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The Homintern Strikes Back

Frank's new post on Lisa Miller's eisegetical follies, and the numerous responses thereto, also makes mention of Jon Meacham's equally atrocious foray into biblical (mis)interpretation. Daniel Larison offers what is to my mind a compelling rejoinder:

The different senses of Scripture, the complexity of its history and the history of its composition in antiquity do not contradict this claim. Indeed, the presumed complementarity of different senses of Scripture, the different ways of interpreting the Word of God, is founded on the assumption that the Word does not change, but has a richness and depth that cannot be exhausted by one kind of interpretation alone. This is one reason why, particularly in liturgical churches that interpret Scripture in the light of authoritative written tradition, patristic commentaries on Scripture are regarded as valid and authoritative interpretations until today. It is taken as given that the ancient Church and Christians today have received the same revelation. It is an expression of fidelity to the breadth and richness of the Church’s tradition to acknowledge this, and it is the farthest thing from intellectual bankruptcy to respect the intellectual and religious tradition that has recognized Scripture as such a central authority and to give its claims appropriately great weight in Christian teaching.

Having already shown that he has no grasp of any of this, Meacham proceeds with his “Christian case for gay marriage.” He puts enormous weight on the intrinsic nature of homosexuality, which is to make a quality of postlapsarian nature normative. In a fallen world, everyone has a predisposition to act contrary to our true nature, but in no other case that I can think of do we pretend that indulging such a predisposition is inevitable, much less something to be embraced and approved. Meachem is no more persuasive or credible when he cites examples of how certain passages have been abused in the past. Nowhere in his article does Meacham even begin to take seriously the central importance of denying oneself in Christian discipleship. God did not call His people to indulge their inclinations, but to deny themselves to follow Him. This is why the comparison with race is so inapt and ultimately so absurd. There is no way that, and no reason why, someone of any race could refrain from being the way he was born. Homosexuality is entirely different, in that acting on it is a matter of volition and a determination to pursue one’s own will rather than denying it. Whether or not one is born with such an inclination, that would not be a license to indulge that inclination. Meacham’s argument is essentialist and actually denies the responsibility and agency of homosexuals, which is far more of an attack on their humanity than refusing to allow them to “marry.”

For his trouble, as might be anticipated, Larison was requited with the electronic scourges of the Homintern (Justin Raimondo's term for the inquisitors who assiduously seek out instances of wrongthought on the subject), who delivered themselves of a few choice pieces of unreason. The first commenter concludes his rant by noting,

If you have your way, the result for gay and lesbian people is not just a denial of their civil rights, but as Carter says, it becomes an open question whether their sexuality is even “licit”.

As one can see, it simply is a matter of "civil rights" that gay "marriage" be established. This is presupposed, and its negation portrayed as a denial of the self-evident. Since this is the question at hand, such declarations are useless, even less useful than fundamentalist appeals to the authority of Scripture, or the invocation of God, are said to be. Of course, lurking back of all this is the question of religious liberty, as it is far from self-evident that gay "marriage" is compatible with religious liberty, as detailed by Maggie Gallagher. One might with equal ease state that, if the proponents of gay "marriage" have their way, the result will be, not merely the denial of religious liberties, but the delegitimation of traditional religion itself. One might state this with equal ease, but in this case, there is actual, you know, legal scholarship bearing on the conclusion, and not mere neener-neener-neener, give-me-what-I-want posturing.

Another commenter, oblivious to the law of non-contradiction, delivers himself of the following gem:

If the argument is such that it contradicts that very basic Faktum der Vernunft, individual autonomy, it’s not even in the ballpark.

Which, being translated, means that, unless an argument to the effect that those experiencing homosexual inclinations should limit their autonomy can be squared with the presupposition of the maximization of that autonomy, progressive moralists will disregard the arguments of traditionalists. So, unless we manage to demonstrate the identity of A and non-A, you won't listen? Glad to have that out in the open.

Then there is that "faktum der vernunft" nonsense, which conflates the historically contingent construction of Western subjectivity with the nature of the human individual in itself, to which one can only respond that, unless the proponents of gay "marriage" take it upon themselves to read a bit of intellectual history, or even simply to look around the world at the diversity of subjectivities, we won't have many reasons to listen. Ignorance of the obvious pretty much forecloses upon the preconditions of dialogue.

Then, there is a precious attempt at analogy:

For homosexuals, acting on their attraction to people of the same sex, as opposed to their non-attraction to people of the opposite sex, is “a matter of volition” in exactly the same sense as acting on one’s attraction to foods that taste good as opposed to foods that make one want to vomit. Insisting that gays either pursue sexual relations with members of the opposite sex, or remain celibate, is equivalent to insisting that they eat only vomit-inducing foods, or that they refrain from eating entirely.

