Naturism and moral theories

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One of the leading concerns of people who are interested in naturism and related forms of social nudity is that other people, whose friendship is valued, may react negatively if they find out about one’s interest in social nudity.

There’s now scientific evidence that this fear may be realistic, and that applies in general situations, not just in connection with nudity.

Every society has a plethora of rules about what is or is not considered “proper” or “moral” behavior. Societies justify these rules based on specific – but usually implicit, assumed, and unanalyzed – theories of morality. Unfortunately, in most contemporary societies, social nudity outside of very limited circumstances is considered to violate some of those rules.

In order for people who enjoy, or want to enjoy, social nudity it is necessary to question not only a society’s strictures against nudity but also the “moral” principles that purport to justify those strictures.

So the first thing we need to do here is examine philosophical theories of “morality” in order to understand how they impact us. Morality, what it is and where it comes from has, of course, been one of the prime concerns of philosophy for over two thousand years. Hundreds of millions of words have been written on moral philosophy, so only the most simplistic, superficial account can be offered here. But who has the time to read and digest a thick book on the subject anyhow?

Consider this situation – if you haven’t come across it before. You are standing on a bridge over a rapid transit track. You can see that just around a bend in the track a car with five people in it is stalled across the track. The people can’t see an oncoming train and the operator of the train can’t see them either, so the people will certainly die if nothing is done. Beside you stands a large, corpulent man, and you realize that if you push him off the bridge onto the tracks the oncoming train will stop before killing the five people even though the man will die. What should you do?

Yes, this is a highly contrived, unrealistic situation, but it illustrates the point. One theory of morality says that deliberately causing the death of an innocent person is always wrong. But a different theory says that it is always better if only one innocent person is allowed to die instead of five.

The question of which theory is “best” won’t be addressed here. The intention is simply to point out that there is an issue here, and it is very relevant to social nudity. On one hand, many people (probably a majority in most societies) believe that social nudity involving unrelated people (and especially if children are also involved) is almost always wrong, or at least questionable. Why? Simply because it’s against society’s rules or “common sense”. But on the other hand, naturists and other devotees of social nudity think that nudity is just fine, has many psychological and health benefits, and isn’t harmful to anyone under reasonable, common-sense conditions.

So what’s the analogy here with the earlier train example? It is that one “moral” attitude is grounded in a fixed, almost inviolable rule. While the other is grounded in a realistic evaluation of the relative consequences of one choice versus another. Philosophers who are concerned professionally with morals and ethics have technical terms for these two attitudes. The first is called “deontological” (don’t ask me why), and the second is (more comprehensibly) “consequentialist”.

It should be clear enough that that consequentialist morality is likely to approve of social nudity, because social nudists find significant value in nudity, while objectively there is little actual harm in it – on balance the consequences are mostly positive. On the other hand, deontologist morality is likely to disapprove of social nudity, because it challenges the traditional rules and taboos of most contemporary societies.

But here’s the rub: In many if not most contemporary societies, the majority of people seem to lean towards the deontological view of morality rather than the consequentialist kind. In other words, hard and fast rules about “right” and “wrong” tend to prevail over judgements based on rational evaluation of consequences. This is a claim, or at least an assumption, found in this recent essay, which describes the scientific research and elaborates a bit on the train conundrum discussed above.

It follows from this assumption that you are likely to be more popular with others, have more friends, and be trusted by more people if your moral attitudes are in accord with those of the majority. And in particular, if you’re a social nudist, your consequentialist arguments in favor of nudity are going to have a difficult time convincing the deontological majority. That’s not a welcome conclusion to reach, but it wouldn’t be wise to completely ignore it.

Why should you take this seriously? Well, the essay cites recent social scientific research that suggests there is some validity to the conclusion of the preceding paragraph. In the essay’s words,

According to a new study of more than 2,400 participants, which we carried out with David Pizarro from Cornell University, the way you answer the “trolley problem” can have a big impact on how much people trust you.

Of course, that’s not to say that deontological morality is the “correct” or “right” moral theory. Only that it seems to be the most popular one. A bit later we’ll look at how social nudists might want to deal with this issue. But first let’s consider why this situation may have come about.

Religion is the elephant in the room. Clearly, the Abrahamic religions, which are dominant in the Western and Middle-eastern parts of the world, promote a very deontological form of moral theory. These religions are stuffed full of rules and regulations and commandments about how people “should” behave – with few if any exceptions permitted, and regardless of what rational analysis of a situation would conclude.

Not all religions are like the Abrahamic ones in this regard, however. Buddhism, for example, tends to lean the other way. This summary of Buddhist morality contains the following quote from an expert in the subject:

“There are no moral absolutes in Buddhism and it is recognized that ethical decision-making involves a complex nexus of causes and conditions. ‘Buddhism’ encompasses a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices, and the canonical scriptures leave room for a range of interpretations. All of these are grounded in a theory of intentionality, and individuals are encouraged to analyze issues carefully for themselves. … When making moral choices, individuals are advised to examine their motivation–whether aversion, attachment, ignorance, wisdom, or compassion–and to weigh the consequences of their actions in light of the Buddha’s teachings.”

