Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sex and reproduction

In my previous post I suggested, using amateur astronomy as an example, that an engagement in an activity can have a value over and beyond the value of the activity's goal, even though the value of the activity derives from the value of that goal.

An interesting instance of this is the following view of sex. Sex gets its value from being an activity naturally directed at offspring, offspring having great value. But the activity naturally directed at offspring has a value over and beyond that of offspring. Thus, even sex that does not result in reproduction, say because the couple is infertile (temporarily or permanently) has value. This value does not derive from the value of offspring in the particular case—there are none in the particular case—but from the fact that it is an instance of a type of activity that is directed at a good.

We can also see that there is something at least problematic in contraception. Contracepted sex is an engagement in a sexual activity while one is trying to ensure that that goal from which the activity derives its value is not attained. Imagine an amateur astronomer who, while engaging in the skilled activity of amateur astronomy (collimating telescope, choosing eyepieces, pointing telescope, etc.), just before looking in the eyepiece at the chosen object puts the lens cap back on. There, one's deliberate choices are contradicting that from which the activity derives its meaning.


Beancan Tatterpants said...

This only works under the assumption that creating a child is the only "ends" involved in sex. I won't argue with you about the intrinsic value. The journey. The Oakeshottian enjoyment, or delighting in the process.

I would claim, however, that another "end" to sex is orgasm. Prophylactics don't hinder this end at all. In some cases, they actually aid in achieving that end.

To continue with your analogy - it's more like preparing to looking into a telescope, but placing a ring on the lens that allows you to view the stars but keeps your eye from being poked out.

Or, in some cases (as previously mentioned), placing a ring on the lens that actually enhances the viewing experience.

I would also consider "not catching a disease" an "end" goal in having sex. The benefits of prophylactics are fairly obvious in this case.

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. I don't see pleasure as a goal in and of itself. Rather, pleasure is something that can enhance an independently valuable goal. That is why there is no value in taking pleasure in something evil or even in something that has no good in it at all. I discuss some of this in this piece. Anyway, the point is that we want our pleasures to be meaningful. We could have our brains rewired so we'd get orgasms each time we scratched our heads. But this would be an empty pleasure, because one wouldn't be taking pleasure in a deeper good. Thus, pleasure cannot be an independent goal of sex. It can only be a subsidiary goal--something enjoyed along the way.

2. If G is a goal of an activity, typically the activity makes it more likely that one will get G. But sex does not typically make it more likely that one will avoid getting a sexually transmitted disease (sometimes sex makes it more likely one will get the disease, and sometimes it has no effect on the probability). Hence avoidance of such a disease is not a goal of sex.

Kyle said...

Hi Alexander,

Couldn't another goal of sex be to be united to one's husband/wife?

Jarrod Lee said...

Hi Alex,

Glad I found your blog and more glad that it's on this particular topic! Just some points that I was thinking of:

1. While you argued in your reply to beancan that you do not see pleasure as a goal in and of itself, this alone doesn't seem to warrant that pleasure conclusively cannot be a goal of sex. I couldn't read your paper (somehow the site was down), but I'm not sure if you're familiar with the positions of Plain Sex (Alan Goldman) and Plainer Sex (Igor Primoratz) who both argue that any account of sex which views it as a means to an end, be it procreation, erotic love, language or some such other end, seem to end up with an account of sex that is distorted, primarily because while these means-ends accounts do well in postulating an ideal picture of what sex should be, in saying that sex IS what it should be would be "oddly out of touch with a wide range of admittedly not very attractive but nevertheless real and all too human sexual experience to be found in our culture”, like those who participate in mass orgies and frequent prostitutes. It is also “equally out of touch with much, or most, sexual experience of many pre-literate cultures, or of more developed but strongly patriarchal cultures where marriage is typically polygamous” (Primoratz). So while it might be great if we view pleasure as meaningful, the "should" doesn't seem to necessitate the "is".

2. I actually do agree with you though that pleasure viewed in this manner is empty. What I think is that there has to be some way for us to move from the "should" to the "is", or maybe the other way round. But that seems to warrant a whole philosophical treatise on what Man is and how that translates to an account of sex that captures not only its barest, minimal level (Sex as simply physical and for pleasure) but also allows us to distinguish a sexual act done by a fully rational human being and a sexual act done by an animal, for instance, i.e. that there needs to be an account of sex that is distinctive of humankind, and not simply capture the sexual phenomenon at its lowest level. How to do that without committing the naturalistic fallacy ("is" to "ought") is the question.

Any thoughts?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Kyle: I think union occurs in and through the bodies' reproductive striving. Why does sex unite? It's not just the sharing of pleasure--one can share all kinds of pleasures. Nor is it just the physical contact, since one can holds hands. Rather, sex unites because the couple jointly engages in a basic biological function. Which function? Mating.


