Science of Commitment

The NY Times ran a great article today on commitment detailing psychological findings that indicate that while some people may be more naturally inclined to resist temptation to break commitment, people can also train themselves to raise their feelings of commitment once they are in a relationship.

The article cites a few studies on reactions to possible relationship threats when parties are in committed relationships. I found the study by a McGill psychologist John Lydon most interesting. In the study, married men and women were asked to rate the attractiveness of people of the opposite sex in a series of photos. Married men and women gave the highest ratings to people we typically think of as attractive. However, the same individuals were later shown similar pictures and told that the attractive person was interested in meeting them. In this case, participants often gave those pictures lower scores than they had the first time around.

Lydon mentioned that this may be a defensive mechanism that participants used to remain faithful to their commitment. When the participants were attracted to someone who may threaten their relationship, they instinctively compensated by lowering their assessment of the potential threat.

Read the full article here.

A Response: Anscombe, Sex, and Reason

From Anscombe president Shivani Radhakrishnan, in today’s Daily Princetonian:      
Eric Kang’s column "Anscombe, Sex, and Reason" (Monday, Feb. 15, 2010) called for members of the Anscombe Society to defend disputed points in its ethical system on neutral grounds. As his piece raised several important criticisms, I will attempt to respond.
First, Kang is correct to point out that there is nothing bad about sex as such. The Anscombe Society does not regard sex as categorically good or categorically bad. Whether sex is inherently good – as it often is – depends on a number of factors: whether the persons involved are permanently and exclusively committed to each other, whether the act is a free expression of their commitment, etc. In this respect, it’s true, sex between unrelated adults is decidedly unlike incest or adult-youth relations, which McGinley and the Anscombe Society consider inherently wrong. Our moral intuitions, in this case “repugnance”, may not be an argument per se about what we should believe in the case of incest and adult-youth relations. But, our moral theory (in this case, our theory of sexual ethics) should accommodate most of our intuitions about what is right and wrong, just as a plausible theory about the world should accommodate our observation of it.
Secondly, Kang takes issue with the claim that instrumentalization of the body always occurs outside of a marital context. And if it always occurs outside of marriage, why isn’t sex within marriage instrumentalizing the body as well? Kang suggests that Anscombe’s position requires an understanding of sex within marriage as permissible, no matter what. But that is not our view. One could imagine spouses who are deceitful or unfaithful to their commitment but nevertheless continue to have sex – they, too, would be instrumentalizing each other. Rather, we think that sex is good when and only when it is the consummation of a full union of persons on many levels: the bodily bond that completes a couple’s total commitment to each other at the level of their wills.  So for sex to constitute full marital commitment, it is necessary but insufficient that it take place within marriage. Full marital commitment requires the unity of persons not just bodily, but also emotionally, mentally, etc.
Kang also suggests that the idea that there are moral constraints on what people should use sex to express – or, relatedly, on the proper purpose of sex – is a distinctively theological view. It is not. It is, rather, an ordinary moral belief that almost everyone reading this already accepts, even if we disagree about what those constraints are. For instance, most of us believe that sex must be a free expression – and not just in the same way that we think most activities should be free: nonconsensual sex strikes us as a far greater violation than, say, being forced to eat vegetables or play an instrument. People also generally agree that sex should not be used as an expression of filial love (even with an adult son or daughter capable of consenting) or fraternal love (even where children with complications will not arise, as for example between two brothers or sterile siblings). And many agree that sex should not be used to express passing acquaintanceship or only for one’s own gratification – unlike, say, tennis. Given this framework, the claim that sex should express a permanent and exclusive commitment is not radically different in kind. Almost everyone recognizes such limits.
What gives rise to our notion of these limits? We argue that sex calls for a commitment that is both permanent and exclusive as it is oriented towards bearing and rearing children— a commitment indefinitely into the future to both any kids that may arise and to both parties involved. Now, it falls to Kang to defend the above limits that we intuitively accept on the proper use of sex that stops short of the limits that the Anscombe Society accepts. 

Valentine’s Day Poster Campaign


If you’re on campus, you may have noticed the retro-themed posters dotting the lampposts around Princeton. Each of the four poster designs sports a song lyric (The Beatles, Jay Sean, Queen, and Beyonce are all represented) that accompanies a vintage image of a couple in a romantic situation.

But why the retro-feel of the images? While the images have a retro air about them, they’re coupled with song lyrics that span different time periods and generations– drawing attention back to the shared values of love and romance that seem timeless, despite being embedded in a retro ad.

