Contraceptive Causality: Natural Law & Sexual Ethics

Contraceptive Causality: Natural Law & Sexual Ethics September 13, 2020

Gunther Laird has recently written a superb refutation of Natural Law Theory (NLT), as espoused these days by Christian thinkers such as Edward Feser who build upon work of Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. This kind of worldview underwrites conservative lawmakers who try to utilise NLT to underwrite modern jurisprudence. Therefore, whilst some might see a book like Laird’s The Unnecessary Science: A Critical Analysis of Natural Law Theory (UK) as an abstract mental exercise, such a project that undermines NLT actually has huge ramifications in terms of undermining conservative legal attempts to set dangerous precedents in the US. It’s a great rebuttal to such thinking – please grab yourself a copy.

Here is how Laird sets out the stall in “Chapter 3: Contraceptive Causality”, before he gets into the finer details:

How could one justify traditional Christian sexual morality if one cannot be entirely certain Christianity is true? Skip back to Chapter 1 for more details, but a quick recap: Aristotelian metaphysics tells us that everything we see in the world has certain regularities, or final causes. For instance, a match regularly produces flame when struck, rather than lilacs or ice or any other random thing, and the only explanation for this (so Aristotle and Feser would say) is that matches are “directed towards” producing flame. Or, in other words, the production of flame is a match’s “final cause:” the reason for its existing, its proper function, the purpose for which it was made (in the Acme match factory or wherever). And according to Feser, any match that failed to fulfill that function or purpose would be a “bad” match. After all, wouldn’t it be natural for us to call a match that failed to catch, or produced only a small flame, bad or defective in some way? By the same token, a match that caught easily and produced a nice warm flame—that is to say, fulfilled its function efficiently and well—would be a “good” or even a “perfect” match. There is supposedly nothing subjective or vague about these value judgements, they are simply objective statements of fact.[1]

Since everything has a final cause and a corresponding “objective” standard of goodness and badness, living creatures are in that sense no different than matches. Where they differ, according to the natural law tradition to which Feser belongs and Aristotle begun, is that they have a multiplicity of “functions,” so to speak, and can objectively be called “good” and “bad” depending on how they carry out those functions overall. Feser’s favorite example is that of a squirrel. A squirrel is the sort of creature whose final causes include scampering up trees, avoiding predators, burying nuts, and being four-legged and bushy tailed (these last characteristics are more properly called part of its Form, but Form and Function are closely related in Feser’s view anyways). We would naturally call a squirrel who deftly climbed trees and buried nuts a “good” or “healthy” squirrel, and one who had lost its legs or tail, or “ate toothpaste” or just “lay spread-eagled on the freeway” an “unhealthy” or “bad” one, and these would simply be objective assessments.[2] Notice, too, that each individual characteristic given here can be “good” or “bad” on its own—the respective goodness or badness of one body part does not necessarily affect the others. For instance, the Aristotelian might look at a squirrel that had four healthy feet but ate toothpaste rather than nuts and say, “this squirrel’s locomotive faculties in particular are ‘good,’ since its four healthy feet fulfill the function of moving it up trees, but his digestive faculties in particular are ‘bad,’ because by consuming toothpaste rather than nuts they contravene (or “frustrate,” to use Feser’s preferred term) their function of nourishing the squirrel.”[3]

   Human beings are no exception to this. While (in the Aristotelian view) we are “rational animals,” every part of our physical bodies has its own function (final cause) and thus its own standards of goodness or badness. Our legs are good or bad to the extent they allow us to walk, our digestive systems are good or bad to the extent they nourish us, and so on. As it happens, the sex organs of human beings are no exception. Their final cause is “procreation,” as Feser puts it. And while he admits they also have other functions (such as urination for the penis), in reference to sex, the standard by which they should be judged is procreation. For example, a man who could still urinate with his penis but could not impregnate a woman with it (due to sterility, injury to his sperm ducts, or whatever) would have a “good” excretory system but a defective or “bad” reproductive system, since in the former sense the penis fulfills its final cause, but in reference to the latter it does not. Genetic defect or injury has “frustrated” its proper function.[4]

   So now we understand that certain sorts of maladies can make our sexual faculties “bad” in a thin sense. But what makes homosexual behavior, extramarital sex, contraceptive sex, and abortion morally bad? After all, if a man were sterile or suffered an injury that rendered him so, we would consider him unfortunate, but we would not say he did anything wrong. By the same token, a woman who suffered a miscarriage would earn our sympathy rather than scorn. How do we go from “having a damaged reproductive system is bad” to “non-procreative sex and abortion are morally wrong?” The answer lies in the difference between states involuntarily inflicted upon someone and rationally chosen activities. As mentioned earlier and touched upon in Chapter 1, Aristotelians believe humans are rational animals, meaning we can understand Forms and reason concerning them.  The purpose of doing that (i.e., our final cause) is ultimately to understand and act on the Form of the Good.

