On the question of lust

Christine O’Donnell has certainly managed to keep things interesting in her campaign (witchcraft?).  I am not here interested in defending O’Donnell as a political figure.  But I do want to take up one of the remarks that led to a media sensation.  O’Donnell has been almost universally pilloried for her remarks on masturbation.  She dared to remark that, “Lust in your heart is committing adultery, and you can’t masturbate without lust.”  This remark has led her to be mocked as naive, puritanical, idiotic, etc.

I want to examine her claim in a serious way.  My starting point is going to be a relational ontology.  Man is by nature a social animal.  To be a person means both ‘being a subject’ and ‘being in relationship’.  This anthropology (rooted in Aristotle, the Trinitarian Christian tradition, and phenomenological schools of 20th century European philosophy) stands in stark contrast to the radical individuality of the modern project.

Another starting point is going to be the language of the gift.  As John Paul II puts it in his Theology of the Body, “through the hermeneutic of the gift we approach the very essence of the person.” Man is only fully man when he enters into gift relations with others.

Let’s reflect on some passages from Genesis.  While originally we were naked without shame, at some point there was a change.  “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.” (Gen 3:7)

This is a new situation (see the adverb “then”).  One might wonder, did they not even notice their nakedness before?  Is this a move from ignorance to knowledge?  JPII argues not, that careful reading of Gen 2:25 and 3 leads “necessarily to the conclusion that it is not a question here of passing from not knowing to knowing.”  Instead, what this “then” indicates is a radical change in the meaning of the nakedness of man before woman and woman before man.  There has been a fundamental change in our experience of the body and its meaning.  The new experience is what we call shame – a particular kind of fear.

Here is how JPII describes it:

“In the experience of shame, the human being experiences fear with regard to his “second self” (for example, woman before man).  This is substantially fear of one’s own self.  With shame the human being manifests almost instinctively the need of affirmation and acceptance of this “self” according to its rightful value.  … Almost keeping one human being away from the other, it seeks at the same time to draw them closer personally, creating a suitable basis and level to do so.”

Shame is really an act of self-defense, defense against being treated as an object of sexual use.  The woman knows that she is not a “thing”, that she is not a mere object meant for someone else’s appropriation or use.  But her experience teaches her that men (gripped by lust, which I will soon define) tend to objectify women’s bodies.  So she keeps him away (covers herself) in order that she may draw him closer in the personal sense.

Before this ‘then’, the body simply expressed a personal reality.  They “see and know each other will all the peace of the interior gaze” (JPII).  This “interior gaze” means a sight of the body that reveals a personal mystery expressed through the body.  They say the dignity of the other person inscribed in his or her body.  There was no shame or fear, “perfect love casts out all fear (1Jn4:18).

But after the “then”, the body can become an object (non-person) for others.  The body ceases to be an expression of the person.  So we cover ourselves up not because nakedness is bad or shameful in itself, but in order to protect our dignity from the “lustful look” that would treat our bodies as objects instead of expressions of an internal personal reality.  The “lustful look” fails to respect our dignity as persons.

What is lust on this view?  Well it is really quite Levinasian in its reading.  Behind the “egology” of the modern subject, man is relational.  At the very center of the meaning of personhood is receptivity, what Levinas calls “passivity beyond all passivity”.  This receptivity of the other, and our debt to give to the other, is announced in the “face of the Other”.  What the “face” says is “thou shall not kill”.  In other words, the face screams ‘I am not reducible, I am not an object here for your appropriation.’

This receptivity, receiving, and openness to the Other (in and through our bodies) which is the genuine meaning of personhood (a relational term) is to be distinguished from grasping.  With lust, the “relationship of gift is changed into the relationship of appropriation” (JPII).  Lust refers to the tendency to grasp or possess, to reduce the other person or to objectify them.  It is a forgetfulness of the face of the other.  The “face” is both visible and not visible, it is the body that we see but it is also the body that we do not see, for we too often do not see the body as an expression of a personal reality.  To nutshell it for those interested in 20th century European thought, lust is very close to what Heidegger calls “technological thinking” or to what Levinas calls the errors of “egology”.

This error in thinking is really an error of the “heart”.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Mt 5:27-28).  This is the move from mere ethics to ethos.  Ethos signifies an interior form of morality.  Instead of stopping at the level of action, it penetrates inside.  This always reminds me of Heidegger’s remark that “the essence of technology is nothing technological”.  The issue is not an issue of outward appearance, it is rather a question of comportment.  Sex “looks” the same whether it is done in lust or love.  But the interior difference, whether the body is looked on with receptivity as an expression of a personal reality or with the grasping of appropriation, is what makes all the difference.