Note, especially, the emphasis on encouragement “to analyze issues carefully” – and especially to “weigh the consequences” of one’s actions. Another religion, Wicca, which is a modern revival of an ancient spiritual tradition, puts the matter much more succinctly, in the so-called Wiccan Rede: “An it harm none do what ye will”. That may be a little too succinct, since there are situations (e. g. the train example) where harm results no matter what is done. But the point is clear enough: rational consideration of whether some behavior is harmful to others or to oneself is the best way to assess morality of the behavior. (It’s a separate question about what criteria to use for deciding whether or not some behavior is or isn’t “harmful”, or for comparing the amount of harm from alternate behavior choices.)

Now, it is true enough that in contemporary Buddhist societies, and perhaps even among Wiccans, there are a lot of deontological moral attitudes to be found. In particular, social nudity is perhaps as much a taboo in Buddhist societies as elsewhere. (Wiccans, on the other hand, seem rather more accepting of nudity.) But this is probably because there are reasons for taboos (including the nudity taboo) that are even more fundamental than religious teaching. We’ll get to those shortly.

It’s worth noting, however, that revered authorities even in Abrahamic religions (to say nothing of various modern theologians) sometimes deviate from strict deontological thinking. For example, Augustine of Hippo (aka Saint Augustine), an early Christian theologian, is usually considered a very strictly moralistic badass. Yet he wrote:

Once for all, then, a short precept is given you: Love, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: let the root of love be within, of this root can nothing spring but what is good. (source)

So, if the deontological perspective is not strictly inherent in religion, where does it come from? How is it to be explained? Here’s one possible explanation: Most people want other people, especially those they most often deal with, to be predictable. And in fact, predictability is a very important quality for the continued existence of a stable society having a reasonably high degree of social cohesion and cooperation. If you can’t reliably predict the behavior of someone you have dealings with, how can you trust them? And if you can’t trust them, how can you have a productive, satisfactory relationship with them, whether it is a relationship that is personal, social, business, or whatever?

Some social theorists even go so far as to hypothesize that human nature has been shaped to prefer predictability and trustworthiness in others because those are essentials of stable, dependable societies that are most likely to survive.

Clearly, one way for a society to inculcate predictable, trustworthy behavior in members of the society is to promote adherence to deontological morality – having many rules and taboos – in a large majority of the population. Historically, that seems to be the route most societies have taken, because it is the easiest to implement.

Consequentialist morality is at a disadvantage in this regard for several reasons. For one thing, it requires people to think and reason about the consequences of their actions, and that takes time and effort. Simply following the rules and avoiding things that are taboo is quicker and easier than thinking. But beyond that, of course, logical reasoning ability doesn’t come easily to many people, perhaps because it doesn’t have as much survival value as learning certain “common sense” rules. These may include such things as avoiding dangerous animals (lions, snakes), not eating unfamiliar or bad-smelling plants or fruits, not insulting or threatening the tribal chief, not picking fights with someone much stronger or more skilled, and so on. Perhaps it’s safer in the long run to learn the “rules of the game” instead of trying to reason about the consequences of any action one might take.

Bringing this discussion back to the subject of social nudity, it’s probable that the reason people in contemporary societies are very uncomfortable with it is simply that it’s a social taboo. Other people are likely to regard anyone who breaks a taboo as unpredictable and untrustworthy. And a person learns fairly early on that such a perception of oneself puts one at a serious social disadvantage. And the taboo need not involve something as dramatic as going around naked.

Especially when the rule or taboo involves something that is fairly trivial, such as the type of clothes one wears (far less dramatic than the choice not to wear clothes at all), then failure to adhere to expectations can be a big problem – wearing the “wrong” thing to work or on a date, for example. It’s quite likely that arbitrary and capricious expectations about what is “proper” attire on many jobs exist precisely to weed out employees who might be inclined to disregard other expectations as well. And in general, people certainly judge others based on clothing style choices, no matter how irrelevant objectively. Even trivial differences like this can mark another person as “not someone like us”, or “a member of a different tribe”.

In light of all this discussion, what sort of strategies should work best for devotees of social nudity who want to defend and promote their lifestyle? There are many different factors to consider when evaluating various ways that have been thought of to argue in favor of social nudity. So a thorough analysis could take quite a lot of time.

But here are just a few thoughts to begin the task. Let’s make the reasonable assumption that we live in a society where the majority of people lean towards the deontological rather than the consequentialist theory of morality.

The first thing that follows is that presenting arguments about the benefits of social nudity and the lack of harm caused by it may be worthwhile but probably are not the best approach to start with. Because discussions along those lines are about consequences of behavior, not adherence to rules.

What’s the alternative? It should be an argument that leverages rules or principles already widely accepted by society. For example: the right of an individual or group of people to make choices about their lifestyle that have little or no impact on others. The rights of people to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. In other words, people in our society value the right to be left alone, and so it is a rule that this right should be respected. Violation of this rule is (or should be) taboo. We should argue that it’s not socially acceptable to disparage the harmless personal lifestyle choices of others. “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1-3)

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18 Responses to Naturism and moral theories

  1. Lots ofwords for a simpme issue: be free in all you do, asfar as it is not harming or interfering with right and peaceful living of otherss.

