Thursday, 6 April 2017
Sex (and Aristotle)
Mudblood Catholic (Gabriel Blanchard) is currently doing an excellent series of posts (first here) in response to Ed Feser's equally excellent natural law analysis of sex (best to start from this blogpost here accompanied by reading Feser's paper referred to in the article).
As Gabriel has not yet finished his series of posts and because I simply don't have the Lenten patience to give the topic a complete response, what follows is inevitably incomplete. Instead I'm going to focus on some key features of an Aristotelian reaction to what I've read so far, on the grounds that the Aristotelian background is sometimes assumed rather than stated by Aquinas' position (and thus sometimes overlooked by later Thomist thinkers) and, in any case, is of interest in itself. (It is of course anyway the privilege of an analytic Thomist not to be consistently Thomist and sometimes to try on the mantle of analytic Aristotelianism instead.) I'd stress that the following is simply a reflection on some points in the existing analyses: it claims neither completeness nor aspires directly to correct or refute either Feser or Blanchard.
The first thing to note is that Catholicism allows and even requires philosophical thinking in morality. There is a widely held non-Catholic suspicion that philosophy dies with Catholic dogmatic religion: that answers, being laid out and decided, form a telephone directory of morality rather than, say, the desperate existential, but open-ended quest that seems to typify the earlier dialogues of Plato. This is simply false as both the Blanchard/Feser exchange shows as well as does even a passing familiarity with the internal disputes of mediaeval scholasticism. Quite why this is so is a different matter and one that would require a much more extended discussion than I can provide here. But in any case (an insight I think I owe to Leo Strauss) unlike the legalised reasoning of Islam and Judaism, Christianity to a great extent can embrace the fluidity of the philosophical life in a way that these other revealed religions cannot: roughly, the tension between Athens and Jerusalem is one internal to Christianity and external to Judaism and Islam. So the first point is that understanding sex and the morality of sex for Catholics involves hard philosophical thought: it is not something that can be simply read off the page of a dogmatic codex. (I should note in passing that this philosophical requirement is not necessarily one for each individual but for the Church as a whole. I however pass over the details of this for the present.) To translate this into Aristotelian terms, the tentativeness about moral reasoning that is found throughout the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics is one that is not foreign to Catholicism. To translate this into Blanchard/Feser terms, the debate between them is entirely to be expected and welcomed. As Gabriel notes:
I started having problems with it immediately, which was delicious. People don’t usually realize how spacious Catholicism really is. Seeing it from the outside, they perceive the dogmas merely as boundaries—and they are in one sense, but they are much more like LEGOs: the defined structure is what lets you do all the fun stuff.
The second thing to note is that, coupled with this philosophical openness is indeed a dogmatic certainty. In the present case, for example, homosexual intercourse is clearly morally wrong: I won't attempt to defend that here except to note that, for 2000 years, that's been the clear teaching. Whatever the philosophical openness, there is also a dogmatic closure. This element of brute assertion is also typical of Aristotle:
That is why in order to be a competent student of the noble and the just, and in short of the topics of politics in general, the pupil is bound to have been well trained in his habits. For the starting point is the fact that a thing is so; if this be satisfactorily ascertained, there will be no need also to know the reason why it is so. (EN I 1095b)
The combination of these first two points is that moral philosophy will have to deal with some moral truths being clearly established and yet the precise reasoning for those truths being open to the sort of fluidity of debate typical of philosophical discussion.
Related to those points is a third point: that what is clear to the wise (moral) person (phronimos) will not be clear to those who are not.
Virtue then is the settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man [phronimos] would determine it. (EN II 1106b-1107a)
Consequently the unproved assertions and opinions of experienced and elderly people, or of the prudent [phronimoi], are as much deserving of attention as those which they support by proof; for experience has given them an eye for things, and so they see correctly. (EN VI 1143b)
To sum all this up, there will be limits in what philosophical reasoning can establish, both in terms of coming to clear conclusions and in terms of coming to conclusions which might overthrow the common sense of the wise person. (At this point, we might add as Catholics, the certainties of revealed teaching will help. But the space for certainties intruding into philosophical reasoning from external wisdom has already been made by Aristotle.)
