Disintegration and Sexual Pleasure

I’ll be involved over the next few months in a course on the philosophy of sexuality, so expect a few sexual musings to appear. Here’s one.

Reading over an anthology of pieces on said topic, I was amused to find two philosophers arguing for opposite conclusions using very similar arguments. One (a ‘New Natural Law’ Catholic) argued that sexual activity carried out for the sake of pleasure is wrong, because it “disintegrates oneself”. The other (a feminist) argued that sexual activity not carried out for the sake of pleasure is wrong, also because it disintegrates oneself.

I’ve paraphrased somewhat to make them sound more similar: the second writer (Robin West) doesn’t say that anything is wrong, but that is potentially (very) harmful, and doesn’t speak so much of whether the purpose of an activity is pleasure, but of “sex [someone] does not desire…that, although consensual, is in no way pleasurable.”

The upshot is that given the two actions of desiring to masturbate, and so doing so, vs. not desiring to have sex with a spouse, but doing so anyway for some other reason, they take precisely opposite stances: one endorses the second but not the first, the other the first but not the second.

(The Catholic, a guy called John Finnis, is also a fucktard on numerous levels, such as explicitly claiming that people who thinks that non-procreative sex brings them emotional intimacy or personal connection are “deceiving themselves” and pursuing “an illusion” without the possibility of fertilisation. But let’s look past that*)

That’s intriguing, isn’t it? That the same sorts of concern – that people should aim always to help themselves become ‘integrated’, to be whole – should be appealed to in support of opposite views of the importance of physical pleasure. How does this work? What can it teach us?

Finnis says that the “disintegrity” (is that a word?) of, say, masturbation, or any activity motivated purely by pleasure, consists in “treating one’s body as a mere instrument of the consciously operating self, and…making one’s choosing self the quasi-slave of the experiencing self which is demanding gratification”.

For West, conversely, the potential harms of undesired, unpleasurable sex include that “the psychic connection, so to speak, between pleasure, desire, motivation, and action is weakened or severed. Acting on the basis of our own felt pleasures and pains is an important component of forging our own way in the world – of ‘asserting’ our ‘selves’…these harms – particularly if multiplied over years or indeed over an entire adulthood – may be quite profound.”

Compare these arguments. In the second case, it’s fairly clear how a certain connection is being ‘weakened or severed’ – the connection between certain feelings and motives, and certain actions. And that connection is said to be important to ‘self-assertion’: someone who routinely acts contrary to their feelings will be less able to identify and act on their feelings when they want to.

I can kind of see that. More could be said about how to estimate the significance of this kind of effect, or whether it really happens, but West’s explicit goal is just to ‘open a dialogue’ and it makes enough sense for that. The other one seems kind of a mess.

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Is the Government Routinely Guilty of Murder?

A quick question. We typically make a distinction between killing someone (which is murder, outside of certain defined cases, like self-defense), and acting in a way, a consequence of which is that they die.

Part of that distinction is intent, and part of it knowledge (it’s not murder to do something which causes death, if it was accidental, or if the result couldn’t have been foreseen). But those are obviously not the whole difference – I can knowingly, and deliberately, say, engage an ambulance driver in conversation, so that they are delayed in responding to my rival’s injury, which I did not cause but know about. And that is a very wrong thing to do, but not quite murder, it seems. Certainly at least, it is not ‘violent murder’.

(note that intent is not the same as motive. I can commit murder for noble motives – I may even be right to do so – as long as I am doing so deliberately. I can also regret that they must die, while still intending to kill them)

A big part of the remaining distinction, though, is about types of action, about the means used. Part of why the person above is not a murderer (if we think they’re not) is that the only action they performed – striking up a conversation – is a generally acceptable and benign sort of action. Stabbing, poisoning, or sabotaging equipment, so that someone (predictably) dies, would count as murder because those sorts of actions have some kind of directly ‘violating’ nature.

This reflects the sort of things a non-consequentialist ethical theory might say: even if the consequences (death) are the same, it’s still important that certain sorts of actions are different from others. Let’s grant this for now then. There are rules of action (do not poison people, do not physically attack people, etc.) that must be obeyed, and they are to some extent independent of consequences.

