Aristotle describes prudence as the virtue of practical reason. It is something akin to not only correctly identifying the right thing to do in a particular situation, but also then actually doing what we know to be best.
To be prudent has unfortunately taken on a new meaning. We use it to describe being cautious. In the case of seeing an injustice being committed, we might keep our mouths shut because it might be “imprudent” to put your neck out on the line. But in fact, speaking up for justice and doing the right thing is prudent in the true sense of the word. It is the logical conclusion of believing in justice — to act on it. It is here that I express my frustration with the conventional wisdom on campus and President Levin. I instead commend an ally in the cause of opposing Sex Week: the Marshall Committee.
The Marshall Committee, with its recommendation that Sex Week be dissolved, makes a bold but reasonable statement: A culture that celebrates casual sex “leaves young adults uncertain of how to address problematic behavior, develop their own standards of conduct,” and, in the worst cases, can often “blur boundaries of what consent means.” Sex Week at Yale promotes a culture that celebrates casual sex and thereby compounds the aforementioned ills. Therefore, out of concern for students on campus, Sex Week should be disbanded. It is a sound argument with prudent and practical action as its conclusion.
President Levin, in what I respectfully criticize as a desire to take a prudent (read: cautious) stance, endorsed the committee’s less effective recommendations — expanding campus bureaucracies and student training programs — and took an ambiguous stance on its more controversial Sex Week decision. But the recommendation to expand freshman orientation programs on consent out into sophomore year and institute mandatory councils for leaders of campus organizations does not solve the problem. It is a safe and uncontroversial solution that everybody will applaud because it is an easy, concrete step. But, again, this is prudent in the cautious sense. A real change in culture will not come from an ever increasing schedule of uninspiring information sessions.
I cannot help but believe that President Rihard Levin found the committee’s case against Sex Week compelling. It is why he recommended that Sex Week propose a new schedule before it be permitted to proceed in 2012. And yet, in a prudent (read: cautious) desire not to stir more controversy, he cited as an excuse the ambiguous reasons of corporate sponsorship and students’ “private inurement” — which really had nothing to do with the topic — rather than the degrading and dehumanizing message of Sex Week.
Yesterday, on this page, Nathaniel Zelinsky asserted that he supports the right of Sex Week to exist, even if he finds it distasteful. What I find most surprising about Zelinsky’s stance is its inconsistency with the type of conservatism I would expect to find in the head of a student organization named after William F. Buckley.
Conservatism implies that there is something worth conserving. It implies the existence of truth and the acknowledgment that a just and truly free society is not that in which a value-neutral public sphere unwittingly allows for mass indoctrination to nihilism but in which citizens are given the opportunity to discover a deeper meaning to their lives than robotic gratification.
Sexuality and conservatism meet in the institution of the family, an institution whose importance to society Bill Buckley understood well. The question of the family cannot be separated from the question of sexuality. When commitment and faithfulness dissolve, so does the family, and so does a free society. When individuals become isolated agents seeking their own good without consideration for those close to them, the individual and his community of loved ones is no longer the permanent and identifiable building block of society.
When the family is questionable and dissolvable, there is no option but that the state becomes the central unifying institution for individuals. Rather than government existing for the good and protection of individuals and their family units, individuals exist for the sake of the state. We can forget about even defending free speech at all if family-centered society is subsumed into a disturbing state-centered dystopia. That a moral society is a prerequisite for a healthy society is a basic tenet of conservative thought and is the justification for both social and economic conservatism.
Therefore, with all due respect to Zelinsky, I cannot help but think that his unwillingness to take a truly conservative stance against Sex Week is imprudent in the true sense. Indeed, it is the purpose of a university to foster those values that are conducive to a free society: The liberal arts are the studies worthy of a free person. The very reason we have laws is that we believe a greater truth is preserved when we limit other freedoms, and the university has the particular role of forming good citizens, which implies fostering respect for human beings.
I ask all parties involved to remember the virtue of prudence. If we desire to see true change we must be honest about the root of the problems, our attitudes towards sexuality, and fundamentally change them by setting the right example and sending the right message about harmful campus activities.
Eduardo Andino is a junior in Trumbull College and a co-founder of Undergraduates for a Better Yale College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.