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.

Nagel on sexual perversion (Part 2 of 3): methodological issues

In a previous post, I laid out the argument of Nagel’s 1969 paper, “Sexual Perversion.” In this post, I want to offer up some criticisms and some general observations on the argument I laid out. As I indicated last time, I find Nagel’s paper a mixed bag. Some of what it says is astute and provocative, but on the whole, I don’t think it offers a successful analysis of “sexual perversion.”

Contrary to my initial expectations, I’ve had to divide my commentary on Nagel’s piece into two separate posts. This is the first of two, focused on the first few pages of Nagel’s paper. My comments here are mostly methodological.  The first set concerns the presuppositions of conceptual analysis as an activity, and how it (adversely) affects Nagel’s analysis of “sexual perversion.” The second set concerns the substance of Nagel’s opening moves, and in particular the claims that he takes to be obvious starting points of the analysis. A third set concerns Nagel’s hunger-sex analogy.

Conceptual analysis and the analysis of ‘sexual perversion’

Nagel starts out by telling us that that there’s “something to be learned from the fact that we possess a concept of sexual perversion” (p. 39). This platitude-like claim strikes me as highly ambiguous and highly problematic. For one thing, it’s not clear who “we” are: Nagel pays no attention at all to cultural or any other significant sort of demographic variation. In any case, he doesn’t seem fazed by the fact that his findings often diverge from what “we” might plausibly be said to think. In other words, he ignores the fact that even if we have the same concept, we might have radically different conceptions of it—radically different from what he takes to have learned by our “possessing” the concept. At some point, this radical variation might well entail that we don’t possess a univocal concept of sexual perversion at all, in which case, the whole exercise seems to collapse like a conceptual house of cards.

Second, he doesn’t tell us what is to be learned by the sheer fact of concept-possession, and it obviously doesn’t follow that if ‘we’ have a concept, then unpacking the concept gives us a truth-tracking account of the phenomenon to which the concept refers.  Once we ‘unpack’ a concept, we need a further argument to show that the content we’ve unpacked tracks the truth. Nagel gives us nothing of the sort, but writes as though what he’s saying does track the truth—except when, on an ad hoc basis, he wants to express tentativeness about a given claim.

Third, Nagel pays virtually no attention to the fact that sexual perversion is part of a network of related concepts, and that analysis of the analysandum requires analysis of some of those other conceptsBack in the day, conceptual analysis required the identification of the genus and differentia of the analysandum. That approach may no longer be au courant (and may not have been in 1969), but it has the merit of clarifying how concepts relate to one another (and identifying the ones that do). Nagel makes a gesture at analyzing sexual perversion as a species of perversion–that’s the point of the hunger-sex analogy discussed belowbut it’s only a gesture, and not a particularly successful of informative one. More importantly, Nagel tries to offer an analysis of “sexual perversion” that leans heavily on the assumption that fetishes are perversions but offers no analysis of a fetish (cf. what he says about shoe fetishes, p. 39). That turns out to be a vexed issue.

Nagel’s platitudes about perversion

Now, to the second set of methodological issues—what Nagel takes for granted.

First, it’s both interesting and relevant that Nagel’s platitudes are no longer platitudinous. That they’re not suggests that they were never platitudes in the first place, and suggests, as well, that it won’t do simply to lay out a list of platitudes and insist that that’s what they are. Nagel fails to grant the possibility of disagreement about his platitudes, and in so doing, practically guarantees that his analysis will end up begging the question. A list of platitudes either has to be argued for or described as stipulative. If it’s argued-for, and the arguments are disputable (as they will likely be), the list can’t be that platitudinous. On the other hand, if the list is stipulative, the analysis that follows will lack normative force against those who reject the stipulations. Nagel’s platitudes are purely stipulative, but he (problematically) treats them as though they were self-evidently true. They may be true, but they’re not self-evident.

