Contra naturam

There is an interesting little argument on offer over at In a Godward Direction that demonstrates rather nicely how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. The author of the essay in question, Tobias Haller, is concerned to show that "nature", as he appears to understand it, cannot underwrite moral principles and, hence, cannot be appealed to in moral arguments against, well, same-sex relations. Although he claims to be addressing his argument to something he calls "the Natural Law tradition", it becomes evident rather early on that his real interest is in the alleged "is-ought" gap made so infamous by David Hume.

Haller addresses three varieties of arguments against same-sex relations, and appears to regard all of them as variations on the theme of Natural Law arguments. Of the three he describes, only the second one even comes close to being anything like a genuine Natural Law argument, but even that one falls far short of what a proper argument from the Natural Law would amount to. Now, of course, we're all just writing blogs here, so one must adopt Aristotle's adage from the Nicomachean Ethics and remember that "the same exactness must not be expected in all departments of philosophy alike" (I.3 1094b12). On the other hand, if one is going to be shooting fish in a barrel one had better make sure they are not red herrings. It simply will not do to trump up three ridiculous arguments against same-sex relations, label them "Natural Law" arguments, and then proudly proclaim that one has shown "Natural Law" arguments against same-sex relations to fail.

I will pass over in silence the first and third "arguments" that Haller addresses, as they are evidently straw men. But as I remarked above, the second argument does bear some slight resemblance to an actual argument from the Natural Law, so I want to say a few things about it. Here's the "argument", along with Haller's proposed reply:
Now, of course, my interlocutor will then advance to the second form of natural law and say, “By ‘unnatural’ I mean ‘not in concert with the ends for which sex is intended.’” This natural law position falls prey to the fallacy of begging the question, in that it rests on two prior premises, neither of which is self-evidently true: “Moral value is to be found in the use of things in advancement of the end for which they are intended” and further, “Sex is intended for procreation.” I have already demonstrated the falsehood of the latter premise, in that while sex may often result in procreation, there is ample evidence that it serves other purposes or ends having nothing to do with procreation. This is, in fact, the position of The Episcopal Church, as enunciated in the preface to the matrimonial rite, where procreation ranks third among the ends of marriage, “when it is God’s will.” It is also the reason marriage, and sexual activity within marriage, are not forbidden to infertile couples, and birth control is permitted.
Although there are some appeals to Natural Law that are similar to this one in certain details, no genuine such argument is precisely like this one. The principle difficulty is, perhaps, due to the informal nature of blogging, because the argument is summed up as "By 'unnatural' I mean 'not in concert with the ends for which sex is intended," and no natural law theorist would put it quite like that. First, the expression "in concert with" is hopelessly vague; second, the notion of "end" being appealed to here is undefined; and finally, "intended" suggests a principle of design that is simply absent in genuine natural law accounts. I think, however, for the purposes of analysis, we may assume that what Haller has in mind is some sort of appeal to the necessity of final causation, where precisely defined ends are related to functionality in one way or another.

If we make such an assumption, we are left with plenty to say about Haller's proposed reply. First, there is his claim that such an argument presupposes that "moral value is to be found in the use of things in advancement of the end for which they are intended". I would be willing to bet money that he thinks this is presupposed because of the use of the word "unnatural", and yet to use such a word implies nothing at all about "moral value". To say that something is "unnatural" is simply to say that, in general, things tend to work differently in natural settings. We all know that water tends to freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit when the pressure is one atmosphere, and we also know that altering the pressure or the composition of the water can alter the temperature at which it freezes. If we know that the water's composition has not been altered, and that the pressure is one atmosphere, it would, in this sense, be "unnatural" if water were not to freeze at the specified temperature. But that is not to say that it is logically impossible for it to do so, or that it would be anything like a moral outrage if it should occur.

Then there is the claim that another suppressed premise in the argument is "Sex is intended for procreation". Here Haller appeals to that notion of "intention" that he left so conveniently undefined earlier. In the present context it is entirely unclear what it means to say that sex is "intended" for anything. What sort of "intention" are we appealing to here? Is it the "intention" of some intelligence, that is, some agent acting with purpose? If not that, then what? Mere adaptedness, the byproduct, perhaps, of natural selection? It simply isn't clear in what sense we are to take it or how, taking it one way rather than another, the desired normative implicature would result. The sense, however, that is usually behind a Natural Law argument is that of final causation. That is, rather than saying that "sex is intended for procreation", the natural law theorist will say that procreation is the final cause of the sexual act. This does not entail that procreation is "intended" as a consequence of every sexual act, but rather serves to explain the function, or role, of the sexual act in a larger ecology.

This sort of claim may not satisfy everyone, of course. It is notoriously difficult to specify these sorts of final causes without appealing to evolutionary just-so stories or else material tautologies. By a "material tautology" I mean something like the following. Consider the question: What is the heart "for"? Suppose someone were to posit "The heart is 'for' the circulation of the blood" and someone else were to object "That's arbitrary--the heart does other things, too: it makes a rhythmic sound, it helps with oxygenation, it contributes to the overall body temperature." The objection seems strange: all of the posited alternatives--making a sound, oxygenation, temperature regulation--are materially identical to the function of circulating the blood, that is, they are present simply as an artifact of the blood being circulated by rhythmic contractions of the heart muscle. It seems clear that circulation is really the only thing that the heart is really "for", if it is "for" anything at all. But this sort of analysis will not do in other kinds of cases. What is the human mouth "for"? Is it for articulation? Mastication? Defensive biting? Sexual stimulation of another? These alternatives are not materially identical to each other, they are quite distinct, and they are all things that people have, from time to time, used their mouths for. So here one might appeal to evolutionary biology and try to pinpoint the selection pressures that gave rise to the mouth as it is presently structured. But this sort of exercise is plainly speculative and can bear no normative weight, since such hypotheses are always open to revision. The principle difficulty in a case like this is the fact that the mouth, quite simply, has many uses, and none of them stands out as definitive, rather, we might just as well say that what the mouth is "for" is the whole suite of them.

Is this the case with sexual activity and the sex organs? What is the sexual act "for"? Procreation? Mere pleasure? The unification of individuals? To communicate love? Haller, like many others, wants to claim that sex is really for all of these things, and not at all for any single one of them in a normative sense. In a strange irony, Haller alludes to a science that is morally neutral in defense of his thesis that one cannot infer an "ought" from an "is", and yet if we accept the truth of this--as we should--then science itself offers a rather straightforward refutation of his view that sex "serves other purposes or ends having nothing to do with procreation". The "other purposes" that he has in mind are, apparently, things such as were just described, and yet all of these things seem rather obviously materially identical to the act of procreation. From an evolutionary point of view, that is, the fact that people who have sex with each other sometimes also fall in love with each other means only that there is differential reproductive success attached to the emotion of love. Love is nothing more than an instrument of reproduction on an evolutionary account. Haller appeals to the fact that sex sometimes fails to produce offspring as evidence that procreation is not what it is for, but that is tantamount to saying that the fact that some batters strike out is proof that going up to bat is not for hitting the ball, so I think we may pass on that one. The point is that, biologically speaking, everything involved in sexual activity is directed towards reproduction, especially if the theory of evolution is true. On this sort of a reductive, materialist scientific account, same-sex relations are the ones that serve no purpose--indeed, they are virtually deleterious and are, hence, selected against.

Haller is right about one thing: the expression contra naturam does not, in and of itself, entail "morally vicious." To move from the claim that same-sex relations are contra naturam to the inference that they are thereby morally wrong does require some set of reasons for thinking that it is better for ends to be achieved than not. I won't bother to give that argument here, since Aristotle does it himself much more thoroughly than I ever could in his Nicomachean Ethics. The key lies in seeing sexual relations not in the isolated way in which Haller foists upon his alleged "natural law" theorist, but in the integrative, holistic way in which the virtue ethicist understands the final cause of the human being. This is the way in which the Church has traditionally deployed arguments from the natural law, and it is rather surprising that Haller would not even bother to address this form of the argument, given that he describes himself as a member of a (Christian) religious order. One begins almost to suspect him of special pleading.


Tobias Haller said…
I find this response to be less than satisfactory, and in the long run I think you rather prove my points by raising the tautologies typical of the Natural Law philosophers. You criticize me for saying things that you yourself later come to say: for instance, in your last paragraph you acknowledge that the church uses reasons (which you leave unexpressed because Aristotle already said them) to give moral value that "it is better for ends to be achieved than not." This is not substantially different from my statement concerning natural law, that there is moral value to be assigned to an alleged coherence between acts and ends. You may quibble with the way I phrased the statement, but it is fundamentally the same thing. And the fact is, you never really show evidence of addressing it. Your baseball analogy hardly serves as an equivalent -- I would not argue that a batter's failure to hit the ball is anything other than a defect. But it begs the question to analogize sexuality to baseball, and reveals your reductive understanding of the various functions of sex from the outset, and your assumption that sex has one "end" just as batting does.

