J’Accuse! Dissecting an accusatory comment

I don’t get much time these days to reply to comments as I once did. I used to greatly enjoy responding to comments on MercatorNet, and still miss the discussions and debates.

But ultimately I think my replies were solipsistic. I tried to resist the urge to reply snappily or angrily to insolent or sarcastic replies. I rarely indulged the desire to mock someone for their half-arsed arguments or complete misunderstandings of the issue at hand.  Instead I viewed the comment as an opportunity to check and correct myself, as though I were posing it as a challenge to my own reasoning and beliefs.

Solipsism isn’t always a bad thing. Unfortunately, there are diminishing returns on even the most charitable approach to argument. We must, I think, proceed with the assumption that the commenter will get nothing from the exchange. Only then can we respond freely.

In that vein, reader ayametan posted the following comment in response to my article on religious perspectives on lust:

The consequences of a “lustful” (i.e. natural) life are usually far less than the consequences of not having sex (and here I include mastubation) at all, such as stress, pent-up frustration, boredom, etc., and it removes an outlet for stress.

Sex also plays a crucial bonding role for many couples.

Zac, I find it the epitome of hypocrisy to claim that people who enjoy sex are hedonistic, especially when you work for a Catholic website, and beleive that those of your religion will receive eternal paradise. Nothing I can imagine could be more hedonistic.

Firstly, apologies to ayametan for replying to your comment indirectly. By way of direct reply, it’s clear we disagree on a great deal. Any further elaborations would be contained in the following observations.

The disconsolate reality is that once we adopt an appropriately detached attitude, far too many such comments begin to feel like answers to a question that was never asked. This is not so much a critique of the commenter, but an observation of my own detached response to such comments.

Take the first line for example:

The consequences of a “lustful” (i.e. natural) life are usually far less than the consequences of not having sex (and here I include mastubation) at all, such as stress, pent-up frustration, boredom, etc., and it removes an outlet for stress.

Firstly, I am not a consequentialist. Telling me that the consequences of A are worse than the consequences of B leaves as much unanswered as telling me that I should follow football because it is better than cricket, when really I am uninterested in sport generally.

Therefore we have to ask:

1. Are consequences the only relevant or most relevant factor?

Secondly, I know enough about consequentialism to know that the evaluation of consequences is a vexed question, not only in terms of where to draw the line, but also in terms of how to weigh the relative consequences. It is not self-evident that consequences such as boredom outweigh consequences such as prostitution, for example, but this in turn refers us back to where we draw the line.

Therefore we have to ask:

2.i Where do we draw the line between direct and indirect consequences?

2.ii How do we weight the relative consequences?

Thirdly, the commenter implies an equivalence between the terms “lustful” and “natural”. What is meant by these terms? Do we agree on the definition of either term? Is there an implication that “natural” lends normative weight to the exercise of lust?

Therefore we have to ask:

3. How do we define our key terms? Do we agree on the terms we are using?

Moving on to the next line:

Sex also plays a crucial bonding role for many couples.

I might agree with this, but looking at it critically we have to ask more questions.

4. What is the relationship between sex and lust?

Question 4 is clearly dependent on the answer to question 3.  Question 5 could, if pursued, take us deeper into the various religious systems touched on in my original article:

5. How does bonding relate to the spiritual disciplines contained in the various religions?

I would also envisage question 5 examining in greater depth how these religions deal with the overlap between lust and sex, and how this unfolds through their broader sexual morality.

Moving on to the final paragraph:

Zac, I find it the epitome of hypocrisy to claim that people who enjoy sex are hedonistic, especially when you work for a Catholic website, and beleive that those of your religion will receive eternal paradise. Nothing I can imagine could be more hedonistic.

My first thought is:

6. What is hypocrisy? Does this scenario match actual definitions of hypocrisy?

Followed by:

7. Is this scenario accurate? Does it match my experience and circumstances? Is this a fair accusation?

And then we’re back into the more philosophical domain, which overlaps somewhat with questions 6 and 7, but also with question 3 and maybe others:

8. Am I claiming that enjoyment of sex is hedonistic?

Clearly this question requires answers to question 3 regarding the definition of terms, including now hedonism, as well as question 4 regarding the relationship between sex and lust. We could in fact turn this whole question into a separate subcategory beginning with 8.a. What is hedonism? This would actually be quite pertinent given the concluding assertion:

Nothing I can imagine could be more hedonistic.

The commenter’s accusation that the desire for eternal paradise amounts to hedonism is by no means novel. It is better known in the context of psychological egoism: the claim that all actions, including supposedly altruistic ones, are ultimately selfish. The standard example given in undergrad philosophy courses is that Mother Theresa was not truly selfless, but acted selfishly on the belief that helping others would earn her a heavenly reward.

The accusation is not usually crafted around hedonism, as hedonism is typically described as the belief in pleasure as the only, or primary good, and there is debate over to what degree this belief would facilitate or be compatible with long-term delay of gratification, or with the allegedly hedonistic endorsement of non-hedonistic moral standards.

But as the philosophy teachers will explain, the bigger problem with defining all action as selfish is that it diminishes the descriptive power of the concept itself.  Clearly there are meaningful differences in behaviour for which the terms “selfish” and “selfless” have arisen. It’s all very well to argue that “selfless” is an empty category, but that doesn’t negate the distinction between acts for which those two terms first arose.

