Natural Law Theory and Frustrating Sexual Ends

Natural Law Theory and Frustrating Sexual Ends August 16, 2019

Natural Law Theory, in a nutshell:

NLT states that behaviours that are rationally chosen by an agent that do not fit the remit of the final cause of the agent or part of the agent (i.e., a body part) are morally bad. In the same way a kettle that doesn’t work well to boil water is a bad kettle, if the supposed final cause or purpose of a penis is to urinate and procreate, then any behaviour that falls outside of the remit of excretion or reproduction (procreation) is morally bad.

The term that Edward Feser, natural law theorist, uses is “frustrate” such that if the activity frustrates the final cause, then it is morally bad. In the case of sex, where the final cause is reproduction, wearing a condom “frustrates” reproduction. Having sex exclusively for enjoyment (i.e., wearing a condom) is therefore morally wrong. This is different to saying enjoying sex is morally wrong, since it is actually at least neutral if having sex for the primary purpose of reproducing.

Here is a claim from Edward Feser:

“Where some faculty F is natural to a rational agent A and by nature exists for the sake of some end E (and exists in A precisely so that A might pursue E), then it is metaphysically impossible for it to be good for A to use F in a manner contrary to E” (Feser, Edward. Neo-Scholastic Essays. South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press, 2015. Page 398)

To which LastManOnEarth stated:

This argument has an unstated assumption that a rational agent must act to achieve End E at all times. If E is not obligatory at all times then the agent is justified in frustrating E via F at times when E is not required, or else the restriction isn’t really about E but rather about F.

Furthermore, the argument is only concerned with acts of commission with facility F, further demonstrating that the argument is about F, not E. Abstaining from F frustrates E just as surely as misusing F.

Finally, the argument restricts it’s focus to a single F, yet any E worth discussing depends on the use (or abstinence) of multiple facilities F. Any coherent system of ethics that valued achieving natural Ends would need to account for all the myriad Facilities involved. Focusing on a single F while ignoring the entirety of E betrays the underlying intent of the argument.

Natural Law does not take the idea of Natural Ends seriously, and neither should we.

And Jayman, a Christian commenter, replied:

This argument has an unstated assumption that a rational agent must act to achieve End E at all times. If E is not obligatory at all times then the agent is justified in frustrating E via F at times when E is not required, or else the restriction isn’t really about E but rather about F.

The NLer rejects the claim that you must act to achieve E at all times because he notes the distinction between abstaining from using F and using F in a manner contrary to E. You need an additional premise to connect (1) E is not obligatory at all times and (2) the agent is justified in frustrating E via F at times when E is not required.

Furthermore, the argument is only concerned with acts of commission with facility F, further demonstrating that the argument is about F, not E. Abstaining from F frustrates E just as surely as misusing F.

F and E cannot be easily separated. What makes a faculty this faculty and not that faculty is its power to bring about this end instead of that end. The PFA is about both F and E. NLT does not value achieving natural ends by any means necessary. You’re falling prey to either-or thinking and the-ends-justify-the-means thinking. Plus, you keep speaking of “facilities” instead of “faculties”.

Finally, the argument restricts it’s focus to a single F, yet any E worth discussing depends on the use (or abstinence) of multiple facilities F.

The basic principle is kept simple with the use of one F and E. It’s not as if the PFA is denying people have multiple faculties.

I’m not sure that Jayman is right here. I would see the final cause of a human agent as the successful completion of all the things that parts of the agent have as final causes. Let’s, for the sake of ease, boil all of these down to three things: sex, eating and breathing. These are the final causes of the sex organs, the digestive system, and the breathing system.

Now, if we breathed all the time, what would happen? We would survive (unless underwater or eating). Essentially, though, this process is one that should happen at all times. If we ate at all times, we would become obese and cut our life expectancy. In other words, we should do it to the optimal amount. But, if you are going to argue that eating all of the time (in other words, eating has the final cause of nutrition for survival, and that is what we are morally obliged to do under NLT) is not demanded under NLT, then surely you must say that it should be done to the optimal amount for longevity. That is to say that all agents should be eating to the scientifically advised/proven degree (by diet and amount) to promote life or longevity. If Edward Feser eats even a little badly of a night –  too much cheese/wine/sweet stuff – then he is actively frustrating the final cause of effective nutrition.

This is morally bad in terms of his digestive system.

Sex is an interesting one since it has no, let’s argue for simplicity, health effect for the life of the agent per se (I’m sure there is data to suggest there is an optimal amount of sex for longevity). But, in the same way that it is morally good to refrain from stabbing or shooting people on a daily basis, one can argue this in reverse for sex. We literally should be having sex as much as possible for the moral good it brings about – life. Again, to simplify, let’s keep this within marital partners so as not to get onto other NLT subjects of debate.

I would agree with LastManOnEarth in saying that not having sex, intentionally, is synonymous with having sex with a condom. The intentions are identical – I don’t want to undergo a process whereby the end result is pregnancy. I don’t see that Jayman is correct in saying: “The NLer rejects the claim that you must act to achieve E at all times because he notes the distinction between abstaining from using F and using F in a manner contrary to E. You need an additional premise to connect (1) E is not obligatory at all times and (2) the agent is justified in frustrating E via F at times when E is not required.”

This appears to be nothing more than an assertion, or a rejection without any justification. There might well be some in depth justification of this – I simply haven’t done the reading or heard it.

If, as in my last post, the life outcome trumps other outcomes (enjoyment) then the NLer should be morally obligated to engage in procreative sex over and above personal enjoyment at all times.

In other words, sex for enjoyment frustrates the agent’s final cause of reproduction in exactly the same way as watching a film at the cinema does.

The NLer has to engage in mental contortion to get around this problem. We know, from an evolutionary and biological standpoint, that the final cause of ALL organisms is to survive to reproductive age and reproduce. The final cause for a human is arguably not enjoying oneself in the cinema, or even enjoying oneself in general, as an agent. That is not a primary final cause (though it may be a secondary one that enables, say, living longer to reproductive age in a society). Thus under NLT, I would argue, we are indeed morally obliged to have reproductive sex as much as possible and those who don’t are morally bad. going to the cinema, watching TV, playing a game or going to the beach are all morally wrong because they are intentionally frustrating the agent’s sexual system.

What NLers will do is appeal to a more complex set of outcomes for humans, and more nebulous metrics: Aquinas’ cardinal virtues or a “good and happy life” or similar. This will allow them all those opportunities to be morally bad on different occasions in light of some greater good. There is a tension her between an ascetic who is defined wholly by such righteous behaviour and, well, a normal person And this is the problem – the lack of clarity in defining the final causes unequivocally and discerning what trumps what when these rights and causes intersect. For a theory that seems on first look to have a great simplicity and clarity, like any moral theory, it gets very complex and unwieldy pretty soon.

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