Nagel on sexual perversion (part 3 of 3): phenomenology, normativity, and verification

How’s that for a sexy title?

Here’s part 3 of my series on Nagel on sexual perversion—just in time for Valentine’s Day, and the long-awaited opening of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” In the first part of the series, I laid out the argument of Nagel’s 1969 paper, “Sexual Perversion.” In the second part, I raised some methodological objections. In this part, I start with a basic methodological problem and use it to diagnose the problems in Nagel’s more substantive argument. Some of what I say here overlaps with stuff I said in the combox discussion of part 2 with my friend Michael Young.

In the first part of the series, I pointed out that Nagel’s paper is a phenomenological account modeled in part on Sartre’s in Part III of Being and Nothingness. It is, we might say, analytic Sartreanism (by analogy with analytic Thomism or Marxism)—Sartreanism detached from Sartre’s existentialist metaphysics, and cleaned up for consumption by the clarity-loving readers of the Journal of Philosophy. (Incidentally, Nagel’s paper is obviously influenced by Freud as well; in some ways, it reads like a modernized version of Freud’s “Three Essays on Sexuality.”)

The basic problem with Nagel’s account is that at the end of the day, it’s a phenomenological account of the only sexual phenomenology accessible to Nagel—his own, and perhaps indirectly that of his partner or partners. Problem: how do you get from one man’s phenomenology to an account that’s supposed to be normative for human beings as such? No matter how much backpedaling Nagel does at the end of the paper, if his claims about perversion have any content, they face some version of this problem. They’re intended as an account of human sexual perversion, not of Thomas Nagel’s likes and dislikes. But they read like the latter.

Phenomenology in this context consists of introspective investigation on the nature of one’s own sexual desires (or one’s own desires, considered under idealized conditions). Putting aside the question of whether Nagel’s introspective account is correct, it is unclear why such an investigation would yield any information about the ideal structure of other peoples’ sexual desires. I’m the first to admit that this is not just a problem for Nagel, but for anyone engaged in an inquiry of this sort, and not just a problem for a philosopher of sex, but a problem for anyone whose subject-matter concerns the mind. But it’s a problem, and problems aren’t resolved by saying that other people face them.

I make heavy weather of this because whether you call it “phenomenology” or “analytic philosophy,” the fact remains that Nagel’s account is an account of the psychology of sexual desire—moral psychology, I suppose. But moral psychology is at the end of the day answerable in part to empirical study of human psychology: if claims in moral psychology have no hope of being confirmed by empirical psychology, we have no hope of being epistemically justified in believing them. Philosophers tend to be resistant to this, partly because the use of psychology (and social science generally) has become a kind of problematic fad in certain precincts of (what used to be) analytic philosophy. What used to be physics envy has now become social science envy. The problem with Nagel’s account is just the reverse of that fad: he proceeds as though questions of empirical verification were entirely beside the point in an account of sexual perversion.

But that can’t be right. Nagel is making claims about ideal sexual development, and is saying that deviations from the developmental structure he describes are, if distant enough, perversions. At a bare minimum, we need a way of measuring “distance from the developmental ideal.” But we also need some way of verifying that exemplification of the ideal is somehow correlated with sexual satisfaction and that deviation from it is somehow correlated with dissatisfaction. It makes no sense to produce an account of sexual perversion that entails that a person can lead a joyous, healthy, sexually satisfied life that is completely perverted, or that he might well be reduced to misery by exemplifying the developmental ideal.

Nagel plays with the preceding thought near the end of the paper, but it reduces the claims of his paper to nonsense. The suggestion seems to be that deviation from a developmental ideal can be better for you than exemplification of it. That strikes me as a blatant self-contradiction. A developmental ideal just is an ideal such that exemplification of it is better for you than deviation from it. If an ideal doesn’t satisfy that platitudinous description, I would say that it’s misformulated. Contrary to Nagel, then, it really makes no sense to say that perverted sex can be better “as sex” than non-perverted sex. If we found that that was the case, we’d have to revise our conception of perversion and normality. We couldn’t just proceed by saying, “hey, let’s all be perverts.”

