Lewd and Prude

by John Holbo on February 9, 2009

We aren’t up to Part II of Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality, but I’m going to jump the gun. There’s this bit about something from Amartya Sen – ‘his celebrated Prude/Lewd example’ – which I had never heard tell of. I’ll quote Cohen’s narration of the case:

There exists a pornographic book that might be read by one or other, or neither (but not both), of Prude and Lewd.

Let’s pause to admire that sentence. I think that is a great first sentence for a novel, or at least a Donald Barthelme story. (But I’m getting ahead of the story.)

Lewd has two relevant desires: he likes to read pornographic books, and he would like Prude to read one, because he thinks doing so would corrupt Prude into liking pornography. So strong is that desire that Lewd would prefer Prude to read the book, rather than read it himself; his desire to corrupt exceeds his desire to enjoy his own corruption. For his part, Prude dislikes reading pornographic books, and he also dislikes Lewd reading them; he wants no one to read them, but he prefers reading the book himself to Lewd reading it: that way, he thinks, less danger lies. In light of the strengths of their preferences, Prude and Lewd agree that Prude (alone) will read the book. That is their joint first preference, and so it is required by the Pareto principle. Sen claims that the principle thereby endorses an illiberal result. (p. 187)

You can find the original Sen paper, “The Impossibility of a Paretian Liberal”, in Rationality in Action: Contemporary Approaches [amazon – with some search inside]. I have only skimmed it, and my quick but distinct impression is that Cohen slightly mis-states the set-up. It isn’t that the book can mysteriously only be read by one or the other (and then it self-destructs?) Rather, Prude will only read it on the condition that only he read it.

Also, it seems that Sen’s argument is really bad. Cohen says it is bad, and others have said so, I gather. But it seems really bad. Basically, Sen seems to be taking ‘liberalism’ to mean, roughly, ‘an attempt to produce a bunch of Millian poster children’. Because otherwise there isn’t even any appearance of ‘impossibility’. The oddball Pareto optimal result is perfectly consistent with liberalism: everyone enjoying their freedoms to choose and make contracts and so forth. It’s just that this pair of prize idiots are going nowhere fast, but in Pareto optimal style.

But what really impresses me is the story itself. It’s timeless and speaks to all ages and sexes and classes of society. Why has no one developed it? I want Lewd vs. Prude comics. In each installment, Lewd acquires a new pornographic novel and, with child-like enthusiasm, attempts to get Prude to read it. Meanwhile, Prude is busy trying to destroy it – burn it, dynamite it, bury it, sink it beneath the waves, send it by post to Australia. But the efforts on both sides invariably cancel out. In the final panel, Prude sits down to read. Again.

We could have “Lewd and Prude on Holiday”, “Lewd and Prude Go Ballooning”, “Lewd and Prude at Baffin Bay”, “Lewd and Prude in the Big City”, “Lewd and Prude at Sea”, “Lewd and Prude and the Doctor’s Orders”, “Lewd and Prude at the Opera”. (I think comics would be best, but mere prose may, just may, be a match for such high occasions.)

It will be much better than “Spy vs. Spy”, because Lewd and Prude obviously have a somewhat dysfunctional, asymmetric-yet-mutual love. It’s like “Krazy Kat”, with a pornographic novel playing the role of the thrown brick. And yet: this brick will have subtly different moral properties! Will there be some sort of Offica Pup figure? Perhaps a pained, Millian liberal who can see it is all going nowhere very impressive. But this will be Offica Pup without a jail, because – strictly – there is no inconsistency with liberalism. (How sublime!)

Get to work in comments! Bonus points for involving Lewd and Prude in some sort of trolley car problem in which a pornographic novel and a vicar are tied to one track, and …

In conclusion: I am very sorry to jump the gun on discussion of Part II of Cohen’s book, in this way, but something tells me this post might end up being something of a tangent. Also, my copy has been recalled to the library, and I’m not sure I am going to spring for the hardback right away, so I may soon be in the same boat with dsquared. But I’m trying to get my reading done early in preparation.



Josh Glenn 02.09.09 at 3:16 pm

I want Lewd and Prude comics, too. Can I suggest that the pornographic novel in each issue be a classic (not necessarily well-written, I mean, but famous/infamous), and that the plot elements of that particular issue be drawn from that particular novel? Also, can Prude be wicked sexy?


dsquared 02.09.09 at 3:26 pm

It’s actually a very good argument about liberalism, made to look worse than it is by the fact that a) it’s dressed up in this awful cutesy business about Lewd and Prude, which you correctly lampoon and b) Sen tries to be a bit too clever with the formalism to make it look like Arrow’s Paradox.

The central point here is that there are some kinds of voluntary contracts that a liberal state shouldn’t get into the business of enforcing; people who want to pay drug addicts to be sterilised, or who want to offer black people money to go to Africa, among other weirdoes, are the ones that come to mind. The big point that Sen’s making is that liberalism doesn’t work in the way which one might hope it would – the “classical liberal” (in the pejorative sense) fantasy of it being possible to carry everything out on the basis of individual voluntary contracts, and statute law just being a Coasian administrative convenience for same, doesn’t work and at some level, the law of the land has to be in the business of making value judgements.

I mean, you need to get a bit Zizekian here and pull back the veil concealing the violence underlying the system. Sen’s argument has Lewd and Prude “agreeing” to their funny little deal, but actually we’re talking about a contract here, which we’re saying that the state will enforce. If Lewd decides to pick up a copy of the mucky book the week after, for the hell of it, and read it, then the state will order him to pay some sort of penalty to Prude. If he refuses to pay that penalty, the state will put him in prison, and ultimately if he resists being deprived of his liberty, the state will kill him. That’s the real issue here; there are lots of contracts which might be freely entered into, but which aren’t actually consistent with any liberalism worth the name. Would you say that anyone who objects to Nozick Industries offering the poor the opportunity to sell themselves into slavery would be “trying to produce a bunch of Millian poster children”?


Rich Puchalsky 02.09.09 at 3:38 pm

Aw, Lewd is so cute. You’re right; it’s the child-like enthusiasm that does it. Whatever its deficiencies as philosophy, this would make great fanfic.

And dsquared in Zizekian style pulls back the veil concealing the violence primarily by introducing it. The story makes no sense if Lewd and Prude file a formal contract with the state rather than merely having an agreement between friends. Or rather, the story could make sense, but it immediately becomes dystopian-perverse — a Handmaid’s Tale kind of thing in which maybe Lewd is a female porn writer, Prude is a fundamentalist preacher who secrets gets off on porn, and if Lewd ever re-reads what she writes she gets sent to a re-education camp. You could make up some other bad-contract example, but here you’re pulling in control of sexuality and control of reading matter into a sort of contract that no liberal state that liberals would support would touch.


John Holbo 02.09.09 at 3:44 pm

“If he refuses to pay that penalty, the state will put him in prison, and ultimately if he resists being deprived of his liberty, the state will kill him.”

“Lewd and Prude in the Big House”

In this issue a character really dies! Not a clone! Not a dream!

No, seriously. “I mean, you need to get a bit Zizekian here and pull back the veil concealing the violence underlying the system.” I think you only need to get a bit Millian here and look at stuff that was never really hidden behind any veil. Liberalism isn’t any guarantee against seriously illiberal, anti-liberal results. Of course if it turns out that liberalism is globally self-refuting, in some grind-the-gears-to-a-halt way, that’s a serious practical objection. But the idea that there might be anti-liberal and illiberal types hanging around the place, generally making a mockery of Mill’s highest hopes with their eccentric lack of progress through the procedural pipes, doesn’t strike me a strong objection to liberalism.

I don’t think there are any contractarians who haven’t considered – and accepted – that the state is going to end up enforcing some stupid contracts.

“Would you say that anyone who objects to Nozick Industries offering the poor the opportunity to sell themselves into slavery would be “trying to produce a bunch of Millian poster children”?”

No. I agree that “Lewd And Prude Among the White Slavers” promises to be a lively installment in the series. But, seriously, I don’t see that admitting the possibility that people will enter into stupid contracts immediately puts you on a slippery slope to allowing the poor to sell themselves into slavery. You can rule out certain kinds of contracts at the edges. It’s not as though we are ever going to get out of all gray areas, but they don’t all go totally gray.


dsquared 02.09.09 at 3:49 pm

Liberalism isn’t any guarantee against seriously illiberal, anti-liberal results

You ought to consider a career in writing disclaimers on medicine bottles, or possibly the opening slides of Synthetic CDO marketing presentations! That’s a bit of a departure from the marketing material.


