Another attack on western philosophy, because, sex

“I am a woman. I am queer. I am an academic.” No, that’s not me. Except for the academic part. I am, as some of my readers know, a man. Heterosexual. The phrase in quotes is found right at the beginning of an article by Victoria Brooks entitled “Why we need a new philosophy of sex,” published at The Conversation.

As politically incorrect as I’m sure it will sound, I am extremely skeptical of such declarations, particularly at the onset of a piece of philosophical writing. But that’s because, according to Brooks, I bought into the (dead, white, male) western philosophical canon. A grave mistake, apparently. Right before the sentence quoted above, Brooks sets the stage for her diatribe:

“A number of years ago, I found myself at a public sex beach in southern France for research purposes. Unsurprisingly, I experienced some ethical dilemmas. Because I was researching the ethics of sexuality, my research involved potentially having sex with men and women at the beach.”

Wait, what? In order to do research she had to have sex with strangers, despite the fact that — as she affirms in the following paragraph — she was, at the time, in a relationship? Brooks thought that she “desperately needed ethical assistance supported by philosophy … that did not judge, and was aligned to my sexuality.”

Before we continue, since there is more (much more), let me make one thing fundamentally clear. I agree with Brooks that whatever current standards of ethics we adhere to ought, always, to be questioned and, if necessary, updated or even entirely replaced. I also agree with the notion that the socio-economic-bio-cultural background of any given philosopher will influence in more or less subtle ways that philosopher’s outlook on any topic, particularly ethics. I would only add the caveat that, of course, that’s true for any philosopher, including Brooks herself.

All of that said, however, it strikes me as somewhat bizarre to claim that one needs a philosophy that “does not judge” and is “aligned” with one’s sexuality. First off, ethics is a prescriptive discipline, therefore it judges, by definition. If you want descriptions instead, the psychology and sociology departments are located across the street. Second, to require that an ethical philosophy aligns a priori with one’s views or experience of sexuality amounts to a massive case of begging the question, a notorious logical fallacy. Rather, one should confront a number of models of sexual ethics (there is more than one, not just the western one!) with one’s experience, and then either change one’s views in the light of the ethical analysis, or critique the ethics on the basis of well reasoned arguments — not just because they don’t fit with one’s wishes.

Brooks proceeds by providing her readers with a number of false or misconceived notions about “western” philosophy. (I keep using the scare quotes because there is no such monolithic entity, just like there is no uniquely “eastern” philosophy. Just think of Kant vs Derrida; or Hypatia vs Hanna Arendt.) For instance, she claims that “conventional” ethical thinking finds homosexuality to be an “issue.” Whose conventional thinking are we referring to here? Donald Trumps’? I don’t know many ethicists nowadays who consider homosexuality to be an issue. Dare I suggest the possibility of a strawman fallacy? And it becomes more strange immediately after that:

“Most of these philosophies are heavily influenced by Rene Descartes’s concept of dualism, which separates the substances of body and mind. This idea of dualism is at the roots of the philosophical canon, from Immanuel Kant, to Friedrich Nietzsche, to David Hume.”

Setting aside that Brooks never actually defines what “these philosophies” refers to, no, just no. Descartes was the last great dualist in the western tradition. None of the other three were dualists. At all.

But in fact Brooks uses the word “dualist” in an entirely sui generis sense: to mean the notion that we should use rational argument, or reason more broadly construe, to do philosophy. This, she claims, amounts to an artificial separation between mind and body, i.e., dualism.

Again, no. To begin with, the mind is a property of the brain and the rest of the nervous system (including our sense organs), which means that there is no distinction between it and the body. Second, the whole point of doing philosophy is to provide rational arguments for one’s position. Even the most continental of philosophers (Heidegger, Derrida) still argue their points, in however convoluted and obscure a fashion. Again, if one does not want to argue then one doesn’t write philosophical pieces. It isn’t mandatory. The performative arts department is right over there.

(This, by the way, should in no way be construed as touting the superiority of philosophy over other forms of expression or academic disciplines. It would be just as inappropriate for a philosopher to present her position by way of interpretive dance as it would be for a dancer to “dance” by way of reading a philosophical paper. Different tools and approaches for different purposes.)