My hunch is that Nagel’s list of candidate perversions is taken almost verbatim from a textbook of abnormal psychology– omitting homosexuality, which would have appeared as a “paraphilia” in most textbooks of abnormal psychology circa 1969. Though he cites no such textbook, I find it striking that Nagel’s list of perversions corresponds almost verbatim to the list of paraphilias one typically finds in such textbooks, down to the use of the same textbook terminology, along with philosophically souped-up accounts of the paraphilias themselves. I noticed this because I happen, coincidentally, to be taking a course on psychopathology, and reading the second edition of Beidel, Bulik, and Stanley’s textbook, Abnormal Psychology: the similarities between Nagel’s list and the textbook one are obvious. The same thing is true of the section on paraphilias in DSM 5: Nagel’s list of perversions parallels the list there. (I’m assuming that the language of abnormal psychology has been relevantly consistent since 1969.)

The interesting (and somewhat absurd) thing here concerns the treatment of inanimate objects as objects of sexual desire. In 1969, Nagel was willing to treat all sexual interaction with inanimate objects as fetishistic and perverted, and was willing to regard that judgment as a foundational platitude for the analysis. Fast-forward to the present, and DSM 5’s “diagnostic criteria” for “fetishistic disorder (302.81)” make an ad hoc exception for “devices specifically designed for the purposes of tactile genital stimulation (e.g., vibrator)” (DSM 5, p. 700). Strictly speaking, this implies that if you use a vibrator for six months, you’re normal, but if you hump a pillow for six months, you have a “pillow-specified fetishistic disorder.” (Six months is the DSM-approved cut-off for a fetish.)

To state the obvious: DSM 5’s so-called “diagnostic criteria” fail to come to grips with the fact that in the current socio-economic environment, you can “specifically design” anything “for purposes of tactile genital stimulation,” and thereby evade the diagnostic criteria for having a fetishistic disorder essentially by fiat. As long as the inanimate object that you’re having sex with has specifically been designed for that purpose, commmodified, marketed, and consumed by lots of other people—you’re OK. If not, you’re a sexual weirdo. I’m not a Marxist, but I find it amusing that under American capitalism, something ceases to be a psychiatric disorder once you commodify it and develop a market for it; if there’s no market for it, you’re on your own, and it becomes a fetish. So Lenin was wrong: it’s ad hocracy, not imperialism, that’s the highest stage of capitalism.

It’s also worth noting that Nagel arguably omits some platitudes, so that he ends up with an analysis of ‘sexual perversion’ that seems to flout what many people would regard as platitudes about the concept’s relation to preference and judgment. For one thing, we don’t learn until the very end of the paper that he doesn’t take all sexual perversions to be immoral when voluntarily acted on. In fact, he thinks that when faced between the option of acting on a perversion or abstaining from sex, perversion can be preferable to abstinence. This is to treat abstinence itself as a kind of Super Perversion. Since Nagel seems to regard masturbation as perhaps a mild perversion, perhaps he means that masturbation, though perverse, is to be preferred to abstinence, which is really perverse. But he doesn’t argue for that, and doesn’t say it, either. It’s entirely consistent with his view to say that if your choices are bestiality or abstinence, you should choose bestiality. More charitably, it’s consistent with his view to say that if your choices are casual sex or abstinence, it’s obvious that you should opt for casual sex. But what’s obvious is that that preference-ordering is not obvious—a platitude that never makes it into the analysis.

If we’re going to make stipulations at the outset, wouldn’t it make sense to stipulate that if x is a perversion, then either pro tanto x ought not to be indulged in, or x ought not to be indulged in, full stop? The convoluted coda with which Nagel ends the paper flouts any intelligible idea of an analysis that intends to explicate sexual perversion by way of moral or psychological platitudes about it. If anything is a platitude about “sexual perversion,” it’s that a person with an inclination for one ought to do what he or she can to avoid indulging it.

