Sunday, May 22, 2005

Feser on the Natural Law:

A good post -- with which I strongly disagree -- by Ed Feser on the natural law. Feser defends the traditionalist Catholic Thomistic view of natural law (in modern understandable terms). A couple of points need to be brought out.

1) Simply calling something "unnatural" (or abnormal) to try to score points against it -- whether it be homosexual acts, pedophilia or interracial marriage or whatever -- is on its face meaningless because there are many dictionary definitions of those terms and most (perhaps all) have absolutely nothing to do with the propriety of the actions or conditions involved. For instance, being left-handed or having an IQ over 150 is "abnormal" according to a commonly accepted understanding of that term. (For instance: "I'm getting an abnormally high number of hits on my website today.") And anything man made, clothes even, or anything that doesn't naturally exist in nature, is "unnatural" according to a commonly understood usage of the term "natural." (For instance: "Those plants were genetically engineered. That's unnatural.")

2) Therefore if we are to use the term "natural" or "unnatural" to mean something in a morally significant or "ought" sense, then it must be attached to a specific, coherent, complete and defensible general *theory* of "natural ends" whereby we can examine all sorts of things -- activities and even traits -- and see how they fit within the rubric of the theory. Otherwise calling something "unnatural" or "abnormal" is an empty rhetorical flourish that has no more meaning than statements such as "left-handedness is abnormal" or "clothes are unnatural." And Feser does a credible job making his case, even though I like most people (even most conservative Christians as I will argue) reject it as self-evidently ridiculous and even harmful as applied to everyday reality.

The most interesting part of Feser's long post (of course) is where he applies this theory to sex:

Since it’s the natural law theory example that critics of the theory always get the most worked up over, let’s look at sex. One way to understand the traditional natural law view of the matter is this. If you consider the sexual drives that human beings have, then it is blindingly obvious that if those drives have any natural purpose at all – if they were, say, designed with a certain end in view – then that purpose is to get people to use their sexual organs. And if you consider the sexual organs themselves, then it is also blindingly obvious that if they were designed with any purpose in mind, then that purpose is procreation. More specifically, the purpose of a penis – again, if you assume that it was indeed designed with a purpose in mind – is quite obviously to deposit semen into a vagina (and also, of course, to urinate). That’s what it’s for, if indeed it is for anything, and whether or not it can be used for other purposes. You can use a corkscrew for all sorts of things – cleaning your fingernails, say – and you might for some reason even have a compulsion to use it only to clean your fingernails. The fact remains that what a corkscrew is for is opening bottles. And the purpose of sexual organs, if they have one, isn’t any more mysterious than that of corkscrews.


We can note further that given the way human beings are constructed – no built-in plugs or sheathes, no ejaculatory on/off switch etc. – it is very difficult to use a penis in a way that accords with its apparent natural purpose (i.e. depositing semen into a vagina) without also having children, and lots of them. The Pill just doesn’t grow on trees, nor is a supply naturally issued with every penis or vagina at birth. So, it follows that if sexual drives and organs were designed for a certain purpose, then that purpose was pretty clearly not just occasional procreation, but fairly steady procreation. Whoever designed them clearly wanted people to have lots of sexual intercourse, and to have it precisely so that they’d have lots of children.

And finally:

It must also be emphasized that, contrary to another common misunderstanding, “unnatural” in the context of the view I’m describing does not mean “using something other than for its natural purpose.” It means “using it in a manner contrary to its natural purpose.” To borrow an example from Michael Levin, there is nothing unnatural about merely tapping out a little song on your teeth, even if that’s not what teeth are for. But there is something unnatural about painting little pictures on your teeth and then refusing ever to eat again lest the pictures be rubbed off, or pulling them out so as to make a necklace out of them. The former sort of act does not frustrate the natural end of teeth, but the latter acts do. And part of the idea in the traditional natural law understanding of the sexual act is that ejaculating into a Kleenex, or a condom, or into any bodily orifice other than a vagina, doesn’t just involve using an organ other than for its natural purpose (which is not necessarily “unnatural”) but that it uses it in a manner contrary to its natural purpose. For the “aim” or point of arousal and ejaculation, if they have an aim or point at all, is to get semen into a vagina, and the acts just described frustrate that aim.

So there you go. This theory of "natural sex" views procreation as the ultimate teleology behind sex (it's kind of hard to argue with while examining the design and functions of our sexual biology). This theory not only (obviously) views homosexual sex as "unnatural," but also equally heterosexual oral sex (and anal sex too -- practiced by many heterosexuals, but not nearly as widely practiced as oral), all acts of contraception and even masturbation. Therefore a good married Christian couple having contracepted sex is doing something every bit as "unnatural" as what homosexuals do. A teenage male masturbating -- every bit as "unnatural" as homosexuality.