John Holbo 02.09.09 at 3:52 pm

Each issue will have a story-within-a-story, the pornographic novel itself. Certain harmonies and parallels and resonances are hereby established. I think this will be enough to satisfy Josh’s deep desires. I agree that Prude should be sexy.


Rich Puchalsky 02.09.09 at 3:54 pm

I should add that in an ongoing series, it would probably eventually become clear that Lewd has in fact never read a pornographic novel. Instead he or she has shipped them all off to Prude. Meanwhile Prude has become quite the amateur critic of the genre, steadfastly not corrupted by the sex but increasingly interested in style and perhaps the application of literary theories concerning the picaresque.

The tragic or comic denouement would come when Lewd can’t find Prude in order to give away his latest acquired novel. He or she sits down to read it, gamely commenting on how sexy it is and putting on a brave front. Meanwhile Prude is wondering whether the author he or she admired has come out with their latest work yet, which promised perhaps a new development in the stream-of-consciousness technique. According to your sentimental preferences, at the end they either repress their newfound self-knowledge and go back to how things always were, or fall into each other’s arms.


Delicious Pundit 02.09.09 at 3:54 pm

Christmas episode:

Prude sells pornography-burning flamethrower to buy Lewd some naughty Victorian stereoopticon slides (“of great historical interest,” rationalizes Prude). Lewd sells stereoopticon to buy Prude gasoline for the flamethrower.

Christmas is saved when their neighbor Crude comes over with Benny Hill DVDs, which everyone likes.


John Holbo 02.09.09 at 4:02 pm

“You ought to consider a career in writing disclaimers on medicine bottles, or possibly the opening slides of Synthetic CDO marketing presentations! That’s a bit of a departure from the marketing material.”

Here’s the large print from Mill’s “On Liberty”. His principle.

“The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise.”

I think this makes it clear that the idea is that some people are in fact going to get themselves into a certain amount of trouble, or will at least engage in conspicuously silly and dubious behavior.

Now, we actually need a bit more to get to ruling out self-slavery, admittedly. But I don’t think that will look totally ad hoc, when we’ve rigged it. And enforcing contractual agreements not to read pornography, etc. get a bit confusing.

But it says so right there on the bottle: Liberalism, you CAN hurt yourself, potentially.

I will say this: Rawls and Cohen and others seem to me to envision an implausibly high level of agreement about principles of justice, even while they endorse pluralism in a general sort of way. They don’t necessarily have enough to say about what the Lewds and Prudes will be getting up to, but – still – since all Sen seems to be adding to Mill’s point is that some of the stupid stuff may be Pareto optimal, if you rig it just so, I’m not much impressed with the force of the objection. He certainly isn’t adding any realism.


kid bitzer 02.09.09 at 4:04 pm

yes, spy vs. spy does come to mind.
i also like del.pun’s invocation of the gift of the magi.

but the rhythm of the opening phrase:
“There exists a pornographic book that might be read….”
is surely borges, no?

somewhere in the library of babel….


John Holbo 02.09.09 at 4:08 pm

delicious pundit’s Gift of the Magi joke was anticipated in “Cruel Shoes”, by Steve Martin:

“Carolyn wanted so much to give Roger something nice for Christmas, but they didn’t have much money, and they had to spend every last cent on candy for the baby. She walked down the icy streets and peered into shop windows.

“Roger is so proud of his shinbones. If only I could find some way to get money to buy shinbone polish.”

Just then, a sign caught her eye. “Cuticles bought and sold.” Many people had told Carolyn of her beautiful cuticles, and Roger was especially proud of them, but she thought, “This is the way I could buy Roger the shinbone polish!” And she rushed into the store.

Later at home, she waited anxiously as Roger came up the steps of their flat. He opened the door and wobbled over to the fireplace, suspiciously holding one arm behind his back.

“Merry Christmas!” they both said, almost simultaneously.

Roger spoke. “Hey, Nutsy, I got you a little something for Christmas.”

“Me too,” said Carolyn, and they exchanged packages.

Carolyn hurriedly opened her package staring in disbelief. “Cuticle Frames?! But Roger, I sold my cuticles so I could afford to buy you some shinbone polish!”

“Shinbone polish!” said Roger, “I sold my shinbones to buy you the cuticle frames!” Roger wobbled over to her.

“Well, I’ll be hog-tied,” said Carolyn.

“You will? Oh, boy!” said Roger.

And it turned out to be a great Christmas after all.”

Make that a Pareto optimal Christmas.


SamChevre 02.09.09 at 4:22 pm

I agree with d^2, which is of rare enough occurence to note.

The big point that Sen’s making is that liberalism doesn’t work in the way which one might hope it would …at some level, the law of the land has to be in the business of making value judgements.

Sam’s lemma–value judgments are not capable of being supported by solely public reasons; they are judgments, not observable facts.


Doctor Science 02.09.09 at 4:31 pm

It is impossible for me to read this thought experiment as being about liberalism, when it’s clearly about sexuality. Or is that the subtext Sen and Cohen are both acknowledging — that sexual freedom is the core freedom? When dsquared says:

The central point here is that there are some kinds of voluntary contracts that a liberal state shouldn’t get into the business of enforcing

that contract is about *sex*, right? Which means this entire story is really about *marriage*, right(1)? And about Lewd’s willingness to forswear her(2) own sexual satisfaction for the sake of her relationship with Prude, who claims that sexuality is “corrupting”, forsooth, but who we all know ends up getting off on the porn anyway. The happy ending Lewd is angling for is not “corruption”(3), but that Prude will read the porn to her, and they’ll *both* get off.

Is this liberalism? Or is it, at most, D.H. Lawrence? Are Sen, Cohen or both seriously arguing that “all liberalism is BDSM”, or is one or the other or both saying that “all liberalism *should* be BDSM”? Is the violence inherent in the system better, or worse, when it wears a leather corset and carries a flogger?

(1) because that’s what we call an exclusive sexual contract
(2) pronoun changed to clarify the underlying dynamic and to make it easier to keep track of the characters(4)
(3)I mean, wtf? The usual word for this dynamic is *seduction*
(4)my fellow slashers can amuse themselves by coming up with epithets such as “the other philosopher” and “the blond Millian”.


Josh Glenn 02.09.09 at 4:35 pm

Hey, what’s all this talk about political philosophy? Thought we were talking about porn? Oh, wait — you guys are discussing the mise en scene. If Prude an icy totalitarian, and Lewd a fiery anarchist/libertarian, their hijinks can only take place in the lukewarm climes of liberalism. Gotcha.


Doctor Science 02.09.09 at 4:41 pm

Also, it is perfectly obvious to me that Lewd is *writing* the porn in question, because “that doesn’t count as reading!” This is not a violation of the contract, because the contract is clearly the script for play-acting, enabling both Lewd and Prude to get their desires fulfilled while denying that any such thing is going on. No sex please, we’re philosophers!


Delicious Pundit 02.09.09 at 4:50 pm

I like the Lewd & Prude Road movies, myself, particularly The Road To Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Plus the line, “Like De Sade’s colonial dungeon, we’re/Morocco-bound.”

/shows self out


Rich Puchalsky 02.09.09 at 5:09 pm

“Also, it is perfectly obvious to me that Lewd is writing the porn in question […]”

See comment #3. But I agree that this is clearly a play-acting script, suitable for the never-progressing relationships preferred by romantic serials writers who can never think of how to keep it interesting once their characters finally get married. Really, it’s interestingly perverse because the contractual liberalism has been subverted by what is essentially a gift economy — Lewd keeps giving Prude books; Prude keeps giving Lewd attention. It’s the same play-acting as in some BDSM because they can only do what they really want to do by pretending that a system constrains them from doing it.


Rich Puchalsky 02.09.09 at 5:19 pm

“If Prude an icy totalitarian, and Lewd a fiery anarchist/libertarian […]”

Oh, of course. Prude is Gabriel Syme and Lewd is Lucian Gregory in The Man Who Was Thursday. The Millian liberal Sunday is the mysterious figure who advises them both in Pareto optimality.


MattF 02.09.09 at 5:43 pm

Even better, Lewd can make Prude read the same pornographic novel over and over– each time it’s more boring and therefore more difficult for Prude, but since Lewd’s maximum pleasure would be on the first reading, Prude’s need to keep it away from Lewd stays the same.

Also, the novel should be ‘Gerald’s Party’. Just sayin’.