Your statement that "everything involved in sexual activity is directed towards reproduction, especially if the theory of evolution is true" is not materially distinct from my reduction, "sex is intended for procreation." You can quibble all you want about a precise definition of "intention" -- in this case I was referring to the "divine ordering" described in RC thinking, which derives from natural law via Aquinas. "The conjugal act is by its nature ordained to procreation." (Neuner and Dupuis SJ, summarizing a major point in Humane Vitae).

You claim that the other purposes (functions, goods, ends, meanings) for sex (love, society, fidelity, typology, etc.) are "materially identical" with procreation -- this, however, merely begs the question, as it is precisely where we disagree. Love between persons of the same sex is a reality that will not fit into your proposed theory; you exclude it by definition -- but this is the very notion under discussion. I realize this is blogging, but really, surely you can see the circles in your argument. As you note, it is difficult to frame a "natural law" argument free from material tautology. But being aware of that, you ought to try harder to avoid falling prey to the very problems I've pointed out, including a rather clumsy and mistaken account of evolution; which, if you'll pardon the observation, does seem to be a crude effort to derive an "ought" from an "is." (Real evolutionary theory has a number of ways of accounting for homosexuality as an adaptive advantage; it can advantage ones genes shared by one's kin by providing a source of avuncular support in a cohesive extended society -- much as can celibacy; which I might also add could otherwise be seen as maladapted to evolutionary survival.) Not that that providing avuncular support makes homosexuality morally good, mind. That is not an argument I would make, and I really wonder why you spend so much time discussing a point I don't advance except to reject it -- unless you really do support the notion that what "is" will tell us something about what "ought to be." It really does appear you are trying to say, "Science teaches us that sex has one evolutionary purpose."

As to Aristotle and a system of "Christian ethics," it is quite true the Church made extensive use of his thinking as it developed a system of ethics based on natural law. That, as I would say, is the problem. I prefer to derive my ethics from the teachings of Christ; an authentically "Christian" ethic not based on pagan philosophy. As you probably know, the Jewish tradition from which Christ emerges had no use for "natural law" as such (there are a few traces of "natural religion" in the late Wisdom literature, clearly influenced by exposure to Hellenism, and a few passages in Paul that evidence familiarity with Hellenistic sources), but as Maimonides would point out, the Torah is about revealed, positive law.

In the long run, I very much doubt Jesus would agree, for example, with your statement that "Love is nothing more than an instrument of reproduction on an evolutionary account." Some evolutionists may say that, but few are that reductive of the human person; nor would those who make that reduction assign any moral value to love.

But, to get back to Jesus, and the heart of the matter, nor did he see love as necessarily connected with sex or reproduction at all; far from being materially identical, they are quite independent phenomena: one can have sex without love, and love without sex: they are neither materially nor formally bound up by necessity or causation.

So, in the long run, I think you have rather well demonstrated the problems with the "natural law" approach. Although you think you have "passed over" the points I raised, it rather appears to me you have fallen into them.
Anonymous said…
Mr. Carson,

Another interesting line of argument on this question might be drawn from de Anima bk. II, where Aristotle defines the reproductive soul as something striving to be as much like God as possibile, which is the end toward which all thing do whatever they do (I paraphrase the words, but not the sense). This passage is particularly striking since Aristotle is less inclined to exaggeration or hyperbole than any man who has ever lived. This is perhaps the original "Theology of the Body".
Scott Carson said…

You sure like to use the phrase "beg the question"!

The difficulty with your response here, as I see it, is the plain fact that you have misunderstood the point of my argument. My point about the instrumental value of the various functions of sexual activity was not, in fact, an attempt to show that sexual activity is really reducible to those sorts of values, since I myself do not believe that sex is purely instrumental (nor does the Catholic Church, by the way, if by "instrumental" all one means is "ordered towards procreation as a means of continuing the lineage", which is what you appear to think "ordered towards procreation" means). What you have done, in fact, is taken the final cause, procreation, and reduced it to a mere biological function. Well, if that is what you want to do, then it follows as a matter of course that just about everything else can be reduced that way as well. This is not a matter of "begging the question", but rather of tracing out the entailments of your position. You cannot, on the one hand, criticize the Church's view on the grounds that it "reduces" human sexuality to some mere biological act without presupposing, as you evidently do, that "procreation" really is nothing more than, well, some mere biological act. With that presupposition in place, you commit yourself to the possibility that every end connected with human sexuality can be so reduced. So let's have no more of this silly talk of "begging the question".

