Friday, February 6, 2015

What’s the deal with sex? Part II


In a previous post I identified three aspects of sex which manifestly give it a special moral significance: It is the means by which new human beings are made; it is the means by which we are physiologically and psychologically completed qua men and women; and it is that area of human life in which the animal side of our nature most relentlessly fights against the rational side of our nature.  When natural law theorists and moral theologians talk about the procreative and unitive functions of sex, what they have in mind are the first two of these aspects.  The basic idea of traditional natural law theory where sex is concerned is that since the good for us is determined by the natural ends of our faculties, it cannot be good for us to use our sexual faculties in a way that positively frustrates its procreative and unitive ends.  The third morally significant aspect of sex, which is that the unique intensity of sexual pleasure can lead us to act irrationally, is perhaps less often discussed these days.  So let’s talk about that.

Aquinas provides illuminating guidance on our subject in his discussion in the Summa Theologiae of the eight “daughters” or effects of lust.  Keep in mind that “lust,” when used pejoratively by Aquinas and other natural law theorists and moral theologians, does not mean “sexual arousal.”  There is nothing wrong with sexual arousal, even intense sexual arousal, in itself.  Rather, “lust” is used in natural law theory and moral theology as a technical term for sexual desire that is in some way disordered.  In what sense might it be “disordered”?  Aquinas writes:

A sin, in human acts, is that which is against the order of reason.  Now the order of reason consists in its ordering everything to its end in a fitting manner.  (Summa Theologiae II-II.153.2)

So, reasonable or well-ordered sexual desire is sexual desire that is “order[ed]… to its end” and “in a fitting manner.”  Thus, sexual desire is unreasonable or disordered if it is indulged in a way that frustrates its natural ends, or if it is indulged in an unfitting manner.

Disorder of the kind that involves frustration of the natural ends of sexual desire would in Aquinas’s view exist when, for example, such desire is directed at something other than a human being of the opposite sex, or when the sexual act is prevented from reaching its natural climax in insemination.  An example of sexual desire that is disordered in its manner would be adulterous sexual desire.  Suppose you find some person of the opposite sex other than your spouse attractive.  So far there is no sin.  Suppose that sexual thoughts and images about this person enter unbidden into your consciousness.  So far, still no sin.  But now suppose that instead of pushing these thoughts and images out of your mind and turning your attention to something else, you willingly and actively entertain them.  Now there is a sin of lust.  Finding this other person attractive is of itself perfectly natural, and in the right circumstances (being married to the person) there would be nothing wrong with letting this attraction draw you into sexual fantasy and intense arousal.  But because you are not married to the person and are married to someone else, circumstances make such fantasy and arousal disordered and sinful. 

For present purposes, though, I will put to one side questions about what sorts of desire and behavior, specifically, count as lustful or disordered.  Controversies over the natural law position on extra-marital sex, homosexuality, contraception, etc. are not to the present point.  (I have addressed those matters in other places, such as here.)  For our topic here is primarily not lust itself but rather the “daughters” or effects of lust -- the way in which sexual desire that is disordered tends to bring further moral disorders in its wake.

One more preliminary note: To say that some further moral disorder is an effect of lust is not to say that it invariably and fully follows from lust.  We are talking here about tendencies.  The longer and more thoroughly someone’s sexual desires are disordered, the more likely he is to fall into the other moral disorders Aquinas speaks of.  But if sexual desire is less thoroughly disordered, or if the disorder is counteracted by efforts to correct it, then naturally the secondary disorders are less likely to follow, or will not be as great as they otherwise would be.

The daughters of lust

Of the eight “daughters of lust,” the first four concern the intellect and the last four the will.  The first “daughter” or effect is what Aquinas calls “blindness of mind,” whereby the “simple [act of] understanding, which apprehends some end as good… is hindered by lust.”  What Aquinas has in mind here can be understood as follows.  The intellect has as its natural end or final cause the grasp of truth.  Truth, however, is a “transcendental,” as is goodness, and the transcendentals are convertible with one another.  That is to say, truth and goodness are really the same thing looked at from different points of view.  Hence the intellect is no less naturally directed toward the grasp of the good as it is toward the grasp of truth.  (See pp. 31-36 of Aquinas for discussion of the transcendentals.) 

