CONTENT WARNING: I liberally and somewhat gratuitously use the word “ass” (meaning “behind,” not “donkey”) in this post.
Consider the following story (inspired, but only inspired, by a true event—many important details have been changed). A bunch of gay men in their forties and fifties are having dinner and reminiscing about their young dating days. One of them—let’s call him Carl—mentions his first dating experience with a guy named Eric. The others ask him what Eric was like, and Carl replies, “I don’t remember much about him. The only thing I clearly remember was his ass. He had a beautiful ass, and I can still see him walking down the street in front of me in tight shorts.” This provokes a mild outcry from some of the members of the dinner, who accuse Carl of shallowness, by reducing Eric to nothing but his ass. (Or is it to nothing but an ass? I mean if you’re going to reduce someone to his ass, you might as well be reducing him to an ass, period. I see no moral difference between the two.)
At that point, someone—Pedro—asks Carl, “Well, do you remember whether Eric was smart or intelligent or talented in some way?” There are supportive cries of, “Yeah, Carl, do you?” presumably thinking that Pedro is pushing Carl to find something loftier than Eric’s ass by which to remember Eric (Pedro, for the record, was doing no such thing). Carl responds, “I’m not sure. I don’t think he was stupid. Maybe he was averagely intelligent.” Pedro then replies, “Well, maybe there isn’t much to remember Eric by other than his ass.”
(Henceforth, I use “ass” as a stand in for a person’s physical qualities, especially those transformed into sexual ones through the desire of another person.)
The outraged friends at the dinner seem to be subscribing to the following principle: Even if X has worthwhile sexual properties (e.g., a nice ass), X should only be remembered (honored, thought of, etc.) by X’s worthwhile nonsexual properties. Eric has a nice ass, yes, but he should be remembered by his wit or his flute-playing skills. And if Carl fails to see that, then that is his fault, his blindness, not Eric’s lacking anything worthwhile.
The above principle is strong (let’s call it “SP”). It’s strong for three reasons. First, it assumes that for any person X, X must have worthwhile nonsexual properties. Second, it assumes that the nonsexual properties trump the sexual ones. Third, it assumes that the nonsexual properties are the only properties by which someone ought to be remembered.
Contrast SP with another, weaker principle (“MP”) that does not share SP’s first assumption. MP states: If X has worthwhile sexual and nonsexual properties, X should be remembered only by the latter. MP is weaker than SP because it does not assume that every person has worthwhile nonsexual properties, only that if they do, they should be remembered by them. It is still a strong principle because it accepts that nonsexual properties trump the sexual ones, and that people should be remembered only by the nonsexual ones.
Here is an even weaker principle (“WP”): If X has worthwhile sexual and nonsexual properties, X should be remembered by the latter (but not necessarily by only the latter). This is a weaker principle because it relaxes the claim that someone should be remembered only by their nonsexual properties.
I am not foolish enough to argue that our worthwhile sexual properties trump our worthwhile nonsexual ones, so I accept WP (or some version of it). I have no difficulty accepting the idea that if Eric had worthwhile sexual and nonsexual properties, then Carl should remember him by both. (I will, however, shortly modify this claim by making room for the type of relationship at stake.) But I am foolish enough to claim that not everyone has worthwhile nonsexual properties (of course, not everyone has worthwhile sexual properties either, but the present post is attempting to rescue sex from the intellectual clutches of non-sex). So here goes.
Why do we always assume that people are better than they are? We should seriously consider the possibility—the reality even—that many people have little that makes them special. Perhaps metaphysically speaking we are all endowed with inherent worth, dignity, a little mirror inside us reflecting God, etc. But if this is true, it does not always wear itself on its sleeve, given that people quite frequently exhibit properties that are, shall we say, the exact opposite of this inherent worth (present company definitely included—I ain’t no goldmine, for sure). People tend to be selfish, self-absorbed, vindictive, envious, jealous, full of unjustified self-importance, manipulative, unforgiving, deceitful, self-deceitful, ridden with anxieties, stubborn, irrational, stupid, uncaring, oblivious, pretentious, arrogant, cowardly, dishonest, self-rationalizing, cruel, insensitive, riddled with illusions, superstitious, shallow, greedy, prejudiced, ignorant, and just overall unwholesome. On top of this sorry heap, they manage the feat of also being self-righteous about who they are and thinking that they are special or unique. Why then presume that the Erics of the world have something about them that is better than their asses?
