Thursday, February 9, 2012

Doing and time

I was awake in the night earlier this week thinking about Judith Thomson's defense of abortion and how an opponent, such as Anscombe, might best try to counter it. What follows is largely a reconstruction of those thoughts on action-oriented ontology, if I can call it that, and I apologize right now if what seemed like a good idea in the middle of the night (such as the title of this post) now seems less good.

The question that most interests me is: what is sex? We all think we know what it is, but there are multiple conceptions (so to speak) of sex, and I'm not sure that we always have the same one in mind when we talk about it. In fact, I'm fairly certain that we don't. Some people would say that rape is a (morally reprehensible) kind of sex, while others deny that it is sex, or "about" sex. I'm sure people draw the line differently about what does and does not count as cheating on one's partner, sometimes in ways that involve judgments about what is really sex and what is not. And I think that some people with different ideas about the ethics of sex also have different ideas about the essence or nature of sex. I'll try to explain this idea.

Think of a film with at least one sex scene in it. This scene occupies a set of frames, which if I were a real philosopher I might call S. To some people, sex just is what is depicted in S (and relevantly similar behavior). To others, though, sex means something more. True, it might well be the behavior depicted in S, but S, some people might say, belongs on a strip of film that also depicts other things (this is where time comes in, if you're wondering about this post's title). On a romantic view, this longer set of frames will include earlier scenes of dating and falling in love, perhaps also of marriage. On a natural law kind of view it might include all that and later scenes of pregnancy, birth, and various stages of child- and parenthood. And, no doubt, there are other kinds of view as well.

What I'm suggesting is not only that some people will say that sex ought to be thought of in the context of, or along with, love and/or pregnancy. I'm claiming that some people will say also that you don't understand what sex is, that you don't know the meaning of "sex," if you don't include some reference to these other things when you define or analyse it. One way, perhaps, to see this is to think about the kind of illustration that might go with the entry on sex in an illustrated encyclopedia. A photograph of people having sex would, I think, be pornographic in this context, assuming you could actually make out (ho ho) what they were doing. I don't mean 'pornographic' in a judgmental sense (although I'm not sure that it has a neutral sense), just that photographs, videos, etc. of people having sex pretty much are called pornography these days. And various people would feel for various reasons that pornography did not belong in a book like that. They might object on the basis of a religious morality, or of feminist politics. But they might also object that the pornographic vision or conception of sex is a distortion, is not simply true to the facts. (It might seem to be so. And it certainly might pretend to be so ("I'm just being honest").) Presenting sex as simply sex, with no connection to how it happened to occur or what might follow from it, is, at least arguably, to promote a certain idea of sex, according to which natural law or romantic (or other) conceptions of sex confusingly, or confusedly, import extra content. It is to act as if something like honesty or science call us to resist natural law or romantic  (or other) ideas about how to talk and think about sex. This rejection of  'mystification' or 'romanticism' can be seen as the first step on the road toward normalizing transactional sex. ("Since what it is is just a kind of behavior between adults, why not treat it like any other kind of behavior?")

Why does this matter? One reason is because Thomson's opponents often want to make sex inviting, that is, they want to insist that having sex is not just having sex, it's inviting a person into being. That person, the argument goes, then has a right to occupy the woman's womb. And she has no right to have it removed. If sex is inviting (in this sense) then this argument has some force. Maybe not enough, but some. If it isn't, then it has none. Thomson treats sex as just sex: the only frames you need to understand what it is are those in S. Hers is a narrow conception, including only what I might call the pornographic parts of the movie. (In the sense that a movie consisting of nothing but sex scenes would be pornography.)

These labels aren't meant to settle the question. The romantic view of sex is not necessarily more accurate than the pornographic one, nor is the larger (extending before and after) "big fat" Catholic view necessarily better just because it includes more. They are different ideas of what sex is, and my concern here is not to argue that any is right or wrong. My point is just that Thomson's is not necessarily more realistic or scientific just because it is more narrowly focused. I don't think we can really, wholly separate analytic or conceptual questions from normative ones here. Which means that Thomson's argument ends up being something like Rawls's, Nozick's, and Searle's Chinese Room argument: they are all intuition pumps, political not metaphysical, rather than proofs of this or that.

Another part of the point: Schopenhauer understands art as presenting objects outside the realm of space and time, outside the causal nexus, outside the province of the principle of sufficient reason, platonically. The pornographic, sex-is-just-sex, view does something similar. It disregards whatever led to the sex taking place: if sex is just sex, then it does not affect its being sex if is motivated by love, or money, or lust, or desire to make a baby, or to make someone else jealous, or anything else. Sex (understood this way) is not defined by its causes, nor by its effects. Sex is not then necessarily or conceptually or internally related to procreation or to any other effect.

We might, on roughly Michael Thompson-ish grounds, think that we cannot hope to make sense of sex without reference to procreation. How would we ever identify sexual behavior in a strange new species if we did not look for behavior that is causally linked to procreation? But we don't have to build this connection into the grammar of sex. It is understandable why we might do so, but we can resist the pull of this way of thinking. Metaphysics won't ground ethics in that kind of way. Or so I think.