About this, it suffices to observe that, as the very issue at the heart of the dispute is the status of homosexual conduct, that is, whether it is a matter of grave moral import or a mere matter of taste, the analogy fails for presupposing what it is supposed to demonstrate, namely, that homosexual conduct is a matter of subjective preference simply.

Ridiculing Larison's argument that Meacham has essentialized homosexuals, the originator of the above-mentioned analogical failure then inquires, "Since when is it an attack on “the responsibility and agency” of anybody when we give them what they desperately want, ask for, crave, need?" Asking people, therefore, to exercise agency by deliberating over their desires and inclinations, as opposed to yielding to them unreflectively, is tantamount to the denial of agency in the thought of this commenter.

Another commenter indulges in a bit of blustery triumphalism:

Anti-gay Christianity is going the way of pro-slavery Christianity. It has far less support in the text of scripture.

We must, that is, have the "humility" to recognize that Christian theologians and philosophers, for well-nigh two millenia, misunderstood the sacred writ over which they laboured, and that in these latter enlightened times, intellectuals working from the presupposition that identity may be reduced in substantial measure to desire - an assumption utterly alien to any ancient culture - have at least disclosed the hidden riches of the text, uniquely free of the cultural conditioning that has hitherto occluded its comprehension. Yes, and Jesus was secretly wedded to Mary Magdalene, who was also a sacred whore. Such frivolity will license any argument whatsoever, any degree of special pleading, and, as such, is worthless, even as entertainment.

Finally, however, we approach what might be suspected to be the nub of the matter, in a sort of identification with Luciferic rebellion:

Ah, the usual impasse. This is why a nontrivial subset sees Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost. If God believes what you say he does, then He is a monster unworthy of worship. The revolt and the Fall are the only acceptable options for a moral people to throw off their shackles.

So, following the model of Satanic rebellion, if God does not permit the human individual to claim co-equal status with the divine nature, deifying his desires as the very issue of divinity, then God is a monster unworthy of worship, and revolt is the only morally acceptable option. Desire is the measure of morality, except for the desires of traditionalists, although this may well be of no consequence, the theology of rebellion probably taking issue with logic as well as morality. Some desires are more divine than others.

All (richly-merited) snarkiness aside, momentous questions of natural law, anthropology, and morality are implicated in these debates, and much of the discourse surrounding the debates is more obfuscatory than illuminating. One of those questions is the moral, practical, and political status of desire. It was with the intention of addressing this latter complex of questions that I wrote what follows some years ago; for those who have no desire (no pun intended) to plow through this old essay, the burden of its argumentation is that desire neither motivates our actions, nor justifies them, and that this may be grasped by a consideration of the structures of practical reasoning themselves. When we act, we act on the basis of reasons, which may be good or bad, explicit or implicit, adequately comprehended or erroneous, and it is these reasons that justify our actions. Once this is understood, it becomes manifest that an emphasis upon desire and the rights claims that it generates is a way of evading fundamental questions concerning the nature of the good, happiness, the human person, and so forth. If we act on the basis of reasons, then we must analyze reasons to determine whether they are sound, and adequated to the work they are called to perform in our practical thinking; and if this is the case, then such reasons are of the essence of public deliberation, such that the attempts to appeal to desires, and identities supposedly grounded in desires, are in reality attempts to foreclose upon public deliberation concerning the good.


It is a commonplace of contemporary discourse, both popular and academic, that desire is an important component of personal identity, perhaps, in a way, the crucial determinant thereof. That this is the case is evident upon even the most cursory review of the philosophical literature on the nature and function of the rational faculties of the mind - in which it is often either assumed as the presupposition of further discourse, or asserted, and sometimes defended, that reason is the "slave of the passions"; that reason is, therefore, functional and instrumental in nature and operation, a tool by which we calculate the most effective manner of realizing or satisfying our desires, which are themselves givens - or upon a modest familiarity with the atmosphere of the popular culture, in which "following one's heart", "being true to oneself" and "doing what one feels" have assumed the status of maxims of personal authenticity and integrity, such that to refuse those urgings known as desires is to fail to fully realize one's humanity.

