This morning in the Wall Street Journal, Catholic University of America president John Garvey defended the schools decision to end co-ed dorms. His reasons are less than airtight; for instance, he suggests that co-ed dorms have a causal relationship with binge drinking and hooking up, simply because they’re correlated. (An obvious alternative is that a school with a conservative administration, religious orientation, or chaste culture is likely to be biased against co-ed dorms, and also more likely to attract chaste and temperate students.) Moreover, it seems silly to suppose that something like single-sex dorms would actually prevent people from having sex, because every college student has sufficient freedom to do so.
As a youngster, I would level such arguments against my parents’ prohibition on co-ed sleepovers: It’s nearly impossible to prevent sexual opportunity altogether, so the correlation between increased sex and an increased tolerance for sexually opportune arrangements could only be, I deemed, causal in one direction. Co-ed sleepovers were a symptom of a permissive culture, but could not themselves do any harm. And my participation in such, as a chaste 17-year-old, would have furthered no evil. The solution was not to end co-ed sleepovers, but for everyone to stop having sex.
As a member of the Anscombe Society, I often find myself perplexed about what we’re doing the next thing we’re doing. Will this blog post convince a single person to be chaste? Doubtful. Did anyone see our Valentine’s Day posters and change their mind about what they were going to do that night? I hope so, but the odds are slim. The rationality of doing work for Anscombe is much like the rationality of voting: you know that any individual action will almost surely fail to bring about your aim. Either it would have gone your way regardless, or it doesn’t go your way at all. So, too, with my parents’ cruel ban, or Catholic University’s plan to phase out co-ed dorms.
Yet none of these are actually worthless actions. True, they are “irrational” within a framework that views humans as nothing more than utility-maximizing machines, but such a view is ill-equipped to explain human actions (especially those in The Gift of the Magi). Rather, it makes more sense to call good actions good, even when their benefits cannot be seen. Picking up litter, keeping promises (even when nobody will know), telling the truth, honoring the wishes of the dead, and treating the mentally ill with respect–these are all good things to do, even when nobody is experiences their benefits.
Moreover, it’s impossible to know the effects of such actions, particularly when collective. It’s good that plenty of people vote, and by voting, you contribute to a culture in which people vote. It would also be good to live in a society in which college students didn’t behave promiscuously. It’s unclear how we can get to such a culture, but it’s similarly difficult to identify how we got to the one we have today, at least by looking at individual actions. It’s not as though the pill, for instance, instantaneously changed everyone’s opinions about sex, but behaviors shifted, and so did values, and with them customs. In trying to reverse the damaging cultural changes wrought by the sexual revolution, all we can do is apply forces in the opposite direction. And this is why, ultimately, I am not dismayed to find myself blogging for the Anscombe Society.
Perhaps a good society would not have co-ed dorms, and perhaps by banning them, Catholic University is pushing the culture in that direction. I don’t know that this policy will decrease the total number of unfortunate sexual encounters in the world, and it may prove more a hassle than its worth. It might also be the case that a good and chaste society would be fine with co-ed sleepovers and co-ed dorms. Yet a stand for chastity is a good stand to take, and to that end I applaud Catholic University’s decision. I will even, albeit begrudgingly, applaud my parents for the same reason.