This year, Anscombe’s posters articulate a positive case for relationships- for courtship and commitment. While people may disagree with Anscombe’s particulars–that is, the specifics of how we think these relationships should play out–the posters this year articulate a point of agreement. Sexuality within a framework in which people get to know each other as people first and foremost is a good thing.





Salman Rushdie & Commitment

“The avalanche of sex in which Gibreel Farishta was trapped managed to bury his greatest talent so deep that it might easily have been lost forever, his talent, that is, for loving genuinely, deeply and without holding back, the rare and delicate gift which he had never been able to employ.” – The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie


In reading Rushdie (a long-time favorite of mine), I was struck by his poignant observation: Farishta’s casual sexual encounters with a number of women were detrimental to his actual ability to care about a single woman. That is, he began to dissociate sex from it’s proper place-  in a committed relationship. By separating a sexual act from it’s object, the weight and meaning of sex are reduced. Granted, Rushdie’s own love life is far from committed, but that’s a separate issue. 





Predictive Smiles

NY Times featured a study today by a DePauw University professor who found that the less people smiled in high school yearbook pictures, the more likely they were to later divorce. Granted, nobody is arguing for causation, but this is at least an interesting correlation.

Proposed next study: University IDs as a predictor of marital contentment. Proxes, anyone?

An Augustinian Perspective: Food and Sex

I thought I would summarize and comment on a few interesting points made in a recent lecture by esteemed Augustine scholar Gilbert Meilander:

Before I begin, it seems prudent to preface my remarks with a rejection of the common dismissal of Augustine as “insufficiently life-affirming”- a repressed individual whose archaic views on sexuality ought to be dismissed without further inspection. Augustine’s views on sexuality is not that it is inherently problematic, and it is crucial to acknowledge that his distancing himself from the Manicheans indicates his disavowal of the rejection of the corrupt body in favor of the soul.  (Further arguments for this position are made clear in Books  11 and 14 of the City of God- Augustine’s views that God will return in a body, and that sins of the flesh can be committed even by those who lack bodies, at least, seem to indicate that we should be wary of reducing Augustine to this position.)


The focus of Meilander’s argument was an analogy made between food and sex. It will be first valuable to spell out the exact analogy. For Augustine, the natural order is that food serves the good of health. That is to say, eating is a necessity, albeit a sweet one. The good of an activity is distinguished from its attendant pleasure, and as such Augustine suggests it is wrong to seek the pleasure instead of the good. Analogously, Augustine views the good of sex (what he sees as solely procreation, a view that may be problematic) as separate from its pleasure. A disordering of one’s loves, then, occurs when the pleasure of sex (or of eating) is pursued for its own right. 

Meilander’s critique of Augustine is that he fails to see another good in eating, and also, in sex. He argues that in eating, there is another good- the good of enjoying meals in the company of others. Meilander argues that it is okay to eat out of hunger, or go to a meal just for company, and that each of these two purposes, satisfying hunger and pursuing community , need not  be served each time one has food. When applied to sex, Meilander notices a different good that Augustine misses: union between husband and wife. He analogizes that as there are two distinct goods of sex, each one need not be served in every sex act. 


While Meilander’s modification of these additional goods is convincing, there are some important distinctions that ought to be made. With regards to eating, pursuing community is not derivable from the very putting of food in one’s mouth. This ambiguity with regards to the word “eat” thereby leads to a disanalogy. While one may go to a meal just for company, one may not achieve the good of company by the simple fact of ingesting food. As such, when addressing the domain of sex, we see a difference: both sexually intimate union and procreation can occur through sex and only through sex (bracketing conversations that may arise as related to in vitro fertilization, which do not appear on Augustine’s radar, and as such ought to be put aside for the current conversation).  This difference appears to change the status of the position Meilander has in mind. The two purposes (community and nourishment) are separable with regards to eating, while the two purposes (union and procreati

on) are not separable with regards to sex. 

Gender Neutral Housing at Princeton

Princeton is beginning to offer gender neutral housing (GNH) in Spelman dorms next year as a pilot-program, before assessing whether it should be offered across Princeton’s campus. Spelman suites are unique in that they consist of individual singles adjoined on a common hallway with a shared bathroom and kitchen. This is unlike most doubles and suites in upperclassmen housing, which consist of bedrooms shared between roommates. The decision to pilot the program in Spelman seems due to this difference, rather than in spite of it. There is a tacit recognition that shared bedrooms between members of the opposite sex would be less than ideal on Princeton’s campus. The pilot program’s plotted expansion should not be based on studies of its outcome in Spelman, as this would be unrepresentative of what GNH would look like if it were to spread to other buildings on campus.


GNH raises other concerns, a few of which are raised in the Daily Princetonian Editorial Board’s dissent: