Sexual Ethics 201

Photo by Brad Fults

It’s easy to say that the concept of consent is simple and easy to understand. Communicate clearly with your partner, if they say yes, continue. If they don’t say yes, then don’t continue.

Unfortunately nothing in life is ever quite so simple. This conception of consent is good when it comes to not raping people. But not raping people is a pretty low ethical bar. It’s basically the absolute base level we should be shooting for when it comes to our sexual ethics. But many people think about consent and sex and believe that if they didn’t force their partner to do something, or if they were open about what they wanted, then everything is fine. If the other person said yes, they’ve consented and everything is fine. Good to go, right?

Well, maybe not. Because even if you’re not sexually assaulting someone or pressuring them into sex or secretly springing things on them in the middle of sex, you can still be setting someone up for really bad decisions. You can put pressure on them without realizing it. You can ask for a lot and not give much in return. Your wants and needs can end up functioning as conditions for sex (e.g. I only want to have sex with people who will have sex with my partner as well because we are a couple).

Oftentimes these things happen when we are trying to be honest about what we do or do not want. That’s ok. One of the difficult things about being in relationships is that oftentimes just saying what we think or feel or want is not enough to make sure everyone comes out of an interaction feeling good.

Let’s think of consent like a contract, just as a hypothetical for a minute.

Sometimes people write really shitty contracts that put a lot more onus on one party than the other. It might be a job contract that works one party too hard for not enough money. They might provide all of the information about that contract to the other party, and make sure the other person isn’t intoxicated or manipulated into signing. But they still put the person into a bad situation by giving them an option forward that takes advantage of them. And especially if you’re entering into a contract with someone who cares about you, it’s easy for them to forget to make sure things are set up fairly. You might not be assaulting or violating someone by asking them to enter into an unfair or harmful agreement, but you’re still being a jackass. And when that person loves you, it’s far more likely that they’ll do it.

As my friend Miri said, “I think we need a more nuanced view than “if I didn’t force them it’s ok/if they technically consented it’s ok,” and part of that is acknowledging that shit can go kind of haywire when such strong rushes of emotion are involved and that if we care about each other, we should look out for each other. Not in a patronizing “let me decide for you because you’re not in your right mind” way, but in a caring “wow I am setting up a fucked-up choice for you to have to make, aren’t I” way.”

I think one huge barrier when it comes to clear consent is when the two partners have different ideas of what constitutes sex. It might be about the progression of intimacy. Many people assume that if you start making out, you’re going to progress to taking clothes off, and if you progress to taking clothes off, then you’re going to end up having penetrative sex. None of those things HAVE to be true, and it’s very possible and often very comfortable for someone to only want one of those things. I personally have had situations where I felt this pressure (if I do x, partner will want y) and have chosen to only consent to x when I am also willing to do y. But that doesn’t always mean that I’m very excited about y. It ends up creating a lot of bitterness in the relationship because I cannot consent to just the act I want to do, and while I can do the internal work of figuring out what I want, sometimes it just feels confusing.

Part of being a good partner is that when you are asking someone else for something, especially something that tends to prioritize your wants or desires over your partner’s, you need to be very good about communicating to them what it is that you’re thinking of, but ALSO that it’s alright for them to ask for adjustments to your request. If you’re asking your partner to try out a new kink that involves getting tied up and spanked, you’re actually asking them two things: do you want to get tied up and do you want to get spanked. They may have interest in one, but not the other. It’s good to pull apart the pieces of a request and make it easy to say no to any of them. The more work you put on your partner to figure out what you’re asking for and what they are allowed to negotiate, the harder it is for them to set and keep their own boundaries.

The other element that makes things muddy is when you put unknowing pressure on a partner. Telling them just how much you really, really want sex is providing them with true information, but it also means that if they care about you they may feel as if they should have sex with you. We all need to be aware that if we’re with someone who loves us or is infatuated with us, they may do things to please us. We need to take that into account when we’re asking for things and make sure we give them the space and time to take their own needs into account. And it’s ESPECIALLY important when you’re in a long term relationship to recognize that sometimes you force “consequences” on your partner when they don’t say yes. It isn’t really forcing them, but if your partner knows that you’ll be hurt and bitter or annoyed at them after they say no, you are putting pressure on them. If they love you, they’re also imbibing the strong drug of caretaking, and that can easily outweigh their own needs. This is one of the places that we need to be very explicit about taking responsibility for our own emotions. The script “yes, I’ll be disappointed, but that’s not a problem. I can handle it,” is a really important one.

So what does that actually look like?

The best thing a partner ever did for my confidence in saying no was say no to me. That might sound odd, but it normalized the whole process of saying no to me, and made me feel as if I wasn’t the gatekeeper for all things sex. It helped remind me that it might feel kinda bad for a little bit, but that I could get over it, and so could they. It helped to actually hear someone say out loud “I’m not interested right now,” so that I could copy that script.

I also find that it helps to ask a lot of questions. Especially if you’re trying something new or entering into a new kind of relationship, spend a lot of time talking to the other person about what they want and why. If nothing else, you then know your partner better. But there is a possibility that together you’ll tease out some different dynamics. It gives them some time to process their own wants and needs. It gives you time to ask yourself if your wants are going to be really tough on them. If you foresee a place where they might be sacrificing for your wants, ask them about it.

It’s also good to pay attention to your partner’s body language. If they say yes but are shying away or not really responding to your overtures, you can always check in. Ask what sounds nice to them. See if they want to talk for a little bit before you move into other things. There’s no rush.

Finally, if your partner has a lot of anxiety about saying no, reassurance is really helpful. It’s good to hear “thank you for being honest and telling me your boundary,” after you’ve said no to something. Positive reinforcement does wonders, so if someone says no or feels uncomfortable, it really helps to do something that feels positive afterwards to help remind everyone that you haven’t been pushed apart and no one has done anything wrong.

Now a lot of people out there might be getting defensive. This sounds like a lot of work. You’re right, it is a lot of work. A lot of people might say that this is going too far, that they shouldn’t have to do all of this. And you’re probably right, you could conduct your sexual life without assaulting or raping anyone without doing any of this. You could be pretty ok to your partners without paying attention to this.

But I at least want to do more. I want to be better than pretty ok. I want to work hard to make sure my partners feel good about what I bring into their lives. Sex has the potential to be really damaging to other people, which means that I want to take a lot of care to make it a positive experience for my partners. There is a lot more to sexual ethics than just rape. All of the things that we think about when it comes to healthy relationships apply to sex as well. It’s time to start talking about all the nuance of healthy and unhealthy actions when it comes to sex.

What Is The Purpose of Art?

talktome

A while ago I posted about what the definition of art is in an attempt to convince a friend that he was horribly wrong about his conviction that art is simply having an aesthetic experience (which requires more definition anyway). One of his further questions to me is why art needs to be communicative. Perhaps this is an arbitrary way to define art, as is the idea that art needs to have a creator and a receiver.

There are two elements to this follow up, one of which is the historical meaning of words and how our understanding of words does need (at least in part) to draw from the common understanding of that word. Generally this involves the idea that art has a creator and is created to communicate in some fashion. The other element seems to get at something deeper though: what is the purpose of art?

Now it’s possible that art doesn’t need a purpose. Rocks don’t have a purpose, and probably we don’t either. But most people agree that art is at the very least a conscious phenomenon and quite probably a human phenomenon. Most, if not all, things that humans do serve a purpose of some sort. So what is the purpose of art?

There are probably a few main schools of thought here: self expression, communication, or deeper understanding of the world. Representation or decoration are also a possible candidates but most of modern art seems to blow those out of the water (performance art anyone?). The only one of these possibilities that doesn’t require some sort of creator is “deeper understanding”, but that seems to be implying a great deal more about art than either of the other two: it suggests that all art is looking to explore something, and even implies that to be art something must successfully lead to more understanding of the world or of self. This leaves very little room for bad art, or art that simply seeks to inspire or be beautiful.

So the remaining possibilities are self expression or communication. Both of these are incredibly broad purposes and by themselves don’t offer much by way of a definition. Each could encapsulate nearly all of human activity in some fashion or other, and a definition that’s so broad is simply unhelpful and probably not correct because our words do actually have to specify something, or pick something out in contrast to the rest of the world. So of course “purpose” has to come with some description of what the thing actually is, which is where having some sort of physical presence and aesthetic experience differentiate art from other things.

But both of these purposes do have communicative and creative elements. They ask us to be in community with other people in some fashion, to participate with an artist and other viewers. Of course there are some questions about what communicating and creating can mean, but that is at the root of why we have and conceive of art. So what of my friend’s proposed definition that art is something we experience in an aesthetic way?

It is possible that the experience of art is simply a human response to the world, like awe or joy, and that we began creating our own art in order to capture that feeling. There may be no way to know entirely what purpose art serves for us, but one underlying problem with this suggestion is the wide variety of types of experiences people have in response to art, up to and including nothing. If aesthetic experience were a natural part of the human experience like other emotions, we could expect to see it in a more consistent fashion across people and cultures.

The question of why we make art can help us understand a little more about what art itself is, and it seems to me that it indicates the use of including a communicative element in our definition. Additionally, in terms of how we functionally use the term “art” we most often use it to point to objects that another human being has created. When it comes to language, we do have to take into account the actual practical usage of a term, not simply what we ideally would like a term to mean. We can’t simply ignore that the most common usages of the word “art” include the implication of an artist who is communicating something with their art.

So You Want to Live Forever

arwen

In one of my recent posts I touched on the concept of living forever, and why we may or may not want to do so. Because one of my besties is quite enamored of the idea of living forever, I’ve been thinking a lot more about it and whether or not I would want to. But there’s an element to this that I hadn’t fully explored that hit me yesterday in a giant pile of “how did I not think about this?”

