An appeal to cultural liberalism could justify a general policy of reticence. As Nagel writes (HT: Velleman):
[B]oundaries between what is publicly exposed and what is not exist for a reason. We will never reach a point at which nothing that anyone does disgusts anyone else. We can expect to remain a sexual world deeply divided by various lines of imaginative incomprehension and disapproval. So conventions of reticence and privacy serve a valuable function in keeping us out of each other's faces.
Such compromise is pragmatically sensible. But, politics aside, it leaves open my questions about which stance is the ideally rational one. (The whole point of cultural liberalism is that we should tolerate potential irrationality through tactful non-acknowledgment, rather than violating others' privacy in attempts to enforce conformity to our own conception of perfection.) To draw any stronger conclusions, we will need to look more closely at the nature of privacy and shame.
The right to privacy is of monumental importance, for reasons explained in the latter half of my post 'Living as Storytelling' (with further reference to Nagel). The flourishing autonomous individual must not be constantly burdened with the weight of the public's gaze. He has a right to be free of it. But what if he (incomprehensibly, to me) chooses such exposure? Our rights are granted for our own sakes, and we may refrain from exercising them if we so please. A right to privacy in one's sex life does not by itself entail a duty to refrain from sex in public. So what must be established here is no mere right to privacy, but the more dubious claim that we have a duty to keep our business private. Where would such a duty come from?
Laurence Thomas writes:
Privacy is about two things that operate in tandem: what others have access to without seeking permission and what people can offer to others without seeking permission... Self-disclosure is not appropriate merely because a person want[s] to do so.
Presumably this is due to consideration for the listener, and particularly the desire to avoid causing offence. If both speaker and audience welcomed such disclosure, then it's surely unobjectionable. So this brings us back to my original question: are there any good reasons why we should be offended by another's self-disclosure? Or are our feelings here fairly arbitrary, and hence the need to respect them (i.e. the "duty of privacy") correspondingly contingent?
What of shame? Drawing on Velleman, my earlier post suggested that feelings of shame derive from awareness of one's failings as a self-presenting agent, due to unintentional self-disclosure. But if the disclosure is voluntary and intentional (cf. porn stars), then no shame results. We might say such people are "shameless". We feel that they shouldn't be so keen to expose themselves. But why not? That's the crucial question I haven't seen anyone address yet.
The closest is Laurence Thomas' claim that "a very clear indication that a person does not take himself sufficiently seriously is just the fact that the individual discloses way too much about himself." Is that true though? Why should such openness indicate a lack of self-respect (rather than, say, abundant self-confidence)? Perhaps the idea is that we need to have a restricted public persona, while holding something back, in order to be fully human. But again, it's easier to offer such proposals than to justify them. Perhaps excessive public openness precludes private intimacy: there's just nothing special left to share. Shamelessness might then be seen as a crime against one's intimates, or even against one's own humanity.
But all that sounds a little flimsy to me. Does anyone have any better ideas? In the absence of such, I have trouble seeing any wrongmaking features intrinsic to shamelessness. Perhaps the only real problem with it is the extrinsic worry about needlessly causing offence to others. (What do you think? Comments welcome.)
There are special cases, of course. In response to Sage's post on public masturbation, one person commented:
a person who is masturbating in public while looking at another person is making that person a part of their sex act, often without the other person's consent. that's why public masturbation makes me angry - if someone is watching me while they jack off, they're making me a sex object and they're including me in something sexual without my permission.
This bears clarification, however, for it risks implying "thoughtcrime". The problem cannot simply be that they've made you their "intentional object" (i.e. the object of their thoughts) -- I assume there's nothing wrong with sexual fantasy. One needn't ask another's permission merely to think about them, even in a sexual way. Rather, the problem here must involve the blatant disclosure of such thoughts. And this case plausibly goes beyond the mere risk of causing offense. Rather, the action seems to have overtones of aggression or disrespect. One supposes that the twisted individual's intention is not merely to enjoy the thought of you (which is surely innocent enough on its own), but rather to demean you, to announce to the world that he only cares about you as an instrument to achieving his own ends. One supposes that he might just as well spit on you when he's done.
The suppositions might not always apply, but they certainly indicate a class of public sexual activity that would be grievously immoral. The problem there derives not from general concerns about excessive self-disclosure, nor sexual prudishness specifically, but rather the vicious and degrading intentions that were expressed in that particular case. Being dependent on this social communication, I suspect that the moral status of public masturbation is highly dependent on social context. The case described above depends heavily on the backdrop of a misogynistic culture, for instance. Without that cultural background, the intentions communicated by the action might be very different indeed, and perhaps entirely innocent. (We might imagine a culture where such behaviour was interpreted as a polite compliment on one's appearance, for instance!)
For a rather different case, we might also imagine a shameful creature so overcome by desire at seeing a topless woman walking down the street that he simply cannot restrain himself. If we stipulate that he feels no ill will towards those exposed to his self-gratification, then he seems more deserving of pity than moral outrage. The earlier discussion implies that he will feel great shame for his lack of self-control. The rest of us may disapprove of his sub-human failure, but in a very different way from the previous case. This guy's pitiful behaviour communicates his powerlessness before the Other. The earlier case involved deliberate action meant to communicate the actor's power over the Other. ("I can do what I want with you, and there's nothing you can do about it." -- I think Sage metaphorically dubbed this "rape at a distance" in her comment thread.) So, some important differences there, I think.
Right, I'm all thought out, curious though these issues are. Your turn...