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The general objectivist consensus seems to be that harming yourself or allowing others to harm you is immoral, but what if you were into that s&m stuff? Furthermore, in an objectivist society, would these acts be illegal?

asked Feb 05 '11 at 19:12

Junky's gravatar image


edited Feb 06 '11 at 01:22

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

Well certainly not illegal as you own the right to your own life. Full contact sports certainly do harm you whether the harm is peripheral or not, for e.g. Rugby or Mixed Martial Arts. As long as it is voluntary, the government has no right to step in. From a moral standpoint, as long as the intimacy between the two parties is value based, the sexual techniques employed to please each other is between the two and well within morality.

(Feb 05 '11 at 21:02) dreadrocksean dreadrocksean's gravatar image

You are getting confused with the definition of harming oneself, and are taking the conventional definition.

In objectivism, harming yourself is very close to, if not the same as, Altruism: sacrificing a higher value for a lower one. Thus it would depend on why one was doing the acts. If one did it because they gained pleasure then not only would it not be immoral, it would be a high moral act. If one was doing it because of their partner AND they valued not getting/causing hurt MORE than their partner, then the act would be immoral.

As long as there is consent the act it is not illegal.

(Apr 17 '11 at 20:36) JDThinking JDThinking's gravatar image

S&M is clearly within one's rights. Yet is it moral or depraved?

Ayn Rand wrote: "The physical sensation of pleasure is a signal indicating that the organism is pursuing the right course of action. The physical sensation of pain is a warning signal of danger, indicating that the organism is pursuing the wrong course of action, that something is impairing the proper function of its body, which requires action to correct it."

A man is capable of enduring pain for a moral purpose: a hard work-out, a medical procedure, a super-human effort to crawl wounded to a nearest hospital. Pain becomes a challenge, a distraction, an obstacle to achieving such a purpose.

Why is it that a man would deliberately choose pain as an end in itself? There is one rational reason to acquire pain: to confuse one's mind about a pain that's even greater. During extreme physical pain, such as experienced in childbirth, people find relief in causing substantial pain in another part of their body as their mind is less able to focus on the original source of pain, effectively becoming distracted and thus getting a needed break, helping the person endure.

It works not only for physical pain, but also for emotional. A man who is unable to cope with being alive because of depression, anxiety or complete emotional shut-down that may follow, is brought back into being by the sensation of pain, like in the song "And I bleed just to know I am alive." This man does not need S&M, but psychological counseling.

And what about the man who enjoys causing pain to another? What rational purpose, virtuous character trait can be used to explain such a desire?

Even the mere consideration of S&M on a moral scale has to begin with specific epistemological evidence of how either can be pursued for rational or moral reasons. That something is enjoyable to a particular human being is not a validation of its morality. It is simply a statement of that person's emotional state, healthy or otherwise, leading to choices that are moral or depraved.

[UPDATE] After receiving much feedback on this answer both here and privately, I have to update my position. Is it possible that the sensation of pain leads to a greater climax without there being a psychological hang up? To state no flatly would amount to rationalizing my preferences into moral law. Many people claim that it does. I am sure that for a large portion of those, the improved experience comes from the unhealthy psychological need to give/experience pain. However, I grant the possibility that for some, the simple presence of pain could scramble neurological circuits in a way that leads to a better experience. I would be very cautious in applying this practically and give serious consideration to the above before granting the "exception".

answered Apr 19 '11 at 16:24

Kate%20Yoak's gravatar image

Kate Yoak ♦

edited Apr 24 '11 at 18:43


Though I like your approach, I have difficulty accepting your premises, one of which is contradictory to the rest of your answer. There is immense pain in childbirth. And indeed, it is arguably the most severe pain that a human can experience under normal circumstances, since childbearing is normal to man. But this pain is clearly not indicative of "..pursuing the wrong course of action, that something is impairing the proper function of its body, which requires action to correct it." This Ayn Rand statement clearly does not fit to the birthing of another human being.

(Apr 19 '11 at 16:38) dreadrocksean dreadrocksean's gravatar image

Good point. I failed to qualify that I was speaking of pain as an end in itself. Ayn Rand mentions pleasure/pain mechanism in its purest form - its evolutionary reason for being. People are capable of enduring pain and choose to do so morally for a purpose: birthing a child, running a marathon, seeing a dentist. It is when the ultimate purpose in seeing a dentist becomes the pain that we have to question the sanity of the patient.

(Apr 19 '11 at 16:46) Kate Yoak ♦ Kate%20Yoak's gravatar image

I prefer to hold that the pain must not be a sacrifice (Altruism). A greater value must be gained in exchange for the pain in order for the pursuit of that pain to be under moral consideration. The final arbiter of its morality rests on further scrutiny of the exchanged value itself.