As I’m sure he knows (being an active participant in some famous debates about Freud), Nagel faces an analogue of the problem faced by Freudian psychoanalysis: how are Freud’s hypotheses about development to be confirmed? It’s a cop-out to say that they can’t be confirmed. If they can’t be confirmed in any sense at all, then they have the status ascribed to them by a psychiatrist I once met, who called them “the activity of magic forces in Freud’s spiritual shadow world.” (This psychiatrist had all twenty-four volumes of the Standard Edition on the shelves of his waiting room, so it’s not as though he was speaking from ignorance.) If they have a more elevated status, we need evidence to believe in them. At some level, it’s that simple.

Nagel’s anti-empirical handwaving creates a natural tendency to go to the other extreme and reject the very idea of phenomenology or introspection. That tendency explains the rise of behaviorism in psychology: behaviorism was a supposedly empiricist response to the anti-empiricism of Freudian (and post-Freudian) psychodynamics. From what I gather*, some form of behaviorism (or behaviorism lite) still seems to dominate academic psychology to this day. A graduate student in, say, a master’s program in counseling psychology will unconsciously imbibe behaviorist dogmas from the very first day of her time in the program—whether from her professors, or her textbooks, or the journal articles she reads. On this account, “empirical” means “directly observable” by third parties, and that, in turn, means “testable under laboratory conditions.” Obviously, no part of Nagel’s account satisfies this conception of “the empirical,” which means that much of it would, in the current climate of psychology, be dismissed as non-empirical—i.e., as Nagel’s “subjective opinion.” The difficulty is that as written, Nagel’s account deserves precisely that criticism. The danger is that in rejecting Nagel’s version of phenomenology, we might go to the behaviorist extreme of rejecting the empirical credentials of introspection altogether.

That said, let me offer some hit-and-run attacks on specific claims Nagel makes about sexuality. One problem throughout is that Nagel’s claims are hand-wavingly anti-empirical. Another problem is one of question-begging. And a third is one of localized but cumulative incoherence.

(1) For one thing, Nagel basically gives the game away when he comes out and tells us that while his account posits a conception of ideal sexual development, he has no non-circular way of articulating the normative standard on which the ideal is based:

The concept of perversion implies that normal sexual development has been turned aside by distorting influences. I have little to say about this causal condition. But if perversions are in some sense unnatural, they must result from interference with the development of a capacity that is there potentially….We appear to need an independent criterion for a distorting influence [from the ideal], and we do not have one (pp. 48, 50).

We do not. It follows that Nagel does not, and that the argument of the paper begs the question. The first three sentences in the excerpt highlight the basic flaw or omission in Nagel’s analysis, and highlight the need for an empirical component to any further inquiry on the subject.

(2) Second, Nagel’s argument involves some very large and consequential non-sequiturs. After telling us that there is such a thing as a gastronomic perversion, he infers that that proves (or makes plausible) the claim that there are sexual ones. There are sexual ones, he continues, because sexual desire is complex. The complexity of sexual desire implies (or makes plausible) that sex is inherently interpersonal, and its interpersonal character implies (or makes plausible) that ideal sexual activity involves a form of reciprocity and mutuality that rules out the use of sex toys and pornography, and also rules out (voluntary) sadism and masochism.

These claims involve some very large inferential leaps, and they are much less plausible to people today than they appear to have been to Nagel’s readership in 1969. Nagel’s discussion of food is not particularly plausible or well-developed, and even if it were both, it might not have any particular implications for sex. Further, sexual desire need not always be complex. When it’s complex, it need not be interpersonal. When it’s interpersonal, it need not involve reciprocity or mutuality of the sort that Nagel envisions. The Romeo and Juliet thought-experiment that Nagel offers to explicate his analysis is very interesting (pp. 45-46), but he himself concedes that it’s “somewhat artificial” (p. 45), and that admission limits the scope of its application to less artificial cases. (Roger Scruton has some useful comments on this aspect of Nagel’s view in Sexual Desire, pp. 24-25.)

(3) Third, what Nagel says about reciprocal sexual interaction is not entirely consistent. On the one hand, he says that “The object of sexual attraction is a particular individual, who transcends the properties that make him attractive” (p. 42). One obvious objection—which rose like a chorus from my CO 350 students—is: what about three-somes or four-somes or n-somes? Read carefully, Nagel’s formulation doesn’t quite pass judgment on such arrangements; what I think it implies is that sexual multitasking is impossible, not that three-somes or four-somes are perversions.

