Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Mired in the roiling tar pits of lust


As I note in my essay on the perverted faculty argument, not all deliberate frustrations of a natural faculty are gravely immoral.  For example, lying involves the frustration of a natural faculty and thus is wrong, but it is usually only venially sinful.  So what makes the perversion of a faculty seriously wrong?  In particular, why have traditional natural law theorists and Catholic moral theologians regarded the perversion of our sexual faculties as seriously wrong?  (The discussion that follows presupposes that you’ve read the essay just referred to – please don’t waste time raising objections in the combox unless you’ve done so.)

In a post from a couple of years ago I discussed three aspects of sex which give it a unique moral significance: it is the means by which new people are made; it is the means by which we are completed qua men and women; and it is the area of life in which the animal side of our nature most relentlessly struggles against the rational side.  In a follow-up post I elaborated upon this last point, spelling out Aquinas’s account of the deleterious effects of sexual vice on the intellect and the will.

The nature of sexual pleasure featured prominently in that account, and it is key to understanding why natural law theorists and moral theologians regard the perversion of our sexual faculties as an inherently serious matter.  For sexual pleasure is dangerous stuff.  That is by no means to say that it is bad; on the contrary, it is very good.  Rather, it is dangerous in the way that alcohol, or gasoline, or knives, or many other perfectly innocent everyday things are dangerous.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying it, any more than there is anything wrong with using these other things.  But as with these other things, you need to be careful with it and indulge in it only at the right time and in the right way.

The source of the danger is its uniquely intense and enthralling character.  Aquinas describes lust, by which he means disordered sexual desire, as concerned with “the greatest of pleasures… [which] absorb the mind more than any others” (Summa Theologiae II-II.46.3).  Now, sexual pleasure needs to be very intense and absorbing if sex is to fulfill its procreative and unitive ends.  Sex is fundamentally about other people.  In particular, it is about the new people you bring into being by way of sex, and it is about the person with whom you bring those new people into being.  In the nature of the case, these are people you need to be on intimate terms with for a long time, sharing a household with them and taking responsibility for them.  That is demanding and difficult, and thus something which, all things being equal, we would naturally seek to avoid.

The reason most people don’t avoid it is, of course, because of the very strong allure of sex.  A person becomes sexually attracted to another person, the couple’s sexual relations are extremely pleasant and tend to foster strong affection between them, and the children that result from these relations thereby have both a mother and a father to provide for them materially and spiritually.  Needless to say, this basic pattern is very common in everyday human life.  Equally needless to say, it also very often does not go nearly as tidily as that little summary implies.  People have fleeting sexual relationships too, they contracept or abort, they get bored and divorce, and so on.  The point, though, is that the many child-producing and stable monogamous relationships that do occur wouldn’t occur very often or at all if it weren’t for the strong allure of sex, which gets the whole process going and to some extent keeps it going.

The delight we take in sexual relations is intended by nature to function as a kind of emotional superglue.  Sexual desire is meant to direct people out of themselves and their personal interests and to seek completion in another person, and sexual pleasure is meant to bond a person tightly with that other person once he or she is found.  Like literal superglue, it doesn’t always succeed, but this binding function is still its point, its final cause.  And like literal superglue, if it gets applied in the wrong way there will be serious problems.  It will “bond” you to the wrong thing or at the wrong time (where what counts as “wrong” according to natural law theory is spelled out in the essay on the perverted faculty argument linked to above). 

An obvious way in which this is so would be in the context of fornication or adultery.  The pleasure of sex will in these cases tend to enmesh one in situations that are not conducive to the well-being of the children that might result.  But the sexual faculties themselves are not necessarily perverted in these cases – the essential immorality of fornication and adultery derives from other considerations – to they are a bit tangential to our main interest here (though I’ll return to the topic of fornication later on).

A more relevant example would be masturbation, which has traditionally been considered immoral in many cultures but which modern Westerners typically regard as unproblematic (though interestingly, expressions like “jack-off” and “wanker” retain their force as terms of abuse, conveying the idea of something shameful and pathetic).  Why is this particular perversion of the faculty considered seriously disordered by natural law theory and Catholic moral theology?  What’s the big deal? 

The big deal is that masturbation essentially takes something that is intended by nature to be strongly other-oriented and makes of it something strongly self-oriented instead.  Accordingly, it is about as “perverse” in the relevant sense – that is to say, in the sense of using a human faculty while at the same time actively frustrating its teleology – as an act could be.  (I’m only addressing the nature of the act itself here, by the way.  Culpability for the act, which concerns a person’s knowledge, maturity, psychological state, force of habit, etc. is, as all moral theologians emphasize, a trickier question, and I am not talking about that right now.)

Hence, suppose someone masturbates while fantasizing about people other than his or her spouse.  The pleasure experienced in that case will have a tendency to “glue” the person’s sexual inclinations to these objects of imagination, which makes it more difficult for them to be “glued” in the same way to the real flesh and blood spouse.  The person’s sexual thoughts and feelings will to some extent become habitually “directed toward” fantasy partners rather than the spouse. 