1. I was considering the question of why sex has the value it does. It makes sense to consider the normal case for the sake of answering the question.

As for the business of defining sex, I think the best approach is to define the central, normative concept of sex, and leave at that. There will be other activities that bear various kinds and degrees of resemblance to the central, normative concept, and we can call them "sex" with a greater or lesser degree of plausibility. This is the Aristotelian focal meaning approach. There are many senses of a word, but sometimes we can find a central meaning. Of course such an approach is completely different from what Goldman wants. :-)

Jarrod Lee said...


Wow. That was a really prompt reply. And I shall keep this short since I really should be getting to bed.

While I do think that the Aristotelian approach is good, my point of contention with the Minimalists, i.e. Goldman and Primoratz, is that they do not only end with a definition of Sex but, at least in Primoratz's case, end up with a whole theory of sexual ethics, and suffice to say, a set of ethics that seem problematic not least because it seems to reduce the moral notion of perversion to a simple statistical notion. I'm not sure that Goldman would accept the Aristotelian approach nor that he should be let off quite so easily. Surely such a Minimalist view is problematic because it lowers the bar too much for the rational human being. I wonder if we play into his hands by taking up the Aristotelian approach and wonder if it is actually possible to raise the bar in such a manner that even the Minimalists would be happy with (impossible as that may be!).

Thanks for the thoughts!!!

Alexander R Pruss said...

I must confess to not having read the Primoratz piece. How does he define sex?

An obvious problem with the Goldman approach is that he simply has no good way out of obvious counterexamples. He is forced to say that a baby's desire to be hugged is "proto-sexual". Actually, on his view, it's not proto-sexual, but sexual--it is a desire for bodily contact and the pleasures thereof. "Proto" is a weasel-term here that covers up the absurdity of the position. Another obvious counterexample is that when we see a cute furry animal, we want to enjoy petting it. This is a desire for bodily contact and the pleasures thereof. But it is not a sexual desire. To take care of this counterexample, Goldman could add the proviso that only the desire for bodily contact with a human was sexual desire. But that would be ad hoc. It seems possible for a person to have sexual desire for an animal. Moreover, the same kind of desire that people have to pet kittens is found in people who want to pet babies on the head.

The general difficulty with defining sexual desire in terms of touch and bodily pleasure is that there are kinds of touch and bodily pleasure that are not sexual in nature. If one has an independent definition of what makes a pleasure or a touch sexual, one can solve this problem, but I suspect that any such definition will fail badly.

Enigman said...

Re your argument that there is nothing intrinsically good about pleasure, what if a couple made babies so that they could enslave and torture them, in a bizarre world where that was the only possible outcome? Is there any value to them making those babies? Had the babies a different future, that would be OK, but they do not.

And similarly, had the pleasure been taken not in torture but something else, that different pleasure would have been OK (or had their minds been different, the same pleasure might have been OK). It seems intuitively (pre-theoretically) that pleasure is intrinsically good just as pain is intrinsically bad. A painful act can be good, but it would be better were the same act pleasant. And pain by itself would be bad. So why should pleasure by itself not be good?

Pleasure and pain seem like things that are added, rather than things that multiply. Does painful giving reduce the value of giving? No, but one would be better off without the pain and with the pleasure. The pain does not increase the value of the giving, although it might add the value of choosing to give despite the pain. Etc. (In short, are there better arguments elsewhere?)

Alexander R Pruss said...

There is a value to human life, even a life lived in horrible pain.

But an act of generating a human being can be wrong, even if the resulting life is good. (Consequentialism is false.)

I disagree that a painful act would be better if it were pleasant. Suppose George tortures Sally, a terrorist, to get important information out of her. George is a somewhat morally sensitive person, and he finds this unpleasant to do, but believes it is morally necessary for the defense of the innocent.

But as George tortures more and more terrorists, he finds that he is starting to enjoy his job. He enjoys the grimaces those in pain make, he enjoys the little creative ways he can use misery to get information.

Is George a better person when he enjoys his job? I think the answer is negative, regardless of whether the torture is morally justifiable or not. Is George better off when he comes to enjoy his job? No--on the contrary, his enjoying his job is constitutive of a moral loss.

Or consider a very different case. Due to some cross-wiring, Sally enjoys the pleasure of reading a good novel whenever she eats chocolate cake, and she enjoys the pleasure of eating chocolate cake whenever she reads a good novel. This seems to be a disorder, and she is unhealthy for it. But health is good. So it not only matters that one feel pleasure, but that one feel the right kind of pleasure at the right kinds of activities.

Anonymous said...

