Tag Archives: John C. Wright

The Argument from Desire

I’ve recently read two discussions — one by philologist Edward M. Cook (of Ralph the Sacred River), and one by Christian apologist Peter Kreeft — of what is being called the Argument from Desire. Then, by a strange coincidence, John C. Wright also came out with a post about it while I was in the process of composing this one.

The argument, though not the name, comes from C. S. Lewis, who summarizes it as follows in the tenth chapter of Mere Christianity:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

This is not strictly speaking an argument for the existence of God, but for an undefined something which is beyond all known human experience. As Kreeft puts it, “What it proves is an unknown X, but an unknown whose direction, so to speak, is known. This X is more: more beauty, more desirability, more awesomeness, more joy.” Still, if even this much can be proved — if we have reason to believe in something beyond this world which is nevertheless intimately connected with human desires and interests — it gives us at least a starting point from which to theologize.

Of course no one would argue that every human desire — including my desire for an ansible and a cloak of invisibility — implies the existence of an object that would satisfy it, only that we are not born with vain desires. Lewis’s argument only applies to natural, innate, instinctive desires, so the first question that arises is how to distinguish these from artificial ones. Kreeft proposes the following criteria:

  1. We generally “recognize corresponding states of deprivation” for natural desires, but not for artificial ones. “There is no word like ‘Ozlessness’ parallel to ‘sleeplessness.'”
  2. Because natural desires come from our shared human nature, they “are found in all of us, but the artificial ones vary from person to person.”

Kreeft’s first point seems not to favor Lewis, who was so far from seeing his unsatisfied desire as a state of deprivation analogous to sleeplessness that he actually dubbed it “Joy” — not the desire for Joy, mind you, but Joy itself. As far as Lewis was concerned, his desire was not for Joy; it was Joy. The desire was itself intensely desirable. In that respect it seems more like an artificial, fanciful desire than a natural, biological one. Are intense hunger, loneliness, sleep deprivation, and so on ever joyous experiences? Wouldn’t it be odd if they were? Fantasizing about the land of Oz, on the other hand, can be rather pleasant.

The second point is also problematic, since so many obviously fanciful desires are nevertheless near-universal. As Wright (who, despite his Lewisian sympathies, finds this particular argument weak) puts it, “Who has not longed to fly to the stars . . . to speak to the trees and rivers and hills, . . . or peer into the thoughts of another, or live his life?” And who has not felt Lewisian Joy, the “desire which no experience in this world can satisfy,” a persistent longing which is no less intense for being vague? All of these must be in some sense “natural,” since they come so naturally to us, but it hardly follows that there must exist something which can satisfy them.

Desires, after all, do not exist to be satisfied; they exist to motivate behavior. Often the behavior elicited by a desire will result in its satisfaction (e.g., hunger motivates eating, and eating satisfies hunger) but this need not always be the case. Take for example the proverbial method of motivating a donkey to move by dangling a carrot in front of it, where the donkey’s desire serves its purpose (making the donkey move) even if it is never satisfied. In fact, the minute you actually let the donkey eat the carrot, it will stop walking and the purpose of the desire will be frustrated. You should only let it eat the carrot after you have reached your destination and no longer want the donkey to move; if you want it to keep moving indefinitely, you should never let it eat the carrot. Creating a desire serves to make the donkey move; satisfying the desire serves to make it stop. (Of course this is a highly artificial example, but in principle there’s nothing to stop nature from doing something similar.) So in thinking about desire and satisfaction, we need to keep in mind two important points — important enough to be bulleted:

  • To understand why a given natural desire exists, the correct question to ask is not what would satisfy it, but what evolutionarily useful behavior it serves to motivate.
  • Other things being equal, we should expect a desire to be satisfied only when, and only for so long as, the behavior it serves to motivate is no longer useful.