  2. Pingback: Naturism and moral theories | Bodyworks2010's Blog

  3. casuallybuff says:

    Yes, absolutely on the button. Persuading people of the benefits of naturism is less likely to succeed than persuading people to leave us alone to get on with our life choices, if they show n interest, that is. Eloquently written well-balanced piece.

  4. Pingback: Naturism and moral theories | Nudie News

  5. Pingback: Naturism and moral theories — Naturist Philosopher | Naturist Holidays in Europe

  6. Thanks for sharing hat is clearly a well thought out perspective on normalizing social nudity. It’s discussion of a philosophical approach to the question at hand. More discussion like this help to sharpen the effectiveness of our efforts. I would like to add a few thoughts from a different angle. Philosophy is fundamentally is about ideas. I think in order for the conclusion of your thesis to be applied the psychology of human behavior that sometimes arises from philosophy sometimes not should be taken into account. Looking at the psychology of change is an important factor. How do human being change. Change does not come just through ideas in modern society. There is a motivational interest for the maintenance of the status quo in modern western society. Additionally the high regard for individual interest that in manifest in the right/wrong binary you describe tends to lead to behavior that has little regard for the interests of other while pursuing the individuals personal interest. So leave us alone to do our thing becomes irrelevant because I only care about my thing not yours. So until or unless I see my thing that is realizing my interests as connected to yours I have no reason to even consider your request to be left alone when changing the status quo my impact my interests. Just another perspective.

    • Two things: (1) Change in social norms is always difficult. Some of Montaigne’s thoughts about this help understand why. See my post from a few months ago about this. (2) The success of a “freedom to be left alone” principle depends on people accepting a “be considerate of others” principle at the same time. I think it is possible for a society to teach both principles at the same time. However, there is always a problem of “cheaters” who ignore the second principle. One measure of how intelligent a society is may be its ability to deal with the cheater problem without compromising the first principle.

  7. Reblogged this on clothes free life and commented:
    Thoughtful highly philosophical look at normalizing social nudity

  8. The idea that most of one’s friends – or most people – ” may react negatively if they find out about one’s interest in social nudity” is not true – at least in Western Societies. Please read these two articles: http://www.michigannudebeachadvocates.org/Articles.html#OK_to_be_Open
    http://www.michigannudebeachadvocates.org/Articles.html#article_Tales_of_Two_Naturists

    • Perhaps I shouldn’t have said “most”. But I don’t think there’s much question at all that “some” friends, relatives, or other associates may react negatively, especially in certain parts of the country. Even if only one or two people react negatively, it could be bad news if the reaction is from a spouse, close friend, or business associate. I know people, for example, who’ve been naturists for 40 years, but never allow their name to be associated publicly with naturism, out of fear that there would be undesirable consequences at work (in a tech firm in a liberal state like Massachusetts). This is also true for people who are members – or even leaders – of conservative religious congregations.

      However, I like your articles a lot. I think they are well-written and persuasive. But the “tales” are still just anecdotes, and not everyone has had such positive experiences. I wish there were some research to determine more precisely what sorts of reactions occur when people “come out” as naturists. Statistical evidence that most reactions will not be negative would help reassure people that it is “OK to be open”.

      Even though I’ve been following naturism online for many years, I haven’t been aware of your organization before. I would be happy to help publicize your articles if that’s OK with you. I agree that naturists everywhere should be doing more to advocate for naturism in some way or other, as you are doing. Naturist advocates need to communicate more among themselves to share ideas and experiences.

  9. zharth says:

    Overall, this is a good treatment of a significant obstacle nudists will have to face in gaining acceptance from the culture at large. Kudos for that. But ignoring the fact that consequentialist morality, as you’ve described it here, is objectively more “moral” than deontological morality (whatever the dumb pack animals might believe), the train analogy is really not fair. Even the consequentialist would agree that murder is an immoral act – in this case it is simply justified by the greater good. On the contrary, the nudist considers social nudity to be an intrinsically positive experience, and *not* just the lesser of two evils.

  10. steve says:

    I’ve nude sunbathed and skinny dipped with a few friends when I was younger. Done less when I got older, life happens. Started doing it again, only with my wife now. Gone to clothing -optional places though. Told my family and co-workers that I was becoming a Nudist. Just to see what re-action I would get. To my surprise, no one was shocked or disgusted. Had a few questions on seeing others and cleanliness. I explained there was no problems, I’ve done it before. Most said it was not their thing but were not ashamed for us.

  11. ColdFusion says:

    I think deontological morality is the only acceptable way to think, and it is morally right to go nude. I’d go as far as to say it’s morally wrong to habitually wear clothing.

    • Here’s the problem with that approach: What arguments can you use to change the opinion of someone else whose opinion on nudity differs from yours? You lose the ability to appeal to reasons based on health benefits, simple pleasure, psychological benefits, etc. Or were you just being facetious… (I like your art, by the way.)

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