Natural law (NL) is commonly known for its conception of marriage, to the point that the theory succeeds or falls on the basis of whether you agree with its marital claims. This was not always the case, and it certainly is not the basis of why any of us think it is true. Unfortunately, I do have to admit that our own blog team has contributed to this perception but not intentionally or wrongfully. Sexuality just happens to be a prevalent issue in our society, but if other issues were at play (such as abortion), we would invoke the same ethical construct to justify other principles. Nevertheless, I have noticed that those who disagree with those issues will reject our position and NL by association, but that’s a bad approach because NL must be refuted by its principles, not just by its positions. I hope to repair that misconception by demonstrating the necessity of NL for any normative/ontological system of ethics – except for say, relativism or a literal divine command theory – which in turn will refute the alternatives to it (e.g, consequentialism, utilitarianism, deontology, etc) by demonstrating its logical incompatibility with NL via an reductio ad absurdum. In other words, I want to argue that at the very least most ethical theories must assume some principles of NL, but because their positions are contrary to such principles, they must necessarily be false.
In light of the recent discussion on my post, I have decided to provide some important clarifications for the readers here. Let’s be clear that the original article never intended to be an argument for positions within Natural Law (NL), but for its metaphysical underpinnings. Don’t feel homosexuality is immoral? Don’t feel its position on lying aligns with your intuitions? Then please take that elsewhere, this is not a discussion for girls. Label it absurd, mock it, and do whatever – just don’t act as if that makes a difference in philosophy. Part of being a philosopher is knowing what makes something absurd, not simply making an assertion that it is. Does an ethical view entail the murder of a million people for the greater good? That’s absurd! Position refuted? I think not. Instead of engaging in such trivial lines of reasoning, a philosopher must refute even that which is most obviously false. Now that may seem like a worthless pursuit, but philosophy’s intrinsic value can be found in its end for a true understanding of things. Without knowing what makes something true/false, you do not fully understand its truth. Nonetheless, I admit that intuitions are still a valuable means of guiding a philosopher’s positions and indeed you should rightly seek to justify those intuitions (cf Aristotle), but it must all be done from reason. If you’re a philosopher, it would not do to simply know it is wrong, you should seek to understand what makes it wrong.
To reemphasize my point here, if you are going to attack NL then you better attack its metaphysical principles, not its positions. Ethical philosophers are too focused on their thought experiments and intuitions, that it becomes the primary means of assessing the truth of an ethical theory. Their method of critique applies quite well to ethical theories that are realist because of their intuitions. Which makes sense, because you can criticize a discovery of science through scientific means, but you don’t do so by metaphysical means unless it has metaphysical implications or vice versa. In the same way, ethical theories don’t criticize each other for their metaphysical problems but for their counter-intuitive positions. If metaphysics is used, it’s usually supplemental rather than essential. NL, on the other hand, is completely invulnerable to such attacks because it starts with metaphysics. A perfect example is this: Say a scientist objected to ex nihilo nihil fit because it considers “quantum energy” a form of nothing coming from nothing. Well, the philosopher would rightly consider this ridiculous because we’re operating from different definitions/disciplines. Science cannot refute metaphysical principles, it depends on it to exist at all.
Similarly, NL starts from a different methodology known as essentialism. You cannot criticize it on the basis of intuition, that’s no better than begging the question. In fact, as I had argued in the previous post, one needs to assume NL’s principles for any ethical theory to exist at all. This frustrates philosophers, however, because they’re so adjusted to their restricted approach to ethics that any other approach is considered absurd. The other mistake is to criticize NL on the basis of your understanding of human nature. The point of my post is not dependent on a particular understanding of some species, it just makes the point that whatever a thing is, it must by necessity assume essentialism. So for example, if you think property dualism is a good explanation of rational thought, then it still has an essence and it should still be considered immoral to act contrary to that person’s nature, whatever it may be. We may arrive at different ethical conclusions, but at least we can dispute the actual nature of things, as opposed to our mere intuitions or thought experiments. And for the record, I think property and cartesian dualism is clearly false from a proper view of metaphysics (not the pseudo-philosophy of today), but I’ll have to argue for that elsewhere.
