Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Foundations of sexual morality


The foundations of traditional sexual morality, like the foundations of all morality, are to be found in classical natural law theory.  I set out the basic lines of argument in my essay “In Defense of the Perverted Faculty Argument,” which appears in my book Neo-Scholastic Essays.  The title notwithstanding, the perverted faculty argument is by no means the whole of the natural law understanding of sexual morality, but only a part.  It is an important and unjustly maligned part of it, however, as I show in the essay.  Along the way I criticize purported alternative approaches to defending traditional sexual morality, such as the so-called “New Natural Law Theory.”  Anyway, you can now read the essay online.  After you’ve done so, you might follow up with some other things I’ve written on the subject of sexual morality.

87 comments:

Kiel said...

I'm enjoying the essay donations despite owning them already. Handy to have searchable, digital copies as well as printed copies. Please keep them coming, especially the ones not in neoscholastic essays.

PS: was listening to your talk you gave in January about the Aristotelian argument for God's existence. The Thomistic Institute have it on SoundCloud now. The best part of the teals was what you said about the book 😜 So excited for it.

JoeD said...

Dr. Feser,

Considering you have written an essay explaining and defending traditional sexual morality with regards to many things including masturbation, I want to ask you a few questions:

1) Do you plan on making posts discussing masturbation in more detail within this framework of sexual morality like you did with other subjects?

2)And what would be your explanation under the A-T worldview of why masturbation is such a very common behaviour in today's world and all across the world, why it is so common for a a huge number of people across the world to have an inborn tendency even from an early age to desire and commit acts which are against their nature, many of whom commiting such acts without being taught to commit them in the first place.

I would especially like to hear your thoughts on the second one as the widespread presence of masturbation in many cultures and countries, including the West but alsso other parts of the world, is used by modern-day people as evidence of it's normality.

Anyway, thanks for your time!








Kiel said...

Why would Ed want or need to explain this? If you read the essay, you should get an idea of the metaphysics about sexual action and conclude masturbation frustrates the finality of ones sexual powers, which is irrational behaviour and therefore immoral.

It's fallacious to suggest something is true because it's popular. Why would point two be any less fallacious?

Am I misunderstanding the question?

Anonymous said...

Telling little white lies to get out of trouble, committing small casual acts of cruelty and bullying to feel superior to others, and a thousand other sins are also commonly committed by children all over the world, often seemingly out of instinct and without being taught. Should we conclude that those are not really wrong? Ed has already made it perfectly clear what traditional natural law theory means by natural, and how that sense of natural is completely different from "what a whole lot of people happen to be inclined to do." This does not seem like a serious objection to me.

JoeD said...

Kiel,

I am not suggesting any definitive truth statement.I am simply wondering as to why a behaviour that is as irrational like masturbation is something people have an inner tendency to do without thinking it is a bad behaviour and without even needing to be taught that masturbation is okay and you should do it.

thefederalist said...

Is the whole world mad? (That's a rhetorical question, by the way.)

Doesn't the contraception question come down to deciding "sex would be perfect if it weren't for that whole pregnancy thing"? How do we not see the absurdity of that as soon as it's stated?

Greg said...

All are naturally inclined to pleasure. Therefore, he says that everyone without exception who aims at virtue ought to be on his guard especially against pleasures. Because men are very inclined to pleasure, pleasurable objects apprehended easily move their appetite. Hence, he notes that we cannot easily judge pleasure by dwelling on its consideration without the appetite accepting it and bursting forth in desire for it. What the Trojan elders felt toward Helen when they decided that she must depart, we ought to feel toward pleasure; in all that concerns pleasure we ought to reecho their words in order that we may reject bodily pleasures. Rejecting pleasures in this way, we will fall into sin less frequently since the desire of pleasure leads men to many sins. (Commentary on Aristotle's Ethics, Bk. 2, Lect. XI, 377)

Immoral behavior like masturbation is not irrational. But it is proper to man to order his activities according to the mean determined by reason and not by sense appetite. There's no mystery in the fact that people find masturbation attractive.

I would not say that people do not think that masturbation is a bad behavior. Even in a society which is rather tolerant of masturbation, people are generally ashamed to talk about it or acknowledge its occurrence, in a deeper sense than people are ashamed to talk about or acknowledge sex generally. A married couple generally will not tell others that they have just had sex, and situations in which it becomes apparent that a married couple has just had sex will be somewhat awkward and embarrassing, but they are not shameful. It seems that the same is not true of masturbation and porn use. (Children who have never been told that masturbation is wrong will still conceal it from their parents.) Of course, one could offer several explanations of that fact, and it is not intended an argument against masturbation, but I don't think it's obvious that everyone regards masturbation as morally good.

That is not to say that that is true universally. Some people, perhaps, genuinely think masturbation is harmless or even morally good, by which I mean that they do not merely say this but perhaps are not even ashamed of it. But it is characteristic of vice to cease to be able to see that what one is doing is a bad behavior. And rationalization will be at work in some cases.

Dictatortot said...

thefederalist:

Well, most people tend to find sex highly pleasurable and fulfilling. Wrongly or not, I'd say significantly fewer feel the same way about pregnancy and childrearing. Now, deciding "sex would be perfect if it weren't for that whole pregnancy thing" might be an objectively disordered stance, in the ways that Feser helps to illustrate ... but feeling that way seems pretty far from "absurd."

Ruben Gilbert said...

Dr. Feser (and/or helpful commenters),
I'm a bit of a neophyte here but I have a question that I think your argument addresses. Considering foreplay (i will try to be technical), you seem to be claiming that the perverted faculty argument does not say that particular faculties can't ever be used in ways "other than" their designated ends because overall a particular action might be good for the agent. I take that to mean that the male faculty in the mouth of his spouse for the PREPARATION of their conjugal union would be licit, on the grounds that, even though the two faculties involved are not ordered towards each other, that particular act is for the agents themselves.My question is, how does that Square off with Ligouri and Aquinas' view that such an act is intrinsically disordered precisely on the grounds that such acts even for preparation violate the teleological structure of the faculties? I'm having a really hard time reconciling the two and I would hate to get engaged and do something which is contrary to the Natural Law.

Greg said...

@ Ruben

My question is, how does that Square off with Ligouri and Aquinas' view that such an act is intrinsically disordered precisely on the grounds that such acts even for preparation violate the teleological structure of the faculties?

"Faculty" does not mean "organ," as we are inclined to think of "organs" today. The reproductive faculty, that is, is not just genitalia. It is the seat of man's power to reproduce, or that in man which has an active potentiality to reproduce in conjugal acts.

It is, perhaps, fair to say that humans are saturated by each of their faculties. Man has the power of locomotion. What is the locomotive faculty? The short answer which we are inclined to give is: man's legs and feet. But that is not quite sufficient. Probably, we should say the locomotive faculty includes, say, one's arms, at least to the extent that moving one's arms while walking contributes to balance, and perhaps even to one's "mental" capacities for coordinating balance. There may not be any distinct integral part of the human body that you can easily point to and say that is the faculty of locomotion.

So also with the reproductive faculty. The reproductive faculty is that in man from which reproduction proceeds. That obviously includes genitalia. It probably includes also, though, certain aspects of man's psychology: his being desirous of his wife, for instance, and perhaps even those tendencies that suit him to be a good father (for instance, his being inclined to recognize his own children, and his natural affection for them).

So if the goal of the reproductive faculty is the procreation and comprehensive rearing of children, then one of its proximate goals will be insemination through coitus. But what leads up to that may involve the reproductive faculty, saturated throughout the human body, in various other ways. For instance, one's apprehension of one's wife and her beauty is, in the typical case, stimulating and is, in the typical case, what leads toward the reproductive faculty's end. But that visual apprehension is not an activity of genitalia; rather, part of man's psychology is "taken up" into the reproductive faculty, and that is just how reproduction begins. So also forms of foreplay that don't involve either the male or female reproductive organ are not eo ipso inconsistent with the end of the reproductive faculty.

Anonymous said...

I want to know is when will there be a kindle version of your book?

Kyle said...

@Greg,

Fr. Ripperger in a pastoral sermon does quote St. Alphonsus (who is noted for his moral theology) as saying putting a "husband's penis in his wife's mouth" is mortally sinful.

Father uses the vase analogy. The penis belongs only in the vase(vagina) and nothing but the penis should be in the vagina. He does say all other sorts of foreplay is morally permissible, provided there is not risk of pollution and it is foreplay tied to the marital act etc., but only as long as the "vase is respected". That does not mean surface stimulation of the woman around the vase is forbidden.

In Catholicism (and you are a Catholic, right?) authority matters quite a bit, and Father mentions this as a liberal modern stance.

On your view how is anal sex intrinsically evil? Wouldn't anal sex then be relegated to a proportionality of good/bad effects analysis such as smoking or drinking is?

Ruben Gilbert said...

@ Greg

Greg thank you so much! The idea of faculties being saturated within the person makes perfect sense. I also see that certain forms of foreplay would not have to involve the reproductive organs but still the reproductive faculty. 2 concerns:

1. The example i gave before directly involved the stimulation of the male organ in a very particular way. The trouble that i am having is that behind the act is a very good intention, but the act itself has no possibility of being procreative. Even if we want to say that the reproductive faculty encompasses more than the organ (and now i do), the proximate end towards procreation seems to actively be frustrated. I took Dr. Feser to be saying that such an act would render the faculty "perverted"

2. Saint Thomas (at least the way I am reading him) in II-II Q1.54 A.8-12 seems to be saying that we incur a mortal sin by undue or "bestial" manners of copulation, being "too ardent a lover", or "Using" the spouse "indecently?" . These can't refer to things like sodomy and incest since those are already distinguished elsewhere. The only way I can read him is to say that certain types of foreplay like the one previously menioned are out. Alphonsus liguori seems to say more or less the same thing. I'm trying to square off what both of them are saying with how this topic is popularly addressed "most things so long as we end correctly". That is obviously a caricature but I would like help here.

Thursday said...

http://www.nature.com/news/sex-redefined-1.16943

Wondering what the view of AT philosophers on intersex people.

One could take the position that a person is always really 100% male or female. I'm not sure that works, nor am I sure that it is necessary given an AT framework.

However, it seems to me that in all cases intersex conditions interfere with function to some degree. The optimal thing given the telos of reproduction is to be fully male or fully female. If you keep the telos in mind, then fully male or fully female remain the norm, even if intersex individuals truly exist.

Pointing me in the direction of papers or books on the subject would be appreciated.

Greg said...

@ Kyle

Authority is important. Where there are weighty pronouncements from popes, or positions universally held by doctors, or theses affirmed by Church councils, there is also a very strong (in some cases, indefeasible) presumption that the intellect and will should submit.

The opinions of saints noted for their moral theology should be taken very seriously. (And for most Catholics, the safest thing will be to listen to the advice of such saints.) But the question will still be one of how good the argument is. It's not clear what the principled basis is for permitting all foreplay except the sorts Fr. Ripperger precludes. One basis would be if the faculties just were the sexual organs, and then the question will arise as to how defensible that is.

On my view, the inclination of humans to find other types of foreplay pleasant is grounded in the fact that the experience of those pleasures, too, is an activity of the reproductive faculty. There is nothing wrong with them--they are, in fact, good pleasures--when they are ordered to the end of the reproductive faculty. But my view also explains why those types of foreplay are wrong when one engages them in such a way that rules out the fulfillment of the end of the reproductive faculty. The question for someone who wants to take a more restrictive view of the reproductive faculty (in order to argue that the penis and only the penis may enter the vagina) will have to give an alternative account; I'm not sure what it should be.

(Other objects may enter the vagina for the purpose of, say, surgery. So what is unacceptable about something else entering the vagina in foreplay will have to be the stimulation of vaginal sexual pleasure by something other than the penis. But if the stimulation of vaginal sexual pleasure by something other than the penis is what is problematic, it's really not clear why the stimulation of non-vaginal sexual pleasure in other types of foreplay should be acceptable.)

So I would not say that anal sex is intrinsically evil. It is, I think, very seriously unwise, and it is even more unwise if it is to be concluded in actual coitus. I wouldn't say that the only reason to rule it out would be proportionality, though; it can also be asked what motivation a couple has for engaging in it. One's, say, taking pleasure in transgressive or dangerous sexual acts (even if they are ultimately to be completed coitally) is not a good reason to opt for that sort of foreplay. (The same question may be fairly asked regarding oral sex.)

Thursday said...

The arguments used to say that oral sex (prior to ejaculation) is a lawful part of foreplay could also be used to argue that using anal intercourse as part of foreplay.

The argument against anal intercourse is that the anus, unlike the mouth, designed for expulsion, not taking things in.

But I'm not sure that taking something into the anus is necessarily a denial of the function of expelling things. Then again what about the use of suppositories, or medical exams?

There is also the argument that the mouth has always had a limited function of manipulating and sensing things, as one sees in small children.

Anonymous said...

Greg said… Even in a society which is rather tolerant of masturbation, people are generally ashamed to talk about it or acknowledge its occurrence

In other words calling someone a stud is a compliment. Calling someone a wanker is not.

Greg said...

@ Ruben

The trouble that i am having is that behind the act is a very good intention, but the act itself has no possibility of being procreative. Even if we want to say that the reproductive faculty encompasses more than the organ (and now i do), the proximate end towards procreation seems to actively be frustrated.

Well, what we say about this may depend on how we distinguish what "the act itself" is, and that is a rather knotty problem. The right conception, I would say, is that "the act itself" which must have an order to the end of the reproductive faculty is the whole activity of foreplay and coital intercourse. The end of the foreplay is reproduction if one intends to conclude with coital intercourse; and, certainly, from the perspective of philosophical anthropology, the reason the foreplay is pleasurable is because those pleasures are part of the reproductive faculty and therefore themselves ordered to intercourse.

There would be something wrong, I think, with actively dwelling on how sexually appealing one's wife is, if this were not ordered to the end of the reproductive faculty. For that condition to be met, though, I think it is sufficient that one intends intercourse to follow.

Saint Thomas (at least the way I am reading him) in II-II Q1.54 A.8-12 seems to be saying that we incur a mortal sin by undue or "bestial" manners of copulation, being "too ardent a lover", or "Using" the spouse "indecently?" . These can't refer to things like sodomy and incest since those are already distinguished elsewhere. The only way I can read him is to say that certain types of foreplay like the one previously menioned are out.

Well, even as regards "normal" copulation, it is possible to be immoderate, or to be a slave to sexual pleasure, even if one truly does love one's wife and is not trying to prevent procreation. Some of what Aquinas is objecting to may be that. This comment is plausibly targeted at foreplay:

Fourthly, [a venereal act may be contrary to the natural order of the venereal act as becoming to the human race] by not observing the natural manner of copulation, either as to undue means, or as to other monstrous and bestial manners of copulation. (ST II-II, q. 158, a. 11)

My response is the same as that to Kyle. If that is targeting foreplay, the question is which foreplay. A pastor who hasn't thought about how to answer this question might wisely say: all of them. And many Catholics might wisely obey that direction. But as far as moral theology is concerned, the question is of what makes some foreplay undue, monstrous, or bestial, while others is not. My sense is that defensible traditional sexual ethics will generally bifurcate, and it will be tough to rule out some but not all foreplay. I am happy to consider attempts to do so.

Greg said...

@ Anon

Yes, that's one way of putting it. People's willingness to condone masturbation seems to have more to do with their unwillingness to "judge" anyone's behavior. But while some people might find it impolite, I don't think it's very controversial to observe that masturbation is not really part of most people's conception of the good life.

Edward Feser said...

Kyle,

I have not heard Fr. Ripperger's sermon, but the view that oral-genital foreplay (whether the genitals be those of the wife or the husband) is not mortally sinful and indeed can be morally justifiable is not "liberal." It was a standard view among pre-Vatican II moral theologians, and expressed in ecclesiastically approved moral theology manuals.

The reason the more restrictive older view eventually gave way to this less restrictive view is because there simply are no good arguments for the more restrictive view while there are good arguments for the less restrictive one. And the authorities you cite are not giving expression to a binding opinion -- this has long been a matter of free discussion among theologians rather than a matter of Church doctrine (there is no Church doctrine on the subject) -- which is why their more restrictive view could end up being abandoned among orthodox theologians. The opinion of the older authorities is no better than the arguments they give for it, and the arguments are not good.

Certainly the view you attribute to Fr. Ripperger is in no way supported by the reasoning of the perverted faculty argument, for reasons I make clear in the article. You might as well say that thumb-sucking, chewing on pen caps, enemas, rectal thermometers, etc. are wrong because the objects in question are in the wrong "vase." This sort of view rests on a simplistic understanding of natural function.

Edward Feser said...

Thursday,


The question of anal intercourse as foreplay is NOT parallel to the oral-genital case, for two reasons. First, there can be a danger of causing serious pain and bodily damage in the former case that does not exist in the latter case. That raises obvious questions about frustrating natural function. Second, there is the issue of the presence of fecal matter, which is not only a health problem but brings in the question of people's quite natural revulsion at it. There are, from a natural law POV, bound to be serious questions about whether the sort of desire that is so strong that it overrides that very strong natural revulsion can be a healthy desire.

So, while some orthodox moral theologians of the pre-Vatican II period were willing to go so far as to say that anal intercourse as foreplay is not per se mortally sinful, there has always been a much greater reluctance among moral theologians to say that it is morally unprobematic full stop. It is, I think, problematic in a way oral-genital foreplay is not.

Anonymous said...

It seemed to me that the question was specifically pointed twords foreplay which does involve the reproductive organ.

Thursday said...

Dear Dr. Feser:

I wonder if the objections you have formulated work though. They seem more prudential than absolute.

1. Serious pain and bodily damage is not inherent to the act. Rough anal intercourse is bad in a way that rough vaginal intercourse is not. So, go easy when having anal intercourse. Be prudent.
2. Precautions against contamination with fecal matter seem easy enough to manage: wear a condom while in the anus. Even if one might object that that is still too much of a risk, surely in the future someone will come up with a near foolproof way too keep feces off your penis.

I'm actually really sympathetic to moral arguments against anal intercourse, but I think they have to be grounded in the nature of the anus (and associated parts) rather than prudential considerations. I.e. designed for exit rather than entrance.

Then we can talk about the principles that allow anal administration of medicine, medical exams, etc. After all, if it is lawful for us to pierce skin to deliver medicine, and to cut into people to investigate possible health issues, it is likely lawful for us to do those things up the butt.

Thursday said...

Arguments from disgust are tricky. Arguably plain old regular sex involves overcoming quite a bit of disgust. Certainly putting your netherparts in someone's mouth would ordinarily be quite repulsive. If we get away from sexual matters, rare steaks and sushi spring to mind too.

Charles said...

Unreconstructed ossified manualist that I am, I have never seen it claimed by any pre-VII moralist that anal sex engaged in as foreplay is not contrary to nature, only that it is "probably not a mortal sin". This is akin to saying that it is contrary to nature, but admits parvity of matter, just as self-mutilation or lying is always contrary to nature, but admits parvity of matter. St. Alphonsus considers it a venial sin to cut off a little bit of one's finger for no reason, and even St. Thomas says that it is not always a mortal sin to lie. Thus it could be said that even "anal play" as foreplay is contrary to the natural law, since ordered to the "vas indebitum", but only venially so, since it does not inhibit completely the end of the generative faculty, in that it does not involve ejaculation into the "vas indebitum". That is the reasoning that seems to me to be involved in the pre-VII manualists who say that anal penetration, as foreplay, is not (necessarily) a mortal sin.

Edward Feser said...

Thursday,

A couple of thoughts. First, as it happens, I agree strongly that arguments from disgust are problematic. In fact I don't think they have much value unless one can point to some independent reason why the object of disgust is something which we ought indeed to want to avoid (whether for moral, medical, or whatever other reason), so that the reaction of disgust does plausibly reflect something deep and ought to be preserved. Otherwise such reactions do indeed often turn out to reflect merely personal or cultural circumstances, or otherwise to be of limited or no moral significance.

However, I was taking it for granted in my remarks above that fecal matter is indeed a proper object of disgust and avoidance. So, I wasn't saying "This is problematic, because we happen to find it disgusting." I was saying "This is problematic, because there are good independent reasons we find it disgusting."

Second, re: your points about preparation for the act, I would suggest that the more rigmarole one has to go through in order to keep a certain use of a body part from being damaging, non-painful, hygienic, etc., the less plausible it is to say that the use is consistent with natural function.

Now, since these points, like my original ones, are points about conformity with natural ends, I would say that they are not merely prudential. I wasn't arguing "Well, it could be damaging, painful, unhygienic, etc.; therefore that's prudential reason to avoid it." Rather, I was saying "It could be damaging, painful, unhygienic, etc.; therefore that's reason to think it contrary to natural function."

For that reason I think Charles's remarks above are well-taken. To be sure, I am not claiming that my remarks establish (and Charles may not be claiming) that such acts are indeed per se contrary to nature. I think the case would need to be analyzed a bit more carefully. My point is just that there are serious questions about whether they are that don't arise in the case of oral-genital foreplay, so that it is a mistake to treat the two cases as on a par.

Edward Feser said...

One more point, Thursday: Medical examples (cutting into the flesh etc.) are not good analogies, because as I noted in my article, what justifies those is the principle of totality, i.e. damaging the part to save the whole organism. That doesn't apply in the case at hand, since anal intercourse as foreplay is hardly necessary as a means to save the whole organism. (For the same reason, it would not be a good reply to what I wrote above to say "But lots of rigmarole is needed in order to keep surgery safe etc." Yes, but again, the principle of totality justifies that, and it isn't applicable in the case we're discussing here.)

Tony said...

Excellent arguments, Ed. Well said.

I would add only that claims against oral-genital stimulation (in either direction, by the way) on the basis like the above from Fr. Ripperger - to the extent they might hold any water at all - would seem to imply an equal problem for ANY OTHER sort of stimulation of the genitals other than that with the penis inside the vagina. The apparent permission but only as long as the "vase is respected". That does not mean surface stimulation of the woman around the vase is forbidden does not seem to be based on any principle that is actually explanatory. For example, why would not the potential problem of manual stimulation to the male organ resulting in "pollution" mean that is forbidden?

Anonymous said...

ohh I wonder what everyone thinks about what Stephen Law has to say about this ..

http://stephenlaw.blogspot.com/2007/03/aquinas-on-homosexuality.html

Ruben Gilbert said...

@ Dr. Feser

So am I to understand that Oral stimulation is in principle acceptable for both sexes because our appeal to the principle of totality makes the conjugal act an accumulation of pyschic phenomenon, preparatory acts (foreplay), and then physical union?

Is the problem with the rigourist view that it understands reproductive faculties as synonymous with organs and their direct powers, such that when when we apply Intention, Object, and Circumstance we are forced to say that oral preparation is bad because the object is contrary to the telos of the faculty (penis)?

So under my new understanding of Reproductive Faculty as a combination of psychic experience ordered towards the union of persons as well as the biological end of coition, when we apply intention, object, and circumstance we still have in the object (mans penis in the mouth of his spouse) an act which by its nature cannot be ordered to procreation. What about the principle of totality with respect to the agent makes it so that all of the activities (psychic, mutual, and the actual conjugal completion) are taken as a whole rather than separated into their own individual acts? I know i'm missing something but i can't tell what.

Edward Feser said...

Ruben,

The principle of totality isn't really relevant to the point about oral-genital foreplay. I referred to that in the context of talking about medical interventions that involve damaging the flesh, which would otherwise be morally problematic.

Anyway, I don't think the point about oral-genital foreplay is really as complicated as you seem to be supposing. When people make love they naturally like to do all sorts of things to each other that enhance the act -- caressing, kissing, fondling, etc. Oral-genital stimulation is just part of all that and continuous with it, that's all. The teleology of all this lovemaking is that it facilitates both the unitive and procreative ends of the sexual act, insofar as it enhances the delight the spouses take in one another and ramps up the bodily arousal in preparation for intercourse. Oral-genital stimulation is really no different from other caresses, kisses, etc. in that respect and is no more problematic than they are. Mouths are like hands in this context for all practical purposes.

There is no question here of misuse of any faculty or body part, because the semen still ends up in the right place. There is nothing whatsoever in the teleology of the penis that requires some kind of "Hands off, stay back!" policy so that at every stage it can only ever make contact with the inside of the vagina, and not with any other part of the wife's body, on pain of perverting the faculty. That's just silly. The "proper receptacle" idea makes sense only if understood as a matter of respecting the end of getting semen into the vagina. It makes no sense if understood as a matter of making sure the organ is never enclosed anywhere except within the vagina. For one thing, there's nothing in the teleology that requires that. For another, the principle would in that case lead to obviously absurd consequences. You'd have to say, for example, that sticking your tongue out takes the tongue out of its proper place in the mouth; or that sticking earplugs or fingers in one's ears puts something in a receptacle that should be kept vacant; or that encircling the male organ during urination with one's fingers puts it into an improper receptacle (keep those fingers straight, fellas!); or that chewing a pen cap or playing a clarinet involves putting something improper into the mouth, which should only take in food and air; etc. etc.

This is all quite ridiculous and presupposes exactly the silly and simplistic conception of proper function that critics of the perverted faculty argument falsely attribute to it. So, one problem with the more rigorist view is that it cannot be defended without recourse to this mistaken conception.

I also think that morally and spiritually it can be quite damaging. There are people out there (as I know from email I get from time to time) who get quite worked up into a needless panic over whether they've committed a sin because a finger or tongue or hand or penis went in this direction or touched that body part or what have you, even though the act climaxed the way it should, i.e. in the wife's vagina. The rigorist view can be a recipe for scrupulosity and despair, and can make the sexual act a torment. It is especially bad when people who defend the rigorist view present it as if it were "the Catholic" view. It is not. It is merely a theological opinion, that's all.

Kyle said...

Hi Ed,

Here is Father Ripperger's sermon. Like I said it is pastoral, so he is not heavy on the explanation. He goes through all the foreplay and everything. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P2NPdKBvpdI

Kyle said...

Ed,

I was also unaware that the more "permissive" view was a legitimate position in pre-Vatican II manuals. One wouldn't get that idea from listening to this sermon. That is why I made reference to a solid authority on this matter. I agree that the rigorist view doesn't seem compatible with the perverted faculty argument as you laid out. But like I said, this sermon wasn't an academic one, so Father was just presenting his position to the people present.

Brandon said...

I've been finding this discussion quite interesting, because it shows the importance of one or two things that I think have tended to get lost in these kinds of discussions (but fortunately are starting to be emphasized again):

(1) Sexual morality is not primarily an issue of biology but of what is rational given certain biological ends. One of the errors of the more rigorist view, I think, is that it tends to confuse people into thinking that it's all a matter of some strict physiological definition, almost turning the human act of sex into a kind of medical operation that has to meet strict specifications, rather than focusing on what is reasonable or unreasonable in what actual human beings actually do. This is not what the stricter positions were always aiming at, to be sure, but people have often come away with the impression that it is, and they aren't always unreasonable in their impression.

(2) The virtue of temperance is the messiest of the cardinal virtues. It only gives clear, sharp lines in two kinds of cases -- (a) when it is crossed with another virtue that typically does aim at strict boundaries and limits, like justice, and (b) when we are dealing with a case in which it is impossible to fit the means to the relevant ends (or, from the other side, when some means is absolutely necessary to the relevant end). In all other cases it deals not with "You must do this" or "You can't do this" but with "This is more appropriate" and "This is less appropriate". So one has to distinguish between cases in which we are talking about what's strictly allowed and what isn't from cases in which we are talking about what is better or worse, and the latter is a matter of prudence rather than some hard and fast rule.

Tony said...

In any event, I thought it more probable that for the extreme iconoclast, the guilt of the act would be diminished, not altogether erased, by his perspective on how images DO NOT stand for the realities. For example, while his stepping on the image would carry one message to those who "believe in that superstitious nonsense", it would not carry that same message to his fellow iconoclast church-goers, who would not be scandalized by his stepping on it - except in a derivative sense of "oh, he is going to scandalize those other superstitious people".

Ruben, another way to fill out way Ed said is to tackle the act of sexual union from the standpoint of the revealed truth about marriage. Marriage is natural, but what God has revealed to us through Genesis right through to Revelation is that marriage is also a foreshadowing or an image of loving God, (as well as an image of Christ's love for the Church). God made humans to love exclusively, in order to image the love of God, which is exclusive (we love ONLY GOD as our final good, and no other). He made marriage fecund in order to reflect God's love, which is fecund. etc.

Furthermore, because the sexual faculty is integral to the the human person, the entire sexual act is subject to a rational ordering: it is not that the rationality of the human soul ADDS to the already existing goods of the animal level (such as physical pleasure), the realignment of rationality into the animal nature suffuses ALL of the goods of the act so that they become ordered to and by the rational good. Thus, the physical pleasure itself enhances both the unitive and pro-creative ends of the act: it becomes intelligibly good to pursue the physical pleasure as and for the enhancement of the unitive and pro-creative ends, not just permissible as if the physical pleasure were a mere side-car add-on to the rational good. We are not angels attached to bodies for the moment, we are animals - rational ones - and sensory good is part of who we are. Rightly ordered, giving physical pleasure to your spouse, within the environment of charity and chastity, is one manner of loving God, for it is one aspect of the self-gift promised in marriage, the vow divinely witnessed and approved, and "self-gift" is another word for "love". The emotional delight the husband takes in giving physical pleasure to his wife, and the reciprocal, is a concrete testament of the bond that we mean when we say "bond of marriage" and by which we name it "unitive". (But the unitive end of marriage is not separable from the pro-creative, for the two together are the full expression of the marital good. For example, the unitive good itself feeds the pro-creative, for the good of children includes being raised in an environment of permanent faithful love (which they are called to experience with God), and of knowing that they themselves are the FRUIT of such love.) Thus the seeking of physical pleasure is put in its place, as a lower-order good in the pursuit of first pleasing God, and of loving your spouse (and children which may come of that), and of giving pleasure to your spouse, and of responding in delight and pleasure to your spouse's self-gift.

Given that understanding of sexual pleasure, the rigorist position is at least a crabbed and stilted one as regards how to understand pleasure in the marital act. You don't make love with only one organ, you make love with your whole self, in different ways with different parts.

Kyle said...

Since we are on the topic. What would be the traditional position on climax in the female. Obviously to manually stimulate to orgasm completely outside the context of the marital act would be masturbation. But what about manually stimulating the woman to orgasm proximate to the marital act, either just before beginning, or just after the male finishes, or in between "instances" of the marital act? Or does a woman have to climax within the marital act itself?

Vincent Torley said...

Hi Ed,

Congratulations on a very cogently argued essay. I have to say it leaves the New Natural Law theory in tatters.

I'd like to focus on a passage in your essay (pp. 400-401):

"Nor does the premise imply that there is anything inherently wrong with having sex during pregnancy, or during infertile periods, or with a sterile spouse, or after menopause, or in general under circumstances in which it is foreseen that conception will not result. For none of this involves using one's sexual faculties in a way that actively frustrates their natural end. Foreseeing that a certain sexual act will in fact not result in conception is not the same thing as actively altering the relevant organs or the nature of the act in a way that would make it impossible for them to lead to conception even if they were in good working order. To use organs that happen to be damaged, worn out, or otherwise non-functional to the extent that they will not realize their end, is not to pervert them; actively to try to damage them or prevent them from functioning for the sake of making sure their use will not result in the realization of their end is to pervert them." (Bold emphasis mine - VJT.)

The words "actively to try" highlight the central role of intention, in your definition of perversion. If I understand you rightly, you're saying that it is the intention to prevent one's (and/or one's spouse's) sexual organs from being used in a way that could result in procreation which constitutes a perversion of the sexual act - regardless of whether this prevention is achieved via altering the organs or altering the nature of the act.

