Sunday, April 30, 2006

Rehabilitating Lust

It's typically assumed that lust is a "shallow" emotion, in contrast to the platonic desires for companionship, affirmation, and so forth. Consider the old stereotype about guys "using" women for sex. Such situations are certainly possible, but isn't it just as possible to "use" a romantic partner for companionship or to boost one's ego? In either case, the "user" has only self-regarding desires, to which their partner is merely instrumental. Why the double standard?

Indeed, it seems that genuine lust is, properly speaking, other-directed. It is a form of aesthetic appreciation, a recognition of -- and hence attraction towards -- another's physical beauty. It is genuinely about them and their qualities. It thus seems as "deep" and appropriately flattering as any other form of romantic appreciation.

Perhaps what critics of lust really have in mind is the self-directed state of feeling horny. There the feeling is all about oneself. One wants sexual release, and doesn't much care where it's found. One's partner is then treated as a mere masturbatory tool, a "sex object" in the most derogatory sense. The other is merely incidental to satisfaction of horniness. But for lust, they are centre stage. This is a crucial difference, and one that makes lust rather more admirable, to my mind.

Even granting that lust is about the other, one might still worry that it is for oneself, and hence in some sense "selfish". This strikes me as doubly mistaken. First, I think there is an important sense of lust which drives one to seek not just one's own sexual pleasure, but also the other's. We might call this "unified lust", as the value it seeks inheres in the whole sexual union, not just the part of one lover alone. Secondly, we should not confuse selfishness with self-concern. Selfishness consists in an inappropriate disregard for others. But one can seek things for oneself whilst also caring about others and seeking their good too, so there is nothing necessarily selfish about this.

But the possibility is there, and perhaps this is the real complaint. It is certainly possible to lust after someone without genuinely caring for the person themselves. So lust may indeed lead one to "use" another for sex without having any intrinsic concern for them. This too is to treat the other as a "sex object", albeit in a slightly less derogatory sense than that previously described. (At least with lust they really are the focal object of one's desire. In the earlier case, they weren't even that. Perhaps "sex instrument" would've been a more accurate term!)

However, this possibility is also present with regard to the platonic attitudes. It is possible to "use" one's friends, after all. In the same way, a selfish agent might enjoy his partner for the way she brightens his life, without thereby caring for her or wanting to advance her interests or happiness. We might say that this is to treat her as a "platonic object".

(We can make a similar distinction to that noted above, between platonic "objects" and "instruments", depending on whether the agent's self-interested desire is directed at the other or merely themselves. Note that instruments are entirely replacable, whereas objects are not. For example, one could use one's partner as merely an instrument to boosting one's own ego. Here your partner is merely incidental to the desire's satisfaction. Anyone else might satisfy the desire just as well. Alternatively, you might have a self-interested "objectual" desire for the companionship of that particular person, in which case no replacement could satisfy that particular desire, and that person is centre-stage rather than oneself.)

I think it is plainly more degrading to be treated as an instrument than an object (though neither is very appealing!), but I see no basis for the double standard between platonic and sexual objectification. Am I missing something here?

22 comments:

  1. Timothy J Scriven1:11 pm, April 30, 2006

    Whoa, this is turning into the blog in plain brown paper. Simon Blackburn recently wrote a book on Lust.

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  2. Ha, yeah, well. Philosophy of sex is a fascinating subject, I'm not sure why it isn't discussed more. (I'll have to read Blackburn sometime. Thanks for the pointer.)

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  3. I wasn't thrilled with Blackburn's "Lust" although I typically like his writing.

    I like the distinction between lust and horniness. I agree that we use people in a variety of ways. The worst, in my experience, is being used as a listener. People will go on and on about their problems to me, but really don't want to know about my day or what's going on in my life.

    I think to *not* treat someone as an end, is to ensure you're there for them too. Not in an economic tit-for-tat arrangement, but in a looser, more meaningful way. We can do this in conversation, in sex, and on blogs too.