Let’s be clear here. Rejecting NL is not even an option, and I’m not going to give you the opportunity to think you can be rational in doing so. The law of non-contradiction is dependent on essentialism, because a thing cannot be y and x at the same time and in the same sense. This is not some abstract law of thought that transcends the nature of things, it is derived from the nature of things. If you reject NL, you deny essentialism, and by consequence reject the law of non-contradiction – thereby leaving yourself hopelessly irrational. This is simple, it does not take a thorough refutation of all the views that I hold to (such as hylemorphic dualism) in order to accept this position. In fact, Aristotelian-essentialism necessarily entails much of the positions that I currently hold to right now. Because scholastics have an organized system of thought, unlike modern philosophy, it’s quite easy to refute all of my views with just one blow. Who will rise to the challenge? My guess is, no one will. At this point, you have no choice but to accept NL.
Another excellent graph by Tim Hsiao. It’s important to sometimes simplify and generalize the overall landscape of this debate to provide others with a good idea of what we’re arguing. These represent some of the most common objections that you’ll see to NL’s position on homosexuality. If you’re not familiar already, you can read up on Tim’s other posts here and here for a more in-depth treatise of this issue.
Guest Post by Adrian Urias. This is a note that was posted by my friend, Adrian, on his Facebook page. He granted me the permission to go ahead and post it here. I felt he did a great job of outlining his own position on the matter, and his journey is pretty much the same one I had on the issue, except mine started with the acceptance of Natural Law. I was planning on doing a post on this anyways, but since Adrian beat me to it (and wrote it much better), I decided to have it here as a guest post. I’ll maybe provide my own post some time in the future where I make the connection to natural law a little more explicit. You can find his website here.
I have been engaged in many conversations lately about contraception. I think I’ve thought through it enough to actually throw it out on Facebook (I have tests I make ideas go through before I adopt it personally with full confidence and conviction, and putting it up on Facebook is one of those last stages. I’m weird, I know). So here is how I came to these conclusions.
It started with marriage. As some of you may know, I wrote an article for knowitstrue.com attempting to defend traditional marriage. At the time of my writing this, it is currently the article with the most comments on the website. So I thought to myself, how can I go about making such an argument? I read around, looked at some articles, some in books, some in magazines, and some online. I took what I thought were good points and meshed them into what is now that article. I also considered criticisms and I constructed my article with those in mind to sidestep some pitfalls. So what you see was that product of all that. Looking back, I would reconstruct the argument differently to make it stronger (I never stopped studying), but basically, what I came up with was this, and this is important:
1. All married couples have sex.
This seems obvious. First, marriage is complete when you consummate it, that is, at the first act of sex. Secondly, failure to consummate is grounds for void marriage. Not divorce. If a partner refuses to have the first act of sex in a marriage, the other partner can completely nullify the marriage. It wasn’t even valid to begin with, so it’s different from a divorce. Thirdly, marriage is a comprehensive union. Everything needs to be shared. This includes bodies. That means sex. Fourthly, if there was not a union of sex, then a divorce on grounds of infidelity would be no grounds at all. But it is grounds for divorce, therefore, there is an understanding of sexual exclusivity in marriage. But that implies marriages are sexual, hence, they have sex.
2. No same-sex couple can have sex.
This gets into the nature of sex. What is sex? In order for there to be sex, there needs to be sex organs. No sex organs, no sex. The sex organs for humans are the male penis and the female vagina. These sex organs have a proper function. There is a right way to use them. The proper function for these sex organs is to meet. If they do not meet, then it isn’t sex proper. I like quoting Francis Beckwith who said, “You can eat an ashtray, but that wouldn’t make it food.” What he is saying is that you can do many things with your sex organs, but that wouldn’t make it sex. There is still a right way to use your sex organs. Now, in the case of same-sex couples, there is no proper function for two-penises and two vaginas. There is just no right way to use two of them. They can stimulate each other, but that wouldn’t make it sex. Therefore, no same-sex couple can have sex with each other.