Now, when, for whatever reason, we take pleasure in some thing or activity, we are strongly inclined to want to think that it is good, even if it is not good; and when, for whatever reason, we find some idea attractive, we are strongly inclined to want to think that it is true and reasonable, even if it is neither.  Everyone knows this; you don’t have to be a Thomist to see that much.  The habitual binge drinker or cocaine snorter takes such pleasure in his vice that he refuses to listen to those who warn him that he is setting himself up for serious trouble.  The ideologue is so in love with a pet idea that he will search out any evidence that seems to confirm it while refusing to consider all the glaring evidence against it.  The talentless would-be actor or writer is so enamored of the prospect of wealth and fame that he refuses to see that he’d be better advised to pursue some other career.  And so forth.  That taking pleasure in what is in fact bad or false can impair the intellect’s capacity to see what is good and true is a familiar fact of everyday life.

Now, there is no reason whatsoever why things should be any different where sex is concerned.  Indeed -- and this is part of Aquinas’s point -- precisely because sexual pleasure is unusually intense, it is even more likely than other pleasures are to impair our ability to perceive what is true and good when what we take pleasure in is something that is in fact bad.  In particular, habitually indulging one’s desire to carry out sexual acts that are disordered will tend to make it harder and harder for one to see that they are disordered.  For one thing, the pleasure a person repeatedly takes in those acts will give the acts the false appearance of goodness; for another, the person will be inclined to look for reasons to regard the acts as good or at least harmless, and disinclined to look for, or give a dispassionate hearing to, reasons to think them bad.  Hence indulgence in disordered sexual behavior has a tendency to impair one’s ability to perceive the true and the good, particularly in matters of sexual morality.  In short, sexual vice makes you stupid.

Even here you don’t need to be a Thomist to see that much.  Everyone knows that overindulgence in sexual pleasure can blind someone to the likely bad effects of such indulgence.  In particular, everyone is familiar with examples like that of the lecherous boss or teacher who sexually pursues subordinates or students despite the risks to his family or career, the woman who deludes herself into thinking that the married man she is having an affair with will leave his wife and marry her, the pornography user who refuses to admit that he is addicted, and so on. 

Of course, there are lots of things the Thomist regards as sexually disordered which many people these days do not regard as disordered.  In part this is, from a Thomist point of view, a consequence of widespread intellectual error.  For when the general metaphysical framework underlying traditional natural law theory -- essentialism, teleological realism, and so forth -- is properly understood, it is pretty obvious that the general natural law approach to sexual morality is perfectly reasonable, and indeed pretty hard to avoid, given that metaphysical framework.  Moreover, the framework itself is not only perfectly defensible, but also (as I have argued at length) pretty hard to avoid when properly understood.  The trouble is that in contemporary intellectual life most people know nothing of, or at best know only crude caricatures of, that metaphysics and of the traditional natural law theory that rests on it.  Hence they fail to understand the rational foundations of traditional sexual morality.

But the Thomist is bound to judge that mere intellectual error is not the only problem.  For it’s not just that people in contemporary Western society commonly disagree, at an intellectual level, with the natural law theorist’s judgments about what is disordered.  It’s that they commonly act in ways that natural law theory says are disordered.  And if such behavior has a tendency to impair one’s capacity to perceive what is true and good, especially where sex is concerned, then it follows that widespread rejection of traditional sexual morality is bound to have as much to do with the sort of cognitive corruption that Aquinas calls “blindness of mind” as it does with the making of honest intellectual mistakes.  That people who don’t behave in accordance with traditional sexual moral norms also don’t believe that these norms have any solid intellectual foundation is thus in no way surprising.  On the contrary, that’s exactly what natural law theory itself predicts will happen.

It is in light of this fact that we need to evaluate the refusal of some contemporary academic philosophers even to consider arguments in defense of traditional sexual morality.  Those who take this attitude claim that such arguments need not be taken seriously because they are mere expressions of “bigotry.”  Now, one problem with this position is that it is manifestly fallacious.  It either begs the question, since whether traditional sexual morality really is “bigoted” rather than rationally justifiable is precisely what is at issue; or it is a fallacious ad hominem, an attempt to dismiss the arguments on the basis of the purportedly disreputable motivations of those who put them forward. 