Is it ethical to live forever? If it is, how could we ethically enact a system that would allow people to live forever without ingraining oppressions even further? What are the possible repercussions of living forever, not just on an individual’s life, but on society at large? Even if we want to live forever, there may be good reasons to hesitate pursuing the technology that would allow us to do so.

On a larger scale, I suppose we have to question whether giving humanity a better chance of survival as a species is a good thing. There’s no particular reason to think that humans are all bad or all good. We haven’t totally destroyed the world yet (which is cool) and we’ve invented some amazing things and we are conscious and have culture and thoughts and emotions all of which are incredibly interesting and in many ways beautiful (is beauty a value we want to subscribe to?), but at the same time we’ve drastically reduced the amount of variety in the world (variety does seem to be a value to me), we’re short sighted, we may fuck up the planet enough that nothing can live on it anymore (and life, particularly conscious life as the universe’s way of recognizing and admiring itself seems to be an important value to me), and we are self centered and cruel in intentional ways that nearly no other species is…so it’s kind of on the fence for humanity.

Based on the mediocrity of humanity, it doesn’t seem as if there’s any particular ethical push either to live forever or not (unless we assume that we would leave a void that a superior species would fill, and I don’t see any evidence for that). So what about the logistics of living forever?

The first consideration that springs to mind is overcrowding. If people are living forever and still reproducing, where do we put all of these people? What happens if/when we run out of resources? There’s always the possibility that at this point we’ll be terraforming other planets and it wouldn’t be a concern, but without that outlet, it could mean lowering the quality of life for everyone if we continue overpopulating the planet. Another alternative would be to make people stop having babies, but ethically speaking I really can’t condone controlling someone’s reproductive system (see: eugenics and all the things that are wrong with it).

If we can get past overcrowding, another difficulty would be that one of the ways humanity progresses is through new minds that have different starting premises from their parents. This generation almost takes it for granted that marriage equality should and will happen, whereas the previous generation is far more hit or miss on that. People’s brains are far more malleable when they’re young, and it seems quite likely that changing our opinions becomes more and more difficult the older we get (this is not to say it’s impossible). It’s possible we may hit a limit to our ability to remember or even process new information. Before we attempt living forever we would likely need more information about whether or not human brains can continue to develop indefinitely (yes we can grow new brain cells. Slowly. Maybe the forever livers would have to forsake all things that can cause brain damage of any kind).

There are probably two considerations here: the quality of life of the individual who is living forever and whether that is constrained by the human brain (which we could potentially enhance), and whether or not we would be able to continue to improve society with individuals who grew up in worse times hanging around. While consideration 1 is somewhat important, as long as immortality was freely entered with the knowledge of how it would affect one’s brain, I can’t see it as nearly as pertinent as consideration 2.

Say we develop our technology to a point wherein the human brain and body will not decay in our immortality. We download our consciousness into robots and live forever that way. We’re capable of learning and processing new things, growing, changing, and developing indefinitely. How do we decide who gets to live forever? The technology would most likely be expensive and not available to everyone. Should we allow rich, horrible people to live forever? Should there be a mechanism to monitor who takes advantage of the technology so that people who are criminals or a drain on society (whatever the hell that means) or mean or unintelligent or whatever else we deem “not as good” can’t live forever?

Most likely any mechanism like this would feed immediately into systems of privilege that already exist and we’d end up with even older, richer white men. There is no feasible mechanism that would keep society progressing and healthy with some measure of equality in how people are allowed to live forever. Perhaps it would be a lottery system, but it’s hardly an ideal system that potentially could leave us without some of our best minds and humanitarians.

Overall the whole concept of living forever means trying to solve all of today’s ills before we could find a way to equitably distribute eternal life (haha that’s no big deal right?), so if I were given the opportunity, I don’t know that I’d be able to feel ok with myself if I took it.

What other considerations do you see?

Featured image is Arwen for choosing to give up immortal life (like a boss).

 

What Is Art?

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 by Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968

A few weeks ago a friend of mine asked me what made something art. At the time I didn’t have a good definition, but when he gave his proposed answer I was unsatisfied.

“A work of art is something we have an aesthetic experience with” he suggested.

“So a sunset could be a work of art?”

“Yes.”

I was unconvinced. Let’s start at what might be the most basic level of definition. Art must be an artifact, some sort of physical object or experience. This seems like something we can all agree on, but modern art has taken even that firm footing out from under us:

John Cage’s 4′33″, have seemed to many philosophers to lack or even, somehow, repudiate, the traditional properties of art: intended aesthetic interest, artifactuality, even perceivability” -Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. A work of art that is composed of silence seems to call into question whether art needs to be an artifact or an object at all. Yet even with 4’33’, it does seem that there is a physical context (either of a CD or a performer seated in front of the audience) that is the art itself rather than simply the silence (silence without this context is not viewed as art). So perhaps we can accept that a physical presence of some sort is required for something to be art.

But not any physical experience or object is art (obviously). What distinguishes the computer I’m typing on from a work of art? Or is my lovely little Macbook Air a work of art (the answer is of course yes)? A few possible answers include beauty, communication of or embodiment of emotions, mimetic properties, or aesthetic experience. Beauty is fairly easy to take off the table as many works of art are disturbing, grotesque or straight out ugly intentionally. Perhaps there is a kind of beauty in the emotions we experience in relation to this art, but at least conventionally, beauty is not the mark of a great number of amazing works of art (this also has the problem that beauty is nearly impossible to define).

Art as communication appears to be faring better until you hit something like Duchamp’s Fountain or John Cage’s 4’33”, both of which appear to be anti-communication and simply designed to make one think. A great deal of modern art appears to be less focused on emotional and experiential communication and more on criticism and engagement, and there is little doubt for most people that modern art is in fact art. Additionally, this definition may be too broad in other ways in that it could include any expression of emotion (such as declaring one’s happiness). Additionally, not all art communicates: some art is simply representational (or may only be experienced as representational by the untrained eye). Could the Mona Lisa become not art if viewed by someone who simply saw it as a representation of a woman? It seems unlikely. There does seem to be something important in the communication view of art that should be included in any definition of art: it is intentional on the part of the artist. The viewer may not take away from the art exactly what the artist intended (as is true of any communication), but there is a give and take in art: it is put forth by someone and received by someone.

“A storm may prompt us to question the best way to avoid a shipwreck, but it is we (and not the storm) who are raising the question.” -Charles Taliaferro, Aesthetics, A Beginner’s Guide. This suggests that the object or artifact in question doesn’t have any properties that are “art”, but the viewer is imbuing the object with art qualities.

Some people go so far as to suggest that a work of art can actually embody emotions. They suggest that even if no one involved in the work of art (the creator or the viewer) were feeling any particular emotion, it would still hold that emotion (e.g. Joy for Ode to Joy). From the perspective of modern neuroscience, emotions as we know them are a uniquely human kind of thing: they are experienced thanks to the reactions in our brains and the physical reactions of our bodies. To suggest that an inanimate object might embody a human experience makes little to no sense. This suggests another piece of the definition of art: it is not inherent in the object but comes about through the interactions of the artist and the audience.

A great deal of art clearly has mimetic properties: it is meant to represent or reflect something in the world. Unfortunately this definition can’t handle abstract art, or even art like Fountain which is not so much a representation as it actually is the object it’s meant to represent. But there are some ways in which all art seeks to represent something. “Works of art function more like different linguistic statements that reference objects, rather than mirrors that offer us a reflection of what we might otherwise see directly without the aid of a mirror.” -Charles Taliaferro, Aesthetics, A Beginner’s Guide

It seems there might be a Wittgensteinian route to take here in the realm of language games: “A common family of arguments, inspired by Wittgenstein’s famous remarks about games (Wittgenstein, 1953), has it that the phenomena of art are, by their nature, too diverse to admit of the unification that a satisfactory definition strives for, or that a definition of art, were there to be such a thing, would exert a stifling influence on artistic creativity.” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). 

In a Wittgensteinian conception of language, words do not have singular definitions but a series of ways that we use them in context that are considered successful if someone else can respond (deduce the rules of the game as it were). Perhaps in art we use images or symbols or context to put together a kind of artistic utterance that the people around us can interpret based on the other ways that those things have been used in the past, learned from a family of common definitions.

So perhaps there is no one clear definition of art, and we learn what art is by experiencing art and continuing that definition on to other things with similar characteristics, not all of which overlap. This also seems unsatisfactory, so let’s instead move to the definition that started all this: aesthetic experience.

The first and most difficult question to answer is what is an aesthetic experience? Taliaferro suggests “To have an aesthetic experience, one needs to step back or detach oneself from the urgency and practical preoccupations of life.” The Stanford Encyclopedia further states “As noted above, some philosophers lean heavily on a distinction between aesthetic properties and artistic properties, taking the former to be perceptually striking qualities that can be directly perceived in works, without knowledge of their origin and purpose, and the latter to be relational properties that works possess in virtue of their relations to art history, art genres, etc.”

There is some tension between these two definitions: one suggests something that takes us out of ourselves and the other something that inspires a reaction due to perception. There is a problem with both of these suggestions though, in that either of them could happen in reaction to something in nature with no reference to an artist, communication, or context.

But since the concept of the aesthetic necessarily involves the equally bankrupt concept of disinterestedness, its deployment advances the illusion that what is most real about things can and should be grasped or contemplated without attending to the social and economic conditions of their production.” -Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

An additional problem here is that there are actually many practical objects that also could be considered art (Shaker furniture, African masks, religious icons), and because they can also be used practically we would be hard pressed to suggest they pull us out of our immediate practical preoccupations. Perhaps there is a way to combine the two definitions: an aesthetic experience is one that through striking qualities moves us outside of our own perspective. This gives us the benefits of not simply asking us to be disinterested but of asking us to expand our view, and of being slightly more specific than either of the previous definitions.