The hunger-sex analogy

To show that sexuality has a complex psychological structure, Nagel offers an interesting analysis of the structure of hunger. His main point is that if we can identify clear cases of gastronomical perversions, that shows that hunger is more than a simple biological drive, and something similar applies, mutatis mutandis, to sexuality. On the whole, I agree with his claims, but some of what he says misfires, and he seems to underestimate how much work is being done by the “mutatis mutandis” in the previous sentence. Consider this claim, offered in passing:

Hunger and eating, like sex, serve a biological function and also play a significant role in our inner lives. Note that there is little temptation to describe as perverted an appetite for substances that are not nourishing: we should probably not consider someone appetites perverted if he liked to eat paper, sand, wood, or cotton. Those are merely rather odd and very unhealthy tastes; they lack the psychological complexity that we expect of perversions. (Coprophilia, being already a sexual perversion, may be disregarded.) (p. 41)

This passage isn’t central to Nagel’s analysis, but the obvious handwaving involved draws attention to Nagel’s propensity for authoritative-sounding handwaving, and doesn’t inspire confidence in the claims he tosses off in a similarly authoritative tone of voice.

Contrary to Nagel, there is a strong temptation to describe as perverted an appetite for substances that are not nourishing. At Nicomachean Ethics VII.5, Aristotle famously pairs sexual and gastronomical perversions, describing them both as “bestial,” and acknowledging (presciently) that many such conditions are psychiatric diseases with a biological etiology.  More recently, in her book Falling into the Fire, the psychiatrist Caroline Montross discusses the case of a woman who commits self-injury by swallowing sharp-edged household objects (e.g., nails, light bulbs, a steak knife). It’s obvious that the compulsion in question is both perverted and psychologically complex. Puzzlingly, Nagel brings up gastronomical perversions, but doesn’t discuss the most obvious cases—anorexia, bulimia, etc. I get the sense that he doesn’t discuss them because they seem too “biological” to fit his account. But that, in turn, suggests that the account is itself defective.

Nagel asserts in passing that “we” tend to prefer that our food be passive and controllable, claiming that “the only animals we eat live are helpless mollusks” (p. 41). But an obvious competing explanation for the general tendency may be biological rather than psychological: it’s not that we want (for psychological reasons) that our food be passive in our mouths, but that (for biological reasons) we don’t want a living thing to injure us while it’s inside us. It’s true that we can’t eat cows, chicken, or sheep while they’ve alive, but that commonsense fact doesn’t really support the psychological point Nagel is making. Anyway, mollusks aside, people do eat insects, frogs, octupi, and fish that are alive; those facts don’t easily fit his analysis, but he doesn’t mention them.

I don’t understand the parenthetical at the end of the quoted passage. Nagel is discussing gastronomical perversions. Coprophilia is not a gastronomical perversion, so it’s unclear why it would come up. Coprophagia is a gastronomical perversion, but it seems an obvious counter-example to what Nagel is saying about gastronomical perversions. Is Nagel conflating coprophilia with coprophagia? Or is he suggesting that coprophagia is just an instance of coprophilia, so that an analysis of coprophagia can be given via an analysis of coprophagia? In the first case, Nagel’s claim would just rest on a simple error, but I doubt that’s the right explanation. In the second case, Nagel’s claim is both under-argued and ad hoc. Why is every instance of coprophagia coprophilic in the sexual sense? It’s not obvious. In any case, why can’t corophagia be simultaneously a gastronomic and a sexual perversion? No matter how we slice it (so to speak), it seems to me that coprophagia is an obvious, straightforward counter-example to Nagel’s claim that gastronomical perversions are not essentially related to the biological function of eating.

