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Philosophy of Love, Sex, and MarriageReview - Philosophy of Love, Sex, and Marriage
An Introduction
by Raja Halwani
Routledge, 2010
Review by Christian Perring
Aug 3rd 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 31)

Raja Halwani's Philosophy of Love, Sex and Marriage surveys the philosophical discussion of love, sex, and marriage, and argues for a relatively liberal and pragmatic set of views.  The book is divided into three sections corresponding to the three topics in the title.  The four chapters on love tend to be a little dry, but argue that love is tied to reasons for loving, that in a loving relationship we still remain autonomous rather than becoming joined to the other person, and that love is not necessary for a good life.  The four chapters on sex provide clear discussions of the nature of sex, the connections between sex and morality, and then especially clear discussions of sexual objectification (arguing that pornography is not necessarily objectifying) and perversion (arguing that no proposed definitions of perversion are successful).  The final two chapters on marriage build an argument for possibly the most controversial claim of the book (for contemporary philosophers, that is): he spells out the rather obvious flaws in arguments against same-sex marriage, but then argues that we would be better off if marriage as an institution faded away.  Throughout, his summaries of the views of others are clear and concise, his criticisms of others are plausible, and his own views are interesting.  The language discussing sex in the book is straightforward, without being unnecessarily explicit, although occasionally the careful philosophical discussion of varieties of sex acts and their meanings is unintentionally humorous. 

In this review, I will focus on a few issues.  First, reason-based love.  Halwani argues that we love people for a reason: there are features of people that we love, and that is why we love the person.  He contrasts his view with a more Christian view of love, that we can love people for no reason, and that in particular, God can love people no matter how bad or flawed they are.  He calls this agapic love.  He makes a good case that reason-based love is a better model of human romantic love than agapic love, especially when he points out that we can account for cases where the beloved changes and no longer has the virtues for which he or she was originally loved, and yet the lover still has a reason to love him or her.  However, this account of love still seems overly rationalistic: in many cases, falling in love is not done for reasons, and it makes more sense to talk of the causes of love.  The main rivals to the reasons-based theory come not from theology but from biology, attachment theory and even psychoanalysis.  Konrad-Lorenz showed that some young geese imprint on a stimulus within a day of hatching.  John Bowlby summarized data showing how different forms of attachment between infants and mothers are made depending on the quality of the nurturing and the psychological fit between the infant and the mother.  Psychoanalytic theory emphasized how we can be quite unaware of the real reasons why we are attracted to others romantically, and depth psychology often speculates that people fall in love with others because they are (unconsciously) trying to resolve problems in relationships they had with their parents, and so will find partners who resemble their parents.  These considerations suggest that it may make more sense to talk of causes of love rather than reasons.  The reasons that people state for their love may be epiphenomenal, and they will give reasons that they think that people want to hear: it will be rare for someone to volunteer that they love their partner because she duplicates the faults of their mother.  Halwani has at least two options in accommodating this sort of observation: he could insist that only reasons-based love is really love, so imprinting and non-reason-based attachment don't count as love.  Alternatively, he could expand his notion of reason (which he does not explain much) to include those factors that influence one's emotions -- i.e. causes.  It is not clear which is the better option.  But these considerations certainly need addressing, because any account of love at least needs to address the accounts of attachment from biology and psychology.

Next some comment on sexual objectification.  Halwani makes a strong case that most arguments against thinking about people sexually are question-begging, assuming without proving that to sexualize a person is to deprive them of their dignity.  He argues that in many cases, to think of another person sexually or to depict sexual acts is not perniciously objectifying per se, although particular kinds of thought or representation may be problematic.  This follows quickly from his claim that it is how a person is treated that objectifies them, not how they are viewed or thought of.  He insists that when two people have casual sex, it is not necessarily objectifying or dehumanizing: it can be just a matter of two people enjoying each other, and the fact that they are having sex does not make their activities any more morally problematic.  Halwani does a very nice job of refuting the assumption made by Kant, some conservatives and some feminists, that one cannot take a sexual view of humans at the same time as seeing them endowed with dignity.  He does note that sexual desire is especially powerful in its ability to subvert our rationality, so there is reason to be suspicious of sexual desire, but this does not mean we need to conclude it completely robs us of rationality. 

All of this is extremely plausible.  Indeed, one would have to have strong independent beliefs about the inherently problematic nature of non-loving sexual relationships to deny the possibility of good casual sex where both people respect each other's humanity.  It hardly seems that such a view would be worth taking seriously, (outside of some sort of religious perspective, if one can take religion seriously).  The real issue is what conditions have to be in place for such casual sex to be non-objectifying and non-dehumanizing.  For example, Halwani generally writes as if prostitution can be an entirely pleasant transaction for both parties, comparable to hiring a plumber or a masseuse as an exchange of services for money.  Similarly, Halwani argues that there is nothing inherently dehumanizing about performing in a porn video.  Maybe he is right about this, but it does not make it any less true that many people would find prostitution or appearing in a porn video to be especially dehumanizing, and most people would only do it as a last resort.  To an extent at least, the fact that selling one's body for sexual purposes is seen as bad thing is self-perpetuating.  We might see women who do this as sluts, and it is likely that our attitudes will be shared by the women who work in the sex industry.  That's to say, the low valuation of the activities may not necessarily derive from the activity itself, but rather from mere prejudice.  This seems to be Halwani's basic view.  He spends no time talking about the actual conditions of workers in the sex industry, the rates of drug addiction, exploitation, the role of pimps, the correlation between being a sex worker and having suffered sexual abuse, or rates of STDs.  So while Halwani may have won the conceptual point, there's still a major gap in his analysis, and his general attitude of minimizing the problems of the sex industry seems problematic.  Similarly, he tends to pay brief attention to feminist analyses of society, and when he does, his attitude tends to be that things are not so bad now as they used to be, so we don't need to worry so much about those concerns. 