Jacob T. Levy 02.09.09 at 6:03 pm

A) OK, now I’ve changed my mind from my last comment on a John Holbo post; *this* is what I want to pay him to write.

B) I always took Sen’s paradox to be a useful reminder that the Pareto stories and the “self-regarding” stories that harmonize neatly in the folk-liberalism that underlies lots of official theories (without ever actually being the theory)– “everyone will be better off if everyone minds their own business and makes their own decisions about themselves, and enter into only voluntary obligations that ex hypothesi make them better off”– don’t necessarily harmonize. There’s a vague slippage from the idea of self-regarding actions to the idea that people generally only have self-regarding preferences– or at least non-tuistic preferences. But as soon as other-regarding preferences get introduced, lots of things come crashing down– aggregative utilitarianism’s intuitive plausibility, Paretianism’s intuitive plausibility, various defenses of Mill or market or both. The liberal natural harmony of interests doesn’t hold when some are sadists or have positional or status preferences or or or…

But I don’t find that the formal cleverness of the article adds anything much to that point. Nor do I find that the possibility or coerciveness of contrac is what the thing is about.

See also: Brad DeLong.


Doctor Science 02.09.09 at 6:10 pm

This scenario is very amusing, but I honestly do not see what it has to do with liberalism or its discontents.

1. It is a hallmark of liberalism (in the 21st-century sense) that *no* sexual contract is enforced by the state. None, no-how.

1a. When 21st-C conservatives object to liberalism, it is frequently because liberals do *not* enforce sexual contracts, which conservatives feel they should (e.g. prosecution for adultery, sodomy, etc.).

2. As Rich said @3, if the Lewd/Prude contract is state-enforced, then it is not a liberal state either in theory or in practice.

3. Sexual contracts such as Lewd/Prude — between individuals, enforced solely by each others’ consent — *are* liberal. In what way is the upshot of this scenario illiberal?

4. If Lewd/Prude is illiberal, surely it’s because their contract is premised on *lies* — that Lewd’s desire is corrupting, that Prude doesn’t really want sex for himself, only to control Lewd’s sexuality for Lewd’s own good. Lying is not a liberal value, and any contract based on lies (including self-deception) is automatically suspect.

I have no clue whether Sen and/or Cohen is using Lewd/Prude as an example of a contract based on self-deception. If they aren’t, they’re deceiving *themselves*.


Cosma 02.09.09 at 6:39 pm

While I like the direction Dr. Science is taking the comic series (almost as much as Rich’s #7), surely the abominable object is just a mcguffin, and doesn’t have to be a pornographic book? It could be a religiously heretical book, or a politically subversive one. Or Lewd and Prude could both be Jewish or Muslim, and the object could be a ham sandwich: Lewd wants Prude to eat it to realize that ham tastes good, Prude would rather eat it than see Lewd so polluted.


Cosma 02.09.09 at 6:41 pm

Also, this oldie seems relevant:

Masochist (eagerly imploring): Hurt me?

Sadist (coldly cruel): No!


Cosma 02.09.09 at 6:42 pm

That’ll teach me to trust formatting in preview.


Doctor Science 02.09.09 at 6:56 pm


Sometimes a ham sandwich is just a ham sandwich. This is not one of those times. Choosing a mcguffin of religious significance is just an attempt to paper over the fact that it is a mcguffin of *desire*, and yes, contracts between two adults about their mutual desires and satisfactions cannot be regulated by a liberal state.


Righteous Bubba 02.09.09 at 7:00 pm

These wonderful liberal states that do not regulate contracts of desire between two adults: where are they? It is, after all, currently illegal for me to grow things that I’d like to grow and woe betide me if I should want to sell some of that produce to my neighbour.


Rich Puchalsky 02.09.09 at 7:53 pm

All right, here’s my attempt:

Lewd and Prude in Paris

“Gosh, Pru, you wouldn’t believe what you can buy in the book-stalls here,” he said, holding up his purchase with a happy smile. “Look, it’s a copy of that Tropic of Cancer book that I’ve heard about. It’s supposed to be frightfully naughty!”

“Lew,” his companion scolded. Her clear skin blushed prettily as she frowned at him, and a few wisps of her dark hair escaped the severe tie that confined it as she shook her head. “You know that reading that book would be very bad for you. Heaven knows what you might get up to. Why, I’ve heard that it should not even be called a book at all.” Her voice warmed as she recalled the stirring words of one of her fellow campaigners for morality. “It is ‘not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.'”

“Gosh,” he said, “it sounds great!” His open features broke into a full grin and he attempted to give her a lecherous wink. “I’ve heard it’s got prostitutes, and, um, naughty bits — ” “Now, Lew,” she said, holding out her hand, “you know that I can’t let you read filth like that. Hand it over.” “Oh, all right,” he said, “but you know the condition. You must promise to read it yourself. You could do with a bit of loosening up.” “Very well, if that is the only way,” she promised. She gulped as he handed it over, the touch of the book on her hand producing that strange electrical tingle that it mysteriously often seemed to do.

Lew seemed like he was about to make a joke about it, but then movement behind her caught his eye, and he turned and looking over the railing. “It’s a trolley,” he said, “Pru, it’s going to crash! And there’s such a crowd on the line, why it will hit five people. ” Pru gasped and he looked around desperately for something to do. “There,” he said, “if we had something to throw at that switch, we could divert the trolley to another line.” “Then I must break my promise to you, for the greater good,” said Pru, winding up to throw the copy of Tropic of Cancer. This way she’d be able to get rid of it with a good conscience. “Wait, Pru, there’s another person on the line it would get diverted to,” he said. She hesitated.

It was a difficult moral puzzle. But while they were thinking, the trolley went past the switch. “Oh, dear!” exclaimed Pru. Lacking anything else to do, she threw the book at the back of the head of a fat man standing near them. He toppled over the railing.

They both rushed to the railing to see what had happened. In an extremely lucky crash, the fat man had fallen in such a way as to divert the trolley so that no one was hurt, including him. Lew helped him back up, and Pru felt her heart swell with the feeling of a deed well done. “Thank you,” the fat man gasped, “all my life I’ve felt bad about being so heavy. And now my size has been of use, to save life! Young man, I insist I presenting you with a copy of this naughty book I just purchased, Tropic of Cancer. May you get as much pleasure out of it as I would have.” “Thank you — I think I will,” said Lew, as he, smiling, passed it over to Pru.

Pru looked the book and blushed. It was going to be a long, hard job to get through this. But their agreement really was best for both of them.


Russell Arben Fox 02.09.09 at 9:40 pm

I dated Prude in college. She was a fine dresser.


Rich Puchalsky 02.10.09 at 12:41 am

No one liked the story? Huh. I guess I won’t do “Lewd and Prude at the Lab”, the brain-in-a-vat one, then. (Thanks to Cosma for mentioning that he liked #7 though.)


Cosma 02.10.09 at 1:10 am

I loved the story and eagerly await further installments. But it does cry out for illustrations (presumably etchings).


Martin James 02.10.09 at 1:21 am

Prude clearly has the upper hand in this thriller because Lewd is incorrect in experience changing Prude. Once a Prude, always a Prude. Prude is therefore correct that reading the books is less harmful to Prude’s view of the world.

Lewd is Wil E. Coyote and always going to lose.


kid bitzer 02.10.09 at 1:38 am


“dear prude-ence, won’t you come out and play-eh-eh”


andthenyoufall 02.10.09 at 2:17 am

I loved it, Rich! I hope you continue the series to the end… although it may be a long, hard slog.

I always took the point of Sen’s paradox to be that there is a tension between the heuristic that liberalism keeps people, as much as possible, from inflicting their other-regarding preferences on each other, and the heuristic that liberalism clears the way, as much as possible, for felicitous private interactions. But so long as people actually do have other-regarding preferences, no society could both be maximally effective at preventing people from inflicting these preferences on each other, and be maximally effective at clearing the way for felicitous interaction.

On reflection my take is similar to d^2’s @ 2, but I see Sen as more preoccupied with this idea that liberals ought to be especially worried with other-regarding preferences than with contract law. In a society of prudes, it’s bad and illiberal for the prudes to deny the lewd minority their porn; in a society of the lewd, it’s bad and illiberal for the lewd to deny prudes their “Family Shakespeare”; and so it would be doubly illiberal for everyone to have their other-regarding preferences satisfied.