Another problem, though, is that this strategy of dismissing the arguments for traditional sexual morality as mere rationalizations of “bigotry” can be stalemated by the counter-accusation that those who reject traditional sexual morality suffer from what Aquinas calls “blindness of mind.”  The traditional moralist might respond: “Of course you would dismiss the arguments as mere bigotry!  That’s because your intellect has been so clouded by sexual vice that you cannot even see what is good and true where sex is concerned, and don’t even want to try to see it!”

Of course, if the Thomist left it at that and merely accused the other side of blindness of mind, he too would be guilty of begging the question or of a fallacious ad hominem.  What that shows, though, is that there is simply no rational way to avoid engaging in debate with those with whom you disagree on the subject of sexual morality.  If the defender of traditional sexual morality is to avoid resorting to a mere question-begging ad hominem, then he has to give arguments for his position and to answer the arguments of the other side.  And if the critic of traditional sexual morality is to avoid resorting to a mere question-begging ad hominem, then he too has to give arguments for his position and to answer the arguments of the other side.  It is the side that merely flings abuse at its opponents and refuses to engage in debate that is the truly bigoted side

But I digress.  The other three “daughters of lust” that concern the intellect follow straightforwardly from blindness of mind.  The second is what Aquinas calls “rashness,” which concerns the way disordered sexual desire hinders “counsel about what is to be done for the sake of the end.”  What Aquinas means here is that just as pleasure in what is disordered can blind us to the true ends of our sexual faculties, so too can it blind us to the means to achieving those ends. 

The third daughter of lust is what Aquinas calls “thoughtlessness,” and what he appears to have in mind is a failure of the intellect even to attend to ends and means in the first place.  In other words, whereas “blindness of mind” involves the intellect’s attending to the question of the ends of sex but getting them wrong, and “rashness” involves the intellect’s attending to the question of the means of achieving those ends and getting those wrong too, “thoughtlessness” involves the intellect’s not even bothering with the question of what ends and means are proper.  The “thoughtless” man simply pursues the disordered pleasures to which he has become addicted in something like a sub-rational way, “mindlessly” as it were.  His intellectual activity vis-à-vis sex no longer rises even to the level of rationalization.

The fourth daughter of lust is “inconstancy.”  Here the idea seems to be that even when the lustful person is not utterly sunk in “blindness of mind,” “rashness,” and “thoughtlessness” and thus still has some grasp of the proper ends and means vis-à-vis sex, that grasp is nevertheless tenuous.  The pleasure of disordered sexual behavior constantly diverts the intellect’s attention, so that what is truly good is not consistently perceived or pursued.

Now, for Aquinas, will follows upon intellect, and thus, unsurprisingly, the daughters of lust include four disorders of the will in addition to the four disorders of the intellect.  Aquinas describes the fifth and sixth daughters of lust as follows:

One is the desire for the end, to which we refer "self-love," which regards the pleasure which a man desires inordinately, while on the other hand there is "hatred of God," by reason of His forbidding the desired pleasure.

“Self-love,” it seems to me, can be understood as follows.  The “thoughtless” person is entirely sunk in his disordered sexual pleasures.  The person manifesting “blindness of mind” and “rashness” is also sunk in disordered sexual pleasure, but has managed to cobble together a network of rationalizations for his pursuit of these disordered pleasures.   Either way, though, the lustful person’s focus has turned inward, on the self and its own pleasures and intellectual constructions, rather than outward, toward what is actually good and true.  The mind corrupted by lust wants to make reality conform to itself, rather than to make itself conform to reality.  Hence the very idea that there is such a thing as a natural, objective moral order, especially where sex is concerned, becomes unbearable to the lustful person. 