It is true that our society has changed a great deal and it may even be that the conditions of the sex industry have improved.  In some other countries, it seems that the sex industries are full of exploitation and are dangerous for sex workers.  Halwani would still have helped his discussion by spelling out how to weigh the relevance of these factors.  My sense is the weakest point of his argument comes in his dismissing the cultural meanings of being a sex worker.  If I understood his argument correctly, he takes the view that these are irrelevant to issues of dehumanization and objectification.  It is possible to fight against the meaning that our culture assigns to various sexual activities, but it isn't easy.  Halwani argues that most mainstream porn basically depicts people enjoying sex, but this seems simplistic.  The meaning of porn is not straightforward, but one standard feature of modern porn that was not present 30 years ago is the facial.  Here the male ejaculates onto the woman's face.  In some more specialist scenes, many men all ejaculate onto one woman, or may even shoot into a glass which the woman then drinks.  In some of these scenes, the woman expresses enjoyment while in others she expresses discomfort or even shame.  What's going on here?  Maybe it is something innocent, such as a fantasy that male ejaculate tastes great.  However, it is more plausible (to me at least) that there's a strong element of humiliation here.  If that's right, then one of the central aspects of modern pornography is about humiliating women, and thus it is about power.  There are plenty of other codes in modern porn which suggest similar conclusions -- some of which Halwani discusses himself.  However, he draws a distinction between what it depicts and what it endorses, and claims that the only attitude that mainstream endorses is that "sex is pleasurable and we want the viewer to find it pleasurable." (218).  He goes on to argue that pornography is all surface, so there is no room for hidden meanings or deeper messages.  But this seems wrong.  It may be that a porn movie cannot say that it is about the degradation of women, but that having a facial as a stable scene is a way of endorsing the message that women are sexual objects to be used.  As a matter of hermeneutics, there may be no simple way to prove this is the meaning, but Halwani's supposed proof that this is not the meaning is unconvincing.  This sort of concern cannot be so easily batted off, and it is one of the main reasons that mainstream pornography remains troubling.     

We live in a culture where most people do attach meanings of dirty, slut, whore, and bitch to women who sell their bodies.  This can't simply be bracketed away from our interpretation of porn.  One might see this as a question of who has the burden of proof.  Halwani is trying to shift it onto the feminists, in suggesting that it is up to them to show we can only understand porn as an approving expression of the domination and humiliation of women, and further, that there's almost no way that porn is a rich enough form to carry such an implicit message.  However, given that the West has for most of its history been a very patriarchal culture, and many non-Western cultures are still very patriarchal, the idea that we can forget about all those concerns about power seems like wishful thinking.  That's not to say there could not be intentionally non-demeaning pornography, but it needs to be flagged as such, or else a cloud of suspicion hangs over it. 

Finally, Halwani's discussion of marriage merits addressing.  Of course, he believes that it is discriminatory of society to allow heterosexuals to get married while forbidding gay and lesbian people to do so.  His discussion of the nature of marriage and his criticisms of anti-gay marriage writers (notably that of the "new natural lawyers" such as Robert P. George) are all good.  But that's almost a foregone conclusion -- the idea of a defense of a non-religious state restricting marriage to one man and one woman is so obviously problematic the arguments hardly need spelling out.   It is in interesting question as to whether we should permit polygamous marriages, and whether if we approve gay marriage, we have any principled reason to disapprove of polygamy.  Halwani argues that the issues are largely unrelated, and does not argue in favor of polygamy. 

The really controversial parts come when Halwani discusses arguments against marriage by Claudia Card and Michael Warner.  The main problem with marriage, according to Card, that cannot easily be fixed through legislation is that "Legal marriage ... enlists state support for conditions conducive to murder and mayhem."  If one is simply cohabiting with a person who threatens one's safety, one can move out and take one's life back, but once one is married, one gives up much of one's privacy: As Halwani puts it "one's spouse is entitled to access information, property, and so on belonging to the other spouse" (302).  Michael Warner's arguments against marriage is very different: he argues that queers have a very rich and varied range of possibilities in sexually relating to other people in different ways, and endorsing marriage would tend to restrict that range.  As a culturally important and socially endorsed institution, it elevates one sort of relationship above all others.  Halwani argues that this is fundamentally unfair, because there is no reason to privilege marriage above other sorts of relationships.  As a political matter, he does not think that there is any chance that as a society we will do away with the institution of marriage in the near future, and given that we have marriage, we should allow same-sex marriage, but he still hopes that in the long-term future marriage will fade away. 

Claudia Card seems to be arguing that people would be better off without marriage.  This is hard to evaluate because marriage is such a major institution that it is hard to know what our society would be like without marriage.  It could be better, or it could be worse, depending on what replaces marriage.  We might be able to reduce the amount of violence within relationships if there were no marriage, but it isn't obvious that this would be the case.  It would at least be helpful to have some comparative data with societies showing a link between marriage rates and rates of violence within relationships.  According to one internet source, the rate of marriage is about twice what it is in Sweden.  Is there any reason to think that rates of domestic violence are higher in the US than in Sweden among comparable groups?  No such statistics would settle the issue, but they would at least give us some sense whether Card's claim has a hope of being true.  Similar international comparisons would be helpful in evaluating Warner's claims.  As they stand, the claims of both are far from convincing.  To make a strong case for the pernicious effects of marriage, it is not enough to cobble together some speculative arguments. 

While I have been critical of 3 of Halwani's claims in Philososophy of Love, Sex, and Marriage, it is a provocative and immensely helpful introduction to this area, and I recommend it.



© 2010 Christian Perring        



Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York



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