Interview with Raja Halwani

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Raja Halwani is professor of philosophy in the Liberal Arts Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Born in Beirut, Lebanon, he received his BA in economics from the American University of Beirut and his PhD in philosophy from Syracuse University. He is the author of numerous books and essays in ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of art, and philosophy of sex and love.

Q: What are your main interests in SPSL?

RH: I am interested in virtually every topic in the philosophy of sex and love, but usually my interests focus on ethical issues. In love, for example, my interest is in the connections between romantic love and morality and virtue. In sex, I have worked on the virtue of temperance for a long time, and I continue to revise my thinking on it. Objectification, another intersection between sex and ethics, has also been a favorite of mine. Lastly, and lately, I have gotten very interested in issues of racial desires and virtue: whether one can be perfectly morally virtuous or ethical if one sexually prefers (or if one does not desire) members of a particular racial or ethnic group. A version of this essay should appear in the seventh edition of The Philosophy of Sex: Contemporary Readings (PoS7).

Q: How did you get interested in the philosophy of sex and love?

RH: My interest sprang from being gay and from being interested in philosophical issues surrounding gay sexuality and sex. But I soon realized that this was just an entrance for me into the larger world of the philosophy of sex. But it was (stereotypically?) gay issues that got me into the larger ones. For example, promiscuity and casual sex—sexual activities that gay men are famous for (or notorious for, depending on your point of view) got me thinking about whether one can be virtuous and promiscuous.

Q: What project are you working on now?

RH: In the philosophy of sex and love I am working on several projects. We (Sarah Hoffman, Alan Soble, and I) are currently working on the seventh edition of The Philosophy of Sex, I was asked by Routledge to work on the second edition of my Philosophy of Sex, Love, and Marriage: An Introduction (a project that I will undertake once we are finished with PoS7), and I am trying to finish two papers: one on love and morality (specifically, in what ways, if any, love is a moral emotion), and the other on pornography and polysemicity. The latter paper has been rejected by two or three journals, though sadly none supplied me with cogent and in-depth reasons for the rejections. I also just finished two essays on sex and love for The Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Love and The Oxford Handbook of Virtue.

Q. What are some of your favorite books, movies, or other works of art that relate to issues in philosophy of sex and love?

RH: The movies of Pedro Almodóvar are crucial for issues in sex and love. The short film by Kieslowski, Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery, is an endless source of ideas about the connections between love, sex, and their moral expression, and recently I found the movie Elles, with Juliet Binoche, to be fascinating. Happy Together, Eros, and other films by Wong Kar Wai are indispensable (but avoid his ridiculous My Blueberry Nights). Blue Valentine is a must see for people interested in the demise of romantic love, and there’s nothing better than Brokeback Mountain when it comes to the theme of the evils of the closet. (That was all about movies but I guess this is enough!)

Q: Why is the philosophy of sex and love particularly important, in your view?

RH: I have always thought that sex is not a crucial part of our lives (though I have a hunch I am deeply mistaken here, or, at the very least, I need to refine the question), so I am left scrambling for answers and justifications as to why it is important to philosophize—not to mention spending a good part of one’s career philosophizing—about sex. The answers I am looking for should go beyond “It is interesting in and of itself” and “Well, other fields in philosophy fare just as badly or well.” And, to be clear, when I say that I don’t think that sex is a crucial part of our lives I don’t mean this in the descriptive sense—I don’t mean to deny that sex actually takes up a large part of people’s lives (they think about it a lot, they dress up and look nice partly for it, etc.), but to deny that it ought to take up a crucial part. More should be written on this.

Q: Do you teach courses related to philosophy of sex and love? What kinds of topics do you include? What are some of the positive things or challenges you find teaching these subjects?

RH: I do. I used to teach a course called “Philosophy of Sex” every spring semester (I have stopped recently because of course reduction and because I have been teaching on death instead). I basically (and shamelessly) used PoS6 as the textbook and tried to cover almost every essay in it.

Q: Do you work in other areas of philosophy as well? How does your work in philosophy of sex and love relate to your work in other areas?

RH: I work in ethics also and political philosophy and philosophy of art, though the last two have recently taken a back seat. My interests in political philosophy—terrorism, liberalism and nationalism, the Palestinian question—are not really connected to the philosophy of sex and love, at least not in deep and interesting ways. My work in ethics has focused mostly on virtue, and, as I have mentioned, I have written on temperance, which is the virtue concerned with bodily desires. I have recently gotten interested in death and suicide, but so far the connections between them and love and sex elude me.

Q: Is it important to do “public philosophy” for philosophy of sex and love? If yes, what are some ways to facilitate that?

RH: Yes, I believe that it is crucial to do public philosophy of sex, especially in regards to specific issues in it, such as prostitution, pornography, casual sex, monogamy, polyamory, and other topics, if we are to include them in the field of the philosophy of sex, such as abortion, population control, and marriage). It is crucial to do public philosophy on these issues because people need to think about them, especially since narrow-mindedness can cause problems. Even basic distinctions, such as between, well, sex and love, are important to help people think critically about them.

As to the way to do it, teaching is always an obvious and good way of doing public philosophy, but writing op-ed pieces for newspapers, magazines, etc. is another way. Accepting to lecture at non-academic venues is another. Being interviewed in the mainstream media is another. Of course, in a country such as the United States, it is not a simple matter of academics reaching out to these areas (the media, e.g.). The people working in these areas need to accept us and to even reach out for us. Philosophy in the United States, let’s face it, has largely confined itself to academic circles.