The underlying issue here is that Nagel wants to decouple sex from its biological basis, partly because he wants to distinguish his view of sexuality from the orthodox Catholic one that makes procreation central. He doesn’t offer much of an argument against the Catholic-type view, but more importantly, he doesn’t see the non sequitur involved in decoupling sex from procreation, and then concluding that it ought to be decoupled from biology altogether. Sex may be a complex psychological appetite, but if so, it’s a bio-psychological one, and we need to keep both the biological and the psychological features of the appetite in mind. Incidentally, despite my own rejection of the Catholic view, I find what Nagel (elliptically) says against it irritatingly obtuse and tendentious:

The fact that sexual desire is a feeling about other persons may encourage a pious view of its psychological content—that it is properly the expression of some other attitude, like love, and that when it occurs by itself it is incomplete or subhuman….But sexual desire is complicated enough without having to be linked to anything else as a condition for phenomenological analysis. Sex may serve various functions—economic, social, altruistic—but it also has its own content as a relation between persons. (p. 42)

Nagel’s ironic use of the word “pious” poisons the well. Though his real target is sex-as-aiming-at-procreation, he manages to make sex-as-expressive-of-love a collateral damage of his clumsy attack on it. It’s obviously a non-sequitur to say that because sex is complicated, it cannot possibly be more complicated than the complications Nagel intends to discuss in a single journal article. The last sentence begs the question: Nagel dismisses without argument the possibility that love is a privileged part of “the psychological content” of sexual desire.

In my next post, I’ll discuss Nagel’s claims regarding “the psychological content” of sexual desire.

Nagel on sexual perversion (part 1 of 3): the argument

After a brief interlude on identity politics, I’m back to a far more savory topic–sexual perversion. I mentioned two posts ago that I was going to be discussing Nagel’s 1969 Journal of Philosophy paper, “Sexual Perversion” in my ethics classes. (By chance, I happen to be covering the same paper with a student who’s doing a senior thesis on BDSM. You really have to wonder whether the people who pay the tuition bills for these students bargained on their studying any of this at a nice, respectable Catholic institution like Felician, The Franciscan College of New Jersey. “How will any of this help my son or daughter find remunerative work?” Hmm.) Anyway, having pored over Nagel’s paper, I thought I’d discuss a bit here. This first post of two just lays out Nagel’s argument. The next post will offer my criticisms, and draw some lessons. (And yes, the second post is already written, so this isn’t one of my perennially broken promises about multi-part postings.)

Here’s the structure of the argument. It’s meant as a pointillistic summary of Nagel’s claims, not as representing the steps of a formally deductive argument. (Incidentally, I’m using the version of Nagel’s article that’s reprinted in the 1979 British edition of his book, Mortal Questions.)

The ground-setting argument: uncontroversial preliminaries

  1. We have a concept of ‘sexual perversion’; by unpacking it, we come to understand the nature of sexual perversion.
  2. There are three platitudes about sexual perversion that structure the inquiry from the outset, so it’s justifiable in this context to adopt them without argument. (a) First, what is sexually perverse is in some sense “unnatural,” though this is precisely the controversial concept in need of explication and defense. (b) We’re entitled to start with a list of uncontroversially perverse activities, and use them as fixed points for the rest of the inquiry, e.g., shoe fetishism, bestiality, sadism. (c) Perversions are in essence inclinations, or structured forms of desire. They are not best understood as particular actions divorced from some appetitive etiology.
  3. In addition to the platitudes in (2), there are two fundamental assumptions that also structure the inquiry, not quite as basic as the platitudes, but still essential to the inquiry. They require some argument, but not much. (a) Sexual perversion has a complex psychological structure. That’s because sexual desire isn’t a simple biological drive (like, e.g., digestion or circulation), something we can more easily come to see by reflection on hunger (which is itself not a simple biological drive). (b) Sexual desire is desire for the particularity of a particular individual. Or as Nagel himself puts it, “The object of sexual attraction is a particular individual, who transcends the properties that make him attractive” (p. 42).

