September 2014

Birds and bees

Written by Tom McGuire

It underlies the world's oldest profession, it can sell anything, and each one of us is here on earth because of it. Undeniably, sex is one of the most powerful and pervasive elements of human life.

Perhaps because it can so easily become compulsive, human societies seek to regulate sexual expression. Religion has a lot to say about sex, and in many cases use it as the basis for generating negative emotions and perceptions. Western society at least since the 1960's has gone for sexual de-regulation, with hedonistic values becoming more accepted.

There are many religious ideas that link pleasure with punishment and that pathologise natural instincts, leading to unnecessary feelings of guilt and shame. Once an aspect of the psyche is identified as 'bad' or 'sinful', its very presence leads to distress and harsh self-criticism. Hedonism, on the other hand, prioritises pleasure. However, in doing so it can neglect other goods important to wellbeing such as affection, love, and the value of deeply committed relationships over fleeting and superficial encounters. Monogamy, marriage and celibacy represent different social attempts to regulate sex drive in the pursuit of other goods.

The thought that human beings are driven primarily by their most basis and instinctive drives, which both Schopenhauer and Freud argued, is troubling in many ways. It means that we are not as free as we might like to think we are. If a requirement of human autonomy is to freely act then our autonomy could be invalid to the extent that unconscious forces of nature dominate our actions. This is especially true if any action, including sexual behaviour, becomes addictive or compulsive. Many philosophers, going back at least to Plato, have associated greater intellectual and spiritual freedom with the ability to control desires related to the bodily senses. Just as a rider uses reigns to move a horse towards a goal, so we are said to be free when the actions selected by the rational 'me' are the ones which take place.

In fact, since sex requires an expenditure of energy it will often be rational to curtail its expression in order to focus on other goals. The athlete who is getting ready for the big game and the artist who wants a period of uninterrupted focus on their creative work can both attest to this. An ancient practice found among the yogis of India called brahmacharya involves channelling the reproductive force towards the development of enhanced consciousness.

Are we in control of our instinctive drives or do they control us? Both Schopenhauer and Freud, as you will see in this issue, seemed to regard sex as something which has an overwhelming grip on the intellect. The unconscious influences our waking thoughts. For Schopenhauer the entire universe is pervaded by an urge that can never be satisfied, that he calls 'will'. The mind has come about only as an appendage to support the will in its strivings. Freud followed a similar line, though he focused mainly on the psychological states of human beings and devised his own way of classifying the forces that influence our motivations.

Keeping things the same

This September both the Scots and Kiwis were faced with opportunities for major change, and opted for the status quo .

The Scots were asked by way of referendum, “should Scotland be an independent country?” “No”, they answered. In some respects the question was a moot point. The country of Scotland now enjoys a position within the United Kingdom that stops short of sovereignty but allows for considerable independence. If a majority had answered “yes” then they would be leaving one union for another, for the hope of the Scottish Government was to secede from the UK only to join the EU which is slowly becoming more or less a United States of Europe. It is likely that many voters were swayed by Prime Minister Cameron's offer of increased autonomy. But many Britons feel that this offer was too generous, and now there is increased talk of moving to a federal model in which all parts of the union (including England) enjoy a similar degree of independence.

New Zealanders also chose to keep things the way they are by re-electing the conservative National Party to its third term in Government with an increased percentage of votes. National, under its charismatic leader John Key, has been tremendously successful in building a viable campaign brand which appeals to a wide swathe of the population across class and ethnic divides, and which seems to increase in popularity the longer they govern. The opposition is divided into competing factions and was unable to convince the electorate that they were fit to rule. Televised claims by NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden about Government domestic spying were denied by Key who said that although he secretly discussed with his intelligence officials a proposal for mass surveillance, it never materialised. With little evidence available in the public domain, the discussion about spying proved to be a sideshow that failed to elicit a mood for change.