So thus far, art must be an artifact that is imbued with some sort of communicative properties through an artist and a viewer/recipient, which inspires us to move outside of our own perspective through perceptually striking qualities. Oof. That’s a mouthful, but it seems to be both specific and broad enough to capture most of the things we typically consider art.

A final few considerations to take into account: there are probably contexts in which a curator can become an artist by moving an object or a picture to a different context. They add in the communicative elements that wouldn’t exist simply by seeing something stunning in nature and being aware of your size or place in the world. The problem with this is that context can often be intensely political. When we view art as defined by the “artworld” (which is a definition some philosophers have proposed), we give a lot of power to the establishment of old, white men who already have power in art. We lose a variety of voices and tell those who come from different places that they cannot make art because they don’t have access to the proper curators or contexts. Hopefully, the previous definition is open enough that it allows a variety of contexts to serve as the vehicle for communication, opening art up for anyone who has something to communicate or anyone who wants to expand their perception.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any pieces of art that wouldn’t fit in this definition, or things that you definitively don’t think are art which would fit? Let me know!

Assorted Questions and Thoughts

Fear: sometimes fear is incredibly helpful. Fear has helped me get my shit together for moving to a new country. Unfortunately fear is also making me want to grab all my friends and throw them into a cuddle puddle and curl up in a little ball under all of them and never move again. Sometimes fear is based on reality (there are some threats to me in moving to a new country and so I need to take precautions) and sometimes it goes crazy and gets out of hand and convinces me that I’m probably being chased by a fucking bear when I’m actually just sitting at work typing. I suppose there should be easy ways to tell when fear makes sense and when it does (look for bears: no bears? Good to go.) And yet that doesn’t make my heart stop pounding and my ears stop ringing. Where did evolution go wrong?

Rightness: Most people think that the beliefs they hold are right (or they wouldn’t hold them. I suppose some people hold beliefs because they feel comforted or they want those beliefs to be right, but generally a requirement for belief is thinking something is true). And yet the likelihood that any of us have 100% correct beliefs is pretty much 0. How do we move forward and act in the world knowing that in all likelihood some (if not most) of our beliefs are incorrect? We probably don’t know which ones are the wrong ones or we’d have changed them. We may not even be able to know which are incorrect. What is the best course of action in this situation? I think somewhere in here lies the difference between “faith” of the religious variety and belief. Faith does not look for more information to constantly update its worldview. It has its conclusion and it’s done. I think it is possible to have faith of this type in nonreligious settings. Belief ideally is a temporary condition. You think you know something and you operate off of it but you seek out new and better information.

Yesterday I was talking to my therapist about anxiety and thinking that I would crash and burn in Ireland and fall back into really nasty depression. She looked at me and listed some of the stuff I’ve managed to do in the last two years: take a year off of school despite thinking it meant I’d never accomplish anything, survive a job that I hated every moment of while dealing with intense anxiety, boredom, and depression for 8 hours uninterrupted each day, quitting that job to take a lower paying job, not having any idea where my future is going or what I want out of my life, actually forcing myself to be social despite huge anxieties and making a good circle of friends…the more she listed the more I realized that even just thinking about many of these things now they sound impossible. But I did them. I don’t know that I can call myself “recovered” but perhaps “in recovery” (I hate these terms) and I never, ever, ever thought that that was a possibility and still don’t entirely believe it. But once she pointed out how much I had survived and even thrived through, the more I realized that recognizing that isn’t just about feeling good about myself or patting myself on the back, it’s more about knowing that I can do it and if I’ve done it all once then I can do it again. The fear still exists, but there is knowledge underneath it now that I have succeeded before and that is comforting.

I wish that there were ways to fulfill more kinds of attraction with different people. In the past week I’ve felt serious romantic, sensual, intellectual, aesthetic, and friendly attraction to a variety of different people. In my experience we have two potential words for all of these (plus sexual) attraction: dating or friends. There are some slight variations on these (friends with benefits, casually dating, married), but overall there’s either “sexy/romantic” or “friendly”. I like labels and maybe there’s no reason to label these things, but I think it’s nice to understand what’s fulfilling about different relationships and let people know that they have a priority in your life. I also like to be able to have a template for interacting with people: dating type interactions are different from friend type interactions, and I do different things in them, and different things are considered baseline acceptable. If there were a word for “you’re my brain crush” maybe there would be more clear ways to move forward with fulfilling the need for deep conversation or intellectual interaction. As it is you kind of let someone know you want to be around them in some fashion or other but the only further specification  you might be able to give is “I have a crush on you” which implies romantic/sexual things. I just like to be able to place people in my own network and have clarity about my own feelings and the feelings of others.