The sequel, naturally, is what Aquinas calls “hatred of God.”  For God is Being Itself, and since being, like truth and goodness, is a transcendental, it follows that God is also Truth Itself and Goodness Itself.  These are all just different ways of conceptualizing the same one divine reality.  Thus, to hate what is in fact true and good is ipso facto to hate what is in fact God.  Of course, the person lost in disordered sexual desire might claim to love God.  If such a person knows he is lost in disordered desire and seeks to be freed from it, this love is sincere.  He still has some perception of what is truly good and wants to strengthen his grasp of it and his ability to pursue it.  But suppose the person loves his disordered desires, hates those who would call him away from indulging those desires, and refuses to take seriously the suggestion that such indulgence is contrary to the divine will.  Then his purported love of God is bogus.  It is not really God that he loves at all, but rather an idol of his own construction. 

The last two daughters of lust are what Aquinas calls “love of this world” and “despair of a future world.”  Now, for Aquinas a human being qua rational animal has both corporeal powers (namely our animal powers of nutrition, growth, reproduction, sensation, appetite, and locomotion) and the incorporeal powers of intellect and will.  It is the latter, higher powers that make our souls immortal and destined for a life beyond the present one.  Since our animal powers, and the pleasure associated with their exercise, are natural to us, there is nothing wrong with our loving these things.  But by “love of this world” what Aquinas has in mind is an excessive love of these things.  Disordered sexual pleasure, by virtue of its intensity, has a tendency to turn us away from the goods of the intellect.  In part this is because such pleasure blinds us to what the intellect would otherwise see to be true and good, but also in part because even where the lustful person can still perceive truth and goodness, its pursuit is difficult since the pleasure he might take in it is so much less intense than the disordered sexual pleasure to which he is in thrall.

Naturally, then, the lustful person is bound to be uninterested in the next life, and disinclined to do what is needed to secure his future well-being within it.  It will seem cold, abstract, and dull compared to what he has set his heart on in this life.  And thus it is no surprise that Christian theologians have traditionally emphasized the dangers sexual sins pose to one’s immortal soul.  This is not because such sins are the worst sins -- they are not -- but rather because the pleasure associated with them makes them very easy to fall into and, if they become habitual, very difficult to get out of.  (Churchmen who want to downplay the significance of sexual sins in the name of compassion are thus acting in a way that is in fact anything but compassionate.)

The opposite extreme

So far we have been talking about sins of excess where sexual pleasure is concerned.  But it is very important to keep in mind that here as in other areas of human life, there are disorders of deficiency as well as disorders of excess.  Speaking of pleasure in general, Aquinas writes:

Whatever is contrary to the natural order is vicious.  Now nature has introduced pleasure into the operations that are necessary for man's life.  Wherefore the natural order requires that man should make use of these pleasures, in so far as they are necessary for man's well-being, as regards the preservation either of the individual or of the species.  Accordingly, if anyone were to reject pleasure to the extent of omitting things that are necessary for nature's preservation, he would sin, as acting counter to the order of nature.  And this pertains to the vice of insensibility. (Summa Theologiae II-II.142.1)

Aquinas immediately goes on to note that it is possible to forsake pleasure in a way that is not vicious, as when one chooses celibacy for the sake of the priesthood or religious life.  There are also unusual cases where even spouses might agree to abstain from sex for spiritual reasons.  But these are not (or should not be) cases where sexual pleasure is rejected as bad, but rather cases where it is regarded it as good but nevertheless forsaken for the sake of something even better.  And the normal course of human affairs is for people to marry, and when they marry to have sexual relations.  That means that sexual pleasure is simply a normal part of ordinary human life.  That is inevitable given that we are, by nature, as much corporeal and animal creatures as rational ones. 

A “vice of insensibility” vis-à-vis sexual pleasure would, accordingly, plausibly be manifest in a marriage where one spouse refuses to make love, or does so only grudgingly, or does so willingly but with complete lack of interest, the way one might without protest agree to do the dishes or take out the trash.  (Of course, spouses are sometimes ill, or tired, or stressed out, or otherwise just not in the mood and thus would rather not have sex.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.  The problem is when one spouse exhibits a habitual aversion to or disinterest in sex.) 

Just as the will might be insufficiently drawn toward sexual pleasure, so too can the intellect take too negative a view of it.  For example, some Christian theologians of earlier centuries were suspicious of sexual pleasure, and erroneously regarded it as something that attends sexual intercourse only as a result of original sin.  Aquinas rejected this view, and in the centuries since his time, natural law theorists, moral theologians, and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church took an increasingly more positive view of sexual pleasure as nature’s way of facilitating the procreative and unitive ends of sex.