I'm not sure this definition captures all of the deviant cases you want it to capture: homosexual acts, masturbation and contraception. Arguably, a homosexual couple does not intend to thwart procreation at all: rather, the couple simply intends to engage in an act which happens to be incapable of resulting in procreation - even though they might not wish it so. For them, there is no question of altering the nature of the act so as to render it non-procreative, since there is no act that such a couple could perform, which would result in procreation. Nor should we necessarily suppose that either of the two individuals ever made a conscious decision not to use their sexual organs in a way which could result in procreation; instead, it is quite possible that neither of them ever felt any stirrings of desire for the opposite sex, so the possibility of using their organs in a procreative fashion never crossed their minds. Thus to speak of such a couple as altering the nature of their act would be rather odd.

(To be continued...)

Vincent Torley said...

(Continued...)

What about a couple using contraceptives? Here, it seems fairly clear that they do possess the relevant intention to prevent procreation, and are therefore perverting the sexual act. But the same could be said for most couples using natural methods of birth control, such as the Billings method, in order to limit the number of offspring to a financially manageable level. These couples do intend to prevent their sexual organs from being used in a way that could result in procreation: that's why they're using natural methods of birth control in the first place. They achieve this end by restricting the act to periods when fertilization is very unlikely or impossible.

You defend the couple using natural methods, on the grounds that "refraining from using a faculty, whatever the reason one refrains, is not the same as perverting the faculty," which you define as "using it in a way that actively frustrates the end of the faculty" (p. 400). But if it is one's intention when using a faculty that determines whether one is perverting that faculty or not (as the bolded passage above seems to suggest), then the mere intention to use a faculty in a way that prevents its end from being realized (whether by erecting a physical or a temporal barrier to the achievement of that goal), constitutes a perversion of the faculty.

So it seems that your argument proves both too much and too little. Or have I misunderstood it?

DNW said...

The moment I saw the topic, I knew the comments would cascade. LOL

By taking the tack he has, Feser is daring to analyze the most significant experience in the life of most of the un-edified appetite entity things which we habitually call - despite the social reign of deconstruction otherwise - humanity.

It is an experience which, as the editors of that journal of profundity "Psychology Today" admitted many years ago, is the only one which gives many secularists and run of the mill folk what little in the way they are capable of experiencing as 'self-transcendence', acceptance, belonging, and the profoundest sense of fulfillment be it physical, emotional, egoistic, or otherwise.

In other words, the meaningless flesh machines operate in such and such a way, and it is reinforcing, and that is it. Except, isn't it all special, and a sacred sweet-mystery-of-life rite, and right nonetheless. Hey, a computer gotta compute, right? even if it isn't for anything, or really doing anything ... ultimately.

Thus the same, or a similar, axiom problem creeps into such discussions here and festers just as it does with most all other questions of human morality: the anti-essentialist secularist or anti-teleologist, continues to inveigh (I almost said 'argue') in the name of a common or 'real' humanity, and implies therein the presumptive order and dignity of the raw material as he sees it; while of course rejecting/bracketing the teleological or essentialist premise which makes sense of, or logically enables the taking of such a rhetorical stance in the first place.

It's an interesting phenomenon which appears as often as does Aristotle and the matter of valuing values.

Edward Feser said...

Kyle,

It seems to be the standard view among orthodox Catholic moral theologians these days that (a) the woman's climax must occur in the overall context of an act of intercourse but also (b) it doesn't matter whether this climax occurs before, during, or after the man's. It also may be achieved manually or orally. I think this is correct and consistent with the unitive and procreative teleology of the act.

Ford and Kelly devote a few pages to discussing the issue of multiple orgasms on the part of the woman during the overall context of a single act of intercourse in which the man climaxes only once. As they note, some moral theologians object to this and take the view that in principle there should only be one orgasm per spouse. But Ford and Kelly themselves reject this view, in part on the basis of the different natures of male and female arousal and climax. I think they are correct.

Edward Feser said...

Vincent,

Thanks for your comments. Intention is not relevant in the specific way you seem to be supposing. Just as someone need not consciously think "I hereby intend to further the procreative and unitive ends" in order for a sexual act to be legitimate, so too someone need not consciously think "I hereby seek to frustrate the procreative and/or unitive ends!" in order for it to be illegitimate. An act can in fact actively frustrate the end whether or not one has such frustration consciously in view, just as an act can in fact be free of such active frustration whether or not avoiding such frustration is consciously in view.

Kyle said...

Thanks Ed and Greg, I much appreciate your insight on this. Ed, thank you for your blog, I enjoy reading it and the comments even if I don't fully grasp everything. It does get easier. Thanks also for your great books, I have several of them and am just finishing TLS.

WorBlux said...

Thrusday


There are no known cases of a human true hermaphrodites, where both functional male and female gonads are present. Where fertility is possible, I think AT would suggest a corrective surgery if performed should attempt to preserve it.

However given most intersex conditions cause sterility., where sterility is a constant a corrective surgery could be based on what has the best chance of normal external function. This could be influenced psychology, especially where chromosomes and gonads conflict.

I would suspect where fertility is not restored, you treat it like sterility for any other reasons. However the validity of a marriage depends on consummation with the external organs.

None of this however justifies gender reassignment of externally functional and presumably fertile individuals, or the idea that biological sex is anything other than binary.

Gyan said...

Does it not matter that pens is also an excretory organ and thus it is wrong to put it into the mouth

Thursday said...

There are no known cases of a human true hermaphrodites, where both functional male and female gonads are present.

That's an argument that human being are by nature sexually dimorphic, divided into male and female. However, that doesn't mean that all people are actually male or female. Dogs by nature have four legs, but not every dog actually has four legs.

Genuine intersex people may exist, but that does not negate a sexually dimorphic human nature.

Thursday said...

Does it not matter that pens is also an excretory organ and thus it is wrong to put it into the mouth

Urine is generally sterile, so I don't think that oral/genital contact is an issue in the way that oral/anal contact is.

However, the fact that the genitals are in an area of the body that is known to be generally unhygienic (they are near the anus and in a place where there are lots of creases and crevices) does bring up the question of whether it is appropriate to put them in the mouth.

Vincent Torley said...

Hi Ed,

Thanks very much for clearing up my misunderstanding. If I understand you aright, you seem to be arguing that the question of whether an act frustrates a faculty's natural end is logically prior to any considerations relating to the agent's intentions. Thus when writing about contraceptive acts, you declare: "For these acts too involve using the sexual faculties in a way that actively frustrates their natural procreative end" (p. 403, emphases mine). So let me get this straight. You are saying that there are two questions that need to be answered when ascertaining whether an agent's act, when using a faculty, conforms to natural law:

(i) whether the act itself frustrates the natural end of the faculty - or as you put it, whether "there is something contrary to nature in using it [a faculty] in a way that actively frustrates the end of the faculty" (p. 400); and

(ii) whether the agent intends to frustrate the realization of the end of the faculty, since the agent, if he is acting morally, "cannot intend actively to frustrate the realization of E [the faculty's natural end]" (p. 399).

Question (i) relates to whether the act is objectively contrary to natural law, while (ii) relates to whether the agent's subjectiveI ought to pursue what realizes my natural ends and avoid what frustrates them" (p. 386). Later on, you further refine this formulation, when you write that it cannot possibly be "good for [an agent] A to use [a faculty] F in a manner contrary to [its natural end] E" (p. 398).

So here's my first general question: under what conditions does an act frustrate the end of a faculty? One might reply: when one cannot realize the end of the faculty while performing that act. But that would prove too much: it would mean that using one's faculty of speech for whistling is unnatural, as one cannot whistle and talk at the same time. Alternatively, one might reply: when the performance of the act permanently blocks the realization of the faculty. But that would prove too little: it would rule out sterilization but not contraception. (To be continued)

Vincent Torley said...

Sorry Ed. I seem to have deleted a line of text from the fourth paragraph of my post directly above, by mistake. It should read (bolding indicates deleted text):

Question (i) relates to whether the act is objectively contrary to natural law, while (ii) relates to whether the agent's subjective intentions run contrary to natural law. For instance, when discussing natural law at the most general level, you write: "I ought to pursue what realizes my natural ends and avoid what frustrates them" (p. 386). Later on, you further refine this formulation, when you write that it cannot possibly be "good for [an agent] A to use [a faculty] F in a manner contrary to [its natural end] E" (p. 398).

End quote.

To continue: my second general question relates to how one is supposed to individuate acts. Consider, for instance, the case of a woman who takes the Pill at a specified time every day and who subsequently engages in sexual intercourse. Does that count as two acts or one? The only way in which it makes sense to regard the two episodes as part of one act is with regard to the intentions of the agent - but you want to put those to one side, when considering objective morality, and just focus on the act itself. But if there are two distinct acts, then we have a problem. The second act doesn't frustrate the end of the procreative faculty. What about the first? Well, it certainly prevents procreation. But if that alone is enough to render the use of the Pill immoral (since it falls foul of condition (i) in my post above), then any use of the Pill (even for medicinal purposes) would be wrong.

I'll stop there for now. As I said, I think you've made a devastating case against the New Natural Law. I'm not sure, however, that the perverted faculty argument, as it stands, is impregnable to the objections I have raised. But I may be overlooking something. Cheers.

Greg said...

@ Ed

Intention is not relevant in the specific way you seem to be supposing. Just as someone need not consciously think "I hereby intend to further the procreative and unitive ends" in order for a sexual act to be legitimate, so too someone need not consciously think "I hereby seek to frustrate the procreative and/or unitive ends!" in order for it to be illegitimate. An act can in fact actively frustrate the end whether or not one has such frustration consciously in view, just as an act can in fact be free of such active frustration whether or not avoiding such frustration is consciously in view.

The central problem of Catholic sexual ethics since Humanae vitae has been to render these three judgments consistent:
(a) A woman who takes a pill in order to avoid pregnancy when she has sex thereby sins.
(b) A woman who takes the same pill for health-related reasons and later has sex does not thereby sin.
(c) A couple who abstain from sex during fertile periods does not (necessarily) thereby sin.

The distinction between (a) and (b) seems not to be anything "behavioral". The conjugal act, when it occurs, looks the same in both cases (unlike in the case of coitus interruptus, anal sex, or condom use). So Catholic theologians started looking to intention to distinguish the cases of (a) and (b). That is the point of Grisez's contra-life argument. But then it becomes unclear how one can hold (c), for it seems that couples practicing NFP intend to prevent procreation. Grisez et al. seem to think that it is possible to say that couples practicing NFP do not intend to prevent a basic good from coming into existence, but I am not sure how they can do that.

