Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

On Sexual Hypocrisy

Truth, not hypocrisy, will set you free.

"An era can said to be ended when its basic illusions are exhausted." (Arthur Miller)

 

Nobody likes a hypocrite. But author Robert Wright argues in a recent piece that when it comes to marital infidelity, even more hypocrisy may be precisely what's needed. He writes,

One ingredient of an effective moral system is hypocrisy. Everyone purports to support a rule that many of these people in fact violate, but so long as the violations are rarely publicized, the number of hypocrites doesn’t grow, and the rule — in this case the norm of monogamous fidelity — stays more or less intact; at least, it stays strong enough to keep the whole system of marriage from collapsing.

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To be fair, Wright presents this argument at arm's length, not saying whether he really believes it or not. But you've got to wonder: If hypocrisy is an essential element in keeping a system from collapsing – if, in other words, the system is founded on false premises – is this a system worth preserving?

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that Pope Urban VIII understood that Galileo was correct in stating that the Earth was revolving around the Sun in 1633, but felt it was better for the Church to keep this truth away from the public for as long as possible (the Vatican finally relented in 1992). What's this tell us about an institution claiming to be devoted to the truth – indeed, to divine truth?

The moral hypocrisy Wright places at the heart of a stable social system would require the participation of leaders in all parts of life. So, in order to maintain this lie, we'd have to accept that our leaders in religion, politics, education, psychotherapy, medicine, law, and the arts would all maintain the lie in order to "protect" the rest of us from the truth. Evolutionary scientists and marital therapists would have to create and enforce a narrative holding that lifelong sexual monogamy is the norm for our species, and that those who stray from this "normal" path are in some way deviant (which is pretty much what they've done). They – and we – would have to be willing to ridicule others for getting caught doing what most of us do, or would if we could, secretly (which is pretty much what we do).

This seems like pretty dubious reasoning to me – reasoning that puts a society or institution on the fast path to illegitimacy. If a social institution can't bear the weight of truth, it should collapse and clear the way for new institutions more adapted to the realities of the epoch.

We live in an time of plummeting public respect for our social institutions. Nothing al Qaeda or China does can come close to the dangers this collapse poses to Western civilization. There is only one way forward. Truth, not hypocrisy, can set us free.

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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