You see what I mean when I write that it's not just me but the overwhelming majority of folks, even most red-state Christian conservatives, will reject this theory as unrealistic and untenable.

But this is important to note: The theory as articulated by Feser and those before him is coherent: You accept the entire thing or reject the entire thing. You cannot, in an intellectually honest and coherent way, (and as I'm sure many would wish to do) attempt to modify it to "fit" your agenda; you cannot, for instance, as I've seen done, attempt to argue that married couples having contracepted sex, or oral sex, or masturbation is "natural" on the one hand, but homosexuality "unnatural" on the other. Nope: Doing so is trying to have your cake and eat it too. When attempting to come forth with a natural teleology of sex in an "ought" sex, all roads lead to procreation. Therefore any act that purposefully frustrates the natural procreative aspect of sex is "unnatural," period.

Protestant Evangelical Francis Beckwith (who appears to question the notion that a married couple having contracepted sex is "unnatural") in the comment section, attempts to have his cake and eat it too:

But let me raise a question concerning the natural purpose of sex organs. Could not someone say that they have two intrinsic purposes--one flesh communion and procreation? Thus, contraception, in fact, enhances the intrinsic purpose of one-flesh communion by allowing married couples to engage in conjugal acts that nurture intimacy and shared devotion. Surely, the procreative function is stymied, but it is stymied for the sake of the organs' other goods. So, perhaps, we can think of justifying contraception--along natural law lines--on the ground of the principle of double-effect: there are both good and bad results, but the good outweighs the bad and the intent of the actors is to will the good.

To which, Max Goss, editor of the site, responds:

Frank, I know you addressed your question to Ed -- and I, too, would like to hear his answer -- but let me take a stab at it (also off the top of my head). I see three problems with your suggestion.

1. It would justify sodomy.

2. It is far from clear that the good of sexual intimacy outweighs the bad of preventing the conception of a child.

3. I'm not sure the intimacy of "one flesh communion" can be made sense of apart from the possibility of procreation.

As I said, I reject the entire theory as applying in an "ought" sense. Yes, the natural biological design for our sexual organs is procreation. But it doesn't follow that it is therefore bad to separate sex from procreation. Pleasure in itself, bonding, forming meaningful romantic relationships absolutely cut-off from reproduction and child-rearing is good for human flourishing.

Feser attempts to justify why infertile couple sex is okay -- fits into this theory. Often it is assumed we are referring to young couples who ought to be fertile but by biological defect aren't (and you know "miracles happen"). But arguably this is not most infertile couples. Most infertile couples are so not by defect but rather by biological design. I am of course referring to sex where one party is a post-menopausal woman. (Is God or "Nature" telling us that women past menopause ought not have sex, that to do so would be "unnatural"?)

Marriages of couples like Bob & Liddy Dole, John & Teresa Kerry, Prince Charles and Camilla Bowles -- these marriages have as little to do with "procreation" or "child rearing" as a homosexual marriage. And no, a "miracle" will not happen in a post-menopausal marriage. There is as little chance, again, not by defect but by natural design, of Bob & Liddy Dole's marriage producing a child as with a homosexual couple.


Anonymous said...

Actually, Feser's articulation of the natural law theory is NOT coherent. It's arrogant theistic crap that falls apart even if one accepts its premises. Its apparent coherence is largely rhetorical, not logical. Consider the analogy with the screwdriver: it supports Feder's argument only if in fact a thing's "purpose" is always and necessarily singular. A screwdriver may be designed to serve a single end, but that hardly means all tools are so designed. The internal combustion engine is used mainly to power automobiles, but it was hardly intended only to do so; it is also pretty useful for powering lawnmowers, generators, and backhoes. And if I use an engine to power a backhoe I cannot for that time also use it to power a forklift.

Feder's claim that nonprocreative sex is "contrary to" the intended use of the sexual organs--in the sense that secondary uses preclude some primary use--is obviously and empirically false. It's perfectly possible for someone to have lots of nonprocreative sex AND to have as many children as the next couple. It only takes an occasional act of procreative sex to do the trick. And consider the case of a husband and wife who continue to have sex after the wife is pregnant--clearly no additional pregnancy can result from such sex. Does the Church consider such sex sinful? If it does, then why did God make us so that we continue to get horny in such circumstances? Feser might argue, somewhat more sensibly, that it's wrong to have sex without EVER having children, or without having LOTS of children--but that is not the same as making the more puritanical argument against non-procreative sex per se. It is an argument against failing to produce children, which is not the same as an argument against non-procreative sex.

