George Will writes a provocative essay in today’s Washington Post examining a recent Policy Review article by Mary Eberstadt which asks whether we haven’t witnessed a reversal of moral attitudes regarding food and sex. In other words, we are food prudes and sex gluttons where we used to be quite the reverse. Will wonders whether this means that we’re in for another renaissance of sexual mores as--following the trend with regard to food--we become ever more inclined to replace a moral compass with strict evidence from the empirical record. It turns out that the empirical evidence is proving that smorgasbord sex is about as healthy for your body as an all you can eat buffet full of red meat and sweets. No serious reader of Aristotle or ordinary grandmother with common sense is probably surprised by these findings. Lack of moderation in most things can be expected to have both moral and physical consequences.
What concerns me, however, is the increasing (and ironic!) Puritanism that I see bubbling beneath the surface of these reversals. The generation of today’s food police go too far. They cling too tightly and rigidly to their empirical evidence about the health effects of food. If nutrition were the only reason for eating, they’d have a point. But human beings and human bodies are not mere machines operating on a fueling schedule. Those who infuse (or confuse) nutrition with morality take all the joy out of eating and, thereby, make it less human. And those who insisted on the inherent joy of every kind of miscellaneous sex similarly sucked all the joy out of it and made it inhuman by making it more animal. We may get some nominal improvement in our situation if the sexual libertines become infused with this material concern for the health of the body and begin to call for some more restraint with regard to sex. But in the most important (that is to say, the most human) respect we’re still going to be missing something. A morality based only on the importance of the body and health will not concern itself either with joy or with love. After all, the healthiest kind of sex (if we’re talking only about physical health) would be something akin to a breeding program or mere self-gratification of a Seinfeld brand. And with today’s reproductive technology, one could easily imagine a movement toward a completely sexless world (though I remain dubious about the potential popularity of such a movement). The irony of all ironies is that as we have become more and more obsessed with the vulgar things we are pleased to imagine are erotic, we have become less and less erotic. The only way to preserve true eroticism is to preserve true morality and moderation. The only way to get a true morality is to really understand what it means to be a human being.