Sunday, October 5, 2008

Function and Sex

By Hanno

As I'm grading several papers on Aristotle's function argument, it occurs to me that we take the basics of his argument very seriously in a variety of contexts, and always assume the basic Greek worldview. It was basic to the Greek way of thinking that every thing, every species, every action has a unique function. Aristotle and others then use knowledge of that unique function to determine what a good instance of that thing may be. Many people still use the basics of that view when it comes to sex, and this has profound implications for the ethics of sex. But the assumption seems flat out wrong, and hence the ethics based on the function argument seems poor at best.

Aristotle argued that the word good is always contextual, getting its meaning from the noun it modified, and the noun gets its meaning by its particular function. So, a pianist is someone that plays the piano, and a good pianist is one that plays the piano well. When you find the unique function of an object, you can then understand what a "good" object maybe, be it a piano player, or a car.

He argued that the function of man is not mere nutrition and growth, because these attributes are shared with plants, and so are not man's unique function. He argued that sense perception and movement are not man's function, because these are shared with animals. Man's unique function is the use of reason, hence the function of man is to reason, and a good man reason's well, both in practical life as well as in the contemplative life.

The immediate effect of the argument is to place an emphasis on reason, and on the unique characteristics of man, separating him from being an animal. Hence those features of human existence that we share with animals are downgraded, and acting like animals is a bad thing. And if its a bad thing, then anything which takes us away from our rational, human nature is degrading and very bad.

If this argument is not right, then it is very easy to see why some philosophers (like Kant) holds that sex is inherently degrading, reducing us to animals, and hence morally reprehensible. Sex might be necessary to keep the species going, but not good in itself, not to be valued as anything except useful for procreation. (Of course it follows that if sex is valuable for its unique function, and the only function it has that is truly unique is procreation, that good sex is reproductive sex. You may think you have had good sex before, but if it did not produce offspring, you are wrong. And you might have thought that sex that cause a child was not all that, but again, you would be wrong. The best sex, according to this argument, is one where a child is conceived.)

We might grant that procreation is the only unique function sex has, but it is obvious sex has many other functions that are not unique. You might think, for example, that it brings couples closer. Everyone must grant other actions can do that as well, so it is not the unique function, but few can deny that it can also have that effect as well.

Here, then, is the question: Why would the obvious uniqueness of one function make the others irrelevant, or even elevate the unique function? Why is value tied to the unique function? Why cannot we attach meaning and hence value to any purpose we give to any act or person? Then, no longer accepting to split between animal and human, as we no longer accept the function argument, we need no longer look at our animalistic nature with horror and dread. Deny that the only function which counts is the unique function, and off we go with a very different conception of value and ethics. So what justifies the assumption either that function is unique or that only the unique function is the one that counts?


MButkus said...

But Aristotle's teleology has also been described as more personalist than physicalist. When we see Aristotle (co-opted almost entirely) in Aquinas, the physical aspect of a given function stems more from Ulpian, a Roman jurist, than from Aristotle - Aquinas' argument is given such respect because he's able to fuse these very different conceptions of "function".

Anonymous said...

Hanno asks why we should think –like Aristotle—that X ought only be used (or valued) for its primary (unique) function and not any of its secondary functions. For example, why should we think –as Aristotle and Kant might—that sex is good only if it is performed for its primary (unique) function of procreation? Well, if we assume that things got their functions from their creator/designer, and that a things function is that for which the creator intended it to be used, then to use or value something for a secondary function is to deny the creator’s will or intent…. and this is bad and naughty in the eyes of the supposed creator.

ce said...

Well, if we assume that things got their functions from their creator/designer, and that a things function is that for which the creator intended it to be used, then to use or value something for a secondary function is to deny the creator’s will or intent…. and this is bad and naughty in the eyes of the supposed creator.

This assumes a creator/designer. It also assumes that we are privy to the intention of said creator/designer in relation to said use/function preference.

