Archive for the ‘Pursuit of happiness’ Category

Definitions of sex, naturalism and the marriage debate

The definition of sex is surprisingly hard to pin down. There are a few common tropes such as that which produces orgasm or that which is pleasurable. But neither of these will do because sex can be sans orgasm and pleasure can be induced in other ways. One may say it’s the insertion of a penis in certain orifices, but of course this won’t do either for obvious reasons. Consent is also insufficient.

The traditional western definition is the coming together of two distinct individual organisms as one organism for the production of a new life. However, this takes something like a Platonic or Aristotelian realism and a fundamentally teleological view of nature for granted.  This just begs the question: can a society that is essentially naturalistic (i.e. no forms and no teleology) produce a meaningful definition of sex?

The naturalist position is the reverse of the realist position. For the realist, the man as substance is both more real than and is the final cause of his various accidents (such as his appendix for example). This view can most simply be thought of as wholes causing parts. For the naturalist-cum-atomist, atoms are the substance and man is the accident – parts causing wholes. This is the problem of the one or the many. When the naturalist view is fleshed out, not only is the definition of sex problematic but also the principles by which distinct individuals (which are necessary for sexual intercourse) have their being.

Therein is one of the potential sources for confusion in the modern debate regarding sex and marriage. The cart has gone well and truly before the horse; the question of the morality of sex must be subsequent to inquiry into the nature of sex itself. We don’t know what to do with sex and by extension marriage, simply because as a society the west has no understanding of what these things are.

Nietzsche: the death of God and cultural criticism


God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

— Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125

“God is dead” – the oft quoted, but seeming as oft misunderstood, idea of Nietzsche. These words are often casually dropped in conversation, as if a soundbite, but rarely does the mournful gravity of Nietzsche’s contention break through.

The mourning comes from recognising the crisis that the death of God will bring upon the individual and  Europe as a whole, and whether Nietzsche meant death as literal or figurative doesn’t change this point. For Nietzsche, when one gives up the credulity of the existence of God, one also necessarily relinquishes one’s right to Christian morality. Furthermore, one is left with a universe absent of objective values and truth – a disorderly place that at first glace seems to evoke the only natural response of nihilism. Nietzsche’s solution to this nihilistic tendency was the ubermensch and his will to power.

Thus arises Nietzsche’s vehement criticism of “the herd”. Nietzsche saw the popular culture as embracing the false Christian morality in order to avoid the use of their own will. As Marx held that religion holds man back from the sanctity of his labour, so Nietzsche criticises the herd for holding back the rise of the ubermensch, culminating in their own damnation.

Karl Marx on religion


Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

– A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right


Religion is the impotence of the human mind to deal with occurrences it cannot understand.


Marx’s view of religion was complex. On the one pole, Marx recognised that man uses religion as a tool to deal with real suffering. On the other pole, Marx saw religion as a weapon of the bourgeoisie – a kind of “chain with illusory flowers”.

While he may have acknowledged what he viewed as the analgesia of religion, ultimately Marx contended that religion had no place in the new communist society. According to Marx, religion is made by man as a type of unreality. While labour in the material world has the power to transform and humanise the labourer, religion offers no such benefit. Marx argued to the contrary that religion causes man to turn away from his labours and embrace phantoms.

Marx encourages his followers to disillusion themselves of religious unreality and take hold of their own existence through the work of their hands and the use of their senses. Marx’s attitude towards religion is typical of the Enlightenment thinkers that preceded him (such as Voltaire, Comte and Rousseau) and would be continued through the philosophy of the likes of Nietzsche and Freud.

Marx on labour and the nature of man

indexI have discussed previously the contrasting theories of Kierkegaard and Hegel in regards to the progress of man. According to Hegel, man advances through the recognition of both his own self-consciousness and the consciousness of other external subjects, resulting in a type of idealistic communal spirit called the zeitgeist. Kierkegaard, contra Hegel, asserted that man progresses by the exercise of his own subjective will. Note that for Hegel what makes man is external and for Kierkegaard internal.

Like Hegel, Marx holds that what humanises man is external. For Hegel and Marx, a man will distinguish between an actual and potential self. This process leads to internal alienation causing the actual self to fashion its potential self into an object to be attained. For Hegel, this involves the information of the idealistic spirit; however for Marx the process is composed of the transformation of material objects by human labour. Per Marx, man is homo faber, a being that is rendered fully human through his influence on the concrete natural world.

The reasons for Marx’s socialist politics follow from his view of human nature. The loss of a man’s labour is equivalent to the loss of the means by which he makes himself human. Marx saw capitalism as the method by which the bourgeoisie controlled the means of production; allowing them to literally steal the humanity of those whose labour provided their income.