As for whether your analysis is more in keeping with Christ and the Jews rather than Aristotle and the Greeks, I think it would be well for you to avoid historical arguments, since they are all against you on this score. Christ's Church is his Body, and it is guided by the Holy Spirit; so if the Church, under that very guidance, should find intellectual inspiration from "pagan" writers, that means only that the pagan writers were able to meet a particular intellectual standard; there should be attempt here to smear a particular point of view simply on the grounds that it is "pagan" in its origins! You're the huge fan of intro level textbook nomenclature--have you never heard of the genetic fallacy? Or, better yet, have you never read the Fathers? Saint Basil has a delightful little treatise on Greek literature in which he makes it very clear that there is no reason not to borrow ideas and arguments from the pagans, just so long as they can be effectively used in defense of Christian truth (you can order it from Duckworth: Saint Basil on Greek Literature, edited by N. G. Wilson [London, 1975]).

So the question, in the end, comes down to this: where do you think the authority authentically to interpret the teachings of Christ lies? If one believes that it lies with Church and her ordinary Magisterium, then there is no doubt that appeals to causal structures of the sort employed by St. Thomas Aquinas, which ultimately have their origins in "pagan" writers like Plato and Aristotle, are fully consistent with the proclamation of the Gospel, whether or not such causal structures wind up supporting one's preconceived ideas about such things as same-sex relations.

On the other hand, if one thinks that the final authority is one's own interpretive skill, guided by one's own conscience, well, effectively takes one out of the consensus fidelium. I have blogged against such attitudes here and here.

For what it's worth, I am happy to agree with you that there is more to human sexuality than mere procreation, if procreation is understood as nothing more than merely continuing a certain genetic lineage. I do not think that human sexual relations are fully realized when only procreation is present; that is, human sexual relations that are devoid of love, unicity, and self-giving are, in fact, defective. But to say this is not, in and of itself, an effective argument against the notion of final causality, which was how your argument was articulated. You seemed to think that by attacking the notion of "being for something" you have thereby successfully attacked all Natural Law arguments, and I think it is important to note that (a) such is not the case and (b) you did not even attack the notion of "being for something" very effectively. In fact, your argument was vapid and banal. This is not to say that it is not possible to mount a very effective argument against final causality (I have seen some very good ones), only that you did not mount such an argument.
Tobias Haller said…

Thanks for this response, which is somewhat more helpful than your original essay. It helps to highlight some fundamental disagreements, which may render more productive dialogue less rewarding.

Concerning my use of "procreation" I thought I was clear in referring to exactly what you say in your final paragraph here when you refer to "mere procreation." I am trying to "reduce" the word, which can become rather vague. But I think most people, including the church, when they use that word are fundamentally talking about the process that leads to the birth of children. That is precisely the intent of the Roman teaching, as evinced at least since the Decree for the Armenians, which directly links matrimony to the "increase of the people of God" as its primary purpose. That is not reduction to the merely biological, of course, a fact I willingly acknoweldge: but it is surely the case that one cannot become a child of God prior to being a child of man; that is, the increase of the people of God depends upon the increase of people. (It is also, of course, under this understanding that the Church taught that marriage between pagans was not marriage -- as it did not lead to the increase of the people of God.)

It is also true that the Church has long linked other aspects of the marital relationship with procreation, but this does not alter the fact that procreation can be "reduced" as you say, to the physical act leading to reproduction. One need not, as you say, similarly "reduce" the rest of the functions of marriage; I'm not entirely sure how one would do that -- what is the "reduction" of fidelity, love, or society? -- and can such virtues be reduced? However, one need not necessarily merge these various aspects of the human intimate relationship into one single phenomenon when they can well be conceived of and described and take place separately. These various aspects function separately in the real world, and surely for the purposes of discussion, as you note in the final paragraph here. My concern is not the reducibility of the concept (which you seem to think is my goal) but whether procreation (narrowly defined) can be separated from the other uses or ends of a sexual relationship. I am not "criticizing the church ... for reducing sex to mere procreation" but for expanding "procreation" in such a way as to render it inseparable from aspects of the human relationship which need not involve "procreation" in the narrow sense of the word.

So the problem (for me) arises with the assertion that the various functions (procreative -- in the narrow sense of the word -- unitive, social, and so on, of the conjugal act cannot or ought not be divided -- as the Roman Church maintains. You have suggested they are materially identical. This is the crux of the argument.

So that is also a premise about which we must apparently disagree. As it is a basic premise, and essential to the argument, that may end the discussion. But that is the nature of "begging the question." I'm sorry you don't care for that term, which is well recognized in logic (as petitio principii), but when a premise is held to be beyond question, and yet forms the basis for the issue under discussion, that is what we are dealing with. It amounts to my saying the functions of sexuality are divisible and your saying "no they aren't." Where I would ask you to explore your thinking more carefully is in your admission that human sexual relationships are defective if they "only" have procreation in view. This is something we agree on, so it might be a fruitful place to start. My position would then be, sexual relationships need not be defective if they do not have procreation in view; as for example in the case of a man who has had a prostatectomy, or a woman who has had ovarian cancer and had her ovaries removed. Such a couple could not have "procreation" in view (though they could fulfill some of the goods of procreation understood in its broader sense by adopting and raising children.) But their sexual acts would still be licit, and capable of moral value in all of the other respects. This is the kind of separation of causes that I think is possible. And it is permitted by the church. Where I press the issue is on extending this understanding to a same-sex couple, for whom procreation cannot be a final cause (although they too can fulfill its broader functions through adoption and raising children.) This the church does not allow.