One of the things that scares me most about myself is that I am often positioned socially as “smarter than”. I really have no idea if I’m actually smarter than most of the people that I know but people keep telling me I am. I hate writing about things like this because I sound intensely vain, but the purpose of this paragraph is not “I’m so smart!!!” it’s that it’s fairly isolating to be in that position, and as I’ve written before it often leads to inadvertently saying things that others interpret as making them look stupid (or things that really are truly insensitive because others don’t accomplish as quickly as I do or don’t understand in the way I do). But yesterday I was talking to someone who hates feeling less smart than others. I think this is far more common: few people like feeling stupid or uninformed. I feel like there are parallels to some of the other things I’ve mentioned: situations where we know that fear or our beliefs might be ill-informed, but there’s no right way out. In this case, we all know that there probably has to be a “smarter” person in any given interaction but no one wants to be on either side of it. Perhaps this is a place for radical acceptance. There will always be some discomfort in uneven situations but we don’t have to infer bad intentions or judgment because of that discomfort. There have been some classrooms in which I haven’t felt uncomfortable when I know more than others or others know more than I do as the atmosphere is one of sheer curiosity. I don’t know how to promote this kind of environment in other places, but this gives me hope that it’s possible.

I’ve noticed that most people I talk to about philosophical/existential type questions typically view them as abstract exercises which might have some impact on the way they live their life if they come to a fairly solid conclusion that demands action of some sort. This is not what philosophy is like for me. I feel it emotionally, as important to the meaning of my life. I’ve always wondered why this is the case, and I’ve imagined that it’s probably just to do with mental illness. However I had a realization today that on a regular basis I have to question my own sensory perception. I cannot see my body accurately: I have some pretty severe distortions in my body image and I often find myself legitimately confused about whether or not I’m horribly overweight or underweight or normal. It can shift hour to hour whether I can see my body remotely accurately. And so most days I’m uncertain about whether I’m seeing reality. This makes questions of coming to logical conclusions rather than conclusions based on observation far more pressing to me. Every day I am faced with the philosophical quandary of whether or not external reality is there and what I think it is. I emotionally feel the deep confusion of looking at something and wondering if it’s just my mind playing tricks on me. I don’t know that there is a conclusion to this thought, but it’s illuminating to realize that some people can emotionally experience what for others are thought experiments. Perhaps it is a starting point for increased empathy, but perhaps it also suggests that those who do face these questions in their daily lives may have more insight into the situation (just as we tend to prioritize women’s voices in understanding women’s experiences or queer voices in understanding queer experiences). At the very least, it suggests that there might be more ways to do philosophy than through logic and thought experiments.

My Body Is My Self

dualism-2

I have a fiery hatred for Cartesian dualism. There are well documented problems with dualism, and modern neuroscience indicates a close relationship between the physical aspects of the brain and the subjective experiences of the mind. Being embodied can really suck sometimes (trust me, I have an eating disorder), but one of the important elements of being mentally healthy for me is accepting not only that I have a body but that in many ways I am my body.

I recently posed the question to a friend “if you were removed from your body and put into a robot, would you still be you?” I suggest no, as the ways that I can think of to define self nearly all rely on bodily experiences: our actions, our thoughts, our feelings, our values. These things are all highly dependent on what we sense and how we sense, and are affected by the ways that our bodies work. A well fed body acts, thinks, and feels differently than a hungry body. These experiences of being dependent on something that is changeable and fallible seem to be an essential part of being human.

Even when we think of the memories and narratives that we have, our bodies are essential to a sense of self. Memories are often sensory experiences, dependent on what we perceived and the emotions elicited in the moment. There’s evidence that smell is more connected to memory than other senses, which points towards the idea that our memories are colored by both our fallible and finite brains, and the ways that our body is capable of processing an experience. Even the stories that we tell about ourselves are highly influenced by our bodies, if only because our social position is affected by our weight and height and strength and gender presentation. It’s easy to imagine that our concept of selfhood is entirely abstract or mental, but most of our emotions are experienced physically, and things like stress or relaxation are very physical, embodied experiences.

All of this is to say that I’m firmly convinced that me, Olivia, is not simply my conscious experience, but my conscious experience as situated in this body, and that if I were to be transplanted there would be a pivotal change in my essential identity. I’m not entirely sure what this means as far as continuity of identity or whether or not we can really assert that we have an underlying self that continues to exist through all our experiences except insofar as we have memories and stories, but that’s not the focus for today.

Instead, I want to talk about sex.

Some people are totally down with casual sex, and this post is not for them. This post is about why (at least for me and probably some other people too) sex can seem so intimate and personal, why it seems so vulnerable, and why for some people it feels violating. One of the reasons that I am starting to consider labeling myself “sex-averse” is because of the highly intertwined nature of self and body. I trust very few people with the more intimate parts of myself. Sure, I’m open about the fact that I have an eating disorder, and I write about my experiences here, but in person there are many, many things I don’t talk about often. Many of these things are embodied experiences: sexual assault, self harm, purging. My experience of my body is one of pain, and more often than not it is a solitary experience because these things are shameful.

