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More Sex When Drunk

This is a quick follow up to my Sex When Drunk – A Moral Dilemma post.

I’ve just been reading a UK Law Commission report titled “Consent In Sex Offences” (pub: 2000), which I came across while researching the background to the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, Generally, the report is well worth a read, but what has particularly caught my attention is the following section:

There is a possible difficulty where consent is given but then overtaken by incapacity through drink or drugs. For example, at 8 pm P makes it clear that she is looking forward to having intercourse with D that night. By 11 pm she is too drunk to know what she is doing, but D has intercourse with her anyway. Can it be said that she does not (because she cannot) consent to the intercourse at the material time, namely the time of the intercourse? In our view it cannot. Consent is not a state of mind which must invariably exist at the time of the act consented to, but an expression of agreement to that act – the granting of permission for it.

In the ordinary course of events, consent to the doing of an act at some future time remains effective unless it is withdrawn. There is therefore no  conceptual problem with P giving consent well in advance of the act to which she consents, at a time when she has capacity to do so. It would be for the jury to consider in a particular case whether, in all the circumstances, as a matter of fact the consent had been withdrawn.

I’ve got to say I find that position a little… counterintuitive – in particular, the claim that “In the ordinary course of events, consent to the doing of an act at some future time remains effective unless it is withdrawn.”

Really? As a general rule, surely not. It’s got to be contextual. If I meet somebody at a bar, and I’m flirting with them, and they promise me a “good time” back at their apartment later on (where we both accurately understand this to mean a sexual encounter), and then we carry on drinking for a while before staggering back to their place, whereupon they promptly fall fast asleep in a heap on their couch, I cannot assume that their consent remains effective simply because it hasn’t been withdrawn.

Can I?

Lord Russell meet Lord Russell

More from the world of Bertrand Russell. Here’s an exchange of letters between Russell and his namesake, Lord Russell of Liverpool, which took place in February 1959.

Dear Lord Russell

I am forwarding the enclosed as Monsieur Edmond Paris, and he is not alone, has got us mixed up. The first paragraph of his letter refers to you. The others are for me and I shall be replying to them. Would you please return the letter when you have read it.

Yours truly,
Russell of Liverpool

Dear Lord Russell

Thank you for your letter and for the enclosure which I return herewith. I have been wondering whether there is any means of preventing the confusion between you and me, and I half-thought we might write a joint letter to The Times in the following terms: Sir, To prevent the continuation of confusions which frequently occur, we beg to state that neither of us is the other. Do you think this would be a good plan?

Yours sincerely,

Dear Lord Russell

Many thanks for your letter of the 18th.

I am not sure whether you are in earnest or joking about a joint letter to The Times but, in either event, I think it is a good idea. Even were it not effective it would provide a little light amusement, and if you would care to write such a letter I would gladly add my signature below yours.


Yours sincerely,
Russell of Liverpool

Dear Lord Russell of Liverpool

Thank you for you letter of February 20. I was both serious and joking in my suggestion of a joint letter. I enclose a draft which I have signed, but I am entirely willing to alter the wording, if you think it too frivolous. I think, however, the present wording is more likely to secure attention than a more solemn statement.

Yours sincerely,

Dear Lord Russell

I have forwarded our letter to The Times but I have asked them, of course, to put your name before mine.

I like the wording immensely.

Russell of Liverpool

And thanks to the magic of the internet, here’s the letter, which appeared in The Times on February 28 1959.


More On Loving Bertrand Russell

“I feel I must be honest & just say once…that I am utterly devoted to thee, & have been for over 50 years. My friends have always known that I loved thee more than anyone else in the world, & they now rejoice with me that I am now able to see thee again.”—Alys Pearsall Smith

I thought I’d add some further detail to the heartbreaking tale of Alys Pearsall Smith’s lifelong love for Bertrand Russell.

Alys Pearsall Smith

Alys Pearsall Smith

Russell fell out of love with Alys in 1901, and finally left her in 1911. In August 1926, Russell’s Aunt Agatha – his mother’s sister – wrote the following letter to Russell, now married to Dora, after he had complained about a picture of Alys his aunt had up on her mantelpiece.

You owe her everything since the separation. But for her, Dora would be Miss Black, and your children illegitimate – the slightest spark of gratitude in you would acknowledge what you owe to her since you left her, in so many ways that I cannot write of. Her conduct has been noble since the separation – I am very far from being the only one who thinks this…

It would have been more manly and chivalrous of you to write me not to withdraw friendship from the woman you brought into the family, the woman you once loved and had forsaken, though her love was unchanged… You now in these later times always speak of “pain to me”, “giving me pain”, etc. – Do you ever think of Alys’s suffering – from her love for you… Yet she always speaks beautifully of you, wishing only for your happiness. Do not imagine for a moment that I ever forget, and did not feel most acutely, your own unhappiness… but to those who truly loved you, it is heart-breaking that you have not grown nobler, stronger, more loving and tender through suffering, but in every way the reverse.

