On sex, clumsiness, and adverbs

Typically, we associate awkwardness, clumsiness, inelegance, and gracelessness with poor aesthetic performances alone, but could aesthetic considerations have any connection to ethical considerations? Could there be a point at which clumsiness cancelled out a good deed entirely?

Sometimes we may think that what makes a good deed good is that the individual has the right kind of intention when he performs the action. At other times, we may believe that a good deed is good in virtue of the outcome. And sometimes, it is said, the right intention may yield the wrong outcome and then we can get very confused. For example, the man who helps an old lady across the street may inadvertently get her run over by a car.

I think this debate between (what are called) deontologists–the people in the right intention equals good action camp–and the consequentialists–those in the good action equals good outcome camp–is missing something special and essential about the nature of virtue. This something special and essential is the manner in which an act is performed. Words that will factor into the moral appraisals of the kind I have in mind are aesthetic terms of an adverbial and adjectival sort. A salient example:

a mother stroked her child’s feverish forehead gracefully.

It might seem as if the adverb were merely being tacked on at the end–for could not a mother care for her feverish child with any number of touches? Some would do and be appropriate but not all. If, in some contexts, a mother were to stroke her child’s forehead clumsily, then the child may not recognize the gesture as an act of kindness or compassion. The act could–and with good reason–be regarded as a slight, a criticism, or something apparently incomprehensible.

But if this is true, then we’d want people to learn how to do something well with this ‘how’ meaning: the way in which…, the manner in which…, the style of…, the (overall) spirit in which…, etc. For a father’s generosity could very well be cancelled out, despite his having the right intention and in spite of his bringing about a desired outcome, by the manner in which he offers the gift. In some cases, the gift could be registered as a burden, and the addressee’s confusion could be warranted.

Arguably, we would do well to consider having good sex as being a synecdoche (that is, a part that stands in for the whole) for being a virtuous person. If one is awkward with one’s caresses, then the beloved may not only be put off by this gesture but may also be put at a distance for good. How can a clumsy caress (or many) not lead in the end to aversion? And what would make one want to continue an erotic attachment with another if the other doesn’t learn how to replace clumsiness with gracefulness? And what makes us think that it would be a good idea to exempt a life led according to virtue from these sorts of aesthetic considerations?

Sex may not be the truth of relationships but it could very well be the truth of ethics.