John 02.10.09 at 2:30 am

Sen’s definition of “liberalism” is technical, namely, that everybody can order their own preferences. WRT the example, it’s only a part of the larger argument that libertarianism can’t work, because people do care about each other’s choices (externalities.) Taking it out of the context makes it seem weak, but in the context of the larger argument it serves to make a point. To generalize the example, one could conclude that anti-pornography laws are a Pareto optimum solution that might well be jointly optimal, (think about enforcing the contract after Prude has read the book – at that point it bears a very strong resemblance to an anti-pornography law) but if we enforce strict libertarian doctrine, we can’t achieve that optimum.

The key is that Lewd and Prude actually care about what each other do. You can’t have that and have libertarian principles guarantee the “best” solution. In a libertarian world, Lewd reads the book and Prude does not, and they are both worse off, or they reach a mutually agreeable contract which bears a strong resemblance to an anti-pornography law, which makes them better off.

The whole argument has other examples that fill it out.


Kenny Easwaran 02.10.09 at 3:12 am

Rich – I very much appreciated the story. (And the entire discussion here has been quite lovely.)


thompsaj 02.10.09 at 3:17 am

I think y’all are thinking too small… this needs the hollywood treatment.


john holbo 02.10.09 at 3:38 am

Yes, Rich, please carry on. But I have to say that initially I was imagining it rather differently. I wanted it to be, on the surface, a muffled Edward Gorey affair. Two twin male figures (probably in those big fur coats and scarves and hats and thick beards and glasses that Gorey figures sport). One of them is Lewd, the other is Prude. On the surface, not a lot happens. But under the surface …

I can appreciate, however, that Betty Page as Pru is a more attractive casting decision.


Rich Puchalsky 02.10.09 at 4:22 am

My wife, who is a bit of an artist, said that a comics version should have the two of them in raincoats — Prude because a raincoat buttoned all the way up is very modest, Lewd because he’s a flasher. But with only text to work with I think that they have to be more sympathetic and less iconic. Alternate readings would work, of course; I thought Doctor Science’s had promise.

Thanks to the people who liked it — I suppose I’ll try another one.


Rich Puchalsky 02.10.09 at 5:47 am

Lewd and Prude and the Doctor’s Orders

Pru looked for him across the bustle of people waiting for seats in the busy lecture hall, spotting him quickly by his tall build and the energetic gestures by which he was describing something to some laughing companions. As she approached, she started to hear what he was saying ” — and I’ve given her a lot, if you know what I mean. I’ve corrupted her lots of times –” He saw her walking towards him angrily and stopped. “Boasting about your conquests,” she said, “really, Lew. I should take you away from these people at once.” He looked momentarily confused, but went off with her with a wave to the others and an irrepressible smile. “You know me, Pru. That’s how I am.” “You are disgraceful,” Pru sniffed. He was carrying a package wrapped in brown paper. She tried to peer across him for a better look at it. “What’s that you have?” she said, her nose wrinkling cutely in disapproval, “another thick book for me to take in?”

“It’s a classic!” he said. “Fanny Hill. All about –” “I know what it is about,” she said sternly, “I read about the case. It was judged to 1) appeal to prurient interest, 2) be patently offensive” and Pru paused, “but sadly, 3) it could not be proven to have no redeeming social value. An error by the judge, I am sure.” “Our usual arrangement, then?” he said, rubbing his hands together with glee and almost dropping the book. “Very well,” she said, taking the package from him with that inexplicable slightly giddy feeling that she sometimes had. Perhaps she’d get a chance to get rid of the book later.

“Thanks for going on this outing with me, Pru. I was hoping you could get away,” he said, walking along with her. “It should be very educational,” said Pru. “And I am supported by a bequest. Aside from my work campaigning to improve public morality, I am a woman of leisure.” “That’s great — ” he started, but just then the famous doctor that they’d come there to see staggered through the door, followed by a cloud of greasy black smoke. “A lab accident!” he said, coughing. “You must evacuate the building right away!” The crowd erupted into screams and a general panic, and they swirled around and she thought they were going to be trampled but Lew pulled her aside into a corner of the room. “This way!” said the doctor, and unlocked a side door just as the billowing cloud reached them. They rushed through it and slammed the door.

“My private laboratory,” said the doctor, coughing again. “It has a filtered air system. We can wait here until the cloud disperses.” Lew and Pru looked around curiously. “Look at that,” whispered Lew, pointing at a human brain floating in a sickly-greenish liquid. “My greatest triumph,” said the doctor proudly. “A human brain, kept alive in a vat, and fed artificial stimuli! The brain believes that it is a living human being, you see. I feed it a flawless simulation of reality through this input device.” “Really? Gosh!” said Lew. Pru quietly put the book down on a counter. Perhaps he’d forget it in all the confusion.

But he didn’t. His eye fell on it and he scooped it up. “Hey, I know what we could do!” he said. “Let’s give the brain a copy of Fanny Hill. It must be boring for it in there.” “An interesting experiment–” mused the doctor. “No, Lew,” Pru interrupted. “That would be corrupting this poor brain. I’m surprised that you would go back on our agreement.” “But, Pru,” he said, looking quizzical, “what does it matter? The brain can’t actually do anything. Its world isn’t even real.” “That makes no difference,” she said firmly. “It should be a pure brain, and not be degraded by such ideas. I demand that you give it to me instead.” “Oh, very well,” he said, downcast, and handed the book over again, “but I don’t think that a brain in a vat could have the sort of history and interaction with the world that would allow its thoughts or words about Fanny Hill to really refer to anything, you know, naughty–” This time the professor interrupted him. “The brain — I tried connecting it to an output device. That must have caused the fire!” the doctor said.

All three of them stood back. “What can we do?” asked Pru nervously. “I don’t know,” the doctor said, sweating. “I can’t disconnect it. That would ruin my work. Perhaps I could tell it what it is doing, that it is a brain in a vat. Yes. We must teach the brain epistemology.” Lew and Pru exchanged glances, and as the doctor fiddled with some dials, they quietly backed away. “No,” yelled the doctor into the input device as more smoke hissed into the room. “I order you to stop! I order you to stop adhering to the verification principle!” Lew and Pru found that the smoke had cleared from the room they’d come in by, and rushed out.

As they emerged in the street outside, running fast enough so that Pru had to fold her arms over herself for modesty, she found to her annoyance that she was still clutching the book. Now she’d have to read it. It would probably be in an antiquated style, too, without any of the interesting developments in surrealist free association that she’d noted in those depraved Henry Miller books. And it seemed like they’d had a rather disreputable adventure again. She sighed. On these trips with Lew, it seemed like just one encounter with some strange person after another.

Well, it was better that she did the things she did to guard that man against corruption. She let him put his hand on her shoulder to help her walk away. This was the best arrangement, after all, she mused. He smiled down at her and she tightened her grip on the book she was holding in both arms. Yes, this was the optimal arrangement.


Z 02.10.09 at 9:34 am

Rich’s fanfics are excellent, but

Are Sen, Cohen or both seriously arguing that “all liberalism is BDSM”, or is one or the other or both saying that “all liberalism should be BDSM”? Is the violence inherent in the system better, or worse, when it wears a leather corset and carries a flogger?

is the finest piece of commentary on philosophical liberalism that I have read in a long time, perhaps ever.


Tracy W 02.10.09 at 1:45 pm

The big point that Sen’s making is that liberalism doesn’t work in the way which one might hope it would – the “classical liberal” (in the pejorative sense) fantasy of it being possible to carry everything out on the basis of individual voluntary contracts…

Why not? (Based merely on Sen’s hypothetical example, individual voluntary contracts seem to me to be ill-placed to deal with non-point pollution, and that strikes me as a far stronger criticism of that idea.) Both Prude and Lewd are getting along without bloodshed or starting a civil war, transaction costs aren’t being increased any more than with any other contract, etc. If Prude and Lewd eventually get sick of their deal, they can just stop making it.
There is an argument that a state should not allow people to enter into permanent deals with no escape clause – I vaguely recall once reading some evidence that liberalisation of divorce laws was correlated with a fall in spousal muder rates in Britain, and measuring the death rate does appear to be a plausible way of measuring the success of a society. Perhaps we should rule out the right of Lewd to agree to never ever read a pornographic novel. But otherwise, what’s the problem for society?

And, incidentally, first time I’ve ever heard “classical liberal” been used in a perjorative sense. I’m used to the American use of the word “liberal” as a perjorative, and thought that people used “classical liberal” for when they wanted to call something or someone liberal without the perjorative overtones. What term do you use when you want to call someone a liberal without being perjorative?