    Finally, I think sex is an important issue for discussion - it's where so much fear and anxiety hang out. Good to get it all in the open for debate, I think.

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  4. Sure, you can redefine lust and make it seem okay. (But I could do the same thing with murder.) Given your redefinition of lust as it appears in the second paragraph of your post one could possibly lust after his own sister and not have done anything wrong or "dirty."

    Also, I don't see how caring for another's pleasure absolves one from wrongdoing. The rapist is not guilty because he wanted his victim to orgasm as well?

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  5. "Given your redefinition of lust as it appears in the second paragraph of your post one could possibly lust after his own sister and not have done anything wrong or 'dirty.'"

    That is to say, that's probably not an accurate (re)definition of lust.

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  6. Your distinctions between types of lust are a lot like Aristotle's distinction between utility friendships, pleasure friendships, and character friendships. Instrumental friendships, where the other person is merely a means to some end that does not involve them, are what Aristotle calls friendships of utility. If the benefits of the friendship depend on the other person and the relationship, but there's no concern for the other person, as in your "objectual" desire, then that's a friendship of pleasure. The highest form of friendship, according to Aristotle, is a character friendship, where the two people care deeply about each other as "another self".

    I think that Aristotle's stance was that all three kinds of friendship have their place, but it's important for each person to have one character friendship because there are valuable ends that can only be achieved through this kind of friendship. So opposition to (instrumental and objectual) lust may derive from support for exclusivity, since, if you can only have one sexual relationship, then having one of these inferior lustful relationships prevents you from achieving the most valuable and intimate kind of sexual relationship. Some people would probably also claim that, without exclusivity, a person's lustful relationships would interfere with the formation of the higher form of sexual relationships with others because of human nature (which ties into the whole "exclusivity is natural" argument).

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  7. Personally I never saw lust as all that bad a thing (because philosophically I dont like to load my words with bad/good connotations) - But I have to agree with Don that you have cut the bad connotations out of it and then analyzed it and not surprisingly found it not to have bad connotations.
    This implies a sort of failure to see the world through the "other side's" perspective. I guess it probably helps in writing essays - makes for a clearer message.

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  8. Lust is like hunger, since religion hasn't demonised hunger we just think it it's a natural signal to eat. Oh how we complicate things by placing rules designed to engineer society around them.

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  9. Platonic relations and lust are not mutually exclusive. The lusting typically takes a short amount of time, and arsing around philosophizing can happen in all the long hours between. As burt suggests, it's about as immoral as wanting to eat or scratch or poo. And more fun than all of them, IMHO.

    I think most of the bitterness on lusting out there is because those who are bitter lust after someone they think they shouldn't. In Plato's case it was probably Socrates or Alcibiades. In the case of moralizing priests it is pretty much anything, since their religion gives them the guilts about it.

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  10. Blar - that's interesting, thanks. (Perhaps I should also add Aristotle to my reading list!)

    "Some people would probably also claim that, without exclusivity, a person's lustful relationships would interfere with the formation of the higher form of sexual relationships with others because of human nature"

    Curious. (This harks back to the old Open Relationships question.) I'm not too clear on how this "interference" is supposed to occur, though. What aspect of "human nature" would such critics have in mind, do you think?

    Don - where did I make any claim to be "defining" lust? My second paragraph describes some features of lust. It does not claim to be exhaustive.

    "Also, I don't see how caring for another's pleasure absolves one from wrongdoing."

    If you care for the other person, then that obviously absolves one from charges of selfishness. And that's the only basis for considering lust "immoral" that I could think of. (It obviously doesn't harm its object like rape does, for example.) But if you have any other proposals, I'm all ears.

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  11. Richard, the problem then is that you seem to equivocate your usage of lust or at least come to conclusions about the nature of lust based on an analysis of only "some" of the features of lust rather than a holistic consideration of it. If I only talk of a murder's "good" intentions ("He did if for such a noble cause"), then I can make his act seem innocuous as well.

