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Sexual Desire’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

Martha Nussbaum [NYR, January 29] is right that I have a quarrel with The Free Press, who did not show me the jacket blurb for Sexual Desire. It is not true, as stated in that blurb, that “The Conservative Philosophy Group” advises Mrs. Thatcher, though it is true that I am partly responsible for founding it. Nor is it true, as Ms. Nussbaum says in her review, that I have “served enthusiastically as an adviser to the Thatcher government.” Why she feels entitled to draw such an inference even from the jacket blurb of the book, I do not know. Why she feels that it is relevant to a discussion of my arguments concerning the intentionality of sexual desire is still more mysterious.

Perhaps the more important false thing that Ms. Nussbaum says about the book is in attributing to it the following thesis: “That desire is superficial and second-rate if it does not aim at a lasting and deep relationship that involves the entire spiritual being of both parties.” I argue for no such thesis. My purpose is partly to distinguish sexual desire from all forms of love, and to characterize a certain kind of love as the fulfillment of desire in the way that vindication and triumph are the fulfillment of anger. Deep and first-rate desire may nonetheless be loveless.

My argument for the “moral significance” of gender is not based, as Ms. Nussbaum claims, simply on the premise that people commit suicide when confused about it. She attributes such an “argument” to me sweepingly, but with no quotation to suport her criticism. In fact my argument for the “moral significance” of gender is an extensive attack on the Kantian assumption behind modern feminism—the assumption that what I am essentially is a person, and that persons are essentially genderless. There is no hint in Ms. Nussbaum’s review as to whether or not she thinks that gender is morally significant in the ways I describe. Nor does she have anything to say about the central philosophical argument of my book, which is that persons are essentially embodied, and that an attempt to relate to them as such involves thoughts which are irremediably paradoxical. By avoiding the central argument, and concentrating on what she supposes to be the deep ideological “Thatcherite” meaning revealed in this or that incidental discussion, Ms. Nussbaum provides an excellent instance of what I should like to call “the bigotry of liberalism”—that peculiar sniffing out of heresies on the part of someone who prides himself on his open mind.

Roger Scruton

London, England

Martha Nussbaum replies:

If X not only eats pickled herring, but also goes to the trouble of founding a society whose function it is to eat pickled herring, one can safely INFer that X is enthusiastic about eating pickled herring—unless, that is, there is reason to think that X is a person whose behavior is characteristically perverse. I did Scruton the courtesy of assuming that he is not such a person, in the exactly parallel case of the jacket blurb, which asserted that he had founded a society whose function was to advise the Thatcher government. Whether or not Scruton’s society or its members have ever connected themselves with that function I leave to its members to debate. I only point out that Scruton has permitted the claim to remain in print, unchallenged, on his own book, for close to a year. If this is not tacit approval, it is remarkable carelessness.

Scruton’s letter has the same faults as his book: vagueness and haste about crucial distinctions, lack of clarity about argumentative structure, and the substitution of truculent rhetoric for careful inquiry. I address his points in order.

Scruton’s first objection confuses two distinct claims: (1) the claim that sexual desire that does not aim at lasting spiritual union is second-rate; and (2) the claim that sexual desire that does not succeed in achieving a lasting spiritual relationship is second-rate. His statement that “deep and first-rate desire may nonetheless be loveless” denies the second claim. I never said he made that claim, and I agree with him that he did not make it. The first claim, as his citation shows, is the one I attributed to him. And it is clear that he does make it. Scruton repeatedly asserts that the deep spiritual intimacy of love is the “natural end” or “fulfilment” of sexual desire. (For example, page 92: “It [sc. the intimacy of love] is the point to which desire naturally leads, by its own devices…it is a natural continuation of sexual pleasure to pursue such knowledge—to aim one’s words, caresses and glances, as it were, into the heart of the other, and to know him from the inside, as a creature who is part of oneself.”) This already implies that there is something problematic about the person who deliberately chooses not to aim at love in his or her sexual life: for such a person will be turning away from the natural end of his or her own desire. But later on Scruton makes it very clear that his notion of the natural is a normative and moral notion, which gives rise to moral judgments about the worth of sexual activities. He identifies his notion of “fulfilment” with Aristotle’s concept of a natural telos (“end” or “goal”), and writes as follows:

Love is the fulfilment of desire, and therefore love is its telos. A life of celibacy may also be fulfilled; but, assuming the general truth that most of us have a powerful, and perhaps overwhelming, urge to make love, it is in our interests to ensure that love—and not some other thing—is made…. The fulfillment of sexual desire defines the nature of desire: to telos phuseis [sic]* estin. And the nature of desire gives us our standard of normality.

He argues, further, on the same page (339) that, since love can flourish only in a moral and social climate that supports fidelity, “a whole section of traditional sexual morality must be upheld.” In other words, according to Scruton’s Aristotelian argument, love is to sexual desire as the mature flourishing life of a tree is to the young developing plant: the natural, healthy, normal end state for that process of development, which gives that process its point and defines its nature.

