Sexual Perfection Extraneous

by Jason Stotts

The following is a rough draft of what was going to be section 1 of chapter 2 of my forthcoming book Sexual Perfection: Foundations of a New Sexual Ethic.  However, the section had to be cut after a restructuring.  Instead of merely scrapping the material, I’ve decided to post it here so that you, our loyal readers, can have a look at it.

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Section 1: Brief History of the Problem

What is an emotion?

Each of us has experienced what we think are emotions and most of us would likely say that he knew what an emotion is. However, it quickly becomes clear, once we begin to try to concretize this knowledge, that our conception of emotions is ephemeral at best.

For example, love is popularly considered a paradigm emotion, but what about shame, disgust, and pleasure? Are these things emotions? Furthermore, even in the paradigm case of love, it’s not clear what exactly love is: is love something inside me, or is it a relation between my lover and myself, or perhaps both? Once we try to pin down the precise nature of an emotion, we quickly discover that the certainty we thought we had evaporates.

Yet, if we cannot understand even the more basic emotions and the role they play in our lives, it is hard to imagine that we shall be able to come to understand the true nature of sex or to ever know happiness. But how, you may be wondering, with all of the advances in technology, in medicine, in psychology, and with the intervening 2500 years since philosophers began asking hard questions about emotions, how can we not know what emotions are? The problem is that for all this time, there have been some serious errors that have prevented our understanding of emotions from progressing.

Plato was the first philosopher, of whom we have substantial record, to attempt to untangle the confusion regarding emotions. He believed that humans were truly immortal souls trapped inside bodies and that after death these souls would transcend the material world to a pure world of Forms. However, while bound in a body, the soul had certain attributes. In the Phaedrus, Plato uses the metaphor of a charioteer pulled by two strong steeds: a white purebred (reason) and a wild black stallion (the passions). He claims that in order to maintain one’s path, one must tame the black stallion as much as possible so that the two horses work together. If the black horse of the passions cannot be tamed, then he shall pull the chariot astray.

The problem with Plato’s psychology is that it treats the passions as innate and irreducible, in addition to being opposed to reason. Thus, while Plato would agree that it is the sight of a beautiful youth that stirs desire for a Greek, he would not think that any further analysis could be done. Yet, if the sight of a young boy were simply enough to stir desire and this was innate, then all humans (or at least all human males) should feel desire for these beautiful youths. However, today young men are not the objects of the lust of older men, but rather it is women that now serve as the ideal of beauty (a concept completely foreign to the Greek mind). By considering emotions as irreducible and opposed to reason, Plato set the stage for two millennia of confusion.

The next major setback for the understanding of emotions comes again from the Greeks, although this time it is the Stoics. One of the Stoic ideals was what they called apatheia, or the absence of desire and emotions. This ideal springs from their belief that emotions obscure our connection with the world and confuse our minds. Instead, we are told by the Stoics to follow Reason dispassionately.

The Stoics, instead of contesting the idea that the passions are opposed to reason, instead accept this as fact and decide that the only appropriate course of action must be to reject emotions in favor of reason. However, with no emotional commitment to follow the edicts of reason, why should I desire to? By completely denying that a passionate life could be a reasonable life, the Stoics severed any chance of someone desiring a life of reason and set up the ideal of the dispassionate life of “cold reason.” We shall return to this point at the end of the chapter and see that our emotions can actually serve as the motivation for ethics.

So far, we have seen that Plato thought that emotions were unanalyzable and needed to be commanded by reason and that the Stoics went even farther by outright denying that emotions could have any useful role in life. Yet, it was Kant, who insisted that emotions were absolutely opposed to reason and therefore anathema to Ethics, that struck home the final nail in the coffin for emotions.

While the Stoics had sought to create a philosophy dedicated to human reason in order to live a good life, Kant’s goal is something different. Kant seeks to create a philosophy structured for a “pure rational agent”. He seeks, as much as possible, to remove any human elements from his system and to enshrine “reason itself” as his deity. Thus, he states an agent must always act “not from inclination but from duty, and by this would his conduct first acquire true moral worth.” Thus, for Kant if a person has any emotional commitment (inclination) to an end, it cannot be ethical. This emphasis completed the divorce of emotions and ethics that Plato started by insisting that reason had to tame emotions. It also was the final blow against emotions insofar as understanding goes, since if emotions are only destructive of ethics, then we need not try and understand them. It would be best to avoid them altogether.

The history of philosophy with regard to emotions is a rather bleak one and it gives rise to most of the problems we see in the current understanding of emotions. Today, the three major problems in relation to emotions are: the open hostility to emotions, the dichotomy of reason versus emotions, and the idea that emotions are unanalyzable. We have seen the historic and philosophic origins of these ideas and we have even anticipated the answers to some of these problems in chapter 1. Now let us briefly address each before moving on to a thorough analysis of emotions.

First, we must point out that emotions are not necessarily destructive of ethics. It is important to realize that Kant only thought that emotions were destructive of ethics because he was absolutely opposed to any sort of self-interested action and he believed that if emotions had any role in ethics, then people would be inclined towards egoism. Since we have already dismissed the arguments against egoism, let us set aside Kant’s agenda and move on to other problems.

Not only are emotions not necessarily destructive of ethics, they can also be the fuel that powers ethics. If we realign emotions and reason, then emotions could help us to be ethical. Imagine the difference in action between the person who was coldly ethical because he thought it was right, but had no emotional commitment to right action, and the person who passionately wanted to be good. It should be obvious that the latter person will not only be better able to achieve a good life, he will also enjoy this life in a way that the former person will not.

We saw in chapter one that the conception of a person as having a separable soul/body was incorrect and that humans are actually integrated beings of soul and body such that when the body dies, the soul does not persist. Although we can easily dispatch with dualism, we still need to understand the connections between reason and emotions in order to integrate the two back together. In order to do this we shall have to provide a positive theory of emotions to replace the mistaken historic conception, which we shall do below. In the process it will become clear that emotions are not irreducible primaries, but are open to analysis, and that reason and emotions are closely related.

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