Archive for the 'Aporia' Category

Aporia: Pleasure

by Jason Stotts

Aporia (ἀπορɛία): an impasse, puzzlement, doubt, or confusion; a difficulty encountered in establishing the theoretical truth of a proposition, created by the presence of evidence both for and against it.

In this Aporia, I want to inquire into the nature of pleasure. In Eros and Ethos, I made the claim that:

Now, I want to explicitly make the controversial claim that all pleasure operates as an emotion and in response to our antecedent beliefs. By this I mean that our beliefs determine whether we will find any particular action pleasurable. I think that this particular claim must be tempered by the recognition that some things are common to us across all cultures, like comfort, although the particular actions that qualify as “comforting” will vary, sometimes widely, between cultures and so the action that might cause comfort in one culture might not in another. For this reason, I have to insist that pleasure is not innate and that we determine what things will be pleasurable, even if this determination is made culturally and only accepted by us as individuals implicitly through the culture. Human life is so imbued with meaning and that meaning comes from our values, that there is no aspect of this that is not affected, all the way down to our core. Now, of course, I do not mean our sense faculties themselves are affected. Sight is common for us, as long as our faculties are working normally, as is hearing, smell, touch, and taste. But our emotional response to these things after we have identified what we are experiencing will depend on us and our beliefs and values. When we move from pure perception to the conceptual level, we bring our values to bear and we do this immediately, automatically, and whether we wish it or not. And our values determine how we will appraise the thing and how we will respond to it.

This was challenged by my philosophic editor who said that I was conflating our conceptual understanding of pleasure with the physical experience of pleasure. I think he was right to challenge it. But, I’m not sure where to go now.

Consider a case that, a priori, is obviously pleasurable: sex. Sex is pleasurable. I don’t think many people would deny this. Yet, the very same actions that might be pleasurable during consensual sex would not be pleasurable during rape. Or, the exact same action on an unaroused clitoris will feel markedly different than on an aroused clitoris. So, sex is not necessarily or innately pleasurable.

What about warmth in the cold? That’s a pretty simple pleasure that we can all enjoy, right? What about if that warmth comes from the funeral pyre of your child? Is it still going to be a “simple pleasure” then? I have strong doubts that it would.

For every simple pleasure that I consider, I can pretty quickly imagine a case that destroys the pleasure of it.

Now, you might reasonably object that the pleasure is a sensation and that what is happening here is that we feel a sensation which can be innately pleasurable, but then our conceptual and emotional framework comes to bear and that ex post facto changes the simple pleasure: that our emotional or conceptual framework is overwriting the simple pleasure or editing it.

I’m not sure that this works. The woman being raped in the dark alley isn’t feeling first pleasure, but then thinking that she would rather not be raped right now. Her terror and pain are experienced immediately and without any intervening experience. She does not experience pleasure and then it changes to pain: she experiences pain and terror.

This is part of the rub: emotions are experienced immediately and as primaries. If there is such a thing as a simple pleasure, then how can we reconcile this with our knowledge that some things can be pleasurable in one context, but not another?

This all is not to say that I don’t, too, feel the pull of the idea of a simple pleasure: warmth when I’m cold, food when I’m hungry, or comfort when I hurt. But, even so, I can’t reconcile this with the knowledge that it matters quite a bit how these things are given to me: I wouldn’t seek solace for my wife’s murder from her murderer and I damned sure wouldn’t feel pleasure at any comfort he might try to give me.

So, where do we go from here?

We could create an account of “natural pleasures” that are common to all humans…except those who have had certain experiences or hold certain beliefs or are in certain contexts. But, that’s a pretty weird sense of “natural.”

Or, we could acknowledge that pleasure is an emotion and responds to our context, our beliefs, and the totality of our experience: that the idea of a simple pleasure is simply illusory.

I really don’t know. But, I’m leaning towards a more complex conception of pleasure that captures the way it seems to work in the real world.

—Update—

After some more thinking about this issue and discussions about it with various people, I think I’m getting a better grasp of it (not that I would say I have it completely figured out).

