Against desire essentialism I

Our liberal elite claim to have overcome essentialism–that they have advanced from the metaphysical to the positivist stage, to borrow Comte’s description.  Nobody, though, can altogether get around the question “what is it really?”   Liberals, too, believe in a truth of things to which our wills must conform.  Consider the case, which pops up in the news from time to time, of a man married to a woman who finds that he has homosexual desires and strikes up one or more homosexual relationships.  Liberals pretty much always think that the man should leave his wife so that he can gratify his disordered lust.  Now, if this were just the standard liberal contempt for marriage and the natural family, that would be one thing.  The really shocking thing, though, is the moralistic tone they use, as if the man is not only allowed to leave his wife, but is actually in some way obliged to do so.  To stay with her would mean not “being true to himself”; their marriage would be “living a lie”; to disapprove of his own extramarital desires would be “self-hatred”.  These statements only make any sense if one accepts the following:

  1. Desires are the basis of personal identity.  My desires (or at least, my deepest, most fundamental ones) define me and make me who I am.  Let us call desires of this type “self-identifying”.  My self-identifying desires are also my truest, most authentic desires.  They are the ultimate truth about me.  It follows that to respect me means to approve of my self-identifying desires.  To disapprove of my self-identifying desires means to hate me.
  2. Desires are the essence of marriage.  Marriage is fundamentally a public declaration of the desire of two people for each other.  To continue to claim to be married when one has ceased to desire one’s spouse and started to desire another would be dishonest.
  3. It is a moral imperative to pursue one’s self-identifying desires.  Particularly, this fulfills today’s greatest imperatives:  “be yourself” and “follow your dreams”.  One should also pursue only authentic relationships, meaning those that conform to the self-identifying desires of all parties.

The above are claims about essences–namely, they purport to identify essential features of the human person and of marriage.  From these ontological claims are derived an ethic based on romantic notions of authenticity.  The above complex of beliefs I shall call “desire essentialism”.

There’s a lot to be said agaist desire essentialism.  I’ll put most of it off for future posts.  I’ll put off most of it for future posts.  My own position might be called “duty essentialism” which answers the above points as follows:

  1. Desires do not define a person.  One can dissaprove of, or even despise, a person’s desires without hating that person.  One can even have a person’s desires while loving that person.  A better basis for understanding one’s personal identity is through one’s duties, especially the supreme duty to God.  The fact that a person has some or other kind of sexual craving is not the ultimate truth about that person; it’s just one more temptation to avoid.
  2. Marriage is defined by duties, not desires.  There is nothing dishonest in a man being married to a woman he’s not sexually attracted to, even if he’s sexually attracted to someone (or ones) else.  It happens all the time.  He still has the duties of a husband; she still has the rights of a wife; they are husband and wife in deepest truth as well as in appearance.  It is still the fact that he promised her fidelity unto death.
  3. Fulfilling our desires may or may not be good.  The only thing that’s always good is doing our duty.

10 Responses

  1. I’m going to have to disagree with you on this, on at least some points. My concern is that you have adopted a strictly Kantian notion of morality as duty. The traditional Thomistic understanding is that our natural desires are there for a reason, and they mean something. Now, unraveling what exactly our desires mean is difficult, and I can’t pretend to state it all right here, but the doctrine of original sin obviously plays a role.

    In other words, I think that “desire essentialism” poses a serious question. I agree that it doesn’t mean that if a man feels attraction for other men that he should become a homosexual, but it is a serious dilemma, which needs to be addressed seriously.

  2. Hello Stephen,

    Thank you for your comment. Although I have few readers, I’m once again impressed by their quality. You are right that I have a rather Kantian fixation on duties. It seems to me that Aquinas, like Aristotle before him, put too much emphasis on happiness in his ethics, although I’d be willing to entertain arguments that I’m wrong about that.

    Emphases aside, I think I agree with your point: a desire can be part of a whole that means something. So, for example, the facts that I find women attractive and babies cute are indications which, together with other facts about my capabilities, allow me to discern a natural calling toward fatherhood.