You turn to the argument from authority. I do know what the Roman Catholic Church teaches. Not being a Roman Catholic, I am under no obligation to accept either the doctrine of the Magisterium in general, nor any of its teachings in particular. The assertion by which the Church claims to "be" Christ (as his Body) in its teaching doesn't carry weight as a logical argument. As an Anglican, I hold it as an article of faith that the church not only can err, but has erred, even in matters of faith and morals.

On the other hand, I do not take the approach that each individual is free to come up with his or her own doctrines. I accept the authority of the church as the forum for working this out; but I also accept responsibility as a part of that church and a voice in the dialogue. "Our knowledge is partial" and will only be complete when we come to know as we are known.

As to the Greeks and philosophy as a whole, I by no means believe Greek wisdom must be abandoned; but I observe that the Fathers point out that it must be carefully sifted for what is valuable in it. I think Jerusalem is wise to be at least a little suspicious of Athens, though it need not reject it in toto. In general, I find Aristotle to provide useful tools for logic and argument; but some of the bases for theorizing in his Physics were quite mistaken. As it happens, I lean more towards Plato if it comes to it, than to Aristotle; and I am plainly no Thomist, though I admire Aquinas and find much that he has to say to be very helpful. I tend philosophically to side with Ockham concerning conceptualism -- departing from Plato on that score -- which may well lead you to say, "Well that explains it!"

Where I find natural law to be unhelpful lies in the points outlined in the Westminster article to which I referred. You may find those comments as unhelpful as you've found mine, but you have yet to give me any real reason to change my mind. The greatest danger comes (and this can be seen in Aristotle, say in the Nichomachean Ethics) when the strictly "natural" merges with the merely "cultural" -- for example, in his reflections on the role of women. It is perilously easy for cultural norms to be taken as timeless "natural" truths.

In this, I detect a tendency to universalize what is actually a particular. For instance, in the discussion of procreation, I would say that there is no ideal "procreation" but rather instances of procreation which share common characteristics. But if one of these common characteristics is the actual conception and bearing of children, then it appears to me to be quite possible to describe as "not-procreation" an act which while similar in all other respects lacks this characteristic.

Finally, I agree with much in your final paragraph. You seem to have mistaken my initial argument as being against final causality absolutely. My point is that I do not believe that procreation (in the narrow sense, and following on what I said in the previous paragrpah) is the "final cause" of sexuality. Nor do I see the various ends or goods of sexuality to be materially identical.

I would rather, using your own analogy with the mouth, point out that while the mouth, in the earliest stages of the evolutionary process, was solely a means to ingest food, higher creatures also developed other uses and ends for the mouth as it evolved physically, including, among other things, speech.

In the same way, one might say that in the primitive creature sex is largely the final cause of procreation. But as higher creatures evolve, sex becomes amative, unitive, moral.

But just as speech also relies on the brain, as eating does on the gut, so any tendency to reduce the elements of any complex system to single tasks is, to my mind, an unprofitable way to proceed. The "causes" of the various organs are multiplex, and they are material, efficient and formal, as well as final. But it is also possible to distinguish them and give moral value to the various components. To my mind, the "moral value" in a loving human relationship need not be based on any notion of a final cause to sexuality, particularly if that final cause is procreation. This appears to me to rob infertile marriages, or mature couples past childbearing, of the very real moral value their relationships possess; this approach also rules out same-sex relationships, which can and do have as their final cause the building up of the persons involved, and of the society in which they live. These causes are just as capable of moral value.

Finally, I might also add that tossing about adjectives like "silly" "vapid" and so on do little to advance your argument. I'm sure I could come up with some choice adjectives to describe your own writing, but I prefer to address the substance.
Scott Carson said…

You might very well be surprised how much I actually agree with you when it comes to certain aspects of your analysis. In particular, I find nothing to object to when you write

The "causes" of the various organs are multiplex, and they are material, efficient and formal, as well as final. But it is also possible to distinguish them and give moral value to the various components. To my mind, the "moral value" in a loving human relationship need not be based on any notion of a final cause to sexuality, particularly if that final cause is procreation.