The problem is very lucidly set out in Anscombe's "Contraception and Chastity". She thinks that the distinction needed here is between matter/object and end, or (as she puts it) between the intentionalness of an action and the further intention with which one performs the action. The contraceptor and the NFP practitioner have (or might have) the same further intention, but the matter/object of the one is objectionable, of the other, unobjectionable.

I am not sure how it is possible to make these distinctions without venturing into action theory.

Anonymous said...

Vincent Torley: But that would prove too much: it would mean that using one's faculty of speech for whistling is unnatural, as one cannot whistle and talk at the same time.

But whistling does not frustrate any act of speech, since you point out that it isn't possible to be performing an act of speech if you're whistling at the same time. If you tried to do both, you would certainly be trying to do something irrational, which would be foolish.

Greg said...

Now, let me make another point. Vincent has now twice said that Ed's case against NNL is devastating. The objection is in the section "There is no alternative." The argument cites a number of terms that NNL employs to describe what is wrong with non-marital sex, which I group into two categories: (1) "one-flesh union," "sexual acts of reproductive type," "biological-functional unity," (2) "treating bodies/persons as instruments," "disintegration," "self-integration," "alienation from conscious subjectivity," etc. (p. 411).

All of these are, without A-T metaphysics, at best, metaphors, Ed says. The terms in the first category are used "with no hint of irony ... despite the fact that the charge of 'physicalism' or 'biologism' is ritualistically flung at the perverted faculty argument" (p. 412).

Ed is right here, but the truth is that recently NNL has made use of A-T metaphysics rather self-consciously. Early on, one finds Robert George, for instance, claiming that Aquinas's metaphysics, in identifying the fundamental form of causality as that of the end, is unacceptably premodern and scientifically indefensible. But you simply won't find NNLers defending that view today, and they have no interest in claiming that there are no formal or final causes, or that one cannot discover them in nature. (I think they are not very good about owning up to this shift. For an exception, see Sherif Girgis's contribution to this volume. However, you can find the view expressed in academic articles by Christopher Tollefsen as well.)

But even though it is self-consciously committed to the existence of formal and final causes, NNL still holds that these only spell out the content of some "basic goods". One needs philosophy of nature to say what the basic good of life/health (proper functioning of an animal body) amounts to, as, also, one needs philosophy of nature to say what the basic good of marriage amounts to. They still deny that the moral requirements regarding certain basic goods are inferred from those speculatively discoverable facts about formal and final causes.

I think that is contestable too, but it's important to appreciate what NNL is claiming and what it is not claiming.

I divided the terminology used by NNL, cited by Ed, into two categories because I think the two categories serve rather different purposes. Category (1) expresses NNL's commitment to formal and final causes in spelling out the content of the basic good of marriage. Category (2) expresses why they think non-marital sex is bad in light of their "principles of practical reasonableness." There are places where they give somewhat more determinate sense to the claim that someone who masturbates uses his body as an "instrument" in a morally suspect way or "disintegates" himself. I don't think they are mere metaphors, but there's no way to see what they are claiming there without discussing their use of the second Kantian maxim, or their conception of integrity, or their action theory.

Anonymous said...

Greg:But then it becomes unclear how one can hold (c), for it seems that couples practicing NFP intend to prevent procreation.

(c) cannot be an act of frustrating a natural faculty, because no act is taking place, so what's the problem? If it's that we have to say that their intentions may be sinful apart from any perverted faculty argument, then yes, that's a real possibility, but that doesn't seem more problematic than ill will in any other case. What am I missing?

Greg said...

@ Anon

I mean to include in (c) not just that couples abstain during fertile periods but that they have sex during infertile periods.

But there are actions that take place in (c). The couple, for instance, sits down to chart out fertile and infertile periods, in an attempt to avoid having a child. Here is a description that is adequate both to their behavior and to that of the pill users: they are taking a step to prevent children from resulting from the sexual acts in which they later engage.

There are differences, too, of course. The pill users are trying to prevent a specific act from resulting in pregnancy, whereas the NFPers are trying only to choose an act that won't result in pregnancy. I have no beef with someone attempting to argue that that is a morally relevant distinction because, indeed, I agree that it is morally relevant.

However, the force of (c) will not, I think, really be felt until one has attempted to give an account of the difference between (a) and (b). We can't find a behavioral difference between (a) and (b). It seems that the use of the reproductive power is the same in (a) and (b) and that the difference between them must be sought in the purpose of taking the pill in advance of having sex. But then why should not NFP be ruled out on the basis of the purpose of plotting out infertile periods?

Greg said...

In other words: A woman who takes the pill for a contraceptive reasons behaves in the same way at the time of having sex as a woman who takes the pill for health reasons. In what sense, then, does the woman in (a) frustrate a natural faculty?

Greg said...

I've been thinking of Ed's critiques of the notion of one-flesh union. To say that a man and woman who have sex become, in some non-metaphorical sense, one organism

is like saying that people engaged in conversation or competitive games make up one organism, since qua individuals they cannot carry out these essentially social activities. (Or are playing solitaire and delivering a soliloquy on all fours with self-abuse? And does the deliberate cessation of copulation constitute the suicide of the “one organism” that the copulating pair make up? Is it therefore a mortal sin to stop copulating once you have started?) (p. 411)

Ed goes on to allow that the Aristotelian-Thomist will grant some, rather qualified, sort of one-flesh union of spouses:

The Aristotelian-Thomistic philosopher would say that the parts of a thing make up a genuine substance (including an organic substance) only insofar as they are united by a substantial form rather than an accidental form; that the parts’ being so united involves an inherent directedness toward the flourishing of the whole of which they are a part; and that this teleological aspect makes the unity or integration of the whole intrinsically good in a way the unity of an accidental collection of things is not. In the case of our sexual faculties, the Aristotelian-Thomistic “old” natural law theorist would add that the realization of their natural end requires another human being of the opposite sex and that directing them toward another object frustrates this end and thus the good of the whole organism of which they are a part. Now if all of this is what the “New Natural Lawyers” have in mind with their talk of ... the copulating pair forming a “biological unit,” etc., then what they are saying is intelligible, though it is really just a much less rigorous and straightforward way of saying what every “old” natural law theorist already knows. (pp. 411-412, emphasis added)

NNL wants to say that there is something analogous to organic union in the copulating pair, so that it is not the case that the relevant sort of unity is only achieved by that which is substantially a man. But this point doesn't seem terribly obscure or problematic to me.

...

Greg said...

...

The act of any faculty is named from the faculty itself and regards that to which the faculty primarily and of itself tends. Thus the act of the visive faculty is called vision in relation to visible things. In this manner understanding is named in relation to first principles that of themselves are referred primarily to the intellective faculty. (Commentary on the Ethics, Book III, Lecture X, 488)

The reproductive faculty's act is clearly reproduction and its formal object is clearly (the flourishing of) reproducible things (children). Lots of faculties seem to have a kind of material dependence on that in which their formal object is realized. So activities of the visive faculty depend on the existence of things that are colored, since color is the aspect under which objects are visible. The activity of the intellective faculty depends on the existence of experiences upon which understanding may be exercised in the grasping of a first principle. The locomotive faculty depends on the existence of the ground on which one can walk.

But I don't think that is the role that one's spouse has in reproduction. Reproduction is carried out just as much by the reproducing man as by the reproducing woman (in a sense that the vision of a stop sign is not carried out just as much by the eye as by the stop sign). The activity of the reproductive faculty, the activity whose end is a reproducible thing, is an activity carried out by two people, a man and a woman. And that is why during reproduction a kind of organic unity forms; men and women, individually, have incomplete reproductive faculties.

(The formal object of the speech faculty, I think, is the enunciable, which is just as much brought about in soliloquy as in dialogue, so nothing similar occurs during conversation. I am not sure what faculty is involved in playing, but I doubt that its formal object is essentially social.)

Thursday said...

1. The NNL people establish that there is something about male-female sexual relationships that is superior to or at least more weighty than same sex relationships, and that only the former can constitute a marriage. However, they don't establish that sexual activity between people of the same sex are inherently immoral.
2. Only a traditional AT natural law approach can establish that sexual activity between people of the same sex is inherently wrong.
3. One can agree with the traditional AT approach, but still think there is nothing about the NNL approach to this issue that conflicts with the traditional AT approach. NNL doesn't establish as much as the traditional AT approach, but what it establishes complements the traditional AT approach. There is more than one way to skin the cat.
4. Except for the fact that NNL doesn't establish the inherent immorality of same sex activity, Dr. Feser's objections to the NNL approach are at best off the mark and at worst juvenile.

Thursday said...

J. Budziszewski is a Thomist that thinks the NNL analysis in this area complements the traditional AT approach.

Greg said...

@ Thursday

I'm a bit confused about what you are referring to.

The NNL people establish that there is something about male-female sexual relationships that is superior to or at least more weighty than same sex relationships, and that only the former can constitute a marriage. However, they don't establish that sexual activity between people of the same sex are inherently immoral.

Are you making a claim about what NNL is trying to do or are you just asserting that you don't think they succeed at their stated aim?

By "NNL approach," are you referring to what I've said about the defensibility of the notion of one-flesh union in traditional Thomistic terms, or the entirety of their arguments in sexual ethics? They would regard the former as just a spelling out of the content of the good as marriage, which I'd agree is consistent with "traditional Thomism". But, as I've said, NNL proponents would think there is more to say about why that is morally relevant.

But if by "NNL approach" you mean "the entirety of NNL arguments in sexual ethics," then it is certainly not true that "there is nothing about the NNL approach to this issue that conflicts with the traditional AT approach."

Vincent Torley said...

Hi Anonymous,

I am intrigued by your comment that "whistling does not frustrate any act of speech, since you point out that it isn't possible to be performing an act of speech if you're whistling at the same time." Quite so. But in that case, could you please give a definition of the phrase, "frustrate an act," which makes it clear how contraception frustrates procreation, but whistling does not frustrate speech?

As we've seen, Ed apparently believes that the question of whether an act frustrates the natural end of its corresponding faculty can be answered without reference to the intentions of the agent performing the act. As he puts it above, "An act can in fact actively frustrate the end whether or not one has such frustration consciously in view, just as an act can in fact be free of such active frustration whether or not avoiding such frustration is consciously in view." In that case, it should be possible to provide a general definition of the term "frustrate," which can be straightforwardly applied to any human act and any human faculty, simply by considering human biology. That was what I was after.

I might observe in passing that Ed's talk of an act frustrating an end sounds a little strange to my ears. One can speak of agents frustrating someone's ends, but to speak of an act as frustrating an end (irrespective of the agent's intentions) sounds like a personification to me. Ditto for the term "thwart." It would have been better if Ed had used a more neutral term, such as "block," instead.

