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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  1. August 10, 2009 at 8:33 PM

    I do believe that abstaining is a virtue in its own right.

    If we all acted to indulge then we are hedonistic and effectively selfish. Indeed, we are no different than animals in nature.

    It is our rational, human, intelligent minds that allow us to beat down our own instincts and our own impulses. We can reason and choose, and circumvent our animal side.

    This is the only attribute that separates humanity from animals.

    The inability or unwillingness to refrain lowers and devalues a person to that of an animal in nature. Religiously speaking, choosing to be an animal is the forfeiture of your soul.

    Virtue, morality, abstinence, and the like are all closely tied concepts for this reason.

    You dont have to be religious to see the benefits of not being a habitually acting, instinct driven “creature”. I wish to retain my capacity to refrain and abstain, or else I lose myself.

  2. Justin Horsley
    August 10, 2009 at 9:47 PM

    We are spirit children of a loving Heavenly Father that sent us to earth, for among other things, to obtain a physical body similar to his and learn to control it. We are spirit beings having a physical experience. Many of us, including myself, get sidetracked and begin to take on characteristics of the natural man; in other words, go about our physical lives and once in a while have a spiritual experience.

    As we abstain from sexual relations outside of marriage, as we fast, show charity (the pure love of Christ) toward all, read and ponder the scriptures, and pray to our Father in Heaven, that is to say, to accept his will for us and align our will with his, then we can partake of spiritual experiences that help us grow closer to him individually and in our relationships. That is the goal of this life, and that should be our focus.

  3. Lorelei
    August 10, 2009 at 10:51 PM

    So, was this whole blog a ploy to get grown women to give it up faster? 😄 There’s a reason behind a woman saying “I know I love you, but I want to wait anyway” because the longer you make a man wait for it the longer he’s gonna end up sticking around. (It’s not b/c she wants to be virtuous, no matter how many time she says it 😉 )
    That aside, there are two very good reasons for “virtuous restraint”:
    1. there are way too many idiots running around and having children when they cannot take care of them because they are either too young or cannot afford it
    and 2. there are way too many fat people in this country who could stand to skip a meal or two. i could stand to skip one myself.

    and from my religious/philosophical point of view:
    there is a reason the Buddha taught a “middle way”
    you need to eat to survive. and if you are a lay person, there’s nothing wrong with sex as long as you don’t go around molesting people.

    overall i enjoyed this post. 🙂

    • August 11, 2009 at 12:36 AM

      I was strolling through a book store this evening and saw a book by a damn feminist. Something to the affect of women being “intrinsically virtuous by nature”. HA. The burden of idealism and religious virtues… how it has damaged womens image in America. Her argument, essentially, was that women couldnt be the dirty skanks they wanted to be with social expectations otherwise. Women are no better than men in any respect. They just managed to rationalize it all as a virtue on their part.

  4. Diogenes
    August 11, 2009 at 1:53 AM

    Correct me if I am wrong, but self-restraint is an important part of self discipline. Self discipline is a very important virtue, as it is through self-discipline that one can tolerate others. Thus, any number of these mystifying rituals you mentioned above could be employed in order to develop self-discipline.
    Also, although no pleasure is inherently evil, some pleasures have undesirable consequences. For example, the theobromine in chocolate produces a toxic effect in dogs. Although the dog may get pleasure from eating the chocolate, there is a good chance that eating it would indeed be a bad idea. I know you mentioned the rational decisions behind some of these, but you hammered abstinence unduly, thus meriting this reiteration of the fact that one can rationally deny pleasure.
    Sadly, though, you are correct in that “self-restraint” is often used merely to draw attention to one’s self. The cynosure then feigns a spiritual interest of some sort in order to falsify depth of character. This display is always sickening, as it shows how pathetic man can be.
    Overall, good post. I found it a wonderful oasis of scholarly intellect in the desert of bourgeois apathy. Thumbs up!

    • August 13, 2009 at 6:25 PM

      That is precisely what I said, essentially. Any indulgence – nay, any action whatsoever – based on habit, animal instincts, or unwillingness or inability to control ones-self, etc… actually degrades and devalues that particular individual, making them unlike man and more like animal.

      • Diogenes
        August 15, 2009 at 4:24 AM

        Man is an animal.

    • March 11, 2010 at 8:17 AM

      Man is an animal. I take it that you are a retard? Because we are speaking morally and philosophically, not biologically. But somehow you managed to not pick that fact up.

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