The quasi-Sartrean appeal to phenomenology

  1. A good point of entry into the concept of sexual perversion is Sartre’s account of sexuality in Part III of Being and Nothingness. Unfortunately, taken at face value, Sartre’s account is—though insightful—somewhat obscure and leads to absurd results. It also makes very large presuppositions that can’t be defended or even explicated) in a journal article, so for present purposes (meaning Nagel’s purposes in the original article) our point of entry has to be Sartre-inspired view rather than a textually-faithful adoption of Sartre’s own. The essential Sartre-inspired view is as follows:
  2. Sexuality is an embodied reciprocal interaction that affords a specific form of mutual visibility to both partners.
  3. The interaction mentioned in (2) involves a complex interplay of voluntary and involuntary factors: arousal is involuntary, the choice to express it is voluntary, but the actual expression is a complex combination of voluntary and involuntary. In one sense, it’s controlled by the agent; in another sense, the agent allows himself or herself to act spontaneously, controlled by desire itself. So the aim of sexual activity is to make visible the complex interplay of voluntary and involuntary forces at work in oneself to the other (and vice versa).
  4. Nagel repeatedly insists that sexual desire is experienced, phenomenologically, as an ‘assault’—language later taken up by Korsgaard in The Sources of Normativity to suggest that desire as such is experienced, phenomenologically, as an ‘assault’. It’s not clear whether this claim is essential to Nagel’s thesis, and if so, how: I’m inclined to think that it’s an idiosyncratic add-on, but I’m not totally sure. (The language of “desire-as-assault” is essential to Korsgaard’s thesis, and Raymond Geuss correctly takes her to task for it in the discussion section of Sources of Normativity. I think Geuss’s criticism of Korsgaard probably applies to Nagel as well, but again, I don’t know what, if anything, that ultimately implies for Nagel’s thesis.)
  5. The preceding phenomenological account–especially the “visibility-affording” conception discussed in [3]–is the sexual ‘norm’ against which desires that don’t conform to it are deviations. The extreme deviations are perversions.
  6. Among the (to Nagel) more obvious perversions are “narcissistic practices and intercourse with animals, infants, and inanimate objects” (p. 49). Nagel doesn’t explicitly discuss masturbation, so it’s not clear whether “narcissistic practices” is a euphemism for masturbation or denotes a broader category of pathologically narcissistic activities that overlaps with narcissistic instances of masturbation. (In Sexual Desire, Roger Scruton distinguishes between masturbation conceived as relief for “a period of sexual isolation…guided by a fantasy of copulation” and masturbation conceived as a replacement for sexual encounter itself [p. 317]. Arguably, Nagel’s “narcissistic practices” refers to the latter, not the former, but he doesn’t explicitly say.)  Though Nagel doesn’t explicitly discuss pornography, he regards voyeurism and exhibitionism as perversions; since pornography is arguably an instance of both, I think it follows that Nagel’s view entails that (the use of) pornography is a perversion. But that’s my inference, not Nagel’s claim.