Now here’s my thought. If someone, with knowledge and deliberation, takes a violent action, or threatens violent action, and by so doing, brings about a certain person’s death, is that sufficient to count as either murder, or as something ‘morally equivalent’ to murder? Even if the ‘direct’ cause of death is something other than said action, or even if the person who dies is not themselves the victim of violence?

I wonder this because it seems that at some level, all state decisions are carried out with at least the threat of violence; the reality of violence is also fairly common. And it’s also the case that many state decisions lead to many deaths that might have been avoided, even if none of this violence is directly lethal. For example, on day 1 the police forcibly arrest and imprison someone for stealing food from a shop: a second person sees this and comes to fear the law. They are, however, financially destitute and this fear of the law prevents them from stealing food from that shop, or from forging health insurance or immigration documents, or some such things. As a result, they or one of their family dies, say from a childhood infection made dangerous by malnutrition.

Now, this seems to be a situation in which the state or some agent of it has carried out violent actions, which led to someone’s death – which death is predictable, if not individually then as part of a statistical average. (I’m here abstracting away from questions of who exactly in that great apparatus of decision-making and -enforcing is responsible – let’s just speak of ‘the state’)

Does this make said state guilty of murder, or of something morally equivalent to murder? If so, that seems to be quite serious – though of course it need not imply condemnation of the state. One might say that this sort of murder is justified by the particular circumstances that attend being a state.

But I do find my pedantic mind wondering about this. If it’s not murder, why not – what makes the difference? If it is something like ‘directness’ of causal link, then 1) what exactly is directness – how is the causal chain to be ‘segmented’ into distinct chunks? 2) why is directness – when distinguished from, say, reliability of connection – morally important? Is this just like the squeamishness of being more willing to support something unpleasant if you don’t have to see pictures of it?

History and the Meaning of Communism

Two people might differ on the definition of ‘cat’, in that one might espouse the definition “quadripedal mammalian carnivore with a highly flexible spine and a shortened face”, while the other prefers “stealth-hunting mammal with retractable claws and a tapetum in the eye”.

But the difference would be more profound, and more conceptual, if one person suggested the first of these definitions, and the other suggested “descendent of the common ancestor of all living cats” (followed by pointing to some examples). Here the difference is not between two definitions, but between two ideas about what sort of definition is appropriate to this word – different sorts of rope for connecting letters with meaning.

And this gives rise to an interesting possibility – that one word might be defined in two ways (e.g. ‘cat’ might have both a phenetic definition, by its characteristics, and a cladistic definition, by its ancestry). But then what if the two don’t match up? Then fun and excitement! For those interested in concepts, at least…

What about political ‘isms’ – what about, in particular, the word ‘communism’? It seems to me that there are at least three different ways people have of approaching this definition, and  I’m interested in the possibility that these three might not all coincide.

The word ‘communism’ might be defined:

A) By ‘historical quotation’  – you see all those people and texts and parties loudly using words like ‘Kommunismus’ or ‘Comunismo’? Whatever it is they’re talking about, that’s what ‘communism’ means. For instance, if arguing over whether communism includes idea X, it would not be irrelevant to say “look here, idea X is explicitly endorsed in The Communist Manifesto.”

B) Theoretically – specify a certain principle and identify ‘communism’ as meaning that and everything that follows from it. For instance, one might specify the principle ‘collective ownership of all social wealth’; you might deduce that pervasive democracy is a logical precondition of this, and that freedom of expression is a logical precondition of democracy.

C) Most interestingly, in terms of ‘class role’. It seems to me that many writers (Marxists especially) use the idea that ‘communism’ is the ideology appropriate to the mature revolutionary movement of the proletariat almost as what fixes the meaning of ‘communism’. Or (to use the word to designate a possible state of society, rather than an ideology) there’s a habit of defining ‘communism’ as a classless society (and, at times, ‘socialism’ as a society in which the proletariat is the dominant class).

Now if these three approaches to definition were entirely unrelated, we would just have an ambiguous word, or rather three words spelt and pronounced the same (like with ‘stick’, a bit of a wood, ‘stick’, what glue does, and ‘stick’ it to the man).

