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Sunday, August 16, 2015

On the telos of eating

Over on another forum, jmhenry has deftly explained the nature of a central Post Modern concern.

A dialogue...

A: Last night, I got together with some friends, had good conversations, laughed together, enjoyed one another's company, and then we ate sawdust. It was a pleasant evening. We had a great meal.

B: Well, no, you didn't. You ate sawdust. The nutritive end of the activity you were engaged in was completely missing. Therefore, properly speaking, you did not have a meal.

A: Nonsense. A meal is about more than just eating food. It's about good conversation, laughing together, enjoying each other's company. We had all of that. So why would you say we didn't have a meal?

B: All of the things you mention are indeed good, and they certainly enrich and fulfill what a good meal should be. But the nutritive end of eating is what unifies and makes them intelligible under the description of having a meal. You can't sever the nutritive end from the activity without fundamentally changing the nature of that activity.

A: So only nutrition counts as a meal, nothing more, nothing less?

B: No. I suppose science might someday invent a pill which you could take that would conceivably give you all the daily nutrients you require. But no one would seriously suggest that taking the pill constituted having a meal; or, to put it another way, engaging in that distinctive kind of activity which we call "having a meal." A true meal would necessarily include all the other essential goods you mentioned -- good conversation, enjoying one another's company, etc.

A: Okay, but what if we didn't eat just sawdust? What if, instead, we had barbecue ribs, mashed potatoes, a casserole, the whole nine yards? But then, later, we all got indigestion! Maybe we even got so sick that we had to, ahem, spend some time in the bathroom regurgitating our "meal" into the toilet. Then we wouldn't have had a meal, right? We ate real food, but the nutritive end was never served, since we just threw up the food.

B: Even if the nutritive end was never completed, you still had a meal, since "having a meal" as a distinctive kind of activity is always ordered towards the nutritive end, whether that end is fulfilled or not. It's still a meal, in that it still belongs to the species "meal," even if only deficient specimen of the species. However, activities that are not ordered towards the nutritive end at all never even rise to the level of being a deficient specimen of a meal. They are no specimen of a meal period.

A: I still think you're too obsessed with nutrition. Focusing on that seems to impoverish what a true meal is. We need to articulate a rich picture of the nature of a meal, instead of just pointing to eating food.

B: I agree. But, again, the nutritive end of eating is what unifies and makes intelligible all the other goods that define having a meal as a distinctive form of activity. So we must at least begin there... 
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Faithful Reader may imagine another situation to which a parallel analysis might be applied. Perhaps regarding the other interactive power of the vegetative nature.

24 comments:

  1. What are the implications for aspartame and olestra?

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    2. I wish I could find the video someone posted a while ago in which a professor at University of Texas at Austin argued that we should accept homosexual sex because we accept Diet Coke. It seemed to me that he had a good argument against drinking Diet Coke.

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    3. You aren't drinking soda for dietary carbs, you're drinking soda for hydration (and pleasure, like how sex is "both procreative and unitive"). If we can remove the unnecessary side-effect (getting fat) while retaining the necessary purposes (hydration and flavor), we have not damaged the nature of the "drinking act".

      Diet soda is like making it easier to have sex without pulling a muscle, not like non-reproductive sex.

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  2. I actually have a little trouble with an example very similar to this.

    Chewing gum (for the purposes of the hypothetical, sugarless and tasteless): a "perverted faculty"? One is exercising one's nutritive faculty in such a way as that it cannot possibly attain its telos. Does that make it immoral? Germain Grisez actually argues that the answer is yes, at least slightly. But that just seems like a reductio ad absurdum casting doubt on the "perverted faculty" family of arguments.

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    1. If "chewing gum" were supposed to be the same kind of activity as "having a meal," then it would probably count as a "perverted faculty." But "having a meal" is not the only activity that pertains to the mouth. For example, brushing one's teeth is in no way a perversion of eating.