A few pages later, however (pp. 49-50), Nagel seems to be saying that within consensual, monogamous heterosexual relations, “it would appear that any bodily contact between a man and a woman that gives them sexual pleasure is a possible vehicle for the system of multi-level interpersonal awareness that I have claimed is the basic psychological content of sexual interaction” (pp. 49-50). The two claims don’t seem consistent with one another. If the object of sexual attraction is the individual, then unperverted sexual desire ought always to be focused on the object—on the person qua person. In that case, sexual desire ought always to transcend the properties that make the individual attractive. If so, how can any bodily contact that gives them sexual pleasure be assumed a priori to be a possible vehicle for interpersonal awareness? Perhaps it is; perhaps it isn’t. But it can’t be assumed a priori.

Suppose X is focused on a certain body part of his partner Y and is attracted to that. Suppose that sexual relations involving that body part gives X pleasure without necessarily putting Y off. Suppose that sex aside, X loves Y. In this case, the object of sexual attraction is a body part, not the person. But activity involving that part can produce pleasure. Shouldn’t Nagel be saying that the pleasure in question is perverted? I think so. But he doesn’t. (Thanks to my student Caitlin Baard for pointing out the inconsistency in Nagel that give rise to my objection.)

(4) Finally, in the spirit of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” consider Nagel’s critique of (voluntary) sadism and masochism. His claim is that the sadism impedes “awareness of [the sadist himself] as a bodily subject of passion in the required sense” (p. 50). Masochism impedes awareness of agency (p. 50). Personally, I find these claims plausible, but they presuppose the claim that our sexuality ought to exemplify some proper balance in the awareness of ourselves as subjects of passivity and as agents. They also require a lot more empirical work than Nagel himself has done; he himself concedes that his “descriptions may not be generally accurate” (p. 50).

The problem is that Nagel’s critique of S&M sits in tension with his defense of the non-perverted nature of homosexuality. The rejection of S&M implies that there is some fixed balance in the proper awareness of self as active and passive. The implicit model here is a rather stereotyped account of heterosexual relations (p. 51).** On this model, the man is more active than passive; the woman is more passive than active. Hence, a man ought ideally to be aware of his passivity in the sexual act, but more aware (than that) of his agency; the reverse is true of a woman. This suggests that for Nagel, ideal heterosexual sex, while not quite sado-masochistic, still exemplifies an ideal of (relative) aggression and passivity. Nagel’s first-line defense of homosexuality is to suggest that gay couples can in principle exemplify the same ideal: because gay couples can be like straight ones, and straight ones aren’t perverted, gay ones need not be perverted. His second-line defense is to suggest that perhaps the ideal isn’t quite as fixed as he first suggested. Maybe people can vary in the degree of activity and passivity they enjoy in sexual relations, and the degree of visibility of each thing they ought to pursue.

This is not a consistent set of claims. If there is a fixed active/passive balance whose paradigm is a certain conception of heterosexual relations, then if gay couples don’t exemplify that balance, they are perverted. If there is no fixed active/passive balance constituting the ideal, then many combinations of aggression and passivity are possible, and the combination involved in S&M relations could, for all that he’s said, be*** one of them. Though what Nagel says about S&M is suggestive, at the end of the day, his claims about it are too entangled in problematic claims about other things to constitute a plausible critique.

So I don’t think Nagel’s account succeeds. Nor do I think that an improved account could really build on what Nagel does. A better account would simply have to remedy what he gets wrong. The basic task would be to get clear on the criterion of “normality” that Nagel fails or declines to articulate. A secondary but important task would be to formulate one’s claims so as to be amenable in principle to empirical verification of some kind, while avoiding a head-long fall into the positivism, behaviorism, determinism, and relativism that one finds in contemporary psychology. A tall order.

*Freudian slip? When I first wrote this sentence, I typed: “From what I father….”

**I couldn’t help thinking here of Ayn Rand’s notoriously reactionary essay, “About a Woman President,” in The Voice of Reason, which makes similar sorts of claims.

***I revised this last phrase after posting.

Thanks to Caitlin Baard, Kate Herrick, David Riesbeck, and Michael Young for helpful discussion on the material discussed in this series.

Gratuitous video add-on:

“I exercise control in all things, Miss Steele. I realize that my retention of deliberate control may impede awareness of myself as a bodily subject of desire in the required sense, as Nagel suggests. But with a cutie like you right here in front of me, and this Beyonce song blaring in the background, I find I can’t quite focus on Nagel right now….”