3. Therefore, no same-sex couple can be married.
This logically follows from the first two premises.
Now, buried somewhere in this argument against same-sex marriage is also an argument against contraceptives. The formulated argument was worded thus to avoid as much religious language as possible so to convince even the non-believer. Since it is secular reasoning, it appeals to everyone, regardless of religion stance. So, in my second premise, I say sex has a nature. But included in that nature, is a teleology. That is, an end. Sex has a design. That end is children. In my article, I mention this, but I didn’t make the divide in argument so clear. That is one of the things I would change in that article. Anywho, sex is not like any other physical act because it has the ability to produce children. Imagine if sex did not produce children. Sex would just be a rubbing up against someone. It would be like a massage or even a leaning on someone on a crowded bus. At worst, it would be like poking your finger into someone’s ear. In this light, it would be difficult to see what exactly is wrong with rape, if really you aren’t doing anything worse than giving someone a wet-willy. The ability to procreate through sex is one of, if not THE biggest reasons why rape is so wrong. But I digress. So, it isn’t just some weird coincidence that when we have sex, we have children. No one has sex, then has a child, and say, JESUS, MARY AND JOSEPH! WHERE DID THAT COME FROM!? We understand that children happen that way. So, the teleology of sex is children.
But Adrian, where does contraception come into all this?
Well, lets begin by taking a look at condoms, perhaps the most common form of contraceptives. What is a condom? It’s a piece of rubber that acts as a barrier between the man and the woman. If sex is supposed to be a union of man and woman, and a condom literally prevents that union, can we say that sex with a condom is really sex? No, we can’t. It would be like trying to bite into an apple with a rubber covering over it. Also, if you used a condom on your first night of marriage, then you didn’t actually consummate the marriage that night since consummation requires union. Are we starting to see the problems?
I was really encouraged to hear my atheist philosophy professor blast condoms as being one of the stupidest things he’s heard of. “Why would you want to reduce such a wonderful feeling?!” He said to me. I mention this to point out that this has been reasoned to without any Biblical reference. Through logic and reasoning, we can see why contraceptives are wrong. But here is where some of the force might be lost if we continue to reason without Scripture, for the non-believer can simply say, “Ok, using contraceptives is against human nature. So what?” We can still push the argument successfully through, but it loses some persuasive power at this point against the non-believer. So, since most of my conversations about contraceptives have been with believers, I now take a theological approach from here.
Now, most of what I have said so far is just very Biblically obvious. Of course men and women are supposed to be together. Of course marriage is only between men and women. Of course sex leads to children. Of course parents are supposed to raise their children. Of course homosexuality is not in human nature. Of course! But now, when we get into contraceptives, suddenly, this is not so obvious. Why? I’m not sure, but a few months ago when I started wrestling with this, my friend Stephen Weltz, said that up until 1930’s, every church was against contraceptives. It’s just the Catholic church for the most part (he is Catholic, and so is Beckwith and Robert P George from whom I got the core of argument against same-sex marriage from, so interesting correlation there). So fun fact there.
So what does the Bible have to say about marriage? Marriage is a covenant. It is not a contract. A contract involves an exchange of property, whereas a covenant involves an exchange of persons. Jesus dying on the cross is symbolic of the marriage covenant. Jesus is married to the church. But how does a marriage covenant work? It is a blood covenant. When the male enters the female, there is blood because she is a virgin. The blood traditionally signifies the first marital act. In the same way, Jesus being married to the church, also gives a blood covenant, and it’s his blood on the cross that creates the new covenant. So Jesus on the cross actually represents something more feminine than masculine, the submissive one who sheds blood. But anywho, it’s a marriage covenant. There is the exchange of persons.
