The Fallacy of Virtuous Restraint
Hello friends. Today I would like to discuss a long-established feature of ethics as understood in modern culture which is fallacious and flawed to its core, and that is the ancient practice of virtuous restraint. Virtuous restraint is the decision by an individual to refrain from pursuing a course of thought or action which he desires to pursue in order to achieve a greater level of virtue, which is a kind of ethical construct of purity of soul. Common examples include sexual abstinence and avoidance of consuming certain foods. In many cases, the actual action of abstaining may be a rational choice, but at the heart of the principal of virtuous restraint lies the assumption that rationality is not to be considered – that self-denial is a virtue in its own right.
There are less discussed, perhaps less mainstream instances of virtuous restraint which even more poignantly illustrate the concept, and the fallacy within, than the examples above. Consider the bizarre ritual of religious fasting, where a person chooses to abandon food for a certain portion of the day, to purportedly demonstrate his faith and achieve spiritual discipline. If this counter-natural behavior were only practiced by theists, I would not comment on its ludicrous nature because it is common knowledge that a belief in God drives people to do strange things. Unfortunately, being an academic, I have found myself repeatedly in communities of young intellectuals with Liberalism and non-theistic religion on their minds. In these circles, I have witnessed on many occasions people performing ritual fasting (primarily in accordance with Muslim faith) while actively professing to be without religion. When inquired, these misguided individuals will vaguely insist that what they are doing is ‘good’ because it involves ‘personal restraint’ and helps them ‘feel pure and connected’. Any logical person must be wondering what exactly that means
When broken down to the most basic level, what it actually means is this: These people believe that by depriving themselves of something that they rationally desire, they are committing an act of ethical righteousness. They reject the notion that a man exists for the sake of living his life to its fullest potential, in exchange for a limited and mystical kind of morality in which deprivation and smallness of experience are laudable traits. Why would it be morally righteous for a man to deprive himself of a life experience which he rationally desires? This can be true if and only if a man’s life is not his own to control and enjoy as he pleases. Thus, the fallacy of virtuous restraint, like all ethical fallacies, derives from the notion that a man is not entitled to pursue his ambitions and live his life.
Perhaps some protest that fasting is just silly, but that restraint from some other desire, such as sexual behavior, is in fact a legitimate case of virtuous restraint. But I challenge virtuous restraint not in one or two cases, but in principal. Sexual behavior is no exception. While there are many rational reasons to choose not to act on a sexual impulse, such as the potential consequences of illness, pregnancy, or social stigma, as well as that the individual performing the act may discover later that he was not actually wise in doing so, particularly if the sexual partnership proves to be short-lived and emotionally trivial, there is no virtuous justification for abstinence. What is the distinction? Simply this: A rational decision to suppress a sexual desire is one which avoids negative consequences. A virtuous decision to do so is one which is based solely on an attempt to achieve positive consequence of the restraint.
The naive teenager who is offered sex by her boyfriend of a week but rejects it is making a rational choice to avoid sacrificing her will and her emotional security to an individual who may or may not be morally worthy of her. She needs to be certain that she approves of this man and his life before she surrenders control of her feelings to him. But the grown woman who tells her serious partner, “I know I love you, but I want to wait anyway,” has no justification and no sense to her religious self-denial. Exercising self-control for the betterment of one’s life is a skill people must learn. But exercising self-control simply for its own sake is closely analogous to other kinds of control, like collectivist politics and religious indoctrination. It serves to satisfy a misguided, anti-human drive to have one’s life dictated by an arbitrary outside source. Arbitrary, because only an individual’s rational decisions have a distinct motive to them – the motive of self-preservation and self-satisfaction – while all other decisions are inherently without focus, without intent, because a decision that isn’t in one’s own best interest is a meaningless one.
The tragedy of the misconception of virtuous restraint is threefold. Firstly, and most perhaps superficially, it restricts people from enjoying their lives in a way which they rationally desire to do. Secondly, it taints the name of ethics, crippling a vastly important study whose results should be organized around critical theorems such as ‘Initiate no violence against others’ and replacing it with arbitrary, trivial stigma such as ‘Don’t eat pork’ and ‘Don’t have sex until the government gives you a slip of paper that says you can do so’. Thirdly, and most cruelly, it numbs the mind to the distinction between individualism and oppression, since it frequently manifests in so-called virtues taught to young children, who learn from a very manipulable age that they are to follow strange rules against their rational interest. Children, and all people, should be taught to pursue their goals and ambitions with wise caution, not self-restraining regret.
“No pleasure is a bad thing in itself” – Epicurus.
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