Postscript, February 15, 2015: I haven’t read or watched “Fifty Shades of Grey,” but this column by Ross Douthat, “The Caligulan Thrill,” rings true. I was amused by this passage:

But the essential dream of our age isn’t conflict; it’s a synthesis, in which the aristocratic thrills of libertinism are somehow preserved but their most exploitative elements are rendered egalitarian and safe.

The hope, in other words, is that we can eventually have the fun of Rome without all the nasty bits: Contraception and abortion will pre-empt the inconvenient infant, age-of-consent laws will make sure that young people’s initiation doesn’t start too early, and with enough carefully drawn up regulations for initiating intercourse we can all experience the courts of Tiberius and Heliogabalus without anybody getting hurt.

Well yeah. He says that like it’s a bad thing, but the whole point of middle class life is to have the fun of Rome–or medieval feudalism–without the nasty bits. Has Douthat ever considered the Plantagenetic thrills of home ownership? “A man’s home is his castle,” as they say, and his lawn is his estate. What is that but an attempt to preserve the aristocratic gratifications of medieval serfdom while rendering its most exploitative elements egalitarian and safe? Instead of serfs, we employ undocumented Central American landscapers; instead of wheat, barley, or oats, we grow green, weed-free grass, non-GMO tomatoes, and arugula. Perhaps it doesn’t entirely work–the inevitable frictions arise–but if you attack lawns and gardens wholesale, you’re basically attacking the foundations of bourgeois existence.

The same thing is true, mutatis mutandis, of safely transgressive sex. (One hell of a mutatis mutandis, I realize.) Once you reject the conservative Catholic dogma that sex aims at unity and procreation, sex comes to aim, in part, at fun. Fun is a serious business, and aristocrats are the world’s experts at that business. Obviously, we can’t literally emulate them; they were in many respects moral cretins. But they got something right, so we emulate or appreciate them at-a-safe-distance. Couldn’t the same be said of the writings of Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas? Or the aesthetic wonders of Chartres Cathedral, Hagia Sofia, and the Louvre? Or the joys of Bach and Handel? We learn from them, and enjoy them, without inculcating, wholesale, the cultural values that gave rise to them. If it weren’t for aristocracy, after all, we wouldn’t have culture: it’s not so easy to throw aristocracy out with the bath-water.

Incidentally, my not having read/watched “Fifty Shades” is not a matter of moral scruple or aesthetic snobbery, but sheer lack of time. If I had the time to watch it on the big screen, I would. But I don’t. Of course, by the time it comes out on DVD, it’ll be old hat.  One of these days, I’ll get around to seeing  9 1/2 Weeks and Last Tango in Paris, too. All on my bucket list. So much arty smut, so little time.

Postscript 2, February 16, 2015: My friend Ole Martin Moen, a philosopher who splits his time between Oslo and Oxford, has a commentary on “Fifty Shades of Grey” at Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog (ht: Kate Herrick). He doesn’t just spoil, but gives away the whole plot, so don’t read the piece if you want to retain the element of surprise.

7 thoughts on “Nagel on sexual perversion (part 3 of 3): phenomenology, normativity, and verification