And yet, nothing in this motivates me to reject what the Church has constantly taught about human sexuality. This, I think, is where we really differ: not over matters of the causal structure of the world, or over who can tell the most persuasive just-so adaptationist story about this or that organ, but we disagree about what it means to accept a teaching as authoritative. You characterize yourself as an Anglican, and you seem to take it for granted that being an Anglican excuses you from granting intellectual assent to teachings of the Magisterium that you do not personally endorse, but it is worth noting that not all Anglicans agree with you on this. I no of very few Anglicans who would agree with you that the Church can err "even in matters of faith and morals". If that were literally true, there would be no reason at all to believe anything that the Church teaches, other than wishful thinking. It is only if the Church's teachings are genuinely authoritative (that is, only if they are infallibly true) that we have rational warrant to assert that we believe them to be true.

Things are, quite possibly, rather different in your neck of the woods, but I wonder whether someone like Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh would agree that it is up to the individual conscience to determine whether a particular teaching is worthy of assent simply on the grounds that the individual conscience cannot (or will not) accept the arguments for the teaching. You write

On the other hand, I do not take the approach that each individual is free to come up with his or her own doctrines. I accept the authority of the church as the forum for working this out; but I also accept responsibility as a part of that church and a voice in the dialogue. "Our knowledge is partial" and will only be complete when we come to know as we are known.

In saying this, you seem to me to express a conflicting point of view. On the one hand, you acknowledge the authority of the Church, but on the other hand you arrogate to yourself a role in the "working out" of Church teachings that no individual person has ever had: when a teaching has been constant and universal (here I have in mind not that sex is for procreation, but that heterosexual sex is normative), it simply is not up to a particular individual (or very small group of individuals) to unilaterally decide that the tradition has been mistaken. Granted, there are elements now in the Anglican communion who think otherwise, but it was not always so, and those elements are quickly finding that their willingness to act unilaterally has had some deleterious consequences for the communion as a whole.

Turning to your point about the couple who do not have procreation in view for the simple reason that procreation is not possible for them, let me take this opportunity to make an important point in defense of the natural law position. According to the natural law, it is not necessary that a couple be capable of actual procreation in order to engage in an act that is "procreative" in the required sense. If a man is born with only one leg, he is still a biped, on the natural law account, because he is the byproduct of a reproductive act entered into by creatures that are essentially bipedal, and the fact that he has only one leg is a mere accident due to the constitutive matter of which he is composed, it is not an entailment of the form that determines what kind of thing he is. So too, in the case of different-sex sex acts, the couple are essentially "capable of reproduction" even if, materially, they are not actually able to reproduce. The same cannot be said for a same-sex couple: in that case, it will be impossible even in principle for them to reproduce, since it is not a matter of the constitute matter but of the form.

It seems to me that you are still going to have trouble motivating your argument against the natural law theorist, if all you can say against him is that you, personally, don't find the elements all that closely connected with procreation in the abstract sense in which the natural law theorist deploys it. So far, after all, all you have really done is express a certain skepticism about the connection between a final cause and the normative criterion endorsed by the natural law theories, but if you argument against the view amounts to nothing more than the assertion that sex is really for a lot more than what the natural law theorist says it's for, then it is you who are begging the question, not me.

Frankly, not to make a light matter of it or anything, I can't help but remind you of your words about preferring the Jewish background and tradition for the interpretation of Christian authenticity rather than the pagan one, when, of course, the pagan one would have been much more congenial to the point you have been trying to make about the value of same-sex relationships. As long as you're willing, at least provisionally, to accept a roughly Aristotelian framework of causality, why not go all the way and remind me that the Greeks were all in favor of same-sex relations? Even though he thought that sex was for procreation, Aristotle certainly had no illusions that it would therefore be morally wrong to use it for something else, after all. One can only get the moral argument going if one is willing to accept the authenticity--and authority--of the distinctively Semitic background of our faith and its incorporation into the Magisterium by the Fathers.

But I think you are right that we are too far apart on basic principles and starting points, and I'm quite certain that we don't want to turn a thread about the natural law into an extended discussion of the Magisterium and our respective ecclesiologies. I'm sure we will agree that Christ is God's revelation to us of his mercy and lovingkindness, and that agreement in this much is more than enough to conquer the petty squabbles that divide us.

In conclusion, rather than lecturing you (which would be both condescending and boring), I will simply recommend that you bone up a little more on the nature of the fallacy of begging the question.
Tobias Haller said…

Thank you for this very helpful and irenic response. It really is so much more profitable to touch on points of agreement even if there are also fundamental points of disagreement.

