On the Death of a Sex Salesman

Both charity and etiquette once counseled not speaking ill of the dead. That’s generally why most obituaries take the form of encomia and why a certain “stretching of the truth” is often entertained in them.

Discretion used to prove the better part of valor when discussing the dearly deceased whose vices were public knowledge. (But, in a world besieged by non-judgmentalism and the “dictatorship of relativism,” vice often becomes the showcase to highlight how the deceased was actually ahead of his time. Such is the New York Times’s necrology of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.

I’ll pass on whether the comparison to “Jay Gatsby, Citizen Kane, and Walt Disney” had any basis in reality, and feign agnosticism about his being “an ageless sophisticate.” There was, however, one line in the obituary I found tellingly accurate. Columbia sociologist Todd Gitlin opined:

Hefner won. The prevailing values in the country now, for all the conservative backlash, are essentially libertarian, and that basically was what the Playboy Philosophy was. It’s laissez-faire. It’s anti-censorship. It’s consumerist: Let the buyer rule. It’s hedonistic. In the longer run, Hugh Hefner’s significance is as a salesman of the libertarian ideal.

Gitlin calls Hefner’s philosophy “libertarian.” “Libertarian” and “libertine” are not synonyms.

He’s on to something, though. It has been argued that the fundamental fissure in Western thought is not between “the West and the rest” (particularly Islam). The basic fault line in Western thought is contained in itself.

Two different, ultimately unreconcilable notions are competing to claim heirship to Western civilization, argues philosopher Zbigniew Stawrowski. One traces its roots to the Graeco-Roman-Christian roots of that civilization and presupposes an objective metaphysics and morality underlying reality. The other draws its roots from nominalism, Cartesianism, and “Enlightenment” philosophy, reducing morality to labels and reality to a state of mind. Those two streams of thought often employ the same words—like “rights,” “dignity,” “autonomy,” and even “the human person”—but with radically incompatible meanings.

One major flashpoint of that clash lies in the notion of liberty, “freedom.” Two very different notions of freedom are vying to claim that name for themselves.

One can rightly be called a Judeo-Christian concept of freedom. One might even call it “libertarian.” It recognizes that, for moral action to be of value qua moral action, it must be free. Compelled choice is an oxymoron. It is the state of slaves or robots.

But that Judeo-Christian concept of freedom assumed and operated within an objective moral order. People choose what they want to do, but their choice does not make something right or wrong. It might diminish their culpability, but it never regarded the freedom of choice as encompassing the morality of the act. One could choose to steal, but the choice did not make theft moral.

In the Judeo-Christian concept of freedom, freedom was a means—an essential means, but a means nonetheless—to the end of the good. Freedom existed so that the real moral good became, by my choosing it, my good. Freedom exists to allow me to act as a responsible moral agent by embracing moral value. But it did not negate the most basic principle of practical reason: “do good, avoid evil.”

In one sense, God is the first “libertarian,” giving Adam and Eve freedom to do a morally valuable act. God gave them that freedom, but also (like us) its consequences: to choose evil is to die, not because of Divine decree but because choosing evil is choosing non-being … and what else is death?

The Judeo-Christian concept of freedom has been under assault in modern times, although its opponent is hardly modern. For present purposes, however, let’s call this modern notion of freedom a Sartrean notion of freedom, after the French atheist existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre.

In the Sartrean notion of freedom (which Hefnerism also embraces), there is no pre-existent world of real good or evil. Good and evil are determined by the choice: to choose freely is good, to circumscribe one’s choice is bad. The Sartrean world is not one of essences that precede choice. Freedom is no means: freedom is the end of human action.

As long as one chooses freely, one is being human, “authentic.” Any sort of limit, restriction, “inhibition” or “repression” alienates the “gods” within you (cf. Gen 3:5). It makes the resulting act bad, “inauthentic.” Whether one chooses to care for or to kill one’s unborn child, the “choice” is good: by a metaphysical alchemy unknown in medieval times, the choice even changes the reality, turning “babies” into “blobs of tissue.”

American abortion policy is the most extreme example of where the dichotomy in our understanding of freedom plays out. The corrosion goes further, however, because after key concepts are hijacked, other terms are then pressed into service of the hijacked concepts to advance their agenda.

Let me give you two examples.

The faux Catholic group “Catholics for Choice” bought a cover ad in the September 25 Express, the free handout edition of The Washington Post, campaigning for repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the expenditure of federal funds for abortion. Several women’s photos are displayed in the ad, each with a pull quote. Gloria Romero Roses proclaims, “I want our America to reflect a culture of justice and equality where the dignity of all women is acknowledged through policies that support their moral choices.” Here, “justice”—the giving of what is owed to another—is perverted from protection of life to paying for another to kill; “equality” means one private human being enjoys the power of life or death over another; and the whole warp is called “dignity.”

In its decision imposing same-sex “marriage” on America, the U.S. Supreme Court justified its position by asserting that the biologically grounded nexus between marriage and parenthood is devoid of legal significance and so sexual differentiation—the sine qua non to parenthood—was irrelevant to “marriage.” But, after imposing their redefinition of marriage, the federal courts have found that nature continues to hold Obergefell in contempt by leaving these nouveaux parents sterile. The answer, then, is to invoke “parenthood”—albeit also in a de-sexed fashion—so that now states are obliged to issue birth certificates whose content is as fictional as Heather Has Two Mommies (see Pavan v. Smith and here).

Yes, in terms of the culture wars, Hugh Hefner won: the Times’s obituary speaks of Hefner hawking “sybaritic amusements” … except that then, not now, sybaritic was a term of opprobrium.

William F. Buckley captured it presciently in 1968 when, describing what Hefner had wrought, he wrote: “Mr. Hefner’s philosophy notwithstanding, there is such a thing as the public morality, and that morality has throughout civilized history been primarily sustained by religion. …. But the modernists want to go further and, in effect, remove the moral sanctions against such behavior—and that is something else again. …. [T]he sexual revolution goes further by far than to encourage a loosening of the laws. It encourages the loosening of public attitudes.” Feminist writer Susan Brownmiller puts the question well: “Are we really O.K. with the reality that our girls are being raised in a world that Mr. Hefner made? I’m not.” Neither am I.

Today’s cultural elites would like nothing more than to pretend that the wholesale evisceration of marriage and sexuality is just the logical outworking of fundamental Western concepts like “liberty,” “freedom,” and “autonomy.” Gitlin brands it “laissez-faire” and “consumerist,” Hefner a “salesman.” It works only if you subtract the content. Put it back, and you can see how tawdry are the seller’s wares.

John M. Grondelski


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.