Review of Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Analysis


Carl Sagan said in his classic television series, Cosmos, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” That line kept coming to mind as I read Roger Scruton’s Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation. If you wish to understand sexual desire, you must first understand human nature. Scruton investigates sexual desire by developing an understanding of its foundation in our lived experience, our first-person perspective. The essential feature of sexual desire in Scruton’s view is its interpersonal nature.

Scruton begins by distinguishing his approach from what could be called the third-person perspective of science, particularly evolutionary science, in its approach to sexuality. Scruton is emphatically not opposed to the scientific approach and accepts as fact humanity’s evolutionary heritage. Humans are animals and can be understood as products of physical, biological, and genetic factors. But this view of human nature does not exhaust everything that can be said about it. Science may look at human behavior and posit explanatory theories without looking into the reasons humans give for their own behavior. But human behavior can also be understood from a first-person perspective and a second-person perspective. Why am I doing what I am doing? Why are you doing what you are doing? And this is the natural way we understand our own behavior and interact with each other. This kind of first-person approach is in the philosophical tradition of phenomenology and Scruton calls this world of lived experience the Lebenswelt, (life-world) a term used by the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl. In another work Scruton has named this approach of seeing one reality in two ways “cognitive dualism”, which he contrasts with ontological dualism. While these two approaches may be largely non-overlapping there are instances in his view where one may intrude onto the other illegitimately. Sociobiology and Freudian psychology are two fields he believes commit this error by attempting to explain away the first-person perspective through excessive reduction.

The experience of sexual desire from this first-person perspective is grounded in the interpersonal encounter. Sexual desire is not merely a need for mechanical stimulation of erogenous zones in the body. It is rather dependent on an awareness of the self-consciousness of another person. The look of desire is imbued with a sense of reflexivity in “me seeing you seeing me”. Further, Scruton takes Hegel’s view that this kind of exchange between two persons is the ultimate basis for self-consciousness, we develop a sense of self when confronted with the otherness of another self. Because of this, sexual desire is tied to our deepest source of self-identity, a point which heightens its moral significance. The body is not unimportant in sexual desire. It is of critical importance. But rather than being the singular focus of sexual desire the body is the way a person is desired. Scruton refers to this as “embodiment”. A body is not desired for its own sake but is desired as the self-conscious person.

Scruton’s phenomenological, first-person perspective is by nature subjective. This is both its strength and weakness. The weakness is that the lived experience it points to is not something accessible by methods of science, with its standards of testability and falsifiability. The account he gives relies on the reader to weigh it against his own lived experience. This may not be as satisfying as the objective features of the world which we can measure, irrespective of who is doing the measuring. But there is no other way to talk about such things. And this is the strength of the approach. The features of the life-world Scruton picks out are not objective but they are, if an accurate description of that experience, incorrigible; your immediate experience cannot be inaccurate about your immediate experience, whatever else it may be inaccurate about. Scruton is at pains to stress that he is not endorsing a completely separate inner world that is only comprehensible to the individual, what Wittgenstein called a “private language”. But he does avail himself of the notion that one’s own first-person perspective is authoritative for that perspective. It may be possible still to be dishonest when communicating that experience to others but it is not possible to be mistaken about immediate experience. That is a strength for his argument if his account is accurate.

If it is true to lived experience that the interpersonal encounter is the core of sexual desire this has certain implications for sexual well-being and morality. And sexual well-being and morality are essentially coincident with each other. Sexual experiences that lack this interpersonal character are at least deficient compared to those that have it. At worst, sexual activities divorced from interpersonal interaction can be harmful to one’s ability to have or enjoy the deeper interpersonal interactions of healthy sexuality. Inferior sexual behavior can be literally impersonal, such as with masturbation, or effectively impersonal, as when a person is treated not as a self-conscious subject but as an object, as with pornography for example.

Scruton arrives at fairly conservative positions on sexual morality and sexuality generally. But his approach is neither theological nor traditional by necessity. He contends that the norms of traditional sexual morality need not be absurd even though there may be no God who forbids them. But although his approach is not theological it is not atheistic either. Rather, he seeks to build a logical argument for sexual morality independent of theology and tradition, though he admits that these are the means through which they are almost always learned in practice. Though he does not put it this way explicitly it could be said that he is getting behind the norms of theology and tradition to illuminate the reasons for them; God’s reasons for willing what He wills, as one scholar has put it.

This gets to what I see as the value of this kind of investigation. No one needed a philosopher to tell them that sexuality is important. But beyond that fact there is a lot of confusion about the role of sex in human life. It is not clear that reliance on tradition or theology will any longer be adequate for various reasons. For one thing, both religion and tradition are open to challenge. The multiplicity of religions and traditions in a globalized world are also incompatible and lead to different conclusions. For example, both monogamy and female genital mutilation are traditionally and religiously enjoined, but I believe the second of these is horribly wrong. There needs to be some way to understand sexuality and communicate about it across different religions and traditions. A philosophical investigation, working down to the first-person human experience is a method to start from something as general, but foundational, as human nature and understand sexuality in that context.