Clearly, the issue of the authority of the Church is a separate question. You are, apparently, not aware of the doctrinal position of Anglicanism, as expressed in the Articles of Religion, concerning this question. It may be true on anecdotal evidence that there are any number of Anglicans who do not hold that position; but the position itself is clear: "as the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith." (Article XIX) The rationale for this position is given in Article XXI, concerning Councils: "when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God." Of course, this was the Reformation, and things have cooled a bit since then, but Anglicans still preserve a suspicion of Magisterial authority.

Anglicans tended to see, and still do tend to see, an emergent process for Church teaching rather than a series of solemnly declared truths. It is a different way of working, but it is because of this that we recognize that individuals and small groups can contribute to the evolving and emerging understanding of God's timeless truth. It is not that truth changes, but that our understanding of it does. There is a dynamic tension between the stability of past teaching and the emergence of new teaching --- but surely this is true in the Roman Catholic "way" as well, even if greater weight is given to the stability rather than the novelty. Although we tend to look back on the scholastic era as relatively stable, the debates were actually quite fervent. (To give one practical example: the settled doctrine of matrimony emerged out of the tension between those who regarded consent to be the primary cause, and those who thought it was physical congress.) And, as I recall even the great Thomas himself had to issue some retractions, even while he undoubtedly moved the thinking of the Church forward in substantial ways. Not to become too Hegelian about it, but the process of the development of doctrine is perhaps a bit more dynamic than is commonly admitted under the Roman system.

That being said, I'm still happy to see there are a number of things about which we do apparently agree. Where we will still differ is in what I would call the definitional approach that natural law appears to favor. For instance, it is by defining "procreation" in a sense that includes things other than the actual generation of children that allows one to say, for example, that an infertile couple can engage in a "procreative act." This is in keeping with the natural law approach of tending to apply universals to individuals. This is exactly where I have difficulty with the approach, not just in sexuality, but as a philosophical difference of opinion.

To use your example, I can readily say that the human species is bipedal. But I would not call a one legged man a biped, though I would say he was fully human: not on the basis of a characteristic of the species that he does not have, but as you say on the basis of the fact that he is descended from humans by a biological process. I would say that an individual Apple is not an Apple because it possesses all of the qualities of Apple-ness (for it might be lacking any number of them as individual Apple) but because it grows from an apple tree. This, in essence, is the philosophical difference between us --- your insistence that the generic still be applied to the specific, or the universal to the individual, even in the absence of the generic quality or faculty in the individual.

The difficulty I have, then, with the natural law position is, as I expressed it: it broadens the definition of procreation in a way that leads to the conclusion; this is what I meant by begging the question, and I think that is a fair assessment. This is not to say that any logical system cannot start with unquestioned premises; but in terms of reasonable discussion, one must begin with agreed upon premises if one is to get anywhere.

To use your language, (rather than the tendentious language of begging the question) your position appears to me to insist on the final cause even when the material cause is not present. It seems to me that in the hierarchy of causes in this case, the material is important: if there is no sperm or ovum, there is no "procreation." So we are using the same word ("procreation") with two very different meanings. Hence a fundamental disagreement. The natural law argument, in this respect, appears to me to take as a foundational principle the very notion that is under discussion. What is needed is an antecedant premise that can be agreed upon, and in all of my extensive reading of Roman Catholic reflection on this subject, I have yet to encounter one. The argument always begins with the assertion about the final causality of "procreation" understood in this broad sense.

As to the Greeks vs the Jews, you are correct that, culturally speaking, the Greeks were more tolerant of same sexuality. However a careful study of the Jewish tradition shows that there are a number of gaps in the supposed universal condemnation; the largest of which being that the Torah has no prohibition against female same-sexuality. This in itself is an indication we are dealing with a cultural phenomenon rather than a natural one.

And I do appreciate your irenic tone, and am more than willing to rejoice in our common acceptance of Christ as both Judge and Advocate, by whose justice and mercy all of us must be convicted and saved.
Scott Carson said…