A friend on facebook pointed out that infants probably do have this kind of unmitigated pleasure and I think that’s probably right. These “simple pleasures” might be something we share with all other animals as infants, but once our minds start to develop, then we no longer have them. This may also be the way that instincts work: we have them as children, but we do not as adults (adults frequently override “instincts” from childhood and erase them). There seems to be some sort of transition from the pre-conceptual mental framework that has merely pleasure and pain to the fully conceptual framework that also includes the emotions and the like. During the transition, our ability to experience pleasure without our conceptual apparatus entirely disappears.

I don’t believe that a normally constituted adult can experience pleasure without his conceptual framework. Let’s look at a couple of examples that I think might help.

Case 1: Let us say that a man takes a sip out of a glass marked “ethylene glycol” and finds that it takes sweet and feels pleasure at this. Now, let us imagine that someone rushes to him and says: “You fool! That’s anti-freeze and it’s very poisonous! We need to get you to a hospital at once or you’re going to die.” Will the man still feel pleasure? Assuredly not. The pleasure will be instantly gone and it will be replaced with disgust and fear.

Case 2: Let us imagine the same man sees a glass and it’s marked “anti-freeze (DANGER! POISON!).” Will he be likely to pick it up and drink it? No. Let us say that he is forced to drink it in order to save the life of his family. Will be feel pleasure drinking it? No, he will not. Even though it will still be sweet, it will not be pleasurable.

Case 3: Let us imagine a man who’s grown up in a place where he never had anything sweet. His diet has consisted of nothing but meat, vegetables, tubers, and the like. He has never had sugar or sweets. Now, imagine you find this man and you hold out to him a hard candy made entirely of sugar. Let us say that you tell him nothing at all about it (perhaps he doesn’t have language), but you mime putting it in your mouth and he does so. We might expect him to feel pleasure at tasting the sweetness of the sugar, but that’s not likely. Because this man would never have experienced anything like the hard candy, his mind will not know how to process it and won’t know how to respond to it: it would be a cognitive blank to him. In all likelihood, he would spit it out and be concerned about what it was. Now, instead, let us say that you had been able to communicate that it was food and it tasted good to set his expectations. He will then likely experience it as sweet and maybe feel pleasure at it. However, in this case, you primed his response with the fore-knowledge you gave him.

When we don’t have any frame of reference for a thing, when we experience something completely novel as an adult, we do not experience simple pleasures. Rather, we are cautious and try to find out more information about what it is and what it does. Our brains and bodies are simply not constituted such that we have any affective experiences outside of our conceptual framework.

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Aporia: Sexual Orientation

by Jason Stotts

Aporia (Ancient Greek: ἀπορɛία: impasse; lack of resources; puzzlement; doubt; confusion) In philosophy, a philosophical puzzle or state of puzzlement;  In rhetoric, a rhetorically useful expression of doubt.

Sexual orientation is a confusing subject.  So confusing that some people have taken to the idea that your sexual orientation is whatever you want it to be, that whatever you self-identify as must be your actual sexual orientation.  But, I find that idea at least…problematic.  What about the issue of self-deception?  What about the issue of other-deception?  What about contexts in which it’s acceptable to be different and cultures where it isn’t?

If a person’s sexual orientation is simply what they self-identify as, then how do we treat a man who calls himself straight, but who only is aroused by men, who only has sex with men, and who has no desire to ever be in a relationship with a woman or have sex with one?  Certainly he’s at least self-deceptive, but isn’t he also wrong that he is straight?  If it’s true that this man does the opposite of what a straight man would do, then this man is not straight.

What about the man who calls himself straight, who is in a relationship with a woman with whom he regularly has sex, but who also feels a strong desire to have sex with men and does so on a regular basis.  He’s not self-deceptive because he knows his desires and acts on them.  He’s likely hiding his true orientation from others because of the stigma of being a male bisexual, but in so doing so he’s communicating something false about himself.  Should we simply consider him a liar?  A coward for not being true to himself?  He’s not wrong about his sexual orientation, since he actually does know what it is, but there is a problem here for other people who might want or need to know his sexual orientation (for example, the men with whom he has sex or his own partner).

So, no matter what sexual orientation is, it’s definitely not just whatever you might self-identify as.  Your sexual orientation is more than simply whatever you feel it is.