Now a human activity may fail to reach its telos in two different ways, as this passage points out. It can be blocked from outside, as when the social institutions surrounding a person do not support his or her quest for fulfillment. In this case, as Scruton here argues, we have, according to his view, a moral reason to revise those institutions in order to make them supportive of our quest for our telos. But an individual human being can also deliberately choose to aim his or her desire away from the natural telos, pursuing sexual pleasure without love. In this case, it is Scruton’s contention that the person is acting against his or her deep human interests, and (if this is not an isolated occurrence—cf. page 290) is morally blameworthy. Since Scruton does not hold that all such people are so blameworthy as to be sexually perverted, “superficial and second-rate” seems to me an accurate, if mild, summary of his general condemnation. (Scruton’s point about celibacy—cf. also pages 320–321—is mysterious, since on an Aristotelian view deliberate nonuse should be just as bad as divergent use.) It is a central aim of Scruton’s book to establish that a correct understanding of the nature of sexual desire yields moral judgments, in which the pursuit of love is ranked, as a sexual enterprise, above promiscuous and otherwise loveless pleasure seeking (cf. also pages 290, 338). His claim about the telos of desire is crucial to that argument.

I never claimed to have presented all of Scruton’s arguments on gender and persons. But, in order to be fair to the book, I did present the only argument, in that hasty and unsatisfactory section, that I found even prima facie plausible. (It is drawn from his analysis of the case of hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin on page 275.) The preceding two pages on Kant to which he alludes here do not help him reach his conclusion, since they are simply a series of inaccurate assertions about Kant’s moral philosophy, as, for example, the remarkable statement: “If Kantian feminism were correct, it would be impossible to think of myself as a man, rather than as a person with a man’s body” (page 274). This begs so many questions about the place of ordinary beliefs and conceptions in Kant’s moral philosophy that one hardly knows where to begin. Suffice it to say that Kant is well aware that many irrational and morally irrelevant distinctions have a very deep hold on people’s imaginations; and one central aim of his moral arguments is to show us a rational procedure by which we can criticize our own (and our society’s) irrationality. Scruton does not even begin to come to terms with those arguments.

Scruton demands discussion of his argument concerning embodiment. So I shall discuss it, pointing out that it is stated in two incompatible ways: in terms of the phenomenological notion of the Lebenswelt, and in terms of an Aristotelian idea of human nature. According to the first conception, human embodiment is claimed to be a social phenomenon, a human projection onto a natural world that does not, in its real nature, contain it (page 268). According to the second conception (as Scruton articulates it) it is a permanent fact of natural reality, which inheres in nature apart from the vicissitudes of human thought and social life (cf. pages 336–337). Since I found this confusion so debilitating to the argument, I chose to focus on arguments that seemed both more central and more promising—and that are, fortunately, independent of it.

Scruton asks where his politics enters his book. The answer is that the book contains not only a general moral and political philosophy (chapters 11 and 12) but also many concrete political recommendations (especially pages 339–347, 351–361). These conclusions are announced with considerable liberalbaiting rhetoric; and although they are alleged to follow from the interesting philosophical arguments at the beginning of the book, this is far from the case, as my review showed.

Scruton accuses me of the “bigotry of liberalism” and says that I am determined to “sniff out” and condemn “heresies.” This accusation, first of all, shows tremendous arrogance. For he takes my failure to be convinced by his arguments as evidence that I would not be convinced by, or rationally entertain, any arguments to those conclusions. Does he think that he is a “best case” of conservative political thought? Second, his charge ignores the fact that I responded to his position on homosexuality—which, I suppose, is the “liberal” view in question—not with bigoted rhetoric, but with three arguments, none of which he even attempts to answer here.

Finally, his charge ignores the fact that my review criticized the use of vague generalizing in liberal as well as conservative political rhetoric. The ethical approach recommended in the review is a sensitive, sympathetic, historically INFormed responsiveness to human individuality. This approach is not very common on either the left or the right. But I think that Scruton sells conservatism short if he is really assuming that a conservative could not approach a topic like homosexuality with this refinement of attention.

  1. *

    Aristotle’s real Greek sentence, and Scruton’s two English translations of it, both here and on page 336, where the same Greek occurs, use a singular: “nature” in English, phusis in Aristotle’s Greek. Scruton’s Greek in both cases gives the plural, phuseis, correctly translated as “natures.” (Aristotle is not himself talking about sexual desire, in any of the passages in which he uses this phrase.) It is important to Scruton to claim that desire has not “natures” but “a nature.” But the Greek phrase his book actually gives us, and which his translations do not accurately render, contains, I believe, more of the truth: desire is not a single thing, but many different functions in many different human lives.

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