    Caring for another doesn't absolve one from charges of selfishness. I could care for Bill and still shoot him in the back because I want his money more. And, as suggested before, a rapist who cares enough for his victim to want them to orgasm as well isn't absolved from charges of selfishness. If you think that lust is solely caring for the other person or even caring for the other person more than oneself then, yes, that is redefining the term. And without either of those instances being the case, one is not absolved from selfishness. All definitions of lust that I consult define it as an intense sexual desire. How you can reconcile that with selflessness is beyond me. ("Pull your pants up son. Now!" "No officer, you don't understand. I was doing it for her benefit.")

    Moreover, lust itself isn't caring about the other person at all. It may derive from an acknowledgment of a person other than oneself—it necessarily must unless one is absurdly narcissistic—but that doesn't make it selfless. In fact, pretty much all sins (if you will forgive the religious language) derive, that is, are initiated, from an outward source (for example, anger often happens because one was wronged by another).

    "That guy wronged me"'—not a sin.
    "I hate that guy and want to harm him (because he wronged me)"—sinful.
    "That girl is beautiful"—not a sin (and not lust).
    "I have an intense sexual desire for that girl (because she is beautiful)"—sinful (and lustful).

    As an aside, if you meant for the second paragraph of your entry to describe only "some" of the features of lust then the word "some" (or a similar qualifier) should probably have appeared there.

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  12. Don, you mistakenly assume that selfishness and selflessness are mutually exclusive. That's a mistake, as explained in my main post. ("Secondly, we should not confuse selfishness with self-concern...")

    You haven't provided the faintest hint of a reason why we should think that sexual desire is intrinsically wrong. (Unless your baseless analogy to rape was meant to have some kind of rational force!?)

    If you have reasons for thinking it's wrong, then stop beating around the bush and state them already. If you have no reasons, then your position isn't worth engaging with.

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  13. Richard, I thought I had some decent points in my last comment that warranted a response; I didn't think it was all crap (99-percent maybe, but not all). Apparently you disagree since you didn't really address any of it whatsoever. I guess I'll try again.

    In arguing that lust is not selfish you said, "If you care for the other person, then that obviously absolves one from charges of selfishness." I objected and gave reasons why. Based on those reasons (see my other post) do you agree that someone could care for another and still be selfish? If so, then your prior comment is not correct. (This has some relevance because you claimed that selfishness was your "only basis for considering lust 'immoral.'")

    Really, the above could just be a moot point depending on one's definition of lust. I'm truly confused as to what you think lust is since, as you say, you made no claim to "defining" it. Do you agree that lust is "an intense or unrestrained sexual craving [for another]" (from answers.com)? If not, could you please provide your personal definition of what it is?

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  14. Right, it's certainly possible for selfishness to override one's care for another. (It would indicate that one didn't care about them enough, as in your "wanting money more" example. My earlier comment should be read as containing an implicit "enough".) The question is what reason we have for thinking that lust (and yes, "sexual desire for another" sounds like an adequate definition to me) necessarily involves an inappropriate disregard for its object. I still haven't heard any reasons from you here.

    (I also think that what I called "unified lust" is probably entirely immune to such concerns, since an element of selflessness is indeed built into it.)

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  15. (I'd also be curious to hear whether you mean to be defending the double-standard here, or if your concerns about "selfishness" apply equally to platonic desires.)

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  16. I should preface this by saying (not as a dig, but as an honest assessment) that your utilitarianism probably requires (correct me if I'm wrong) you to deny that anything (including lust) is intrinsically wrong, since it can maintain that murder (of innocent children mind you) can even be right (that is, moral) given the correct context. Thus, possibly anything could be right, or moral, given the correct context, which means that nothing can be intrinsically wrong (that is, wrong no matter what). Given that, this whole argument is probably a waste of time. That aside, I think that unless one wants to qualify or add to lust, it, by definition, involves an inappropriate disregard for persons, since I think all persons should be treated (loved, respected, etc.) as persons, not as objects of desire.