There are few spheres of life and human endeavour which have remained untouched by such notions; the tropes of this way of thinking, if thinking it may be called, have a way of appearing within the contexts of all walks of life and all moments of decision potentially fraught with the tension of momentous choice. The core idea seems to be that, faced with the necessity of choice, one must "look within oneself" to determine what it is that one truly wants; what, that is, would best conduce to the fulfillment or satisfaction of that desire or constellation of desires perceived by the subject to have the greatest weight or intensity. A related idea is that this quest for authentic personhood in desire-fulfillment concerns only momentous, life-changing, or potentially life-changing choices. The choice between having chocolate mousse for dessert and having key lime pie, for example, hardly involves matters of personal identity. The idea, then, is that the choices for which the imperative of "looking within oneself" is invoked are consequential; they are those choices by which a subject defines himself as a certain type of person, observing a certain way of life or following a certain path. They are decisions by which one embraces an identity, or a component of an identity, to the exclusion of other identities or identity-components. A person who opts to devote himself to the law excludes the possibility of simultaneous devotion to medicine, and the practice of the law becomes, at the least, a critical part of "who he is". A person who self-identifies as a homosexual excludes the possibility that he will have a way of life in which heterosexual interests are normative. And in each case, the decision taken is thought to be that one which best satisfies the desires, or the strongest desires, of the subject. Desire, then, by implication, is the core determinant of personal identity; it is the key, held by each person, to the conundrum of how one becomes what one is: one seeks to comprehend one's desires and longings, and then becomes the sort of person that said desires indicate one to be. It is a project of self-realization.

It might be observed that the foregoing conflates two seeming disparate ideas: the descriptive account of the relationship of desire and reason, and the importance of this relationship to personal identity, and the pseudo-moral imperative to work out what it is that one truly desires, to the end that one might become an authentic, fulfilled human being. There is some merit to this objection, inasmuch as it is important to achieve the highest degree of clarity possible when seeking to discriminate between differing expressions of the same fundamental idea. However, it is also the case that, to a great extent, the conflation has already been made by those who subscribe to the theory of the instrumentality of reason; on the one hand, the theory is offered as an account of rationality, while on the other, it is often employed polemically, as when it is urged upon the reluctant that, because this is "how we are", we are perpetrating moral and intellectual violence upon those whom we counsel to resist certain desires. These latter, on the other hand, are thought to be inauthentic or "self-hating" should they resist the dictates of desire as regards personal identity. Hence, in the case of homosexuality, those who counsel against the conduct on the part of those who experience the orientation (desires) would be said to be engaged in futile efforts to deny to the homosexual what, in fact, is common to all men without distinction: that desire is the origin of all we do and all we are. The confused idea seems to be that one must not resist that which one "just is", ie. is determined to be, and must not counsel others to resist that which they "just are", ie. are determined to be.

This elevation of desire to the status of the determinant of personal identity is mistaken. It is possible to approach the mistakenness of the notion from a variety of perspectives. In this notion of desire and the instrumentality of reason there are echoes of the controversies associated with various deterministic doctrines, which are said to render moral judgment problematic by eliminating the individual will or reducing it to a cipher of causes external to the consciousness of the individual. So, then, according to more deterministic versions of the view we are considering, desires simply occur as the result of any number of causes, and states of desire engender behaviour, about which it is unjustified to pass moral judgment. Nevertheless, it might be argued against this theory that it fails to do justice to our experience of volition, of the deliberation that we undertake when we are attempting to come to a decision, and errs in its understanding of the moral sense by minimizing its importance as a fundamental, primal element of human nature, by reducing it to an artifice which futilely opposes the causal factors that move us. It might be objected, further, that the denial of freedom of the will inherent in such accounts of desire and reason is rationally unjustified, even self-defeating.

These will not now serve as angles of approach to the question of the verity and adequacy of the view that desire is the motivator of behaviour and the source of personal identity. Rather, this view will be seen to be problematic on the grounds that desires neither motivate behaviour of themselves, nor provide the justification for the reasons we have for living and acting as we do. If desires do not possess these roles, it follows that our rational faculties possess a potentially significant degree of independence from desire, as commonly understood, and themselves serve, through all of their operations, as the ground of our actions, and of such decisions and actions we take to be constitutive of our identities. We act, and assume our identities, on the basis of such things as reasons and beliefs, all of which are, by their very nature, open to deliberation. Thus, a homosexual identity, as distinguished from a homosexual orientation, is not inherent to individuals who have the desire, nor is such an identity the ineluctable outcome of a process which begins with the given element of desire. The orientation may, in many cases, be given, but the identity is assumed in accordance with beliefs, for reasons, and is, therefore, willed. Desire is not identity.

In what follows, I will draw upon the analysis of desires and reasons presented by T.M. Scanlon in his work What We Owe to Each Other; needless to say, while I am indebted to his presentation of the matter, the applications of his analysis are entirely my own.

As regards the role of desire in motivating action, let us suppose that desire itself suffices to move an agent to act. But, prior to considering what this would mean, let us sketch out what is involved in the ordinary experience of a desire. Succinctly, a man experiencing the desire for homosexual relations would have a longing, of all the complexity and nuance one would expect of a sexual/romantic/erotic interest, for relations of the type, the thought that involvement in relationships of the type would fulfill or satisfy that longing, and the consideration that the pleasure, satisfaction and sense of personal completion to be found - as he expects - in such relationships counts in favour of pursuing them. Generally, then, there are, at a minimum, three elements involved in the experience of desire: the longing, urge, interest or attraction towards a certain thing or state of affairs, the belief that a certain action or class of actions would lead to a pleasant state, related to the longing, in the future, and the taking of this future pleasant state to be a reason for acting.