More specifically, in relation to the Blanchard/Feser debate, at some points, what will be clear to the clear sightedness of the moral will not be clear to those of us who are not so gifted. We may remain unconvinced by their arguments. But that does not mean that we are right not to be so convinced: such a failure is a result of our lack, either because we are corrupt or because we are in some other way impaired. As the modern neo-Aristotelian Rosalind Hursthouse puts it:
Aristotle's view allows that his answer will not work for everyone. It fails for two different sorts of people. One is the sort of person who has been sufficiently corrupted by their upbringing not to be able to see anything amiss in the life of the person who is 'successfully' non-virtuous...The other sort of person for whom Aristotle's answer may not work would be an 'unnatural' human being... (Hurthouse in Warburton, 2005, pp182-183)
Given the Catholic understanding of the effects of original sin, particularly on concupiscence, all of us are likely to find ourselves constantly wondering how many of our own judgments are thus impaired.
I now move on to a different aspect of the debate. One may be an Aristotelian either in believing that Aristotle has usefully set out a basic framework of approaching ethics, and/or in believing that how he applies that framework has produced useful results. So, for example, one might accept that the basic Aristotelian approach sketched above (and perhaps adding such matters as teleology) is a good approach to sexual ethics, while denying that the sort of traditional Aristotelian conclusions on such ethics are actually necessitated by such an approach. Aristotle's own treatment of sex, for example, is primarily set out in Books VIII and IX of the Nicomachean Ethics where it is seen as part of the overarching concept of philia (friendship) rather than through, say, the prism of Lewis' The Four Loves. It would be perfectly possible to argue that Aristotle is correct in his basic approach to ethics while suggesting that the treatment of sexual ethics in the Nicomachean Ethics is inadequate. Indeed, it would be hard to argue that sexual ethics is adequately treated by Aristotle because he says very little indeed about it. That said, I am going to argue that what Aristotle does say provides a rather more helpful starting point than (say) Lewis' divisions between the four various types of love (which form an important part of Blanchard's analysis).
Aristotle's analysis of friendship divides it into three main types: that of virtue, that of pleasure and that of usefulness. The friendship of husband and wife is, in terms of its function, one of pleasure (obvious), one of usefulness (both in procreation and other support) and also potentially of virtue 'if the partners be of high moral character' (EN VIII 1162a). A number of points emerge from this analysis.
First, a philosophical analysis can be useful for what it leaves out or passes over as well as for what it includes. I confess that Aristotle's rather brisk way with sexual feelings and romantic attraction attracts me. As he says elsewhere:
We must therefore be content if, in dealing with subjects and starting from premises thus uncertain, we succeed in presenting a broad outline of the truth...for it is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each kind which the nature of the particular subject admits (EN I 1094b).
That many writers over the years have agonised over the nuances of romantic sensibility does not mean that every nuance so produced is worthwhile: in addition to the erratic nature of the sensibilities of fallen humanity, in general some oversensitivity to detail will tend to disguise the core of the matter. (I find for example the erotic hesitancies and wanderings of Iris Murdoch's characters often intensely irritating in this way and long for a brisk sensibility such as that of Flora Poste.)
Secondly, sex is analysed primarily through the household and the nucleus of that household, the man/woman couple. In essence, this is because the tele (ends) of the organism and parts of the organism make sense within an overall ordering of the cosmos: the species imitates eternity by its eternal existence while its members undergo a cycle of birth, procreation and death. The individual's life takes place within the social units of (eg) the state and the household, which themselves have goals and to which the individual's actions are subordinated and contribute. In other words, sexual activity and the proper use of the sexual organs forms part of an ordered structure of the universe and cannot be understood or even noticed apart from that structure.