  1. I haven’t got anything to say about Nagle, but as for Douthat, while he is no doubt guilty of assuming rather than arguing for his central premise, I take it that what lies behind his critique is that we can’t effect this synthesis in these cases. By contrast, when it comes to home-ownership and aesthetic appreciation, it seems that we can take what is good from these things without bringing the bad on board, too. Now obviously we aren’t operating in the realm of self-evident principles here (if we ever are, as I doubt we are). So we can’t just rest our case on intuitions. Worse for Douthat, questions about what we can and can’t synthesize without harm or loss can hardly ever be settled a priori; it is at least in part an empirical question whether we can have “the aristocratic thrills of libertinism” without the “most exploitative elements” that undermine egalitarianism and a whole host of other goods. So as it stands Douthat hasn’t got much of an argument. But I would hasten to point out that his fundamental claim — perhaps it is rather a suggestion, or an insinuation — that the synthesis is impossible in these cases does not depend in any way on the conservative Catholic dogma that sex aims at unity and procreation. That dogma may be as false as you and I both take it to be (I’m probably more sympathetic to it than you are, but I don’t think it’s plausibly defensible in anything like the form that even its most sophisticated proponents give it). For all that, the synthesis may still be impossible. I think it’s pretty clear that BDSM and the like undermine virtues like respect, mutuality, and benevolence and that the practice is harmful to its practitioners whether they prefer the dominant or subordinate roles. That’s in part an empirical question, since it depends in part on whether it is psychologically possible or easy to compartmentalize one’s make-believe from reality and whether the fantasy/reality distinction is even psychologically plausible in these cases — though it also depends to some extent on what respect, benevolence, domination, subordination, etc. are. I don’t pretend to have access to decisive empirical evidence that would set the question beyond doubt. But the case doesn’t rest on anything remotely like the Roman Catholic doctrine about the teleology of sex. The same goes for Douthat’s basic idea as applied to other areas of sexuality. To some extent it depends what is and isn’t good, but to a great extent it depends on what ways of pursuing some goods support or undermine others. So far as I can see, the Catholic teaching has little or no interesting role to play in answering the question; it isn’t necessary for defending a less permissive view, and it may not even be sufficient.

    Ok, back to work.


    • I think there’s ambiguity here about the referent of “these” in your claim that “we can’t effect synthesis in these cases.” I didn’t mean to imply that we could effect synthesis in the case of BDSM–or in just any old case. What I meant was: if you reject the orthodox Catholic view, cases arise that are candidates for synthesis, and it’s an (open) empirical question which candidates can successfully be synthesized.

      Take a very “vanilla” example: wearing sexy lingerie in a sexual encounter that neither aims at nor is open to the possibility of procreation. Lingerie has now been democratized, but its origins are aristocratic. So my point was: pace Douthat, it can’t be an objection to a sexual practice that its origins are aristocratic. We got the idea of lingerie from Lady Duff-Gordon, mostly because ideas of that (safely) decadent sort tend to originate with leisure classes like an aristocracy. But in a middle-class democracy like ours, Lady Duff-Gordon’s idea becomes Victoria’s Secret, whose aesthetic is aristocracy-lite, or democratized aristocracy, or whatever. The democratization of lingerie, as I see it, is a paradigm of the sort of synthesis I had in mind. And even that isn’t entirely unproblematic. But it isn’t so problematic as to leave us in a state of perpetual hand-wringing over its aristocratic origins.

      Something similar, I think, can be said for the aestheticization of the nude–or the scantily-clad person–in contemporary visual aesthetics. The distant origin of the idea of the nude is aristocratic–the Renaissance via ancient Greece and Rome. But it gets democratized in the hands of, say, a Thomas Eakins. Eakins got his training in the French Academy, the epitome of an aristocratic institution. He took what he learned from the aristocrats and turned it into something else. The interesting thing is, when the synthesis is done right (as in Eakins), it becomes more compelling and more erotic than its aristocratic precursor precisely because of its egalitarian features. Eakins’s nudes are, to me, the perfect example of the democratic sublimation of erotic ideals of aristocracy (though admittedly his male nudes tend to be better than his females).

      I agree that the impossibility of synthesis (in the impossible cases) doesn’t turn on acceptance of Catholic dogma. My point was that Douthat clearly accepts that dogma. That’s why he makes sure to deride contraception in the column (and not just abortion). But that suggests, to me, that he is dragging the dogma into his assessments of which syntheses will work, and which won’t. And of course, once you drag that dogma in, almost nothing will work. At that point, Douthat is just stuck with tethering sex to reproduction, and he might as well say so.

      That said, I probably should have emphasized that like Douthat, I lack sympathy for BDSM. Like him, I’m intensely suspicious of it. I cited Ole Martin Moen in one of the postscripts above. Here’s what Ole Martin says in partial defense of BDSM:

      Second, is it even clear that BDSM counts as a form of violence? Though it might look violent, BDSM is a form of roleplay, and people engage in this kind of roleplay for a reason. It seems to give them intimacy and sexual pleasure, and for some, it appears to be cathartic. Regarding BDSM simply as violence fails to take into account what it is like for those involved.

