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(“More what you might call ‘guidelines’ …”)

If you don’t get the above reference, then I pity the life you’ve led.

Anyway, it turns out that I have “rules.” The idea hadn’t occurred to me so much, one way or the other, until some 20 years ago, when I happened to formulate these “rules.” (I’ll stop scare-quoting the word now.) I may or may not have mentioned the fact that I was (for a while, at least) a moderately serious Renaissance Faire participant, what is often referred to as a “rennie.” And by “participant,” I mean I had invested something in the neighborhood of $1,200.00 in garb and gear (about half of that was for my custom made, thigh-high boots alone) to participate in character as a low ranking German nobleman of the 16th C. The attached picture really is me (and yes, that is my hair). I share it here with the generous permission of the photographer, Jeffrey Gibson, D. Phil. The hyper link at his name is to his photographer’s website, and I encourage everyone to follow that link and take a look at some of his work.Gerhard11 - Gibson photographer

In any event, it was at Ren Faire – in garb and in character – that I learned that I had rules. Rules about interpersonal, social/sexual interactions. This would be a matter of scarcely any interest even to myself, except that the nature of those rules has some interesting philosophical characteristics over and beyond just what I personally will or will not do. It is to this latter I wish, ultimately, to address myself. But first I have to say a bit about the rules themselves, so that the philosophical implications have something to build upon. But to get to the rules themselves, I first must tell a story.

Now, by nature I tend to be quite reserved, but this is only because after decades of agonizing effort I am no longer as catastrophically shy as I was when I was much younger. To this day, I still have trouble initiating conversations, and often have difficulty maintaining such conversations once they have started, but have drifted off into minor chit-chat; the things that interest me often do not interest others, and vice versa.

But the sheer physicality of all that gear and garb – not the least of which included that cape, and the 3½ foot kitchen knife at my side – altered my entire bearing. I had to become very conscious of my “space,” especially since the vast majority of people wandering about the Faire grounds had no clue how to maneuver around people wagging rapiers at their sides. But more than that, I could feel myself adopt the persona of my character. It came to be expressed in my movement, my swagger, the look in my eye, the set of my shoulders. And it came to express itself in how I related to the “relatable” women around me. So, I spent one summer in particular flirting like a mad-thing. Seriously, to anyone who didn’t witness that season at Faire, it is all but unbelievable. But I was, for a season, quite the rake.

It happened during this time that I sauntered up to one of numerous pubs on the Faire grounds (yes, alcohol was involved). Two (married) women of my acquaintance were there, and had been variously flirting and fooling around, and I was invited to come play with them. My reply surprised them, and frankly surprised me, especially as it came out without any particular thought or calculation. “Nah,” I said, “y’all are too married for me.” Now it happened that a third woman was there, and she cocked an eyebrow at me. “Yes,” I replied, “but you are engaged.” “You don’t see him anywhere around here, do you?” Well, the other ladies’ husbands weren’t physically present either, but there was a palpable, qualitative, but inarticulate difference in the “absences” involved. So I pivoted, marched over to her, leaned her over (caught her hat with my free hand, by the bye) and … well, let’s just say it was rather more than a peck on the cheek.

I am also the kind of person who tends to think about things quite a bit, and I could not initially formulate the reasons for why one invitation was OK, but the others felt wrong. So it was in thinking about this incident that I later came to actually formulate my rules (which did not really help answer the original question, but there you go.) These are:

  1. Never go anywhere you’re not invited.
  2. Never trample over other people’s relationships.
  3. If you’re going to feel guilty about it afterwards, don’t do it in the first place.

All of these rules are more complicated than they first appear. Thus, per #1, knowing when one is invited can be complicated. Recognizing the invitation that is there, as well as knowing when it is not, will often enough be less than immediately evident. As for #2, people get to define their relationships as they will. That definition might mean, “put your hands in your pockets, go home and take a cold shower,” or it might mean, “party at our house and everyone is invited.” Finally, with #3, that is so integral to the fabric of my judgment that I realized it was really about the other person. If that other person is going to feel guilty, then that is an automatic stop on the whole thing.

But even with all of that, the rules don’t really tell one how to behave. Even as “guidelines,” they are too vague to provide any meaningful insight into what would qualify as morally acceptable action in a sexually charged situation. Clearly, the rules deviate significantly from anything like orthodox “morality” of conventional church society, which has little enough to do with real morality and everything to do with following commands. Among other things, sexual affairs with married persons is not ruled out, provided the permission, willingness, and negotiated relationship(s) with others are in place. Nothing in those rules stipulate for monogamy (which, I would argue, has always been more about power and property, rather than love); only the requirement of the other person makes monogamy an issue within the above rules.

This – finally! – brings us to the philosophically interesting part. You see, the rules are not “rules,” they are not even “guidelines.” Rather, they are heuristics. Which is to say, they don’t tell us what to do next, rather they provide a context in which we can organize and then ask the next question. One way to think about these rules is not as “points” in the “space” of moral “commands,” but rather as axes in moral space, along which relevant questions can be asked.

So the interesting part of this three-dimensional space is NOT, “what actions does it tell me to do?” but rather, “what questions does it encourage – even require – me to ask?”

So, questions that come out of rule #1 include: “What does an invitation look like?” “What are the sources of uncertainty, and how does one address them?” “Clearly it is better to miss an invitation, than to be deluded into ‘seeing’ one that isn’t there, but that just begs the original question.” Questions that emerge from the #2 axis might include, “Is this a strictly monogamous relationship?” “Is this a flagrantly polyamorous relationship?” “Is this relationship open within tasteful bounds of discretion?” and so on. Rule #3 is the simplest set of questions to ask. People who are going to feel guilty will also be desperate to have you persuade them that it is OK to do something they know they should not. If they are going to feel guilty, then they already feel guilty, and it is written all over their body language.

Now, the odds overwhelmingly favor the conclusion that these simply aren’t questions that dog your moral compass. The truth is, they scarcely dog mine. Such lovers as I have had have all been committed to monogamy. That being the contract I agreed to, it was the one I stuck with. The exercise here has been to notice the difference between morality as principles to cleave to, as opposed to questions to be answered. The latter is the only form that a rational morality can possibly take.