Rich Puchalsky 02.10.09 at 5:37 pm

“Both Prude and Lewd are getting along without bloodshed or starting a civil war […]”

Well, yes. This is what exactly makes the original “Sen claims that the principle thereby endorses an illiberal result” rather puzzling. Sure, you can see Lewd and Prude as two Modernist identical-looking Edward Gorey philosophical figures if you want to. But, as I think I’ve demonstrated, this could also be material for romantic comedy. Lewd cares enough about Prude to want to corrupt him/her; Prude cares about Lewd enough to want to protect him / her from corruption; maybe this is really exactly what they want, or if not, something closer to what they want than they could otherwise get. In short, I disagree not only with Cohen, but also with John’s “this pair of prize idiots are going nowhere fast, but in Pareto optimal style.” That rather depends on the narrative that they are in, doesn’t it? I mean, I’d be perfectly capable of writing the thing with a happy ending, unhappy ending, or coldly ironic unchanging ending, for any version of “happy” that is commonly held. In fact, this pair of prize idiots seems to have a highly emotionally involving relationship.

Having reduced the fanfic to a formula in only two episodes, I probably should stop there, right? Next would probably have been “Lewd and Prude at the Circus” / Jurgen / discussion of the original position and the veil of ignorance. But I should probably rest content with having put a Dark Star reference in the last one. (Shoud I have made it phenomenology? But best not to go back over something dashed off like this. Then I’d be kicking myself for not having done it with Lady Chatterly’s Lover and all those mind/body references.)


Cosma 02.10.09 at 7:14 pm

42: Having reduced the fanfic to a formula in only two episodes, I probably should stop there, right?

But some of us like, no love, continuing formulaic fiction with the possibility of a happy ending sometime, but not just yet. (Which perhaps is not good for us…)


andthenyoufall 02.10.09 at 7:51 pm

In the next episode, can Lew and Pru suffer amnesia, forget which of them is trying to corrupt the other, and devise a set of principles for regulating the exchange of dirty books? Pleasssse?


SusanC 02.10.09 at 9:50 pm

Psychoanalytic ideas about repressed desires don’t mix very well with game theory. Do real human beings have utility functions that they try to maximise?

At some (unconcious?) level, Prude enjoys reading the dirty books. But the pleasure of reading the book is less important to her than convincing other members of her society (especially Lewd) that she is a good girl who doesn’t like that kind of thing. It’s easier to convince someone of a lie if you believe it. At some level, she believes herself to be a good girl who doesn’t like that kind of book – and this turns into a belief that they are corrupting, and others (esp Lewd) must be protected from them.

Meanwhile, Lewd is trying to convince other members of his society (especially Prude) that he is an “always up for it ” kind of guy who is really into that kind of thing. Even if, at some level, he doesn’t enjoy it all that much, he convinces himself that the dirty book is his true desire.

In this episode, to make the book as dirty as possible, and offensive to Crooked Timber community standards, let it be something by Zizek.

Part 2. In which Prude reads a hentai visual novel.

Lewd’s biological parents have died of cancer, and he has been adopted by another family, including his step-sister, Prude. After school, Lewd wanders through the Akihabara district, reflecting on his inability to get a girlfriend or make emotional contact with his adoptive family. Eventually, he drops into a computer store and purchases a DVD ROM (maybe even _this_ DVD ROM, the one that contains this story). Returning home later than usually, he finds Prude alone in the house.

Prude asks him where he has been, disbelieving his feeble excuses. Eventually, he yields, and reveals the contents of his paper bag. Prude calls him a pervert. And says that last time he went shopping, he bought a Hello Kitty vibrator. (“But it’s a collectors item… it’s a genuine Sanrio licensed item..” “It’s filthy – you don’t know where it’s been” “It’s in mint condition, the packaging never opened .. I had to pay extra for it”). Prude-chan threatens to tell her mother about it, unless Lewd hands over his latest purchase. Reluctantly, he gives it up. Prude retires to her bedroom, and locks the door. Buzzing noises on the soundtrack.


Rich Puchalsky 02.10.09 at 11:54 pm

I also recently wrote something involving Hello Kitty.

SusanC, I don’t think it’s as interesting if Prude is a (conscious or unconscious) hypocrite about the books. In my reading, Pru dislikes the books as porn (though she may start to appreciate their literary aspects, since she has to read them anyways) ; she’s really interested in Lew. After all, he really cares about her, in a certain way.


Tracy W 02.11.09 at 10:31 am

Well given the quality of the fan fic shown here, I am grateful to Sen for coming up with this scenario as an idea-prompt. :)


Rich Puchalsky 02.11.09 at 4:07 pm

Why is this a good idea-prompt for fanfic? Because it embodies the central idea of fanfic, a genre which only defined itself as such under late capitalism. That central idea is that non-commercial relationships are now so unusual / important that any one of them with emotional energy in it can turn into any other one. So, as per fanfic, characters that dislike or even hate each other are marked as being most likely to fall in love. Any friendship is, of course, susceptible to sudden escalation, but some people prefer, through one plot device or another, the piquancy of one of a pair of friends “turning evil” or somesuch.

Therefore this setup really works because (other than the obvious, that it’s about pornographic novels) these characters are connected by such a strange, unusually abstract form of emotional energy. They aren’t necessarily friends, nor enemies, and they certainly aren’t presented as lovers. Yet they are very concerned with what’s going on inside the other one’s head, and willing to go to the effort of giving a book / reading a book to influence the other. Once John in his original post suggests that this might become a series of books, this becomes a relationship, and can only be viewed as some kind of very odd emotional attachment, suitable for fanfic-ing into anything from Spy vs Spy ritual ongoing opposition to the discovery of lifelong love. (Being a sentimentalist myself, I figure that the natural ending of the Lew and Pru story is them married with grandchildren, in their seventies, and he’s obligingly buying Alan Moore’s Lost Girls for her. She of course still insists on the ritual of protecting him from corruption, but since they’re married, there’s no reason for her not to, um, demonstrate what she’s learned.)

If they had been buying or selling books, the whole setup wouldn’t work.


Cosma 02.11.09 at 5:20 pm

Being a sentimentalist myself…

Are you sure you can’t be persuaded to actually write the series? (Offering to pay would seem counter-indicated.)


Rich Puchalsky 02.11.09 at 6:44 pm

Oh, if you really want them to be written that badly, I suppose I could try. I recall from reading your blog that you teach mathematical methods of database analysis, among other things, right? There’s a particular pollution database that I’ve always wanted to have analyzed, in terms of how much a few large polluters dominate the total, what kind of interventions to similar kinds of releases might most easily lower the total risk, etc. But I’m pretty bad at doing that kind of thing myself (one of the reasons I left the sciences). How about a form of barter in which you suggest this database to your students as one of the ones they could look at for their undergraduate projects and so on, and pass along anything they eventually find out?

I guess that I could try to write three more of them as time permits — I think a narrative arc of five would really be enough. More than that would probably be fill-ins of the sort that people would turn out to keep the series going if someone were paying for it, but aren’t really necessary to the story.


Cosma 02.11.09 at 7:45 pm

We have a deal.


Rich Puchalsky 02.12.09 at 12:20 am

Here’s the third one, actually written in NeoOffice rather than the comment box, for amazing extra spellcheck action. Although I see that it’s made my paragraphs too long.

Lewd and Prude at the Circus

“Let me tell you about the original position,” said Lew enthusiastically. Pru looked alarmed. “I hope that this will not be one of your –” she began, but he shook his head and went on. They were sitting in the front row at the big tent, chatting before the next act came up. “I went to a lecture and met this man, Rulls, Rolls, or something. He had the most odd idea,” Lew said. “Has he written a book?” asked Pru. She added acerbically “It might be a change for me. For the last year I’ll I’ve read is your peculiar books, one coming in after another.” “No, he hasn’t, just articles so far,” shrugged Lew, “but here’s his idea: that representatives of citizens might be placed behind a sort of veil of ignorance, so they don’t know who in society they represent. Then they create the basis for a just society, do you see? He thinks they would choose the greatest benefits to the least advantaged.” “It sounds admirable,” said Pru. “I don’t know,” Lew said a bit vaguely, distracted by the performers warming up the crowd. “Gosh. It seems like he thinks the people behind the veil of ignorance might be a bit risk averse, doesn’t he? But I think they might want to risk getting something bad if they got the chance to get something really great, like being strong like that strongman over there. Or graceful like that trapeze lady. Or — “ and he nudged Pru roguishly with his elbow: “– look what that showgirl’s got, Pru!” “Disgraceful,” she sniffed. The woman was wearing a costume that displayed far too much of her natural endowments, in Pru’s opinion.

