Theo Rothstein July 1899

Sexual Ethics and Twaddle

Source: Social Democrat,Vol. VII, No. 7, July, 1899, pp.199-202;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

I am sincerely thankful to Bax for his reply to my article on the "Ethics of Sex Relationship." It is extremely clever and extremely weak, and both as a man and a controversialist I enjoyed it immensely. I cannot, however, but reproach him for the off-hand manner in which he has conducted his argu­ment. He rambles about over the entire field like a wild beast in the wood, and his thoughts, like a lizard, escape you the very moment you think you have got hold of them. This is the more to be regretted as he is capable of better things, and has therefore placed me at a great disadvantage in compelling me to follow up his membra disjecta of thoughts, and so to run the risk of either repeating myself or missing a point or two which he or the reader may think all important. I will, however, try my best to keep to the thread, asking only whomsover it may concern for indulgence if the labyrinth of Bax's mode of reasoning proves too much for me.

I shall leave aside the distinction drawn by Bax between what he terms "the ethics of introspection" and "the ethics of social utility," as well as that between ethics and "aesthetics." This is a question apart, and may very well form a subject for controversy by itself. I shall proceed straight to what, I think, Bax regards as the root-fallacy of my view, and as my original sin. He is quite ready to grant me the premises in which I formulate the course of development gone through by the sexual instinct - he pronounces them, in fact, "unimpeachable," but puts a veto on the conclusion I draw from them. He cannot, he says, see how by "any ordinary rational method" I have succeeded in reaching that conclusion and supposes that I have been interviewing the angel Gabriel. Well, the best way to solve the disputed point will be, I think, to put the entire argument in the form of a syllogism - the premises being taken from my original article and as they were granted by Bax - and to see whether there is any flaw in them.

1. It is the complete right of every human being to exercise his or her organic functions (major premise).

The sexual instinct is such a function (minor premise).

It is the complete right of every human being to exercise his or her sexual instinct (conclusion).

This on the side of rights, not disputed. Now as to duties, with reference to the sexual instinct only.

2. It is the duty of every human being to exercise his or her sexual instinct "full round and orbicularly" (see my article and the endorsement, as well as formulation, by Bax) (major premise).

The "full round and orbicularness" of the sexual instinct at the present stage of human development is both a physical nucleus and a set of psychical reactions and states, usually termed love (minor premise).

It is the duty of every human being to exercise the sexual instinct with reference both to its physical nucleus and the set of psychological reactions and states, usually termed love (conclusion).

Now, I will ask Bax to be good enough to point out where my non-sequitur comes in? Is it in the premises? But they have been granted. Is it in the method of drawing the conclusion? But this has been done in accordance with the ordinary rules of logic. Or is it, perhaps, in the conclusion itself, inasmuch as I formulated it in my original article in the phrase: "love alone can supply the necessary ethical sanction" for sexual life? Then I should like to see "how by any ordinary rational methods" Bax is going to prove that the two propositions are not identical in meaning - that to say, for instance, that "it is our duty to give vent to our sexual impulse under its twofold aspects, physical and psychical," is not the same as to say: "the psychical aspect [1] (i.e , love) is the only necessary ethical sanction for a sexual life." If Bax is unable to prove that, then, for the life of me, I cannot make out where the non sequitur in my argument is to be looked for. The puzzle is too much for me, and I give it up. Davus sum, non Oedipus.

Still, I might try my chance and be a little of an Oedipe. I think, I can see a non sequitur - but in Bax's reasoning. Having agreed with me as to the twofold nature of the sexual instinct (always at the present stage of evolution, be it understood), he afterwards speaks of the "physical exercise of the sexual instinct," of the "physical constitution" to whose needs this exercise is subservient, and so on, as if the psychological, the spiritual, did not exist at all. This lands him at once into a wrong harbour and makes him gaze with a bewildered look at the spot where I stood. "You," he exclaims, rubbing his eyes, "you have made a false jump over the premises and now find yourselves, by the aid of a supernatural agency, in a place where you ought not to be." No, dear friend Bax, I am where I am: it is you who went off at a tangent, having performed a salto mortale which had not been provided for in our contract. You ought to have stuck to the articles on which we both had agreed: then you would have found yourself in the company of my sweet person for ever to the end of time.

But, says Bax further, you want to be an angel. No, I do not. Homo sum, and a homo I want to be, enjoying the earth and all that is contained therein. When, however, I say homo I do not mean a homo simply, or even one qualified by alalus. I mean a homo sapiens in the widest sense of the word, one who possesses an ethical as well as an intellectual consciousness, and is too proud to stoop to a lower scale of organic development by exercising his functions in a way which science itself tells him to be sub­human. "Let us be natural," says Bax himself, repeating the watchword of the eighteenth-century philosophers. By all means, but let us at the same time take care not to fall into the same error as they did, by divesting the formula of its concrete meaning. Let us regard the word "natural" in its proper historical light, and recognise the fact that "nature" with reference to the sexual instinct has a double sense, up to which it is necessary to act if the motto "let us be natural" is to be realised. That is to say, to be natural in sexual life means at the present evolutional moment to pay full regard to the psychical as well as to the physical phase of the sexual instinct - in other words, to be guided in our sexual conduct by love while the contrary course, the ignoring of one or the other of those phases, is unnatural.