The difficult cases

  1. The cases discussed in the preceding section are ones that Nagel regards as relatively obvious. Near the end of the article, he turns briefly to discussion of the difficult cases: sadism, masochism, and homosexuality. Nagel clearly means to be discussing voluntary cases of sadism and masochism, but I wonder whether what he says about voluntary sadism is also meant to apply to cases of sexual assault. If so, sexual assault–or at least cases of sexual assault where the infliction of pain was intended and/or involved–would be cases of sexual perversion.
  2. Sadism and masochism turn out to be perversions “because they fall short of interpersonal reciprocity” (p. 50).
  3. “Sadism concentrates on the evocation of passive self-awareness in others, but the sadist’s engagement is itself active and requires a retention of deliberate control which may impede awareness of himself as a bodily subject of passion in the required sense” (p. 50). In other words, if visibility is the aim of sexual relations, sadism serves to render one’s passive nature invisible.
  4. “A masochist on the other hand imposes the same disability on his partner as the sadist imposes on himself. The masochist cannot find a satisfactory embodiment as the object of another’s sexual desire, but only as the object of his control” (p. 50). At some level, masochism is a failure in the “awareness of oneself as an object of desire.” (Though I think he’s on to something, I find Nagel’s discussion of masochism obscure and hard to gloss.)
  5. Meanwhile, Nagel regards it as “doubtful” that homosexuality is a perversion. Nagel’s judgment about homosexuality will strike twenty-first century readers as overly hedged, but in mitigation, recall that the paper was written in 1969, four years* before the American Psychiatric Association changed its collective mind about homosexuality. At the time, I think that Nagel was taking a somewhat unpopular minority position (but I’m a little hazy on the sociology).
  6. Having said that, Nagel suggests uneasily that what makes the issue unclear is that homosexuality seems as though it could be a case of arrested heterosexual development. “There is much support for an aggressive-passive distinction between male and female sexuality” (p. 51) which Nagel thinks is missing from homosexual activity. I think what Nagel is really gesturing at here is the idea that in heterosexual relations, men and women are in some sense sexually complementary, male aggression and female passivity being a (stereotypical?) proxy for that. So he finds himself wondering out loud whether there is any such counterpart in homosexual relations. He concludes that there probably is (or easily can be) and thereby concludes that homosexual activity is not a perversion

The convoluted coda: perversion and all-in moral judgment (or: what does it all mean?) 

  1. Nagel ends with a somewhat contorted discussion about the relationship between perversion, sexuality, and all-things-considered moral judgments. It turns out that when we say that X is a perversion, the claim we’re making about it is a very weak and equivocal one about what to say or do about it.
  2. If X is a perversion, then non-X sex is “better as sex” than perverted sex.
  3. But (according to Nagel), X can be a perversion and yet be preferable to unperverted sex, even if it’s not better “as sex.”
  4. X’s being perverted sex doesn’t necessarily mean that acting on X is morally wrong; faced with a choice between perverted sex and no sex, there are cases in which perverted sex is preferable to no sex, hence morally justified.

I know I’m supposed to leave the criticisms for the next post, but I can’t resist a general comment right here before I get to it. Then as now, Nagel’s paper strikes me in the way that so much of Nagel’s work strikes me—a mixed bag, but more worth reading than most work in analytic philosophy, despite lacking the “rigor” of a lot of analytic philosophy, and despite being relatively unintegrated with “the literature.”  On the plus side, the paper is (like just about everything Nagel writes) clear, profound, learned, original, insightful, fruitful, provocative, and right about a lot of things. On the negative side, the paper is also maddeningly hand-waving, question-begging, and glib, while managing simultaneously to be simplistic, ambiguous, and convoluted.

To its credit, “Sexual Perversion” reads more like an old-fashioned essay than a standard-issue “peer reviewed journal article,” but that very fact leads one to wonder how it got published in JPhil in the first place, i.e., what “peer review” meant in New York philosophical circles in 1969, and whether its meaning one thing in 1969 and another thing in 2015 has any bearing on what counts as good and bad philosophy from one decade to the next. Anyway, ambiguities aside, suffice it to say that there’s enough in the article to make getting through it well worth the trip.

Feel free to comment on Nagel’s argument or my rendition of it in the combox. I’ll offer some criticisms and other observations in my next post.

*I corrected an error in this sentence: I originally misstated the date of the APA’s decision as 1970. It was 1973.

Postscript, February 7, 2015: My friend Michael Young, who’s been lurking in this discussion, sends along this piece, “Guys and Plastic Dolls” from the online magazine Narratively. It’s about–you guessed it–guys who have romantic relationships with plastic dolls. I take it that the behavior described in the piece counts as a Nagelian perversion, since it satisfies both the “narcissistic practices” and “inanimate objects” provisos. I can’t wait to bring this one to the attention of my ethics students at Felician. I think I already know what they’re going to say, if they can manage to articulate their response in words. I guess the Narratively piece gives new meaning to a line from Lady Gaga’s song, “Paparazzi“: “We’re plastic, but we still have fun!”