In conclusion, here are the main ideas I'm trying to articulate if not properly defend: metaphysics (understood as saying what things, including actions, are) is inextricably linked with ethics, and one way to respond to Thomson is to question her view of what sex is.


  1. I like your film-strip analogy. I think it is a useful way to present the view (held by Catholics) that the sexual act cannot be separated from its proper end.

    I think a large part of an Anscombian response to Thompson must involve the disanalogy between pregnancy and the case where a violinist has been hooked up to someone's body (it's been a long time since I read the article, but I think that's her example). In particular, one could consistently argue that it is ethically permissible (according to the doctrine of double-effect) to disconnect the violinist, but that it is not permissible to directly kill a fetus.

    One of the things I like about Anscombe is that she thinks really hard about double-effect. It is a difficult doctrine, but one that, with the right qualifications and conditions, is sound (it seems to me).

  2. Thanks, N.N.

    You've got the example right (except that it's not someone's body, it's your body), and that's a good point about the doctrine of double effect (which I agree is a good doctrine). Thomson has other examples, though, involving flying people-seeds that come in through the window and start to grow in carpets, and an Alice-in-Wonderland (or Spirited Away) kind of giant baby that keeps on growing until it crushes you to death. Unless you kill it first.

    Anscombe might have double-effect kinds of responses to these cases, or she might just reject all such fantastic thinking. And part of her (allegedly) more realistic view of the issue would involve getting clear about what sex is. And she regards it as essentially generative. That kind of analysis of the concept can be rejected, of course, (at least I think it can), but not on neutral grounds.

  3. Interesting stuff. In a way, this clarifies why one might deny that sex has an essence at all (essentially generative, essentially expressive of love, etc. etc.), and even if one held that kind of (family resemblance-ish) view, one could argue that Thomson's implicit taking of sex to be one kind of thing (if she does that) as itself problematic. (But then objections that are based on the idea that she doesn't understand what sex "really" is would be missing the point, too.)

    (These considerations seem somehow applicable to debates about same-sex marriage and what marriage "really" is...)

  4. Thanks, Matt.

    Yes, it's possible that Thomson doesn't take sex to be one kind of thing after all, but I take it that she rules out the idea that sex is inviting a fetus into being, and she says things like "biology does not confer obligation," which I read as implying that she wants to treat sex as (merely) biological. Maybe I'm going too far there.

    It does seem related to questions about what, if anything, marriage 'really' is, I agree. And in each case I think there is no essence waiting to be discovered in some objective, neutral way. But I wouldn't say that there just is no essence, because that too involves taking a kind of stand, namely against each particular claim that its essence is this or that. The closest we can get to neutrality, it seems to me, on this or any other issue really, is to say only what everyone involved accepts. It's OK to try to get others to accept your view, but it always will be some kind of view, from some perspective or other, however reasonable or widely shared.

    But in saying this I'm becoming aware of how deep these waters are, and how little I have really thought about everything involved in making these claims.

  5. "That kind of analysis of the concept can be rejected, of course, (at least I think it can), but not on neutral grounds."

    The underlying thought here seems to be (correct me if I'm wrong), that ethical judgments about sex are dependent on what one takes sex to be, i.e., to how one defines "sex." And that no definition of "sex" is neutral in the sense that it can claim metaphysical backing, so to speak. One cannot say: my concept of sex matches the reality. Is this the Wittgensteinian point that our concepts are "arbitrary"?

    One could admit this, I think, and still argue that someone else's concept was wrong given their other conceptual commitments. Thus, a reconstrual of neutral grounds would be, not in terms of metaphysical backing, but broader conceptual coherence. In this way, someone could make Anscombe's argument for a particular understanding of sex by drawing on the shared conceptual context between her and Thompson. It might go: given our shared understanding of why animals have sex . . . sex is "essentially" generative.

    Loose thoughts, but it's Friday.

  6. The underlying thought here seems to be (correct me if I'm wrong), that ethical judgments about sex are dependent on what one takes sex to be, i.e., to how one defines "sex." And that no definition of "sex" is neutral in the sense that it can claim metaphysical backing, so to speak. One cannot say: my concept of sex matches the reality. Is this the Wittgensteinian point that our concepts are "arbitrary"?

    At least in the loose, Friday afternoon sense: Yes. And you might be exactly right, Friday or not. I'm not totally sure about the first part, because perhaps someone could think that all sex, however defined, is good, or bad. But it does seem that even then the definition of 'sex' would have to be limited to relatively standard ideas about what counts as sex. Otherwise the alleged judgment would be meaningless. That is, if 'sex' can mean anything you like, then it means nothing to say that "sex is good" or "sex is bad," etc.

    One could admit this, I think, and still argue that someone else's concept was wrong given their other conceptual commitments.

    Yes, but it would be hard to prove you were right about this. Much would depend, I think, on which cases count as relevantly similar or different, and people can insist that a seemingly irrelevant difference is in fact relevant. You could certainly make a persuasive case that if (or given that) you believe this, this, and this, then you ought also to believe that. And we might call this a proof. But "also" implies that "that" is not "this", and one can always insist that the difference between the two is morally significant. I feel as though I may have well and truly muddied the waters there. Let me try this: if there is proof in ethics, it is not algorithmic.