Brooks isn’t happy even with those western philosophers who have expressly put mind and body on the same level:

“Big, fashionable continental thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, John Paul Sartre and Jacques Derrida … all have sought to place the body on equal philosophical terms with the mind. Despite being a leap forward, this philosophy still does not place all women’s bodies on equal philosophical footing with the minds of the men who wrote it.”

I’m really not sure what that last sentence means, and I am more than a bit suspicious of the fact that Brooks is studiously avoiding mentioning any western philosophers who happened to be women. Why Sartre but not de Beauvoir? Why Heidegger but not Arendt? Why no Iris Murdoch, if we want to stick with recent times? Or, if we don’t, why not Diotima of Mantinea, Hypatia, Heloise d’Argenteuil, Tullia d’Aragona, Laura Bassi, and so forth? Are all of them guilty of simply yielding to their male colleagues? An even cursory glance at their lives and philosophies would strongly suggest the opposite.

Brooks does acknowledge the presence of female philosophers, in passing and rather grudgingly: “There is, of course, the huge body of (usually white) feminist work, but this is described as feminism, not philosophy.” No, it isn’t. Feminism is both a stance and a political movement. But feminist philosophers (a group that does include a number of non-whites) do philosophy, and it is recognized as such within the academy. I have a number of colleagues in my own department who do it, and are regarded in just such way.

To make things worse, we then witness the usual “but he was a racist” pseudo-argument: “This is despite the fact that Kant and Hume were racist [sic] and Aristotle (‘the Father of Western philosophy’) was sexist. Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party, and as a professor began an affair with his then student, Hannah Arendt.”

There are so many problems with this “argument” that it probably deserves its own post. But, briefly: (i) To dismiss someone’s arguments about X (say, Hume’s) on the ground that said person may have endorsed objectionable opinions about Y is an instance of either poisoning the well or ad hominem, both logical fallacies. If you disagree about X, just tell us why you do. The rest is irrelevant. (ii) It is problematic to hold people who lived in very different times and cultures to our own ethical standards, a fallacy known as “presentism.” Sure, Heidegger ought to have known better by the 1930s, but “scientific” racism was actually a reasonable (for the time) empirical stance endorsed by most progressives during the Enlightenment, and sexism was absolutely pervasive at the time of Aristotle. The fact that Hume, Kant and so forth did not rise above their contemporaries is regrettable, but they ought not to be judged as harshly as if someone today were to express the same ill conceived opinions. (Also, just wait a few centuries after both Brooks and I will be dead and see what people will say about some of our own cherished and currently very progressive notions…) (iii) There were plenty of others in those times expressing the same opinions about contentious topic X who simultaneously rejected the racism, sexism, etc.. Why focus on Aristotle when we have the Stoics, who famously attacked slavery and thought that women are just as capable as men to philosophize? (iv) Two can play that game: it is well known, for instance, that many suffragettes who were responsible for the first wave of feminism were also bigoted racists. Does that undermine their stance on women equality? I should think not.

After all of this, what does Brooks propose to do about sexual ethics? Not much, as it turns out. She mentions feminist philosophers like Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy, authors of The Ethical Slut, but thinks their approach is too slanted toward polyamory, adding that “maybe there are those who prefer to be unethical.” Well, that’s certainly a possible choice. But then don’t complain if others will, ahem, judge you, for making it. Far better, it seems to me, to positively and constructively argue for a change of ethical views, rather than to just reject the whole enterprise. Because you know, people will judge anyway, so we may as well spend some time educating them (and ourselves) on what should and should not be acceptable and, particularly, why. (But that requires arguing, i.e., using one’s mind…)

Brooks concludes in her book, Fucking Law: The Search for Her Sexual Ethics, that she needs to develop, as the subtitle says, an ethics of her own. But that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what ethics is. “Ethics” comes from the Greek êthos (and morality from how Cicero translated the Greek: moralis), words that have to do with one’s character in the context of the habits and customs of a social group. In other words, to speak of an ethics of one is like speaking of a language of one. And Wittgenstein argued persuasively that there cannot be such thing as a private language. Or, by extension, a private ethics.

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