Or suppose that someone masturbates while fantasizing about some sexual act which is for independent reasons immoral.  The pleasure experienced in that case will have a tendency to “glue” the person’s sexual sensibilities to that sort of act, which will make it more difficult for him to find pleasure in morally licit sexual acts.  His sexual thoughts and feelings will become habitually “directed toward” these illicit acts as much as or more than toward licit acts. 

Then there is the fact that in an interpersonal context, lovers have to adjust their needs and expectations to one another.  For example, a more adventurous or amorous person will have to moderate his desires somewhat, whereas a more conservative or reserved person will have to loosen up a bit.  In this and other ways, the partners will, when things go well, find a happy medium and complement one another.  But masturbation in which a person fantasizes about people or circumstances which do not put such limits on one’s desires will tend to have the opposite effect.  It will make it much more difficult for the person to tolerate the real world conditions that would otherwise mold his desires in a more realistic direction.  As C. S. Lewis once put the point in a letter to a reader:

[T]he real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another… and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides.  And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman.  For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival.  Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity.

End quote.  Modern pornography greatly exacerbates the problem, in two respects.  First, insofar as it involves images of real people doing real things, it intensifies the vividness of onanistic sexual fantasy and the sexual pleasure experienced in it.  Second, the variety of sexual acts displayed, the bodily perfection of the performers, the promiscuity they exhibit, etc. further disconnect fantasy from what real partners are likely to want or expect sexually.  The user thus becomes more firmly “glued” onto unrealistic expectations, illicit sexual acts, etc., and thus less capable of finding satisfaction in a normal sexual relationship with a real person.    

Furthermore, the more that taking sexual pleasure in unrealistic and illicit fantasy objects rather than in a real person becomes “second nature,” the more likely a person is to lose even an understanding of – let alone a desire for – what really is natural (in the natural law theory sense of “natural”) where sex is concerned.  Natural feelings of revulsion at certain illicit acts will weaken, as will the desire and capacity for thinking objectively about the morality of acts that one has come to be strongly attracted to.  As sociologist Mark Regnerus has suggested, contemporary pornography, which is historically unprecedented in its prevalence and in the extremeness of its content, has plausibly played a key role in the liberalization of attitudes about sexual morality. 

This is an instance of what Aquinas calls “blindness of mind,” which on his account is one of the byproducts of sexual vice and which I discussed in an earlier post.  Our “pornified” popular culture, which is hypersexualized even apart from outright pornography, has made of this particular kind of “blindness” a mass phenomenon.  Millions upon millions of human beings have in effect become psychologically “glued” to sexual attitudes and behaviors of a greater or lesser degree of immorality.  Modern Western society is like Plato’s Cave, only with lewd images rather than flickering shadows endlessly playing across the walls.  Or to change metaphors, it is like a vast herd of Pleistocene fauna mired in tar pits of disordered sexual pleasure.

This mass blindness in turn facilitates other kinds of grave sexual immorality – which brings us back to fornication.  Millions of children today are trapped in poverty because of illegitimacy.  Millions more are aborted.  In short, widespread fornication leads to lots of poor children and lots of dead children.  Neither poverty nor abortion would be nearly as common as they are if fornication and the hypersexualized pop culture that facilitates it were stigmatized the way they once were. 

Now, modern people are hardly reluctant to stigmatize things – cigarette smoking, politically incorrect language, etc.  They are also highly sentimental about children.  Yet they would never dream of stigmatizing fornication and oversexualized pop culture for the sake of the well-being of children.  Indeed, they are so attached to the stupid cliché that what one does in the bedroom has no effect on anyone else that they have great difficulty seeing what, for most human beings historically, has been blindingly obvious – that sexual immorality in fact has a massive effect precisely on these weakest members of society. 

Thus does sex, which has as its natural end the generation and rearing of children, now regularly lead by way of illegitimacy and abortion to the impoverishment and murder of children. 

Now that is perverse.  And it is testimony to the power of sexual pleasure to cause grave harm when not indulged in in the right way and at the right time. 

Not that there aren’t even worse consequences still – though they have to do with tar pits of the sort you’re more likely to see in Dante than at La Brea.

28 comments:

passenger said...

The famous Bentham-Kant liberal bait and switch: 1) It is good because it has no consequences, an innocent pleasure... 2) Ok maybe it has consequences, but we have to accept this because *rights*.

Who with an ounce of intellectual humility could believe that upending 3000+ years of civilization would have no consequences? He who has something to gain in the exchange, that is who.

Basil Stag Hare said...