But they’re meant to all define the same concept; hence they’re supposed to match up with each other. A certain historical collection of people and groups (A) are united (setting aside whichever ones you want to exclude from the club) by their espousal of certain ideas (B) and by their role as representative of a certain class movement (C).

Some opponents of communism would no doubt make a point of denying these connections – in particular, denying that either A or B link to C, denying that the wage-earning population have any natural connection to or interest in the ideas (B) that a certain tradition of people (A) have espoused. Alternatively, it might simply be denied that those ideas, as espoused by those people, have any prospect of revolutionising anything.

I disagree, as you might expect. I could go into why but I won’t.

Rather, I’m interested in the following possibility: that there might be a valid connection between A and B, and between B and C, but not between A and C.

That is, might it be that while ‘the communist tradition’ is indeed a good representative of ‘communist ideas’ (if we’re selective in the right way – excluding people like Stalin who are too obviously at odds with those ideas), and while these ideas are indeed those that naturally emerge out of and guide a ‘mature revolutionary proletariat’, no other connection exists between the communist tradition up ’til now, and that ‘mature revolutionary proletariat’ – because the latter has never actually appeared? (that’s not a diss or anything, ‘maturity’ here is meant in the sense of ‘historically undeveloped’)

This to me looks like a consistent position. I don’t know that it’s true, but it’s not obviously less plausible than the more traditional idea that all three of the definitions are tightly linked. Of course, it demands an explanation of what ‘the communist tradition’ was all about, why it existed the way it did and did what it did. And I can imagine some possible answers.

But for now I’ll leave it here: it seems to be consistent to accept both that (some significant core of) the historical communist movement was right in its ideas, and moreover that those ideas are, as it claimed, appropriate to a mature revolutionary proletariat, while also disputing the idea that proletarian revolution had anything to do with the successes and failures of that same movement.

Identity Politics, Class Struggle, and Power

I realised today why I’m uncomfortable with the term ‘identity politics’.

This usually gets counterposed to ‘class struggle’, at least in the intellectual circles I tend to frequent. But elsewhere it can be contrasted with whatever more ‘serious’ or ‘pragmatic’ politics the speaker prefers. For those who’ve not come across it, it sort of lumps together sexual, racial, disability, cultural, etc. issues – politics which problematise the oppression of certain people on the grounds of their ‘identity’.

I dislike the term because I think it serves to disguise the way that all politics is about ‘identity’: all politics is about people deciding to act in certain ways, and the way that people make those decisions, about what they want and what motivates them, has to be understood in terms of how they conceive of themselves.

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Is the Minaret Ban ‘democratic’?

Most readers will probably have by now that Switzerland has passed a referendum to ban the building of minarets anywhere in the country. This has prompted many musings, in particular on the relationship between democracy and liberty.

This looks, after all, like an example of an illiberal but democratic measure. This prompts Chris to say

“We have, therefore, a simple conflict of fundamental values, a vindication of Isaiah Berlin: …Some among the great goods cannot live together. That is a conceptual truth. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.”

By contrast, Left Outside tries to harmonise the two (and hence judge this decision undemocratic) by saying

“I don’t think it must be inherently democratic simply because it was a decision returned by a referendum. There are some things in a democracy more fundamental than simply voting for representatives or in referenda…equality before the law is essential, as is…freedom of conscience”

Dave argues for a similar sort of conclusion along different lines:

“If democracy is merely about the relationship of individuals to authority then [this ban is democratic], but if democracy is about associative relationships and how we collectively relate to authority, then the Swiss have weakened that associative relationship and its collective relationship with the Swiss state…

[D]emocracy is weakened, because democracy can only really proceed from a correct understanding of, for want of a better phrase, how things work.”

All of these are valid points, but I’m not sure they would convince Chrisiah Berlin (a composite personality insisting that ‘some among the great goods cannot live together’). Isn’t this just a redefining of the word ‘democracy’ to include various more substantive notions of freedom?

If we define ‘schmemocracy’ as ‘the will of the majority being effected’, regardless of whether that will is well-informed, or cohesive, or correct, then have we just replaced an apparent conflict between liberty and democracy with one between ‘democracy’ and ‘schmemocracy’?