So just what is the deal with sex, anyway?  Why are we so prone to extremes where it is concerned?  The reason, I would say, has to do with our highly unusual place in the order of things.  Angels are incorporeal and asexual, creatures of pure intellect.  Non-human animals are entirely bodily, never rising above sensation and appetite, and our closest animal relatives reproduce sexually.  Human beings, as rational animals, straddle this divide, having as it were one foot in the angelic realm and the other in the animal realm.  And that is, metaphysically, simply a very odd position to be in.  It is just barely stable, and sex makes it especially difficult to maintain.  The unique intensity of sexual pleasure and desire, and our bodily incompleteness qua men and women, continually remind us of our corporeal and animal nature, pulling us “downward” as it were.  Meanwhile our rationality continually seeks to assert its control and pull us back “upward,” and naturally resents the unruliness of such intense desire.  This conflict is so exhausting that we tend to try to get out of it by jumping either to one side of the divide or the other.  But this is an impossible task and the result is that we are continually frustrated.  And the supernatural divine assistance that would have remedied this weakness in our nature and allowed us to maintain an easy harmony between rationality and animality was lost in original sin

So, behaviorally, we have a tendency to fall either into prudery or into sexual excess.  And intellectually, we have a tendency to fall either into the error of Platonism -- treating man as essentially incorporeal, a soul trapped in the prison of the body -- or into the opposite error of materialism, treating human nature as entirely reducible to the corporeal.  The dominance of Platonism in early Christian thought is perhaps the main reason for its sometimes excessively negative attitude toward sexual pleasure, and the dominance of materialism in modern times is one reason for its excessive laxity in matters of sex.  The right balance is, of course, the Aristotelian-Thomistic position -- specifically, Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical anthropology, which affirms that man is a single substance with both corporeal and incorporeal activities; and Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law theory, which upholds traditional sexual morality while affirming the essential goodness of sex and sexual pleasure.

422 comments:

1 – 200 of 422   Newer›   Newest»
Anonymous said...

The matter of sexuality is so profoundly structured into our infantile and adolescent adaptations that it persists not only as our most obsessive interest as individuals but also as our most significant and consistent social or interpersonal problem.

The emotional-sexual business is, altogether a nest of odd creatures. Nasty little things, biting and screeching everywhere.

The essential key to understanding anyone's sexuality is via emotion - whatever one is emotionally is what one dramatizes via their sexuality, even on a moment to moment basis. Indeed everything that one does is a dramatization of their emotional-sexual condition.

Human beings are all dramatizing an invisible emotional-sexual script. An emotional-sexual pattern, or Oedipal drama that was set in place when we are about 2 years old. As such all human beings, without exception are self-driven to fulfill their emotional-sexual motivations, to the extent that their urge to emotional-sexual fulfillment has the force of a philosophy. Even for those who pretend that they are living by the traditional Catholic teachings, which obviously includes Catholic priests too, including cardinals and the Pope.

The traditional Catholic teachings on this profoundly important matter are of course based on the the toxic idea of "spirit" versus "flesh". The entire catholic social and cultural game of antisexual "spirit" against "flesh" edifice and education is so montrous, so opposed to incarnate happiness and real human responsibility, that it must be considered the primary social and philosophical issue of our time. Indeed this monstrous social script is the root cause of all of seemingly intractable social problems. All of the various kinds of addictions including alcohol, legal and illegal drugs and of course food too, pornography including the pornography of violence, environmental destruction, and world-wide terrorism/warfare too.

At another level, all of human history can be understood as a dramatization on to the world stage of the oedipal dramas of the the key famous people involved.

All of the literature of the world is about this dramatization too, including the great epic dramas from all times and places. And all popular literature too, however profound and/or tacky as in "romance" novels (which is a huge market). So too with the content of all movies and TV shows.

It is all about the failure of love, the failure to be present in the world as love.

Petronius Jablonski said...

"But this is an impossible task and the result is that we are continually frustrated. And the supernatural divine assistance that would have remedied this weakness in our nature and allowed us to maintain an easy harmony between rationality and animality was lost in original sin."