So what does this have to do with O’Donnell and her remarks on masturbation?  Well, can’t we conclude from this that pornography is pure evil?  Pornography is, plain and simple, the lustful grasping and appropriation of an other as a mere object for my self-gratifying consumption.  That is pretty much pornography in a nutshell, is it not?  And isn’t O’Donnell right when she suggests that lust is a condition for the possibility of masturbation?

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

29 thoughts on “On the question of lust”

  1. O’Donnell should read Nietzsche and, especially, Freud for an appreciation of the magnificent features of art and culture (if not their very existence) we owe to all the sublimated lust which porn, adultery, masturbation, and onanistic cerebrations cannot fully discharge.


  2. I think I still stand by those who would call O’Donnell’s remark puritanical idiocy. Let me grant that the way X views Y while X masturbates does not accord the proper level of respect and honor Y merits (even if Y does not mind being viewed in this way). Is it nevertheless possible that X still has healthy, flourishing relationships with Y and all people similar to Y? Yes, of course. “But there is some crime X has committed in private!” Really? Where is the victim of this alleged crime? Who really should care about X’s private act (given that there are no harmful indirect consequences) other than a puritanical idiot?

    Now in fact I think there may be harmful consequences. It could well be that there is a direct relation between X’s private objectification of Y and X’s real mistreatment of Y, or people similar to Y. But that’s a different case than the one O’Donnell presents.


  3. At least according to a talk given here in Logan by a visiting priest this weekend (an MA in counseling psychology and a PhD in clinical psych), the clinical evidence out there suggests that in fact viewing pornography is damaging to relationships and that such activities are not a part of healthy flourishing relationships. But you are right, this is a different case than is made by O’Donnell.

    Might it be that the “victim” of the act is actually the person committing it, not those person whom he is objectifying in his mind? This way of thinking (lustful, technological) may not have measurable harmful consequences, but this “challenging-forth” of appropriation may lead to a situation where “nowhere does man today any longer encounter himself, i.e., his essence” (Heidegger, QCT). Lust “banishes man” and leads to a kind of self-forgetfulness and a forgetfulness of the other. It will be difficult to hash out the consequences of this according to something like utilitiarian ethics (who is harmed), but this is because it is more of an ethos than an ethics.

    Politically it seems prudent to “live and let live” on such issues, but I don’t think that restraint necessarily muzzles moral condemnation of such things. But I am presuming here that there is something to the move from ethics (exterior actions) to ethos (interior goodness). This is what O’Donnell was presuming also, following the Sermon on the Mount, a “lust in the heart” view that entails an ethos – an active striving for goodness and holiness that goes beyond mere constraint ethics.


  4. I agree largely with Huenemann, but want to develop that point.

    There are X and Y, but Y is not the source of the stimulus, Z is, which is function of Y.

    Z = f(Y); but Y ≠ f(Z).

    That is, a person’s identify is not related to how their image is used, this is especially true for celebrities who could exist or not and still have the same effect on their fans. Plenty of people glorify Marlyn Monroe in precisely the same way as glorify Lady Gaga. The fact that Lady Gaga is with us does not mean that she is especially victimized by this objectification.

    But this does bring me to the point that Kleiner makes in return. That the real victim is X. I see no reason to disagree; the act is immoral. It is clearly so given that the moral system O’Donnell subscribes to defines morality to exclude the act. But is it unnatural? Is it any different than drinking, overeating, or interrupting while someone else is talking? All of these place the individual as superior to the other.

    What I wonder is: how austere are we required to be in order to live the good life. If we err, but do not err systematically to the point of mean aversion (drifting away from normal behavior rather than random deviations), are we good enough?

    There seems to be a case that certain moral violations are “in kind” different than other moral violations. Sexual deviance trumps dietary deviance (in terms of its effect on X). I am not sure I can agree with that; but I certainly can agree that deviance from the norm is an interesting question. There are clear thresholds to tolerating anti-social (or perhaps immoral is a better word) behavior.


  5. A little too close to thought crime for my taste. People have lascivious thoughts almost hourly, perhaps by the minute. If you want to call that objectifying others, then that’s your preference. I call it the process of being human. And let’s not forget that the sexual objectification of pornogrphy is almost entirely voluntary. Really, aren’t there a hell of a lot more important things to think about?


  6. Hunt tells us more about himself (the frequency of his lascivious thoughts) than I cared to know. By the minute frequency? Hunt wonders if there are more important things to think about, yet it appears that he thinks about such things all the time! :)

    The assertion made here is pretty plain – how we think matters. Ethos is as important, if not more so, than ethics. I say that how we think about others matters, and it deserves care and attention.

    What Hunt calls “the process of being human” needs to be unpacked. In my thoughts above I claimed precisely the opposite – that we only become human in the fullest sense of the word when we relate to others in a way that is characterized by giving instead of grasping. So there is a philosophical anthropology (basically a Aristotelian / Trinitarian relational ontology) that sits behind the particular ethos claim about pornography. Hunt might reject that anthropology from the start, opting for a more modern individualistic view. On such a view Hunt is probably right, the objectifying “gaze” (in the Sartrean sense) is just an unavoidable part of the human condition.

    I don’t think mere “voluntariness ” is sufficient for rectitude. To use Levinasian terms, the “face of the other” demands more. We only recognize this in what Levinas calls the “shudder of subjectivity” which rocks us out of our objectifying gaze. In that shudder, we are called back from ethics to ethos. My little presentation here was meant to propose gift-love as a genuine alternative to the gaze, a way in which we get behind that gaze so that we might see the other for what they are – a person and not an object.


    1. >> Hunt tells us more about himself (the frequency of his lascivious thoughts) than I cared to know. By the minute frequency? <<

      Setting aside voluminous personal and anecdotal evidence, strictly from the empirical data I've perused, it seems to me quite strikingly to the contrary that it is Kleiner rather than Hunt who is revealing something peculiar about himself.

      In addition to Baumeister's book, some further data points to infuse matters with a touch of reality:

      Is There a Gender Difference in Strength of Sex Drive? Theoretical
      Views, Conceptual Distinctions, and a Review of Relevant Evidence






    2. My opinion about better use of time was referring, of course, to this entire discourse, not my or another other person’s predilection for sexual fantasy. If you want to argue whether lust or porn are good/bad from a psychotherapeutic perspective, it’s a fine undertaking. I’m sure Kleiner doesn’t have in mind any kind of legislative prohibition (I hope).

      I think you can argue whether lust or masturbation is unhealthy to the exclusion of real realationships with live humans for those who pursue it, but I don’t think you can seriously think that those things are in themselves somehow damaging to the object of desire. This is where philosophy detaches from reality. What we think about others does matter, that’s why it’s an important point that pornographic representation of “others” is in fact an objectified view of them. You are not jerking off to the person (sorry, but I must). You’re jerking off to an objectified representation of them created soley by your imagination. That is why pornography is not abuse of the person. “Objectification” is not why pornography is bad; it is precisely what makes pornography morally permissible. It’s amazing that more people don’t get this point.

      Actually, I would go further. If your hot neighbor gave you a picture of herself/himself and you used that as pornogrphy, what is the moral harm in it? Is it an offense to her; is it an abuse to yourself? We derive pleasure from the perfection of human form. I’m a more or less straight male, but even I can appreciate the statue of David, and it’s not all from the precision of carving. It’s a common opinion that sexual impression is somehow beyond the pale and compartmentalized. But we employ sexual impression at almost every moment of our lives. I don’t think this even leaves the most elderly of individuals. “Lust” is the appreciation of sexual attractiveness. And it is everywhere.


      1. “I don’t think you can seriously think that those things are in themselves somehow damaging to the object of desire.”

        @ Hunt:

        I think that JPII reflects this view, even though he calls shame a “self-defense” against being taken as an object. The sin here still lies in the one who takes another person as an object, even though the other person feels the need to defend herself against that objectification.

        I wonder, though, if you’re not more sympathetic to JPII’s claim than you think. You say that masturbation is only morally permissible because the representation of a person is divorced from the actual person; that is, masturbating to the picture of a woman reflects is an act aimed completely at the picture, and not at the woman herself. It seems there could be some violation of dignity of the woman’s person if someone were to observe her (not a picture) during masturbation.

        To get to JPII’s argument from here, all you have to do is decide that the person is their body. In other words, a person is not a floaty, glowing soul that settles into a body but is fundamentally separate from it; a person is instantiated as a body. In this sense, to look on a person’s body as an object separate from a person is to lie to yourself. Thus, masturbating to or having sex with someone’s body is wrong; having sex with and (I’d say maybe, but I think JPII and Kleiner would say no) masturbating to someone as a person would be right. Thus, if you sleep with someone as “a piece of meat” or a “hot chick” or something, you have divorced their body from their person in a way that Heidegger et al. see as fundamentally dangerous.

        I’m with you when you ask “Who will be hurt by this?” (That is, who is hurt by taking a person as an object, since it seems to be merely an error in ontology; calling errors in ontology sin would seem like calling errors in astronomy sin, which is very odd.) That’s why I think that Vince is right in pointing out that “Buber and Heidegger do not condemn technological thinking and action, but the primacy of technological thinking and action.” Maybe it’s better to think of this as error rather than sin.


      2. Since Heidegger has an ethics in only the loosest possible sense (if in any sense at all) in his work, perhaps the introduction of “technological thinking” was misplaced. I think it is easier to make the argument with Levinas since his work is so overtly ethical. Introducing the distinction between the “correct” and the “true” (a distinction Heidegger draws) or between something like “sin” and “error” might be an unnecessary complication.

        But here is my question that follows from the good point Siler and Vince have raised:
        I agree – the danger of technological thinking is not technological thinking per se, but the tyranny and monopoly of technological thinking. But here is something I am still trying to sort out: are there some things that inevitably fall prey to technological thinking at the exclusion of other (and more ethical) modes of disclosure? “Technological thinking is not anything technological”, so it seems to be a question of my manner of thinking rather than the object in question. In other words, it is not how pre-industrial something is that determines whether it is or can be encountered in a non-technological way. That said, certain things do seem disposed to certain disclosures. For instance, poetry is uniquely capable of a certain “bringing-forth”.

        So one might say that pornography can be encountered not only “technologically” (as a grasping) but also in some other way that actually recognizes the other. But I must say I am immediately skeptical of this. I am inclined to say that certain things only avail themselves, or are only conducive to, certain modes of disclosure. Really, does anybody watch porn in order to engage in a genuine human community? Isn’t pornography simply all about the sexual consumption of objectified others?

        Maybe Kant can help us here. The Formula of Humanity: “So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” It is not the “technological thinking” per se that is problematic, it is the complete reduction of the other to instrumentality that is the problem.

        Two questions:
        Can one watch pornography in such a way that you view the other as an end and not a mere means?
        Does anyone ever watch pornography in such a way that you view the other as an end and not a mere means?

        I want to answer the second question with a resounding “no”, and am tempted to say that the first question is also a “no”. That is, I am tempted to say that there is something fundamentally “egological” about pornography.


  7. I like this statement:

    “Christianity does not understand the Jewish idea of the ‘evil inclination’ being good.”


  8. I appreciate all the posts and apologize for not been more active defending my post. I’m swamped with mid-term grading.

    Hunt says: ” “Lust” is the appreciation of sexual attractiveness.”

    This is where JPII (see the Theology of the Body, a work profoundly influenced by phenomenological writers like Buber and Levinas) disagrees. JPII thinks that the meaning of sexual difference, at bottom, concerns acts of gift-love. Once we understand sexual attractiveness in terms of lust (the “grasping” appropriation of the other as an object of self-gratifying consumption) we have entered into a de-personalization of the meaning of the body. This falsifies the fundamentally relational meaning of our bodies (whose sexual difference and the “one flesh” union of that sexual difference is a reality of relational personhood that has been inscribed as gift-love into our sexed bodies).

    I think this is powerful, since it is precisely an anti-Platonic understanding of the body, and so functions (in part) as a response to Nz’s caricatures of Christianity. And this leads me to my response to Vince. Vince remarks that “Christianity does not understand the Jewish idea of the ‘evil inclination’ being good.” I disagree. At risk of being struck down here on the spot, I think Augustine (or at least the straight-forward reading of Augustine) is wrong on sex when it says the pleasure in it is evil. JPII provides a powerful and important corrective to this excessively Platonic view. And so I say that the sexual inclination is not in itself evil. In fact, it is good. But the good inclination can be falsified and made evil when the natural meaning of sex (embodied gift-love that most fully expresses man’s fundamentally relational personhood) is undermined.