Part of the problem is that we have this polarized idea of sexuality: that everyone is either gay or straight and these are mutually exclusive categories.  But this is wrong and misses much of actual human sexuality.  Sexual orientation is not binary.  It is, at the very least, a continuum of sexual options.  I think this is best captured in the Kinsey Scale, which is 0-6, with 0 being a “perfect heterosexual” who only desires and has sex with those of the opposite sex and 6 is a “perfect homosexual” who only desires and has sex with those of the same sex.  Then there are, obviously, the vast majority of people who are somewhere in between.

One alternative scale involves ranking a person on two independent axes: androphilia and gynephilia, or desire for men and women (respectively).  So, a person could have 8/10 desire level for women and a 4/10 desire for men, making them a bisexual.  With this schema, the levels of arousal for men and women are independent and indicate desire for that sex.  Thus, one advantage of this system is that also measures level of overall desire for sexual activity as well as sexual desire for each sex.  I’m not sure which I think is better, but this system does capture more than the Kinsey system, which itself captures much more than the standard dichotomy of gay vs. straight.

Of course, there much these scales don’t capture, like propensity to form relationships versus simply having sex with a person, or a person’s overall level of sexual desire (perhaps their desire for men or women is only moderate, but they really enjoy masturbating), or the fact that a person’s sexual proclivities and orientation can change over time.  But, it does, at least, help move us in the right direction

Of course, one issue that we haven’t addressed head on is the issue of action versus desire.  Or, is being gay a matter of doing gay things or having gay desires or both.  I find this issue more confusing that some of the others.  For example, what should a man who considers himself a Kinsey 2 (bisexual – opposite sex leaning) because he has both desire for men and women, even though his desire for women is stronger, but who has never, due to lack of opportunity, had sex with a women and has only had sex with men?  He self-identifies as bisexual on the heterosexual side, but he’s never had sex with a woman.  On the other hand, it’s not because he doesn’t want to, but is merely frustrated by the situation.  This is further confounded by the fact that many men grow up in our culture with internalized homophobia and try to be bi as they come into their sexual maturity so they can maintain some semblance of being “normal,” when they really know their probably a K5 or K6.  But, leaving aside the issue of whether this particular man is being self-deceptive, what should he be considered?  I find it very strange to call him a K2 when he’s only had sex with men.  Perhaps sexual orientation is simply a matter of ideal situation and not of actual situation.  But that doesn’t seem right either.  I might wish I were a K6, but if I’ve only ever had sex with women, then that obviously seems wrong.  I don’t have an answer for the question of whether we should judge sexual orientation by action or desire, or perhaps both, but it’s an interesting topic that needs more investigating.

I wonder, though, what we should do about children, adolescents, and young adults.  Should we really consider a young person to be gay, bi, or straight when they have no actual sexual experience?  Is this not being at least somewhat…optimistic about their guessing powers?  Should we simply accept that this is what they think they would like to be or should be when they get older?  Should we consider their orientation an open question until they have some experience?  As unlikely as this last sounds, there would be some definite advantages to it: people wouldn’t try to force themselves to conform to their adolescent beliefs growing up and could approach the issue of orientation with an open mind.  Their sexuality could be treated as very tentative until they’re older, maybe even their mid-twenties.  Of course, perhaps it’d be better if we all held our sexuality less rigidly and treated it as at least something of an open question.

Ultimately, I still have more questions than answers on the question of sexual orientation, but I think the topic is a rich one and deserves more careful analysis that it usually gets.

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Aporia: Sexual Identity

by Jason Stotts

What is sexual identity?  Is it simply being gay or straight?  Is it all possible facts about our sexuality?  Is it how we structure our relationships and love as well?  Does my sexual identity include facts about whether I’m monogamous or practice polyamory?  Should it include whether a person has sexual integrity?  Should fetishes and desires be included?

This issue has captured my attention recently while contemplating sexual orientation.  People often refer to a person’s sexual orientation as their “sexual identity,” yet, that seems much too thin to me.  I certainly don’t think that describing a person as straight or gay exhausts their sexual identity: in fact, it seems like more of a basic starting point than any deep information.  If all straight people were the same as each other, if all bisexual people were the same as each other, if all gay people were the same as each other; then sexual orientation might exhaust sexual identity.   But this is plainly not the case.  Sexual identity must be something more than simply orientation, although orientation is definitely a part of it.