Why does that matter? Well, take Blanchard's following observation:
Thirdly—and this is a lesser point, but it’s important, given the claims made by Neo-Scholasticism for what shows something to be natural—it must be pointed out, as a matter of historical record, that romantic love was not regarded as a dignified or spiritual phenomenon until the twelfth century, at least in Christendom and its Euro-Levantine predecessors—except, in Greece and later in Rome, for homosexual Eros. To revere romantic love, that fanatical, self-abasing, inconstant, reckless, and involuntary phenomenon, was as ridiculous to our Christian ancestors of the early Middle Ages as it was to their pagan ancestors of the classical era. Nor, until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was the romantic tradition linked to marriage even by Romantics; for the Troubadours who originated the tradition of courtly love, adultery was of its essence. The idea that Eros is shown by actual human habits to be naturally directed toward marriage is an artifact of a long and localized cultural development—or, more bluntly, pure moonshine.
Now I take an Aristotelian response here to be something along the following lines. People have all sorts of desire for pleasure. To the extent that romantic love is just a desire for pleasure, it hardly matters. (One might as well worry about the finer points of playing tiddly winks. Even if you are very keen on tiddly winks, it still doesn't matter that much.) It does matter to the extent that it is directed or can be directed towards one of the great ends of human nature. The most obviously relevant one here is that of creating the household (and thus ensuring the continuity of the species by procreation and education of the children). The erotic disorder of romantic love needs to be canalised to that end. (And despite the received wisdom that in long term marriages, such romantic intensity burns low after the initial turbulence, as a member of such a long term relationship, I think I'd have to say that, in many ways, though undoubtedly canalised towards sustaining a childbearing household, its intensity has grown to an extent I never would have dreamed of as being possible those many years ago.)
But in addition to that creation of the household, Aristotle would also have pointed to the greatest end of human beings as being relevant here: that of the contemplation of divine things (EN X 1177a). That contemplation is easier with a few co-workers (1177b) but in general requires minimal external help.
But the friendship of the good is good and grows with their interaction. And they seem actually to become better by putting their friendship into practice, and because they correct each other's faults, for each takes the impress from the other of those traits in him that give him pleasure -whence the saying:
Noble deeds from noble men.
(EN IX 1172a)
The telos of contemplation is aided by having a few friends. That is possible within a good marriage (although it is certainly not either exclusive to marriage or indeed necessary to marriage). The household by its other directedness of procreation and education of children disciplines romantic love towards the second best life of active moral virtue (EN X 1178a). In the best scenario, it can also discipline romantic love towards the end of contemplation. Both those ends matter because they fit into the wider pattern of the cosmos (through the imitation of eternity in procreation and death, and in the imitation of god by contemplation of the divine). To the extent that romantic love can be turned towards those great ends, it matters. But to the extent it cannot, it is only a constellation of bodily pleasures, the precise nature of which hardly matters at all. (So to take up Blanchard's point, that romantic love is only a comparative late comer to our cultural imaginary and to our understanding of marriage is really neither here nor there: only to the extent that it fits in with the understanding of human teleology sketched above should it be be attended to. However marriage as the possible site of important and virtuous friendship is there in Aristotle, and. I'd suggest, it is this rather than the focus on romantic love which provides a sounder base for the analysis of marriage's (and hence sex's) importance.)
Let me try to sum up the main points of this post:
1) An Aristotelian analysis of love (and of other things) will not always be obvious to all people (or indeed in parts to anyone!) It requires hard philosophical thought and debate. (And may need to be resolved by the assertion of the wise or revelation.)
2) Aristotle's own analysis of romantic love is quite coarse grained and leaves out a lot of detail that later thinkers might introduce. This may well be an advantage.
3) For any human activity, it is always necessary to ask towards what goal it is directed. That direction in turn will fit into a wider, teleological understanding of the universe as a whole. Without that understanding of the whole, it is likely that the telos (and thus nature) of the part will be misunderstood.
4) Sexual attraction is to be analysed primarily in the context of the procreating household and the establishment of the male/female pair. Other cases are of marginal importance.
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