    Regarding the double standard: It's certainly possible to use an individual in a number of ways, all of which are wrong (in my opinion), and one of which is lust.

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  17. Timothy J Scriven7:28 am, May 01, 2006

    "since it can maintain that murder (of innocent children mind you) can even be right"

    Actually it can't, no moral viewpoint can say "murder is right" because murder is defined as wrongful killing, ergo "Murder is wrong" is a tautology.

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  18. Don, recall I'm an indirect utilitarian. I'm quite happy to appeal to other moral principles in practical ethical discourse, as should be plain from my main post (and most of my other posts too).

    To respond to your substantive point, I'm not sure why you think that to desire someone is ("by definition") to treat them merely as an object and not as the person that they are. Lust doesn't entail that one is merely "using" the other person, any more than a desire for their companionship or affirmation does. (As previously explained, you "use" another when you pursue self-interested desires to the detriment, or with an inappropriate disregard, for another. The mere having of a self-interested desire is not in itself selfish. (Perhaps you are specifically worried about the "other-directed" aspect of the desire. I think this betrays a confusion on your part between being objectified (i.e. treated as a mere object) and being the object of a desire. Recall, I argued that other-directedness made the desires in question more admirable rather than less!) Selfishness is rather an imbalance in one's values that gets expressed through inconsiderate actions.) Surely one can be an object of desire whilst being recognized - and treated - as more. Indeed, as suggested in the main post, it would seem plainly flattering for a person to be the object of another's desire, if that desire arises from an appreciation of the qualities of the person. One still wouldn't want to be treated as just an object, of course. But to be desired by someone who also recognizes and values you as a person seems entirely desirable to me.

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  19. Nested parentheses can be confusing. I'll rewrite the previous paragraph in footnoted form:

    To respond to your substantive point, I'm not sure why you think that to desire someone is ("by definition") to treat them merely as an object and not as the person that they are. Lust doesn't entail that one is merely "using" the other person, any more than a desire for their companionship or affirmation does.* Surely one can be an object of desire whilst being recognized - and treated - as more. Indeed, as suggested in the main post, it would seem plainly flattering for a person to be the object of another's desire, if that desire arises from an appreciation of the qualities of the person. One still wouldn't want to be treated as just an object, of course. But to be desired by someone who also recognizes and values you as a person seems entirely desirable to me.

    * = (As previously explained, you "use" another when you pursue self-interested desires to the detriment, or with an inappropriate disregard, for another. The mere having of a self-interested desire is not in itself selfish.** Selfishness is rather an imbalance in one's values that gets expressed through inconsiderate actions.)

    ** = (Perhaps you are specifically worried about the "other-directed" aspect of the desire. I think this betrays a confusion on your part between being objectified (i.e. treated as a mere object) and being the object of a desire. Recall, I argued that other-directedness made the desires in question more admirable rather than less!)

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  20. Not really
    1) As Tim states murder is generally defined as wrongful killing.
    2) Even if that wasn't the case there must be something utilitarian are trying to prevent (or optimize) one of the big things is murder itself. Even if there was a case of murder that was for the greater good (e.g. killing a Nazi soldier in self defense or stoning goliath) the killing itself would be something you wished you could avoid. Presumably the same is true in most other philosophies.
    People often attack utilitarianism for things that are also true but possibly slightly more hidden, in their own philosophy.

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  21. Timothy, personally I would like to think that you are right; but I have seen others argue that murder (that is, the killing of an innocent person) is right in certain contexts. So you would have to take your assertion up with them.

