Cartesian sex in legoland

December 18, 2015 § 35 Comments

Ever since Descartes it has been hipster to think of the interior subjective world of phenomena as utterly distinct from the exterior material objective world of reality.  As a result, we post-cartesians tend to think of motivation or intention as something which can be separated from action or behavior: as nothing but an interior, fully, and solely subjective phenomenon.  We think that an intentional action can be literally broken apart into a really distinct subjective intention combined with an objective action.

This reductionism has consequences, and one of those consequences is that we have a tendency to find pre-cartesian thought about sex incomprehensible. Or, more accurately, we think we comprehend it and find that it – what we think we have comprehended – is abhorrent to reason.  We project our own worldview upon it, so that when we read that intercourse even with one’s wife must be motivated by the procreation of children we think that the ‘motivated by’ part refers to a rarified interior disposition, utterly divorced from the concrete behavior we are actually choosing.

Reality begs to differ with Descartes though. A man with different motivations chooses different actions. A surgeon who is trying to murder his patient may, at a certain fuzzy resolution, look like he is choosing the same objective behaviors as a surgeon who is trying to save his patient. But an accidental cut to the aorta is different in species from a deliberate choice to cut the aorta: it is a different objective behavior, not merely a different motivation.

Reductionist post cartesians think of actions and motivations as separable things, each of which can exist on its own.  They are like lego blocks which can be arranged and rearranged arbitrarily: for a given actual concrete deliberately chosen action, any one of an arbitrary number of motivations may apply. Morality then becomes reducible to nothing but ‘motivation’, understood as an entirely subjective phenomenon.

Reductionism can be a very useful conceptual tool.  But it is a mistake to think that reality, as an ontological matter, is actually partitioned into distinct elements of Being by our conceptual reductions.  It is a mistake to think that the male and the human can be dis-integrated from each other and treated as separate ontological objects in reality.

So sexual reductionists take the moral principle that licit sex must (among other things) be motivated by procreation to mean that husband and wife must summon, within the isolated purely subjective cartesian realm of their interior being, in the IMAX theater of the mind, a pure desire-object, a desire to actually conceive a child right now in this very act.  But that of course is to treat motivation as something utterly distinct and severed from the choice of action.  It is to treat actions and motivations as distinct lego blocks such that ‘sex motivated by procreation’ is not a deliberate choice of a particular kind of behavior, but a purely subjective motivation block fitted together with a purely objective ‘intercourse’ behavior block; an objective behavior block which could go together, in all of its detail and at all resolutions of objective understanding, with virtually any arbitrary and purely subjective ‘motivation’.

The cartesian separation of reality into ontologically distinct subjective and objective worlds makes reality incomprehensible.  If there are two utterly distinct worlds then a given ontic object has to exist in one or the other. So economic value and morality become purely subjective; at the same time consciousness becomes merely an epiphenomenon of matter and energy swirling about in response to the mathematical dictates of  physical laws.

Human acts are not – in actual reality as opposed to the post-cartesian house of mirrors – reducible to arbitrary combinations of utterly distinct subjective and objective ontic lego blocks, one made of nothing but purely subjective ‘motivation’ and the other of nothing but purely objective ‘behavior’. Cartesian metaphysics applied to sex leads to hacking acts of a human person into pieces at the ontological level and rearranging them how we please, or in whatever way fits our preconceived notions.

Is it any wonder then that modern man is starting to literally hack apart his sex organs and rearrange them how he sees fit?

§ 35 Responses to Cartesian sex in legoland

  • Kidd Cudi says:

    point well made what “intercourse even with one’s wife must be motivated by the procreation of children” does not mean, but, how would you describe what it does mean? As one whose default mental space is cartesian, it’s a bit difficult to figure it out.

    Rephrased: motivation does not mean “my subjective reasoning for why I am doing this particular action,” but instead means ________.

  • Zippy says:

    Kidd Cudi:
    The sex act itself has a final cause, an objective motivation if you will, which is procreation. So choosing a sexual act motivated by procreation is to choose the kind of sexual act in which procreation occurs, when it in fact actually does occur.

    Another problem is that post cartesian moderns think that purpose only exists in the (entirely distinct) subjective realm, not in the material realm. So they cannot see that a sexual act – the act itself – has an inherently distinct purpose or final cause.

    So a properly motivated act is one which unites the choice of the acting subject to the telos of the kind of act itself. In other words, it means, in this case, choosing a non-contracepted sexual act.

