Chastity is sexual behavior of a man or woman that is acceptable to the moral standards and guidelines of their culture, civilization or religion. In the Western world, the term has become closely associated (and is often used interchangeably) with sexual abstinence, especially before marriage (1).
I don’t have a problem with chastity conceptually. I believe that people who willingly explore their own needs and desires and relationship to sex, love, fidelity, marriage, and what have you, that choosing to be chaste as defined above is fine. I do, however, have aproblem with chastity as defined by moral standards.
When I say “moral standards” what I mean is Moral Relativism. Moral relativism is the idea that our notion of right and wrong stems from our surrounding society. Americans think it is wrong for women to be topless (generally). The French do not (generally). The act itself does not contain rightness or wrongness, that attribution comes from outside. Moral relativism is the default state, that you will take society’s standards of right and wrong behavior as your own when unexamined.
“History is written by the victors.” - Winston Churchill
Not only do the winners write the history books but they craft the vision of themselves after victory. The dominant culture which continues on to rebuild society? The winners? They define morality. Ideals like chastity are founded on a Puritanical dogma that teaches original sin as the root of all human suffering. In effect, women cannot be trusted and should be controlled because their lack of subservience to god and Adam got humankind cast out of paradise. This is where Franklin built his list of morals.
The dominant culture defines your morals. Franklin was at least trying to be aware of what unchaste behavior could do to a person’s status in society. In his Advice on taking a Mistress he acknowledges that take someone’s virginity could cause undue harm to their reputation. This makes him more progressive than your average person at the time for sure but he still held that the import of chastity resided in the perceived impropriety of society. This is still a moral relativism (2).
When you begin a project as nebulous as “moral perfection” it makes sense that you start from somewhere. Franklin started with what he saw in society. I started with his morals. It seems like, after exploring these morals, it requires some additional examination to understand better and I’ve been struggling find that re-examination. Franklin’s subsequent writing didn’t really show he did much more than draw black marks on his tablets for years. He never looked at his set of morals and asked, “Are these right for me?”
Moral relativism is the default state, the place where we have to begin when trying to understand ourselves. It wasn’t until I got to chastity that I recognized how differently I approach some of the morals Franklin chose. And, really, I think he had a problem with some of them as well but didn’t, it seems, consider it much further.↩︎