Preface for Maundy Thursday

It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord; who for our sins was lifted high upon the Cross, that he might draw the whole world to himself; who by his suffering and death became the author of eternal salvation for all who put their trust in him.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Natural Lawyer Jokes, Part III

‘Give your evidence,’ said the King.
‘Shan’t,’ said the Cook.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

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Returning to my analysis of Dr Feser’s piece, I’m going to move backward a little from my last post, because the arc of the argument is fairly extended. The first important set of premises begins under the heading General Sexual Ethics, and addresses the new dimension given to human behavior by the fact that, in addition to our animal bodies, we possess rational souls.

Now these latter, higher, rational activities do not merely constitute distinctive goods; they also alter the nature of the lower, animal goods. For example, both a dog and a human being can have a visual perception of a tree. But there is a conceptual element to normal human visual perception that is not present in the dog’s perception. … That perception in our case participates in our rationality makes of it a different and indeed higher sort of good than that of which non-human animals are capable. Other goods we share … with animals similarly participate in our rationality and are radically transformed … Thus, meals have a social and cultural significance that raises them above mere feeding; games have a social import and conceptual content that raises them above the play of which other mammals are capable … Our sexual faculties are no different.1

Illustration of tea ceremony from 17th century Japan

So far, so good (and a valuable rejoinder to most anthropologists, who seem to have carefully trained themselves to be unable to recognize the non-animal reasons people do things). He continues his treatment of the merely animal aspect of sex thus:

Giving pleasure is not the end of sex, not that for the sake of which sex exists in animals. Rather, sexual pleasure has as its own natural end the getting of animals to engage in sexual relations, so that they will procreate. … So, sex in animals exists for the sake of procreation, and sexual pleasure exists for the sake of getting them to indulge in sex, so that they will procreate. And we’re built in such a way that sexual arousal is hard to resist and occurs very frequently, and such that it is very difficult to avoid pregnancies resulting from the indulgence of that arousal. The obvious conclusion is that the natural end of sex is (in part) not just procreation, but procreation in large numbers. … Apart from the Aristotelian jargon, everything said so far could be endorsed by the Darwinian naturalist … whether or not such a naturalist would agree with the moral conclusions natural law theorists would draw from it.2

A plausible assertion. But not, I think, quite so certain as Dr Feser believes. Permit me a brief zoölogical detour.

As I mentioned in my first post of this series, homosexual behavior is well-known in the animal kingdom, and in some species, such as giraffes, is far more prevalent than heterosexual behavior. Bonobos form a particularly interesting case, since (along with chimps3) they are the living primates most closely related to humans: 60% of all sexual activity among bonobos is lesbian, and sexual activity, of whatever kind, is frequently used to defuse tension and reconcile after conflict. Now, the mere existence of homosexual behavior among animals really isn’t a threat to Natural Law Theory; the idea is not that whatever happens is natural, but that there is a pattern built into nature by its Creator, and deviations can be measured from that pattern, not just by man-made convention. But—I may be mistaken, and if so I’m sure a Natural Law theorist or six will emerge from the æther to correct me—the normal test proposed for finding out what’s natural is to look at what effect nature usually brings about. And if, in at least some cases, sex appears to have far more to do with social bonding than with procreation even on a strictly animal level, and that among some of our closest animal relatives—well, it rather sounds like the Natural Law theorist has some mansplaining to do.