To my mind, though, there’s a more basic argument for thinking that this event doesn’t show us a conflict between liberty and democracy/schmemocracy. Namely, that even if we define ‘democracy’ as ‘the will of the majority being effected’, this definition is still technically ill-formed.

Because what is meant by ‘the majority’? After all, the number of people who voted ‘yes’ in this referendum is a few million, which is less than 0.1% of human beings. That’s not a majority.

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What would a Vegan Society look like? Part 2: Species and Cultures

I sort of feel like the ‘what would a vegan world look like?‘ topic deserves a couple more posts, although this one continues to duck the central and thorny (and sticky – like a thornbush covered in treacle) questions, and instead deals with certain concerns that often come up in this sort of context.

One recurrent question goes as follows:

“If we all became vegatarian/vegan what would happen to all the existing domestic cows, sheep and pigs etc? Would a truly vegan society mean the extinction of domestic cattle and sheep and pigs?  What happens while they all die off?”

The other question is:

“What about places where there are ‘indigionous’ people such as Inuit who  do not have the weather to grow sufficient vegatables?  How much will we have to ride roughshod over peoples’ culture to do this?”

Now, I think in both these cases, there is a reasonable and very difficult question of means, and relatively simple question of ends.

The question of ends in the first case is – do we aim at the extinction of the domesticated cattle, pig, etc. sub-species? And to this I think the question is fairly straightforwardly ‘yes’ – we don’t aim at that for its own sake but if, as is quite possible, it would be the consequence of veganism, we’re fine with that. Sub-species in themselves aren’t particularly important, and don’t have moral rights that way that individuals like you do.

And similarly, in the second case, there is the question – are we happy to cause an irrevocable and radical change in hunter-gatherers’ cultures, essentially amounting to the disappearance of the older cultures? Again, I would say ‘yes’, because cultures are not in themselves morally significant things.

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What Would a Vegan Society Look Like? Preamble

Reader Mute Fox, from withwhatartthoudiscontented, said a while back:

“I am merely curious to know how you envision a free human society…interacting on equal terms with other species, all the time. I am not saying it couldn’t be done…I just wonder what you think that would look like.”

After a perhaps-unconscionable delay I figured I should try to say something about this. It’s hard to know where to start, especially because so much of the answer to this question is bound up with environmental questions about our relationship to the overall biosphere. There’s also the equally tricky question of which animals we’re talking about, and how they differ – to avoid that I’m talking primarily about mammals here.

But I think the best way I can think of the come at the question is from the idea of paradigms. By ‘paradigm’ I mean a sort of guiding thought that informs and determines how we relate to a particular thing – less specific or rigid than a rule, and one step more practical than a philosophical truth.

For example, at the moment, the primary paradigm by which human societies relate to animals (strictly, ‘nonhuman animals’ but I’m going to go for brevity here) is that animals are property. This is related to the philosophical claim that animals possess only ‘extrinsic’ or ‘instrumental’ value – that is, whereas humans are morally valuable and important intrinsically, animals are valuable insofar as they are valuable to someone else.

As I said, the paradigm is one step more practical, more concrete and specific, than this principle. It’s that claim – that animals have only extrinsic value – refracted into various sorts of definite relationships: animals which are positively valuable will become a resource to be owned, increased, and consumed, as food or clothing or work or information, while animals which are negatively valued will become pests, vermin, or ‘beasts’, and the target of extermination attempts, just like the dirt on our floor.

Obviously, part of my goal would be to do away with this paradigm. But what to replace it with? That will at least be the first step from a philosophical principle like ‘animals have rights’ to a concrete social vision.

One obviously inappropriate paradigm is something like ‘citizen’ or ‘fellow’, which is (in theory) how we’re meant to morally relate to other adult humans. The reason this isn’t appropriate is, in essence, that we can’t communicate with animals in the appropriate way – they can’t speak up in our discussions, they can’t understand and accept the rights and responsibilities that society might bestow on them, etc. Of course, nobody has ever suggested that we should apply a paradigm like that to animals, and I mention because sometimes people arguing against animal rights talk as if that were the only alternative.

I think there are at least two other alternatives, that we already apply to a certain extent when dealing with humans, and that I think would be the right ones to apply with different groups of animals.

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