If we were to pursue this further, it would lead us to the question:

Q. What do we mean when we say that an action is selfish?

That’s a lot of questions contained within one brief comment. To be fair, my article also left many questions unanswered. But for me it is important that an article be the product of my own best attempts to ask and answer the right questions for myself. Too often, I find that commenters seem to have done little of this work for themselves before attempting a critique.

I think many people comment without realising the questions implicit in their opinions, accusations, and conjectures. It is rare to find someone sincerely asking questions that can be answered, because those who are sincere are either capable of finding the answers for themselves, or else, perhaps, they are more justifiably preoccupied by their own questions and interests.

If nothing else, I think philosophy can give us an appreciation for the immense difficulty of knowing. Confucius put it well:

“When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it – this is knowledge.”

 

 

 

On the virtues of cherry-picking

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Matthew’s extensive comment in response to my Yoga post raised some interesting points and deserves an equally considered reply:

The irony of all this talk of cherry-picking is that the actual picking of cherries is surely a tedious and taxing task that requires the virtues of fortitude (so as to keep going) and temperance (so as to not eat all the cherries straight away).

But I take your point, though I ought to clarify that I never expect anyone to actually take up what I’m advising, whether it be making their own beer or realising that atman is Brahman.

At the same time, I would be remiss in suggesting that I am more virtuous than my contemporaries. So at minimum, I am writing for the pleasure of recognising that some things have a deeper meaning and a greater significance, yoga being one of them.

As the immortal sage Bruce Lee also wrote/quoted/paraphrased: when the wise man points at the moon, the fool sees only the finger.

Now, people can cherry-pick, but we take for granted some element of wisdom in their cherry-picking: that at least they are picking what they want, or at best they are picking something of value to them.

Yet stretching is not easy, it is painful and difficult. Why do people pick it? Have they been told to pick it? Have they been impressed by advocates of stretching who have promised great benefits? Have they tried it and found it deeply satisfying or beneficial?

I suspect the first point is that it (Yoga) looks exotic. In addition it is praised as beneficial. Subsequent experience shows that it is difficult, yet rewarding (either physically rewarding or rewarding in the “hey look at me I’m doing Yoga!” sense).

But in addition, I think we’re all told by multiple sources from an early age that flexibility is important and valuable. It’s a deeply ingrained message that we should aim to be able to touch our toes at any point in life, and Yoga seems to epitomise that goal; like running marathons epitomises fitness and endurance.

I think that the value you are calling ‘cherry-picking’ has likewise been extolled by multiple sources from youth. We idealise it as freedom and autonomy, and respect the person who ‘takes control’ and improves himself through his own choices and actions; who lives a rich and enjoyable life; a person who – importantly – is not bound by anything unpleasant or odious or unwanted.

The virtues extolled by traditional Yoga appear to conflict with this ideal. Few want to cherry-pick “stop picking cherries”, without some promise or other condition of reward. Look at Bikram: he’s incredibly wealthy, powerful, and famous thanks to his physical mastery of Yoga asanas. If he committed himself as fervently to the abstentions and observances, he would not be able to enjoy his wealth, power and fame. But for some reason, people do not look at his physical mastery as an imposition. They don’t look at the opportunity cost of all those hours of stretching and training. They don’t think fearfully of how much laziness and sloth and leisure time he has had to sacrifice. How much enjoyment he has lost and pain he has endured.

So if I may reverse the equation: we are all fools looking at the moon, and we don’t realise we only see it because it has been pointed out to us.

Every religious and spiritual discipline that I have come across contains the same essential points of abstention and observance, discipline and virtue. And in the past, or in the limited circles of religious adherents, exemplars of these disciplines are praised and the benefits of these disciplines are known and understood.

Zhuangzi wrote: Where lusts and desires are deep, the springs of the Heavenly are shallow.

But what the hell are the springs of the Heavenly, and why should I care? My lusts and desires are the backbone of my identity, and the thought of purposefully diminishing them is about as appealing as abandoning friends and family to go live in a tin shed in some godforsaken desert.

Yet the Patanjali Yoga sutra refers to them as “afflictions”:

2.1 Austerity, the study of sacred texts, and the dedication of action to God constitute the discipline of Mystic Union.

2.2 This discipline is practised for the purpose of acquiring fixity of mind on the Lord, free from all impurities and agitations, or on One’s Own Reality, and for attenuating the afflictions.

2.3 The five afflictions are ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and the desire to cling to life.

2.4 Ignorance is the breeding place for all the others whether they are dormant or attenuated, partially overcome or fully operative.

2.5 Ignorance is taking the non-eternal for the eternal, the impure for the pure, evil for good and non-self as self.

2.6 Egoism is the identification of the power that knows with the instruments of knowing.

2.7 Attachment is that magnetic pattern which clusters in pleasure and pulls one towards such experience.

2.8 Aversion is the magnetic pattern which clusters in misery and pushes one from such experience.

2.9 Flowing by its own energy, established even in the wise and in the foolish, is the unending desire for life.

2.10 These patterns when subtle may be removed by developing their contraries.

2.11 Their active afflictions are to be destroyed by meditation.

Clearly Patanjali didn’t understand that the purpose of meditation is actually to heal your body, make you rich, give you peace of mind, and stop you complaining about your employment conditions.

Securing our attachments, defending against our aversions, consolidating our ignorance, and celebrating our egoism: this is the ‘Yoga’ of modern life; – stretching optional.