      I would argue that people who chew gum as a replacement for eating a meal could be said to be perverting their nutritive faculty. But the perversion is not in chewing gum per se, but in simulating eating. After all, the nature of chewing gum is good, but it is not by nature a nutritive thing. So, for example, those who chew gum for hygienic or other therapeutic reasons, or (as perhaps in the case of bubble gum) for expressive reasons, treat both the gum and the mouth according to their proper nature. And that's what we're looking at here: treating our bodies (and every part of them, and everything we interact with through our bodies) according to their proper nature.

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    2. The power of procreation, when used unnaturally, doesn't necessarily damage the organs. A similar situation consists in lying: lying doesn't damage the communication organs in itself, but it still frustrates the end of communication... truth.

      So, in other words, a facility can by frustrated without necessarily damaging the body directly.

      Christi pax.

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  3. How dare you imply that pica is not an equally valid nutritional orientation!

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  4. Sorry for the offtopic comment. I'm reading your novel Eifelheim and hugely enjoying it. The only portrayal that seems somewhat inaccurate is of the Jew from Kiev - Tarkhan Hazer be Bek. While I understand your desire to introduce an exotic figure into the historic novel there are some glaring inconsistencies. Judging by the name you have made him a Khazar Jew, while it is completely believable for earlier times and is attested in the Kievan letter, by the 14th century, Khazarian empire has been gone for about 400 years and if there remained any Khazar Jews - they probably either adopted Slavic names (plenty examples already in the Kievan letter, such as Gostyata) or changed them to the ones from the Bible, it is not likely that people still spoke Khazar language in Kiev - under Lithuanian rule. Let's now turn to his name, Hazer Tarkhan was a famous Khazar general that lived in the 8th century, 'ben Bek' - son of Bek, Bek being a word for 'general' in Turkic languages, including Khazar. Overall, an impossible name for a Kievan Jew of 1349.

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  5. Oh, wow. I certainly didn't expect my comment to end up becoming its own post on TOF's blog. Thank you.

    For the most part I tend to just lurk on that other forum. But whenever a certain topic comes up, people often say things that, in other contexts, would seem utterly ridiculous. So I thought an analogy might be helpful in seeing the ridiculousness more clearly.

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  6. I get the gist, but I also ask: if they had fun and nobody was harmed in the process, why is that a bad thing.

    (Well, I suppose that eating sawdust actually does bad things to your digestive system. But using the “other interactive faculty” in ways unfulfilling its biological function does not.)

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    1. And...where did you get the quaint idea nobody is harmed?

      In order for asbestos to increase your lifetime risk of cancer as much as being a gay man increases the risk of various intestinal cancers (each of them a very unpleasant way to die), you'd have to live near the asbestos for 2,500 years. But we banned asbestos.

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    2. It's funny how I never mentioned gay men, and how nobody ever thinks about lesbians. I thought this was just about birth control.

      Besides, that increase is due to HPV, which certainly does not discriminate genders. You know, because of that having heterosexual sex is a risk factor for cancer too! That makes it immoral then, right?

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    3. ...And yet the lifetime risk of colon cancers for gay men is 2 to 5 times what it is for straights, so, even if it were just HPV (and it's not—you're obviously unfamiliar with the other kinds of health-problems gay men are prone to), heterosexual sex is nowhere near as big a risk-factor as male homosexuality. Even if it were, heterosexuality actually accomplishes something of biological use.

      And you thought this was just about birth-control? Well, that's interesting. Everyone else understood it was about both, since they're inextricably linked and have been since the beginning of the "sexual revolution".

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    4. I fail to see what "biological use" has to do with morality: biology is notoriously amoral. And I hope you won't tell me that the opponents of "the sexual revolution" are motivated just by public health concerns...

      If these numbers were true (and my sources differ), that would mean that some people are born with an elevated risk factor for a certain illness, like most of us are anyway.

      Still, I'm not here to discuss cancer risk, but to try and understand the philosophical argument that the author is making. If I use a faculty of my nature only partially, not in its entirety, maybe thanks to some technological help.... Why is that a bad thing? I don't deny the original function, I simply don't wish to make use of it.

