Monday, July 09, 2007

Words mostly fail me

Note: The possibility exists that the article here discussed is some sort of excessively-veiled satire. If so, this post is irrelevant and is evidence of my humorless inability to construe things properly.


Normally when an article proposing some new approach to the ethics of sexuality comes along, particularly in the New York Times, there are certain standard tropes that are employed, and certain standard reactions to those tropes that can be effectively and rightfully produced to counter them.

Every once in a while, an article comes along that makes this difficult. More rare still is an article so insulting as to make charity itself seem difficult.

This is not one of those articles. This is transcendant.

What does one say to this? On a bare technical level it's fairly poorly-written, repeating itself frequently and to little effect. But what it proposes confounds rather than enrages, at least at first (the rage sets in afterwards, and does not let up).

The article in question, by one Steven E. Landsburg (author of The Armchair Economist and not Freakonomics, as was previously and incorrectly reported), is an excerpt from a new book of his which appears to be dedicated to solving the world's problems by approaching them as an economist would. It's hard to get closer to "treating human beings as numbers" than this, clearly, but he presses on regardless. I mentioned at the top of this post that there's a possibility all of this could be satire. A comment left in the reader reviews of the book in question has similar concerns:
"At first these crazy suggestions were amusing, but as they kept coming, I wondered: Is he serious or just screwing around? The crazy unsupported ideas made me skeptical of the ones he seems to be trying to defend more seriously, because it seems he's more interested in shocking people than in reach seriously supportable truths. "
Dr. Landsburg's record indicates that he really does believe in his idiosyncratic economic approach as being one of real transformative and analytic power, anyway, so I'll take the article at its word for the time being.

The general jist of the piece is that the best way to combat the spread of sexually transmitted disease, AIDS included, is to encourage promiscuity among sexual conservatives. It is concluded that this makes it less likely that any given sex-having person will unluckily find himself coupled with someone spreading diseases (because sexual conservatives, being cautious by nature, don't tend to have 'em). Further to this, it is cheerfully proposed, such disease as is passed on - AIDS included, once again - has an increased likelihood of winding up in one of the sexual conservatives here discussed, who, being sexually conservative, will simply curl up and die rather than promiscuously passing it on to other people. Hurray!

All of this is supported with the most exquisite logic, of course, factored into which is the proposition that sex is enjoyable. That is, the author is using the release of endorphins and mere personal delight as logically-vital premises to a conclusion that would (and is apparently intended to) sicken and kill people who would otherwise be both harmless and unharmed.

But that's alright. Sexual conservatives - with particular emphasis on those who are completely chaste - are compared to "polluting factory owners" who only care about themselves. Sexual conservatives, the article suggests, should stop being so greedy and selfish and start having sex with people in hopes of contracting a fatal disease that might otherwise have infected someone likely to pass it on. The author's respect for the virtue of self-sacrifice would appear to be unimpeachable. Indeed, the author candidly admits that what's good for the group is often not ideal for a given individual.

He admits this, as I said, while implying that people should be ready to simply die for sex rather than give up the pleasure such dangerous behavior scandalously provides.

How do we get sexual conservatives to come out of their shells, though? Disdaining to consider the issues of just why a person would be sexually conservative in the first place, the author concludes that free or heavily-subsidized condoms are the answer, as though the extravagant price (?) of the things is what's keeping us from leaping into the fleshpots. The author gravely admits of this difficulty, instead proposing some program whereby positive rewards rather than discounts are applied to condom use. Other ideas in the fields of "combatting their shyness" and "providing them with partners" are bandied about. The article ends shortly thereafter.

The argument outlined in this article is both monstrous and inhuman, not least because it does not actually treat its eventual victims (for such they are) as human beings (for such they are), but rather as elements in a sort of equation, the goal of which is not to stop the AIDS epidemic (the author finds the idea impractical, it seems), but rather to maximize everyone's pleasure in the face of consequently inevitable doom. Such nihilistic barbarity refutes itself when considered candidly.

Above I described this article as a rarity, but I see now that the term might be paradoxical in this case. This piece manages to be wholly unique in infamy while simultaneously being perfectly emblematic of the spiralling, noisy collapse of an entire world.


regan said...

Landsburg is the author of The Armchair Economist. Freakonomics was the work of a couple of other Ste[v|ph]ens, but was written along the same lines.

Nick Milne said...

Really? Well, I'll fix that then.

The people doing reviews at Amazon seemed to think it was the same guy, or at least one of them, but maybe I was just misreading them. I was not exactly in the most coherent and calm state of mind while doing this, after all.

Anonymous said...

I, as a person with health insurance, should eat as much risky food as possible thereby absorbing and treating the sickness that would debilitate my non-insurance having neighbor.

This must be sarcasm, no one could be this dim.

Vernunft said...

If you can ignore basic game theory, then this proposal based on game theory makes sense.


Anonymous said...

Why do I smell the sickly-sweet odour of rationalization in that book.

It's an unjustified suspicion, but I beleive the man's trying to justify something to himself, rather than anything else.