As Heretic TOC’s castration theme proved rather controversial, today’s topic will be soporifically bland, in order to calm everyone down. Rummaging around for something suitably anodyne, I needed to look no further than a reader’s comment commending public masturbation. I am sure we all agree with this reader that only “rules imposed by the humourless and convivially challenged” could stand in way of allowing anyone of an exhibitionist bent to jerk off in the shopping mall for the entertainment of passersby. Why, without a few sad killjoys standing in the way it might even catch on as a popular busking performance – a new source of income, perhaps, for superannuated porn actors.

Even so, it might come as a bit of a surprise that only a week or so ago it was reported that a court in Sweden had declared it is legal to masturbate in public. A 65-year-old man had been charged with assault after dropping his shorts on a beach in Stockholm and masturbating in front of people. But the court decided there was no assault, a verdict the public prosecutor said he accepted because nobody had been “targeted”. He said: “For this to be a criminal offence it’s required that the sexual molestation was directed towards one or more people. I think the court’s judgement is reasonable.” He added: “…we can conclude that it is okay to masturbate on the beach.” A targeted act might be considered disorderly conduct but, otherwise, carry on jerking your junk!

The exceptional nature of this judgement reminds us that “civilization” has largely been built upon the dourly restrictive precepts of the “convivially challenged”. The very dawn of European civilization, in Ancient Greece, affords us a tantalising glimpse of how alternative, let-it-all-hang out (literally) values might have developed and where they might have taken us in some parallel universe. They are to be found in the life of the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, who achieved notoriety for many aspects of his lifestyle, including public wanking. He also defecated in the theatre – making him surely the most pungently effective theatre critic ever. Believing in a simple life, shorn of the hypocrisy and artificiality of much human conduct, he lived as a beggar on the city streets, with only a tub for shelter. Opposing Plato, he insisted that reason should replace authority in guiding human affairs – a point of special note for a particular contributor here who questions the standing of those whose reasoning he doesn’t like!

Being asked where in Greece he saw good men, Diogenes replied, “‘Good men nowhere, but good boys at Sparta.” Make of that what you will! He believed virtue was better revealed in action than in theory. He used his simple lifestyle and behaviour to criticise the social values and institutions of what he saw as a corrupt society in Athens and elsewhere. He publicly mocked Alexander the Great – who admired the oddball philosopher’s pluck and confessed that if he were not Alexander he would gladly have been Diogenes. Standing against property and government, the sage can be seen as an early anarchist – as can Lao-tze (Laozi), from a similar depth of antiquity in Ancient China, whose name was cited with approval by a reader who also expressed his dislike of “moral philosophy” – a point that perhaps has some resonance for us when we note one of Lao-tze’s sayings: “When goodness is lost, it is replaced by morality.”

We can see instantly what the legendary founder of Dauism means, or at least have our own ideas about it. The word “morals” derives from “mores” which means customs and rules of supposedly proper behaviour. All too often it means conventions which have needlessly constricted our lives like a corset, and which have no sound basis in fostering goodness. It is this conception of morals that gives “moral philosophy” a bad name: it is seen by some as mere moralising. In his excellent BL novel The Moralist, Rod Downey offers a vision of morality as window-dressing: we rationalise our own behaviours as moral while denouncing (especially if we are comfortably conventional in our tastes, and thus part of the moralising majority, as we might say) the desires and lifestyles of others.

Reviewing The Moralist, I welcomed Downey’s exploration of a deeply cynical take on life. His novel advances a way of thinking which guards against sentimentality and the smug moral complacency of authoritarians. Downey, although he does not shit and wank in public, so far as I am aware, might even be seen as a modern Diogenes in one respect: Diogenes was not only cynical, he was a founding father of the Cynics, one of the most famous and influential of all schools of philosophy. Unlike modern cynicism, though, which is often seen as a corrosively negative view of life, the cynicism advanced by Diogenes and his school was not lacking in a positive, constructive side – to an alarming degree, some might feel. A key idea was living in harmony with nature, which carried with it all the hair-shirt implications we now see in the modern environmental movement: green enthusiasts tend to berate us for being slaves to luxury and wasteful consumption. Diogenes would have agreed, and he also inspired the early Christian ascetics.

In other words, although Diogenes rejected moral conventions in such spectacular fashion, he very much believed in living a good life, and that we need to cultivate mental clarity in respect of what constitutes such a life. In effect he was saying, forget morals (“mores”, mere customs) and think about ethics, which considers moral values and their application in a systematic way. Confusingly, though, this is often known as moral philosophy!

Let us, then, call it ethics, for clarity. Indeed, this word, clarity, is absolutely key to the reason why moral philosophy – oops, sorry, ethics – was raised in the blog comments in relation to what mentally impaired young people are allowed to do or not do in the sex lives.

I said I would deal today with public masturbation, but in fact the Good Ship Heretic TOC has been stealthily navigating towards the more general issue of how to resolve ethical dilemmas. These dilemmas are occasions when we are faced with a puzzling conflict between different things, each of which seem desirable: such as upholding the seemingly legitimate rights of both parties when two people are at odds. We could just let the parties slug it out by force on a “might is right” basis, but in most cases – such as when one of the parties is mentally handicapped – we tend to feel a principled approach is needed in order to untangle the web of competing interests and resolve the issue as fairly as possible.

This sort of procedure is generally taken for granted in serious discussion, but it has been contested here on the grounds that “…humanity drives law, not abstraction. The merits of any given matter supported by factual evidence and interpreted fairly and reasonably on a case by case basis are primary, not some moral treatise…”

Judges, to be sure, must judge on a case by case basis. That is what they are paid to do. But our critic of “moral philosophy” had already specified in an earlier post that cases should be settled not just by a judge interpreting the law but that the law itself must be “reasonable and fair. It must observe the person’s human rights. It must comply with policy on social justice.” But the concept of “human rights” did not just plonk itself down among us. It did not spring, fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, nor arrive with preternatural sagacity, like Lao-tze, who is said to have stayed in the womb for decades before being born with a full grey beard and adult wisdom. While even little children of less wondrous beginnings than Lao-tze have a sharp intuitive sense of fairness, the development of rights that prevent slavery, give votes to women and allow gays to marry, has been the work of ethical deliberations – and, yes, “moral treatises” – that validate and encourage political pressure towards such ends. These ethical ideas, centuries in the making, are a work in progress, and we must hope that further work will advance the cause of sexual rights for children and the minor attracted.

In the meantime, we should at least do our best to understand the work that has already been done and its significance to us. This very much includes the rights of the mentally handicapped, which have proved such a contentious issue here. This theme – of mental handicap – is one I hope to pursue shortly, both for its own interest and because a principled investigation, grounded in the ethical reasoning that underpins human rights, has implications for considerations of “consent” that can be applied more widely.