(Whether the people with these defects are to blame for them is an irrelevant issue, because being blameworthy or not does not negate the fact that they have the defects. For the record, I don’t think that we can say that they are or that they aren’t. A lot depends on the specific situation of each person. But in general, I do think that people are responsible for controlling their wayward emotions and for trying to become better when they have accurate self-assessments.)
Now imagine Carl, with Pedro’s moral and intellectual support, replying to his friends (and, unbeknownst to him, criticizing SP) as follows: “As it so happens, Eric was kind of a mimbo [male bimbo]. He wasn’t that intelligent, he was shallow—always chasing after every new fad—and he had no skills or talents to speak of. Really, he had no worthwhile nonsexual properties by which to remember him.” But his friends berate Carl: “Think, dude. Go back in time. Dig into your memories. Surely you can find something.” Carl says, “Yes, of course. I can find some things. It’s not all gloom and doom. He could be sweet at times. I loved how he used to be absorbed in whatever TV shows he watched. He loved talking about his childhood, and he could be psychologically insightful about people.” The friends chime in, “There you go. We have a few winners! Remember Eric by them!” “No,” Carl replies, “We don’t have winners. These properties are not worthwhile. They are certainly not worthwhile enough to remember Eric by.”
Surely Carl is right. To claim that (most, many, some, a few) people do not have worthwhile nonsexual properties is not to claim that they are utterly and always irrational, shallow, etc. This would be patently false. Instead, it is to claim that what they exhibit is nothing to drool over, it’s nothing so special as to make them stand out. It is to claim that people tend to be average, even sub-average, and if one encounters such a human being, let’s not insist that he must have more than a nice ass (if he’s lucky enough to have one).
So SP is false because it wrongly assumes that people have such worthwhile nonsexual properties.
Here’s an obvious (yet silly) objection to the idea that people might not have worthwhile properties. Being worthwhile is subjective. One can’t just decide that people don’t have such worthwhile properties, because being worthwhile depends on subjective values and a person’s point of view.
Maybe. (Please note that I have a hard time understanding this objection—understanding what it means that such values are subjective.) However, this objection does not help the friends at the dinner, because (and this is why it is silly) by their own lights every person is supposed to have something non-sexually worthwhile. If they go the subjective route, they undermine their own claim because they leave it up to subjectivity to decide whether someone has worthwhile properties. Put slightly differently, those who accept SP must accept the existence of objective worthwhile properties. If they don’t, they cannot fault Carl for not finding any, because he can just say, “Well, such properties are subjectively worthwhile, and I happened not to find any in Eric. So go suck on that.”
Here’s another, more respectable objection (but one that is ultimately also false) to the idea that people might not have worthwhile properties: the property of being worthwhile is a relational property when it comes to remembering (honoring, thinking of, etc.) someone. Whether Eric has a worthwhile property for Carl to remember him by depends on the two of them and their relationship. To see this, consider Zack, who was Eric’s friend. Zack remembers Eric by Eric’s nonsexual properties, specifically two or three of them by which Zack chooses to remember Eric. It is Zack who chooses (in a loose sense of “choose”) which properties by which to remember Eric, just as Carl chooses which other properties (sexual) by which to remember him. In this way, there is no non-relational property of worthwhileness.
This objection is subtler than the first, but it succumbs to a similar response. Although it is true that people choose which properties by which to remember someone, Carl’s friends, in endorsing SP, are not denying this claim. They accept that Carl has chosen Eric’s nice ass as his memorabilia for Eric, but they reject the aptness or correctness of the choice. They are in effect saying to Carl, “You made the wrong choice. You should have chosen a nonsexual worthwhile property.”
(On a side note, people often value choice too much, to the point of thinking that if something is chosen, then it cannot be bad, the idea being that it reflects someone’s autonomy. But this cannot be that simple, given that people often make wrong choices.)
The objection sounds right because it relies on a correct idea, namely, that in many cases a humdrum object becomes valuable because of our relationship to it. A deck of cards is usually an ordinary, almost worthless, object. But this deck of cards is special because my late father gave it to me (on his deathbed, if you want more drama). So it has value in virtue of its history and relationship to me. The objection, then, transfers this correct idea to the Carl-Eric case, and it says that Eric himself has neither worthwhile nor non-worthwhile properties, and that what makes such properties worthwhile is their relation to other people.
