You’re going to think me very immature, but when I first saw the headline: “Alain de Botton to make highbrow porn” I cursed the editor responsible for such an intentionally ambiguous phrase. The part of my brain that makes sense out of words leapt to the conclusion that Alain de Botton was embarking on a career in pornography devoted to the niche audience of people who have, or are attracted to, high brows. Meanwhile the part of my brain that turns ideas into visual imagination quietly and decisively shut itself down.
De Botton, a best-selling Swiss-British essayist and pop philosopher, does have a very high brow. The prominence of the brow, with its implications of prefrontal cortical brilliance, enjoys a healthy philosophical provenance, as illustrated in this famous portrait of Immanuel Kant. The brow is high, for ‘tis where the extra brains are kept. Kant’s eyes are narrowed, no doubt in grim determination as he bears the great burden of being so much smarter than everyone else.
I’m no phrenologist, but it’s pretty clear from the shape of his head that de Botton is not aiming to lord his intellect over anyone less fortunate. It is even more clear from his work that de Botton enjoys taking neglected, unexamined, unexpected and diverse realms of life, and melding them together for the benefit of all. From his Consolations of Philosophy – making philosophy relevant to the lives of ordinary people — to his ambitious plans for a temple of atheism – making religious practice accessible to the irreligious — Alain de Botton wants his ideas to enrich your life.
So it should come as no real surprise that de Botton sees in the global saturation of pornography an opportunity to once again enrich human life.
“Ideally, porn would excite our lust in contexts which also presented other, elevated sides of human nature – in which people were being witty, for instance, or showing kindness, or working hard or being clever – so that our sexual excitement could bleed into, and enhance our respect for these other elements of a good life.”
De Botton desires:
“a pornography in which sexual desire would be invited to support, rather than permitted to undermine, our higher values.”
Any idiot will tell you that sex sells, but it takes a philosopher to suggest that sex might somehow sophisticate. Yet it’s the idiot who proves the point. Sex in advertising is a “lowest common denominator” strategy. It appeals to the masses, “gets them by the short and curlies”, so to speak. Pornography is the acme of the “sex sells” principle: it’s sex selling the selling power of sex. Can “sex selling itself” truly have a sideline in the “higher values” de Botton describes?
In “God is dead: can I have his stuff” I suggested that de Botton’s penchant for atypical ideas might stem from his being an atypical person – the kind of man who sees no contradiction in a convicted atheist eager to plunder the world’s religions in search of useful, interesting, and uplifting practices. I argued that de Botton’s religious atheism was feasible, but would prove unpopular beyond the narrow market of atheist philosophers with an interest in religion.
His plan to make “Better Porn” suggests a similar disconnect between de Botton’s intellect and the reality of human nature. It may seem obvious to him that sexual desire in the context of pornography could be made to “enhance our respect for these other elements of a good life”, and indeed there is something laudable in his hope that “No longer would sexuality have to be lumped together with stupidity, brutishness, earnestness and exploitation”.
Yet anyone with a grasp of traditional philosophy will have seen the problem already. It is the kind of problem that tends to elude modern philosophers, those who suffer in bondage to the demands of original thought, while scorning the solutions of the past. The problem is that de Botton does not appear to distinguish between sexual desire or sexuality in general, and the phenomenon of inordinate sexual desire, commonly referred to as “lust”.
The world’s religions and traditional philosophies have typically been very wary of sexual desire, in the same way that people everywhere are very wary of fire. Fire is good, fire is essential; but fire is also extremely dangerous if allowed to grow out of control. In this realm the wealth of our collective human experience is more valuable than the thoughts of an atypical philosopher, however interesting they may be. From the perspective of our collective wisdom, de Botton’s plan to use pornography in support of higher values is like wanting to teach alcoholics the refined enjoyment of cooking with brandy, or to send them on wine appreciation courses. We have learned from past generations that the inordinate consumption of alcohol ruins people physically, morally, socially, and financially. And though the present age prefers to live in ignorance, past generations have similar insights into the nature of inordinate sexual desire.
Lust tends downward. It is an indulgence and cultivation of the sexual appetite that goes beyond what is healthy for the human being in physical and moral terms, where “healthy” is defined as whole or sound, and can be understood by reference to the logic of human nature. Human beings have an appetite for food which is logically ordered toward our objective need for sustenance. Eat or die. Eating is (all things being equal) an achievement accompanied by pleasure. Eating, when it brings nourishment, draws us nearer to wholeness or health; pleasure, when associated with this greater wholeness, is an appropriate, ordered response.