I agree with JDThinking.

(Apr 19 '11 at 16:51) dreadrocksean dreadrocksean's gravatar image

Thanks for continuing the awesome discussion... Pain as a sacrifice is an obvious and clear-cut case. It's interesting to examine what motivations there may be in enjoying pain. I maintain, it is not a sign of a healthy psyche. A person may say, "It turns me on when someone is trying to strangle me." I say, "Why?"

(Apr 19 '11 at 17:25) Kate Yoak ♦ Kate%20Yoak's gravatar image

Good question, as it always is. The sensation of orgasm is an extreme one. The greater the extreme, the greater the pleasure. The quest to push the limit of that extreme is rational to the goal of happiness.

Pain takes orgasm out of its routine box for some people. There are some who do not treasure the orgasmic feeling enough and have boring sex. Then there are those who always have great orgasms without the need for anything extra.

The only irrational version of the above examples is the 2nd.

(Apr 22 '11 at 15:34) dreadrocksean dreadrocksean's gravatar image

"It is when the ultimate purpose in seeing a dentist becomes the pain that we have to question the sanity of the patient."

I'm reminded of the "Little Shop of Horrors" as a 'literary' example of what you're talking about Kate. Is that what you were thinking of as well? Or do you know people who find a trip to the dentist enjoyable for that reason?

(Apr 24 '11 at 12:22) c_andrew ♦ c_andrew's gravatar image

c_andrew, I wasn't thinking of anything specific - just making a parallel of what it would mean to be looking for pain as such. But it is far more poetic with the allegory!

dreadrocksean, you are causing me to reconsider. Is it possible that the sensation of pain heightens orgasm for some without it being some kind of a psychological hang-up? I think I have no choice but to grant that as I have no evidence to the contrary and would not want to rationalize my preferences into moral law. I will update my answer.

(Apr 24 '11 at 18:37) Kate Yoak ♦ Kate%20Yoak's gravatar image
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The question of its morality really depends on proper psychological research. I strongly disagree with Diana on that point -- she takes it as something evident from a layman's perspective, that there is just obviously something destructive going on psychologically. I do not see that as at all obvious, and the many people that flourish within the BDSM/Kink community puts the onus of proof on those suspicious of such practices to find something destructive in it. It is not enough to just say that you suspect it must somehow cause a harm, when they claim to enjoy it and they claim it constitutes part of their happy life -- some real evidence needs to be given to show that those who practice it and report a happy existence are being harmed by it, or if they live an unhappy existence, to show a link between the two, or in some way to show the two as connected in a way that the BDSM is a manifestation of the unhappiness with life. However that goes beyond what a layman can state just from a philosophical perusal of the ideas of pain, submission, domination and so on; it requires real psychological investigation, and until such evidence is present, or until you have evidence to suggest it is harmful in your own life, I would say: have at it.

answered Apr 29 '11 at 06:15

Tenure's gravatar image

Tenure ♦

edited Apr 29 '11 at 06:21

I agree almost wholeheartedly with this, with the exception of the first sentence. In the absence of scientific or personal evidence of harm to yourself, and in the presence of physical pleasure gained the activities, the question of its morality is answered by: It is moral. Even if it's eventually proven that a given activity is universally harmful, previous choices to engage in that activity are not thereby rendered immoral (consider, for example, Ayn Rand's smoking).

(Apr 29 '11 at 11:52) shlevy ♦ shlevy's gravatar image

I answered this question in a recent episode of my Rationally Selfish Webcast.  An audio recording of my response is available as a podcast here: NoodleCast #72: Live Rationally Selfish Webcast. The discussion of this question runs from 57:53 to 1:06:37. 

My Answer, In Brief: Consensual S&M should be legal. However, S&M that's more than merely rough sex -- when a person desires to hurt, dominate, humiliate his sexual partner (or to receive such) -- reveals a self-destructive psychology. For my full answer, listen to the podcast!

To catch all the Rationally Selfish Podcasts, subscribe to the podcast feeds in iTunes in enhanced M4A format (RSS) or standard MP3 format (RSS). Or better yet, join Greg Perkins and me for the live Rationally Selfish Webcast on Sundays at 8 am PT / 9 am MT / 10 am CT / 11 am ET.

answered Apr 22 '11 at 14:56

Diana%20Hsieh's gravatar image

Diana Hsieh ♦

edited Apr 26 '11 at 19:48

I have for several years been an active member of my local BDSM community and I can assure everyone on here that we do not possess "self-destructive psychology."

We are the same as everyone else; we just "get off" on power exchange.

(Dec 10 '13 at 08:02) Louise Louise's gravatar image

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Asked: Feb 05 '11 at 19:12

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Last updated: Dec 10 '13 at 08:02