If there were some behavior which it were evolutionarily beneficial for us to perform only once, or only a specific finite number of times, then we could expect to find a natural desire which could be satisfied in the fullest sense of that word — we reach the intended goal, the desire is completely and permanently quenched, and we move on to other things. Mission accomplished. It’s hard to think of any clear examples of this in the real world, though, which is perhaps only to be expected. The evolutionary project — ensuring that copies of as many of our genes as possible continue to exist for as long as possible — is inherently open-ended, a race with no finish line, and we might expect a similar open-endedness in the desires which were created to serve it.

More typically we find that our natural desires can be satisfied, but only for a time. The satisfaction is temporary, and the desire is quenched and rekindled, quenched and rekindled, in a cycle that can continue indefinitely. We eat, we drink, we sleep — but hunger, thirst, and fatigue are never banished for long. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. This is a confusing state of affairs if we see satisfaction as being the purpose of desire, but it makes perfect sense if we keep in mind that desires exist to trigger behavior and satisfaction exists to turn it off. When the body needs fuel, the desire to eat is turned on; when it has enough, and eating more would actually be detrimental, the desire is turned off — satisfied — but only until fuel supplies begin to run low again.

The on-again off-again nature of hunger is explained by the fact that eating regularly is evolutionarily useful but eating until you burst is not. But what if there were a behavior which, unlike eating, was always useful and never needed to be turned off? Well, in that case we would expect that behavior to be motivated by a desire which could never be satisfied. The most obvious example of this in nature is our desire for life itself. Nature has given most of us an insatiable desire to go on living indefinitely, not because immortality is actually on offer, but to motivate us to extend our finite lives for as long as we possibly can. Other ways of coping with our unacceptable mortality — having children, trying to bequeath something of lasting value to posterity, and so on — also tend to serve evolution’s ends. So long as we keep chasing the carrot of eternal life, pulling our wagonload of selfish genes behind us, the desire serves its purpose, even if satisfaction remains forever out of reach.

Lewisian Joy isn’t as straightforward as a desire for immortality — it’s a vague desire for a certain je ne sais quoi — and so the behavior it serves to motivate is less easily characterized. However, I suspect that it still does serve to motivate broadly predictable patterns of behavior. Someone who is motivated by Joy is likely to seek, as Kreeft puts it, “more awesomeness” — where our idea of awesomeness will tend to be drawn from our other, more straightforward (and more clearly evolutionarily useful) desires. The inchoate longing for “something more” is not as open-ended as it might seem, since our human nature will predictably direct it towards certain goals (such as power, wisdom, and beauty) rather than others (such as trying to ensure that the number of turnips in the world is prime). Given how clever our species is, and how good we are at finding ways to cheat evolution by satisfying our desires without reaching the goals for which those desires were created (see my post on the Genie scenario) — Joy may be a broadly effective way of keeping us from resting on unearned laurels.

I’m getting into just-so-story territory here, but all that’s really necessary to counter Lewis is to come up with an explanation for vague unsatisfiable desires which, however hypothetical and ad hoc it might be, is at least less far-fetched than his own “most probable explanation” — namely, that there must exist some “other world” than the known universe and that it was for this hypothetical world that we were “made.” And, that, I think, is a pretty easy standard to meet.

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John C. Wright’s anti-gay argument

John C. Wright’s case against homosexuality, laid out mostly in Part V of his essay on sex (links to all six parts available here), can be summarized as follows:

