The intentionality of desire is the topic for a book, and since I have written that book, I shall confine myself here to a few remarks. My hope is to put philosophy to its best use, which is that of shoring up the human world against the corrosive seas of pseudo-science. In true sexual desire, the aim is union with the other, where ‘the other’ denotes a particular person, with a particular perspective on my actions.
The reciprocity which is involved in this aim is achieved in a state of mutual arousal, and the interpersonal character of arousal determines the nature of the ‘union’ that is sought. All desire is compromising, and the choice to express it or to yield to it is an existential choice, in which the self is, or may be, in danger.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the sexual act is surrounded by prohibitions; it brings with it a weight of shame, guilt and jealousy, as well as the heights of joy and happiness. It is inconceivable that a morality of pure permission should issue from the right conception of such a compromising force, and, as I argue in Sexual Desire, the traditional morality, in which monogamous heterosexual union, enshrined in a vow rather than a contract, is the norm, shows far more sensitivity to what is at stake than any of the known alternatives.
If it is so difficult now to see the point of that morality, it is in part because human sexual conduct has been redescribed by the pseudo-science of sexology, and as a result not only robbed of its interpersonal intentionality, but also profoundly demoralized. In redescribing the human world in this way, we also change it. We introduce new forms of sexual feeling – shaped by the desire for an all-comprehending permission. The sexual sacrament gives way to a sexual market; and the result is a fetishism of the sexual commodity.
Richard Posner, for example, in his worthless but influential book entitled Sex and Reason (but which should have been called Sex and Instrumental Reason), opens his first chapter with the following sentence: There is sexual behavior, having to do mainly with excitation of the sexual organs.’ In reality, of course, sexual behaviour has to do with courtship, desire, love, jealousy, marriage, grief, joy and intrigue. Such excitement as occurs is excitement of the whole person. As for the sexual organs, they can be as ‘excited’ (if that is the word) by a bus journey as by the object of desire. Nevertheless, Posner’s description of desire is necessary, if he is to fulfil his aim of deriving a morality of sexual conduct from the analysis of cost and benefit (which, apparently, is what is meant by ‘reason’). So what are the ‘costs’ of sexual gratification?
One is the cost of search. It is zero for masturbation, considered as a solitary activity, which is why it is the cheapest of practices. (The qualification is important: ‘mutual masturbation’, heterosexual or homosexual, is a form of nonvaginal intercourse, and its search costs are positive.)
Posner proceeds to consider hypothetical cases: for example, the case where a man sets a ‘value’ of ‘twenty’ on ‘sex’ with a ‘woman of average attractiveness’, and a ‘value’ of ‘two’ on ‘sex’ with a ‘male substitute’. If you adopt such language, then you have made woman (and man too) into a sex object and sex into a commodity. You have redescribed the human world as a world of things; you have abolished the sacred, the prohibited and the protected, and presented sex as a relation between aliens: ‘Th’expence of spirit in a waste of shame’, in Shakespeare’s famous words. Posner’s language is opaque to what is wanted in sexual desire; it reduces the other person to an instrument of pleasure, a means of obtaining something that could have been provided equally by another person, by an animal, by a rubber doll or a piece of Kleenex.
Well, you might say, why not, if people are happier that way? In whose interest is it, to retain the old form of desire, with its individualizing intentionality, its hopeless yearnings, its furies and jealousies, its lifelong commitments and lifelong griefs?
Modern philosophers shy away from such questions, although they were much discussed in the ancient world. Rather than consider the long-term happiness and fulfillment of the individual, the modern philosopher tends to reduce the problem of sexual morality to one of rights — do we have a right to engage in, or to forbid, this or that sexual practice?
From such a question liberal conclusions follow as a matter of course; but it is a question that leaves the ground of sexual morality unexplored. This ground is not to be discovered in the calculus of rights and duties, but in the theory of virtue. What matters in sexual morality is the distinction between virtuous and vicious dispositions. I have already touched on this distinction in the last chapter, when considering the basis of our moral thinking. I there emphasized the role of virtue in creating the foundations of moral order. But it is also necessary, if we are to give objective grounds for the pursuit of virtue, to show how the happiness and fulfilment of the person are furthered by virtue and jeopardized by vice.