    These discussions are difficult, and people who suggest porn/masturbation are disordered get routinely mocked, because there is no virtue more singularly unpopular in the contemporary world (to the point where people consider it impossible/absurd) as chastity. The presumption of chastity is NOT that sexual urges are bad. Rather, the presumption of chastity is that sexual urges, like any other desire, must be ordered to their proper end.


    1. It still seems that there are all sorts of disorders: Overeating, eating only meat rather than a using it as a nominal percentage of your diet, overexercising, becoming a PhD, etc.

      Why single out the sexual as the focus of the spiritual?

      It seems we are tricked by our egos into thinking that excess is excellence.

      I can’t really follow the “of kind” distinction. Once we admit that the victim of these acts is the person and not the other, why can’t we see people who only eat meat as reaping the consequences of their own actions. People that spend too much time reading as being unable to watch the “news.” People that have an objectifying understanding of the other as incapable of intimacy.

      If there is a dichotomy, we are in trouble. If there is a continuum what helps us balance our austerity with our vivaciousness?

      What I take to be Vince’s point echos Aristotle. The Human exists between god and the animal. It is a process of recognizing each nature and choosing. To understand [G]od as JPII no doubt is attempting, is to only understand one part of our nature.


      1. I do not mean to single out sex as the sole focus of the spiritual, though I certainly think that sex is meaningful in the deepest possible sense. We argue about sex for good reasons, we all intuitively recognize that sex matters. But I would argue that the “grasping” that is at the bottom of lust is also the fundamental error in all intentions and actions that work against human community (economic, political, etc). JPII all but identifies this “grasping” as the original sin.

        Worth noting that Aristotle also thinks that some ends and actions are intrinsically disordered. Not every action, emotion and desire admits of a mean (Aristotle mentions adultery among other things).

        Even if we want to think of this in terms of the mean, to sort out the mean one must first know the function of the thing (since virtue renders the thing good but also causes it to perform its function well). So we come to the question: what is the meaning/function of sexuality? I have offered JPII’s answer – an expression of gift-love that fully manifests our relational personhood inscribed in bodily difference that avoids the de-personalization of the body. The alternative view seems to be lust, that a basic meaning of sexual urges is the “grasping” or appropriation of the other for the sake of self-gratifying sexual consumption. Entailed in this view is a de-personalization of the body and a wrong-headed dualism.

        This is not an over-divinization of human nature (Vince’s concern). Quite to the contrary, it is an attempt to clarify a meaning of the body that is decidedly not Platonic. There is something perfectly natural and good about sexual urges and the pleasures which attend their satisfaction. One sees this in the second creation account in Genesis. Here is Adam in an utterly unmediated relationship with both God and the natural world, and yet there is something not good about his condition. This is really quite striking – there is something in the nature of man that even God cannot satisfy. As an embodied relational creature, Adam needs Eve. In other word, there is an original unitive aspect to the “marital embrace” which fulfills the basic meaning of relational personhood. Aside: this is where I think we can perhaps redeem the mighty Augustine. The unitive meaning of sex will entail that you are not using the other merely for pleasure (as an object for consumption), since such a comportment would be simply incompatible with recognizing the other’s body as a visible inscription of personhood.


  9. I agree that Aristotle does not use the mean for everything.

    I also think that this is one of the fundamental problems with Aristotle’s philosophy.

    JPII can be considered by the question, did he reach excellence? How do we determine that?

    He certainly was not an excellent father. He was not an excellent laborer. He was not an excellent “street porter.” What I find to be Smith’s critique of Aristotle is that he doesn’t account for different choices which people make in life. This recognition is the fundamental philosophical point in the division of labor theory that Smith presents in his Wealth of Nations (here there is an important link to his system of morality outlined in TMS). This is a transcendence of Aristotle in a way that I have not fully come to terms with.

    I was on the plane sitting next to the mother of a trauma nurse last time I flew. We talked the entire flight because she was very scared of flying. She was going to visit her daughter who was having her first child. What came up in the conversation is that her daughter never talks to anyone about her job, people are repulsed by it. She said she hardly knows what her daughter does. It seems very lonely to me to not have anyone to share your mind with about what you do at work. My own father used to come home from the emergency room with stories, but he shielded us from many of the ones that weighed heavy on his heart. The ability to stand there, neck deep in the absurdity of life is something that we don’t want to talk about, especially over dinner.