Ed's personification of Nature also sounds rather odd, to modern ears: "Mother Nature clearly wants us to have babies, and lots of them... Now in light of all this, it does seem that Mother Nature has put a fairly heavy burden on women, who, if 'nature takes its course,' are bound to become pregnant somewhat frequently...She has also put a fairly heavy burden on children too, given that unlike non-human offspring they are utterly dependent on others for their needs, and for a very long period... Mother Nature very equitably puts a heavy burden on fathers too, pushing them into a situation where they must devote their daily labors to providing for their children and the woman or women with whom they have had these children; and when 'nature takes its course' these children are bound to be somewhat numerous, so that the father’s commitment is necessarily going to have to be long-term" (p. 390). My quarrel is not so much with what Ed is saying here, but with why he feels it necessary to anthropomorphize Nature in this fashion. There is no such "thing" as Nature; there are only natures, and none of them is my mother.

George LeSauvage said...

Ford and Kelly devote a few pages to discussing the issue of multiple orgasms on the part of the woman during the overall context of a single act of intercourse in which the man climaxes only once. As they note, some moral theologians object to this and take the view that in principle there should only be one orgasm per spouse. But Ford and Kelly themselves reject this view, in part on the basis of the different natures of male and female arousal and climax. I think they are correct.

My first reaction to the bolded part was "WTF?" But of course I know that to be a weak reaction - akin to those who take a quick look at the First Way and think it an argument that there must be a temporal creation (like the kalaam). Can anyone point me to the actual reasoning involved?

A more general question is that of natural revulsion. There is a 2nd-best kind of argument, widely used, from common consent. The simple fact that the overwhelming testimony of the record of human history is prima facie grounds for or against a given practice. That it falls short of the kind of demonstration Thomas usually gives, is clear enough. What is unclear (to me, anyway) is exactly where it kicks in, in cases of positive law; how one makes a particular determination. I mean unclear philosophically; I have no trouble with holding to a traditionalist position in actual policies, especially in matters OUTSIDE the political.

Tony said...

4. Except for the fact that NNL doesn't establish the inherent immorality of same sex activity, Dr. Feser's objections to the NNL approach are at best off the mark and at worst juvenile.

Thursday, please remind me: does the NNL approach leave room for the principle that actions fall under a species according to the object of the action? St. Thomas, Summa I II Q18, A2:

I answer that, as stated above (Article 1) the good or evil of an action, as of other things, depends on its fulness of being or its lack of that fulness. Now the first thing that belongs to the fulness of being seems to be that which gives a thing its species. And just as a natural thing has its species from its form, so an action has its species from its object, as movement from its term. And therefore just as the primary goodness of a natural thing is derived from its form, which gives it its species, so the primary goodness of a moral action is derived from its suitable object: hence some call such an action "good in its genus"; for instance, "to make use of what is one's own."

If not, (if NNL does not leave room for this) then NNL guts what St. JPII said in Veritatis Splendor. If it does, then does NNL actually go on to say that the species of an action is taken from its object?

If so, then it is a necessary consequence of the species of these actions - having sex with the same sex person - that they are inherently disordered, from their species.*

If not, failing to say that the species of the act is taken from object of the action is just being incomplete, refusing to accept the consequences of the principles.

*The proper and due ordination of goods in the sexual act is part and parcel with the proper and due ordination of goods in marriage, for God intended and designed man to have sex only within marriage: The whole self-gift of love in marriage is modeled on the whole self-gift that God designed us for when we obey the Great Commandment: to love God with my whole mind and heart and soul. Whole self-gift implies, for the sexual act, a gift of self that entails one's fertility: "whole" means all of, not part of. A spouse's sexual gift allows for the act of love to generate a new child (should God decide that), which possible child is the inherent promise that is meant by the act of sexual love. The species of act that is present in the act of sex between same-sex partners does not entail the gift of one's fertility and hence is an act of a different species altogether. But God did not design more than one species of sexual behavior for man, one only, that due in marriage. Sex outside of marriage is sex separated from its proper ordination of permanent, faithful, and fecund love which speaks of divine love. Thus every other kind of act of sex supplants a different end for man for that of divine love.

Anonymous said...

Greg: A woman who takes the pill for a contraceptive reasons behaves in the same way at the time of having sex as a woman who takes the pill for health reasons. In what sense, then, does the woman in (a) frustrate a natural faculty?

I see -- if (a) is frustrating the faculty, then that is intrinsically wrong, and so must apply to (b) as well. I think this is a matter of being precise. Faculties and organs do not really do anything. We say your eye sees, but really it is just you who sees. An organ by definition has enough unity to treat it like a thing, but it is not really a substance on its own. So we probably ought to say that a person sins by frustrating his own nature, and referring to the faculty is just a shorthand. (b) already has a frustrated nature due to whatever illness or disease she is trying to combat, which is not her fault, and taking the pill is an attempt to restore her body's proper functioning (though incompletely). But (a) is not correcting anything, she is only interfering with her body's natural functioning, which is contrary to natural law. That is, in the context of the whole person, the behavior is not the same in both cases -- one woman is injuring herself while the other is (partially, via double-effect) relieving an injury.

Anonymous said...

George LeSauvage: My first reaction to the bolded part was "WTF?"

No pun intended, I'm sure. Seriously, it seems reasonable that the man and the woman should be "in sync" during intercourse, and that in a perfect state the reactions and timing of a mutual and unselfish act would be perfectly symmetrical in that way. So it's pretty plausible that the asymmetries in arousal and performance etc. between men and woman are the result of our fallen state. I don't know what the reasoning is, but my guess would be that it could be regarded as effectively saying that it's OK for the woman to masturbate as long as she gets it in within x seconds of intercourse. But obviously male and female biology are different, so it's far from obvious that this really is due only to original sin, and even if it were, it doesn't necessarily follow that it would be wrong to take advantage of it. I'm only speculating.

A more general question is that of natural revulsion. There is a 2nd-best kind of argument, widely used, from common consent.

That's a really good point. Revulsion is hardly conclusive, but if it's widespread there has to be a reason for it. Also, if moralists, including saints like Thomas and Alphonsus, widely adopt a position, there has to be a reason why. If the arguments were simply not good, I bet Thomas would have noticed, so we need to ask whether there are better arguments or some point that we are missing. I think the roundabout way this particular subject gets discussed makes it hard to be sure how people especially in different times really understood some of these arguments.

Greg said...

@ Tony

Thursday, please remind me: does the NNL approach leave room for the principle that actions fall under a species according to the object of the action?

Yes, they affirm that the species of actions are taken from their objects.

If so, then it is a necessary consequence of the species of these actions - having sex with the same sex person - that they are inherently disordered, from their species.*

This is part of what they try to argue in sexual ethics, although their arguments for actions of that species being intrinsically immoral differ from yours.

Greg said...

@ Anon

I see -- if (a) is frustrating the faculty, then that is intrinsically wrong, and so must apply to (b) as well.

Well, that is the concern, although what I'm actually looking for is a criterion for distinguishing actions contrary to a natural faculty from those merely other than a natural faculty. My sense is that the defender of the perverted faculty argument is going to hold that the woman in (a) is perverted a faculty and the woman in (b) is not (assuming he cares to hold onto the Catholic positions on these issues). Otherwise I suppose that we are giving up on the perverted faculty argument.

Faculties and organs do not really do anything. We say your eye sees, but really it is just you who sees. An organ by definition has enough unity to treat it like a thing, but it is not really a substance on its own. So we probably ought to say that a person sins by frustrating his own nature, and referring to the faculty is just a shorthand.

There are recent defenses of arguments like the perverted faculty argument that make this same sort of turn to the whole person. It isn't what Feser does, though. Even if the frustrating of one's own nature is what is ultimately morally salient, though, one is still going to have to say something about faculties and their ends in the course of arguing.

(b) already has a frustrated nature due to whatever illness or disease she is trying to combat, which is not her fault, and taking the pill is an attempt to restore her body's proper functioning (though incompletely). But (a) is not correcting anything, she is only interfering with her body's natural functioning, which is contrary to natural law. That is, in the context of the whole person, the behavior is not the same in both cases -- one woman is injuring herself while the other is (partially, via double-effect) relieving an injury.

I have no problem with saying this, but now the argument has ceased to be that the woman in (a) is going wrong by contracepting. The argument is rather that she is going wrong by self-mutilating. So I think it is probably correct that one of the wrongs of taking a contraceptive pill is that one interferes with the normal functioning of the body, but this isn't really a point about sexual ethics per se. (If one were to say that this was all that is wrong with taking a contraceptive pill, then that would make the wrong in contraception using the pill and in contraception using the condom or coitus interruptus entirely distinct.)

Tony said...

Greg: A woman who takes the pill for a contraceptive reasons behaves in the same way at the time of having sex as a woman who takes the pill for health reasons. In what sense, then, does the woman in (a) frustrate a natural faculty?

Anonymous That is, in the context of the whole person, the behavior is not the same in both cases -- one woman is injuring herself while the other is (partially, via double-effect) relieving an injury.

That's pretty much what I was going to say, also. I think there is a parallel with the difference between an attacker cutting your gut with a knife, and a doctor doing so to remove the appendix. In the latter case, the action of "cutting" is only a part of "the act" that the doctor is doing. The true specification of the act is "surgery", and its intelligibility cannot be understood from the mere cutting of the gut. You can apprehend that there is a difference in the actions by details that are present: sterile materials, painkillers, etc. It is true that the INTENTION of the doctor is not to be found in the object of the act, the intention is "health" whereas the object is "remove the appendix and otherwise leave the person as unaffected as possible". (The doctor could achieve the act of surgery but still have the patient die). But in addition to the intention being different, the actual species of act itself is distinct from that of the attacker.

It would be very puzzling to treat a woman who cannot get pregnant because of hormonal imbalance problems and is taking the Pill to correct that as "doing the same thing" as a woman who is taking the Pill to prevent conception. At the least, it need not be true that she will take the same dosages in the same manner. And for a woman who is already not releasing eggs, taking medicine that ALSO doesn't allow the body to release eggs is not causing her body's infertility by that act. It seems odd to insist that the acts have the same species as contracepting.

Edward Feser said...

Anonymous wrote:

Revulsion is hardly conclusive, but if it's widespread there has to be a reason for it. Also, if moralists, including saints like Thomas and Alphonsus, widely adopt a position, there has to be a reason why. If the arguments were simply not good, I bet Thomas would have noticed, so we need to ask whether there are better arguments or some point that we are missing. I think the roundabout way this particular subject gets discussed makes it hard to be sure how people especially in different times really understood some of these arguments.