You may be surprised again, but I should tell you that I am, perhaps, a little better informed about Anglicanism than you may think, since I was myself an Anglican before converting to Roman Catholicism. In fact, Bob Duncan was the man who brought me into the Church (see my post here). I might add that there are groups of Anglicans who claim to hold the teachings of the CCC (the Society of Saint Michael, for example); whether that makes them bad Anglicans or not, I cannot say, but I can say that, within an institution such as the Anglican communion, it is quite simply impossible to regard something like the Articles of Religion as in any way morally binding in the way that the authentic Magisterium claims to be, and so when individual Anglicans or groups of Anglicans choose to hold modified beliefs regarding issues of the Church's defectibility, there is simply no logical space for complaining about that fact. Indeed, if it was legitimate for Anglicans in the 16th century to decide that the Church of Rome had erred, based on their understanding of the historical record, it is no less warranted for Anglicans these days to decide that the Church of Rome not only did not, but could never err, again, based on their understanding of the historical record. Such Anglicans may even think that the term "Church of Rome" is already hopelessly polemical in nature (in this regard I highly recommend the The Stripping of the Altars, by Eamon Duffy [Yale University Press, rev. ed. 1992]). Why such Anglicans remain Anglican is a mystery to me, but there you have it. None of this is to deny that I still love Anglicanism in a way--I left principally for reasons having to do with what I perceive as matters of moral clarity and the authority of the Church to insist upon doctrinal unity in her members. Although it saddens me that more Anglicans do not see the necessity of such a move, I am cheered nonetheless that, at the very least, Anglicans are not fundamentalists.

As for our other differences, it seems to me that what it boils down to is a question of essentialism. I am an essentialist while you, apparently are not. I think that there is such a thing as "what it is to be a human being", and it is for that reason that I am happy to say that a man with one leg is still a human--and, indeed, a biped. You are happy to say that the man is not a biped but is a human. This is only possible if you deny that there is such a thing as "what it is to be a human being". (I will pass over the particular case of bipedality, since I doubt very much that it is a necessary condition on being human, but I'm sure we could find some trait that we believe all humans share to a greater or lesser degree, even if it is something as vaguely defined as "human soul").

Clearly, if we disagree over whether there are essences, we will always disagree over whether any given explanandum, whether it be human life itself, human sexual activity, or even something as simple as a television set, can be adequately explained in terms of an Aristotelian causal framework.

I'm curious about your distinction between "cultural" phenomena and "natural" ones. It seems to me that you were the one who had suggested that, if something occurs in nature, it is natural. At any rate, whether you said that or not, it seems me to be true, and given that, on this sort of a view, human traits are all of them natural, including the evolution of human cultures, I'm afraid I see no principled reason to draw any distinction between what is a "cultural" phenomenon and what is a "natural" one. But this is, perhaps, a debate for another day.
Tobias Haller said…

Again thank you. I am actually now beginning to enjoy the discussion!

You are quite right about Anglicans -- and I should have added that if it is an Anglican "doctrine" that the Church can err, the Anglicans might have erred is saying so! Here I think we move from Aristotle to Quine... ;-) I wonder with you why people who want an infallible Magisterium remain in what can only be a sort of uneasy Anglicanism -- as it appears to me that the Church of Rome offers the most secure home for those seeking such a residence. This was, if I recall correctly, the train of thought that led Newman to his decision, and I respect his following through on the logical consequences of his thinking. Of course, I respect as well those who hold back, but it must be to some extent uncomfortable. Your reasons for departing are logical, but in a sense you demonstrate Anglicanism's multivalency by revealing your own desire for greater uniformity and clarity in matters of moral doctrine and discipline. I, on the other hand, relish the asymptotic approach to understanding.

I recognize as well that you are coming from an essentialist perspective. I approach these matters from a process perspective. I believe (at least to my own satisfaction) there are ways to fit all of the classical and creedal theological doctrines into this metaphysical framework, realizing that the bulk of scholastic theology tended the other way; although I note some antecedents to process thinking along the way. Some problems and tensions do arise, of course, and moral theology in particular is one area where things get a bit dicey, particularly given the emphasis on essentialism and universals when it comes to matters of sexual identity. I think in this discussion we have fairly well marked out the differing territory, and perhaps we can simply acknowledge that we are speaking different languages though we share a common border.

As to whether culture is a part of nature: again I think we may be dealing with definitions. If by "nature" we simply mean "all that is" then obviously culture is part of it. But I do not think I am out of bounds in suggesting that there is a rational conceptual boundary in the regard of things that happen apart from human agency and those that involve it. Culture is not simply something that happens, or even that happens-to, but rather something that emerges from the interplay of human needs, hopes, desires, and capacities with the rest of the world. It is "man-made" rather than "natural" -- not a meaningless distinction. I think some matters of free will and human agency have to come in unless we are to treat culture as a mere automatic or inevitable, or as only an organic outgrowth. One thing that would need to be explained, among others, is the multiplicity of cultures, and the multiplicity of cultural responses to similar situations. So while I can certainly acknowledge that humanity is a part of nature, I am also bound to the conception of the human as image and likeness of God, and thus able to stand at some remove from nature. It is an interesting topic, no doubt, but as I say it will depend on how one defines the terms at the outset. I am using "culture" to cover that which emerges from human activity.

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