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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Does Philosophy make Progress?

“Philosophy never makes progress, unlike science. Philosophers are still thinking now about the same problems they were 2,000 years ago.”

I’ve come across this sentiment or something like it quite a few times, and I think it’s actually not true. So why not blog on the subject?

It does seem, at times, that philosophy is sort of ‘stuck’. Obviously it changes, in what positions are fashionable, and who’s quoting whom at whom regarding what, but does it make substantive progress? Can we point to ‘advances’ that philosophy has demonstrably made, contributions it has made to human knowledge which aren’t just a trading-in of old prejudices for new ones?

The first and most concrete thing that comes to mind is, unimpressive as it may seem, a collection of instructive failures. Its history is filled with bold experiments, and the records of what went wrong – each of which tell us something significant.

For example, we now know that if we suppose all knowledge and all concepts to be derived from experience, we will find it very very hard to justify even simple reasoning procedures like “if it hurt every time I did it so far, it will probably hurt next time as well”. We know that because incredibly smart people committed to that very supposition have spent their lives trying to do so, with little success. And I don’t think that this was known in the same way in centuries before that, because the problem hadn’t been raised and considered in the same way.

Of course not everyone agrees, and people will always have a new attempt to revive apparently dead options – but there is at least a consensus that certain positions face certain, apparently serious, problems.

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What is religion: How to completely miss the point

Since we’re coming out of a big ‘religious’ holiday, and since I chat occasionally about religion, I figured it might be interesting to say something briefly about what I use the word ‘religion’ to mean. In particular, I wanted to say how I take it to be different from something else that I’ll call ‘sprituality’. (I’ve kind of done this before in places but whatever.)

To use the most extreme sort of example, contrast what are often called ‘mystical’ or ‘religious’ experiences, whatever their cause, with everyday awareness. Common features of the former include a sense of oneness or that boundaries are unreal or superficial, and relatedly, a sense of a meaningfulness, a goodness, and a ‘mine-ness’ that somehow applies to everything. Every event and detail is somehow beautiful and important.

By contrast, everyday life is chracterised by a sense of separation, of the world containing a great number of distinct things, of which some are meaningful and some meaningless, some good and some bad, some ‘mine’ and some alien or ‘other’.

This is related, I think, to the prominence of action in everyday life: when we act, we do so by means of what is ours (starting with our body, of course) as opposed to what is other, and we have to choose what to focus on (and what to ignore as irrelevant) and what to aim to promote (good) or avoid (bad).

So I tend to envisage this thing I call ‘spirituality’ as the tendency towards the former and away from the latter. ‘Mystical experiences’ are the extreme case, but other experiences can approach it to a greater or lesser degree, insofar as they are characterised by this sense of 1) oneness or universal ‘mineness’, and 2) abundant meaning and goodness suffusing that unity.

Ok, that’s the hippy shit out of the way. How do I think ‘religion’ relates to this? Well, while granting the word can be used in different ways, I think that what best characterises the things most commonly called ‘religious’ is something like ‘fetishistic spirituality’.

That is, in ‘religion’ that sense of universal meaningful oneness etc., is attributed exclusively to certain very specific things, usually on an apparently arbitrary basis. All other things are not only excluded from this, but are as a result felt as less important and less valuable.

For example, religions typically

  • identify certain people, and not others, as having the authority to speak on behalf of the transcendental oneness;
  • identify certain texts as being produced by and conveying it, and not others;
  • identify certain sets of ritual actions, certain buildings, certain items, certain sets of words, as having a special connection to it;
  • and of course, very commonly posit that this meaningful oneness (now no longer, of course, really such a thing) is actually a specific entity distinct from the rest of the world, an invisible, fire-breathing, masturbation-policing fundamental reality.

There are exceptions, and qualifications, of course, but why expect there not to be?

So in essence, spirituality is a sort of mindset characterised by a sense of universality and oneness, and activities that aim to cultivate it; religion is the subsuming of this oneness under one side of a division. I think this makes religion not only absurd from the ‘mundane’ perspective (e.g. scientifically wrong) but also absurd from the spiritual perspective that it’s supposed to best represent. It is perhaps the most spectacular way to miss the point.

On the other hand, it’s psychologically very useful – since we can generally live entirely in neither the spiritual or the mundane, action-centred mindset, dividing them into “one is for Churches, Bibles, priests and stained glass, the other is for the rest of life” minimises cognitive dissonance. And, of course, its incredibly politically useful because it allows spirituality, a fairly widespread and normal aspect of human life, to be appropriated – to be controlled by particular groups for their particular purposes.

Anyway, that’s how I use the words, and that’s what I mean when I say I both value spirituality and condemn religion.

The Philosophy of Cute

Poll: is this baby bat cute?

I posted a few things a while back on analysing disgust philosophically. Some emotions have got plenty of attention like this from philosophers, especially love. But something that I’ve never seen discussed in the literature is cuteness – what is the content and the meaning of our perceiving things as cute? A google search brings up nothing but people naming their cats Socrates and Nietzsche. So I’m going to have a go.