    Smith’s point is that we all are really happy that there are trauma nurses. We appreciate undertakers (and to some extent executioners). The world is not so simple as to reduce to the morality of Popes. While I take nothing away from pursuit of god, I do think that there are plenty of reasons that people fail to understand that pursuit. It works for people who get it. It works for those that have a morality commensurate with it. But for many people life is not that way. We should be able to appreciate someone’s search for truth, Like O’Donnell’s, without having to judge it.

    It seems to me that the highest form of objectification is to force someone else to agree with an arbitrarily chosen morality. This does not mean that we have to abandon morality, but it seems that we can work to both hold our own consistent morality and recognize the other has having an internally consistent, but not commensurate morality of their own.

    The rejection of this claim of compartmentalized morality would help me understand the rejection of the economic way of thinking.


  10. Thanks for the replies. I have to say that I find the idea of masturbation to a pornographic image of a person a whole lot more “normal” than masturbation to live material, particularly surreptitiously. Take, for instance, the somewhat disturbing scenario of one person spying on another as they take a shower. Why does this strike me as “unhealthy” and not the same individual using a recorded image? This may simply be a case where being socialized in a puritanical environment has conveyed to me that impression, or that there is some implication that one person may be stalked, or an object of sexual obsession. Perhaps I’m thinking of future occasions where the situation might become less healthy or even criminal. I’m not exactly sure, but when you ponder the situation you find that nothing is being “taken” from the other. If your impression is that something spiritual is being stolen from her (or him) it might remind you of some primitive cultures, where photography is thought to “steal” spirit or power. The object is being objectified in another person’s mind — probably replete with a new fantasy personality, a fantasy back-story, and so on. The object is only rendering a physical form, nothing more. Again, what more can there be? Unless you have in mind something very similar to thought-crime. Yes, I realize there’s a lot more to it than that. I do believe there is such a thing as invasion of privacy, but it’s significant that this is considered a moral offense against the person whose privacy has been breached.

    This has nothing to do with masturbation as such. Mutual masturbation is a common sexual practice for couples, and there’s nothing objectifying about it.

    I definitely think the case can be made that graphic porn is categorically different than erotica, but the categories are really in the eyes of the beholder. It is a subjective categorical distinction. One person’s porn can be another person’s erotica. Some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography can definitely be considered (and used for) both.

    It’s important to break this subject out from the cloistered opinion of any one religious perspective. Porn (or erotica) has appeared through the ages. It’s been integrated into religious ritual (Tantra) and has adorned art. To come down against porn (or erotica, remember, objectively pretty much the same thing) is to attempt to squelch a pretty huge portion of the world’s art history. Side note: I remember distinctly from my elementary school years one teacher returning from a European vacation with the opinion that Greek sculpture was pornographic. He may have been right.

    In my opinion, Catholics can’t be trusted to provide an objective view on this subject. Sexuality has been considered ever since the early church fathers as a distraction from the contemplation of God, a competition for it. Augustine turned from being a licentious young man to being what we would today call a social conservative. The powerlessness he felt at the hands of his early sexual urges convinced him that something foul was afoot. From there, his opinions have more or less guided the Church ever since. You are of course free to voice your opinion, but realize that you’re carrying a lot of baggage when you step onto this train.

    It is quite possible that none of us, religious or secular, can accurately assess any of this, since we have all been raised in a fairly puritanical society. Even the most liberal of us can find disquiet in situations that are quite possibly totally innocuous.


    1. First a quibble: I take some issue with a few remarks. “Catholics can’t be trusted to provide an objective view on this subject.” Are they somehow uniquely subjective on this question? You back off this, but end up blaming the “puritanical culture” (presumably a child of Christianity) for this lack of clear-headedness. And I give Augustine rather more credit than thinking him a simple shill of an unthinking religious position. In fact, it was his recognition that there was something fundamentally disordered about his licentious behavior that was a part of the turn toward a something else. Point is, can’t we address the issue without falling into this game of blaming religion for everything? No one here has made overtly religious arguments (mine have appealed to religious texts, but have mostly relied on a relational understanding of the person). I just see little value in these kinds of comments. If the position is unreasonable, discussion and argument will show it to be such.

      Hunt, remarking on his viewing through a keyhole example, says “it’s significant that this is considered a moral offense against the person whose privacy has been breached.”

      I want to clarify my earlier comment about who is harmed in such cases. I will rely on Levinas here. I think the moral offense is against the one who is objectified. The command, “spoken by their Face”, to “not kill” has been ignored. Or, to use Kantian language, it is “humanity” which is the object of offense (the humanity in the other person).