Let us suppose then, that desire suffices to explain how a man experiencing homosexual desires might be moved to act; the crucial element, on such a view, is simply the longing or impulse towards behaviour of a certain type. However, emphasis upon this urge to act in a certain fashion, apart from any evaluative element, reduces what is, in fact, experienced as having some degree of complexity, to a mere functional state: a man experiencing such desires does not see anything good in the actions towards which he is inclined, but is only moved to engage in them. This, quite obviously, leaves out what is most essential in the experience of desire: the tendency to perceive something good or worthwhile in the object of the desire. It is not that all desires arise from considered judgements, but that desire, by its nature, involves the perception of something as a reason. Desire, to be sure, cannot be reduced to "seeing something good about something", as it is easy enough to conceive of innumerable examples of things we have reason to see as good, yet have no desire to do. Nevertheless, desire involves, as Scanlon writes, "... having a tendency to see something as a reason." The man experiencing homosexual desires does see certain considerations as counting in favour of acting in ways that could be described as homosexual.

The specific difference between those things we have reason to do, yet no desire to do, and those things we have a desire, and also reason to do, Scanlon encapsulates in his formulation of desire in the directed-attention sense, according to which "A person has a desire in the directed-attention sense that P if the thought of P keep occurring to him or her in a favorable light, that is to say, if the person's attention is directed insistently toward considerations that present themselves as counting in favor of P." This formulation captures what is specific to what we commonly think of in connection with the idea of desire, and enables us to distinguish cases of desire from cases in which we have reason to do something which we have no real desire to do, such as bearing bad news to a friend. The notion of desire in the directed-attention sense does not reduce desire to a species of reason; it is fully compatible with the common-sense understanding that desires are "... unreflective elements in our practical thinking - that they "assail us" unbidden and that they can conflict with our considered judgment of what we have reason to do." However, a person who has a desire in this sense does have a tendency to "...think of certain considerations and a tendency to see them as reasons for acting." And while rationality entails both the ability to reach considered judgements and to hold to them, as well as the more specific ability to "....see certain considerations as reasons and to think of and see as reasons those things one has previously judged to be such", no normal person possesses perfect control over both his rational faculties and desires. It is a primal an aspect of what it is to be human to be subject to recurrent tendencies to see some consideration as a reason to act in a certain way, despite one's considered, rational judgment that it is not such as reason.

Desire, then, does not perform the work of motivation, apart from our capacity to grasp reasons. The notion of a desire as an urge fails to capture what we mean when we ordinarily refer to desires. Scanlon's notion of desire in the directed-attention sense does capture much of what we mean by referring to desires, yet it remains true that we often do things we have no desire to do, and that when we do have desires in that sense and act on them, it is the seeing of something as a reason for action that performs the work of motivation. Desire neither performs the work of motivation itself, either in the form of an urge or as an element of the reasons that move us to act, nor is even necessary for us to act. It is not, therefore, homosexual desire which moves the homosexual to the characteristic acts of that lifestyle, but the perception of some considerations as reasons for so acting, as well as his taking them to be such reasons for himself. He must not only experience desire in the directed-attention sense - seeing certain considerations as counting in favour of acting on what may be granted is his orientation - but must judge them to be reasons for so acting. To act on the relevant desire, he must, as an act of his rationality, judge the reasons implicated in the desire to be such for him. That is to say, he must not only experience the insistent recurrence (the "urge" element), in a favourable light, of the considerations that are seen to count in favour of homosexual relations (the "reasons" element), he must judge those considerations to be reasons for acting, for engaging in homosexual behaviour (the "taking" element). Scepticism regarding this point should be allayed by noting that, in the cases of a fair number of homosexuals, the phenomenon of "coming out" is often accompanied by, or at least preceded by, self-doubt, self-hatred and agonizing deliberation, in which the presence of the first two components of insistence and favourable considerations conflict with a reluctance, hesitation, or fear to actually take such indications of desire in the directed-attention sense as reasons for self-identifying as homosexual, for a plethora of well-known, well-trodden reasons, such as regard for the opinions of others and scruples against homosexual conduct. Phenomenologically, we might say, desire is insufficient to move him to action. A type of taking, or judgment, considered and willed, is necessary; and therefore, the bare fact of desire, even desire in the directed-attention sense, is insufficient as a basis of personal identity.

