Natural sex

In a wide-ranging 2001 review of books on “new natural law” by John Finnis and Robert George published in the journal Religion ), G. Scott Davis zeroes in on sexual ethics, which he notes is one of the main themes of George’s essays on natural law. Drawing on the Finnis/Grisez notion of “basic human goods,” George argues for legal restrictions on pornography and other forms of sexual immorality, and argues that non-procreational sex is an assault on the basic good of marriage.

According to Davis’s Aristotelian perspective, it seems that “proponents of the new natural law invented the notion of basic human goods because they realised that if they allowed only the Aristotelian virtues in accounting for the blame—or praiseworthiness—of actions, they would not be able to exclude all that they wanted to exclude. And this means sex.”

But, Davis argues, the new natural law is vulnerable precisely in its defense of traditional sexual morality. He cites KJ Dover’s description of ancient Athenian sexual morality:

“Greek culture differed from ours in its readiness to recognize the alteration of homosexual and heterosexual preferences in the same individual, its implicit denial that such alteration or coexistence created peculiar problems for the individual or for society, its sympathetic response to the open expression of homosexual desire in words and behaviour, and its taste for the uninhibited treatment of homosexual subjects in literature and the visual arts.”

Davis adds, “If most of us had been brought up in this kind of culture, the one that produced Oedipus Rex , our responses to anal sex, oral sex, paedophilia, prostitution, incest, orgies and bestiality would, it is pretty clear, be quite different from George’s.” He goes on to point out that our difference from Greek sexuality is the effect of the influence of Christianity, not natural law: “The legacy of Christian ascendancy is a set of assumptions, active in a fairly large part of the populace, about what is normal and what is deviant. But none of this is self-evident in Aristotle’s sense.”

Davis’s conclusion seems spot on to me: “the new natural law theory and its basic human goods stems . . . is just one more way of smuggling [a]medieval Christian vision into the discussion without paying the price of putting its theological commitments on the line.” Davis rejects those theological commitments, and the sexual ethics that go with it, and suggests that liberals “should concentrate on exposing the surreptitious theological commitments—it is no accident that George falls naturally into sacramental language when talking about marriage—deployed by the opposition.”

If natural law fails in sexual ethics, it doesn’t seem all that useful. Christians, I think, should take up the same task that Davis gives to liberals, because we too have a stake in “exposing the surreptitious theological commitments” behind natural law, and even more of an interest in “paying the price of putting [our] theological commitments on the line.”

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