Friday, August 30, 2013


Civilizing Sex: On Chastity and the Common Good
by Patrick Riley
Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 2000
(272 pages; $28.95, paper [available in the U.S. in May 2002])

reviewed by Angus J. L. Menuge

For some, the topic of chastity is rather like Ptolemaic astronomy: a fascinating relic of the unenlightened past. Hedonistic license is so mainstream that we find it even in the magazines publicly displayed at grocery stores. The mantra of sex education, “They’ll do it anyway,” is promoted as realism and compassion, rather than as cynical defeatism and irresponsible indifference to the mental, physical, and social carnage that results.

Patrick Riley, a philosopher and journalist, does not aim at erudite irrelevance. He provides a philosophical argument, backed by historical analysis, to show that chastity, the confinement of genital activity to marriage, is necessary for the survival of any civilized society. Riley is aware that his thesis clashes with the widely held view that sexual morality is a matter of private preference, and so (unlike justice) is irrelevant to the public good. Such a perspective illustrates Gertrude Himmelfarb’s thesis that society has been “demoralized” by the substitution of private values for public virtues. Virtues, as classically understood, are precisely those traits that support the common good, and whose absence undermines it. Very naturally then, Riley’s philosophical defense of chastity depends on showing that it is a virtue in just this sense.  (more...)

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