      But I grant that it may be that only he who objectifies that is harmed in any measurable sense (in his capacity to enter into healthy relationships, etc). I suppose the point here is that I do not think harm is the only measure of moral offense.

      Hunt’s exploration in his first paragraph rasises some interesting issues. If we are interested in reducing the immoral to what causes measurable harm to others, is it really harmful to masturbate while spying on someone through a keyhole if they remain entirely unaware of this? What if we video them without their consent (but they never find out) and masturbate to that? It would appear difficult, in such a cases, to demonstrate harm. Another issue: is there anything wrong with masturbating to computer generated images of others? Perhaps we take a publicly available photograph and produce some CGI porn from it. Again, no one is harmed.

      Let us suppose we can work around this. One might say that not respecting the right to privacy causes harm overall (some kind of an appeal to Rule Utilitarianism or something). On this view, the supposition is that consent is a sufficient condition for whatever sexual engagement. But is this true? Consent is certainly a necessary condition, but is it sufficient? A philosopher named Victor Punzo makes an interesting argument here: Consent is insufficient because sexual acts can still lack what he calls “existential integrity”. The bodies express a personal union in the deepest possible sense while no such personal union really exists. To engage in consensual sex outside of “moral marriage” (a total commitment between two persons to bind their embodied historical selves together) results in a depersonalization of the body that results in a lack of “existential integrity”.


    2. I’m not blaming religion for everything. I’m just saying that the Catholic perspective is only going to come to conclusions consistent with Catholicism, and since Catholics basically originated the concept of sexual guilt, or at least refined it to an art, that perhaps a full deposition on this score is in order. Is the secular liberal perspective more apt to come to an objective conclusion? Yes, as a matter of fact I think it is, if only because there are factions of progressive liberalism that are highly skeptical of the benefits of porn. That bastion of progressivism, feminism, happens to find it quite dubious.

      I wasn’t saying that Augustine shilled sexual prudishness, I said he originated it. Whether this is totally true or not, I think it’s fair to say he was more the source than simply a reiterator. Base human urges are something to be controlled, not something to indulge — because they are a gateway to evil. I’m not convinced that discussion and argument are going to dispel false conclusions because I often think the philosophy is fitted to the policy, and not the reverse. You can probably tell I don’t hold all that sanguine a view of philosophy. It is a fluid enough science to convince the gullible that up is down. If you don’t check in with reality on a fairly regular basis, I think that is exactly what happens. In this particular case we find that vicarious sexual gratification is a nearly universal human norm, that those who practice porn production have a healthy view of themselves and are often well paid, that porn consumers are grateful for their services. There are even non-profit foundations devoted to the health and well-being of so called “sex workers.” Reality tells us that your premise is incorrect, Kleiner. Perhaps a course correction is in order.


    3. “If we are interested in reducing the immoral to what causes measurable harm to others, is it really harmful to masturbate while spying on someone through a keyhole if they remain entirely unaware of this?

      What if we video them without their consent (but they never find out) and masturbate to that?

      Another issue: is there anything wrong with masturbating to computer generated images of others?”

      Yes, yes, maybe.

      So why yes, if they never find out — because it’s a violation of the social contract we have with others not to violate their privacy. Even if they never find out, and particularly if they never find out, because that is the exact definition of violating a person’s privacy. For the last one I’d say “maybe” because if it would depend on how the images were obtained. If through violation of privacy I’d say it’s wrong. The most interesting case is there has been no violation of privacy. For instance, what if a person captures video of pretty girls on the beach and then does his business. Here I’m not sure. If you call it a wrong against the girls you’re definitely getting into the “stealing the manna” kind of voodoo.

      Existential integrity

      Even it’s granted that “existential integrity” has some significance, it’s unclear why this can be called wrong or immoral. You can go on and on about vicarious sexuality not fulfilling some kind of vital function, but it’s really an empty charge. Even if masturbation is mime sex, it does serve a function; it is a sexual release, if only of a physical sort. It’s VERY unclear why this resource, accessed by hordes of men women and high schoolers should be called “evil,” or even “disordered,” considering extensive mental distress that doubtful charge might present.


