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August 30, 2007



Rather uncomfortably reminiscent of the tortuous "treatments" to which those who wish to be "cured" of their homosexuality have themselves subjected.


Sounds very similar to self-flagellation, punishing oneself for impure thoughts.

Nathan Smith

It's a bit odd how Tom and Nato miss the point of the story. If we adopt a sort of rational choice framework for a moment, the story can be translated as follows: (1) Moses the Black found himself experiencing a kind of thought he wished not to experience; (2) through a rather rigorous process he succeeded in ridding himself of such thoughts. Perhaps Tom and Nato do not experience lustful thoughts; or perhaps they do not find them to be a nuisance; or perhaps they find them a nuisance but do not think being rid of them is worth the price Moses the Black was willing to bear for it. Moses the Black had a different judgment. On what basis could Tom and Nato argue that Moses the Black's value judgment was mistaken?

I think I see where Nato means to go with his allusion to "tortuous treatments" for homosexuality, but I can't see why he thinks it's reasonable to go there. That is, he seems to regard such "treatments" with horror, but why? If a person is homosexual but desires not to be, if a person is willing to undergo a good deal of pain and suffering to cease being homosexual, on what basis can we tell him he is wrong so to desire? I can see one reason to be horrified by treatments for homosexuality, namely if one thinks the methods are grounded in pseudo-science and have no probability of success. But if that is the problem, then the analogy to Moses the Black breaks down, for Moses *did* succeed in curing himself of lustful thoughts, at any rate according to the story.

To me the most interesting aspects of the story are:
(a) a reminder of the profound and dramatic ramifications of the fundamental fact that while we have a limited but definite sovereignty over our bodies, in the realm of our own thoughts we are like sailors on a sea: sometimes it is calm and level, and we can man the oars and move deliberately where we wish; sometimes the winds of inspiration fill our sails and bear us gloriously forward; but sometimes, in the grip of a passion or an obsession, the sea of our thoughts rages and storms, and we are almost helpless, and our sovereignty over our minds is shattered;
(b) that Moses was able, through all these physical rigors, to bend the thought-realm within him to his will, indirectly as it were.


"I can see one reason to be horrified by treatments for homosexuality, namely if one thinks the methods are grounded in pseudo-science and have no probability of success... ...Moses *did* succeed in curing himself of lustful thoughts, at any rate according to the story."

This is certainly a critical facet of my horror - those poor folks who work so hard trying to exorcise themselves of their homosexuality are, so far as I can tell, never successful in the long term. If Moses is able to exorcise his lustfulness for a time, how horrible must it have been if/when his natural inclinations resurface?

But of course, Nathan is correct: I don't really find lustful thoughts qua contemplations of specific sexual desires to be all that much of a problem.

reason 1)I am not one of the men of anecdote who think of sex every X seconds, though if one throws in episodes of aesthetic appreciation with some amount of sexual subtext, I'd estimate contemplations of note occur a few times a day and evaluations probably a dozen or more times. If this rose to scores or hundreds, I think I would begin to resent the impact it had on more substantial ruminations, but I find this only begins to happen if I for some reason or other I abstain from masturbation for a while.

reason 2)I don't think there's anything specifically wrong with lustful thoughts beyond their opportunity costs. Now, we should not entertain inherently destructive lusts* and should perhaps be wary of inclinations toward any behavior that would be predictably negative in effect. Some might say that most lustful thoughts fall under this latter rubric, but I disagree - I don't think most such thoughts bring with them a genuine desire for action. If one prolongs sexual contemplation, then it can segue into inclinations to act, but it would seem that one need not flagellate oneself to instill the minimal discipline necessary to short-circuit such contemplation. It would probably be more challenging to avoid that if one refused to masturbate or otherwise sate the biological impulse to ejaculate.

And finally, Nathan already knows that I'm saddened to hear of people trying to reject something so fundamental to themselves as if it were ugly and evil.

*I except sexual fantasies so long as one clearly and unambiguously understands them as *fantasies* that would be repulsive if veridically instantiated. I'm sure many committed couples role-play all sorts of scenarios without ever thinking to themselves that the real-world cousins to their scenarios were in any way desirable. This is a possible psychological slippery slope, of course, and I have a great deal of sympathy for those who regard very dark fantasies as suspect.

Nathan Smith

Nato's view that "opportunity costs" are the only thing wrong with lustful thoughts is arguably the orthodox Christian/Catholic view, going back to Augustine, who argued that evil in general was merely negative, the absence of good. If you're thinking lustful thoughts, there are many better thoughts you could be thinking that you aren't.

But I think the opportunity costs may be higher than Nato assumes. If you've indulged in dirty sexual fantasies for a few minutes, you can shift towards something else, sure, but how long does it take-- and what kind of new, more positive or cathartic influence-- before your mind is able to ascend to really exalted, uplifting, or beautiful themes? It seems to me that an episode of lustful thoughts can rob a whole day of the transcendent glory that can come from the simplest things-- spring sunshine, autumn leaves-- if one is in the appropriate state of mind.

Is masturbation helpful? Is it more like a medicinal drug that cures, or a narcotic drug that addicts? It seems to me that masturbation demands and spurs the creation/recall of a whole arsenal of lustful thoughts which then reside close to the surface and are more easily recalled in the normal process of thinking-by-association; in that case a regular masturbator would suffer more interference from lustful thoughts. On the other hand, lustful thoughts could arise from unsatisfied biological urges, in which case masturbation could remove the need for them. Which factor dominates? Does masturbation increase or reduce lustful thoughts? It's an empirical question in a sense, yet it would be difficult or impossible to really test. How would one go about it? One could, of course, masturbate regularly for a while, then completely abstain, and see what the difference turns out to be. But the comparison would have to rely on memory, and memory may be difficult to rely on in such cases. If you *remember* a lot of lustful thoughts from another time, that says at least as much about your *current* thought-climate as about your *past* thought-climate; maybe you remember a lot of past lustful thoughts because you've got sex on the brain *now.*


1) I do not aexpect most "lustful thoughts" as I've used the term fit the category "dirty sexual fantasies", and certainly most don't last anything like several minutes. In most cases it's a half articulated "Hey, she's pretty..." and back to our regularly scheduled rumination. Let's say 10% of those segue into an actual train of thought contemplating her attractiveness, possibly accompanied by other speculations about what sort of person she is. Actual 'dirty sexual fantasies' are something that almost have to arise by volition, or at least, they don't *last* without volition. If thoughts of explicit sex persist for long and one has a great deal of trouble terminating the line of thought, then I would regard that as strong evidence for sexual frustration.

2) It's true that to be effective at masturbation one has to learn how to evoke the greatest amount of lust possible in oneself. When I was younger I was horrible at it and it took forever because I wasn't very good creating and maintaining the necessary state of mind. Does that mean I've subsequently developed a disposition to evoke said state? Certainly, if I *want* to, but I rarely find such thoughts springing to mind when I don't.


First of all, my claim that the story reminded me of self-flagellation did not have any explicit normative content. The negative connotations come from your own interpretation of my comment.

Now, does masturbation decrease lusting? In my case, absolutely it does. Random pretty girls do not arouse me or turn my head anymore. An earnest desire to commit adultery never even crosses my mind.

I never masturbated until I was about 22, and my life until then was very difficult for me: lust was overwhelming almost all the time. It affected me very deeply in all manner of ways. Masturbation completely sates my lust, if only for a limited time. Sometimes I can go for several weeks without masturbating and without suffering from lust, but the lust always comes back again eventually. People are kidding themselves if they think they can just eliminate the lust for good.

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