  • John K. says:

    You, sir, come up with the most amazing titles.

  • Aethelfrith says:

    You mention Descartes, but I blame Sartre for a lot of this.

  • King Richard says:

    One of the most difficult hurdles facing the modern student of Catholic theology is to grasp that it is impossible to separate motive from means from ends. The telos of your will is as much a part of what you do as anything else.

  • Zippy says:

    Aethelfrith:

    Wouldn’t want to put des cartes before des whores.

    John K:

    Don’t forget to tip your waitresses.

  • Bonald says:

    I’d be happy dropping purely subjective considerations from moral reasoning altogether, to the extent possible. I seem to recall Aquinas having three moral criteria: object, consequences, and intention. If intention is as you explain, I’m not clear on its distinction from the object; they both refer to the nature of the act.

    Also, consider this from St. Thomas’ writings on the marital debt:

    “Article 8. Whether it is a mortal sin to ask for the debt at a holy time?

    I answer that, To ask for the debt on a feast day is not a circumstance drawing a sin into another species; wherefore it cannot aggravate infinitely. Consequently a wife or husband does not sin mortally by asking for the debt on a feast day. It is however a more grievous sin to ask for the sake of mere pleasure, than through fear of the weakness of the flesh.”

    I have assumed that “for the sake of” refers to intention in the subjectivist sense I usually use that word, i.e. of the several consequences of the act, the one that the actor is actually after. How would sex for mere pleasure differ physically from sex through fear of the weakness of the flesh? Actually, perhaps I can imagine some difference. If you’re just worried that without some release you’re going to go randomly humping people at the holy day procession, maybe you go ahead and sleep with your wife but do it in the least exciting and pleasant way that nevertheless gets the job done. Pick an awkward location, the position that least excites you, and so forth. While it seems silly that there should be any merit in this, at least it would have the advantage that a man wouldn’t have to probe his mind trying to figure out what he really, really wants out of this particular sex act.

  • Zippy says:

    Bonald:

    I’d be happy dropping purely subjective considerations from moral reasoning altogether, to the extent possible.

    The charybdis to the scylla of pure subjectivism is physicalism.

    I think when it comes to human actions both the ‘purely subjective’ perspective (‘teleological’ moral theories condemned by Veritatis Splendour) and ‘purely objective’ perspective (physicalism) eliminate the very thing they propose to explain.

    A human act is necessarily both objective (since by man’s power he moves potency into act — that is, in more ordinary sounding language the man by his natural powers changes what is merely potential into something actual) and subjective (since it is the act of a person, of a subject) at the same time.

    That we can talk about ‘things’ distinctly doesn’t make them ontologically distinct: we can talk about the shape and color of a ball as distinct things, but the shape and color are not in themselves distinct objects.

    So we can talk about the object (objective aspect or behavior) of an act, and the choice of that behavior or proximate intention (subjective aspect) of an act as distinct, but that is just analysis: it isn’t (de)ontology. They are not separate things in fact: they are different aspects of the same thing.

    Adultery for example is an objective species of behavior, and choosing that kind of behavior in a human act is inherently intending the grave matter of mortal sin.

    There is such a thing as subjective ‘further intentions’, if you will, which go beyond the choice to engage in a particular behavior into what the person hopes to accomplish by his behavior. If any of those further intentions are evil then the act is evil even though ‘in itself’ it is not intrinsically immoral. And there are objective circumstances, which are not the objective behavior chosen by the subject himself. But those further intentions and circumstances don’t alter the act itself.

    I may have more thoughts on the more specific issues you raise, but I’m out of time for now.

  • William Luse says:

    “So we can talk about the object (objective aspect or behavior) of an act, and the choice of that behavior or proximate intention (subjective aspect) of an act as distinct, but that is just analysis: it isn’t (de)ontology. They are not separate things in fact: they are different aspects of the same thing.”

    Maybe we should think of the behavior as the incarnation – the embodiment or enfleshment – of the intention.

  • Zippy says:

    Bill:

    Maybe we should think of the behavior as the incarnation – the embodiment or enfleshment – of the intention.

    I agree, but I think some people might find that too mystical. Everyone experiences and understands ‘turning intention into object’ or ‘choosing behavior’ — I am doing it right now as I type these words.