But what else should sexual identity include?  It seems, at least at first blush, like it should include anything and everything about a person’s sexuality to which they are firmly committed and which form the core of their sexual experience.  By this I mean that if a person can’t think about sexuality without thinking of it through the lens of BDSM, then this is an important part of that persons’ sexual identity.  If a person can’t imagine becoming sexually aroused without their fetish, then this is an important part of their sexual identity.  So, tentatively, let us say that anything without which a person couldn’t imagine their sex life being good for them is an important part of their identity.

But, this raises the question, should literally anything be included?  Should we have to include anything in a statement of our sexual identity?  Should I need to say that: “I’m into {a,b,c,f,u}, but not {d, z, r, t}, and sometimes {q, j}?”  That seems much too cumbersome.  Of course, on the other hand, it’s not too likely that any particular person has a large set of sexual things that are very important to him.  Most people could probably communicate their identity with something like: I’m a bisexual woman who is mostly monogamous with slight polyamory leanings and also like some light BDSM.  It certainly seems like the stronger you hold a desire, the more it is part of who you are.

Perhaps it would be useful to delimit identity to just a couple of axes that are the most important, like: orientation, level of overall desire, sexual openness, relationship and love openness, and interest in kink.  Each of these could have a scale of 0-6 denoting orientation (Kinsey Scale), overall level of desire (asexual – nymphomania?), (monosexual – polysexual), (monogamous – polyamorous), (none – very kinky).  It’d be a little awkward to get it going, but it’d be easy to communicate your overall desires to someone quickly as “I’m a {6,6,0,0,6},” which would be a very kinky, very horny, homosexual.

Even if the scale idea doesn’t take off, and there’s no doubt it’d be a lot to get people to go to it and it might not even be worth it, I think I’m at least correct that sexual identity is much more than simply sexual orientation and if we at least move to a richer view of sexual identity, then we will have a better chance to understand our own sexuality and communicate it to others.

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Aporia: Is Physical Beauty Itself a Value?

by Jason Stotts

I often get asked, because I advocate that sexual attraction is a response to values, whether physical beauty is a value.  The intention of the question is, of course, to see if I think that physical beauty is a sufficient value to justify sexual activity.  I’ve always thought this was an interesting question and I think it’s time we analyzed it in depth—although I’m not sure I have an answer to this yet.  So, as with my other aporia, consider this an open question.

Let us start by looking at the question of whether physical beauty is a value.  I think it is generally agreed that physical beauty is at least some kind of value.  In Attic Greek culture, for example, the human form was held up as one of the ideals of beauty: as one of the most beautiful objects in existence and I think this is right.  Unfortunately, here as in many places, the mystic nonsense of the christians corrupted this pure idea and held that the body was shameful and base, that it was a platonic prison of the soul which had to be ignored as much as possible in order for the soul to reach some special place after death.  This hatred of the physical body has manifested in strange ways, such as the idea that natural functions such as breast-feeding are sexual (since in breast-feeding a breast is used and breasts are always sexual?).  The Greeks did not think that beautiful bodies were always being sexual.  Indeed, the early Olympic games were played in the nude and one of the great values that the spectators derived was from the sight of the beautiful and strong bodies moving well and exerting themselves.

For a rational person, physical beauty is at least some kind of value.  Furthermore, it seems to be a value in a similar way that art is a value.  While art is a metaphysical recreation of reality according to the artist’s value judgments, that is the artist portrays the world according to how he sees it and what he thinks is important, a physically beautiful person can resonate with a person’s sense of life and value judgments as well.  That is, if a person values human life, living well, and human virtue, then he will respond positively to a beautiful person.  Now whether or not this is justified is a different question, but it is the case that we see beautiful people as instances of what humans could look like, of humans that are living well in the sense of maintaining their bodies well and presenting themselves well, and who are living well in the moral sense and succeeding at life.  It is psychologically true that we see beautiful people as good and think of ugly people as evil.  This idea was well known in Greek culture and they thought that the face was a window to the soul: that one’s moral character reflected out and either made one more or less beautiful.  As an interesting aside, this idea also plays a prominent role in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, where Dorian’s evil actions are reflected only on the painting of him and since his face and body remain beautiful and youthful, people think that he is therefore good.  Whether or not we are justified in inducing a person’s moral character from their physical appearance, and likely we are usually not justified in this, it remains a fact that we naturally do this.

