to at all.
Ms V: Excellent – and, as I said, once you get to know him, your feelings about him might well change.
Mr S: But, changing the topic a little, I want some help from you.
Ms V: Fine, anything I can do. I’m always ready to help where I can.
Mr S: Permit me to…er…have sex with you.
Ms V: What? How dare you?
Mr S: Come on; let me [Bleeped out by the editor]
Ms V: That’s disgusting. Ignoring the language and the very act of proposing, I’m just not going to have sex with any old Tom, Dick – or Mr S.
Mr S: To be open, I have sexual hang-ups, despite the appearance I promote of myself. My life is so frustrated and empty; women don’t fancy me. I’m desperate for what is called, I believe, a bit of ‘mercy sex’.
Ms V: But were I to have sex with you on this basis, I’d be doing it for the wrong reasons.
Mr S: A highly convenient point, Ms Virtuous, though some might argue to help another purely out of duty is the morally required motivation. Be that as it may, at least some goodness will come out of it, in that I am helped; and you never know, you may get an inner glow through doing this little job for me. Your feelings and character might even change for the better, manifesting the virtue of kindness – and being prepared to show mercy on other men in this way. Show a bit of sympathy for your poor frustrated friend. Let me engage in some sexual ravishing.
Ms V: But I only sleep with people I fancy.
Mr S: So far you do, Ms Virtuous, until you have discovered the soundness of my silver-tongued reasoning. I’m not thick-skinned though; I grasp your comment’s implication. That’s why I’m asking for your kindness. After all, if you fancied me, I shouldn’t be in need of making this appeal – well, not to you.
Ms V: Huh! Someone else can help you; I’ve got other things to do.
Mr S: Now, that could be a reason, Ms Virtuous; but there is no one else around to help me right now. And I know that you would otherwise be doing nothing else of value, nothing else such as helping a fellow human being to feel better – sexually satisfied and also maybe feel a bit better about himself.
Ms V: But if I went ahead with this plan of yours, I’d very much have to get involved with you, literally mingling with you, body fluids with body fluids, getting my hands dirty metaphorically – and worse.
Mr S: I can see that this is a hardship, but the benefit to me far outweighs that hardship, that unpleasantness, to you. After all, it is not as if you have any special objections to the sexual act, from what I hear; it is not as if you are in some special sexual relationships with others which having sex with me might put in jeopardy.
Ms V: Well, no – but I have entered into no relationship with you that gives you the right to invade and ravish my body.
Mr S: Hold on. We’re not talking about rights here. I agree that I have no right to your body, to your sexual favours. I am saying that you ought to help me in this way because you ought to act kindly.
Ms V: But I disapprove of such mechanical sex and of the people who seek such. I wouldn’t feel good about myself in having sex in this way. That’s good enough to justify my not wanting to get involved.
Mr S: Maybe that explains your not wanting to sleep with me – but that’s no justification for your not so doing. People such as myself, people who settle for sex on any terms, are not harming others. We are going about our lives just as you go about yours. I just need help.
Ms V: There are multitudinous helpings that are desired out there. Mademoiselle wants the latest Alfa Romeo, Oscar fancies Nicole Farrah party…
Mr S: I seem to have heard this before.
Ms V: …dresses. It can’t be a moral demand that, if there is a desire around which I could satisfy (but no one else can), then I should satisfy it.
Mr S: But we are talking of sexual needs here. Dubious details of psychological theories to one side, there’s no difficulty in recognizing that sexual satisfactions can be prerequisites for being able to get on with a life. Many today claim that people (unless, I am tempted to add, they’re refugees) morally should have a safety net of welfare benefits, medical access…
Ms V: Quite. Having sex hardly forms part of such basic needs.
Mr S: What is your criterion for basic needs? It may be relative. Today in the West expectations, grounded in moral rights, are for a quality of life which far exceeds merely maintaining body and soul together. Ability to read and write, assistance with conceiving, being involved in the community – these ‘basic needs’ are not to do with survival, but to improving the quality of people’s lives… just as your having sex with me will help with my quality. After all, I am not arguing – well, not yet – that it is your moral duty to satisfy my deep daily need for champagne breakfasts, party girls, and your dressing in leather lingerie.
Ms V: Just don’t involve me – otherwise you can do whatever you need to do sexually.
Mr S: But you are then leaving me suffering, my desires unsatisfied, my frustrations mounting. I would undoubtedly benefit from your help, Ms Virtuous. It is not as if my lifestyle is likely to be any more demanding on others than yours. Any of us can find ourselves with desires and needs requiring satisfaction – in the best way available. Indeed, even if my life-style or sexual predilections were making me more likely to be needing help, that does not show that you ought not to provide that help. The NHS helps smokers over smokingrelated illnesses, rescue services help…
Ms V: All right, all right. No need to go through the list. The point I’m making is that your treatment of sex is bad for you. You’re not having a good life – a life good for you – living in such a way. If you saw things properly, you’d be disgusted with yourself; you’d realize that sex needs to be part of a loving relationship and…
Mr S: Who says so? While I am not suggesting that people are infallible over what is good for them, you are big enough to recognize that there is a wide variety of ways in which people may flourish, making the best of them under adverse circumstances such as mine. It’s just that you disapprove of my life-style. Given that it’s the best one I can realistically achieve – and I have not had it hammered into me – there’s no reason to think it really is bad for me. I can think of better lives; but they are not on offer. Maybe I would prefer any sex I had to be part of a loving relationship, though whether that gives the best sex is another question and whether it is sensible to combine sex and love in such as way is an even more important question; but that sort of relationship is not on offer. I settle for the best thing available – just as a hungry woman might make do with a hamburger joint when unable to afford cordon bleu cooking at L’escargot. The simple fact is that you disapprove of my lifestyle.
Ms V: But just knowing that people such as you are around, people settling for sex under almost any conditions, is offensive to me, is harming me.
Mr S: Now, now, come off it. If that sort of thing counts as harming you and justifies you in not helping me, then the whole world could so easily fragment into mutually offensive and offended groups, groups unwilling to help each other at all.
Ms V: But by helping you, I’ll be helping you to indulge in a life-style that is morally bad. It’s wrong to treat sex in this way. It’s a morally bad way of life that you are wanting me to encourage. By helping you out of your frustrations, why, I’ll just be encouraging you to continue in this unappealing way, this way of sex for sex’s sake, of promiscuity, of…
Mr S: But there is nothing intrinsically wrong with having sex without love, if this is the choice people make. It is not hurting others – and sex purely for the sake of sex might even succeed in preventing bigger emotional distresses later on.
Ms V: It would be hurting me.
Mr S: But only because you do not have the right feelings about the matter – and we are accepting that people should put up with some distress and inconvenience to do what is morally required. Having the virtue of kindness and behaving accordingly do not come without cost. Show some compassion, Ms Virtuous. Show some mercy. Come to bed – and realize your moral duty.
© PETER CAVE 2004
Peter Cave is an associate lecturer in philosophy at The Open University and City University, London.