If you’re like me, you cringe when you hear the word “incel” and never use it without scare quotes. Of course, there have always been people who are involuntarily celibate, but when they band together as a named subculture, something’s seriously amiss. I’m pretty sure I’d see it that way even if there weren’t four recent cases of men venting their sexual frustration by slaughtering people—one having done so explicitly as an “incel.”
The problem with making a named subculture out of this particular shared problem is that it turns an issue that individuals have in common into a core identity. From there, it just gets worse. Like other identity groups insist on their rights and make demands, “incels” feel entitled to assert their rights and make demands as well. And when none of that accomplishes anything, some of them explode in violent rage.
But suffering from a shortage of sex and romance isn’t actually any sort of an identity, and even if it were, there would be no associated rights. Nobody has a right to sex or love. Nobody can complain that their right to a sexual partner has been violated, just in virtue of the fact that they are celibate.
Right? These seemingly obvious assertions are in tension with the claims in a recent book by Matthew Liao—The Right to Be Loved. The book is about a child’s right to be loved, but even so, it helps us think a little harder about whether there are any adult rights when it comes to sex and love.
Liao argues that rights are founded on “essential interests”—interests that must be fulfilled if a person is to live a good life. He claims that for a child, being loved is this kind of essential interest. It does seem that this is the case. Kids who are raised with basic care, but without a loving parent, fare worse. The sort of right being imputed here is a “claim right”—a right that gives the right-holder a claim on others, who individually or collectively have a correlative duty to provide the right-holder with whatever she has a right to. Liao argues that the right to be loved primarily gives the biological parents a duty to love a child since they’re the ones who created a baby in its vulnerable, dependent condition. But others share this duty, especially when no biological parent is available. The child has a right for someone to come forward and adopt the child, fulfilling their right to be loved.
Liao doesn’t mean for this sort of argument to be transposed into the key of an adult’s right to sex and love, but it’s not clear the transposition can be avoided. After all, it does seem as if experiencing sex and love are among the essential interests of most, or at least many adults. Without sex and love, many people will find a good life unattainable. If that’s all it takes to generate a right, then Liao’s reasoning would leave us having to accept what “incels” say about their rights. Granted, there’s no particular person with a duty to fulfill that right, in the way biological parents ought to love their children. After all, by the time people are looking for love and sex, they’re well past the age when parents are responsible for meeting all of their needs. But “incels” would be entitled to sex and love from someone. If that’s the case, yet they’re persistently celibate, they might actually be justified in their sense of entitlement, though not obviously in their murderous rampages.
There are two ways to go. (A) We can see this transposition as a reductio ad absurdum. “Incels” just obviously don’t have a right to sex and love, so the reasoning that’s leading us to say otherwise must be flawed in some way. Or (B) we can see the transposition as telling us something surprising but true. What do you know?! “Incels” are actually justified in thinking they have rights that are being violated!
I pick (A), and if you do too, our next question is where the error is in Liao’s reasoning. Does he have the right account of how rights arise? Is it really a simple matter of rights arising out of essential interests? The trouble with that view of things is not with negative rights—rights that just require others to leave us alone—but with positive rights—rights that give others a duty to provide us with goods or services. Must others give me whatever I need, to live a good life? That’s hard to believe. And yet it’s not implausible to think parents should provide for their young, dependent children; and society should provide parent-substitutes for children without biological parents. We need an account of children’s rights that doesn’t land us in an implausibly affirmative stance on “incels.”