On distinguishing temptation from personal identity
We live in an age in which we are very anxious to identify ourselves with our desires. Essentially, this is the lazy man’s way of deflecting moral responsibility. “This is just the way I am,” we think, “and if I am different in my desires than some other people, nonetheless I have just as much right to fulfill my desires as they do.” We Americans can even find justification for this outlook in our own national founding documents. Our Declaration of Independence claims the rights to life, liberty and the “pursuit of happiness”.
Never has there been such a severe lapse of honest thought, for we do not really believe any of this. Even the most attenuated social sense reflexively recognizes that our personal desires will always and must always be hedged in by a moral code, and that one of the first jobs of government is to prevent us from acting on our desires in ways that do harm to others. As soon as we do something that harms another person, we know we have placed ourselves at risk of retribution, and (if we are committed to persist) we calculate the likelihood that others, whether individually or collectively or governmentally, will force us to stop or even exact a penalty for our transgression.
So the broad outlines of moral behavior, including respect for the good of others and for the common good, have not changed. What has happened instead is that we have sought to redefine any and all desires relating to sexual expression as definitive of our personal identity. The argument is essentially this: “In sexual matters, my urges and desires are definitive of who I am. As such I have the right to fulfill those desires, and society as a whole has an obligation to make provision for the fulfillment of those desires, as it should for any human good.” It is a byproduct of this confused thinking that the “obligation to make provision” always includes at least some coercion of others—against their own desires—to accommodate the desired behavior in question.
Desire is not definitive
The most important conceptual problem with all this is that desire should never be considered to be definitive of being. To make this mistake reduces intellect and will to the status of servants of various conscious and subconscious “urges” which, to the contrary and by the very nature of our being human, require intellectual evaluation and willed control. To fail to recognize this is to fail to understand what it means to be a human person. This is why it is also extremely important that we not define people based on their urges. For example, we have by our very nature the basic intellectual capacity to evaluate the concept of “fairness”, and the reality that our emotions and desires sometimes compel us toward unfairness does not mean we may simply dismiss our natural powers and redefine ourselves as essentially unfair beings. It is not true, in other words, that we must by our very nature seek fulfillment in the pursuit of inequity.
Of course, we often use words in imprecise ways, and we must discern, in the normal ranges of usage of various related words, the precise meaning we are to associate with the use of a particular word. For example, when we call a person a “thief”, we do not mean that he is at the very level of his being essentially a thief, such that stealing is both appropriate to and demanded by his nature. We do not mean that the only way this person can cease to be a thief is to cease to be a living person. Instead, we are referring through a kind of shorthand to a particular voluntary behavior of the person which, if changed, would make him merely a former thief.
In a similar way, if we notice that someone is a jealous person, we mean that this person has a personality trait which exhibits itself through invidious comparisons and preoccupation with perceived inequities. Jealousy may run deeper in the personality than stealing, but we recognize it just as instinctively as a personal tendency which should be combatted and subdued by the application of intellect and will—including, if we are Christians, the application of prayer and the hope for grace—all of which signal once again that the core of our being transcends particular desires and behaviors which we can discern to be harmful, evil or sinful.
In other words, our desires and reflexive behaviors are not definitive of who we are, precisely because we are actually persons with powers of both intellect and will by which we may, astonishingly, control and guide both our desires and our behavior in accordance with our apprehension of the good.
More than once in the past I have outlined the process of rationalization by which we more or less deliberately set aside our intellects so that we can use our wills alone to pursue our desires. In other words, rationalization absolutizes what is relative. Our desires are to be relative to—that is, evaluated in accordance with—our intellects. Our yearnings are to be schooled in accordance with our serious and careful discernment of the good.
In the process of making decisions, we ideally operate in one of two ways. Either we identify some good with our intellect and our intellect instructs our will to pursue that good. Or our will is attracted to something that we find pleasing, so the will proposes action in that regard to the intellect, whereupon the intellect evaluates affirmatively or negatively and instructs the will accordingly, and the will acts on this instruction, so that the person chooses to do what is good.
That, at least, is how the powers of intellect and will work together in a well-ordered person. But we are not always personally well-ordered, and sometimes the sequence runs like this: The will is attracted to something, and proposes it to the intellect. The intellect provides reasons why the will should not pursue this particular attraction. But the will rejects the instructions of the intellect and demands of the intellect reasons which will justify instead of deny that to which the will is drawn. Therefore, the intellect provides specious arguments—something that intellective powers are very good at—so that the person can choose to do what is bad.
And this is called rationalization.
It is obvious that each person and each human culture is characterized not only by particular strengths but by significant faulty perceptions, misunderstandings, and rationalizations which go largely unnoticed. It is an enormous byproduct of our sexually permissive culture—which in comparison to many other cultures is blind to the rationalizing pressures of sexual desire—that it treats sexual desire as both value-free and properly determinative, in and of itself, of acceptable behavior. Most human cultures have been far more aware of the potential waywardness and damage of sexual desire, and have hedged it round with taboos and other safeguards.
Historically in the West, we seem to have leaped from opposing discrimination based on biological categories that we cannot control to opposing discrimination based on the desires we have and the choices we make. Nonetheless, the areas in which such intelligent discrimination is prohibited are extremely limited. We do not yet recognize the legitimacy of the desire to steal: This remains either a crime or, as in kleptomania, a psychological illness. But we do pretend to the legitimacy of the desire for fornication or sodomy or adultery or bodily mutilation in pursuit of either sexual gratification or a sexual identity we simply do not possess.
Every culture is steeped in its own rationalizations, which can only seem absurd to those capable of standing outside that cultural mindset. We might well wonder why we find it so difficult to distinguish between sexual desire and sexual identity and why, in this small sphere, we insist on a continuous theatre of the absurd which includes a deliberate mockery of our Creator and our own bodily nature. Why does our culture insist on identifying the sinner with the sin and calling both good? Why do we no longer understand that mercy to the sinner requires abhorrence of the sin, and that abhorrence of the sin requires mercy to the sinner?
We must avoid the insult of encouraging people to identify themselves with their temptations. The two are not identical. They are never the same.
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