The obvious thing people say when analysing cuteness is that it’s an evolutionary adaptation to facilitate care for infants. This is quite true, but it doesn’t answer the question. What is a mouse or a bear or a human actually conscious of when they perceive their young in this way? They can’t really be conscious ‘that the infant is theirs and is very young’, because they probably don’t have enough sense of self-identity, or of time, to understand such concepts. Besides, how young is young? It’s a different space of time for different species. So merely knowing why this reaction came about doesn’t tell us what its content is.

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Is Empathy True?

Third post of fairly heavy philosophy. Will try to balance it soon with some political polemic and possibly a post on the philosophy of cuteness.

In my last post, I tried to explain why I think that empathetic ways of thinking of other conscious persons, and their conscious lives, is not just a different feeling or motive added on to non-empathetic ways of thinking, but is cognitively different, i.e. a completely different sort of belief.

I’m really not sure how far I managed to do that, since thinking about how we think, and especially thinking about how we think about thinking, is hard. But in summary: in non-empathetic thinking, the object of our thought in the other person, while in empathetic thought, our object is actually the object of their thought.

E.g. if person X is frightened of thing Y, then my coming to believe this involves a thought directed onto Y, not onto X. Just as ‘I’ am present in the thought, but not as an object, so X is not present as an object, but as a viewpoint, a perspective on the world.

Anyway, rather than spilling any more words I’m going to assume that if people still have no idea what I’m talking about they’ll tell me.

What I want to talk about now is why, given that empathy and all the forms of non-empathy are different cognitions, one is true and one is false. None of these arguments is entirely knock-down, because the whole debate is so loose you’ll always have room to dodge any point. But to me they make a lot of sense.

(I’m going to call the non-empathy umbrella ‘objectification’ because it involves a mental object, and because the word has conveniently negative connotations, and because I think it’s obviously a prerequisite for the sort of things usually called ‘objectification’.)

(I like the idea of a non-empathy umbrella too – empathy for other people is like rain, i.e. messy and inconvenient but also pervasive and vital for life).

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Empathy and Objectification: how to think about other minds

In my last post I tried to lay out the ground for my approach to meta-ethics, that is to investigating what is involved in moral claims being true or false. Today I’m going to try to put flesh on those bones by developing an account of how it is that we think about other people and their experiences, on which empathy is rationally required, and people who behave like psychopaths are rationally defective – victims, so to speak, of a delusion, just as much as any other psychotic.

So I should with some setting-up. Firstly, I want to say what I think the intuitive assumption is, the picture that I want to argue against (or at least provide an alternative to). The view can be summed up I think in two theses:

1) Thoughts about other people’s experiences have separate cognitive, affective, and motivational components, and;

2) People with different affective and motivational components can still share the same cognitive components.

That is, if malicious person A and compassionate person B both observe person C in distress, they can share the exact same cognition – namely, awareness of the fact ‘that person C is in distress’. They differ simply in that A adds to this a layer of enjoyment and a motivation to keep watching that distress, while B adds a different affective component (they are distressed themselves) and a different motivation (to relieve C’s distress).

What this picture implies is that at the level of cognition, there is no difference between A and B – and so neither can be called right or wrong. They differ only in the further steps they take after becoming aware of this fact. What I want to argue is that for these affective and motivational components to differ as they do, A and B must also have different cognitions, i.e. they believe different facts.

How does this work? My essential claim is this: that A is thinking of a certain object, which they understand and predict by running through a series of thoughts, treated as fantasy-thoughts, while B is thinking of a viewpoint embedded in a body, from which the world appears a certain way.

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What can Provide an Objective Justification for Morality? (and what IS morality?)

Last post I mentioned being away for the period around the weekend – I was at a philosophy conference and got back yesterday. The paper I was presenting was on meta-ethics, and in particular the topic of how moral claims might be objectively valid.

I won’t paste the whole thing up here, and I may not even put a whole summary up here (though if not I’ll try to complete it in other posts). But since it’s a topic I find abidingly interesting, and that has on occasion come up in discussions, I did want to open up some sense of what I’m about.

My starting assumption is that the content of any correct moral system is, boiled down, caring for others in the same way we naturally (though not inevitably) care for ourselves. The basic idea is to look out for the intersts of others as we do for our own, and in particular to refrain from harming them, just as we would try to avoid harm to ourselves.

I certainly don’t think all moral systems ever have fitted this pattern – many have substantial alien parts (purity, obedience, and group loyalty are three prominent values that seem opposed) – though it’s rare to see one that doesn’t incorporate this element among others. But that’s fine – they’re just wrong!

Now, what’s striking is that this sort of care-for-another isn’t restricted to what we would call ‘morality’ – it’s also something that often occurs spontaneously, when we simply learn about or consider other people, and of course something that occurs much more reliably in many sorts of inter-personal relationships.

On the other hand, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we know that someone is being hurt by our actions, and just don’t care. Sometimes, moreover, we perform that action because it hurts someone, because we are motivated to see them unhappy.

How do these phenomena differ from the moral? One difference is that they usually have more of a ‘feel’ to them – we empathise in a way that makes us cry or smile and which generally seems ’emotional’. But this isn’t actually always the case. Often in relationships, we act to care for someone but don’t ‘feel like it’. We can act as though we empathised, but without actually going through the experience of empathy – not necessarily out of ‘duty’ (in the sense of something ‘moral’) but becaue we value the relationship – we value it, and this motivates us in a constant way, regardless of the temporary variations in our emotions.

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