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    5. I think it's important to note that, while there are at least potential medical harms involved in extra-spousal sexual activities, these are not the only nor necessarily the worst harms that advocates of traditional marriage and sexual morality warn of. Atheists (and some theists of a deist or Cthulhu opinion, I suppose) may dismiss warnings of spiritual harm, but everyone can acknowledge that psychological harm is worth avoiding if possible. (Granted: many argue on all sides of what psychological harm is done and how it comes about.) Moreover, most people admit that social harms are real and also worth avoiding whenever possible. (Again: people argue on all sides about what social harms come from what actions.)

      My point here is simply to note that, even if Sophia's Favorite cannot point to a significant medical harm for each and every sexual act considered illicit, that does not prove that "nobody was harmed in the process." Indeed, to prove the absence of harm is quite difficult to do.

      P.S. "Biological use" is an attempt to articulate the classical notion of teleology in the 21st century: essentially, the idea is that everything in the world is ordered to some purpose or "end" or "telos" (Greek for "end"). With regard to sexuality, the idea is that the sexual organs have a procreative purpose; anything that interferes with this procreative purpose is essentially diverting the organs (and, by connection, the entire person) from their purpose, and therefore is harmful. It's counter-intuitive to 21st century Americans, but the logic is sound based on its assumptions. It is a long and subtle tradition in philosophy, and if you like I'd be happy to spin out the details a bit more, unless our gracious host or Sophia's Favorite can do it better than I.

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    6. You know, because of that having heterosexual sex is a risk factor for cancer too! That makes it immoral then, right?

      A: Okay, I'll admit the nutritive end of the activity was missing. And maybe eating sawdust itself has bad health effects. But so does pigging out on cake -- and that's real food! So "having a meal" is a risk factor for bad stuff too! Look at our obesity crisis. That makes activities ordered towards the nutritive end wrong too, right?

      B: Which is why we can't stop at whether or not you're ingesting actual food. Remember, we noted earlier that the species "having a meal" can have deficient specimens. Well, in a similar fashion, it's possible to have a specimen that is not rightly ordered. In other words, if one eats real food, but does so in a manner that is not according to right reason, then that will indeed be a risk factor for bad stuff. Also, keep in mind all the other essential goods of "having a meal" that you mentioned: good conversation, enjoying one another's company, etc. It'd be hard to enjoy one another's company if a member of the group is inordinately focused on the food to the point of pigging out, or even running to the neighbor's house to pig out on their food as well. In other words, there's a unitive aspect to "having a meal" just as much as a nutritive aspect.

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  7. I mean, just don’t tell me that all the fuss about gay people is in order to save them from cancer, because it would be patently ridiculous. And as for other forms of harm, I suppose that the best thing to do is asking them how they feel about it.

    On to more serious things: you (in general) write that “anything that interferes with this procreative purpose is essentially diverting the organs (and, by connection, the entire person) from their purpose, and therefore is harmful.” It’s that “therefore” that makes no sense to me. Not actualizing one of my many potentials is harmful IN ITSELF? I can either fulfill my purpose or do something *wrong*, no neutral middle ground? This sounds like what scientists call the totalitarian principle of cosmology: whatever isn’t forbidden, is mandatory.

    I think I understand where some of your concerns come from, and even agree with some of them, but it’s jumps in logic like the one above that lead to extreme and unwarranted conclusions.

    If someone were to say, like some Greek philosophers of old, that women are just for breeding and true love exists only between men, I would completely understand all the appeals to nature and I would join in the criticism; but how many people claim that today? (I suppose it was a legitimate concern in older days, though).

    I suppose that you will agree with me if I say that modern society is terribly afraid of emotional investment in romance and sex, since it is one of the primary experiences of our finiteness and we as a culture have a very bad relationship with finiteness, these days. But that doesn’t mean that someone who uses a condom today forswears having children and building a family forever, he just doesn’t want children NOW. And there are many reasons for that, some selfish and some perfectly reasonable.

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    1. Excuse me, but you misinterpreted one of the key parts of his statement: "anything that *interferes* with this procreative purpose". What you've described is simply declining to use one's procreative functions, which Natural Law Theory in no way condemns. The whole problem lies with using one's faculties in a way that actively *frustrates* their telos, and I think it is quite clear that using our procreative abilities in a way that can never, as a matter of necessity, be procreative, constitutes such a frustration.