Even if we assume a creator/designer, it is not obvious that said creator/designer somehow did not intend these other non-unique functions nor that these other secondary functions would somehow be less valued by the creator/designer. It could easily be that all functions were not only intended, but valued, perhaps equally, and perhaps unequally.

It's not obvious that some secondary functions would be valued more nor less than the unique function. Perhaps, the unique function was thought to be necessary by the creator/designer, but other non-unique functions were thought to be valued more.

If the creator/designer were to believe that closeness/intimacy amongst partners/couples is of paramount importance, it seems perfectly reasonable for it to create many instances in which this can be developed. Thus, said entity could see the intimacy/bond-forming function of sex as primary, and procreation as an obviously necessary (the creatures need some way to reproduce after all), but less important facet. Indeed, the combination of those two functions in relation to the single act might have just been an economic approach to design. Why not kill two birds with one stone, as it were? But as such it would still be the intimacy/bond-forming function of sex that would take precedence.

That's not actually unwise at all. The closer the bond, the more likely the couple will stay together and tend to the offspring. Many instances of sex would then not produce young (as is the case it turns out), but many (perhaps most) could easily enhance that bond. Those who are incapable of reproduction, would then still posses a stronger bond, and so more easily remain harmonious within society (we tend to be happier in such circumstances, and happy people tend to cause fewer problems in society). As such, the primary function of intimacy/bonding can still be achieved via sex, and even other means outside of sex, even if the unique function of sex is not possible. Thus, there are fail-safes in place, if you want to term it as such. And that just seems practical.

Anonymous said...

All that I was attempting to do was to explain the conditions (assumptions) under which Aristotle's (or Kant's) position concerning function (and sex) would make sense. As ce rightly points out, many dubious assumptions must be made, but once made....

But these assumptions about the Creator's will need not be completely ad hoc, one might refer to the Bible for help in determining God's will...

Hanno said...

The uniqueness of the function is not doing any work in your argument, anon. It is the creator choosing a function and giving that some sort of value above all others that as doing the work.

But nothing suggests that if a creator makes something with one unique function and many other non-unique functions that the non-unique functions do not count. What if the creator made sex as procreation and pleasure? What if sometimes it wants one, sometimes another, and sometimes both? Why think that the creator cares only about unique functions?

For that matter, if an artist makes a chair that is both functional and decorative, why is the chain being used wrong if its used for decoration?

ce said...

But these assumptions about the Creator's will need not be completely ad hoc, one might refer to the Bible for help in determining God's will...

True. But that's under the assumption that the Bible is an authority. Why not the Kamashastra or other religious texts/collections? Why not look at a favored erotica author as your authority on sex? Kama/eros plays many roles in many traditions. How do we know which one is the right one?

DocMurphy said...

To "look at our animalistic nature with horror and dread" immediately puts you into conflict with the notion of reproduction as the unique function of sex. As reproduction is shared among all animals who engage in physical sex, some other function of sex must be unique unto humans if we are to dread our animalistic nature and be degraded by animalistic behavior. What could this be then as animals engage in homosexual intercourse, recreational sex, and achieve some form of orgasm. No animal, that i know of, abstains from sex though.

Could celibacy be the unique function of sex that alone elevates us above the natural world?

Ask Hume for me, and when he upholds procreation as the unique or supreme function of sex with the principle of utility, Ask him if there is any real problem with hot animal like recreational sex according to utility.

He has to disagree with the "monkish virtue" of celebacy as unique. He can't, I don't think, rationalize not having recreational sex. So, from celebacy as the only unique human sexual function, either Aristotle must recant on his view of animalistic behavior in order to preserve function, or Hume must recant on utility and "monkish virtues"

Also, if Aristotle is right about our function being contemplation, and as men we contemplate the foundations and function of celebacy as beneficial to contemplation before adopting the practice, then in fulfilling our function we deny its necessity in the future by not procreating.

recreational sex distracts us from contemplation, and so does tending to children. If we have them tended to by a caregiver we deny that person contemplation.

Could it be that sex and contemplation are polar opposites, unless the unique function of sex is to give us a break from contemplation?