Dr. Feser, could you expound on the phrase, "intended by nature"? Been reading Remi Brague's The Law of God, on how premodern cultures accepted that the cosmos had a order in accordance with which we can arrange our lives; also just read Anscombe's complaint about modern moral philosophy (not aimed at an Aristotelian/Thomist of course) that it has no coherent grounds for using the "moral ought" as a concept. So when you say "intended by nature", does your reader have already to have accepted an A/T conception of nature and philosophy? And 2ndly, have I understood Anscombe correctly that she would say of the present discussion, "Nature's intentions can tell us that lustful act X is vicious, but divine legislation provides the weighty forbidding, allowing me to say I *ought* not to do X"?

DNW said...

"Now, modern people are hardly reluctant to stigmatize things – cigarette smoking, politically incorrect language, etc. They are also highly sentimental about children. Yet they would never dream of stigmatizing fornication and oversexualized pop culture for the sake of the well-being of children. Indeed, they are so attached to the stupid cliché that what one does in the bedroom has no effect on anyone else that they have great difficulty seeing what, for most human beings historically, has been blindingly obvious – that sexual immorality in fact has a massive effect ..."

Imagine if there were no pornography. Some here may be old enough to recall a time before it was constantly in-your-face.

Though, in truth, using sex to sell has been going on for a very long time, and honorless nihilistic men willing to pimp, both literally and figuratively, have been around for just as long.

Now, that is another very serious moral disorder; and these males, especially the literally pimping kind who sell women because they have nothing of value in the way of labor or talent to exchange for their daily bread, deserve no tolerance.

Maybe we need a limited reintroduction of the old American honor culture values insofar as they go, at least.

Thursday said...

If Dr. Feser is going to do a book on sexual ethics, I would like to recommend he take a look at the most prominent Evangelical natural law thinker, Oliver O'Donovan. He's published several excellent books on how to relate natural law to Christian theology, just war theory, and political theology, but the following are his works on sexual ethics. Probably the most important is Begotten or Made?

Books:
Begotten or Made?
Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion
A Conversation Waiting to Begin: The Churches and the Gay Controversy

Grove pamphlets:
Transsexualism and the Christian Marriage
Marriage and permanence
The Christian and the unborn child

Given that he is a Protestant, there is no doubt much that our host here will disagree with, but O'Donovan is well worth taking a look at.

thefederalist said...

Mr Hare, let me take a stab at it. I'm confident Dr. Feser and some other regular contributors here can do a better job, but as I'm starting some advanced course work in Catholic theology, I should probably avail myself of this practice.
I can't see that one necessarily needs an A/T conception of nature and philosophy to understand 'intended by nature'. As you point out, many pre-modern cultures accepted that the cosmos has an order in accordance with which we can arrange our lives. If one reasonably intelligent person in any culture ever decides to ask the question, "Why is there sex?" with the intention of getting a comprehensible answer, surely there is only one comprehensible answer he can arrive at. All of the specific moral activities that attach to the satisfaction of sexual desire can pretty much be determined from the insight that sex is about making new human beings who need to be cared for by the two human beings who made them.
I haven't read Anscombe, so others can probably comment more accurately on her specific thoughts on your question, but surely if nature's intentions tell us that X is "vicious", that should suffice to tell us "I ought not to do X." That would be the point of exploring the question of X. For the large mass of mankind who cannot, or do not, devote their mental efforts to answering such questions, the divine mandate would provide the necessary additional emphasis.
Conversely, if nature tells us that X is vicious and some adherent of perverse cult Y says that there is no divine mandate against it, or even that there is a divine command to do X, then that should tell against the claims of that particular cult Y. Yes, I'm looking at you, Islam.

Basil Stag Hare said...

Thank you, Mr. Federalist, for your thoughtful reply. I think there is still more to it though. The answer to questions about nature like the one you posed could give "only one comprehensible answer" and still not entail a moral requirement, such that one could say it is illicit or wrong to do X. Consider an example not from nature: Tim builds a machine that needs oil to work properly. One could perhaps learn about the machine from observation and see that it needs oil. To pour in water instead of oil, knowing that it will break the machine and cause it to fail to be a good machine of its type, would be a vicious thing to do, relative to the ends for which it was made. But we would not say it is immoral to do so, in and of itself (e.g., if Tim the owner and builder is the one who breaks it on purpose). I think people could approach nature as that kind of machine; recognizing general tendencies and virtues required for flourishing, but without concluding that acting against flourishing is illicit or wrong. But maybe here I am slipping into errors in wording and so forth...
Good luck with your course work!

JoeD said...

Dr Feser,

Considering Western culture generally tends to view masturbation as something good and public education also strongly pushes that narrative, and also considering your mentioning of culpability and the various circumstances that affect it in this post, I want to ask you this:

Do you personally think that it is possible that the culpability for masturbation for at least some modern people is decreased because of the culture that portrays it as good and because of the public education system that propogates and basically brainwashes people to accept that narrative?

Tony said...