Thomists believe that Form is the Christian God, but as described in the last chapter, there’s no way of knowing whether or not the story of Christ was real. Thus, when it comes to ethics, the Thomist might retreat to secular, objective, Aristotelian natural law, and say that understanding and acting on the Form of the Good entails figuring out what is good (i.e., what fulfills the final cause) for each individual thing, such as our individual body parts. This means ensuring our legs are used to walk, our digestive system used to nourish us, and, of course, our reproductive organs used to reproduce. These are actions we choose using our rational faculties (our minds), and since our minds are how we engage our “highest” final cause, that makes freely choosing to fulfill the final causes of our lower functions morally good instead of good in a thinner sense. But the opposite also obtains. Using condoms, or masturbating, or having gay sex, or getting abortions, all turn our procreative faculties “non-procreative.” Thus, they are instances of the rational mind choosing what is “objectively” bad (frustrating the function of its own body parts), which makes such actions moral failings rather than mere misfortunes, since injury and disease (such as sterility in men or an unintended miscarriage) are inflicted by chance rather than chosen by rational actors.[5]

   There’s a bit more to it, given how humans specifically reproduce. Since our babies are so helpless, they need the presence of both a mother and a father to survive. This indicates (according to Feser) that the final cause of our reproductive organs is not just procreation but procreation within a male-female pair bond.[6] This obviously rules out masturbation, homosexual behavior and contraception, and in fact makes them gravely immoral rather than just somewhat immoral. Unlike, say, misuse of our digestive systems or legs, reproduction is how new humans are formed and families are the basis of society, so any misuse of any faculty relating to them harms society as a whole. Abortion is even worse, because in addition to “frustrating” a woman’s reproductive faculties, the destruction of an embryo or fetus counts as the destruction of an actual human being (not just a potential one), i.e., murder.[7]

   We will explore what Feser means by “actual human” at the end of this chapter, but for now, suffice it to say that I believe these ethical conclusions are unwarranted, even if one accepts their metaphysical underpinnings. Here, I will not make the slightest attempt to “deny the reality” of final causation.[8] Instead, I will argue that the final causes of our reproductive organs are not what Feser says they are, and there are many sensible estimations of their functions that render traditional natural law sexual ethics incoherent, inconsistent, or both. I will begin by demonstrating that Feser’s definition of the phrases “intending to actively frustrate” and “contrary to an entity’s final cause” severely vitiates any sanction upon non-procreative sex. I will then show how the existence of wet dreams illustrates that male sexuality is not solely procreative in its purpose (indicating masturbation and contraceptive sex might be okay after all). I build on this analysis to prove that “basic facts” about male and female reproduction “point towards” polygamy, not monogamy, and also imply that abortion and even infanticide are morally licit under some circumstances (a position with which Aristotle himself would agree). With regard to male homosexuality, I argue it is plausible that gay men instantiate a separate Form and thus possess a different (sexual) final cause than straight men, meaning “sodomy” is not necessarily a contravention of the purpose of their sexual faculties. We can then end the chapter with the conclusion that natural law provides an unsatisfactory foundation for the traditional sexual morality it is supposed to reify, which also points to its weakness as a general ethical framework.

[1] TLS, 238, 290, 43, 139, AQ, 174-178.

[2] TLS, 36-40, 137-142.

[3] Also notice that there seems to be some slippage in the use of the term “final causality.” At first, Feser uses it to describe physical phenomenon that are both deterministic and neutral with regard to any sort of well-being, since they involve inanimate objects. A match will invariably produce fire if struck given the proper physical conditions—if it does not, it is because of specific forces or materials acting on it, such as being wet, or struck in space where there’s no oxygen to burn. Any failure to do so is only “bad” from our perspective, because the match itself doesn’t care about fulfilling a final cause of any sort, and indeed its failure to do so is actually a “regularity” in itself. Soon after, Feser looks at animals and applies the same reasoning to them, despite their behavior and health being merely probabilistic rather than completely reliable, and being consequentially significant to them rather than merely neutral. As far as I’ve been able to tell, Feser never addresses this inconsistency at length in any of his books or blog entries, so I doubt it’s a problem caused only by hasty summary. I will focus a great deal on it in Chapter 5.

[4] TLS, 141-151, AQ, 179-188.

[5] Ibid.

[6] In this view, the only reason sex is even pleasurable at all—the “final cause” of its fun, you could say—is to A: get people to make more babies, and B: bond one man and one woman—Feser’s term for the latter function is “unitive;” in his words, “the procreative end of sex points, in human beings, given their rational nature, to a unitive end.” See NSE, 394.

[7] AQ, 185, 138-142.

[8] TLS, 265.



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