What could be more ordered than to feel pleasure at the things that are good for you?
But for various reasons, human beings are liable to distort their good and ordered desires beyond the limits of reason, where pleasure becomes an end in itself. Instead of eating to become whole, and finding pleasure in wholeness, gluttony – the inordinate desire for food – has us eating for the sake of pleasure, and harming our wholeness, our health, in the process.
Lust is to sex as gluttony is to food. Our ordered sexual desire is quite literally our desire for the other sex. “Sex” being a derivation from the Latin word “secare” meaning to “divide or cut”, in reference to the division of humanity into male and female. Human beings desire the union of the sexes, and, as a further step toward wholeness, find that this union is pleasurable. But lust turns the desire for sexual union in upon itself and makes pleasure the object instead. In this context, pornography becomes a tool for pursuing sexual pleasure (the pleasure properly associated with sexual union) outside of its ordered role.
In the case of gluttony it is easy to see that we were never meant to make an idol of the pleasure found in eating. The effects of lust are not as physically obvious, but the psychology is parallel: to act for the sake of pleasure itself is to forsake the ordered relationship between desire and wholeness. Such is the experience of the addict, who finds that pleasure, when sought for its own sake, becomes increasingly difficult to obtain. Worse still, the nature of our desire is shaped and altered by the pursuit of pleasure: when eating we no longer desire nourishment or food, but the more elusive quality of the pleasure that attends eating. Likewise, lust is no longer the true desire for sexual union, but the desire for the pleasure that ought to attend sexual union.
Pleasure, though attractive, is not actually good for us. Pleasure alone cannot bring us increased health or wholeness, because pleasure comes from within us – it is our reaction to external stimuli. A person who seeks pleasure through gluttony, lust, greed, or other disordered desire, is in fact seeking self-stimulation – hence the claim that pornography is solipsist, in that it isolates the viewer in an illusion of sexual intimacy.
Most of us choose to eat food that is pleasant. We allow our appetite to guide us in our eating habits, bearing in mind that “hunger is the best sauce”. Yet we are also aware that the purpose of eating is nourishment or sustenance, and so we make an effort to ensure that the range of food, its preparation, quantity, salt, sugar and fat content are compatible with our physical health. But when we begin to alter our food purely for the sake of pleasure, we necessarily deviate from the healthy ideal, instead putting pleasure ahead of health. I may add more salt than is good for me, because it enhances the flavour just so. I may add oil and butter, when the dish doesn’t really need it. I might have two helpings of dessert, when one is ample. Food becomes a means of self-stimulation rather than a source of nourishment.
The consumption of pornography in its many and varied forms likewise serves self-stimulation over the genuine good of sexual union. Pornography is an artifice created and consumed for the sake of the pleasure it enables.
It is admittedly hard for us as moderns to recognise the distinction between ordered sexual desire and lust. Our culture does not encourage such a distinction. By contrast, despite the Western world’s growing obesity problem, our culture does contain very strict and precise notions of the line between ordered and inordinate appetites for food.
De Botton makes the same modern mistake: he fails to distinguish between ordered and inordinate sexual desire. He therefore views the entire pornography phenomenon as a very straightforward dynamic of people acting on their sexual desires, his only lament being that pornography is insufficiently supportive of “higher values”. A Guardian columnist noted that:
“It takes a man in possession of a particularly elastic brain to make the leap from thinking ‘the world is awash with porn’ to suggesting that the solution is to create ‘better porn’ or, to put it less qualitatively, more porn.”
But it is not yet apparent that de Botton sees any problem in the consumption of pornography other than its seemingly accidental tendency to gravitate toward expressions of “stupidity, brutishness, earnestness and exploitation.”
If our traditional wisdom is correct, then the correlation between lust and the vices de Botton laments is no accident. The self-stimulating pursuit of pleasure does, after all, carry certain implications for our broader tastes and conduct. The desire for pleasure creates its own narrow world of stimulus-response from which everything else – the “higher values” included – is gradually excluded. Despite de Botton’s best efforts, I predict his attempt to create a witty, hard working, clever, kind, form of pornography is doomed to failure. Whether it ends up being “highly contrived” “smug and self-congratulatory”, “a turn off” as one columnist suggested, or something “that parents would feel comfortable with their sons or daughters accessing at a certain age without particular shame”; or if it merely amounts to “movies featuring semi-clothed nymphs being kind to Swiss philosophers” as the Guardian predicts, no amount of higher value can transmute the flawed economy of the insatiable, self-stimulating pursuit of pleasure.
Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.