    Richard, I still maintain that desiring someone in a sexual manner for oneself—which is what lust is—is treating that person as an object rather than, or at least more than, a person. I can't think of any convincing way to prove or argue to that point; it seems to be intuitively apparent to me. One might say that desiring something for oneself, especially of another person, is a selfish act and that all selfish acts involve treating things or persons as a means to a (selfish) end. (I'm not sure about that though.)

    I would have to disagree with your statement about self-interest ("The mere having of a self-interested desire is not in itself selfish"). I do believe, though, that having desires oneself (for to have a desire at all one must have it oneself) is not selfish. But I do think that having self-interested desires—and lust is a self-interested desire in my opinion—is selfish.

    For example:
    "I hope my brother does well in life"—not selfish.
    "I hope my brother does well in life because it will make me feel good"—selfish.
    "I desire friendship with my neighbor"—not selfish
    "I desire friendship with my neighbor because it will make me feel good"—selfish.

    Note that all the "not selfish" desires above have (for the unselfish saint) an inherent "because that is a good thing" (and even a "because that is a good thing for them") rather than "because it will satisfy me." The problem with lust, however, is that I think there is an inherent "because it will satisfy me" in it. If someone simply desires to procreate "because that is a good thing" then I see no problem with that, but I don't think that's lust in that case. Lust is usually denoted by a desire, not simply held by oneself (which isn't bad), but rather held (selfishly) for oneself—that is, for one's own satisfaction or pleasure—by means of another person, which, as you say, one finds attractive (but not merely for procreative purposes).

    I also don't think that selfishness only occurs at the instant one acts, or that it is, as you put it, expressed through actions. One could certainly, I would argue, have selfish intents, desires, thoughts, and the like, without ever having acted on any of them (for whatever reason). Indeed, a quadriplegic could possibly be the most selfish person alive.

    You bring up flattery, but I don't think that has much at all to do with the issue. It might be flattering Bob, the new prisoner, that Mr. Hanky-Panky (or Hanky for short), the chief muscle in the joint, thought he (Bob) had the cutest butt (and so chose to rape him). That doesn't make it right. The sexually deprived, desperate (and demented) housewife down the street might want to be raped; but that doesn't make her rapist a hero or make the act morally permissible. Nor is it okay for the murderer to kill the person about to commit suicide. So whether it pleases or flatters the victim is not really a relevant issue, as far as I can tell.

    Lastly, I don't buy the distinction between being objectified and being the object of one's desire, which might be where the bulk of our differences lie. If one is treated as an object, then (I would argue) one has been objectified; and being the object of one's desire is—very clearly—being treated as an object.

    Again, I don't know how convincing any of this will be because I myself can't exactly figure out how to analytically reason to the notion that lust is a selfish, objectifying, immoral desire, since I apprehend it as being intuitively true. Your intuitions seem to clash with mine there, so I'm not sure what can be done about that ultimately. Also, I'm not absolutely certain of everything I've said here (though I do think I'm leaning in the right direction) since it is mostly off the top of my head without any serious reflection at all. That is to say, I could easily have many things wrong here, though they appear, at least to me right now, to be heading in the right direction.

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  22. Hello all. It seems to me that the bugbear of "objectification" is raising its confused, furry head here without anyone making the important distinction of where this phenomenon is taking place. I'll explain.

    If I lust after (desire) someone, they are the object of my desire. That's not even a tautology - it's just grammar. However, the word "objectified," by contrast, is loaded and emotive; it describes either a social or psychological state.

    I may consider a person to be or have been "objectified," but it's not really my impression that's important - it's theirs. And their impression - whether they feel themselves to be "objectified" or not - depends on my behavior and/or the social situation my lust has put them into (i.e., if I ask my girlfriend to wear sexy clothes in public for me. And she might like doing that or she might not). So it's not about some abstract category of "subject" or "object" that lust creates; it's about the thousand little things that my words and actions - or my neighbors' words and actions - convey to the potential "object" in question.

    By they way, I'm pro-lust, especially requitable lust. :)

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