This, roughly speaking, is the task that Aristotle set himself in the Nicomachean Ethics, in which he tried to show that the deep questions of morality concern the education of the moral being, rather than the rules governing his adult conduct. Virtue belongs to character, rather than to the rules of social dialogue, and arises through an extended process of moral development. The virtuous person is disposed to choose those courses of action which contribute to his flourishing – his flourishing, not just as an animal, but as a rational being or person, as that which he essentially is. In educating a child I am educating his habits, and it is therefore clear that I shall always have a reason to inculcate virtuous habits, not only for my sake, but also for his own.
At the same time, we should not think of virtue as a means only. The virtuous person is the one who has the right choice of ends. Virtue is the disposition to want, and therefore to choose, certain things for their own sakes, despite the warring tendency of appetite. Courage, for example, is the disposition to choose the honorable course of action, in face of danger. It is the disposition to overcome fear, for the sake of that judged to be right. All rational beings have an interest in acquiring courage, since without it they can achieve what they really want only by luck, and only in the absence of adversity.
Sexual virtue is similar: the disposition to choose the course of action judged to be right, despite temptation. Education should be directed towards the special kind of temperance which shows itself, sometimes as chastity, sometimes as fidelity, sometimes as passionate desire, according to the ‘right judgement’ of the subject. The virtuous person desires the person whom he may also love, who can and will return his desire, and to whom he may commit himself. In the consummation of such a desire there is neither shame nor humiliation, and the ‘nuptuality’ of the erotic impulse finds the space that it needs in order to flourish.
The most important feature of traditional sexual education is summarized in anthropological language as the ‘ethic of pollution and taboo’. The child was taught to regard his body as sacred, and as subject to pollution by misperception or misuse. The sense of pollution is by no means a trivial side-effect of the ‘bad sexual encounter’: it may involve a penetrating disgust, at oneself, one’s body, one’s situation, such as is experienced by the victim of rape. Those sentiments express the tension contained within our experience of embodiment.
At any moment we can become ‘mere body’, the self driven from its incarnation, and its habitation ransacked. The most important root idea of sexual morality is that I am in my body, not as a ‘ghost in the machine’, but as an incarnate self. My body is identical with me: subject and object are merely two aspects of a single thing, and sexual purity is the guarantee of this.
Sexual virtue does not forbid desire: it simply ensures the status of desire as an interpersonal feeling. The child who learns ‘dirty habits’ detaches his sex from himself, sets it outside himself as something curious and alien in the world of objects. His fascinated enslavement to the body is also a withering of desire, a scattering of erotic energy and a loss of union with the other. Sexual virtue sustains the subject of desire, making him present as a self in the very act which overcomes him.
Traditional sexual education also involved a sustained war against fantasy. Fantasy plays an important part in our sexual doings, and even the most passionate and faithful lover may, in the act of love, rehearse to himself other scenes of sexual abandon than the one in which he is engaged. Nevertheless, there is truth in the Freudian contrast between fantasy and reality, and in the belief that the first is in some way destructive of the second. Fantasy replaces the real, resistant, objective world with a pliant substitute – and that, indeed, is its purpose.
Life in the actual world is difficult and embarrassing. Most of all it is difficult and embarrassing in our confrontation with other people who, by their very existence as subjects, rearrange things in defiance of our will. It requires a great force, such as the force of sexual desire, to overcome the self-protection that shields us from intimate encounters. It is tempting to take refuge in substitutes, which neither embarrass us nor resist the impulse of our spontaneous cravings.
The habit grows of creating a compliant world of desire, in which unreal objects become the focus of real emotions, and the emotions themselves are rendered incompetent to participate in the building of personal relations. The fantasy blocks the passage to reality, which becomes inaccessible to the will. In this process the fantasy Other, since he is entirely the instrument of my will, becomes an object for me, one among many substitutes defined purely in terms of a sexual use.
The sexual world of the fantasist is a world without subjects, in which others appear as objects only. And should the fantasy take possession of him so far as to require that another person submit to it, the result is invariably indecent, tending to rape. The words that I quoted from Richard Posner are indecent in just the way that one must expect, when people no longer see the object of desire as a subject, wanted as such.
Sexual morality returns us, then, to the great conundrum around which these chapters have revolved: the conundrum of the subject, and his relation to the world of space and time.