  1. It is in society’s interests, for various prudential reasons, to insist that the sex act proper (copulation) be restricted to marriage.
  2. People will be able to comply with the above restriction only if they cultivate habits of sexual self-command (chastity) rather than sexual self-indulgence (unchastity).
  3. All sexual acts other than actual copulation — that is, sodomy and other acts called “unnatural” in less sensitive times — are “unchaste in essence” because they “mock or impersonate the sex act with the same physical sensations as the sex act, but they are [sexual] by accident, not sexual essentially.” Unnatural sexual acts may nevertheless be permitted within marriage as an adjunct to, but never a replacement for, the sex act proper, “provided these acts increase the union and love of matrimony.”
  4. A preference for unnatural acts over copulation, such that one’s preference weakens one’s appetite for copulation rather than strengthening it, is a neurosis. Unnatural sex acts should be treated as we treat drinking and gambling: “If done in moderation, in certain times and settings, no opprobrium attached. When they become addictive, obsession, or neurotic, they become vices, and must be deterred.” “Customs and manners therefore cannot support non-copulation forms of neurotic sexual deviance without eroding matrimony. The two are mutually exclusive.”
  5. Therefore, regardless of whether or not homosexuality is in itself harmful or bad, “it still cannot escape the general prohibition against non-essential forms of sexual gratification neither leading to nor supporting copulation.”

I basically agree with (1), though it must be stressed that the marriage-only rule works only if it is enforced by society, and that in a society which does not enforce it there’s no particular merit in choosing to live by it as a matter of personal principle. In this way marriage is a bit like a driver’s license. It’s in society’s interest to insist that all drivers have a license — but if driver’s licenses were considered by the law and society to be completely optional, a driver would be under no moral imperative to get one. He would be under a moral imperative to drive competently and safely — the behaviors which the institution of driver-licensing is meant to enforce — but provided he did so, there would be no need for the formality of getting an actual license. That formality is of no benefit to society unless it is mandatory. The same goes for marriage, which is basically a license to have a sexual relationship. It’s arguably a good idea for society to require that all sexual relationships be licensed (more on this in another post, perhaps), but absent such a requirement, there’s nothing particularly moral about getting such a license yourself (though in some cases you might do so for reasons of self-interest). As with driving, the important thing is not the license itself but the behaviors the license is meant to enforce. But, all that aside, I’m going to grant (1) for the sake of argument here. Whether or not you agree with it, it should be interesting to accept it as a premise and see whether the suppression of homosexuality follows — whether, that is, any valid line of reasoning lies behind the common use of “pro-marriage” as a euphemism for “anti-gay.”

Point (2) is an interesting one. Though it seems almost a truism, it’s often overlooked in discussions of sexual morals. If it’s important to control one’s sexual urges in at least some situations (and everyone agrees that it is, though they may differ on what those situations are), then there’s a case to be made for sexual self-control as a general principle, for chastity as a virtue to be cultivated. Masturbation, for example, may be a harmless habit in itself, but by abstaining from it one develops a habit of controlling one’s sexual urges, making it easier to refrain from committing actual sins such as adultery and rape. (Quoting Hamlet at this point is almost a reflex, but I’ll control myself.) That’s one theory, anyway; the other theory is that suppressed lusts eventually burst out in a far more virulent form — that, as Nietzsche has it, lust begs for a piece of spirit when a piece of flesh is denied it. The latter idea is so fashionable, and the intellectual fashions these days are so uniformly obtuse, that my natural inclination is to side with Wright on this one — but really it’s an empirical question, to be settled by psychological observation and experiment rather than armchair philosophizing. In any case, let us grant this point also for the sake of argument.

Point (3) is more of a jump: that all unnatural/non-coital sexual acts are essentially unchaste — by which word Wright means vicious rather than virtuous in the Stoic sense, demonstrating (and, through the power of habit, reinforcing) a tendency to self-indulgence rather than self-mastery. It’s not immediately clear to me why yielding to lust should be considered less self-indulgent when done in the biologically correct manner, and the bit about their being sexual only accidentally rather than essentially doesn’t really clear it up much. Reading between the lines, though, I think Wright’s point is something like this. Sex has three basic functions: reproduction, bonding, and personal gratification — the last of which is obviously self-indulgent in nature. Even in cases where personal pleasure is one’s primary motivation, the fact that other purposes are also being served makes it fundamentally less of a vice than, say, solitary masturbation, which has only one possible purpose and has therefore rightly become synonymous with self-indulgence. To borrow an analogy Wright has used elsewhere, we may often eat primarily for pleasure rather than nutrition, but the latter end is also being served; eating for pleasure and then making oneself vomit it up, on the other hand, has no possible function apart from pleasure and is therefore fundamentally vicious.