Suppose, though, that while desire itself is not sufficient to do the work of motivating an agent to act, desire is, nevertheless, the ground or justification of action insofar as it generates reasons for action, which themselves do the work of motivation. In contrast to the previous formulation of the relationship of desire and action, which might be termed the desire-as-efficient-cause model, the present formulation would hold that desire is the foundational state of consciousness out of which reasons for action arise, the fundamental intentional state without which action does not occur: the desire-as-formal-and-final-cause model. According to this formulation, for any desire D, an agent has a reason to perform X if X would fulfill, or promote the fulfillment of, D. One might experience a desire for, say, oranges, and this desire for oranges generates a reason to seek, and consume, oranges. Desire, then, would be the matrix of reasons for action, in the sense that reasons and actions would arise out of, and be oriented toward, desire as their completion. The development of the original desire might be taken as the formal cause which relates the material cause of the oranges to the agent; the reasons thus generated might be taken as the efficient causes; and the desire, this time with a view toward its fulfillment or completion, might be taken as the final cause.

This formulation of the matter possesses one critical advantage over the previous formulation; namely, that it accounts for the obvious and uncontroversial fact that many of our reasons do indeed have subjective conditions. However, while this does seem to grant the formulation under consideration a not inconsiderable degree of persuasive force, that appearance of strength is more apparant than actual.

It should cause us no difficulty to concede that many of our reasons do in fact have subjective conditions. This will be the case whether we are discussing such trivia as likes and dislikes in the matter of ice cream, as well as in such weighty and significant matters as responsibilities towards family and friends, as Scanlon notes. Nevertheless, the notion that desires are the source and justification of our reasons for engaging in certain activities thought to be noble and worthy, and believing them to be activities in which we ought to engage, is, to understate the counterintuitive nature of the claim, odd and deflating. If we hold that we have reasons to pursue some worthy endeavour, such as caring for and mitigating the hardships endured by the homeless and deprived, or structuring our lives around the devout observance of religious rites considered to be essential to the fulfillment of duties to God and man, we are making claims of an order radically different from those that are involved in the case of pleasures to be derived from the consumption of ice cream. (The question of the status of familial obligations is obviously more complex, involving as it does both personal ties and duties generally taken to be binding and normative without reference to subjective satisfactions. This distinction need not detain us, as it does not impinge in any way upon the development of the argument.) We are claiming that there is an "oughtness" about the activity in question, such that we would be mistaken, in error or sin, or simply wrong not to grant it. The worthiness of the activities in this class are not taken to depend in any way upon subjective satisfactions or personal affections.

As Scanlon observes, observations and reflections such as these often lead those who may embrace the standard model of the relationship of desire and reasons - which holds that desires are simply subjective, intentional states which either occur or don't, and that, when they do, provide the agent with reasons for engaging in those actions that will promote their satisfaction - to carve out exceptions for such reasons as may derive from moral and religious obligations. However, reflection upon the conditions of our own practical reasoning should lead us to the much stronger conclusion that desires seldom, if ever, provide us with reasons for action in the manner postulated by the standard model. Again, as Scanlon argues, "..none of the candidates for the role of desire has these properties."

Consider the functional state, in which an actor simply experiences an irresistable desire to perform a certain action. What is missing from such a state is any element capable of rationalizing action; there is no judgment that the action in question is good, laudable or worthy, that it will facilitate happiness or satisfaction. Nevertheless, even when we consider desires which do in fact include such judgments, we find that the desire itself has little, if any, role in the generation of reasons. Let us suppose that I am seized by the desire for a new car, and that this desire is not a mere impulse, but desire in the directed-attention sense, which does, of course, include the evaluative element of seeing some consideration as counting in favour of the purchase of that new car. Even this state, however insistent may be the promptings of desire for that new car, does not indicate that I do in fact have reasons to purchase the new car, as it may well be my judgment that the new car will afford no advantage over the old one I now drive, and that its distinguishing characteristics and amenities are either superfluous, marginal, or insufficient to outweigh the expense I would incur were I to purchase it. The bare occurrence of the state of desire-in-the-directed-attention-sense as regards the car provides no reason to purchase it; neither does the fact that the new car might meet the criteria of a reason-component associated with the desire, for example, that I might regard the styling of the new car as more pleasing, aesthetically speaking, than that of the old car. For in this case, my considered judgment after having weighed all of the relevant factors, is that I have no real need, no real reason, to purchase the car. Moreover, even should I take my preference for the styling of the new car as a reason for purchasing it, "endorsing the judgment to which the desire involves a tendency", in Scanlon's words, it is this reason - the satisfaction and pride of ownership I would feel in the car - that, if anything, justifies me in purchasing it, not the bare existential fact of the state of desire.

At this stage, it may yet be objected that, while desire provides neither the motivation nor the justification for our reasons and actions, we only have occasion to formulate the reasons we do have because he have certain desires. Desire, according to this objection, would be the condition of the possibility of the reasons that justify and motivate our actions. In the case of reasons which obviously have subjective conditions, such as the desire for ice cream to which Scanlon adverts periodically throughout the course of his argument, it does in fact seem that we have our reasons for action because we have certain desires. What, then, occurs in our practical reasoning in such cases?

