OK, relax. This post comes with words only, no pictures

Let’s consider lust. Not the symbolic sort like that for power and money—the lust I have in mind is the original type: desire for a sexual partner. What got me to thinking about the moral dimension of lust was an item I came across a couple of months ago on Facebook.

The Facebook entry concerned the difficulty—nay, near impossibility—of the writer to banish or at least ignore his lustful thoughts in the presence of a comely female. He built to a conclusion that it was not a situation to be blamed on women, but on himself. For that acceptance of responsibility he is to be commended. If only more radical Muslim men would had such insight.

But if blame is to be ascribed at all, I suggest it be to those who spend a lot of effort to make lust wrong to begin with, those who sully the important concept of morality with such foolishness, those who dilute the utility of moral principles by their ancient doctrines about what well-meaning people do with or even think about regarding their genitals.

I had two reactions to the man’s essay: first, a tender feeling of sadness about the pain and shame caused by this young man’s struggle against a natural, even healthy, desire; second, anger about the nonsensical, hurtful dogma to which he’d been subjected, one which threatened an afterlife of fiery, eternal punishment were he to fail in his denial.

Christianity and Islam are not just self conscious about lust, they are scared to death of it. Right wing Christians go so far as to mount symbolic exhibitions of their anti-lust, anti-sex struggles even when symbolism is all they get rather than results. The recent Bush administration, with huzzahs from the religious right, funneled about one billion dollars into “abstinence only” sex education even when research showed minimal if any reduction in students’ sexual activity and sexually transmitted disease. Apparently it was of no matter that it didn’t work, for God would be pleased at our sacrificing lots of money as a show of piety.

What on earth gave lust a bad name? What arbitrary delineation decided that interest and desire integral to gender-based life would be shameful, even immoral? The Christian line, of course, is that sex is OK if “sanctified by marriage.” All that means is that lust is undoubtedly bad (why else would it need to be sanctified?), but a get-out-of-jail-free card is available, a permanent escape from the moral dilemma: marriage.

Oops, that doesn’t solve the problem, for as even Jimmy Carter confessed, lust is not a pointed arrow so much as a splatter. Damn stuff goes everywhere. (There may be persons who have never felt lust for more than a single individual, but I wager they are a tiny minority. For anyone who makes so rash a claim, the more probable condition is denial. At any rate, my remarks are directed at persons in the normal range.)

It is no surprise from where the damage arises: religion, at least the fundamentalist wings of the Christian, Hebrew, and Muslim varieties. Religion caused President Carter to “confess” that he sometimes “lusted in his heart” rather than just “say” he did. (His statement caused pundits to gasp that his remark was stupidly impolitic. Few questioned in print why the whole thing was such a big deal.) Religion drives spouses to pretend they’ve only one lust object or to feel bad about it if they have more. After all, in these religions lust is niggardly rationed, hidden, and harshly punished…in this life and in the next.

As I’ve argued in previous posts, our human race is in desperate need of a morality to guide our living together. Religion is not just an inadequate source, but a positively damaging one, first because it fails to strongly and pointedly prohibit a wide range of horrid human behaviors, second because it harshly condemns innocuous behaviors based on ancient superstitions, and third because it presents itself as the only legitimate source of morality, the monopoly provider of distinctions between right and wrong.

So where would lust fit in a sensible moral code? Where would it show up in a morality that actually confined itself to those actions that damage humans’ (or any sentient beings’) survival and flourishing, stripped of the superstition-based propitiations of hypothesized gods? Surely doing damage to people is properly a moral issue. Lying and deceiving are properly moral issues. But whose bodies touch whose where is, in itself, hardly a moral issue except to persons who have bought into the foolish and puritanical approach to human conduct exhorted by religion.

Misleading people for personal gain, damaging others in a physical or direct non-physical way, breaking promises—these seem obvious candidates for “wrongness.” But while lust does sometimes occur alongside real moral transgressions, in practice it is not always so, and in theory there no necessity for their being linked together.

A person might fight against or otherwise avoid lust for his or her personal reasons, such as to preserve a focus on something else, to recover from an earlier loss, or to avoid feeling overwhelmed when desirable persons abound. Lust in and of itself, however, whether for the same or opposite sex, whether momentary or intended for permanence, whether carefully considered or impulsive, has absolutely no moral significance.

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
This entry was posted in Morality, Pleasure, enthusiasm, and awe. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Lust

  1. Apparently the issue of separability of matters that are physically, causally, or conceptually linked is a bigger stumbling block than I’ve recognized. Consequently, I will not address it here in “Comments,” but in a later post, likely within a week or two.

  2. Yes, I do mean that lust is not a moral issue, though—as I took pains to point out—taking advantage of another person, forcing another person, doing direct damage to satisfy lust, and other mistreatments are certainly immoral, at least to me and to all secular humanists I know. To think that the case of Catholic priests (some gay, some straight) abusing children has anything to do with what I said is surprising. The priests were doing damage. It was not their lust that inflicted damage, but the actions they chose. So while I share your horror about child abuse, it has nothing to do with whether lust qua lust is bad.

    To draw the connection you did is tantamount to saying that drinking alcohol is immoral because one might drink and drive, murder, or abuse one’s spouse. It’s like saying that hunger for food is immoral because one might satisfy one’s hunger by taking food from the poor. Lust and damaging other persons in the presence of lust are separable issues. I would think that’s not an unattainable nuance, though the “thought crime” approach attributed to Jesus in Mark 5 certainly confounds the two as does your comment.

    • Daniel Hull says:

      “Lust and damaging other people in the presence of lust are separable issues”. Well maybe, but the connection is razor thin. The crime of rape comes to mind, whether committed on children or adults. The porn industry is a multi-million dollar world-wide enterprise that promotes lust big time. Wonder if there are statistics that show motives for rape connected to pornography?

  3. Daniel Hull says:

    “But whose bodies touch whose where is, in itself, hardly a moral issue except to persons who have bought into the foolish and puritanical approach to human conduct exhorted by religion.”

    Hardly a moral issue? Really? Pedophile priests lusting after children and acting on their lust is hardly a moral issue? Should the Catholic Church or any other religious organization be silent on this issue as if it’s no big deal, being one of those entities that, in your words, “spend a lot of effort to make lust wrong to begin with”.? I suppose pedophile priests are indeed well-meaning people that are just “naturally” interested in the genitals of children, no? All the evidence I have read about this suggests that many if not most of the affected children are seriously emotionally damaged by their childhood experiences of sexual molestation at the hands of lusting adults. And to be politically correct, never – I mean NEVER imply that pedophile priests are homosexual, even though the huge majority of the victims of pedophile priests are young boys. Just look at the statistics.

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