But are non-coital sex acts really vices pure and simple, in the same category as masturbation and bulimia? They may not have any reproductive function, but they retain the bonding function of sex proper. Wright admits as much when he allows for non-coital acts so long as they “increase the love and union of matrimony.” Even outside of a matrimonial context, it’s hard to argue that these acts are purely vicious, since personal pleasure is not their only function and is sometimes not even a function. (For many people, I suspect, performing fellatio or cunnilingus or allowing oneself to be sodomized is actually an act of self-sacrifice, something in which they take little pleasure themselves but which they are willing to do as an expression of love and to give pleasure to their partner.) So I can’t agree with Wright’s classification of these acts as “unchaste in essence,” a designation which should be reserved for acts which have no function apart from self-indulgence.

Point (4) is that any sexual preference or appetite that draws one away from the sex act proper rather than towards it — i.e., homosexuality — cannot be supported by society without eroding matrimony. I find this to be a very weak argument. First of all, the “matrimonial position” Wright advocates is not that everyone must get married (as a Catholic, he obviously has no problem with celibacy), but that no one should be having sex outside of marriage — and, as Wright emphasizes again and again, the sexual practices of gays are not really sex. Gays are not engaging in extramarital sex and are thus not part of the problem marriage was instituted to solve. Wright tries to argue that non-coital acts are nevertheless a problem because they are detrimental to sexual self-control, and that a person who indulges in such acts makes himself less able to resist the temptation to indulge in extramarital sex. But, as Wright emphasizes again and again, gay sex (unlike non-coital heterosexual acts) draws people away from copulation rather than towards it and therefore cannot be said to be making anyone more susceptible to the temptations of extramarital sex. Once again, the matrimonial position is that extramarital sex (in the narrow sense of copulation) should not be allowed. Since homosexual acts are not extramarital sex, and presumably do not make one more likely to indulge in extramarital sex, it’s hard to see what the problem is.

The only way I can see that tolerance for gay sex could undermine marriage would be if the sexual liberties of gays somehow had a tendency to negatively affect the chastity (sexual self-control) of straight people — a possibility which is perhaps not as far-fetched as it seems. One could perhaps make a case for gay abstinence similar to St. Paul’s argument that Christians should not eat food offered to idols. (See 1 Corinthians 8.) If you’re a staunch Christian, says Paul, eating food that has been offered to a pagan god doesn’t mean anything and is not an act of idolatry, since you know that the god in question doesn’t actually exist and are therefore not worshipping it — but for someone less firm in his monotheism, less sure of the nonexistence of the pagan gods, the very same act would be idolatrous and potentially damning. Therefore, writes Paul to his Christian audience,

take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; and through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?

In the analogy I’m proposing (one which will undoubtedly rub some Christians the wrong way), the strong Christians Paul is addressing represent gays, the Christians whose monotheism is shaky represent straights, idolatry is extramarital sex, and the eating of food offered to idols stands for extramarital sex-like acts other than actual copulation (for the sake of brevity, I’ll just use the word “sodomy” in its broad sense). For gays, extramarital sodomy does not lead to extramarital sex and is therefore not (or not always) wrong — but, if practiced openly and with society’s approval, this liberty of theirs could embolden straights to indulge in similar acts, which for them do lead to extramarital sex and are wrong.

The obvious solution is to eliminate the double standard, not by suppressing homosexual acts altogether — that would be a double standard the other way, leading to the opposite problem of gays being emboldened by the liberty of straights — but by creating an institution of gay matrimony and insisting that all sex and sodomy be limited to marriage. Aside from the Corinthian argument, there are other reasons this is a good idea. Although the strongest arguments for matrimony involve children and are therefore not directly applicable to sodomy, other arguments — about minimizing emotional pain, dealing with the problem of violence between sexual rivals, and controlling the spread of venereal disease — apply to both equally.