What is happening in such cases are simply instances of there being subjective conditions for the reasons we may have for doing certain things. Some people find ice cream appealing, while others are at best indifferent. In the case of that desire for ice cream, it is, nevertheless, not the desire itself that either simply is a reason for seeking out a bowl of ice cream, or generates reasons for seeking out a bowl of ice cream. Reasons for seeking out ice cream are found in the prospective happiness that eating ice cream would provide, whether or not we experience the desire for ice cream in the directed-attention sense, and especially when that we take that prospect of pleasure as grounds for acting now or in the near-term future, or as one factor, among many possibilities, to be taken into consideration as we decide what to do. Regardless, therefore, of whether, in saying that we have a desire for something, we merely find it pleasurable generally, have desire for it in the directed-attention sense, or have determined that it is a factor to be considered in deliberation, it is not the desire which generates reasons for action. Desire, at most, is the stimulus to thought about reasons; about what we have reasons to want, to do, to seek, and about those reasons themselves that we have reason to embrace or repudiate.

In the end, then, an analysis of the structures of practical thinking tends to disconfirm the commonplace assumption, which is often elevated to the status of a dogma in contemporary life, that desires are the wellsprings of our actions, of our lives and identities. Desires neither spur us to action of themselves, nor provide the reasons that explain our actions, and because of these intertwined inabilities, do not constitute us as the persons we are; desires do not bequeath to us, by the randomness and inexplicability of their manifestation as features of our awareness, our identities. Our motivations, our reasons, our identities, are, rather, bound up with our perceptions and understandings of what will promote our happiness and allow us to advance projects and undertakings that we consider to be worthwhile. And the question of happiness and what tends to promote, and what tends to thwart, happiness, is a matter at once larger, and more amenable to rational analysis and discrimination, than the irrational one of desire; it is the question which opens upon the great questions of human nature - of who we are, of the differences of the human, of the purposes, and those things that promote the achievement and fulfillment of those purposes laid down in the constitution of our nature. Seen from this perspective, and in the light of the features of our practical reasoning, the appeal to desires as the basis of identity, action, and reasoning is not so much an attempt to accurately account for certain features of our lives, but an attempt to foreclose debate about our reasons and the ends we pursue, a rhetorical trope for the refusal of reason.

Comments (22)


While I am pleased you have returned to writing (even if on rather an erratic schedule), must such an occasion warrant a tome?

In the last paragraph prior to the line-break, I have summarized what follows for the convenience of the reader. It seemed good, however, to demonstrate that the intellectual work backing up my claims had been performed. It cannot be stressed often enough that the moral status of desire is, precisely, nothing. One would think that proponents of gay "marriage" and homosexual lifestyles generally would take the hint and offer affirmative justifications of them as goods in themselves - at least in that case, we'd be able to discuss the nature of the good, as opposed to listening to people whining like spoiled children that they really, really, really want something, which, as anyone who has children will know, grates on the nerves.

You're absolutely right, Max. If the proponent's of gay rights were thoughtful intellectuals intent upon making the case for their side, they'd give what you properly call "affirmative justifications." But they aren't, at least not most of them.

It's a virtual certainty you'll not be engaged by them on that level, or on that basis. They aren't much concerned to play that game. They are concerned to win, to have their way. To win, they do not need to engage in arguments of the sort you raise.

So, now what? Have you got a back up plan? Can you propose a way to beat them at the game they actually play?

Michael, I don't believe that anyone has a viable back-up plan. The GOP was largely indifferent to the fate of the constitutional marriage amendment the last time these issues had public salience, preferring to squander political capital on the quixotic issue of Social Security reform, a reform which would have completely destabilized more than just the economy when the financial implosion arrived. Barring that, there is the DOMA; but that will fall in the courts in due time. There exists the possibility of excluding the matter from the jurisdiction of the courts, but not even a GOP-dominated Congress would challenge the prerogatives of the courts, let alone a Democratic Congress. Leaving aside the intra-conservative discussions as to whether a constitutional amendment or a federalist solution is to be preferred, the latter appears, at present, to be the best for which realistic hopes can be entertained, and even that is the longest of longshots. Conservatives are fighting the tides of culture and implicit philosophy, and the resonances of moral innovation with things they themselves already embrace or tolerate.

Then again, perhaps you should make explicit your intentions.

Homintern - that's a keeper.

must such an occasion warrant a tome?

To be fair, over half of Max's post is a reprint of an old essay of his (starting at the dotted line), so it's not all original to the current event. Nevertheless I'm glad for the full posting.

