Robots are all the rage these days, promising to automate many of the functions that previously required human beings to fulfill them: factory work, manufacturing, transportation … and, of course, sex. The burgeoning sex robot industry is dedicated to creating increasingly “life-like” animatronic lovers for consumers, with the intention of eventually developing robots that are, at least in one sense, interchangeable with humans.
Should our society embrace sex robots (and there seems to be no reason to believe it will not), this embrace will be predicated on the premise of identity theory, i.e., the notion that human flourishing requires full expression of a person’s identity, particularly his “sexual identity.” Within the ethics of identity theory, we are able to discern what is good based on what allows us to express ourselves fully (as long as we do not trespass the unbearably ambiguous harm principle of John Stuart Mill). In short, identity theory provides us as a society with no moral reason to object to sex robots or with the substitution of machines for people in sexual expression, a lack that raises grave questions about the sustainability of identity theory as an ethical system.
The Christian novelist Charles Williams had some thoughts about identity theory, though he wrote decades before the phrase was coined. His novel Descent into Hell depicts the gradual slide of a human soul towards hell. Confronted by something he cannot fully possess, the character of Lawrence Wentworth chooses to exclude everything other from his life and to close in upon his own self. This, for Williams, is hell: the self unmitigated by otherness (to borrow from Martin Buber). If he is correct, the narrative that full expression of identity is the sum of human flourishing is actually a gateway to total isolation from otherness—in other words, to damnation.
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The Highest End of Sexuality
The prevailing narrative today is that every person is a conglomeration of “identities.” In order to flourish, each identity must be fully free—uninhibited by either external or internal restraints—to “express itself,” i.e., to experience the world however it likes without consequences. The dominant identity, the one that most demands to be expressed fully, is the sexual identity.
This is not strictly a modern obsession. History is rife with accounts of humanity’s desire for perfect sexual pleasure—which often means sex that is primarily concerned with self-satisfaction, and not with serving another human being. When “free sexual expression” is the highest end of sexuality—with the emphasis on the self—the act necessarily turns inward, reducing the partner to the level of an accessory.
This is simply incompatible with the traditional Christian view of sexuality. In the sacrament of marriage, sex is an exchange. It is a deliberate welcoming of the other into the self—the man welcoming the woman, the woman welcoming the man, and both welcoming the possibility of the child. It requires us to accept a great multifaceted disruption of identity, coming from a free exchange of selves. In such an exchange, full and uninhibited self-expression cannot be the goal. It may be a result, but the nature of exchange excludes the possibility of making it the highest end. True exchange requires patience, moderation, compromise; it requires us to attend to and seek to understand the other. In doing so, we may be able to express ourselves fully, but if that is our primary intention we will sabotage the whole possibility of exchange.
In Christian doctrine, even God does not experience himself without reference to the Other. The glorious and unfathomable mystery of the Trinity reveals that God, who is ultimate Being, contains both Self and Other, engaged in an eternal mutual exchange. This idea of exchange undergirds the Christian doctrine of Paradise as well. Rather than being simply a pleasure palace where each individual can finally indulge his appetites, Heaven is depicted—from Revelation to Dante’s Paradiso—as the constant and constantly increasing contemplation of God. This contemplation leads to personal happiness and satisfaction only contingently. The point of Heaven is not, first and foremost, that we are fulfilled as individuals. The point is that we are ever more fully in the presence of God, which to the well-ordered individual is ultimate fulfillment.
Obsession with Self Leads to Hell
With this background it makes sense that Williams conceived of hell as the metaphysical opposite of Heaven: the constant and constantly increasing isolation of the Self, and the perpetual distancing from the Other. To some people, the idea of an eternity to contemplate one’s self may sound like a bit of a relief: finally, to be left alone for a little while to think! But throughout the novel Williams shows that however much we may think that we cherish our individual identity, the reality is that our whole enjoyment of selfhood is contingent upon our capacity to perceive and appreciate the other. To diminish or lose this capacity is to diminish our sense of our own humanness, and ultimately lose that humanness itself.
For Wentworth, the question of sexuality is crucial. This does not mean that Williams espouses the contemporary dogma that sexual expression is the highest form of flourishing—far from it. It simply means that he recognizes that sexuality is a human characteristic with deep roots in transcendence. Through sexuality (though not exclusively through sexuality), we can catch a glimpse of the transcendent. Through sexuality, we participate directly in changing the limits of reality by creating new life.
Wentworth’s descent into hell begins here, with the exclusion of the other from sexuality. Confronted by the reality that the woman he lusts after does not reciprocate, he finds his ability to express himself thwarted. But instead of seeking a deeper understanding of her, he (through the complex metaphysics of the novel) cultivates a simulacrum of her, i.e., an ideal woman manifested from his own mind that always and only does exactly what he wants. It has no otherness to it; it is simply an extension of his self upon which he can act. Once he has this representation of reality, Wentworth finds that he has little use for reality itself, i.e., for the abrasiveness and disruptiveness of otherness. Gradually, he withdraws into himself, and eventually—though after a long, long journey—is trapped there forever.
Far from being an oasis of peace, Wentworth finds that his unmitigated self is a bottomless pit of irrationality and fragmentation. He, quite literally, loses his soul; in his single-minded pursuit of isolation in which to contemplate and express his own identity, he loses any semblance of an identity. For how can we hope to reason without reference to the other? How can we contemplate without something to consider? How can we aspire to a coherent vision of anything, including ourselves, without engaging in an exchange with the rest of reality?
Wentworth has his simulacrum. We already have our pornography and commitment-free sex; soon, we shall have our sex robots. If Charles Williams is onto something in Descent into Hell, the ramifications of the presence of sex robots in society should do more than disgust or frustrate us. It should horrify us. This technology is nothing less than an instrument for making sexual expression a matter entirely of the self. It completes the work of pornography by providing not simply a passive image to exploit, but a passive thing that exerts no otherness and imposes no demands on the self. It brings us one step closer to the end of a philosophy that teaches us to find human flourishing in the exclusion of the other for the sake of the self. That end is hell.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is an iconic scene from the 1982 film Blade Runner starring Harrison Ford and Sean Young as a female replicant.