Harvard Munch: when liberty becomes bondage

2013 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of the book Utilitarianism, by the British philosopher John Stuart Mill. Since this philosophy inspires much of public policy in Western countries, MercatorNet hopes to publish a number of reflections to mark the occasion. This week: what sado-masochists are getting up to at Harvard.

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Utilitarianism is a broad church which admits parishioners of varying persuasions and degrees of fervour. But there are two pillars to which all subscribe, one for society and the other for individuals.

The first is the famous maxim, “the greatest good for the greatest number”. John Stuart Mill modified this primitive calculus of pleasure and pain to take into account the pleasures of the intellect. In his well-known words, "it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”. But the broad sweep of the utilitarian doctrine is still the same: good consequences make good actions. It gives ethical cover to pragmatic politicians when they use 50 percent of votes plus one to turn immoral actions into moral ones.

The second pillar is that we should be free to do whatever we want – always provided that we do not harm anyone else in the process. Mill expressed it very eloquently in his other classic, On Liberty:

“the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant… Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

But after 150 years, the utilitarian notions of liberty and harm are beginning to crack under the strain of their own contradictions. Exhibit A is Harvard College Munch, a club with about 30 members which was given official approval last month.

Harvard’s peculiar decision

Munch is not about midnight snacks. It is a coy term for kinky sex, principally BDSM, ie, bondage, discipline and sado-masochism. “Or, as my crude definition states, it’s tying people up, telling them to do stuff, and hitting them with things,” Michael, the anonymous founder, told The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper.

The less said about the lurid practices of Munch members the better, but it was welcomed by The Crimson as “an important movement toward tolerance” and “a mature approach to and acceptance of alternative sexual interests”.

Mill might have struggled to grasp why sado-masochism deserves to be an officially sanctioned undergraduate activity. In his landmark essay The Subjection of Women, he argued “that the legal subordination of one sex to the other is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other.” But from what Harvard undergrad “Jill” told The Crimson, she doesn’t appear to have read Mill very attentively: “I like being told that I’m a slut or good for nothing but sex”.

How can America’s leading university authorise students to fantasise about harming and degrading women? Why aren’t feminist professors up in arms? The last president of Harvard lost his job because he suggested that women might be less talented at mathematics. Why do they ignore a club which encourages students to treat women like dirt? The easy response is: why not, if they consent to it?

But even Mill acknowledged that there are limits to informed consent. No one can legitimately sell herself into bondage, he wrote. “In this and most other civilised countries, for example, an engagement by which a person should sell himself, or allow himself to be sold, as a slave, would be null and void; neither enforced by law nor by opinion,” he declared. “The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free.” This suggests that Mill would take a very dim view of Jill’s informed consent to sexual violence. Even the greatest of the utilitarians harboured some lingering respect for human dignity. 

Towards nihilism

But 150 years after the publication of his most famous book, Mill’s intellectual heirs have developed an intricate casuistry which justifies informed consent to the “subordination of one sex to the other”. They have replaced Mill’s respect for the individual with nihilism. 

Here’s how Munch does it. Each undergraduate organisation at Harvard is required to write its own constitution. Most of these are skimpy documents. The constitution of the Romanian Association, for instance, is 230 words long. The Libertarian Forum’s is 780 words long. Munch’s constitution is 4,350 words long, most of it taken up with safety regulations whose detail and complexity are straight out of Kafka.

You would have to have a heart of stone to read this document without giggling. It must have been drafted by the legal department of The Onion, a news satire website. There are colour-codes for outreach and “workshops” – blue for the general public, green for the whole Harvard community, yellow for undergraduates and red for Munch members and their undergrad guests. Grey is for “unofficial” Munch events. Presumably they natter on about the BDSM best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey, which outsold Harry Potter and Twilight last year.

A Safety Team is supposed to organise an abuse-response training workshop every semester. Abuse is to be taken seriously. “When any person informs an officer of [Munch] that they have been subject to an instance of abuse or assault, officers shall respond immediately as per their training.”

“The wishes of survivors (sic) are tantamount,” the constitution declares. This is ominous as the constitution of the Romanian Association mentions nothing about the survivors of its meetings! Presumably those who drafted the document also meant “paramount” -- but torture of “survivors”, not ofthe English language, is my concern at the moment.   

 Then comes a lengthy procedure for expelling members from Munch for abuse of the rules. In a reversal of centuries of American jurisprudence, there is a presumption of guilt, not innocence. “It is important to clarify that HCM believes that accusations of abuse/assault/misconduct are overwhelmingly true”. Apparently Munch has not contemplated the possibility that members who get their kicks out of humiliating and degrading their friends might get an additional frisson out of telling humiliating and degrading lies about them.

What would John Stuart Mill have made of this attempt to reconcile utilitarian notions of liberty with the utilitarian prohibition of harm by sprinkling it with the pixie dust of occupational health and safety bureaucratese?

If he were honest, he would have to acknowledge that the idea that “informed consent” is all that is needed to make actions ethical is collapsing.

No act, according to utilitarians, is wicked except one which harms other people. But, at Harvard, even harming other people can be rationalised away with safety protocols. In fact, this was precisely the approach which the Bush Administration used to justify torturing detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Bad guys could be waterboarded as long as good guys with cattle prods, handcuffs and dogs ticked the boxes in the torturer’s rule book. It’s a sad end for Mill’s noble ambition to create a Britain in which people would be liberated of the dead weight of custom, privilege and sex roles.

A post-utilitarian future

What happens next? What direction will public policy take when the bankruptcy of utilitarianism becomes apparent?

Exhibit B comes from Germany, where Angela Merkel’s government plans to reinstate a ban on bestiality which was lifted in 1969. Again, the less said about the details the better, but the interesting point is that a major Western government is repudiating the utilitarian “whatever you like as long as no harm is done” argument.

Michael Kiok, of Zoophile Engagement for Tolerance and Information, was incensed by the decision. Mr Kiok, who lives in a “relationship” with an 8½-year-old Alsatian (no, I am not making this up), estimates that there are 100,000 badly misunderstood zoophiles in Germany. "We don't have anything to do with people who abuse animals," he said. "We only want what's best for the animal.”

However, under pressure from animal rights activists, the government’s view is that whether or not animals are harmed is irrelevant. A government official says that animals must not be used "for personal sexual activities or made available to third parties for sexual activities… thereby forcing them to behave in ways that are inappropriate to their species".

Any discerning utilitarian can read the writing on the wall: “natural law” has sprung like a phoenix from the ashes. The German government believes that it is not natural for animals to have sex with humans. Some things are so terrible that they are always wrong. It’s only a straw in the wind, but it suggests that there’s a limit to nihilism. People are longing for the old certainties of good and bad, right and wrong. Consent, no matter how well informed, cannot turn darkness into light.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 


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