      I find that really implausible. First, surely a proper subset of BDSM looks violent because it is. Either the pain being inflicted is real, or it isn’t. If it isn’t, I’d think the real question is: does that count as BDSM? But if it is real, why the skepticism about whether the practice is violent? No one doubts that, say, boxing, wrestling, American football, and ice hockey are violent sports, whether they’re played consensually or not. Why think that BDSM is different? Second: I’m sure it’s true that people engage in BDSM for a reason, but what needs an explanation is why anyone should think that the infliction of pain on another person exemplifies intimacy or mutual respect. Third: BDSM may be “cathartic,” but catharsis presupposes a prior condition in need of release, and it’s a question what that condition is.

      In general, one problem that we’ve gotten ourselves into when it comes to sexual ethics is that there’s a kind of default assumption out there to the effect that anything anyone consensually does is OK, so that if a particular sexual practice prima facie strikes an observer as a paraphilia or a dysfunction, the fact of consent ought by itself to override the observer’s prima facie judgment. I don’t accept that. Even if one’s initial reactions don’t yet have a deep justification, they may well involve a grasp of “the that,” of what is the case, and it’s epistemically legitimate to accept that ex hypothesi and wonder why it’s the case. My initial reactions to both BDSM and hard core pornography is a powerful sense of revulsion. Maybe that’s just a hang-up–my girlfriend tells me that I’m the “squarest” guy she’s ever dated–but I’m not willing to dismiss my initial judgment simply because consent is involved. We have feminist theory to thank for purchasing that particular “permission.”


      • In reverse order:

        1. I’m not sure I follow your reference to feminist theory. My own, admittedly half-informed, view is that feminist theory is one of the few bastions of sanity on the far left when it comes to sexual ethics, precisely because it challenges the notion that de facto consent carries justification. Feminist theory is hardly monolithic, of course, but it seems to me that if you want to persuade a non-conservative that consent is not a sufficient condition of acceptable sexuality, feminist theory is the place to go. Perhaps you don’t disagree, but I can’t tell what you mean by the “permission.”

        2. I’m (obviously by now, I imagine) with you on the (defeasible) evidentiary value of intuitive judgments about “the that.” We need some account of “the because” before we can go around confidently asserting our views, but I think it’s fairly easy to show that considerations of consent alone don’t give us any reason to doubt our intuitive judgments. They don’t even give Douthat &co. reason to doubt their intuitive judgments. Ultimately, I think the best we can say for mere consent — in ethics, at least; politics might be a different story — is that it gives us a prima facie reason to suppose that what people consent to is unobjectionable. But that’s a very weak prima facie reason, and intuitive judgments that what people consent to is objectionable at least give us good reason to consider whether there is something objectionable about it after all. This is all very abstract and, without further elaboration, worse than inconclusive; but there is simply no reason why anyone ought to think that the mere fact of consent tells in favor of anything.

        3. You’re obviously right that it can’t be an objection to a sexual practice — or any practice — that its origins are aristocratic. To the extent that Douthat’s case rests on the assumption that it can, his case is hopeless. But I’m not sure that even he thinks of his argument that way. If anything, I’d think that Douthat, as a conservative Catholic, would be intensely aware of the gap between aristocratic origins and badness — it strikes me as one of the virtues of genuinely conservative Catholicism that it clings to what was good about the old European aristocracy while refusing to accept what was wrong with it (hence high liturgy with baroque musical accompaniment combined with strenuously anti-aristocratic/oligarchic social and economic doctrines). Now, it’s of course possible that I misunderstand Douthat — after all, American conservative Catholics tend to be peculiarly incoherent — but it seems to me that he’s more guilty of muddled argument than of supposing that we can plausibly object to a practice on the grounds of its aristocratic origins. But perhaps I’m being too charitable.


        • David–

          We’re totally agreeing on (1) and (2). My reference to feminist theory was unclear, but I was really just trying to say what you more clearly said in your paragraph (1).

          The only real disagreement here is how charitably or uncharitably we’ve read Douthat. I think you’re being too charitable to him, but at this point, there’s a greater danger of over-reading the column than of anything else.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Three quick points.

    First, it is not clear to me that Nagel’s claims about the sex-specific norms that he claims to govern sexuality (and to be distinct from both moral and prudential norms) are based on “phenomenological” observation – unless all intuitive elements in analytic philosophical method are considered to be something akin to phenomenology. The object of such intuitions is general features of objective reality (whether or not that reality is psychological or mental), not features the mental life of the person who has the intuitions.

