Liberal Education as Problem Identification—Part 2: The Case of Sex

Since 1963 (more or less), the sophisticated wisdom has been on the side of easygoing sexual satisfaction.  Sex can and should be for pleasure detached from various repressive relational concerns.  The only limit to consensual gratification should be health and safety.  Safe sex is moral sex.  The philosophers and theologians of the past who thought otherwise subjected free persons to unnecessary cruelty, including pointless guilt. 


But the latest study shows that chastity turns out to be a virtue that can make us happier than we would otherwise be:

Religion and science don't normally make for happy bedfellows, especially when it comes to sex. But now, it seems, they're in total agreement. A study into the effects of having sex before marriage suggests it's much better not to. Those who abstain during their courtship or build up a gradual sexual relationship, rather than leaping into bed on the first date, are more likely to have happier and longer relationships. 

The researchers who carried out the study, the first of its kind, say that early sexual satisfaction may stunt the development of other key ingredients of healthy relationships, such as commitment, caring, understanding and shared values. "Precocious premarital sexual activities may have lasting effects on relationship quality," they say. "Courtship is a time for exploration and decision-making about the relationship, when partners assess compatibility, make commitments and build on emotional and physical intimacy." 

Almost 50 years since the sexual revolution, which began, according to Philip Larkin, in 1963, the evidence suggests an open-legs policy is not so rewarding after all. "The postponement of sexual involvement is associated with higher levels of relationship quality," say the researchers from Cornell University. "Women who deferred sexual involvement for over six months reported significantly higher levels of relationship satisfaction, commitment, intimacy and emotional support, as well as sexual satisfaction with their partner, than did those who became sexually involved within the first month."

So one point of liberal education turns out to be rediscovering for ourselves the truth of the arguments of the philosophers of the past for  the sublimation of mere genital sexuality for the sake of the truthful responsibilities two persons share in common, for the relational love that displays itself among members of our species alone.  For even self-confidently radical semi-philosophers such as Herbert Marcuse, the guru for many of our Sixties’ activists, eros is polymorphous.  It takes on many forms, and it’s stunted when identified simply with casual sexual satisfaction.  It’s capitalism, Marcuse explains, that makes sexual satisfaction one-dimensional by reducing it to yet another easily acquired commodity.

Radicals like Marcuse and more conservative Platonic critics, such as Allan Bloom, have observed that the eros of our time is lame.  The Puritans were clearly more erotic that we are.  Show a Puritan guy an ankle, and he’s aroused.  But our guys can see perfectly sculpted, semi-unclad young women in all kinds of virtual and real places and yawn.

The distance between polymorphous and deeply intense human love and the sexual experiences of the other animals almost fades away when we detach it from our singular ability to be moved by love, death, and the mysterious charm of the partial elusiveness of unique and irreplaceable other persons.

Maybe the only way students can identify the problem of our erotic lameness is through encounters with the love, death, and personal “relationships” displayed in the great philosophy, poetry, and theology of the past (Plato, St. Augustine, and  Shakespeare, to name three).

What I’ve said here corresponds to the wisdom of our religious tradition, but it doesn’t depend on religion.  As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, democratic Americans used to know that chastity is in their self-interest rightly understood.

There is something, though, to the slogan of many evangelicals: "True love waits."  For courtship to make a full comeback in the service of civilized happiness, courting has to mean something.

(Thanks to the celebrated Brothers Judd for sharing the above study with me.)

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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