But if we extend the astronomy example to the case of a couple who cannot conceive, then are they not paramount to the amateur astronomer who prepares his telescope, the proper function of which is to allow him to see astronomical bodies, even though he knows that the telescope is defective and thus will not serve its purpose?

How are we to justify his activity or ascribe it value, and how can we do the same for the couple who has sex with no possibility of conceiving? I do see the difference between preparing a functional telescope and then purposefully setting it aside, and setting up a nonfunctional telescope and looking through it anyway. In one case you've intervened to prevent an activity from achieving its end. In the other case you've carried through with an action which, in the first place, is destined to not achieve its end. I suppose we could invoke the possibility of a miracle and include this in our reckoning of whether to look through the nonfunctional telescope, but then any action might appear as rational as any other, since the possibility of an end being brought about by a miracle would seem to license choosing any (morally good but dubious in terms of efficiency) means.

We have to be able to justify the behavior of the astronomer who prepares a faulty telescope with reasoning analogous to the reasoning we use to justify the behavior of the couple who has sex despite their inability to conceive. From what you said, both acts would have value because they are instances of types of activities that are directed at a good. But does that not imply that there are countless valuable actions we can perform even though we know it would be impossible for those actions to bring about the end they are directed toward? E.g. dialing on a broken phone, filling a quite leaky gas tank, and trying to write something permanent with invisible ink.

If these actions had not some other end besides their proper end, or if they were not found pleasurable in themselves, then could the people engaging in them be characterized as anything but mad?

Alexander R Pruss said...

These are really good points. Here are a few thoughts. Suppose that the astronomer also enjoys the skillful practice of astronomy. She enjoys collimating the scope, cooling down the mirror, searching for a good location, etc. I think the practice makes sense, and it is not merely pleasure-oriented, because the practice has some non-instrumental value, which, however, is derived from the telos. (This is a somewhat strange idea, but I think right. Likewise, the values of all activities non-instrumentally derive from God, the Telos of all.)

Anyhow, it makes me think that the analogy to amateur astronomy only goes so far.

Better analogies are found elsewhere. I think there is a difference between a practice that is defined by an individual and a practice that is in some way larger than an individual, whether because it is a larger socially constituted practice with its rules and goals, or a natural human practice, with its characteristic activities. The difference may be largely one of degree.

Anyway, take one of these practices that are greater than the individual, practices where one doesn't merely define one's own goals and means (as to large extent is the case in amateur astronomy).

For instance, baseball or eating. We have no difficulty whatsoever in understanding what is going on when George skillfully plays in a game even though it is certain that his team has no chance of winning, even though the value of the moves he makes in the game comes from their directedness at victory. What makes the particular way he holds the bat good is that it is a way of holding the bat that conduces to victory. This skillful practice, thus, gets its value from victory, but is valuable even when there is no hope of victory. In fact, this skillful practice even makes sense if George hopes the other team will win (e.g., because his best friend, who has lately been depressed, is on the other team), but nonetheless plays skillfully. In such a case, it makes sense to assess the value of George's actions regardless of the fact that on this occasion they have no chance of contributing to victory, and even regardless of the fact that he wishes them not to contribute to victory (which is different from intending non-victory; to intend non-victory is to throw the match, or whatever one would call it in baseball).

Likewise, we can understand a person's having breakfast shortly before execution, even though (a) the food won't have time to nourish her, and (b) she doesn't actually enjoy the food.

Jeremy Pierce said...

As I understand your view, you would think it's wrong to try to make conception less likely even if you welcome conception were it to occur. But I think you do have to say that it's less bad than trying to ensure that conception not occur. Someone trying to make it less likely is still to some degree in accord with the natural purpose, where someone trying to ensure it doesn't occur isn't to any degree in accord with its natural purpose.

But I think that means the way you stated your view of contraception is incorrect. Contraception does not always amount to trying to ensure that the natural goal doesn't occur (even aside from disease-prevention reasons). Sometimes it's just an attempt to make it less likely, which is compatible with wanting it to lead to conception but not as frequently as it would naturally occur.

I think to generate the argument against contraception you need the premise that it's always wrong to go against the natural goal of an act to any degree. Does that sound right?

Alexander R Pruss said...

1. If the intention in contraception were to decrease probability, one would not think of cases where conception occured as "contraceptive failure".
2. I was not offering an argument against contraception, only a prolegomenon to one.
3. I suspend judgment on the principle that it is wrong to act against natural processes. But in the case at hand there can be an integrity problem with simultaneously willing to unite biologically--as one body--with another while dissociating oneself from the biological processes by acting against them. I also think standards should be higher in sexual cases as sex is closely related to a central human form of love.

Jarrod Lee said...