To say that Bax is preaching this latter course would, perhaps, be going too far; yet where does his pronouncement that "mutual consent" (a winged word which, I see, even our good friend "Tattler" uses now in inverted commas) - is next to love which is an ideal, fit for angels - the best available principle of conduct in sexual matters, lead to, if not to a radical and most violent perversion of "nature," as the term is now understood? Is, according to this principle, sexual life to be what the old French adage used to express, "Boir, manger, dormir ensemble - c'est le mariage, ce me semble" Or, going still further and more brutally, are we to understand that a man may live with a dozen women and a woman with a dozen men simultaneously, since there is nothing in the "mutual consent" rule to exclude, and everything to invite, it? If so, then adieu to our civilisation - nay, more, to our position on the scale of organic existence, which is decidedly, and naturally, monogamic and associated with love. Does Bax protest against this imputation - against this logical inference from his premises? I expect he does; but then he has only himself to thank if, starting from his proposition, "Let us be natural," we come straight to the conclusion, "Let us be unnatural." He performed another salto mortale.

But we have not finished yet; here comes a bogey man in the shape of Asceticism. Our "pure reason" may say what it likes - it may convince us that love is the only ethical sanction under which we are bound to place our sexual life - but our "practical reason" condemns it, and warns us against listening to it, lest we peradventure fall into the abyss of Asceticism. By way of illustration, the case of a man is being cited who, because he cannot get the best food, and, is obliged to live on fried fish, is given the advice to stop eating altogether.

To this new onslaught I may reply as follows:- It is true, as I have stated in my former article, that under the present social regime a large pro­portion - perhaps the majority - of mankind is barred from every and any chance of realising the conditions under which sexual life becomes ethical. What are they to do? "Forego the psychical element of the sexual impulse" recommends Bax, "Forego the physical element of that impulse" would I seem to say. But I do not. What I say is that, the state of things being such as it is, the majority of men and women are compelled - acting, perhaps, out of sheer and innocent ignorance - to satisfy their sexual needs without paying the least regard to the element of Love. Is this immoral? Undoubtedly. A wrong action or conduct remains wrong, however much the circumstances may be extenuating. But do I condemn it            Certainly; and it is in this sense that I may be said to enjoin Asceticism, preferring, as I do, sexual continence to sexual connection on what Bax quaintly terms "mundane" principles. But to say this is not to say all. Asceticism is a shibboleth with Bax, and this, to use a familiar phrase, "won't wash clothes." We must further define the word and ask: Do I regard sexual continence as the panacea for the present-day difficulty? Any one who has read my article will not hesitate to say "No!" For Bax the solution he offers - the deeply immoral and unnatural laisser faire, laisser aller - is a final one; he is quite content with the "highly satisfactory condition" afforded by "mutual consent." For me, however, the solution I offer - a far more natural and moral, though not altogether so - is but a temporary one; it is a sort of makeshift pending the advent of a more perfect state of society when the intolerable contradiction between the ought and is will be reconciled. The true analogy to the position I am defending will, therefore, be not that cited by Bax - it is vitiated by the fact that you cannot absolutely do without food, whilst you can very well do, for a time at least, without sexual satisfaction; but that which I put forward in my former article, viz., the case of the capitalist who suddenly becomes conscious of the immorality of his social rôle. What is to be his action? Bax would recommend him to go on and be content for ever and ever; but I say, if he is a hero, he will throw up his position and enter the ranks of the workers; it is far more moral to be exploited than to be an exploiter. This is too much to ask of an individual? May be; still it is the only ethical course open to him under the present state of things. But is he to acquiesce in that? No, a thousand times, no! To be exploited - still more to allow oneself to be exploited - is also immoral, and the way out of this Scylla-and­-Charybdis position lies through the Social Revolution.

It will be seen, therefore, that what I contend for is not asceticism as Bax thinks I do, but a totally different and a larger thing. I point out the dilemma under which mankind is condemned to live, having to choose between sexual immorality and continence, and giving my preference to the latter as against the former, show the method by which it can entirely do away with both. This means that I preach not Asceticism, but Socialism, and my appeal to the ethical consciousness of "every pure-minded man and woman" is, in reality, but an appeal for Socialist action.

It pleased Bax to relegate the question of sexual ethics to the realm of individual ethics or "aesthetics," as he calls it, implying thereby that it concerns only the individual an und für sich. It will be seen now how utterly he is mistaken. There is not a single item in the whole equipment of a human being but is to a large extent, or, at least, in a certain sense, social, and the sexual instinct is one of them. It has always depended for the scope and mode of its exercise on the form of the social organisation of men, and having had in the Middle Ages the emphasis put on its spiritual element and in modern times on its material element, it will reach a harmonious synthesis of both in the future state of Socialist society.

One remark more. Bax has deemed it fit to entitle his article "Sexual Ethical Twaddle." Be it so. I shall be the last person to dispute the right of an author to name his work. If, however, he thinks it is too much for him, I am prepared to share with him the honours in the manner indicated at the head of my present writing: mine shall be the Sexual Ethics, his the Twaddle. Voila.



[1] I speak of ethical sanction, not of physical possibilities. That is why I say "the only sanction" in speaking of the psychical aspect of the sexual impulse. Its other aspect - the physical - is not a sanction, bat a physical condition of possibility.