Basil, your comment highlights the reason it is important to distinguish between artificial "things" and natural beings (as Prof. Ed has said numerous times). The use of an artifact for one thing (a doorstop, or target practice) when it was made to be something else (a modernist work of art) is not contrary to nature, for it isn't a natural thing to begin with. The teleology of artifacts are extrinsic to the thing itself, and thus cannot determine any sort of "intrinsically wrong" ways to use it.

If man is the sort of thing that has a "nature", then that very fact determines that some things are suited to man's being fulfilled or not. If man has reason and free will, then THAT fact implies that "doing what is proper to his nature" comes under the category of obligation rather than necessity by "laws of nature". For nature intends the good (which is specified by the individual natures) and the good for a being with reason and free will then becomes a matter of "ought" as well as good.

These truths are accessible without a specifically A-T foundation, I think. Certainly they are not foreign to Platonism. And, because conscience (and therefore a direct experience of "ought" ) is in all men, every man has at least the beginnings of what he could use to grasp these points.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

I have trouble with the starting point. I hold that sin is the action or state of mind which damages the soul, or more specifically opposes the end with which creator has made it, and more specifically still diminishes the charity in it. Sin is not what one figures opposes natural ends in general, nor what one figures damages the world. The two latter may or perhaps must correlate with the first, but the fact remains that one knows sin existentially and not intellectually. One knows sin by the diminishing of charity in one's soul. Having said that I'd like to offer two thoughts:

”Millions of children today are trapped in poverty because of illegitimacy. Millions more are aborted. In short, widespread fornication leads to lots of poor children and lots of dead children.”

And lots of dead young mothers. In Latin America the first cause of death for young women is illegal abortion. As tragic a death as one can imagine.

I was thinking that if more adolescents were to masturbate instead of making more natural use of their sexual faculties, much of this tragedy would be diverted. The same if adolescents were to get sexual education at school – so for example adolescents in Sweden are as sexually active as adolescents in Colombia, but the statistics about illegitimate children and abortions are very different. That the Catholic Church should take an active role to stop important knowledge from being given to Catholic children is I think unconscionable. Why not teach children both the facts of sex as well as sexual morality? The only reason I can think of is to ugly to write down.

”Now, modern people are hardly reluctant to stigmatize things – cigarette smoking, politically incorrect language, etc.”

The average cigarette smoker loses 17 years of life. Clearly the natural end of our lungs is not to inhale smoke for pleasure, so I assume natural law theorists consider smoking a sin too. Perhaps an even greater than masturbation given that the damage it causes to family is probably greater; I mean marriages where one of the parents dies because of the smoke habit are definitely destroyed. For the same reason I suppose alcoholism, gambling, marital violence – should all be considered grave sins. I think Feser does make a good case explaining the gravity of sexual sin on natural law ethics. But it seems to me there are sins equally or even more damaging to the soul, to family life, and to society at large. And some sins, such as avarice, are mentioned more by Christ in the gospels and characterize more modern society. I notice that masturbation and homosexual acts are easily avoided by the majority of married Christians; I wonder sometimes if the focus that is given to these issues is not really a case of hypocrisy, of the kind that Christ in the gospels admonishes us against.

Tony said...

I hold that sin is the action or state of mind which... and more specifically still diminishes the charity in it. Sin is not what one figures opposes natural ends in general, nor what one figures damages the world. The two latter may or perhaps must correlate with the first, but the fact remains that one knows sin existentially and not intellectually. One knows sin by the diminishing of charity in one's soul.

It is not possible for one to "know sin" in the sense of "knowing whether this act before to choose yea or nay is a sin here and now for me" ONLY AFTER one feels a diminution of charity by committing the sin. That would make conscience solely a faculty of accusing, not a faculty for knowing and avoiding evil and doing good. We know what is sin through many different pathways, but since charity is love of God, obeying God's commands is in conformity with charity and disobeying them is not ("he who loves me obeys my commands"). One of the reasons God gave us such things as the 10 Commandments is that through sin, especially original sin but also personal sins, our capacity to perceive the damage to charity that sin causes is, itself, diminished. We do not always perceive the damage it is causing, even when the damage is surely there - this is a long-standing teaching of the Church both East and West. Hence objective standards, outside our own selves, are an aid to conscience.

The same if adolescents were to get sexual education at school ... That the Catholic Church should take an active role to stop important knowledge from being given to Catholic children is I think unconscionable. Why not teach children both the facts of sex as well as sexual morality? The only reason I can think of is to ugly to write down.

Your insinuation here is positively foul and revolting. The Catholic Church - meaning the entire Church with its 2000 year history - HAS IN FACT taught "the facts of sex" and mostly strongly urges that these facts be taught to children properly. Go and read "The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality" before commenting on this again. The reason the Church objects to school-based sex ed is that it NEVER DOES conform to the objective obligations of such teaching, (i.e. that it teach moral truth as well as physical, phychological, and emotional; and that it be conformed to each individual child's own personal state of emotional and psychological development), and in fact it breaks down natural emotional barriers to inappropriate experimenting and sexual behavior - behavior that is harmful to one's soul and is contrary to God's laws. If families were to properly carry out the Church's own advice and to teach it properly, there would never be a so-called "need" for it in schools anyway.