That said, one of the basic tenets of Catholic Christianity is that we live in a fallen world: i.e., a world that does not wholly fulfill the design of its Maker, not only in being as yet incomplete, but in active distortion and corruption. No Christian, on seeing that something exists, must necessarily approve of it in principle; unlike the pantheist who considers all being a manifestation of divinity, or the Buddhist who considers the world as we know it fundamentally illusory, the Christian insists that imperfection and evil are real, and that they matter. The problem for the Natural Law theorist, then, is to sort out the design that nature (imperfectly) strives for, from the evil that diverts and weakens it, and to set forth a principle by which to do the sorting. But a simple study of what usually happens is not a satisfying technique for such sorting, because you then need another rubric for determining which results count and which don’t. I mean, does the behavior of bonobos demonstrate a legitimately non-procreative purpose of sex even at an animal level, especially given that they so strongly resemble humans, or does that not count? And if not, why not—because most other animals aren’t like that (even if a surprising number are)? Well, which animals count and which don’t, for the purpose of determining what nature usually does? Do bacteria, for whom sex is always non-reproductive?

To at least some degree, Dr Feser recognizes the epistemic4 problem here. In seeking to justify a fully Catholic moral outlook on sex on grounds of Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy, he raises some important distinctions:

Since the natural ends of our sexual capacities are simultaneously procreative and unitive, what is good for human beings vis-à-vis those capacities is to use them only in a way consistent with these ends. … It cannot possibly be good for us to use them in a way contrary to those ends, whether or not an individual person thinks it is … This is true whatever the reason is for someone’s desire to act in a way contrary to nature’s purposes—intellectual error, habituated vice, genetic defect, or whatever—and however strong that desire is. … A clubfoot is still a clubfoot, and thus a defect, even though the person having it is not culpable for this and might not be able to change it. … What has been said so far clearly supports a general commendation of confining sexual activity to marriage and the having of large families, and a general condemnation of fornication, adultery, contraception, homosexual acts, bestiality, masturbation, pornography, and the like. …

But this might still seem to fall short of establishing the absolute moral claims made by Catholic teaching. Consider a devout Mormon couple who have a large family of nine children, but who have occasionally used contraception so as to space their children evenly … It would certainly seem strained and even unjust to accuse them of having a ‘contraceptive mentality’ … insofar as their attitude toward sex is obviously different from those who regard sex as mere recreation and children as an inconvenience to be avoided. … It may also seem to have proved too much. For if it is good for us to pursue the procreative and unitive ends of sex and bad for us to frustrate them, wouldn’t it follow that it is wrong to refrain from marrying if one had the opportunity to do so? [Or that] it is wrong for sterile and aged married couples to have sexual intercourse? … If there is to be an absolute prohibition on contraceptive acts, masturbatory acts, and the like as such, even though there is no such prohibition on merely refraining from sex or on sex between sterile spouses, then there must be something about the nature of the former acts that makes them inherently contrary to the good for us[.]5

To this, modern readers—myself among them—will readily add homosexuality. For even a casual acquaintance with gay culture and people shows that we’re as likely as anybody to want children, and (to some degree) apt to lament the fact that we can’t have biological children with our preferred partner; the prevalence of both adoption and surrogacy suggest how strong the desire can be. In other words, from the point of view of intention alone, plenty of LGBT couples are in exactly the same position as infertile straight couples.

The ‘perverted faculty argument’ into which Dr Feser moves from here seems to be quite well constructed, and when I write about it I may do little more than agree with him. But the epistemic problem of how to evaluate the evidence doesn’t seem soluble to me on the Thomist axiom that Nihil est in intellectu quod prius non fuerit in sensu, ‘Nothing is in the understanding which was not in the senses first.’6 The problem with that is: how the hell do you get a standard for evaluating evidence out of the evidence you’re evaluating? I plan to deal with this problem, as best I can, in my next.

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1Neo-Scholastic Essays, p. 388.
2Ibid., pp. 389-390.
3Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus) are very closely related to each other; evidence obtained by genetic and anatomical studies suggest that the two species only became distinct from each other about a million years ago, and that the latest common ancestor of the two split off from the hominid line (e.g. Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo sapiens) only six or seven million years ago. The commonality is close enough that some scientists assert that the Pan and Homo genera should be treated as one, though this is controversial.
4I.e., a problem of epistemology, the branch of thought that studies how we know things—not in the physiological sense of how information is stored in the brain, but in the philosophical sense of how we can have confidence in our premises and the conclusions we draw from them.
5Ibid., pp. 396-398.
6St Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate II.3.xix.


