A year ago, I participated in a debate on SSM at DDO. It turns out that this debate compellingly converted a pro-SSM supporter, which really surprised me. It reassures me that there are still people out there that are willing to go wherever the evidence leads. Too often will people read into a debate their “intuitive” presuppositions and therefore end up rejecting the argument regardless of how compelling it was. Most people who read this argument will think that something must be wrong with it but fail to provide a rational counter-response. For example, I had two friends on AIM who ended up raging at me. Their best response? I’m a homophobic ignoramus that lacks empathy. Ended up getting unfriended by them. Arguments don’t have sexual parts and they certainly don’t depend on what your sexual orientation is. Whether you’re gay or straight, the earth is still round and gravity is real. Similarly, whether you’re gay or straight, SSM is still not marriage no matter how much it pains you.
I really like this flowchart, it succinctly summarizes two opposing views that this debate reduces to. Hopefully it will help others understand the issues more, even if they disagree with the conjugal view, because too many do not understand what is involved here. It’s easier to demand rights of a certain lifestyle than it is to understand where those rights come from. How we understand metaphysics, ethics, and reality in general will determine how we look at these issues. Unfortunately, more often than not, most people let emotions control their reasons or are not interested in studying the opposing side. If you’re that kind of person, you’re at worst, acting immorally, and at best, ignorant or stupid.
(Guest Post by Tim Hsiao. Tim is a philosophy major at the Florida State University)
“The men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.” – Romans 1:27 (ESV)
“For instance, sexual intercourse between males is contrary to the sexual union between male and female, which is natural to all animals, and is in a special sense called a vice contrary to nature.” – St. Thomas Aquinas
Perhaps the most common argument against homosexual behavior is that it is unnatural – a perverse use of our sexual powers. But what do we mean by unnatural? Are cars, eyeglasses, and medicine also unnatural? And what about activities such as shaving, wearing earplugs, or applying antiperspirant? These examples of seemingly innocuous unnatural acts have made the perverted faculty argument a favorite whipping post of moral philosophers who defend the legitimacy of homosexual behavior. Even conservative philosophers within the natural law tradition – namely, proponents of “new” natural law – have come to criticize the argument on this basis. In this post I will sketch briefly a defensible version of the perverted faculty argument that is immune from such criticisms.
What is the Perverted Faculty Argument?
Most moral philosophers within the natural law tradition have used the perverted faculty argument to argue against all sorts of sexual acts which are essentially non-procreative. St. Thomas Aquinas used it against not only against homosexual acts, but against bestiality and masturbation as well. Its applications extend well beyond sexual morality and into issues such as lying and killing.
To understand the perverted faculty argument, we first have to understand the natural law theory on which it is based. According to natural law ethics, morality is grounded in natural facts about what constitutes proper functioning for rational agents. Morality is about living excellently. This is achieved when our acts align with how we ought to function given the kind of being we are. Consider a knife. Because it is the kind of thing whose proper function is cutting, we call it good if it cuts well and bad if it doesn’t. The conditions for its flourishing are set by its nature. Likewise, because the heart is a type of thing oriented toward pumping blood as its purpose, a heart which pumps blood well is a good heart, whereas one that is impaired is bad. The kind of substance that something is gives us an objective standard of goodness by which we can evaluate its performance. Key to natural law theory is thus the presence of a proper function or telos that our bodily faculties have.
Of course, all of the aforementioned examples involve some non-moral good. We don’t hold knives morally responsible for failing to cut properly. But, insofar as human persons are free agents capable of rationally choosing whether or not to pursue their flourishing, this becomes moral goodness. Knives are incapable of rational deliberation and free action, but people are. We hold a liar morally responsible because he should have known and done better.
We can already see that the meaning of “natural” in the context of the perverted faculty argument is going to relate to the proper function of a given faculty. Given this, the objection that cars, eyeglasses, and medicine are unnatural is simply irrelevant. This objection falsely equates unnaturalness with being a man-made artifact. If anything, these actually enhance the functions of what they are directed at. Cars enhance the transportative power of the feet, eyeglasses enhance and correct the seeing power of the eyes, and medicine corrects bodily malfunctions.
Now according to the perverted faculty argument, an act involving a bodily faculty is wrong if it is actually directed to a purpose other than the one it should take by nature. Put another way, we frustrate the natural purpose of a given faculty if, when engaging its powers, we direct them to an end other than its inherent purpose. Thus, because the function of our sexual organs is to procreate, directing their powers to an end other than the creation of new life frustrates their purpose and is thus immoral. The sexual powers should be directed toward procreation, but are actually directed to some other end (pleasure) in homosexual acts. By the same token, masturbation, bestiality, and contraception are also immoral. This is not to say that all sex must be had with the express purpose of procreation in mind, only that actions involving our sexual faculties must be consistent with this purpose.
But what about shaving, wearing earplugs, or applying antiperspirant? None of these actions frustrate the powers associated with the various faculties because they do not involve the active use of those faculties. Shaving does not frustrate the purpose of hair because we are not actively engaging the powers associated with hair to some contrary end. Neither do we frustrate the purpose of our sweat glands when applying antiperspirant because we are not actively directing using the sweat glands to some contrary end. The same is true of hearing: we are not actively directing our hearing to some contrary end. All of these examples involve passive as opposed to active frustration. As Stephen Jensen indicates, “[n]ot every instance of inhibiting some natural function, therefore, counts as a voluntary error. We must voluntarily use some power that directs to some end or some material, but we divert that power to some other end or material.” (1)
What about cases where we actively direct the powers associated with some faculty to a seemingly contrary end? Aquinas considered one such example when he spoke of walking on our hands. But I would answer that our hands admit of a plurality of functions. Similar to a multitool, their purpose is to be used in various ways conducive to both the good of our other faculties and the whole person. So there’s nothing inherently wrong walking on our hands.
What about the dreaded fact-value distinction? According to Hume’s famous fork and Moore’s naturalistic fallacy, one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” But this is plainly false. Given a teleological account of human nature, there is no fact-value distinction, for value is built in to fact from the very beginning. If the purpose of eyes is that they see, then it follows straightforwardly given their telos that eyes which see well are good eyes. Nature is not merely descriptive, but also prescriptive.
The final objection that I will consider asks why we should think that the only purpose of our sexual organs is reproduction. Can’t things have more than one function? Indeed, our reproductive organs also function to eliminate waste. So why not suppose that pleasure is another purpose of sex?
This is mistaken. Pleasure exists not as an end in itself, but as a means to some other end. Eating is pleasurable, but we would not want to say that pleasure is a purpose of eating. Rather, pleasure itself is purposed toward motivating us to eat for the final purpose of nutrition. There are many things which taste pleasurable to us but which harm the body with respect to nutrition. Pleasure thus is subservient to the primary function of the faculty it is associated with. Similarly, the pleasure associated with sex serves to motivate us to procreate. It is not to be sought after as an end in itself, lest we both instrumentalize our bodies and frustrate the purpose of sex.
Much more could be said about the perverted faculty argument and its application to other issues beyond sexual morality. But this much is evident: the perverted faculty argument clearly implies that homosexual acts are immoral.
1. Stephen J. Jensen, Good and Evil Actions: A Journey Through Saint Thomas Aquinas (Catholic University of America Press: 2010) pg. 245-246