Concupiscence (pt. II)

An old professor of mine used to tell a story about a students who were annoyed and even confused to find themselves in a business ethics class- “why do we have to learn ethics when this is business?” The class itself seemed like a contradiction in terms – business was a domain of action where moral considerations were simply out of place. I’ve met a similar  confusion when I’ve tried to teach students about the evils of usury – they’re baffled at the thought that the act of loaning money as a business would need to take moral considerations into account. This non-moral evaluation of business actions is one of the dominant and haunting themes of The Godfather – where the division between “business” and “family/personal” is such that the respective virtues of both are in contradiction: “family” is a domain of action which demands mercy, forbearance, acknowledgement of the humanity of others, faithfulness, sacrifice, etc. whereas “business” marks off a territory that demands the complete suppression and reversal of all of these.

As with “business”, we also want sex to be a field where moral considerations are simply out of place. Peter Singer makes this claim explicitly when he argues that sex as such “raises no unique moral considerations at all”, and this is what one is logically committed to if he sees no moral criterion in sexual ethics beyond consent.  Put in Scholastic terms, the claim is that there is no virtue of sexual temperance but only a evaluation of whether the sex is consensual or not, which isn’t a consideration of temperance but justice.

And so both business and sex are seen as fields where moral considerations do not apply. This should be expected: both sexual desire and the desire for money are easily drawn into the updraft of particular or infinite concupiscence. Artificial wealth (what can be exchanged) is easy to detach from natural wealth (what we use to survive) and when so detached it we cannot but take it as an infinite good, even if it is one that has lost its raison d’être. In the same way, there is an artificial sexual desire that is easy to detach from its natural desire, and when so detached it will be both an infinite good and yet lack any reason to be desired at all.

Once we set artificial objects of concupiscence as goods in themselves, we will perpetually oscillate between seeing them as gods and seeing them as meaningless. in fact, the perfect expression of this “godlike meaninglessness” might be simply what seems to be our dominant sexual ethic: “do whatever you want”. The world is at once entirely yours, O ye god, and yet no object in it is any more worth seeking than any other.

But setting up a moral-free zone of activity ends up swallowing everything into that realm.The genius of The Godfather is in how it shows that the attempt to divide the non-moral zone of business from family ends up making everything “business”. Michael and Fredo are the centerpieces here, but one can take it as the dominant hermeneutic for every criminal in the film. A better example, however, comes from another genre. The monster of the horror movie tends to be some sort of infinite concupiscence: the blob, the zombie and the vampire all eat forever; the alien of Aliens reproduces at any cost and without limit; and in general the one whose desires bring death cannot be killed himself.

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