      As to the Greek philosophers, I have no idea why you would suddenly understand appeals to nature if someone were to take the misogynist positions of some Ancient Greek philosophers. Certainly those are of no relevance to modern-day Natural Law Philosophers, though they may agree with some of the philosophical positions of said philosophers.

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  8. But that doesn’t mean that someone who uses a condom today forswears having children and building a family forever, he just doesn’t want children NOW.

    Well, speaking for myself, I've always had a kind of aversion to the very idea of contraception and condoms since I was young -- a kind of moral intuition deep within my consciousness that was present before I was ever aware of natural law arguments for traditional sexual morality. And, even though I couldn't quite put it into words at the time, the moral intuition went something like this:

    A sexual act is an act of complete self-giving -- mind, soul, and body -- to the other, which carries with it the potential create a whole new being. That is the objective meaning of the act, completely independent of the partners' subjective intentions. So, when a man engages in a sexual act with a woman, he is saying: "I give myself to you in this act with all that it represents." And the woman is saying the same thing. The act, in order to respect the inherent dignity of the other person, must not frustrate or suppress the gift of self in all its dimensions -- mind, soul, and body.

    Or, to use natural law jargon: sex is procreative and unitive.

    Now, it seemed to me that, when a person used contraception or a condom, they were essentially saying: "I want to receive the gift of self that you have to offer in every dimension except one: your capacity to create a whole new being, which is an integral part of you as a human being and therefore inextricably tied of the gift of self that is part of the objective meaning of the act. That part of you must be suppressed." But to say that -- to want the gift of self from another person, while suppressing a part of the self that they can give -- would be to tear that self asunder and therefore treat them with less than the dignity that they are due as a human being.

    And this would be true even if the woman was perfectly willing to use contraception. "You're not doing me any wrong," she might say, "since I consent to this act in which I give the gift of myself in every dimension except one."

    But you'll recall that I said that the act has an objective meaning, despite the partners' subjective intentions. So even if we both consented to denying each other the complete bodily dimension of the gift of self to one another, we would still be engaging in act which is objectively saying: I give the gift of self in all its dimensions -- mind, soul, and body. In other words, in the sexual act, our bodies would be "saying" one thing while our subjective intentions were "saying" another. Despite consenting to the act, we'd still be tearing each other asunder.

    Again, even when I was young, I had an intuitive glimmer of all this, despite not yet having read all the the sophisticated natural law defenses of traditional sexual morality. The law really is written on your heart. It's just a matter of being willing to listen.

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    1. I think of it this way.

      Sex would be perfect if pregnancy weren't a possible consequence. True or False?

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    2. Sex would be perfect if pregnancy weren't a possible consequence.

      I think it was Ratzinger who once said that what was once considered a blessing is now considered to be a threat to individual happiness. Thus the need to separate sex from procreation: contraception and, when that fails, abortion.

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    3. Anthony Esolen recently had a short essay published in Touchstone magazine in which he waxed eloquent on the fact that the only science that is really taught in high schools is evolution, and it is the one area of scientific exploration that has no practical implications for most 21st-century Americans. (I think he overstated his case a little, but he's teaching lit majors at Providence College.) He didn't say it explicitly, but the point was that American public schools are intent on teaching their charges that there is no God.

      It's worse than he thinks, though, because evolution can have practical consequences for our lives if we think about it. I don't expect our public schools to explore this, of course, but we could figure out that sex is about procreation.

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    4. Anthony Esolen recently had a short essay published in Touchstone magazine in which he waxed eloquent on the fact that the only science that is really taught in high schools is evolution, and it is the one area of scientific exploration that has no practical implications for most 21st-century Americans. (I think he overstated his case a little, but he's teaching lit majors at Providence College.) He didn't say it explicitly, but the point was that American public schools are intent on teaching their charges that there is no God.

      It's worse than he thinks, though, because evolution can have practical consequences for our lives if we think about it. I don't expect our public schools to explore this, of course, but we could figure out that sex is about procreation.

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