Let’s get rid of the ‘virtuous society’

Photo by ISHARA S.KODIKARA/AFP, via The Telegraph

How many of you can honestly say that you have never visited a pornography website? I don’t have the numbers, but if I had to guess, only a small number of you would be able to say that. So why pretend? Why pretend that you have never watched them? Why pretend that you are already psychologically damaged, if pornography indeed does any psychological damage? What’s the point of trying to censor them, when you know people would watch them anyway?

Ours is a culture obsessed with purity, and virtue. It tells us what to watch, what to read, what to write, who to marry, who or what to worship, what to wear if you are a woman, and yes, we listen, because if we don’t, there will be a penalty. Wear a short skirt and you will be blamed if you were raped, even though you are the victim. Change you religion or marry someone your relatives disapprove of, you’ll be shunned out of the family. Write about something people consider to be taboo, your website will be blocked. Try to watch porn, your ISP will censor it.

The cultural norms stated above are obviously repressive. That is, it is easy to see how they restrict a person’s actions. But there are other aspects of culture that superficially seem benign, but actually can turn out to be very repressive. A mother is supposed to take care of her child, and make sacrifices when necessary. There’s nothing wrong with that, except how far can that go? Should she give up her job, her ambitions, her dreams, and devote her entire life to taking care of her child and husband? Isn’t she a human being with her own individual goals? Suppose she makes such a sacrifice. Children are supposed to take care of their parents when they’ve grown up and when the parents are old and need help. But how far can that go? Are they supposed to sacrifice the future of their children, come back to Sri Lanka from Australia, and personally take care of their parents, instead of just paying for a nurse? They might be infinitely indebted to their parents, but how can they pay back an infinite debt? But they surely will be derided if they don’t come back and personally take care of their parents.

This is not at all surprising. Almost all cultures have some notion of purity and virtue. Some are obsessed with women’s sexual virtue. Some with the purity of the food they eat (purity, not hygiene). Some with how they treat dead bodies. Some with the sacredness of their religion. In a country like ours, which never went through the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution or the sexual revolution, this obsession is really strong. It is your duty as a member of this society to enforce your idea of virtue on others so you can create a Virtuous Society. Or in other words, a Dharma Rajjyaya. Yeah, that sounds like a plan that can work.

Then there are us; those of us who are exposed to Western liberal philosophies, read news reports from all over the world every day, who are convinced that the idea of a virtuous society is a terrible one, and become more and more convinced about it every time we read about a woman being stoned to death for having an extra-marital affair or a building blown to protest a music video, or a business place attacked for being owned by a person who believes in animal sacrifice. The virtuous society has been tried, and it has been a failure.

So why not turn toward the alternative, which is Liberalism? Instead of the concept of virtue that restricts a person’s actions in a virtuous society, what restrict a person’s actions in a Liberal society is the principle of harm. You can do whatever you want to do, as long as you don’t harm anyone else. You can watch pornography if you want, as long as you don’t go around sexually assaulting women, and we’ll put you in jail if you do that. You can write whatever you want to write, as long as you don’t actually incite violence. You can smoke, as long as you don’t expose others to second hand smoking and pay your health bills.

In other words, why not treat people like adults, instead of like little children? What makes censors think that they will not be adversely affected by pornography, but the rest of the adult population in the country will be affected by it? What makes them think that they are intellectually and morally superior to the rest of us? Can’t I use my own judgment in deciding what to watch and what no to watch, or in deciding what to read, what to drink, what to smoke, what to eat, or what to wear? What makes people think that they are more qualified to make these decisions for other people than those other people themselves?

If you are a proponent of the Virtuous Society, you may not be convinced by any of this. But even you should see that using the government to enforce your conception of virtue on other people can’t lead to anything other than bad consequences. By letting the government to dictate how we should live, we are giving far too much power to the government over us, and if there’s one thing we can learn from evolutionary psychology, it is that when it comes to humans, power corrupts. Those who have power will almost always exploit it. Don’t you see the obvious problem with letting two hundred and twenty five people decide what you can or cannot drink?

So here’s my proposition. We don’t need the virtuous society. At the very least, we don’t need the government to try to make it. Let’s just let people be adults, and take responsibility for the decisions they make. Let people decide what to read, what to write, what to buy, or what to wear. We are not all children here, and your virtuous society, is really terrible.

  • Happy Heathen

    An Interesting and thought provoking article.

    I do agree with the basic premise of the article, however it is not simple and/or straightforward as you have claimed.

    For example take pornography.

    The feminists have long argued that given the gender/power imbalance, heterosexual pornography is demeaning to women.

    Furthermore, it will be interesting to investigate on the historical roots of such puritanical values. I for one believe that Sri Lanka was a relatively permissive society before the British introduced Victorian values….

    • Sharanga Ratnayake

      Yes, this has been heavily simplified. As a person with Libertarian leanings, I’m sceptical of these social justice movements like feminism and social liberalism, because they have gone beyond the principle of harm and try to restrict other people’s behaviour because they can’t stomach certain things. But you would agree that even a social justice movement is a huge improvement over what we have now which tries to enforce virtue upon everyone?

  • Ranga Kalugampitiya

    A very interesting read! Your proposition sounds good. What I’m not sure is if we, as a society, have attained the maturity that is necessary for the kind of liberalism that you advocate to thrive. I wonder what kind of groundwork is necessary in order to ensure that the departure from the virtuous society results in a smooth transition to a liberal society and not to a system that is more disastrous than the virtuous society.

    • Sharanga Ratnayake

      It’s really hard say, isn’t it? Part of the reason is that a liberal society cannot be created with a top down approach. You can’t make a plan and execute it. It seems to be a combination of large number of factors that develop organically. In Western countries, the rise of progressivism is often said to be the result of the Protestant Reformation. It basically broke Roman Catholicism and created a new religion out of it that was personal. The religion was no more a social affair, but a personal one. I don’t know how something like that can happen in a country like ours. It is in theory a personal religion, but in practice it is a big part of the society as a whole.

      But I’d say more urbanization (mainly because it really breaks down traditional family structures), more education (actual education that makes it easy for people to see the obvious questions the theory of evolution raises about all religions for example), a gender equality movement, and more and more people writing that virtuous society is nonsense like I do here, would help.

      Unfortunately, a truly forceful secular movement in this country can only come from the left, and they are far too leftist to make the liberal democracy we want to make.

  • Srilal Perera

    Well Done Sharanga. This is the BEST essay I have come across.
    Agree with it 100%. Brilliant !

    • Sharanga Ratnayake

      Thank You

  • MR.khan

    Involve in pornography as mush as u can, what is the guarantee that one will not go beyond their control by getting addicted to lustful desires i,e they may try to approach a woman with foxy mind to spoil her life in fact it happening sadly.. porn is like a drug “the more u have the more u want..” what should control them is virtue. it is said in article “if u act like violent or immoral that we will put in jail” Virtue is something like “prevention is better than cure”
    ex. in every school, company rules and regulations are set for what? nothing but to make it better, and we know in reality collage and company with correct strict rules perform well. rules in the sense not just stopping somthing but there should be an alternative to keep anything balanced. I mean society. we can discuss many thing to keep a society or country peaceful. rather than let people do what they think bcoz everybody wil not be in the same thinking.