Which was foreordained by God. Surely it didn't catch Him by surprise. How are we to control an "impossible task"? We don't choose our thoughts or our lusts. Catholic theology makes salvation sound like it's dependent on the powers of positive thinking.

Joe K. said...

If I might add something that I guess is a little self-serving. Many of the points made here are the reason the homosexual condition can be so difficult.

With such a condition, it is nearly impossible to have non-lustful sexual arousal. The homosexual person is fundamentally oriented toward lust in a way the heterosexual person is not. The heterosexual person does have a non-lustful, non-disordered end to which he is viscerally drawn. This simply doesn't exist for the homosexual in the same way.

Moreover, taking the idea that humans straddle the two extremes, should the homosexual person desire to maintain sexual goodness (and many do), he is inevitably pulled toward the Platonic prudishness mentioned in the article because he cannot Experience true, good sexual pleasure. Everything is an intellectual exercise. He is aware that sexual pleasure is good, but the way in which he experiences it is not.

I appreciate the article. It has really helped me to think through and articulate these difficulties.

Tom Larsen said...

Petronius,

“How are we to control an ‘impossible task’? We don’t choose our thoughts or our lusts.”

If I have understood Ed correctly, the “impossible task” he has in mind is “jumping either to one side of the divide or the other.”

And we can affect at least some of our thought processes – for example, by choosing carefully what we read, watch, listen to, meditate upon, and so on.

Petronius Jablonski said...

"And we can affect at least some of our thought processes – for example, by choosing carefully what we read, watch, listen to, meditate upon, and so on."

But what determines those choices? Do we choose to choose them? It's difficult to see how a contingent, finite, created being determines the course of its own mind. That it FEELS this way bespeaks nothing of its absolute causation.

Actually, it feels like the XXX stuff is inflicted, starting in sixth grade and proceeding non-stop (at least) into our 40s. I haven't "chosen" any of this.

Jim Soriano said...

Dante puts those punished for lust in the Second Circle in the Inferno -- the lightest punishment -- where the fabled Paolo and Francesca are blown about like starlings in an eternal whirlwind. The tempest symbolizes the storm of passion that overtook them. They threw prudence and temperance out the window and indulged their passion for each other blindly and rashly. By contrast, Dante puts the sodomites in Lower Hell, where there are those punished for sins of the will (murder, blasphemy, etc.). These are sins that are intrinsically evil by their nature. They cannot be moderated by a Golden Mean. Reason can or should govern the drives for such goods as sex, food, wealth, etc., but there is no such thing as moderate killing. Such sins require the full participation of the will.

Daniel said...

Question for Thomists/Natural Law theorists:

If we leave aside issues of Revealed Theology like the Sacraments what if anything is the difference between marriage and a long-term heterosexual relationship involving exclusive committal and fertility?

Irish Thomist said...

@Joe K.

We all have some share in these difficulties to a lesser or greater degree -at least in the sense that we have to be the master of the lower aspects of our natures through the higher.

I wouldn't beat yourself up too much about your struggles as long as you are doing what is in your power to live a life of virtue. In fact no matter the darkness of the moment, to stay in the fight can certainly be a means to progression(to give context I am not saying sin is good but rather that God is merciful and just).

Also be careful about defining yourself according to one accidental aspect of your nature or placing it above those aspects which are more intrinsic (such as personhood or humanity). You are firstly (like all of us) a human person; loved as much as the rest of us by God. You also like all of us are an animal, that has a capacity to 'know thyself' and the transcendent - with the problem that we do not have that added aspect of original justice.

Irish Thomist said...

One of the clearest, concise and best explanations I've ever read on the matter, and in a blog post. Dealing with both extremes of course (How very Aristotelian!).

Would you ever write a book on the topic of A-T Ethics Prof Feser?

Although I personally would bring in what the sciences have to say about habit formation and so forth as well - since as you note we are rational animals.

Brandon said...

If we leave aside issues of Revealed Theology like the Sacraments what if anything is the difference between marriage and a long-term heterosexual relationship involving exclusive committal and fertility?