  11. What I find dubious about Kleiner’s Catholicism-inflected (or infected?) perspective on pornography, masturbation, sexuality, etc. is not its positive valuation of chastity or the appeal to a supra- or non-hedonic ethic but that it seems so risibly un-informed by a credible appreciation of human sexuality, its pervasiveness and complexity. By refreshing contrast, Nietzsche champions a severely non-hedonic ethic that *is* informed by a credible sexual (and moral) psychology — which, in a post-Darwinian and -Freudian world (of the realistically ‘extended’ sexuality developed with conceptual resources like “libido”, “reaction-formation” and “sublimation”, as opposed to some of the medieval crudities above) stands up quite well to the picture of sexuality conveyed by the state of the art in the relevant modern sciences ( –just stroll through PsycINFO, for instance).

    And I can’t resist qualifying the enchantment exercised by some of the sorcerous Heidegger-speak that, thanks to recent bios, we can now number Heidegger among (the admittedly lower echelons of) other lofty, lusty and sublime horndogs of the spirit — like, to name only a few, Stendhal, Goethe, Gauguin, Mishima, Francis Bacon, Proust, Bob Dylan, Fellini, Larkin, Hughes, Mailer, and that pre-eminent of erotics, Socrates ( –Derrida’s “Postcards”, the only tolerable thing I’ve ever read by him, is, in the connections he makes between Socrates/Plato and Freud, not without relevance to this topic). Would anyone who appreciates their life-saving contributions to humanity seriously dare to imagine away their chasity- and/or fidelity-scorning ways?


      1. It is my humble opinion that Rob’s claim that the view I presented is “risibly un-informed by a credible appreciation of human sexuality, its pervasiveness and complexity” can only be made by someone who has not read the Theology of the Body, a work that takes as seriously as anything I have read the “pervasiveness and complexity” of human sexuality.
        A considerable amount of the disagreement here is rooted in my rejection of naturalism and the claim that sex involves the human person in the deepest possible sense.


  12. I’ll try to check out that book. Let me just clarify, though, that I take very seriously, and have great sympathy for, the non-hedonic ethical character of your concerns about sexuality. (My exposure to porn is embarrassingly modest, perhaps even more than yours, and I’m personally repulsed by the idea of ever patronizing a strip club by a mingling of quasi-Kantian intuitions about dignity and Haidtian-purity-disgust-related emotions.) Maybe we could find some convergence in the music of your fellow countryman Leonard Cohen, another lofty, lusty and sublime horndog of the spirit? (You’re Canadian, right?)


    1. Some Catholic commentators have noted that John Paul II, for all of the work he did, the length of his papacy, and the way he shaped the Church, he will be most remembered for the Theology of the Body. Weigel calls it a “ticking theological time bomb” that, once it fully goes off, will “reshape the way we think about every aspect of the Creeds”. For me personally, it has been one of the most important works of philosophy/theology that I have ever read. It is a deeply “pro-sex” book (calling the sexual embrace a living icon of the inner life of God) and a work that, finally, sheds the excessive legalism of the Catholic tradition (which, Hunt, notes, had plenty of unwelcome consequences).

      We might some convergence in Cohen, but I am not Canadian (is there something about my online “persona” that led you to believe I am?).


  13. “[A]ll happiness or unhappiness depends solely on the quality of the object to which we are bound by love.”

    Spinoza continues, “After experience had taught me the hollowness and futility of everything that is ordinarily encountered in daily life…I resolved at length to enquire whether there existed a true good…I therefore debated whether it might be possible to arrive at a new guiding principle…without changing the manner and normal routine of my life. This I frequently attempted, but in vain. For the things which for the most part offer themselves in life, and which, to judge from their actions, men regard as the highest good, can be reduced to these three headings: riches, honour, and sensual pleasure. With these three the mind is so distracted that it is quite incapable of thinking of any other good. With regard to sensual pleasure, the mind is so utterly obsessed by it that it seems as if it were absorbed in some good, and so is quite prevented from thinking of anything else.”


    1. Very cool quote.

      It appeals to the economist because it categorizes the world into three elements of an objective function. We can understand that there are some people who emphasize one over the other two. We can then start to understand the subjectivity of the human and the different outcomes that are consistent with these preference rankings. Other traditions have used more elements, the 7 virtues / sins — the 7 habits of Covey. They all tell us that people more or less can fall somewhere along a continuum within and between these choices. While some are never gluttonous with food, they may be with TV. It is hard to impose dichotomous thinking in this regard. To say that gluttony with TV is more detrimental to the soul than gluttony with food is to mis-characterize the concept of gluttony.


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