It is deeply embarrassing and terrifying to me to let that side of me be real, to actually be quiet and vulnerable in my body. My body is puke and blood and tears and snot. That is not the intimacy I want. I can grudgingly accept that those things are a part of me, but I don’t want to dwell on them or revel in them. It’s possible that at some point in the future my body will become something else to me: strength or grace. But those elements, those animal elements, the things that we cannot control will always be an essential part of having a body and of sharing that body.

For many other people, discomfort with sex is about judgment. It’s easy to write this off as the same kind of fear of judgment we have when we’re going to the beach and showing more skin than usual, or when we’re spending some serious one on one time with someone. I tend to think it’s more than that though, which is where questions of dualism come in. I’m sure some people are fairly capable of bifurcating self from body (although I also am fairly sure that this is somewhat illusory for the reasons presented above). But I think that some of us feel the “me”ness of our bodies more: we feel intimately that my body is not simply something that belongs to me or a bit of meat that carries me around, but is in fact an integral part of how I experience the world and what makes up my worldview.

I feel this quite thoroughly when I am in sexual situations, and that’s a major part of why they are so intimate to me. I am not simply sharing pleasure with someone or sharing my body with someone: I am sharing one of the most essential elements of self with another person, the part of me that is my only way of connecting to the world. This is perhaps why all physical contact is intimate to me in a way that speaking is or writing is not: it demands that I am present.

And because allowing another person to experience your body is so close to letting them experience you (just as having a serious, deep conversation is, or showing them something you care deeply about is), it becomes so much more rife with potential judgment than other situations, and when judgment occurs it is much more painful. It feels far more like a rejection of self than many other circumstances.

Perhaps all of this is overthinking things, but I think it’s too easy to write off our bodies as simple mechanisms that allow us to feel pleasure and pain, or get from point a to point b. There is so much more to them, so much that is terrifying and disgusting, but also that is intimate, vulnerable, and exciting. For the moment, the selfhood of my body makes me want to shy away from physical contact, but perhaps in the future it will make it more fulfilling. However it ends up interacting with my sexuality, I want to be aware of my body and its role in my self-identity before I gallivant off into the land of sex.

Missed Opportunities: Arguments From Potential and Living Forever

humanpotential

Warning: this is long and rambly and may not have a point, but there are many thoughts that have been swirling around in my mind about the question of potential and its role. Here they are.

Most human beings hate the concept of missing opportunities. It’s a sort of common wisdom that you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did do. I’ve been thinking quite a bit about lost opportunities lately as the large impending move in my future is cutting off a lot of the things that I might like to do in my current life (jobs I’d looked at, relationships that are just starting, volunteering I’d like to do). These things make me incredibly sad, especially the things that I’ve been able to dip my toe into but will have to abandon.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend about living forever. He made some good arguments about all the amazing things that the world offers and the potential experiences that could come from living forever. The finitude of life means that there are always more missed opportunities than taken opportunities and having more time to take more opportunities does sound quite appealing. There may even be some moral impetus to want to live longer in order to take advantage of more of these opportunities. We certainly see that denying someone else of these opportunities (through murder) is untenable. The idea that we should or might want to live longer for the sake of potential things we could experience has a strong pull for many people.

The way that we see potential and potential selves impacts our ethics in all sorts of ways we wouldn’t expect: it’s most often applied to things like stem cell research or abortion, but it also affects how we should live our lives and whether we should want to live forever and the sadness that is appropriate to making choices. To live consistently and logically within our ethical systems, we should be aware of the fact that questions of potential reach far further than the stark examples that involve life and death.

We like to use arguments from potential: we use them against abortion and suicide, we use them for living forever. Emotionally, they speak to us: “what if” we ask ourselves. But we miss opportunities all the time. Every moment is wasted potential and there is no way to make that up. Every decision we make is choosing not to make a different decision, closing other doors. At any given point in time there is an infinite number of things we could be doing: infinite potential. Sure some infinities are larger than other infinities, and the potential of a life that goes on forever is larger than my current lifespan, but at any given moment we have an impossible number of things we could be doing (and even if we do live forever, the infinity of things we could do will always be larger than the things we will do).

If we were to be morally consistent we would have to feel intense guilt every time we choose not to do something, which would be nearly every second of every day (as an example I am currently choosing not to go do my workout because I’m blogging instead, not to go in to work because it’s my day off, and not to eat more lunch because I’m lazy. These are all good reasons, but I could be doing any number of things right now that I’m not. I don’t feel guilty about that).

Every decision we make removes potential other decisions and actions. When we suggest that we need to maximize potential we are arguing for indecisiveness. There is no way to do all the things. it implies we should feel guilty every time we make a decision that cuts off another decision. While some people have no problem with the idea of a moral obligation that is unattainable, I find the idea a bit distasteful. Beyond that, we have good reasons to be suspicious of arguments from potential through the debates on abortion. We don’t generally confer rights or moral imperatives based on potential (the potential president does not demand the same respect the actual president does), and there are all sorts of negative potentials as well.