  1. Of course, even if sexual behavior could be interpreted (with animal examples, etc) as a sort of "grooming" behavior for bonding (is this the "unitive" end?) rational human beings, we still have to ask, why is THAT behavior effective or indicative in that regard?

    Well, presumably because it is a sign of intimacy. Why? Well, presumably because those body parts aren't usually touched and stimulated by one whom one is not intimate with; intimacy is indicated by the "unusualness" of boundary-breaking. Why? Just arbitrarily, as if they're a special button evolved purely for bonding as an end in itself? No. Rather, it would seem, exactly *because* they are the genital organs. They are relatively taboo (and hence intimate) *because* of their role in procreation.

    Sexual contact indicates a degree of intimacy to be sure, and hence has this sort of "grooming" aspect, to be sure. I don't think Catholic moral thought was ever unaware of this. But what sort/degree of intimacy is indicated, is the question. Why, presumably, precisely that of mates! Isn't that the whole coherent logic of it?

    Even when done "for bonding/to express intimacy"...the primal logic/reason for that is "because we're doing what mates do, so it indicates us being as intimate as mates." But that very idea would seem undermined and "in bad faith" if the people being "as intimate AS mates" are, actually, at the same time, actively withholding mating. Then it becomes almost a deception of oneself, and thus implies a sort of internal self-division, because if the pleasure of the intimacy is derived from "This is mate-like intimacy!" but then, simultaneously, it isn't (quite deliberately) *really* the intimacy of mates...well, there's an internal contradiction there.

    This is the sort of reason I think "Natural Law" is supposed to involve.

    It also would help to look at human beings (human nature is the nature in question, after all...) anthropologically. Very few societies have had a "modern" view of the role of sexuality. Why? Are we to imagine that humans are so stupid that somehow we collectively "forgot" that sexuality can really be just about bonding/grooming and that modern man "rediscovered" this fact about our own nature by observing bonobos and giraffes??

    Is it really that sensible to posit that somehow so many cultures which have linked sex and marriage (and which have proscribed sodomy, heterosexual and homosexual) all just at some point (when, exactly?) "forgot" and "mistakenly" condemned a faculty of bonding/grooming that is actually perfectly natural to human beings??

    And yet, these societies all seem perfectly aware that, say, cuddling a child or *other* forms of (non-sexual) physical affection among family and friends are for bonding.

    Sure, there are rumors in anthropology of this or that tribe in New Guinea who preform oral sex on their infants to soothe or bond or whatever. But this doesn't seem to be the norm, and strikes many of us with horror! And most of us are struck with a sense that "This is the perverted result of delusional fundamentalist logic about intimacy" when we hear of cases like Muslim men being told by this or that imam to breastfeed from their female coworkers so that some sort of legal fiction of kinship is established that magically will get rid of all the concerns about lust...

    It seems the general trend across mankind, though, understands that the bonding promoted by sexual intercourse is precisely the intimacy "logically" indicated BY said intercourse; namely, the intimacy OF mates.

    1. A very good argument; thank you. And it anticipates one of the arguments I'm planning to make in my next post.

  2. He kind of tips his hand here: "If there is to be an absolute prohibition on contraceptive acts, masturbatory acts, and the like as such, even though there is no such prohibition on merely refraining from sex or on sex between sterile spouses, then there must be something about the nature of the former acts that makes them inherently contrary to the good for us."

    In short, the conclusion is decided at the outset: here we set out to come up with a philosophical argument which will separately confirm *exactly* what the Church already teaches. To which I would argue, first, how can you be sure you're doing it right when you're simply trying to reconstruct a teaching you already know -- isn't that going to bias your reasoning? And second, how can we call it an argument knowable by natural reason, which even unbelievers should be able to be convinced by, if it is directed at the outset by revelation?