It's easy to find examples where we use an organ for purposes contrary to its "intended" use--in the sense that such uses preclude a primary use--yet without incurring any moral fault. When children close their eyes during a game of hide and seek, they cannot see--they contravene the "intended" use of their eyes--yet they are hardly being sinful in doing so. Instead, they are momentarily contravening the use of those organs in order to have a little fun. If that's not wrong--and I would assume Feser is not ready to declare the game of hide and seek to be sinful--then why is it so wrong when a couple plays a grown-up game that involves temporarily using its sex organs for pleasure rather than procreation? (I can play the analogy game too.)

Also, how narrowly do we define "purpose"? If we follow the biblical story of Onan (one of the most persistently and egregiously misread stories in all of scripture), we might conclude that his "sin," for which he supposedly paid with his life, was not coitus interruptus per se (and certainly not masturbation), but more narrowly his failure to produce an heir for his dead brother. If he had produced such an heir and only afterward engaged in coitus interruptus, would it have been a sin? Who knows? Where the scripture itself is silent, as in this case, ideology is sure to chime in....

Of course, the legal and social contexts within which the Onan story once made sense no longer obtain. Could it not be that something's "intended purpose" changes with changes in the context of its use? If you buy the counterargument that religion is committed to "timeless, unchanging values," I've got a bridge to sell you. Remember that the Church once used the same "natural law" crap to argue against charging interest for loans.

As for Max Goss, it is indeed possible that the sex organs were intended to have more than one use. He is still unnecessarily puritanical, however, for he refuses to acknowledge the possibility that his God might have intended for humans to experience pleasure more generally as a good in its own right. Was that in fact God's intention? Again, who can but God himself? It's really difficult in some cases to ascertain just what something's intended use might be--unless, of course, you're as comfortable as our more arrogant theists are at reading the Mind of God.

Bill Ware said...


I left Feser this post:

"Very enlightening presentation of Nature Law Theory. It's in a squirrel's nature to run up trees and gather acorns. Yet this seems a lot like instinct to me. We have the instinct to eat and have sex. Yet strictly following our nature could cause us to overeat or over procreate, either of which could have negative consequences. We would do well to counter our nature in these cases, to eat less and use contraceptives to ensure that we have no more children than we are able to raise. Call it common sense, but that's what my moral system would tell me to do."

Bill Ware said...


This is my first encounter with "Natural Law." The way I understand it, it's OK to have sex with a woman who "happens" to be pregnant or infertile. It's only when one takes positive action to prevent pregnancy by usng a contraceptive that it's "illicit."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Great points guys.

RE: Bill's point on overeating, Daniel Dennett has made a similar point about out "sweet tooth." In our evolutionary state when food was very scarce and we were constantly running around on the go, eating as many sweets and sugars as we could get our hands on was positively good for us. Therefore our sweet tooth evolved as something that was very beneficial and good for human beings.

But now in civilization when food is abundant and many of us work behind a desk most of the day instead of chasing buffolo, nature's desire for us to eat as many sweet things as possible is not at all good for us.

(Indeed, I work out and run friggin 4-times to keep my weight in check because I refuse to give up sweets.)

David Swindle said...

Fascinating post Jonathan. The thing that first strikes me off the bat is the supreme arrogance of this kind of "natural law" thinking. I'm no longer a Christian though I was very intensely for many years -- I prefer the "mystic/occultist" label these days -- but were I still a theist, I'd look down on this manner of thought for a simple reason: it's attempting to know things that cannot be known. We cannot know what God's purpose was for creating the penis or the vagina. It cannot be found using logic.

I still have many, many evangelical Christian friends who I'm very close to and I like them because rarely do I see them putting themselves on God's pedestal and asserting that "God wants this" or "God made this because..." The Christians who claim to know the will of God or the answers to the many mysteries of the world are usually the most annoying (Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Fred Phelps, etc.) They're the ones that give the good Christians a bad name.

Tim said...

I agree with your reader that Feser's article is fundamentally incoherent: Feser attempts to appeal to common rationality, yet admits that his central premise cannot be empirically verified. He writes:

And the purpose of sexual organs, if they have one, isn’t any more mysterious than that of corkscrews.

Feser belies his point by qualifying it. No one seriously doubts that corkscrews have a purpose: They're manmade tools, after all. But Feser cannot assert definitively that sexual organs have any purpose at all. That ontological uncertainty automatically makes sexual organs more mysterious than corkscrews.

Luckily, he's compensated for the deficiencies in his argument with a perfectly hilarious Freudian symbol.