    St. Thomas says on the natural law (S.T., 1st part of 2nd part, Question 94) “Since, however, good has the nature of an end, and evil, the nature of a contrary, hence it is that all those things to which man has a natural inclination, are naturally apprehended by reason as being good, and consequently as objects of pursuit, and their contraries as evil, and objects of avoidance.” Now, if “inclination” is meant to mean “desire”, this would be absurd. However, from the examples he proceeds to list–survival, raising children, knowing about God–it seems that “inclination” means something more like “objectively ordered to” or “that which reason, reflecting on our nature, leads us to acknowledge as good”. Indeed, Aquinas makes rationality the requirement for an inclination to fall under the natural law: “All the inclinations of any parts whatsoever of human nature, e.g. of the concupiscible and irascible parts, in so far as they are ruled by reason, belong to the natural law“. Therefore, the natural law is the same for all, even though people have divergent inclinations: “As, in man, reason rules and commands the other powers, so all the natural inclinations belonging to the other powers must needs be directed according to reason. Wherefore it is universally right for all men, that all their inclinations should be directed according to reason.

  3. A few scattered responses:

    The objection I have to a duty-based ethics is it seems that if you follow it to its logical conclusion, God has made our nature in such a way that acting in accordance with it makes us miserable, our at least just sick and tired of merely “doing our duty.” Love doesn’t really enter into a duty-based ethics. That seems a bit cruel.

    We also probably need to clear up our language a little bit, to make sure we don’t just talk past each other. Some of what you call “desires,” such as in your essay about “experimenting” with sex at college, is something I would call impulses, which are essentially fleeting, and not necessarily psychologically deep-rooted. Of course, we need to educate and discipline those impulses. No follower of Aquinas (or of eudaimonian ethics in general) that I know of would say that every impulse is in and of itself good. If someone has an impulse to commit a murder, that is objectively disordered.

    The question becomes much more complicated when we start talking about psychologically deep-seated “desires,” which would include homosexuals who identify themselves as exclusively homosexual. I’m again not sure how to avoid raising the problem of original sin.

    Finally, you seem to be equating desire with passion, affectus, whatever you want to call it. But, you need to remember that there are intellectual desires. Indeed, Aristotle begins the Metaphysics with “All men by nature desire to know.” Indeed, if the desire to know is most important, that would seem to dictate that we follow our desire to know the truth first, and then order our other desires in relation to that first desire to know.

  4. Very good points. I’m going to think about them and get back to you when I have time.

  5. Hello again Stephen,

    Where I think you’re right (and where I’ve been inattentive) is in believing that our desires are all ordered toward something good, rather than just being there to lead us astray. On the other hand, I think “good” and “desired” must remain logically separate categories, because one can’t tell just from the quality of the desire itself whether or not it is disordered. To use some of your examples, a perversion may be deep-seated, and even intellectual desires may lead us astray (e.g. my example of curiosity about drugs).

    My beef with eudaimonian ethics is that it seems to turn morality into just a smarter form of selfishness. In his Christian Ethics, Dietrich von Hildebrand identified three ways a thing may draw or interest us: 1) as something subjectively satisfying, 2) as something objectively good for us, or 3) as a value response to something good in itself. Aristotelian ethical systems tend to distinguish 1 and 2 very clearly and effectively, but they only address the distinction between 2 and 3 confusedly (e.g. in discussions on friendship). However, it’s at this third level of value response that one must look to really understand love and self-sacrifice.

  6. I’m not sure I understand what the distinction between 2 and 3 is. Do you mean what is good “quoad nos” and what is good “per se”? If so, are you also saying that there is some kind of conflict between 2 and 3? I’m not sure that I see what should be the case.

  7. Hi Stephen,

    According to von Hildebrand, there is never a conflict between 2 and 3 (I’m afraid I did make it sound otherwise), but they’re still distinct motives. For example, it is good for us (indeed, the best thing) to love God, but we don’t love God because it’s good for us. We love Him because He is supremely good, and loving Him is the only appropriate response to Him. Giving things their due is the primary thing, and becoming virtuous is the necessary consequence.

    I very much recommend von Hildebrand’s writings, by the way, if you haven’t encountered them already. He was, in my opinion, the greatest Catholic philosopher of the twentieth century, and a hero to Catholic traditionalists. I’ve reviewed a couple of his books in my philosophy book reviews.

  8. If you don’t know of Jim Kalb already, I would recommend him to you. His most recent post does a good job of addressing the question of same-sex attraction from a natural law perspective, addressing the question of desires.

    http://turnabout.ath.cx:8000/node/2869

  9. Thanks for the notice.

  10. […] while back, Stephen, of Don Colacho’s Aphorisms fame, warned me that my affinity for deontological, duty-based morality was taking me outside the Catholic moral […]

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