This proposal is unlikely to find many supporters. Advocates of gay marriage are, after all, accustomed to thinking of it as a freedom rather than a restriction, a right rather than an obligation, and might not be so enthusiastic about it if it comes at the price of suppressing gay fornication. Nor are conservative Christians likely to think much of it. Still, I think it’s the logical conclusion of Wright’s argument.

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John C. Wright on sex in society

John C. Wright is apparently a science fiction writer. I’ve never read any of his books, but now that Scientists Considering Christianity is defunct and Jim Kalb seems to be posting less and less often, Wright’s LiveJournal has become one of my main sources for intelligent conservative Christian writing. (I try to read such material regularly as a counterbalance to my natural tendencies as a clueless liberal atheist.)

Recently, in response to a deluge of comments from gay activists who accused him of (among other things) being opposed to homosexuality solely for religious (read: irrational) reasons and questioned whether there could be any other reason for such opposition, Wright has posted a six-part secular defense of marriage and traditional sexual morality, explaining the train of thought that led him to become a sexual traditionalist before his conversion, when he was still a passionate atheist.

It’s given me a lot to think about, and I intent to return to it at my leisure and spend some time thinking about each of his points. So, for my own future reference (and for anyone else who is interested), here are links to the six parts, with summaries of what each covers:

  • Part I: On self-control. On the objectivity of morals. On virtue. Law and custom. Do as thou wilt. The bounds of the question.
  • Part II: Is marriage a contract? How pliant is human nature? Is sex entertainment? Men are jerks.
  • Part III: The sex act. Passions related to the sex act. Prudence related to the sex act. Humans are altricial. Bastards and cuckoos. Permanence. Exclusivity. Polygamy. Violence between sexual rivals.
  • Part IV: Third parties to marriage. The father of the bride. The grandparents of the child. The investment of the interest in virginity.
  • Part V: Matrimony and fornication. Prudence regarding matrimony.
  • Part VI: What does this have to do with science fiction? A personal note to Mr. Charles Stross. A general challenge. Christian modifications to this position.

Although triggered by an argument about homosexuality, Wright’s essay isn’t primarily about that topic. It mentions it only as a sort of postscript, and my initial reaction (as I said, I plan to reread it later and take some more time to think about it) is that his case against homosexual acts isn’t nearly as strong as his case against premarital and extramarital sex. (As I mentioned in the course of my discussion with A. C. Grayling, I just don’t think sex-like acts other than actual copulation are anywhere near as morally serious as the act itself; because they are disconnected from the possibility of childbirth, less is at stake.) I’ll come back to this topic later after I’ve had some time to digest and dissect his arguments.

Incidentally, the barrage of angry comments from homophobophobes to which Wright was responding was triggered by another post (since deleted) in which he made some sarcastic remarks about this news story: It seems the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) releases an annual report grading TV networks on their depiction of gay, lesbian, and otherwise sexually atypical characters, and that Syfy (formerly Sci Fi) got an “F.” Predictably, the network executives fell over themselves to apologize and earnestly insist on their commitment to diversity, and Wright, being in the science fiction business himself, was understandably worried about the precedent set by GLAAD’s ideological bullying and Syfy’s groveling submission.

What, you may ask, did Syfy do to deserve an “F”? Well, you see, their shows featured only two gay characters this past year — sympathetic characters both (as far as I can gather, not having actually watched the shows in question), but still only two. That’s it. That, according to the bozos at GLAAD, is defamation. You’d think they’d give at least a “C+” for a marginally positive portrayal, but apparently these guys take the idea of “damning with faint praise” very seriously: If you say gays are cool, but you don’t say it often enough or loud enough, you’re serving the Dark Side.

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