In point of fact, the state of affairs in some countries with millions of illegitimate children cannot really be laid at the door of "Catholic Church opposing sex education", both because the Catholic Church has always supported sex education taking place in its due form, and also because there were whole centuries of Christendom in which there were not these millions of illegitimate children and yet there was no sex ed in schools. It is not a failure to teach sexuality in schools that is the foundational culprit here. It is a combination of many factors, but the main ones are a grave diminution of family integrity and coherence; the shocking increase in sexualization of the culture; the marginalization of non-family carriers of social authority to speak to morals (due to secularization); a (relatively modern) social disconnect between the age of sexual knowledge and general capacity and the age of suitable marriage. Lack of formal (school) sex education doesn't even make it to the list (even ignoring the problem that it teaches the wrong things and teaches them the wrong way).

Grace and Rust said...

@Dianelos Georgoudis, I think you've just agreed with Dr. Feser's overall outlook. That said, I believe you don't see that because you've misread him. Consider:
I hold that sin is the action or state of mind which damages the soul, or more specifically opposes the end with which creator has made it, and more specifically still diminishes the charity in it.
The problem is that you treat this as though it is contrary to what you say below:
Sin is not what one figures opposes natural ends in general, nor what one figures damages the world. The two latter may or perhaps must correlate with the first, but the fact remains that one knows sin existentially and not intellectually. One knows sin by the diminishing of charity in one's soul.
But every action that is both contrary to our natural ends and freely willed despite knowing that it is simply does damage the soul to some extent or other. When we do those things, we act against the God-given ends of the soul, and against the God-given virtue of Charity (your criteria).

Hopefully I can say more about your other arguments, but for now I should content myself with this, as it seems to be the core.

David McPike said...

Tony wrote: "Your insinuation here is positively foul and revolting." Indeed. I wonder if the character of the person making such an insinuation isn't such as to make the act of engaging him in good faith a questionable undertaking, a thing itself rather disgusting. (Not that I take issue with the substance of your reply.)

JoeD: "Do you personally think that it is possible that the culpability for masturbation for at least some modern people is decreased because of the culture...?"

Not personally, but according the CCC 2352: "To form an equitable judgment about the subjects' moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account [notwithstanding that in itself masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action] the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability." I think the usual demurrers relating to (invincible) ignorance will certainly find application here.

thefederalist said...

Danielos,

In 1960, in the United States, if memory serves, something like 7-8% of live births to white women were out-of-wedlock, and for black women is was 23%. Some public health officials and educators took a look at those horrific rates and concluded that American children need to be taught where babies come from, the better to avoid pregnancy. Thus our program of sex education, which by 1970 was so successful that the illegitimacy rate for white women was over 25% and for black women was over 50%. It's much higher today. I will grant that there were many other pathologies that sprang forth in the 1960s that have contributed to the increase in illegitimacy, but things like teaching birth control and encouraging masturbation have their place in these results. These do not direct the desire for sexual release toward non-baby-producing ends (in the long term); what they do is teach that sexual desire is not to be denied or subjected to self-control.

lecturer said...

Danielos,

It is not very clear whether you support abortion or not. This seems to be suggested in your Colombia / Sweeden comparison.

This comparison could only be impressive to someone who has accepted that abortion is not what it is (the intentional killing of a human being, if not cold blooded murder). Otherwise you are basically saying: x amount of men suffer horrible prison sentences due to rape laws, so we should legalize rape.

Beyond that, arguments to the effect that we must choose the lesser evil (assuming you have identified the lesser evil) must show that this choice is indeed necessary. In this case: that it is not possible to ban abortion and to have women not try to kill their children. Naturally this is something you cannot show.

The relevance of hypocrisy is minimal. Too much is made of this because of generalized narcissism (in the sick culture of authenticity failing to be yourself is the worst/only sin). If fail to do what I preach, I am morally bad, but what I preach may still be quite right. And he who preaches rightness is bound to fail many times.

David McPike said...

"Now, sexual pleasure needs to be very intense and absorbing if sex is to fulfill its procreative and unitive ends. Sex is fundamentally about other people. In particular, it is about the new people you bring into being by way of sex, and it is about the person with whom you bring those new people into being. In the nature of the case, these are people you need to be on intimate terms with for a long time, sharing a household with them and taking responsibility for them. That is demanding and difficult, and thus something which, all things being equal, we would naturally seek to avoid."

This seems to be a seriously suspect set of claims. Intense, absorbing sexual pleasure seems to be neither necessary to fulfill the procreative and unitive ends in question, nor sufficient; and indeed, it seems clear that the intensity of sexual pleasure (independently of fulfillment of the ends in question) actually tends to work against the orderly pursuit of the ends in question, insofar as the intense pleasure moves the sensual appetite in a violent way that tends to undermine both the rational apprehension and the orderly pursuit of the natural ends of sexual activity.