Russell’s biographer, Ray Monk, notes that while Alys remained helplessly in love with Russell, following his public activities closely, and keeping a scrapbook of cuttings about him, Russell for his part scarcely gave her a thought. As for Aunt Agatha, Dora dismissed her as a “malicious old lady”, Russell’s brother Frank labelled her an “acid old spinster” and Russell hardly noticed her at all.

Women in Philosophy – Redux 1

Back in 1999, when The Philosophers’ Magazine was only a couple of years old, Julian and I put together a “forum” on women in philosophy.

I thought I might resurrect some of the pieces, starting with an interview with Mary Warnock.

You can read it here. It’s in PDF format, but feel free to comment below (if you’re so inclined). Also, apologies for the production values – TPM was being produced out of two bedrooms at this point.

Actually, there’s a somewhat amusing story relating to this interview that I can probably tell now. In the early days of TPM, we used to chase “big names” for interviews, because we figured this was the most effective way of generating interest in what we were doing. So we were very pleased when Mary Warnock agreed to be interviewed. Thing is, she wanted to do the interview by phone, which meant that Julian had to buy a little gizmo thing to record the interview. This involved a lot of fairly farcical pfaffing around ensuring that it was working properly, with Julian on one end of a phone and me on the other. Eventually he got it as he wanted it, and it worked – it was possible to hear enough to transcribe a phone interview.

Anyway, the interview went ahead, the gizmo did its job, Warnock was audible, and everything pretty much worked perfectly, which meant we had the centre piece for our women in philosophy forum. Except, as it turned out, we didn’t, because Julian promptly managed to lose the tape! We searched everywhere, but it was nowhere to be found. In the end – and much to my amusement, it’s got to be said – Julian had to confess what had happened to Baroness Warnock (I’m sure I used her title a lot when telling him he’d have to fess up), and ask her whether she’d be willing to redo the interview. She was very gracious about it, so we got our piece in the end.

There’s quite a lot of other material on the topic of women and philosophy floating around in our archive – including a large survey, if I remember correctly – so I’ll flag some more up here in due course.

Introducing Rebecca Reilly-Cooper

I’m very pleased to announce that we’re adding a new blogger to our ranks.

Rebecca Reilly-Cooper has a PhD from the University of Manchester, and is currently a lecturer in political philosophy in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. She spends a third of her time in Oxford, teaching and writing; a third of her time in Manchester, reading and writing; and the remaining third in the quiet coach of the train between the two.

Her blogging interests include politics, philosophy, feminism, academia and some other stuff too. She tweets at:

Welcome, Rebecca.

On Loving Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell married his first love, Alys Pearsall Smith, on 13 December 1894. In the autumn of 1901, he had a revelation:

I went out bicycling one afternoon, and suddenly, as I was riding along a country road, I realised that I no longer loved Alys. I had had no idea until this moment that my love for her was even lessening. The problem presented by this discovery was very grave. We had lived ever since our marriage in the closest possible intimacy. We always shared a bed, and neither of us ever had a separate dressing-room. We talked over together everything that ever happened to us… I knew that she was still devoted to me. I had no wish to be unkind, but I believed in those days…that in intimate relations one should speak the truth.

Russell justifies his change of feelings by levelling a number of criticisms against Alys:

She tried to be more impeccably virtuous than is possible to human beings, and was thus led to insincerity. Like her brother Logan, she was malicious, and liked to make people think ill of each other, but she was not aware of this, and was instinctively subtle in her methods. She would praise people in such a way as to cause others to admire her generosity, and think worse of the people praised than if she had criticised them. Often malice made her untruthful.

Russell and Alys finally separated in 1911, and divorced in 1921.

Alys Pearsall Smith

Alys Pearsall Smith

Fifty years after Russell’s revelation, Alys wrote the following description of their marriage:

Bertie was an ideal companion, & he taught me more than I can ever repay. But I was never clever enough for him, & perhaps he was too sophisticated for me. I was ideally happy for several years, almost deliriously happy, until a change of feelings made our mutual life very difficult. A final separation led to divorce, when he married again. But that was accomplished without bitterness, or quarrels, or recriminations, & later with great rejoicing on my part when he was awarded the OM. But my life was completely changed, & I was never able to meet him again for fear of the renewal of my awful misery, & heartsick longing for the past. I only caught glimpses of him at lectures or concerts occasionally, & thro’ the uncurtained windows of his Chelsea house, where I used to watch him sometimes reading to his children. Unfortunately, I was neither wise enough nor courageous enough to prevent this one disaster from shattering my capacity for happiness & my zest for life.