Credit Justin Raimondo for the term. I merely thought it apposite.

Another point in support of your thesis is just simply that people have desires in the purely subjective sense for things that, at another level, they themselves do not want and realize are harmful. (I think you may make this point, but I skimmed through rather quickly and didn't see it.) Suppose that someone has a bad habit of biting his fingernails or smoking cigarettes. There will be times when in one sense he has a desire to bite his nails or smoke a cigarette but knows *perfectly well* that this subjective urge is no justification for doing the thing in question, that there is something *messed up* about him, that he has developed a bad habit, and that it is this bad habit that is giving him the urge.

Lydia, that is, in essence, my thesis. The desire to chew one's nails does not translate into the action of chewing one's nails except by the mediation of a reason, which could be something as simple and misguided as (expanded, obviously, from the intuitive form), "I have a reason to chew my nails, which is that doing so, given the desire, will make me happy." But as soon as this is recognized, all of the traditional considerations arise, concerning the nature and conditions of happiness, or even whether happiness in this sense is an appropriate or adequate source of reasons. Perhaps it will be subjectively satisfying to gnaw on one's fingers, but will it conduce to happiness to have ruined nails, raw fingers, and a reputation for being obsessive and freakish? To ask the question is to open the larger question of happiness, and to open that question is, ultimately, to open the question of reasons and justification generally considered, as happiness is assuredly not a univocal term. In short, introduce that separation of desire and action, and desire really fades away in objective significance, despite all of moderns' obsession with it.

For all his talk of intellectual seriousness, Meacham can't seem to wrap his mind around the possibility that someone could, after assessing his and Miller's arguments, conclude that they are mistaken. In such a scenario, where does Meacham go? Perhaps he will go for the "but people once thought slavery was supported by the Bible" meme, even though he shot blanks with it the first time. If he does, we can reply: yes, and some people now think homosexuality is supported by the Bible. Both groups sought to have their political agendas supported by Scripture. So, Jon, how do you know you're not the slavery-apologist's contemporary counterpart?

I suppose that Meacham would have to respond with some or other variation on the "factum der vernunft" argument: History has spoken. Of course, this is merely a pseudo-sophisticated way of begging the question, so when that fails the recourse will be to release the dogs - to forget about persuasion and just go for coercion.

I suppose that if someone is really enslaved to a bad habit he might act upon it almost robotically without the _actual_ mediation of a reason. But if he knew the habit to be bad he would then regret this and be annoyed at himself and dismayed to find himself acting in that way. So obviously the desire is not self-justifying.

Contra Meacham, suppose someone said this to him;

Look, Jon, ever since I can remember I have believed the Bible to condemn homosexual acts. Everyone I trust in my life, including Bible scholars, parents, ministers, etc., have believed and taught the same thing. These are all loving, caring, honest, decent people who have shown nothing but affection and sympathy for those struggling with same-sex attraction. Moreover, I have looked at the issue myself and have concluded that these mentors are right. Of course, I understand that there are those outside my circle of influence who disagree, and I have read and studied them and have become conversant with the arguments. But after fulfilling all my epistemic duties, I've come to the conclusion that they are wrong. Oddly, however, I have homosexual desires. But since I know that homosexual acts are wrong on the grounds about which I have consciously studied, and since I know that right and wrong can't be based on mere desire, I refuse to engage in homosexual acts. Mr. Meacham, am I unserious and irrational?

You're absolutely right, Max. If the proponent's of gay rights were thoughtful intellectuals intent upon making the case for their side, they'd give what you properly call "affirmative justifications." But they aren't, at least not most of them.

The reason I think many do not argue their case is that that they do not believe reason has anything to say about the issue. Whether they realize it or not, I think many have adopted a form of emotivism. Any attempt at moral reasoning can be dismissed as a language game and an attempt at domination and control. The issue has nothing to do with the truth about marriage, because they do not believe there is any truth. The narrative collapses into oogity boogity christianist, imposing their oppressive morality onto the world and if God is behind this morality, then He is the Great Oppressor and Satan the Great Liberator.

I sense this from the many responses I receive from liberals, including "you can't legislate morality", "stop imposing your morality", "I don't care about your God", "I feel differently", "that may be true for you..." and countless others.

"Whether they realize it or not, I think many have adopted a form of emotivism."

This is true in my experience as well - the vast majority of gay marriage advocates I have come across are either emotivists, or think their position is self-evident to anyone not blinded by hate or lack of education, and thus beyond any sort of rational dispute. "Proposition 8: The Musical" is actually a very accurate reperesentation of the typical viewpoint.

...suppose someone said this to him ...
Someone like David Morrison, for example.

Which is inherently barbaric.

thebyronicman (and Maximos),

Actually, my initial comment about this entry by Maximos was meant more as a compliment rather than a criticism.