Auguste Comte and positivism

Auguste_Comte2Auguste Comte (1798 – 1857) was a French modern philosopher. Comte was born towards the end of the French Revolution, and the upheaval of that time would become a large influence on his work. His solution to the lethargy of post-revolutionary France was the development of his social theory of the “Religion of Humanity”, which would eventually be succeeded by the post-Enlightenment movement of secular humanism.

Like Hegel and Rousseau, Comte took a tripartite view of the evolution of society. Comte called the first stage of this development the theological stage. This era was marked by three sub-stages of fetishism, polytheism and monotheism. The hallmark of the theological stage is the sluggish progress of a man that is largely shaped by his unquestioning acceptance of the crude beliefs of his ancestors.

The second stage Comte named the metaphysical stage. By metaphysics, Comte is not referring to the philosophical systems of say Plato or Aquinas, but rather to  France prior the revolution when thinkers like Rousseau and Voltaire began to question the dogmas of religion and the monarchy.

Comte’s third epoch was the scientific society. In this final stage, there was no need for appeals to either religion or unprovable metaphysical assertions. In their place, man was to apply the scientific method to his problems in order to reach an informed solution.

To support his utopian scientific society, Comte invented the empirical epistemology usually called positivism, evidentialism or verificationism. According to Comte, the only kind of fact is scientific fact – those that are fully investigable by the modern scientific method and borne out by empirical evidence. In this way, Comte can be considered to have finished the work that Voltaire had started in his criticism of metaphysics.

Comte’s thought was popular in the 19th century and was largely influtential on thinkers such as Marx, Nietzsche and Mill, but began to lose favour when the obvious criticism of positivism as self-vitiating arose. Positivism enjoyed a brief rebirth in the early 21st century in the work of science popularisers such as Richard Dawkins.


Jeremy Bentham: utilitarianism, humanism and hedonism

Scales_of_justiceJeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) was an English philosopher known for his many proposed social reforms and the ethical system called utilitarianism. His advocated reforms included: the expansion of the freedom of the individual (both socially and economically), gender equality, and the abolition of severe punitive measures such as the death penalty and corporal punishment. While Bentham advocated individual legal rights to support his push for freedom, these rights were based upon positive law (where the state is the ultimate law-giver and law enforcer) rather than the natural law of Aquinas or the natural rights of Locke.

As the basis of his positive law Bentham formulates the axiom “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. In this manner, Bentham combines both hedonism and humanism. Bentham’s utilitarianism is hedonistic insofar as it equates happiness with the experience over pleasure over pain and humanist in that man is the ultimate measure of right and wrong.

There are several obvious criticisms of Bentham’s theories. One is that Bentham has perverted the notion of justice for the individual – typically this censure is furnished with the example that utility is increased when a single man is tortured for the pleasure of many. Some defenders of Bentham’s ethics say that he provided a legal framework in which the individual must be allowed to pursue their own well-being. But at best, this is a social contract that is upheld only by the positive law of the government as opposed to anything in the nature of man himself. As such, what rights the government sees fit to grant it may take away.


Schopenhauer: the world as will


Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) was a German philosopher who became famous for his synthesis of Eastern philosophy with German Idealism. His magnum opus was called The World as Will and Representation, within which Schopenhauer argues that worldly activity is motivated by a will that is perpetually seeking its satisfaction.

Schopenhauer is well known for his acrimonious and acerbic treatment of his idealistic contemporaries, particularly Hegel. While Hegel contended that that human activity was driven by the Zeitgeist – a kind of collective societal consciousness, Schopenhauer opposed the optimistic notion that man as an individual or collectively as a society could reason what is good for him. Like Hobbes, Schopenhauer believed that man was motivated only by his most base and crude desires. Per Schopenhauer, it is this basic will that is the cause of human action.

Schopenhauer’s radical voluntarism is the cornerstone of his pessimistic philosophical outlook. Because the will in Schopenhauer’s thought is so primary over the intellect, it is by its very nature irrational. While the will has its various physical manifestations, in animalia it is seen most clearly as “the will to live” in the contest for continued existence and reproduction.

Despite his pessimism, like most philosophers Schopenhauer had plenty to say regarding how to be happy in one’s earthly life. In this manner, Schopenhauer takes his cues from Eastern philosophy and the Stoics. As the will is a malignant influence on humanity, it follows that happiness is to be achieved via the denial of one’s base desires. It should comes as no surprise that given his metaphysics Schopenhauer was a promoter of the aesthetic lifestyle.