"All things being equal..." - so if it wasn't for the sexual pleasure, people would tend to avoid marriage and kids? So why don't people in fact just stick with masturbation, fornication, prostitution, etc. (i.e., means of obtaining sexual pleasure which avoid the demands and difficulty of a household)? This sounds way too Hobbesian.

jem said...

Dr. Feser,

No need to address the matter here, but a good inclusion in any sexual morality book you might write could be in vitro fertilization. Specifically, why things like IVF and ICSI are immoral despite people feeling that they are licit due to being aimed 'overall' or 'more generally' at the creation of life.

These things have received Catholic bioethics treatments elsewhere of course but you might be writing for an audience who would not otherwise explore those sorts of publications.

Tony said...

Intense, absorbing sexual pleasure seems to be neither necessary to fulfill the procreative and unitive ends in question, nor sufficient; and indeed, it seems clear that the intensity of sexual pleasure (independently of fulfillment of the ends in question) actually tends to work against the orderly pursuit of the ends in question, insofar as the intense pleasure moves the sensual appetite in a violent way that tends to undermine both the rational apprehension and the orderly pursuit of the natural ends of sexual activity.

David, I don't think it works that way. Even in the absence of sin, the order in nature requires harmony and coordination between the diverse goods capable to the human animal. One way to impress upon the individual the order and hierarchy is to provide variation in the strength of the urges / desires which is directly coordinate with the intensity of the pleasure or delight therein. You don't need to find a built-in reward being "necessary" or "sufficient" for the purpose, to find it fitting and suited.

Secondly, in man the delight is not alone that of the physical senses: the unitive end of marriage (and of sex) is advanced in the delight a man takes in giving pleasure to his wife; and in his knowing that she takes delight in the converse, so that his open receptivity to his physical pleasure at her gift is fittingly suited to her joy in the act. As a result, speaking of the intensity of sexual pleasure (independently of fulfillment of the ends in question) is a bit incoherent: the intensity of the pleasure is (at least in part) the very matter out of which the unitive end is made concrete. (The procreative end works in there too, but it is not needed to make the point.)

The intensity of the physical pleasure is indeed one of the things that makes sex so easy to corrupt - given original sin and our fallen state, our weakened orientation to the right hierarchy of goods. But that fallen state affects our willingness and readiness to make good on what the nature of marriage implies in terms of the permanent commitment to faithfulness, to love, to raising up children in charity. Although these aspects of marriage are "natural" to it, they are made more difficult in our fallen state. It seems like a providential gift that the very same thing - intense sexual pleasure - that would have, in our original unfallen state, given rise to deeper grasp of the immense importance and goodness of marriage, in our fallen state also offsets and indeed overcomes a large obstacle to solid marriage. That it is strong enough to pose a problem in its own right, giving us an inclination to seek the pleasure outside of the marital good, seems to be simply a facet of the brokenness of our world due to sin: our lower faculties are not readily ruled by our reason. But the original orderliness of human nature can be understood without relying on sin and our fallen state.

jmhenry said...

Thus does sex, which has as its natural end the generation and rearing of children, now regularly lead by way of illegitimacy and abortion to the impoverishment and murder of children.

Now
that is perverse.

Indeed. Even just from the perspective of an evolutionary biologist or Darwinian naturalist, one would have to conclude that there is something deeply twisted about our behavior and our culture.

Danielos: The same if adolescents were to get sexual education at school ... That the Catholic Church should take an active role to stop important knowledge from being given to Catholic children is I think unconscionable.

thefederalist: In 1960, in the United States, if memory serves, something like 7-8% of live births to white women were out-of-wedlock, and for black women is was 23%. ... Thus our program of sex education, which by 1970 was so successful that the illegitimacy rate for white women was over 25% and for black women was over 50%. It's much higher today.

Back in 1996, Akerlof and Yellen attributed it to the "reproductive technology shock" caused by the increased availability of abortion and contraception, both of which have been historically and consistently opposed by the Catholic Church.

Thus does the Sexual Revolution create a sociological catastrophe as a result of practices that the Church has always opposed ... and the Church is blamed for it. That too, I think, is incredibly perverse, and I'm not even Catholic.

Anonymous said...

David, also Danielos is a self-indulgent windbag who will take over the thread with interminable posts about his personal beliefs if you let him. He is in the same category as Don or Santi. Please everyone ignore him unless he changes.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

@ Tony,

”One of the reasons God gave us such things as the 10 Commandments is that through sin, especially original sin but also personal sins, our capacity to perceive the damage to charity that sin causes is, itself, diminished. We do not always perceive the damage it is causing, even when the damage is surely there - this is a long-standing teaching of the Church both East and West.”