A few comments:

1. That a reaction is widespread isn't by itself really all that significant. For example, to the average person, philosophical questions, ideas, and arguments -- even those associated with commonsense-friendly philosophers like Aristotle and Aquinas – often seem to be “obviously” frivolous, weird, and a waste of time. And this is true of pious people no less than secular people. I once had a guy show up at a talk I gave on the New Atheism who during the Q and A asked why I was wasting time going on about cause and effect, etc. All we needed, in his view, was the Rosary and the sacraments and that’s what I should have been talking about. A lot of people think that way. And pious or not, they’re just wrong, and very badly wrong.

2. It is not in any event at all easy to say just how widespread various visceral reactions really are, now or in the past, to practices like the ones in question in this discussion. Even today, even most people with very liberal views on these intimate matters don’t like to discuss their personal tastes and practices in public. And obviously that’s going to be even more the case with religious people. Attitudes also vary with experience. What might seem extremely titillating or shocking to a young unmarried person or a celibate person can seem pretty mundane to a person long married. Yet precisely because these are such intimate personal matters, the people with the most experience are also likely to be those most reluctant to express their visceral reactions publicly. So, assurances about what there is or has been “widespread revulsion” about need to be taken with a grain of salt.

One should also not underestimate the extent to which visceral reactions can reflect cultural circumstances that have nothing essentially to do with people’s moral attitudes. For example, practices that might seem obviously disgusting in a society in which people bathe infrequently, lack effective ways of treating everyday sores and rashes, etc. might not seem so disgusting in a modern society like ours which puts such heavy emphasis on health, cleanliness, grooming, etc.

(continued)

Edward Feser said...

(continued)

3. If the views of modern orthodox Catholic moral theologians on this subject seem “liberal” compared to those of Aquinas and Alphonsus, it has to be kept in mind too that Aquinas’s and Alphonsus’s views in turn seem “liberal” compared to Augustine’s, and Augustine’s seem “liberal” compared to those of some of his predecessors. So if we’re going to say that there has been some falling away from sound teaching, or that there must be some hidden kernel of wisdom in an earlier view simply because it was earlier, we’re going to have to go back pretty far.

But in fact I would say it is a mistake – not only here but with respect to the other issues where theological opinion has shifted over time -- to suppose that the mere fact of change indicates a falling away from sound teaching. Though it is no less a mistake, in my view, to suppose that a change in opinion necessarily indicates progress. The fact is that one simply has to go case by case and look at the actual arguments on their own merits rather that assuming that a change is automatically either good or bad. (Naturally I’m not talking here about matters of Church doctrine, but rather about matters concerning which the Church allows free discussion among theologians.)

In the present case, I would suggest that the more severe views that one finds in earlier authors are in large part a reflection of the dominance of Platonism in early Christian thought, and in particular of the suspicion of all things bodily that a Platonic view of human nature tends to foster. And the progressively much less severe views one sees in writers from Aquinas down to the present reflect the influence of Aristotelianism and its more positive view of our bodily nature.

Leon said...

I think drawn triangles are a poor go-to example of imminent teleology because they're usually artificial.

Tony said...

Greg: A woman who takes the pill for a contraceptive reasons behaves in the same way at the time of having sex as a woman who takes the pill for health reasons. In what sense, then, does the woman in (a) frustrate a natural faculty?

Anonymous: (b) already has a frustrated nature due to whatever illness or disease she is trying to combat, which is not her fault, and taking the pill is an attempt to restore her body's proper functioning (though incompletely). But (a) is not correcting anything, she is only interfering with her body's natural functioning, which is contrary to natural law. That is, in the context of the whole person, the behavior is not the same in both cases

I was going to point out the same thing. Using the example of someone cutting your gut open, it differs whether it is an attacker or is a surgeon trying to remove your appendix. In the case of the latter, the act should not be named "cutting your gut open" but rather "doing appendectomy surgery", for the intelligibility of the action of cutting the gut is not specified without reference to removing the appendix: cutting the gut is a PART of the act, not the whole act. Just as you cannot name the species of man from his eye or his face, you have to take in the whole thing. The species of the act is "surgery", and we can see hints that this is a different species than that of the attacker, in the details like sterile equipment, anesthesia, etc. It is true that the intention of the doctor is apart from the species, it is "health", and he may or may not achieve health by accomplishing the act, but he doesn't even accomplish the act if he doesn't take out the appendix. So the object of the act is "to take out the appendix, doing the least damage otherwise".

Similarly, the woman taking the Pill for contraception is doing a different species of act than the woman taking the Pill to restore health. The latter may not even take the same dosages or in the same regimen. It would be very odd to insist that in a woman whose fertility is already blocked by ill health, and who is taking the Pill to become fertile, that taking the Pill constitutes the same species of act as that of the woman who "is contracepting". How can one be described as "contracepting" who already cannot conceive?

So I think it is probably correct that one of the wrongs of taking a contraceptive pill is that one interferes with the normal functioning of the body, but this isn't really a point about sexual ethics per se.

It is clear from what Ed said above, and from numerous other sources, that the standard natural law teaching is not that if a woman is known to be infertile, her husband cannot lawfully have sex with her because it would frustrate the end of the act. That's not what the teaching says. Rather, what is claimed is that it is immoral to have sex, having first taken positive steps to cause natural fertility to not have its natural effect. The action, then, belongs to the species "to have infertile sex" in the PRINCIPLED sense rather than the accidental sense: it is "to have sex made to be infertile, as such (contrary to the natural reproductive faculty)". This is distinct from a woman who takes the Pill for good health and fertility, where the Pill may ALSO have the incidental effect for a time of delaying her fertility (but it may not, because she was already effectively infertile, at least largely so): the species of her act of sex is not "to have sex made to be infertile, as such".

Tony said...

The couple who use NFP to delay a conception and to continue to use the infertile parts of the woman's cycle for sex DO NOT engage in "sex that is made to be infertile, as such (contrary to the natural reproductive faculty)". They have done nothing to the woman's natural fertility. The natural cycles of fertility and infertility are already present in the woman's healthy functioning reproductive faculties. Because they have done nothing to cause her to be infertile contrary to the natural functioning of the faculty, their engaging in sex during her infertile time is not engaging in "sex made to be infertile (contrary to the natural reproductive faculty)"

Greg said...

@ Tony

Similarly, the woman taking the Pill for contraception is doing a different species of act than the woman taking the Pill to restore health. The latter may not even take the same dosages or in the same regimen. It would be very odd to insist that in a woman whose fertility is already blocked by ill health, and who is taking the Pill to become fertile, that taking the Pill constitutes the same species of act as that of the woman who "is contracepting". How can one be described as "contracepting" who already cannot conceive?

A couple points. First, I did not say that the women in (a) and (b) are "doing that same thing" or that the species of their actions are the same. I said that their "behavior" is the same, by which, it is evident, I am referring to external behavior at the time of the sexual act:

The distinction between (a) and (b) seems not to be anything "behavioral". The conjugal act, when it occurs, looks the same in both cases (unlike in the case of coitus interruptus, anal sex, or condom use).

and

We can't find a behavioral difference between (a) and (b). It seems that the use of the reproductive power is the same in (a) and (b) and that the difference between them must be sought in the purpose of taking the pill in advance of having sex.

The reason I'm putting "behavioral" in scare quotes and saying that the use of the reproductive power "seems" to be the same is that I don't think the external bits are all that is morally salient. That is what the example is supposed to draw out; it is not an argument for what I think is false: that the moral species of the actions in (a) and (b) are the same.

Second, you are reading more into the description of the scenario than is there. The scenario I have in mind is that a sexually active fertile woman takes a pill for a health-related reason, when the pill also causes infertility. Such a woman does not commit the sin of contraception when she has sex, and she does not frustrate any natural faculty.

A true description of her action (as distinguished from a description under which her action is intentional, and from the any description which gives the species of her action), though, is "causing her natural fertility not to have its natural effect". We would probably not say that she has taken "positive steps" to cause her natural fertility not to have its natural effect, because "taking positive steps to ____" is most plausibly an intensional context, and is equivalent to "intending to ____". So to make use of such a locution we have to be able to distinguish in a principled way between intention and foresight, which is a huge field of debate not just between new and old natural lawyers but between old natural lawyers themselves. Which was my original point about how sexual ethics requires action theory.

Tony said...

Greg: I said that their "behavior" is the same, by which, it is evident, I am referring to external behavior at the time of the sexual act:

My apologies, I failed to grasp that you meant the external behavior only. In some contexts with regard to such ethical discussions, "behavior" is a rough equivalent to "what is the action" which can refer to the species.

Second, you are reading more into the description of the scenario than is there. The scenario I have in mind is that a sexually active fertile woman takes a pill for a health-related reason, when the pill also causes infertility.

You are still leaving ambiguous some of the pertinent details. You started out with this:

(a) A woman who takes a pill in order to avoid pregnancy when she has sex thereby sins.
(b) A woman who takes the same pill for health-related reasons and later has sex does not thereby sin.


I gather that women take the Pill to recover health typically for one or roughly 5 or 6 main conditions, and not all of them are equivalent to each other in terms of fertility. In some cases, the woman is unable to ovulate, in some she is unable to implant, and in others it is different. The condition may imply that the woman may ovulate, and might carry to term if she conceives, with some greater risk involved. If you mean the situation where before she takes the Pill, she is fertile, she is ovulating, and can carry a child to term with no greater risks than normal, and then while taking the Pill she stops ovulating, then say that, please.

Such a woman does not commit the sin of contraception when she has sex, and she does not frustrate any natural faculty.

I have seen that issue debated among natural lawyers. Some, I believe, hold the opinion that if she was able to conceive and carry a child before taking the Pill, and ceases to ovulate while taking the Pill, then her taking the Pill is indeed blocking the natural reproductive faculty, and she and her husband are morally obliged to refrain from having sex. I would be cautious about simply assuming that this thesis is wrong.

That is what the example is supposed to draw out; it is not an argument for what I think is false: that the moral species of the actions in (a) and (b) are the same....

A true description of her action (as distinguished from a description under which her action is intentional, and from the any description which gives the species of her action), though, is "causing her natural fertility not to have its natural effect". We would probably not say that she has taken "positive steps" to cause her natural fertility not to have its natural effect, because "taking positive steps to ____" is most plausibly an intensional context, and is equivalent to "intending to ____".


Two comments: first, I would want to know - and lay out for the benefit of everyone - an explicit discussion of exactly how the Pill is being used for health purposes before going down this road, because it is my non-expert understanding that for some conditions it is precisely blocking the ovulatory cycle that is the proximate effect sought in taking the Pill. If the long range goal is "health" and the proximate step to that from THIS method is "stop the cycles for a time" then yes, it is arguably true that she is indeed taking the Pill "in order to cause her natural reproductive faculty not to have its natural effect," at least in part.