    There are lots of other objections to Feser's arguments. For instance, rather than saying "the ends of sex are unity and procreation," we really ought to say that the end of the unity produced by sex is also procreation -- there is no point to the pair-bond except to encourage both parents to stick around to raise the child. So isn't pair-bonding by the infertile just as perverted as sex that is infertile? He sort of touches on this, as well as the problem of saying each individual act ought to be unitive and procreative rather than that the relationship as a whole will be both. This is problematic given that the unity is needed throughout the entire marriage, whereas the procreation is not necessarily appropriate at all times.

    And the whole "large family" thing shuts it down at the get-go. Having a large family is naturally what evolution "wants," but I don't see any reason why this should be what God wants. Now that we *have* filled the earth and subdued it, and there is no real lack of warm bodies on the planet, is it really wise for *everyone* to have a large family? It's easy to excuse when practicing Catholics are a minority; a few familes of 10 are no big deal. But if *everyone* on the planet had an average 10 children, that would quintuple the world's population in one generation. Can the earth carry 35 billion people? And isn't God's intention for people to love and serve him, and love one another, rather than simply to multiply as fast as they possibly can?

    Totally with you on the giraffes and bonobos thing. I have been told that the way we know what is "natural" is simply by what the majority is/does, so that we know that a clubfoot is a defect because most people don't have them. But a lack of wings is not considered a defect, because we all lack them in common.

    But that's nuts, and not just because heterosexuality is not so universal as all that. It also introduces absurdities like "right-handedness is natural and left-handedness is abnormal," or "an IQ of 130 is equally as defective as an IQ of 70." Whereas really what is a "defect" and what is simply a difference depends greatly on what people want. My oldest is autistic. It's very mild, really, he needs some adaptations from the school but he's a happy and funloving kid whom we all enjoy being around even when he can't get off the topic of Minecraft for days. According to "natural law," his ASD is a defect, full stop, because most human brains are not like his. But to him it's really not one; the only thing that makes it undesirable for him is that other people expect a certain level of social ability and isn't that impressed by his high intelligence in certain specialized areas. Natural law theory, as Feser expresses it, would insist that he spend his life trying to be neurotypical, rather than spend it trying to be the best version of himself he can be. That .... bothers me a great deal.

    1. I definitely agree with you that Natural Law Theory seems problematic in a lot of ways, and that Dr Feser's formulations (at least in this essay; I don't have a thorough acquaintance with his work) don't show a full appreciation of that. Personally I think it can be salvaged, and that it is illuminating enough to be worth salvaging what's more. Whether most Thomists will like the way I (try to) salvage it remains to be seen, since it involves a departure from Thomist epistemology.

      About his conclusion being predetermined, that's true. However, in the context of the book, that's actually fine: Dr Feser didn't write this as apologetics, but as intra-Catholic debate, defending one version of NLT against another. I didn't make it very clear that he was doing that, but it's entirely clear in its original context. I'm engaging with him for much the same reason he's engaging with other Catholics: we're both saying something like, "Given the *data* of Catholic belief, what must reality be like, philosophically, to explain or 'produce' Catholicism?" Which is valid -- though obviously not the sort of conversation everybody would be interested in.

    2. The frustrating thing about NLT, and Feser's formulation of it in particular, is that people hold it up as proof that it's okay to (for instance) ban gay sex or birth control, because "it's not a revelation thing, it's a natural law thing and therefore knowable to natural reason, this guy Feser said so." And I hate that because they're basically saying, "I don't have to respect others' beliefs so long as I can theoretically prove them wrong, with an argument that convinces no one, without reference to the Bible."

      Used as a "why is morality the way we already believe it is" type thing, natural law is a lot less infuriating.

    3. There I agree with you wholeheartedly. The tactics used by so many Catholic apologists on subjects like these make me angry sometimes, both for their disrespect and for their lack of practicality.