Culture

The Playboy Philosophy

Hugh Hefner and friends in 2011 (Reuters photo: Fred Prouser)
Buckley on the philosophy behind Hugh Hefner’s sexual revolution and the magazine that started it all

Editor’s note: This is William F. Buckley Jr.’s On the Right column of October 1, 1966. It also appeared in his essay collection The Jeweler’s Eye, published by Putnam in 1968.

 

I bring the news, which I had from Hugh Hefner’s own lips, that the last issue of Playboy magazine sold 4,000,000 copies and ran $2,000,000 worth of advertisements, a phenomenal achievement; indeed, it is just possible that Mr. Hefner is making more money from Playboy and related enterprises than any other publisher in the country, at least from a single magazine.

Mr. Hefner’s Playboy is most widely known for the raciness of its prose and the total exposure of the female form. It is more than that, Mr. Hefner insists — and many agree, including professors and ministers and sociologists. It is a movement of sorts, and its bible is an apparently endless series, published monthly by Mr. Hefner, entitled “The Playboy Philosophy,” the key insight of which is that “a man’s morality, like his religion, is a personal affair best left to his own conscience.” The phrase sounds harmless enough, and the tendency is to cluck-cluck one’s agreement to it.

The trouble with Hefner’s law is that society is composed of nothing more than a great number of individuals, and if each man’s morality is defined merely to suit himself, then everyone will endure the consequences of the individual’s autonomously defined ethics. Mr. Hefner’s philosophy notwithstanding, there is such a thing as the public morality, and that morality has throughout civilized history been primarily sustained by religion.

All that is good is not embodied in the law, and all that is evil is not proscribed by the law.

The so-called sexual revolution, of which Playboy is the slickest harbinger, asks in effect that sanctions be removed against what used to be known as “illicit sexual behavior.” The Playboy group correctly skewers the conflicting and vague laws that lie in the dusty statute books of the individual states, and a case could be made, let us say, for removing criminal sanctions against homosexuality between consenting adults. But the modernists want to go further and, in effect, remove the moral sanctions against such behavior — and that is something else again.

All that is good is not embodied in the law, and all that is evil is not proscribed by the law. A well-disciplined society needs few laws, but it needs strong mores. And the kind of solipsism that is encouraged by the sexual revolution goes further by far than to encourage a loosening of the laws. It encourages the loosening of public attitudes.

Now Mr. Hefner shrinks from the consequences of his own position, though he is quick to insist that he does not, that a general moral breakdown would not necessarily follow upon the acceptance of the Playboy philosophy.

I am struck by a recent book, advertised in the New York Review of Books, called The Erotic Minorities. It is a plea, written by a Swedish doctor and introduced by the same kind of argumentation used by Mr. Hefner, for total sexual permissiveness. It is, in the publisher’s words, “A Bill of Rights for erotic liberation of the ’sexually different.’” Note the stolen base — “sexually different” is put in quotation marks to suggest that what we now think of as “sexually different” is really rather arbitrary, a hangover from old and useless Puritanical codes that presume to suggest there are right and wrong ways of making sex. The book lists some of the sexually different categories and suggests that provisions be made, if necessary at government expense, to provide them the means for their gratification. My favorite category is “ . . . the necrophiles, who require a corpse as the object of their passion.”

If my eyes do not deceive me, and alas they do not seem to, it is the insight of Dr. Ullerstam that laws against necrophilia should be repealed and that necrophiles should be permitted, indeed encouraged, to sate their appetites as best they can. Indeed, says the doctor, we need “mobile brothels” to provide for the sexually different.

Professor Benjamin DeMott of Amherst has said that the Playboy philosophy is “the whole man reduced to his private parts.” I do believe that he misses the larger point of the philosophy, which is not so much a call to total lubricity as it is a renewal of the old personal Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill and his apostles, carried to anarchical lengths. It is a theory of ethics, by the way, to which such modern “conservatives” as Ayn Rand seem fully to subscribe. Its principal deficiency, I mean other than in the eyes of the God to whom increasingly infrequent references are made, is its neglect of the social reality.

John cannot behave exactly as he desires, because he will inevitably affect James, not to say Jane, if those desires are not contained by reference to the great prescriptions of human conduct which are the most valuable part of the national patrimony.

READ MORE:

Video: Hugh Hefner on Firing Line

Yes, Men View Women as Sex Objects

Male Sexual Nature and the Left’s Culture of Denial

Want Less Sexual Trauma on Campus? Stop Telling the Big Lies. 

— William F. Buckley Jr. was the founder and longtime editor of National Review.

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