    In the world of moral theology / casuistry, a whole lot of sophistry is built on trying very hard not to understand what is obvious to anyone who is a human being making real choices of real behaviors in the real world. Mystical-sounding explanations can actually help people in their quest to claim to themselves that they do not understand what they are doing.

    Anscombe had their number. Giving little speeches to ourselves in our minds about the meaning of our behavior does not change the fact that when we act, we are choosing that thing, the object of our act, an objective behavior carried out in reality and for which we are fully morally responsible, that responsibility only mitigated to the extent we are invincibly ignorant or in non-culpable error about the objective facts.

  • DeNihilist says:

    Zippy, all those words just to take the piss outta Jenner – NICE!

  • William Luse says:

    Well, I didn’t intend it to sound mystical. The union of body and soul – the body as its instrument, as giving physical expression to a movement of the will – should, to a Christian, be a very solid thing. To an unbeliever, it won’t sound mystical, but nonsensical.

  • Paul J Cella says:

    Wouldn’t want to put des cartes before des whores.

    Gentlemen, how did that magnificent pun go unnoticed?

  • Zippy says:

    Paul:
    It sounds best if said in an affected pseudo-French accent, like Pepe Le Pew.

  • […] Marriage means the union of any two arbitrary things for any arbitrary reason, as long as the union can be dissolved at any time and for any reason.  More generally, commitment means carefully remaining uncommitted to anything in particular.  Except sodomy.  Oh and contraception, if you are cisgender.  For the time being, until you and your surgeon and your psychiatrist change your minds and decide to rearrange your legos. […]

  • Slumlord says:

    How are the surgeons’ acts separated? BTW, Aquinas separates act from intentions.

  • Zippy says:

    slumlord:
    They are different behaviors in the same way that any accidental occurrence is different from a deliberately chosen behavior: in the way that accidentally cutting someone is different from stabbing him on purpose. It takes a certain willfulness to pretend not to see a difference.

    I also separate behavior from the choice of that behavior, conceptually. But as discussed in the OP a conceptual distinction does not imply an ontological distinction.

  • slumlord says:

    The acts are materially the same. It is true that there are certain material acts which are objectively evil, but its also true that there are material acts which are morally neutral.

    That’s why the morality of an act is not judged by a sole reference to the act but in consideration of the act, circumstances and intention.

  • Zippy says:

    slumlord:
    If you really can’t tell the difference, as behavior, between accidentally slipping and deliberately cutting, then nothing I can say will be able to dispel your confusion.

  • Pilgrim of the East says:

    I don’t know much about philosophy etc. but it’s quite obvious there that at least your supporting examples are bad.

    Why make well-intentioned surgeon to have sloppy hands and cutting accidentaly? Much more on point would be well-intentioned surgeon who isn’t experienced enough, misdiagnosing and cutting deliberately. While the evil surgeon takes opportunity of hard to diagnose case so he would have plausible deniability? (and I can give you just as good example where (lack of) knowledge would make seem to choose the kind of sexual act in which procreation occurs, when it in fact actually does occur immoral)

    And I can’t really understand why you seem to be so against the notion, that motivations/intentions are what makes deeds (im)moral – yes, it is subjective from our point of view, but God knows the intentions of men and will judge them (and frankly, he doesn’t really need man’s philosophy to help him with that)

    Also, what’s wrong about economic value being subjective? How much would you pay for gay porn tape? Why some people pay for it? And please explain it like you would to a child – I didn’t really understand half of what you wrote about usury and it’s probably not because I’m not a native speaker

  • Zippy says:

    Pilgrim of the East:
    It is a false dichotomy to attempt to reduce behavior to nothing but subjective intentions; and in fact moral species is driven primarily by the objective matter chosen (object). We can’t really know what behavior he chose without seeing it from his perspective, since his knowledge might be defective. But once we know that object X was in fact what he chose, object X determines the moral species of the act.

    Similarly, economic value cannot be reduced to nothing but subjective opinions.

    It isn’t a question of either strictly subjective or strictly physical. That is the Cartesian false dichotomy.

    As far as children go, it is usually straightforward to explain to them that certain categories of behavior are always morally wrong. It takes an adult to fail to comprehend it.

  • slumlord says:

    It is a false dichotomy to attempt to reduce behavior to nothing but subjective intentions;

    It’s a strawman argument to claim that others are claiming that.

  • Zippy says:

    “Nothing to see here, move along.”

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