So how do we understand the strong, visceral reactions we have to many arguments about potential (for example in the case of suicide or murder) in conjunction with the fact that most of our lives are made up of lost potential? Are there other ethical issues at play in most of the cases that we feel rely on potential? How do we understand the regret of missing potential in an ethical context? Is there any ethical impetus in our lives that should be driven by potential?

Let’s look for a moment at suicide, since questions about the end of life throw potential into the harshest light, but suicide does not have the added difficulty that abortion or murder does of one individual interfering with another individual’s choices.

One of the arguments against suicide is that it deprives society of the individual’s contributions and deprives the individual’s potential future selves of life (in the case that they would change their mind). We generally see suicide as a waste of potential, as an individual not seeing all of the things that their life could hold. Most people think that we should probably at least try to convince a suicidal individual to look at all the potential in their life, and some assert that we have a right to interfere. We see the future life and potential actions of individuals as things to be protected.

To counter that:

“Libertarianism typically asserts that the right to suicide is a right of noninterference, to wit, that others are morally barred from interfering with suicidal behavior. Some assert the stronger claim that the right to suicide is a liberty right, such that individuals have no duty not to commit suicide (i.e., that suicide violates no moral duties), or a claim right, according to which other individuals may be morally obliged not only not to interfere with a person’s suicidal behavior but to assist in that behavior. (See the entry on rights.)”

“Another rationale for a right of noninterference is the claim that we have a general right to decide those matters that are most intimately connected to our well-being, including the duration of our lives and the circumstances of our deaths. On this view, the right to suicide follows from a deeper right to self-determination, a right to shape the circumstances of our lives so long as we do not harm or imperil others (Cholbi 2011, 88–89). As presented in the “death with dignity” movement, the right to suicide is the natural corollary of the right to life. That is, because individuals have the right not to be killed by others, the only person with the moral right to determine the circumstances of a person’s death is that person herself and others are therefore barred from trying to prevent a person’s efforts at self-inflicted death.”

-all from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

While arguments from potential against suicide seem to make an intuitive sense, it’s important to remember that individuals are allowed to have preferences and choices about their own potential.  The idea that someone should be obligated to act out all their potential makes no sense when we think about the vastness of potential in our lives.

When we look at the question of immortality and whether we should seek immortality, people seem far less invested in the question of whether or not we are cutting short our potential. The difference appears to be active interruption of potential vs. simply not encouraging potential (leaving a place with all the potentials that organically would grow if you were to stay there vs. actively working to create more time and space to live out potentials). Do we have an obligation to not actively cut short our potential? Perhaps.  Perhaps it is important to have some sense of the amazing number of possibilities that our life contains and discards, some way to motivate ourselves to continue trying and expanding and growing. Perhaps an awareness of all the amazing things we could be doing will give us some hope for the future and prevent something like suicide.

Of course suicide is the ultimate question of cutting off potential. But going home and taking a nap instead of going out into the world and doing MORE THINGS is like a tiny suicide in terms of its impact on potential. This is again, making an active choice not to live out your full potential. Should we shame those who choose to do less active things in their lives, or who choose to do the same things over and over again? Should those people feel guilty for wasting their lives and their potential? Doesn’t the emphasis on potential put an undue amount of pressure on each human being to never be quiet, engage in self care, rest? Don’t we lose some element of enjoyment in what we are actually doing by putting an ethical value on the things we could be doing?

I don’t know that we can ever entirely discount the importance of being aware of the size of the world and the amazing possibilities that we ourselves contain, but I will leave you all with this thought:

“Time is like wax, dripping from a candle flame. In the moment, it is molten and falling, with the capability to transform into any shape. Then the moment passes, and the wax hits the table top and solidifies into the shape it will always be. It becomes the past — a solid single record of what happened, still holding in its wild curves and contours the potential of every shape it could have held.

It is impossible — no matter how blessed you are by luck, or the government, or some remote, invisible deity gently steering your life with hands made of moonlight and wind — it is impossible not to feel a little sad, looking at that bit of wax, that bit of the past. It is impossible not to think of all the wild forms that wax now will never take.

The village, glimpsed from a train window — beautiful and impossible and impossibly beautiful on a mountaintop, then you wondered what it would be if you stepped off the moving train and walked up the trail to its quiet streets and lived there for the rest of your life. The beautiful face of that young man from Luftnarp, with his gaping mouth and ashy skin, last seen already half-turned away as you boarded the bus, already turning towards a future without you in it, where this thing between you that seemed so possible now already, and forever, never was.

All variety of lost opportunity spied from the windows of public transportation, really.

It can be overwhelming, this splattered, inert wax recording every turn not taken.

“What’s the point?” you ask.

“Why bother?” you say.

“Oh, Cecil,” you cry. “Oh, Cecil.”

But then you remember — I remember — that we are, even now, in another bit of molten wax. We are in a moment that is still falling, still volatile — and we will never be anywhere else. We will always be in that most dangerous, most exciting, most possible time of all: the now. Where we never can know what shape the next moment will take.”

-Welcome to Nightvale