    Second, the norms that Nagel takes himself to be addressing are activity or practice specific. They are similar to the norms governing cognition in that they define how an agent-level, motivated activity or practice ideally goes. Just as the set of norms governing belief-formation (or degree of credence adjustment) are not identical to the norms governing morality or prudence, so with the norms specific to sexual relationships (if there are such – this is part of the hypothesis). That such systems of norms are distinct from moral norms, prudential norms, or all-in living-life norms does not imply that doxastic or sexual relationship excellence bears no relation to moral, prudential, or overall human excellence (maybe being a sexual pervert is incompatible with moral, prudential, or overall excellence, for example). But I think Nagel’s claim in this respect is merely that, in principle, the different systems of norms might be utterly independent. Both the distinctness claim and the stronger independence claim are coherent – though I suspect that a well-developed theory of these things would reveal that the independence claim is false.

    Third, in defense of Douthat: the most general implicit claim here (admittedly not argued for) is just that there are important things other than having sexual fun (and being safe in it) at stake in sexual relationships. I think he also means to imply the slightly stronger claim that these other things that are at stake are more important than the fun that is at stake. Obviously, this is consistent with being a prude or an orthodox Catholic on matters sexual. But the claim seems plausible and is consistent with positions that embrace sexual fun as well as more important values that often seem to be at stake in sexual relationships.


    • Michael–

      Let me take those in reverse order:

      Re (3): I agree with the substantive point you’re making, but it seems to me an overly charitable reading (or an over-reading) of Douthat.

      Re (2): the problem with the analogy between norms-governing-cognition and norms-governing-sex–and of treating Nagel’s account as a practice-specific analysis by analogy with the former–is that the aims of cognition are clearer and more determinate than those of sex. We know what it is for knowledge (or knowledge of a certain kind) to be the aim of inquiry, and an analysis of the norms governing belief-formation presupposes that. But sex is completely different. Nagel is not (and cannot) presuppose some determinate aim of sexuality, and then explicate the practice-specific norms that govern it. He has to explicate the aim and the norms in the same analysis. So I don’t think that much mileage is gotten by appeal to the idea that he’s addressing practice-specific norms.

      I think it’s basically a conceptual truth that being a pervert is incompatible with overall well-being or excellence. Contrary to Nagel, that’s what I would take to be a basic platitude governing the inquiry from the start–not that any particular practice or habit is a perversion, but that for all x, if x is a perversion, then x is incompatible with human well-being (not defeasibly incompatible, but is incompatible). That’s the semantic function of having the concept of “perversion.” Though I haven’t read past the abstract, one of the papers I mentioned earlier, Kristie Miller’s paper in Phil Quarterly, makes the point that we can’t analyze “sexual perversion” until we first figure out what semantic role we want the concept to play (or think it ought to play). I agree with that.

      Re (1): I do think that Nagel’s analysis is phenomenological, not just intuition-based in some broader sense. The evidence for the intuitions he has about sexuality are reports on what he takes to be the inner experience of a non-perverted person, and there is no way to make inferences to that except from one’s own case. I think that’s supportable from the text of “Sexual Perversion,” but Nagel basically makes this point explicit in a later paper, “Personal Rights and Public Space,” Phil & Public Affairs 24:2 (Spring 1995):

      We are all dependent on our own sexual experience, and the sexual experience of our sexual partners and perhaps their sexual partners, for whatever we really know about the subject. Even this source is problematic, since intimate sexual relations do not automatically overcome the barrier of imaginatively noncongruent sexual feelings and fantasies. People who sleep together do not know everything that is going on, and often they know very little. (pp. 100-101)

      This extreme epistemic humility doesn’t really square very well with the confident-sounding claims in “Sexual Perversion,” and it doesn’t even square well with the confident-sounding claims that Nagel makes in “Personal Rights.” I think Nagel is just inconsistent. But the quoted point applies to the analysis of “Sexual Perversion.”

      As a side-note, I highly recommend reading the later Nagel article. For one thing, it’s clear and very easy to read. The discussion of rights is in my view wrong, but very illuminating. The paper discusses free expression in ways that are prescient and highly relevant to things like the Charlie Hebdo controversy. And the discussion of sexuality is interesting, even if it flies in the face of much that the Early Nagel had written.


  3. Pingback: Psychology, Psychiatry, and Moral Philosophy: An Open Thread | Policy of Truth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s