An interesting line of inquiry might be whether beauty is naturally pleasant and whether we project our moral framework onto it in order to see it as even more attractive and pleasant, since we are attracted to what we think is good and find it pleasant.  I imagine this is the case, as I have argued elsewhere that our moral judgments can override the value of physical beauty and that if we know a physically beautiful person who is a moral monster, that we cannot help but to see their beauty as tainted and them as less beautiful than they would be if their character were better.  Furthermore, that is we know them to be immoral, that we cannot see them as sexually attractive (except for, perhaps, in some abstract way, but that we cannot respond to them sexually).

When we meet a person who is a cognitive blank to us, where we know nothing of them or their character, we can still judge them aesthetically as beautiful or not.  However, I think in order to do this, I think we have to project our moral framework onto them and project a good character.  I think we naturally want to think of beauty as good and since we already respond to it at a primitive level, we want to have a fuller response, so we flesh out their persona with our own judgments in order to have a full response to them.  We want them to be the kind of person that we would be very attracted to and want to know and so we project our framework onto them so that we see them as robustly good.  On the other hand, it could be simply that we see beauty as a natural good and therefore as embodying our values (which we think are good), and therefore we think that since beauty is a good that it must be conjoined by moral good, since we think that the beauty is caused from within.

I want to return to an earlier point and ask whether beauty is some sort of natural good.  I want to say that yet, it is.  Much in the same way seeing the beauty of a sunset or an artwork is a great value, I think human beauty is also a value.  We need, as a psychological fact, to see beauty in life.  It is a reaffirmation of the beauty of existence and of the good in the world.  It is an encouragement to keep fighting against evil and of the black blanket of destruction it brings.  Beauty brings us joy and motivation: it is like spiritual fuel.  Human beauty is, to me at least, one of the highest kinds of beauty as I value humanity.

Several obvious questions arise: what is the connection between aesthetic judgments of beauty and moral judgments of beauty?  Is there such a thing as a moral judgment of beauty or can moral judgements only augment or detract from beauty?  I think it is the latter.  There are some people who are so ugly that even an exemplary soul would not make me think they were attractive: I might respect them for their character, but they would not become attractive if they were physically ugly enough.  So, it’s not the case that there is a moral judgment of beauty.  There is an aesthetic judgment of beauty and a moral judgment overlay that greatly influences our response to the physical characteristics.  I actually don’t think that one can maintain a judgement of aesthetic beauty in the face of knowledge of a bad immorality and a bad character.

Beauty is, then, a value, but only when combined with a good character: beauty is not a self-justifying value.  However, beauty is an important value and it should not be minimized.

I think it’s also important to consider that sexual attraction is not the same as physical beauty: you might judge someone as physically beautiful, but not sexually attractive.  If we are happily partnered and monogamous, and therefore not looking for new partners, we’re much more likely to experience a person’s physical beauty without having a sexual response to it.  This, though, raises another question: does our judgment of beauty necessarily contain a sexual judgment?  Is saying that you think a person is beautiful connected to you saying you would have sex with a person?  Is it the same thing?  I’m not sure.  I think that they can be different, that one can make an aesthetic judgment of beauty without necessarily implying the further sexual step.

One final, and very important, question that we still need to address: what ultimately justifies sexual activity?  Is beauty a sufficient reason to have sex with a person?  I think, given the foregoing, that the answer is a very qualified yes.  If the beautiful person is also a good person, if you’re not treating sex lightly, and if it’s not harming other values in your life, then I think it’s perfectly moral to have sex with a person because they are beautiful.  On the other hand, if you ignore and evade a person’s bad character in order to justify having sex with them, then it is immoral.

This is all I have to say on the topic right now.  I welcome feedback on this aporia and I will write another essay at some point in the future with my more considered opinion.  I hope that this has at least raised some interesting questions for you.

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