They were bringing out the lion cage. He glanced down at the book Pru had brought along to read during her cab ride to meet him. She’d made a cover for it out of brown paper so that no one could see what she was reading. “Still reading Jurgen?” he asked. “It’s supposed to be a really saucy book, Pru. I’ve heard –” “I hold with the findings of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice,” she said sternly, “long since overruled through they are – it is ‘offensive, lewd, lascivious, and indecent.’” “Golly,” he said happily. “It is sometimes well written, a remnant of a prior high style that could not be duplicated now,” she admitted, “but it conceals its bawdry in ways that are almost worse than open corruption. There are scenes in which certain actions are implied to take place while the text only displays three dashes.” “Wow,” laughed Lew. “And there are the worst double entendres–” Pru continued.

A sudden burst of yells drew their attention. The lion tamer had staggered and dropped his hoop at the start of his act, and the lion, startled, knocked him down and then roared at the crowd. “He’s drunk!” the showgirl yelled hysterically, “I told him he couldn’t perform!” The man’s hoop rolled across the ground and bumped into Pru’s knee. Without thinking, she grasped it and got up. The lion looked like it was about to savage the crowd. Surely all this needed was confidence. She held the hoop out and said “Cha!” strongly as she’d heard the lion tamer do. The beast hesitated. So did Pru – now that she had time to think, what did she do next? She saw Lew run around the edge of the circle and stand by the cage. They exchanged glances. They’d been through so many of these incidents by now that they hardly had to talk to each other to know what to do.

Pru managed to line up her hoop with the cage, and said “Cha!” again. In one fluid leap, the lion jumped through it, and then walked into its cage as it had been trained to do. It saw Lew and almost got him, but he managed to drop the cage door closed just in time.

She looked at him again, exhilarated, her warm smile meeting his answering one. “Why, Pru,” he said, gazing at her admiringly, “You were so brave! You are – well – dashing!” Pru blushed and, suddenly not sure what to do with her hands, put down the hoop. Oh dear, her hair was all in disarray – she’d thrown off her overcoat – she was sure that she wasn’t standing demurely, and her skirt had ridden up – it had been rather disconcerting, yet enjoyable, when that powerful tawny creature had leaped through her hoop. “Nonsense,” she answered him, “I just–”

But she was interrupted by the showgirl, who, having seen the other circus performers pick up the only-stunned lion tamer, was now approaching Lew. “Oh, surely you were just as brave!” the woman said, her eyes wide as she looked at him. “I’ve never seen something so brave. And, well, you’re quite a handsome man too, if I might be so bold.” She smiled at him eagerly. “I’m so grateful. They would have shut us down. Um, can I give you a reward? Privately, in my tent?” Pru was shocked into silence. The woman’s costume had gotten torn open in the panic, and from the way she was leaning forwards and making no attempt to cover herself, Pru had absolutely no doubt about what kind of reward she was offering him.

Lew smiled back and looked the showgirl slowly up and down, an expression of frank appreciation on his face. Pru closed her eyes in mortification. She knew what he’d get up to. To her alarm, she found that she had instantly pictured in her mind’s eye exactly what he’d get up to with the showgirl – how could she imagine Lew so nude and, so, well, completely? — with continuing variations. Hurriedly she opened her eyes again. She heard him tell the showgirl, “Gosh, thanks! I’m sure that would be lots of fun, and I’d love to, normally – but I’m here with Pru. Thanks for the offer, though!” He walked over and got Pru’s coat and book and then over to Pru and, dazed, Pru wrapped her arm around his waist so that he could assist her. They began to walk away. Pru couldn’t help stealing a glance back over her shoulder to see if the showgirl was watching her walk off with him. Ha! She was!

“I – didn’t think you’d come back for me,” Pru said. “Oh, come on, Pru, he said, laughing, “after all our adventures, you think I’d just leave you there?” Pru looked at him wonderingly. They were out of the tent now, and all of a sudden she found herself very conscious of the sleek flow of the muscles around his hip as he walked. “I – think I need to lie down,” she said. “Gosh!” he said, “it must be delayed shock, or something. Here’s a bench.” He helped her over to it and bunched up her coat as a pillow. She lay down and wiped moisture off her brow. She’d been cool and collected with the lion. Why was she so sweaty now?

He looked down at her with concern. “You don’t seem to be getting worse, anyways,” he said. “I’m all right,” she managed. He looked down at the book still in his hand. “Maybe I should just take this one back,” he said. “It wouldn’t corrupt me too much, probably. And maybe you need a rest…” She looked up into his face. “Give it to me. Please,” she said weakly. He hesitated and then handed the book over, and the touch of the rough brown paper to her hand sent her into an unaccountable burst of shivering. It must be delayed shock, like he’d said.

He was looking nervous now, of all things. She’d never seen him look nervous. Not even that time when they’d been chased by a giant robot and it had been about to step on him and she’d only been able to overload its circuits by showing it a particularly disturbing page from Justine. “Pru,” he said, “Gee. Um, maybe it’s time to pull back the veil of ignorance, you know? To, um, see how advantaged we are, and how it would turn out if–” She suddenly felt panicky for some reason. “Lew,” she said, managing to sit up. “You know that I haven’t studied this Ralls or Rolls person. If I had, perhaps I’d be able to understand your question. But I’m not ready to understand it just now.” He nodded, then smiled at her again. “Well, you’re starting to look better,” he said. “I’m fine,” she said, standing up irritably. “I don’t know what it was.” “I’ll escort you back,” he said, and she took his arm. “I heard more stuff at that lecture,” he said cheerfully. “Have you heard of this Pear-to, Perry-to guy?”

She held his arm and they walked back to where she could catch a cab, listening to him burble happily. It was a good thing that they had this arrangement. It was, as ever, the optimal one for the two of them.


Rich Puchalsky 02.12.09 at 12:22 am

Oh, and sorry that I couldn’t use your idea, andthenyoufail. Not enough of the right kind of melodrama for this part, or something.


TGGP 02.12.09 at 11:32 pm

Walter Block doesn’t see the problem with slavery contracts. Which is why Mencius Moldbug is wrong about his opposition to fractional reserve.

A possible way to resolve dsquared’s point about men with guns enforcing contracts: a society of LeFevreians using reputation as money with iterated games of repeat cooperation. You abide by your promises so that the other party will agree to contract with you again. Since I’m not a LeFevrian but an amoral Stirnerite, I consider it only an interesting possibility rather than necessarily of vital importance.


Jonathan Card 02.13.09 at 1:23 am

Actually, Dr. Science, your #21.1a isn’t quite right. I suppose it’s right with respect to adultery, if “adultery” doesn’t mean non-marital sex, but extra-marital sex (I’d take other issues with the statement because I think you’re confusing “supporting a ban” with “objecting to federal power overriding state jurisdiction”, but don’t want to get off-topic). But Populists and many Conservatives object to the creation of sexual contracts, hence the ban of prostitution. A lack of enforcement of sexual contracts would be failing to allow prostitutes with delinquent accounts receivables to send their johns into bankruptcy.


Rich Puchalsky 02.13.09 at 3:53 am

And here’s #4:

Lewd and Prude on Holiday

Lew sat in his hotel room, half-turned in the window box, one leg propped up on a chair and the other kicking idly at a chair-leg, looking out the window occasionally. Nothing was happening outside, just as nothing had been happening the last few times he’d checked. He looked at the copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover lying on the bed and sighed. It appeared that Pru really was going to be gone for a couple of weeks. She wasn’t going to be around for him to give the book to. He might as well read it.

He picked it up and disconsolately turned to the first page and started to read. The silence started to weigh on him. By a few chapters in, he decided that talking to himself was better than nothing. “Gosh!” he said at one scene. “Wow, that’s really sexy!” he added loyally. He tried to feel corrupted. This book was really rather a yawner, wasn’t it? He looked out the window again. No zombie invasions, not even someone formed by lightning from the swamp or something … and no Pru. The book slipped unheeded to fall to the carpet.