I don't know exactly how the human condition was at the 12th-6th century BC when the 10 Commandments came into being, but I suspect people even then people knew the personal harm sin produces. And I notice that Plato in the 5th century wrote that we should not return evil, an ethical concept which is frankly beyond the 10 commandments. God's revelation by special providence works in many ways, and we recognize ethical truth by way of God's image in which we are built. It's not like we wouldn't know that a sin hurts us, unless we tried it or unless somebody told us first.

What concerns me is the state of the Christian today, since today we know much more about what sin is than people knew back then. And as it happens we can clearly experience how sin lowers the charity in our soul. I mean I clearly experience it myself; and surely so does everybody else. I say, instead of with being overly concerned with theory we should always check the state of our soul. Lest we end up worrying more about the cleanness of the outside and not of the inside of the cup. We must remain watchful, I think that's the meaning of the parable with the foolish virgins.

As for “not always perceiving the damage”, it may be true but also irrelevant. When we are watchful we can clearly experience the damage. Repentance (“metanoia” means “change of mind”) is about the transformation of our soul. It's not like one doesn't know it when it is one repents or when one fails to repent. Salvation is not about not sinning but about not desiring to sin – a big difference. I think it's a profound misunderstanding when the church feels its task is to stop people from sinning, perhaps by deterring them from it through action in matters of civil law. The church's task is to inspire people to see how ugly and self-damaging sin is, and to show them Christ's beauty and inspire them to wish to be like Him.

”Hence objective standards, outside our own selves, are an aid to conscience.”

Sure, and by far the best objective standard we have is the actual example of Christ we see in the gospels. Moreover the church in her wisdom provides many aids to conscience. The sacraments, life in the church, soteriological teaching (I am angry that I didn't find out about the seven cardinal sins decades ago, perhaps my life would have been different). No disagreements here, we agree about the goal and about what helps us reach the goal. I am saying that we can check ourselves whether we are approaching the goal. If only we look we have a very clear sense about the charity in our soul, and we should make good use of it.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

@ thefederalist,

The so-called sexual revolution of the 60's took place both in the US and in Sweden. I wonder, how do you explain the great difference in the number of children born out of wedlock in the two countries? And it's not only Sweden, I understand most European countries do far better than the US in this respect. So what do you think is the reason for that? Given that the US is more religious than Europe if anything one would expect the opposite to be the case.

jmhenry said...

The so-called sexual revolution of the 60's took place both in the US and in Sweden. I wonder, how do you explain the great difference in the number of children born out of wedlock in the two countries? And it's not only Sweden, I understand most European countries do far better than the US in this respect.

Sweden has a lower number of children born overall than the United States. Probably because, you know, it's a smaller country with far fewer people.

But when it comes to the percentage of births out of wedlock, Sweden actually surpasses the United States, 55% to 41%. France is at 53% and the United Kingdom at 45%, both higher than the U.S.

As for abortion, the Swedes have been running this little experiment with the morning after pill, but got some inconvenient results. First of all, you have to love that headline: Abortions more common despite morning-after pill. Since the morning after pill can function to prevent a fertilized egg (and thus a new human organism) from implanting in the uterus, the article doesn't mention the fact that the morning after pill is a potential abortifacient. Thus whatever abortions are being caused by the pill itself are not included in the numbers.

Secondly, that word "despite" in the headline masks as many assumptions in the minds of the headline writers as in the minds of the Swedish officials. It never occurs to them that perhaps a more accurate headline would be: Abortions more common because of morning-after pill. Along with "reproductive technology shock" we might add that the related phenomenon of the "contraceptive mentality" to the list of things that would-be social engineers are still stubbornly blind to.

Tony said...

I am following the advice of Anonymous at February 17, 2017 at 9:48 PM

Looking at other matters: I like the Prof's simile of "superglue" for the satisfactions of the marriage bed. I may start using it myself. Whether I give full attribution...we'll see. :-)

Anonymous said...

Dianelos,

The US lacks the cohesiveness needed to perceive the ethnic/familial relation to one's fellow citizens as a strong or real bond. Basically, if one perceives other members of one's society as being something like a sister or a brother to oneself, then this checks sexual and instrumentalizing tendencies with regard to these persons (but perhaps also increases the same tendencies as directed at foreigners; both rivals and exotic types). Religiosity is one of the few bonds that Americans are able to construct among one another outside of commerce. Romantic nationalism is truly non-existent ('patriotism' here is not really comparable). American religiosity is wildly diverse and almost sui generis. The destructive and amnesiac tendency in America is strong and fortified by Protestant, progressivist and anti-European tendencies of the past. Americans live for today and the culture of elections and activism enforces this. Nostalgia in America is never profound and ideological warfare is a constant, superficial flux. How can there be roots and therefore how can there be coordination of branches? Let all things be wild, quick, impulsive and volatile. People feel differently day-by-day; therefore, things become inverted and there is forgetting due to confusion.

Scott W. said...