Secondly, as was mentioned above, we need to be careful in distinguishing what THIS ACT of sex is, as separate from what the act of taking the Pill is - for taking the Pill is not a part of the act of sex. And there is no obvious way of subsuming the long-range motive for taking the Pill into the object of the act of sex, without even more taking into account the proximate result for which she is taking the Pill.

Andrea said...

Dear Dr. Feser,

Please, please, please compile a book of sexual ethics! We need something so badly in this day and age where all the sexual advice people tend to hear is from the secular culture.

My husband and I would love something to give to newly married couples in order to save them the scrupulosity that can come in regards to the marriage bed. There is so much awful info online on both ends of the spectrum!

When a holistic and balanced approach is taken in this aspect of marriage, it solves so many problems!

Sincerely,

Andrea

Edward Feser said...

Hello Andrea, I agree and I intend to do just that.

Greg said...

Here are the relevant bits from "Contraception and Chastity":

We have seen that the theological defence of the Church's teaching in modern times did not assimilate contraception to abortion but characterized it as a sort of perversion of the order of nature. The arguments about this were rather uneasy, because it is not in general wrong to interfere with natural processes. So long, however, as contraception took the form of monkeying around with the organs of intercourse or the act itself, there was some plausibility about the position because it really amounted to assimilating contraceptive intercourse to acts of unnatural vice (as some of them were), and so it was thought of.

But this plausibility diminished with the invention of more and more sophisticated female contraceptives; it vanished away entirely with the invention of the contraceptive pill. For it was obvious that if a woman just happened to be in the physical state which such a contraceptive brings her into by art no theologian would have thought the fact, or the knowledge of it, or the use of the knowledge of it, straightaway made intercourse bad. Or, again, if a woman took an anovulant pill for a while to check dysmenorrhea no one would have thought this prohibited intercourse. So, clearly, it was the contraceptive
intention that was bad, if contraceptive intercourse was: it is not that the sexual act in these circumstances is physically distorted. This had to be thought out, and it was thought out in the encyclical Humanae Vitae.

Here, however, people still feel intensely confused, because the intention where oral contraceptives are taken seems to be just the same as when intercourse is deliberately restricted to infertile periods. In one way this is true, and its truth is actually pointed out by
Humanae Vitae, in a passage I will quote in a moment. But in another way it's not true.

...

Greg said...

...

The reason why people are confused about intention, and why they sometimes think there is no difference between contraceptive intercourse and the use of infertile times to avoid conception, is this: They don't notice the difference between "intention" when it means the intentionalness of the thing you're doing - that you're doing this on purpose - and when it means further or accompanying intention with which you do the thing. For example, I make a table: that's an intentional action because I am doing just that on purpose. I have the further intention of, say, earning my living, doing my job by making the table. Contraceptive intercourse and intercourse using infertile times may be alike in respect of further intention, and these further intentions may be good, justified, excellent. This the Pope has noted. He sketched such a situation and said: "It cannot be denied that in both cases the married couple, for acceptable reasons," (for that's how he imagined the case) "are perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and mean to secure that none will be born." This is a comment on the two things: contraceptive intercourse on the one hand and intercourse using infertile times on the other, for the sake of the limitation of the family.

But contraceptive intercourse is faulted, not on account of this further intention, but because of the kind of intentional action you are doing. The action is not left by you as the kind of act by which life is transmitted, but is purposely rendered infertile, and so changed to another sort of act altogether.
In considering an action, we need always to judge several things about ourselves. First: is the
sort of act we contemplate doing something that it's all right to do? Second: are our further or surrounding intentions all right? Third: is the spirit in which we do it all right? Contraceptive intercourse fails on the first count; and to intend such an act is not to intend a marriage act at all, whether or no we're married. An act of ordinary intercourse in marriage at an infertile time, though, is a perfectly ordinary act of married intercourse, and it will be bad, if it is bad, only on the second or third counts.

Now, I think it’s entirely reasonable to question what Anscombe is claiming here. I think her point is, though, informed by a very close and intelligent reading of the moral theology prominent in the '60s, as well as (of course) a voluminous knowledge of Aquinas.

Greg said...

@ Tony

I have seen that issue debated among natural lawyers. Some, I believe, hold the opinion that if she was able to conceive and carry a child before taking the Pill, and ceases to ovulate while taking the Pill, then her taking the Pill is indeed blocking the natural reproductive faculty, and she and her husband are morally obliged to refrain from having sex. I would be cautious about simply assuming that this thesis is wrong.

I've taken Anscombe at her word that this position isn't defended by many theologians. And I suspect it is defended by fewer today than in 1972. But if one's going to defend it, and if some defenders of PFA defend it while others reject it, then that is a hugely important point to flag in any defense of PFA, since it bears very directly on what it means to "pervert" or "actively frustrate" a faculty.

I would want to know - and lay out for the benefit of everyone - an explicit discussion of exactly how the Pill is being used for health purposes before going down this road, because it is my non-expert understanding that for some conditions it is precisely blocking the ovulatory cycle that is the proximate effect sought in taking the Pill.

Well, I think it is worth treating the case where the desired effect of the pill is entirely distinct from the reproductive faculty. (Here we are perhaps imagining something that is not naturally possible, but we are interested in the conceptual point.) So suppose that a woman has problems with her vision, and the active ingredient of a pill that is also effective for birth control happens to correct the defect in her vision, but it of course also prevents her from ovulating.

But we should also keep in mind the canonical case on this topic, Anscombe's: "a woman [takes] an anovulant pill for a while to check dysmenorrhea." Anovulant pills check dysmenorrhea because they prevent ovulation. So it would seem that the proximate end (at least for someone who knows how the anovulant pill checks dysmenorrhea) is to block the ovulatory cycle.

If you think that suffices for the action's perverting a faculty, then it seems you, pace Anscombe, think that that is immoral. (And this is the action of taking the pill--not the action of having sex after taking the pill--that we are talking about.) Though I would imagine you don't think that is sufficient, for I don't see why you wouldn't apply the principle of totality to that case just as much to others. (This is what one would have to do in general, for, I imagine, something analogous holds of most medications people take. Anesthetics work generally by preventing the body from recognizing pain that it "should" recognize.)

Kyle said...

What are your guys' thoughts on the abortifacient aspects of hormonal contraceptives?

Does this change the morality of a person taking a pill for health reasons and then having sex afterwards while knowing that the abortion of a newly conceived child is a possibility? I'm assuming the principle of double effect would apply here. Or would the mother's right to bodily health and the marital debt outweigh an increased chance of miscarriage, mortal death of child, and likely foregoing any chance of that child attaining the Beatific Vision (assuming the more sober traditional teaching of the Church)?

Thoughts?

Greg said...

@ Kyle

I think it's right that the child's death need not be included in one's intention or object when taking a pill that sometimes prevents implantation. That seems to be true not just if you agree with Anscombe (and think someone taking an anovulant pill need not be perverting a faculty in an objectionable sense) but even if you disagree with Anscombe, since it is probably not the prevention of implantation or the killing of the child that would be solving your health issue.

But even if it is not part of one's intention or object, is it an acceptable risk? My thought is that, so long as the woman has considered available alternatives and so long as her health reasons are sufficiently serious, it is permissible to take such a medication.

I think the situation is roughly analogous to this one: After having a couple miscarriages of (say) children with Down syndrome, a couple discovers that their children are genetically predisposed to Down syndrome. It is not a guarantee that their children will be nonviable, but the chance will always be there. I don't think such parents are under an obligation to abstain from sex for the remainder of their marriage.

To put it generally: Miscarriages are fairly common, and I think Catholics have to trust that God will handle miscarried children justly. One should have an adequate reason for risking miscarriages. But if any marginal increase to their likelihood were impermissible, then it's hard to see why sex should be permissible at all.

Kyle said...

Greg,

I quite agree with you there, I think your reductio in the last paragraph works quite well. Regarding Limbo of the Infants, if that traditional teaching is correct, and it seems to be the more logical one,(how could an infant have faith or have the faith revealed to them) I still think it is perfectly just as no person has Heaven as their due. Nevertheless, I find that chilling fact to be the saddest implication of our abortion culture or even our fallen world, more generally (with the billions of miscarriages that have certainly occurred).

Andrea said...

Dr. Feser,

Hurray! My husband and I are so excited!!!! We will definitely be avid promoters of this future book!!!

Thanks for helping to make happy marriages!

God bless!

Andrea

Scott W. said...

What are your guys' thoughts on the abortifacient aspects of hormonal contraceptives?

That it is one of the possible evil consequences of an already evil chosen act. I've heard dissidents try to split the difference so to speak and try to float the lead zeppelin that as long as it is not abortifacient, it's morally licit.

Kyle said...

Scott W.

Thank you, but my question was in relation to morally licit use of contraceptives for health reasons. Please see the discussion prior to that.

Tony said...

Me: That's not what the teaching says. Rather, what is claimed is that it is immoral to have sex, having first taken positive steps to cause natural fertility to not have its natural effect. The action, then, belongs to the species "to have infertile sex" in the PRINCIPLED sense rather than the accidental sense: it is "to have sex made to be infertile, as such

Greg: We would probably not say that she has taken "positive steps" to cause her natural fertility not to have its natural effect, because "taking positive steps to ____" is most plausibly an intensional context, and is equivalent to "intending to ____". So to make use of such a locution we have to be able to distinguish in a principled way between intention and foresight,

Anscombe (Via Greg): But contraceptive intercourse is faulted, not on account of this further intention, but because of the kind of intentional action you are doing. The action is not left by you as the kind of act by which life is transmitted, but is purposely rendered infertile, and so changed to another sort of act altogether.

Greg, I don't think we are saying anything critically different. The crux of the matter is to identify correctly the species or nature of the act, or the "object of the act" as JPII puts it. In the contracepting woman, the species includes "made intentionally infertile" as a determining element of the act. In the woman who has no purpose of delaying/preventing pregnancy and is taking the Pill for purposes completely distinct from that, "made intentionally infertile" is not a determining element of the species of the act.

Interestingly, in a wife who is taking the Pill for health reasons AND who (separately) has adequate reason to delay pregnancy, there is the moral danger that delaying/preventing pregnancy could infect her intention for taking the Pill; getting a "two-fer". Some priests have recommended abstinence as a tool to purify the intentions and avoid the temptation toward having the intention of delaying pregnancy invade the taking of the Pill.

Greg said...

@ Tony

I think we do agree on theses. My concern is more that I think a discussion of moral species, object, and intention is necessary to do Catholic sexual ethics that is conversant with, say, the new natural lawyers.