Regardless, I consider any such writing of his in this vein a treat.

Having been under the tutelage of virtually a popular Cal Berkeley professor who throughout much of his lectures declared with such rabid determination the moral adamancy of Christianity being incredibly preposterous and tyrannical (i.e., there is no such thing as Good & Evil), Aristotle & his kind but an awful breed whose penchant for logical argument is itself fallacious (moreover, he believes logic is the tool of the fascist), notions of The Good, the True & the Beautiful ridiculous (as if it has to be said), the idea that homosexuality being wrong imbecilic (one need only read On the Genealogy of Morals to discover that those who insist on Christian morality are but sadomasochists in disguise) and, in all this, Nietsche is the quintessential model all humanity should follow; I, therefore, find essays as this one by individuals as Maximos who still uphold certain standards of morality, who continue to revere the patrimony bequeathed to us by the Greats of Western Civilization, entirely refreshing.

Although, I can’t say that what he has put forward here would topple even the unassailable arguments of such a professor.

After all, as that enlightened professor had elegantly proclaimed – the most insidious argument [against homosexuality] is that of the natural [and, above all, the Christian].

The prescription, he would propose, for such Christians who suffer from this infamous moralistic malady is to engage in readings of Nietzsche starting with On Truth and Lies…

Desire, at most, is the stimulus to thought about reasons; about what we have reasons to want, to do, to seek, and about those reasons themselves that we have reason to embrace or repudiate.

Maximos, it seems that you overlook the filtering that occurs. The person desiring a new car looks for reasons to justify that choice and also finds reasons to feel discontent with his old car. If it is more than a fleeting impulse, desire has a continuous role in framing the range of choices.

Desires neither spur us to action of themselves, nor provide the reasons that explain our actions, and because of these intertwined inabilities, do not constitute us as the persons we are; desires do not bequeath to us, by the randomness and inexplicability of their manifestation as features of our awareness, our identities.

If the spur to action comes from reasons which are in turn stimulated by desire, there is a causal chain that should include desire as part of our identities. I concede it is only a part of identity and not the entirety, but desire is an intrinsic component of one's awareness.

Maximos, it seems that you overlook the filtering that occurs. The person desiring a new car looks for reasons to justify that choice and also finds reasons to feel discontent with his old car.

Could not the same (deceptive) reasoning apply as well to the Christian?

The person desiring a new car looks for reasons to justify that choice and also finds reasons to feel discontent with his old car.

Thereby demonstrating that it is reason, even if in the debased form of rationalization, that both motivates actions and justifies them. Desire is sufficient neither to motivate nor justify, and at most - as I discuss - only stimulates us to think, however inadequately, about reasons.

If it is more than a fleeting impulse, desire has a continuous role in framing the range of choices.

Framing the range of choices is a far cry from being the constitutive aspect of human nature, which is what desire would have to be in order to justify the expansive claims of modern ethics, about which we must be honest: all of the talk about autonomy, freedom, and willing is but a mask for the fact that we are being told to grant these things because people really, really want to do certain things, for which these concepts are symbols. The constitutive elements, it would seem, are those that actually spur us to action, rather than merely setting the table, as it were.

If the spur to action comes from reasons which are in turn stimulated by desire, there is a causal chain that should include desire as part of our identities.

"Causal chain" is hardly the only possible construal of this relationship, unless were more or less presupposing some form of determinism. If we don't do that, then desire is seen to underdetermine action.

I concede it is only a part of identity and not the entirety, but desire is an intrinsic component of one's awareness.

I wouldn't gainsay the latter half of this statement, but would only add the qualification that the debate concerns the importance or rank-ordering assigned to this component. As for the matter of identity, we are what we repeatedly do, and not what it occurs to us to do. I am not an alcoholic merely because it occurs to me to drink beer in immoderation; rather, I am not an alcoholic precisely because stodgy old practical/prudential reason, informed as well by the memory of past unpleasantness, leads me to the conclusion that drinking beer in immoderation would ill conduce to health, happiness, and the development of virtue.

The constitutive elements, it would seem, are those that actually spur us to action, rather than merely setting the table, as it were.

Setting the table is a good metaphor; would you sit at a table that has no silverware if other unoccupied tables do?

"Causal chain" is hardly the only possible construal of this relationship, unless were more or less presupposing some form of determinism. If we don't do that, then desire is seen to underdetermine action.

Some days I believe in determinism and some days I don't. :-)
Actually, I have no problem accepting that a particular desire underdetermines a particular action, but in a more general cumulative sense desire and its counterpart fear are the wellspring for every spur to action.

As for the matter of identity, we are what we repeatedly do, and not what it occurs to us to do.

I agree with that up to a point. We are what we repeatedly do, until we change our repeated actions. There needs to be some conceptual space for breaking out of cycles.

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