He wondered if perhaps he should go out, try to pick up a woman, bring her back. It shouldn’t be too difficult. He imagined various women, ending with the showgirl on that last trip, that time they’d gone to the circus, the trip that Pru had said she’d wanted to take a holiday after. He sighed again; this was no good. He jumped up and started to pace. He’d been such a fool. Pru was – well, whenever she was around, it was like whole factories of fireworks going off at once, like a mad mesmerist pulling glorious flowers out of the air, like spaceships crashing. He frowned – wait, those spaceships hadn’t actually crashed, had they? They were the ones with different-aged twins getting out, and really they’d just landed – but whatever. He paced more rapidly. God, how wonderful Pru had looked when she’d faced down that lion. And now she’d said that maybe they needed some time apart. To his alarm he found himself starting to cry. Oh, this would never do; Pru could never like a man who cried. Positive action, that’s what was needed. He wiped his face off with his hands. It was time to get Pru a different kind of gift. And if she wouldn’t accept it, he’d cheerfully go and throw himself off a tall building. No, that was stupid; he wouldn’t do that. Maybe he’d take up drinking. He found his step and rushed outside, determined.

Pru was sitting at a desk in the rented manor house, writing an article of literary criticism in progress: “Theories of the Picaresque as a Model for Formalist Analysis of Obscene, Disgusting Works.” How Lew had smiled when he’d seen it; he’d said that she’d have to change the end of the title if she wanted to get it published, and perhaps she would, but for now it stayed. She thought about Lew’s smile for a little while, and smiled herself, then got herself back to it.

A little while later she stopped writing, stretching her fingers to uncramp them. It was too bad that Lew had never given her a copy of Tropic of Capricorn — not that she liked the degraded filth that the man wrote about, but he could certainly write, and it would interesting to check her thesis – could she hint to him, maybe? No, probably not… this place was such a bore. And it came with a groundskeeper who was the worst bore of all, always mooning around after her. Didn’t he have anything to do?

Not that she had anything to do, really, since the bequest, but hadn’t she and Lew, oddly enough, managed to save hundreds of lives by now? That was work, she supposed – although Lew sometimes talked up his supposed low, working origins, saying proudly that that was why he was such a crude person, even though she knew full well that they’d both grown up middle class. She laughed, thinking about it; the foolish things he did were somehow part of why she loved him. Wait, what was that? She shook her head to clear it; maybe she was just missing her friend. “Gosh,” she said experimentally. Suddenly she wondered whether he was with a woman. Well, of course he probably was. There were drops of water landing on her written pages; was the roof leaking? No, she was crying. Oh, she was such a fool. Of course she loved him. She pictured his laughing face, the whole jaunty stance of his body, just after they’d defeated the Evil Consequentialist – a saintly Tibetan monk whose thoughts and actions were impeccably virtuous but who always ended up somehow harming people – Lew had distracted him while she sneaked up from behind and knocked him out by hitting him over the head with a hardbound English translation of Thérèse Philosophe. How Lew had looked then! How could she possibly not have seen that she loved him?

Determined, she got up and wiped her eyes and hurriedly scooped up her papers. She wasn’t going to sit around sobbing. She was going back to Lew – who knows what corruption he was getting up to – well, she could be his friend if nothing else. She almost started crying again, thinking of that, and made herself stop. She marched right out to the car and prepared to drive away. “I’m leaving. I won’t be back,” she yelled to the groundskeeper. “But tha hut’s rented for twa weeks! Ye’ve only been twa days!” he said in that horrible fake accent they must have told him to put on. “I don’t care!” she yelled back, and drove away.

She arrived at the hotel where Lew had said he’d be staying, and had a horrible moment as she approached his room. What if someone was with him? But she nerved herself up and knocked at the door. He answered it quickly, looking a bit haggard. “Pru!” he said, his face lighting up. “Lew!” she said, laughing in pleasure and relief to see him. What was he doing now? He was kneeling, getting some kind of small box – did it contain some kind of miniature medieval erotic text? “Pru, I love you,” he said simply, “will you marry me?” “Oh, of course, Lew. Yes. I mean of course,” she said, stunned. He got up slowly – the foolish man was looking nervous again – she supposed that it was acceptable for fiances to embrace – then she was in his arms. They kissed, and she somehow had gotten her hand under his shirt and against his chest, and if the carpet had caught on fire at that moment she wouldn’t have been surprised.

They slowly stepped back from their kiss, both looking a little frightened. “I guess you’ll want a really big wedding, all done up right,” said Lew, blushing. She made a noncommittal sound. She had to face up to it now. After marriage came the marriage bed. Her mother had never given her that particular talk. What would she do – Lew must be so experienced – she looked around and saw the copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. “Did you get that for me?” she asked a bit wildly. “You want it now? Um, sure,” Lew said, and handed it to her. As the book touched her hand, she felt an odd sudden glow all through her and a bright light of inspiration. Of course she knew what to do! Married people must do all those things – why, she knew quite a few things they could do. Dozens. “Lew, I think simplicity is a virtue in these ceremonies, don’t you?” she said. He looked at her and nodded; all of a sudden she looked almost, well, fierce. “I think we should find a justice of the peace and get married right away. I wish to be your lawfully wedded wife as soon as possible. Urgently.” He smiled and said “Whatever you want, Pru,” and she hurried him out the door.

When he carried her back over the threshold, she was holding him as tightly as he held her, and he looked at her hotly but with a trace of nerves still on his face. “Do you think that a marriage license issued by a philosophical zombie justice of the peace is really valid?” he asked, “I mean, he filled out and stamped it and everything, but he did it without conscious experience, qualia, or sentience…” “Valid enough,” she said with a low laugh. She tripped him somehow, and they both fell to the carpet. She pushed the door closed with her foot. And that was the last anyone saw of them for the rest of the two weeks, except for the people delivering food, who said that it was a chore passing everything around the door but at least the tips were optimal.


Doctor Science 02.13.09 at 4:11 am


Populists and many Conservatives object to the creation of sexual contracts

Not at all. They may object to *non-marital* sexual contracts, but most convervatives are quite forthright about believing that wives owe their hard-working husbands sex, and that is certainly one element of the traditional marriage.


Jonathan Card 02.13.09 at 7:04 am

Dr. Science,
Ok, I’ll accept that. I would put denying sex absolutely as one of many forms of violating the provision to “love and cherish” one’s spouse and so grounds for divorce. Which is why such advocates can claim that they don’t advocate that a wife’s duty is to provide sex whenever asked for. Neither absolute denial of sex nor demanding sex is very loving or cherishing (I didn’t understand the link; Dennis Prager’s recent article on the subject is reputedly a better one, but I didn’t read it). So, while the differences between men and women *in general* may make the interpretation of “cherishing” asymmetrical *in general*, the standard is a violation of the marriage oath and as such can only be judged on an individual basis. I think most Conservatives would agree with that interpretation.


Jonathan Card 02.13.09 at 7:31 am

Dr. Science,
But we have drifted from the point. The difference between Conservatives/Populists object to the creation of certain sexual contracts, the position you attribute to Liberals and Libertarians of legalizing prostitution in particular, also implies enforcing sexual contracts. Seen from a certain point of view, the adultery and sodomy examples are also implied verbal contracts granting access to the fundamental asset of an individual’s property: one’s body. And that contract is enforced; it’s hardly liberal to retroactively say that sex that was consensual was actually rape. The initial, implied, consent is enforced (hopefully, ideally).

I’m sticking to my position that both Conservatives and Liberals enforce sexual contracts; it’s in the allowance of the creation of sexual contracts where they differ. And, obviously, prohibiting the creation of contracts between mutually consenting actors isn’t liberal, but that’s why they’re not Liberals. Which is why I think this story isn’t much a refutation of Liberalism. However stupid the agreement is, it is illiberal to prevent them making it. It’s not like Prude is making Greg Down The Road give Prude all of his books.


Jonathan Card 02.13.09 at 7:35 am

Sorry about the second sentence. “Though Conservatives/Populists and Liberals differ in their view of the creation of sexual contracts, the position you attribute to Liberals and Libertarians of legalizing prostitution, in particular, also implies enforcing sexual contracts.” It’s late here.


Rich Puchalsky 02.13.09 at 2:57 pm

It’s really funny that philosophical discussion is still going on even as I continue with this increasingly mushy fanfic — but at any rate, one of the problems of writing in comment boxes of this kind is that editing is impossible. (These things could really use a beta reader / volunteer editor, given that I basically type them as fast as possible with only one draft.) At any rate, there’s something that I really meant to put in the last one and forgot to. In place of the following:

” What would she do – Lew must be so experienced – she looked around and saw the copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. “Did you get that for me?” she asked a bit wildly. “You want it now? Um, sure,” Lew said, and handed it to her. ”

should be:

” What would she do – Lew must be so experienced – she looked around and saw the copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. What had been said about it? Oh yes, “A book ‘written by a man with a diseased mind and a soul so black that he would obscure even the darkness of hell!’ Did you get that for me?” she asked a bit wildly. “You want it now? Um, sure,” Lew said, and handed it to her. ”

Because in each one of these, Pru quotes some actual statement by some censor.