First of all, you have to love that headline: Abortions more common despite morning-after pill

Thanks. It always seems Europe is a convenient place to play Three-card Monte with statistics. Funny how the poster-country for legalizing recreational drug use is the most recent country to do it while ignoring the criminal hell-holes that earlier ones have become, but I digress.

The so-called enlightened on abortion are obtuse on at least two points: 1. Abortionists often couch things in terms of "x policy will reduce the number of arbortions!" Well, if there is nothing wrong with abortion, why work to reduce them? I've never gotten a coherent answer to this, and 2. Even if we grant a pro-abortion policy reduces numbers of abortions (and as jmhenry points, we should be dubious of such claims) it's still a consequentialist argument and you might as well say, "We can reduce the number of lynchings if those uppity blacks would just learn their place."



Billy said...

Scott,

"Abortionists often couch things in terms of "x policy will reduce the number of arbortions!" Well, if there is nothing wrong with abortion, why work to reduce them? I've never gotten a coherent answer to this"

Your question, I believe, misunderstands the point of the argument. They are trying to persuade you to agree with them about abortion being legal, not their view of abortion itself, using an argument they think might work. So your question doesn't affect the argument, since they are not grounding it in their position, they are grounding it in yours.

"it's still a consequentialist argument"

Its not an argument for a moral conclusion, its an argument for practical legislation. There are a whole bunch of things you probably think are wrong, but it does not mean it should be illegal. Heck, gluttony is a GRAVE MORTAL sin, but yet I am sure you won't go on to think that making it illegal would be very smart. If it was illegal, and you argued against it, are you then claiming to make a consequentialist argument? Would you take seriously anyone who compared it to the lynching analogy you just gave?

NOTE: I am on your side, I just think you misunderstand the abortionists motivations for the argument here.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

@ lecturer

”It is not very clear whether you support abortion or not.”

It goes without saying that I am against abortion. Anyway you see it, abortion is a tragedy. Not only the natural law theorist thinks so, everybody things so. There is not one sane person in the world who is glad when abortions happen. The question then is what can we on a personal level and as society do in order to decrease this tragedy. My criticism is that certain actions of the Catholic church particularly in underdeveloped countries increase it.

Now we should not confuse abortion which is a tragedy, with the right of poor women to get a safe abortion which many (including myself) consider to be the lesser evil. I mention poor women specifically, because having lived many years in Costa Rica where abortion is illegal and thus illegal abortions kill many poor women, I know that for rich women to get a safe abortion is no problem: They travel to Miami or even to Paris and get one.

”[Abortion is] the intentional killing of a human being, if not cold blooded murder”.

In the context of a discussion about morality in a Catholic blog this is not true: According to the CC's catechism for an act to be a mortal sin the agent must have “full knowledge”. As a matter of fact most women who make abortions do not think that they are killing a human being, so most of them are not committing a mortal sin. Leaving aside Catholic belief in this matter, many people including many Christians (sometimes against the teaching of their church) do not believe that a ten weeks old embryo is a human being. I have not studied this matter to any depth, but the reason I believe that a ten weeks old embryo is not a human beings is first that a ten weeks old embryo has no capacity for consciousness and thus cannot be considered a person, and second the natural occurrence of miscarriage (or “spontaneous abortion”). I read that a huge proportion of fertilized eggs (depending on the woman's age, between 10% and 45%) are naturally aborted before the 20th week, and it seems absurd to me that God would create nature in a way that a huge proportion of human souls would never make it into the world, never mind that in many and perhaps most cases nobody even notices that a miscarriage took place. Human life has more weight than that.

I think the reasonable belief is that the human soul and thus the human person comes into being when the capacity of consciousness comes into being. Why is this a reasonable belief? Because a human being is a person, and a necessary property of the person is to be conscious, or at least to have the capacity (not the potential) of being conscious. One cannot know exactly when that happens (philosopher Daniel Dennett argues that pre-language children are not conscious – another example of how naturalism often moves people into believing absurd things), but I judge it is safe to believe that no capacity for consciousness exists before the tenth week of gestation. The idea that what matters is not the capacity but the potential for consciousness strikes me as absurd: An unfertilized egg cell (or “ovum”) has the potential of becoming conscious, but it is not like it is therefore a human being. If it were then it would follow that every baby girl is born with a million human beings in her, since that's the number of immature egg cells in the baby girl's body.

”The relevance of hypocrisy is minimal. [..] If fail to do what I preach, I am morally bad, but what I preach may still be quite right.”

Right, hypocrites often preach what is right. My point was that there are greater and lesser sins in the sense that some sins destroy charity in one's soul more than others. It seems to me that hypocrisy is one of the greatest sins there are, and in my reading Christ in the gospels thought so too.

Gyan said...

Danielos,
"An unfertilized egg cell (or “ovum”) has the potential of becoming conscious"

FALSE.
It is the fertilized embryo that is human and has human potentials but an unfertilized ovum is not an embryo.