In 1949, Russell and Alys renewed their acquaintance and began a correspondence that continued for two years until her death. In April 1950, aged 82, Alys sent him the following letter:

I have so enjoyed our two meetings & thee has been so friendly, that I feel I must be honest & just say once (but once only) that I am utterly devoted to thee, & have been for over 50 years. My friends have always known that I loved thee more than anyone else in the world, & they now rejoice with me that I am now able to see thee again.

But my devotion makes no claim, and involves no burden on thy part, nor any obligation, not even to answer this letter.

But I shall still hope thee can spare time to come to lunch or dinner before very long…

Thine ever, Alys


On A Presentable Brown Hat

Just because it amused me, here’s an exchange of letters between Bronislaw Malinowski (anthropologist, proto-accommodationist) & Bertrand Russell (philosopher, advocate of nuking the USSR).

Dear Russell

On the occasion of my visit to your School I left my only presentable brown hat in your anteroom. I wonder whether since then it has had the privilege of enclosing the only brains in England which I ungrudgingly regard better than mine; or whether it has been utilised in some of the juvenile experimentations in physics, technology, dramatic art, or prehistoric symbolism; or whether it naturally lapsed out of the anteroom.

If none of these events, or shall we rather call them hypotheses, holds good or took place, could you be so good as to bring it in a brown paper parcel or by some other concealed mode of transport to London and advise me on a post card where I could reclaim it? I am very sorry that my absentmindedness, which is characteristic of high intelligence, has exposed you to all the inconvenience incidental to the event.

Yours sincerely, B. Malinowski

Russell’s reply:

Dear Malinowski

My secretary has found a presentable brown hat in my lobby which I presume is yours, indeed the mere sight of it reminds me of you. I am going to the School of Economics to give a lecture to the Students’ Union on Monday (17th), and unless my memory is as bad and my intelligence as good as yours, I will leave your hat with the porter at the School of Economics, telling him to give it to you on demand.

Yours sincerely, Bertrand Russell

Source: Russell: Autobiography, (Routledge), p. 414.

Sex When Drunk – A Moral Dilemma

Here’s a very quick moral dilemma. I’d be interested to hear what people think about this situation.

Let’s assume that in the absence of previously established consent (as, for example, might exist between a married couple), it’s morally wrong to have sex with somebody if they’ve ingested some X  amount of alcohol (because it undermines their ability to give informed consent). For the purposes of this dilemma, it doesn’t matter what this amount is – just that there is some amount.

Okay, so this is the twist. Suppose somebody says this to you:

I want to want to have sex with you, but I never want sex unless I’m high or drunk. I can’t relax and I don’t enjoy it. But look, I’ll start drinking, and hopefully there will come a point where my inhibitions are sufficiently lowered and I’m relaxed enough so that we can go ahead. But realize I’m not consenting right now to have sex with you later, I’m simply telling you that I’m making the choice to drink in the hope that I will come to want sex later on. If that happens, I’ll let you know, but it might not.

This person then starts drinking, ingests some X + 1 amount of alcohol (i.e., past the point at which under normal circumstances you would consider it wrong to have sex with them), and then tells you they are ready to have sex with you.

We need to get clear about a few things before posing the (obvious) question.

First, this person is not approaching unconsciousness, they are able to reflect reasonably cogently on their desire to have sex with you, but it’s counterfactually true that in the absence of the alcohol, they would not have consented, and also that this would be true of some non-trivial percentage of other people who had drunk this much, even in the absence of the particular psychological dynamic that exists here. (I realize that this stipulation might conflict with the claim that it doesn’t matter for the purposes of this dilemma at what point alcohol undermines the ability to consent. If you think this happens when somebody approaches unconsciousness, then just assume it’s been stipulated that it occurs earlier than that.)

Second, this person would deny that they are psychologically vulnerable. They would be offended if anybody suggested that they were being taken advantage of just because they never want sex while sober. They know their own mind – they want to want to have sex.

Third, you have no particular reason to think they will come to regret any sexual encounter that takes place. They might, but they might not.

So the question is:

In this situation, would it be wrong to go ahead with the sexual encounter, and if so, why?