Last one tonight or tomorrow, hopefully.


luis 02.13.09 at 5:24 pm

Both the stories and the discussion are terrific. Keep it up, Rich. :)


bad Jim 02.14.09 at 9:58 am

A loud prude impudently rude,
a proud lewd improbably shrewd,
are forever in fiction
intwixt in their friction
and collude so as not to conclude


bad Jim 02.14.09 at 11:11 am



Rich Puchalsky 02.14.09 at 6:41 pm

Not bad, bad Jim. But this is going to be the conclusion, at least from me. Of course, since this is fanfic, anyone else can write whatever they want.

Lewd and Prude at the Gotham Book Mart

Lew looked around the store, his gaze passing over all the mementoes, the framed Edward Gorey drawings black-silhouetted on the walls, the racks of books. So many books. He smiled at Pru, the wrinkles in his face falling into their old accustomed patterns. She smiled back at him. She was looking very good, very well preserved for a seventy-year-old, he thought. Well, they had an active lifestyle. “Now, what do I think I would find particularly corrupting today?” he asked. “Any hints?” “Hmm,” she said, “I’ve heard that Lost Girls is supposed to be a masterwork. Of course,” and she tossed her head, her long hair moving over her back, “it is a perverse graphic novel which should be criminal to sell or even to own under the provisions of the PROTECT ACT, since it contains ‘an obscene visual depiction of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct’, and therefore is no better than the worst child pornography.” “Ah. Comic books,” he said, “well, doubly corrupting then.” They exchanged another amused look and he rang it up at the counter. He sometimes wondered what was in all those books. He’d never read a pornographic novel, other than a few chapters of that one the day he and Pru had gotten married, so many decades ago. Pru would read them and sometimes she’d get a particularly wicked smile on her face and somehow they’d be trying something that they still hadn’t tried yet. Of course, that was much less often now that they were getting old, but they still managed somehow. He suddenly slipped the book into her hand and she blushed a little.

They went walking, hand in hand, out around the nearby streets. Lew frowned a little and reaching into his pocket and pulled out the piece of paper, now crumpled, that that silly Earth Defense Squad nun had given them. He managed to unfold it. Yes, there was the letterhead in bold: “For Great Justice.” That was going to get old. He scanned it quickly: invaders from Twin Earth were apparently plotting to replace water from the Hudson, which had some kind of value in their world, with their water, which was almost indistinguishable from Earth water but had a strange chemical composition and did exceedingly odd things to Earth life. If it ever got into the Hudson it would be a catastrophe. He shrugged and folded up the paper. He didn’t know why the EDS bothered giving them these things; they’d blunder into it anyways.

Pru caught his eye. He followed her gaze and there it was: two people looking distinctly paramilitary and out-of-place by the entrance to a shabby building. They went into a nearby shop, out the back, through a few twists and turns and a freight elevator and there they were; there was some kind of underground installation. “Air vents look too small to crawl through,” he noted. “Good thing, too, muttered Pru. “I’m getting too old to crawl through an air vent any more.” He shrugged, and they waited a bit for a shift change and just followed the off-duty guards in. They quickly turned away from the heavily-guarded control room, found a shabby computer tech’s office, and sat down with a sigh to read the manuals.

He tapped away at a computer console while she looked things up. “What do you think we should get Emily for her 35th?” Pru asked. “A bassinet?” “She’ll probably want to pick out her own special cosleeping one,” he said. “Mmm,” she said, and he thought about it for a little. Good god, their youngest child was going to be 35. “Have you figured that out yet?” he asked, raising his eyebrow. “It’s confusing,” she said, “their name for their water is just water, even though it’s a different substance than our water. I keep getting them mixed up.” “For convenience, you could just put a “t” before anything from Twin Earth,” he said, “so we’d call their water twater.” They exchanged a long, wordless look. “I think that calling it Twin Earth water will be fine, dear,” she said, and they both laughed. She found the right part of the manual and he typed in the program. He started to test it, but then a surveillance camera suddenly swiveled so that they were directly in its view. “I think that we’d better do it now, dear, now that we’re on camera,” Pru said. So he pushed the last button and she picked up her shopping bag and they strolled over to the nearby dimensional interface room.

All sorts of security alarms began to go off: “Tweeep! Tweeep! Tweeep!” “Have you ever heard an alarm that sounded like that?” Pru asked. He shook his head, laughing; he was something of a connoisseur of alarms. Ever since they’d gotten married, the crises they’d gone through had seemed to have more at stake, somehow. Lew thought about the big international incident after that slave-labor scandal where they gotten locked in a room for two days translating Chinese into more modern Chinese according to formula, even though they didn’t understand Chinese. How Pru had fumed when she found that they’d been inadvertently translating the Jin Ping Mei! Or the crises where they’d just hold hands afterwards, exhausted, as a sick child got better… guards were surrounding them from every direction, he noted. He wasn’t quite sure how they were going to get out of this one.

They stopped in front of the dimensional interface. Guards with shouldered weapons were standing all around, and their leader stepped forward. “Do you know what happens to your system when the safeties are taken off and it’s set to liquid-only transfer and a solid object is put through?” asked Lew politely. The Twin Earth leader peered at their faces, then suddenly leaped back, yelling “Lew and Pru!” The guards all gasped and leveled their rifles. Pru tossed the copy of Lost Girls through the interface.

There was a low rumble, and everyone froze for a moment. The dimensional transfer machinery began to disintegrate. Lew laughed and said “Did you really think we’d just let you destroy everything?” “I mean, really,” Pru sniffed, “we have grandchildren.” The Twin Earth leader opened his mouth to order them to be shot, or something, but he and all his men were fading out as the dimensional transfer machine went. Their expressions as they were sent back to Twin Earth were so comical, Lew and Pru both laughed, together, their voices pealing out in unstoppable mirth, not cruel, but triumphant. So what if there was a seemingly endless supply of corrupt charismatics, interdimensional monsters, crazed “Flying Man” mystics? They would all come crashing down.

Pr dusted off her hands. “That’s one that’s not coming back,” she said with satisfaction, looking at where Lost Girls had disappeared. “Add one to my score!” Lew was about to reply when the interface made one last burp, and as it snapped out a book came flying through to land on the floor. Lew rushed over to look at it. “It’s a Twin Earth copy of Lost Girls!” he said. “Same words, same colors, even though it’s printed in tink! You’re still going to have to read it, Pru!” He laughed and laughed. His gaze fell on the drawing of Wendy on the cover. “Printed in tink,” he muttered, “clap your hands if you believe.” Suddenly he felt an awful pain in his chest. He found himself sitting on the floor, Pru holding his hand with a lovely, calm look on her face as she met his eyes. She’d always been so brave, he thought muzzily. He’d never be able to keep himself from panicking if he saw her collapse like that…

They knelt there, holding hands, and he felt the pain in his chest fade. “Oh, that’s better,” he said, “it’s going away. Probably nothing.” “No more laughing it off,” she said as they stood up. “We’re going to get that checked, right away.” “Yes, dear,” he said meekly. “And if a normal doctor isn’t good enough,” she said, “we’ve met any number of unusual medical practitioners on our travels. Some of them decidedly odd, of course.” Lew laughed a bit, imagining what he might end up with. The rest of the chest pain went away and he stood up, feeling relieved. It was going to happen some day, of course. But not now, not today.

She dropped the Twin Earth copy of Lost Girls into her shopping bag. “The EDS will probably want to study this one,” she said, “but that wouldn’t be fair. I’ll have them give me a normal one in exchange.” “Add one to my score,” he murmured. As they walked out, she said “You know, Lew, I was at one of those lectures, and I met a nice Indian gentleman. He asked me how you and I had met, and I told him something about those books – nothing indecent, of course. And you know, he seemed to think that there was something – illiberal, about the arrangement. Do you think so?” Lew met her eyes, and they kissed, and then they both had to laugh again. And they walked out, arm in arm.

For Sherri Puchalsky
Valentine’s Day, 2009


bad Jim 02.15.09 at 7:52 am

(standing, applauding)

Comments on this entry are closed.