Now, we have to understand how important marriage is to God. God has said that he hates divorce. That’s strong. But we understand how much God longs for marriage when we look at the history of covenants. The covenant with Adam was marriage, Noah was the household, Abraham was the Tribe, Moses was twelve tribes, David was Israel as a nation, and then God COMES BACK to marriage when Jesus marries the church of not just Jews, but Gentiles as well (notice the increase of people as history goes on). I suspect God came back to marriage because that is the covenant before the entrance of sin. So God does a marriage covenant AGAIN! The church as his Bride.
Every covenant has an act where that covenant is renewed. For Jesus and the church, the renewing of that covenant is communion. When we take the body and blood, we are taking part of that act where Jesus officially married the church. When we partake in communion, what happens? We have new life. In basically the exact same way, when we renew the marital covenant with our spouse through sex, we have the chance for…new life! Otherwise known as children! Therefore, taking contraception to avoid new life is the equivalent of taking communion and spitting it on the ground!
I mentioned that marriage was the covenant before the entrance of sin. This takes us way back into Genesis, an incredibly difficult book to interpret. But hey, lets give it a shot. Since marriage involves people and now apparently God, we realize there is a much deeper connection between the man and God. For Christians, we know that God is a Trinity. This is sometimes known as the Divine Family: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet there are not three Gods, but one God. In the same way, when a man and his wife are one flesh in the marital act, there is one being, but two persons. But, lets say in sex, a child is conceived. In this case of one flesh, how many persons are present? Three. Three persons, one being, just like the Trinity! In this way, we reflect the image of God, in complete unity.
Another bit about Genesis, and I’ll move on. One of the first things we learn about God is that God is a creator. That like the first sentence of the Bible. Is it a coincidence then that the first command God gives us humans is to create life? In this way again, we reflect God, by creating life.
Isn’t contraception then a smearing of God’s image?
Now, let me get this straight with many of you. I am not too happy about my discoveries about this. And I’m not even sure I can call them discoveries. I’m just recovering certain theological positions that everyone agreed with 100 years ago, and just siding with what the Catholic church has been saying for a long time in those 100 years. Contraception goes against God’s plan. But like I was saying, I’m not thrilled about this. I mean, I’m thrilled I’m learning about who God is (Trinity), who we are (reflections of the Trinity), and what marriage is (the complete self-giving love of the persons in the Trinity). I’m excited about that! But honestly, I would like to have sex with my wife as much as I can without the chance of children. I would like to use contraceptives, but it doesn’t seem Biblically permissible. I mean, that means, when I get married, I must be open to the possibility of children on the very first night! That’s a lot to ask for!
It seems like I’m wrestling with God. I mean, Jesus is Lord, but does that mean he has to be Lord of my body? My wife’s fertility? The timing of my children? Then you run into passages like 1st Corinthians 6:19-20 and Romans 12:1-2, which reads, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” and “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God-this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is, his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
That last part. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world. That’s it, isn’t it? We are so brainwashed by society that tells we can decide when we have children, and we can decide what we do with our own bodies. Do you see how when right teaching is taught, when there are no teachers professing what God wants from us, when we don’t have knowledgeable preachers preaching, do we see how Satan gets a foothold into our lives, and we don’t even recognize it? He has surrounded us for so long, we drowned him out. And we accept it. But enough of my preaching.
Each person of the Trinity gives themselves fully to each other. In the same way, a wife should give herself fully to her husband, and he to her. Contraception is you holding back. To my future wife, whomever you are, wherever you may be, I love you so much, and it’s possible that we might not have even met yet, but I’m already thinking about us. This is for you! Let’s not hold back.
(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
I was going to do a blog post on the topic of natural law and natural rights, but Edward Feser was ahead of me and did a much better job than anything I could produce. Check out his post here. Also, sorry for not posting as much lately. I noticed WC has been a bit slower than usual lately. I’m working on a post where I share some thoughts on something from Aquinas’s Treatise on Law. Stay tuned