Atheists, Morality and Distant Others

In this post, I noted some rather curious data thrown up by Morality Play, an interactive activity I developed for Philosophy Experiments. It shows that 32% of atheists respond that they are not morally obliged to help somebody in severe need in India, even though to do so wouldn’t cost them much, compared to only 22% of Christians who respond the same way (a difference that is easily statistically significant). In other words, the data shows that people who self-identify as Christians are considerably more likely to think there is a moral obligation to help somebody in severe need (in India) than people who self-identify as atheists.

I got to thinking about this again partly because of the surprising and disappointing failure of the petition in support of Indonesian (ex-?)atheist, Alexander Aan, which only attracted 8,000 signatures, well short of the 25,000 required to secure a government response. (To put this number into some sort of context, consider that Richard Dawkins alone has more than 430,000 followers on Twitter.) A possible (partial) explanation for this failure, supported by the data noted above, is that many (online) atheists don’t believe they have a strong moral obligation towards relatively anonymous or distant others, or don’t feel the pull of such an obligation even if they believe they have it (or think they believe they have it).

There is some further evidence to support this explanation in the early results from another interactive activity at Philosophy Experiments – Peter Singer and the Drowning Child. This features the following question (amongst others):

Are you morally obliged to make a relatively small donation, perhaps to the value of a new shirt or a night out at a restaurant, to an overseas aid agency such as Oxfam within the next few days (and even if you have previously made such a donation, perhaps even recently)?

To date, a few more than 3500 people have completed the activity. The data shows that only 31% of people who self-identify as atheists respond that they are morally obliged to make such a donation, compared to 36% of people who self-identify as Christian, a difference that is statistically significant at p <.05. Moreover, if we also look at people who also self-identify as Muslim and Jewish (i.e., as adherents of Judaism), then the gap between how atheists and people who self-identify as religious respond widens (31% to  38%).

A few points here.

First, yes, I know, the sample is self-selecting (albeit in a more complex way than with your usual internet poll, because the data collection aspect of these activities is not what motivates people to complete them and is largely hidden), and, therefore, one cannot reliably generalize to any particular population.

Second, it’s entirely possible there are confounding variables at work here. For example, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the people who self-identify as atheist are on average younger than those people who self-identify as religious.

Third, notwithstanding these two points , this general result has now been found across two independent activities, with the question being asked in two different contexts and in two different ways. Amongst those who have completed these activities, people who self-identify as atheists seem less likely to believe they have a moral obligation to distant others than people who self-identify as religious.

Three questions are pertinent here:

a) Does this represent a real difference between atheists and religious people?

b) If so, what is its explanation (for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t be surprised if (online) atheists were disproportionately attracted to ethical egoism, moral individualism, and that like)?

c) Does it matter?

But He’s the Brother of an Earl!

This is just a bit of light relief. I’ve been collecting Bertrand Russell anecdotes (for a possible future web project). Here are two.

The first is famous, and as far as I can tell – courtesy of Twitter – it was first cited in Robert Skidelsky’s book, English Progressive Schools. It concerns Beacon Hill School, a progressive school that Russell founded with his second wife, Nora, in 1927.

“Rumors were rife of godless orgies. When a pastor visited Beacon Hill, a naked teenage girl was supposed to have answered the door. “Good God”, gasped the astonished cleric. “There is no God,” she replied, slamming the door in his face.”

The second is less well known, and appears in Russell’s autobiography (pp. 240-41, pub. Routledge). The context is a meeting that Russell attended towards the end of the First World War that was stormed by an angry mob convinced it was full of enemy collaborators.

The mob burst in led by a few officers; all except the officers were more or less drunk. The fiercest were viragos who used wooden boards full of rusty nails. An attempt was made by the officers to induce the women among us to retire first so that they might deal as they thought fit with the pacifist men, whom they supposed to be all cowards. Mrs Snowden behaved on this occasion in a very admirable manner. She refused point-blank to leave the hall unless the men were allowed to leave at the same time. The other women present agreed with her. This rather upset the officers in charge of the roughs, as they did not particularly wish to assault women. But by this time the mob had its blood up, and pandemonium broke loose. Everybody had to escape as best they could while the police looked on calmly. Two of the drunken viragos began to attack me with their boards full of nails. While I was wondering how one defended oneself against this type of attack, one of the ladies among us went up to the police and suggested that they should defend me. The police, however, merely shrugged their shoulders. ‘But he is an eminent philosopher’, said the lady, and the police still shrugged. But he is famous all over the world as a man of learning’, she continued. The police remained unmoved. ‘But he is the brother of an earl’, she finally cried. At this, the police rushed to my assistance.

If you know any other Russell anecdotes, or indeed, similar anecdotes involving other philosophers, feel free to tell us about them in the comments.