But it is in transferring the idea to human beings that the objection goes wrong, because human beings are not decks of cards, so their worthwhile properties are not exhausted or fully explained by the value with which other people endow them (perhaps a religious person would say that they are valuable only because God endowed them with value, but the SP does not need this claim). Thus, Carl’s friends are going to reject this objection. They will fault Carl for latching on the wrong property.
So these two objections fail in denying that people might not have worthwhile properties. In thus failing, they also fail to rescue SP. For all these reasons, Carl can say to his friends, “I prefer to remember Eric by his ass, because at least his ass was not entangled in all the mediocrity of being human. If you insist that I remember him by his average intelligence, you are insisting that I relegate Eric to the multitudes. And I won’t do that.” Carl’s answer gives us something to think about. Eric’s ass has the potential to lift Eric out of the muck of humanity and make him memorable. Carl’s friends, thinking that they are Eric’s allies, are actually the ones dragging him down by insisting that Carl remember him by something utterly mundane. This is an idea worth considering.
So if SP is false, should we accept MP? Recall that MP states, “If X has worthwhile sexual and nonsexual properties, X should be remembered only by the latter.” Is MP true? No.
Let’s assume, in order to evaluate MP, that Eric has worthwhile nonsexual properties (ones that are not drowned out by ugly ones, though perhaps a worthwhile property is one that is good and shines through). Should Carl remember him by those properties? Is Carl at fault if he does not do so?
Suppose that Carl was in a long-term relationship with Micah, who was not only handsome and sexy but also intelligent, honest, witty, insightful, and loving. If Carl were to remember him mostly by his ass, Carl’s friends could, and rightly so, level at Carl the charge of serious unfairness to Micah, on the ground that Micah and he shared much more than mutual sexual desire. So when Carl latches only on Micah’s ass, his friends can legitimately protest, “Hey! He was more than that! By not remembering him by the other properties, you do him and your relationship an injustice. You distort it.”
But with Eric things are different. If Carl and Eric had only or primarily a sexual relationship, Carl’s remembering Eric by his ass seems perfectly fair to both Eric and to their relationship. To insist on other qualities should merit the same objection as that leveled above: it might very well distort the relationship that they had. Carl might have even been cognizant of Eric’s other good qualities, but to insist that he (also) remember or honor Eric by them is to distort not only the nature of the relationship itself, but also how Carl should relate to Eric.
So MP is not true in all cases (and hence not true as stated), because we have no reason to accept it in purely sexual relationships. And for the same reason, WP is also false. To recall, WP states, “If X has worthwhile sexual and nonsexual properties, X should be remembered by the latter (but not necessarily by only the latter).” Moreover, given the reason for rejecting them both, they should be amended to include a clause about the nature of the relationship. Better stated:
MP, amended (MPA): “If X and Y are in a more-than-sexual relationship, and if X has worthwhile sexual and nonsexual properties, Y should remember X by only the latter.”
WP, amended (WPA): “If X and Y are in a more-than-sexual relationship, and if X has worthwhile sexual and nonsexual properties, Y should remember X by the latter (but necessarily by only the latter).”
Which is the true one? The true one is WPA, because MPA denigrates the sexual not only in general, but also when it might be a crucial part of the relationship. X and Y might have had a wonderful relationship, and one crucial reason it was wonderful was the sex, and the sex was wonderful because X had an amazing body after which Y lusted (so Y was focusing on X during the sex, not fantasizing about Justin Trudeau, because, amazing as it is, Y has lost interest in X’s body—time not not only heals all wounds, but flattens all desires as well). MPA allows the parties to remember and honor each other because of both the sexual and the nonsexual.
So is Carl shallow for remembering Eric only by his ass? Not in those cases in which Eric did not have much else to be remembered for or (inclusive “or”) those cases in which Carl and Eric had a purely sexual relationship.
In concluding this post, I note one thing and raise a question. First, nothing I have said licenses the inference that Carl, in remembering Eric by his ass, views Eric as nothing but a body or body parts. That is, Carl’s attitude towards Eric need not, in the present or in the past, be one of viewing him as lacking humanity (no matter how we explicate the idea of this lack). As a matter of fact, in remembering X by whichever property P, Y is remembering X by P, not remembering merely P. In the case of Carl and Eric, it is Eric’s ass that is the window through which Carl remembers him. So there is no rejection or denial of Eric’s humanity. The opposite is what is occurring.
What should we say if Eric were Erica? Should we adopt the same answer? Would the answer differ if Carl were Carla? I leave the answers to another post (though definitely not the next one).