Hi Alex,
Sorry for such a long absence. I’ve been kept away by work!
Anyway, here’s Primoratz’s view of what sex is for what it’s worth.

Essentially, Primoratz agrees with Goldman in employing the minimalist strategy so as to not fall into the trap of seeing sex (and sexual desire) as something that it isn’t. Primoratz however disagrees with Goldman in that he thinks that Goldman, in postulating that sexual desire is a desire for physical contact with another person’s body, still doesn’t go as far as Goldman should have in employing the minimalist strategy. Primoratz’s point was that we have sexual activities like solo masturbation which, while not obviously an ideal sexual activity, seems a little too widespread a practice to be deemed sexually deviant. And yet on Goldman’s view, because it is not interpersonal, such sexual acts would be deemed deviant (not necessarily immoral of course). Hence, Primoratz argued that the bar should be further lowered and came up with Plainer Sex, arguing that sexual desire is the desire for certain physical pleasures and sexual activity as that which fulfils such sexual desires.

This view results in Primoratz throwing out the intuitively special relationship between sex and morality. As in your last post where you said that “I also think standards should be higher in sexual cases as sex is closely related to a central human form of love”, there does seem to be such a special relationship between sex and morality such that if an immoral act, say X, is committed, X would be even more wrong if a sexual element is added in. To use the prototypical example, rape is more wrong than simple physical assault because it is not just battery but sexual battery. Primoratz, however, with his Plainer Sex, argues that such a view is mistaken and is but a result of a social construct. For him, rape is wrong not as SEXUAL battery but sexual BATTERY. In other words, sexual ethics is not really all that different from other kinds of applied ethics, say computer and business ethics.

Like you, I think this is wrong, and a possible way out I think is to point out that perhaps while the minimalists are right in capturing the barest, physical level, they do so at the expense of capturing an account of sex that is not distinctive of man in general. In other words, there are a lot of things that we as man share with animals. Any account of human activity that tries to define whatever we do would do well to recognize that. However, just because we share many things with animals doesn’t mean that that a distinctive account of human activity is going to simply be the same as that of an account which tries to describe animal activity. Such an approach leaves us with an impoverished account of what it means to be human. For example, we obviously share many things in common with tables, namely atoms. But that doesn’t mean that we should therefore define ourselves with the barest, physical level that is atoms!

My thought then is that perhaps the way out of this ‘conundrum’ is to return to the question of what is so special about man that a simple, minimalist account of his activity, would be insufficient. I’m wondering if psychology and, perhaps more interestingly, phenomenology, or to be more specific, existential phenomenology, would be helpful in this respect. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. He attempted to collapse the mind-body divide by arguing that from the viewpoint of perception, the Body functions not as a separate entity from the mind such that the mind is subject and the body is object. Rather, if we attend to our perceptions and experience, there seem to be cases where the Body is subject as we are embodied beings. An example he brought up is that of how we can point to our noses in a dark room even though we cannot see it. Such an act would be impossible if we were asked to point to say, a picture, or any other object, in a dark room which we have never been in before.

Or maybe Heidegger’s point about Dasein being in the world. And hence the need to be authentic (I really forgot all my Heidegger as can be seen…)

In any case, I was just wondering if this approach can bear any fruit to answer the question of what is man. My suspicion is that the minimalist approach really finds its motivation, or ally, in the dominant science-based physicalist approach which, as the phenomenologists would say, has its uses but nonetheless seem to be unable to capture the fullness of what it means to be human, at least where experience is concerned. Vincent Punzo argued that any sexual morality has to take into account that sex is not just the union of two physical parts – such an understanding seems to separate the body from the self, and results in a kind of existential disintegrity where the body is treated as a mere commodity to be traded and used.

What do you think?

Anonymous said...

The example of a basketball player who "plays to win" even though he knows his team has no chance of winning is fascinating. It's more fascinating when related to sexual intercourse engaged in even when there is no possibility of conception. I don't fully comprehend what all this means, but I do feel some piece of the puzzle regarding how couples could licitly engage in sex when there is no possibility of conceiving, might be ready to fall into place.

In any case, the example of the basketball player was in my mind instantly connected to William Lane Craig's claim that human life cannot be meaningful without the existence of God and immortality. If the end result of all our actions will be the same no matter what those actions are, since the universe's heat death will look the same no matter what anyone does or doesn't do, then our actions cannot be meaningful. I don't know if the basketball player's being justified in playing well would do anything to show that our actions can be meaningful, even if we know that our actions will not change the final outcome of the universe.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It seems to me that Primoratz thinks that the price of making masturbation non-deviant is making every other sexual activity, including incest, necrophilia and bestiality, non-deviant. That seems a rather high price, especially given that there are well-motivated alternative views on which masturbation is deviant.