There are a few other issues -- the relationship has to have a contractual character, which brings in issues of contractual impediment and also the need for it to be recognizable as having an appropriate juridical character (i.e., is taken by the parties involved to imply appropriate rights, privileges, and duties) -- but if these are OK, I doubt there is any difference. Most other things, like a specific ceremony with witnesses, are security features -- protections of the rights of the people involved rather than essential to it, or (relatedly) things to make it easier for everyone to recognize that the relationship is indeed of the right juridical character. Through most of its history in most places marriage was a quite informal process. The matter can be complex in particular cases, though; there are reasons why the security features came to be expected.

Greg said...

The third daughter of lust is what Aquinas calls “thoughtlessness,” and what he appears to have in mind is a failure of the intellect even to attend to ends and means in the first place. In other words, whereas “blindness of mind” involves the intellect’s attending to the question of the ends of sex but getting them wrong, and “rashness” involves the intellect’s attending to the question of the means of achieving those ends and getting those wrong too, “thoughtlessness” involves the intellect’s not even bothering with the question of what ends and means are proper. The “thoughtless” man simply pursues the disordered pleasures to which he has become addicted in something like a sub-rational way, “mindlessly” as it were. His intellectual activity vis-à-vis sex no longer rises even to the level of rationalization.

Sometimes I wonder how it is possible, given Aquinas's heroic sanctity, that he can characterize sexual error so aptly.

The original Mr. X said...

"The traditional Catholic teachings on this profoundly important matter are of course based on the the toxic idea of "spirit" versus "flesh". The entire catholic social and cultural game of antisexual "spirit" against "flesh" edifice and education is so montrous, so opposed to incarnate happiness and real human responsibility, that it must be considered the primary social and philosophical issue of our time. Indeed this monstrous social script is the root cause of all of seemingly intractable social problems. All of the various kinds of addictions including alcohol, legal and illegal drugs and of course food too, pornography including the pornography of violence, environmental destruction, and world-wide terrorism/warfare too."

Yes, Anon. Clearly the main problem in the modern world is that people are just too darn prudish about sex.

Scott said...

@Greg:

"Sometimes I wonder how it is possible, given Aquinas's heroic sanctity, that he can characterize sexual error so aptly."

Interesting question. I suspect part of the answer is that he was, after all, a priest, and must surely have heard a few confessions in his time. (It worked for Father Brown, anyway.)

ccmnxc said...

Would you ever write a book on the topic of A-T Ethics Prof Feser?

I'm getting a feeling that this post (and the previous one) is a precursor to an ethics book. Just like how Dr. Feser said he worked out a lot of what went into Scholastic Metaphysics on this blog, I am thinking this is an example of working out what will go into the sexual ethics portion of his book on ethics.

Of course, maybe I am totally wrong here, but I can't shake the feeling...

Greg said...

I hope Professor Feser has a book on ethics in the wings.

In the meantime, I am eagerly awaiting this book.

Anonymous said...

"Wherefore the natural order requires that man should make use of these pleasures, in so far as they are necessary for man's well-being, as regards the preservation either of the individual or of the species."

Substituting for the present discussion: "Wherefore the natural order requires that man should make use of sex, in so far as it is necessary for man's well-being, as regards the preservation of the individual or of the species."

This seems to me to entirely support the claim that Aquinas believed that it would not be consonant with the natural order to have sex without positively intending that the sexual act result in pregnancy (reproduction being the way that sex is relevant for the preservation of the species). I think a case can be made that traditional moralists who allow that married couples can have sex without intending pregnancy have moved the goalposts to accommodate, rather than accord with, human nature.

By the way, I know the following remark may seem to have a hint of spitefulness in it, and to be a red herring on top of that, but it really is just supposed to be for fun: Is Aquinas, when he says that heretics should be put to death, suffering from the cousins of the daughters of lust, the sons of hatred or some such?

Greg said...

@ Anon

Aquinas is entertaining the question of whether or not pleasure can be rejected in itself. He points out that pleasure has a role in propelling natural operations for man's preservation to their completions. Consequently insensibility in those operations is a vice, for rejecting pleasure is contrary to nature.

The conclusion you want to suggest is obtain by substituting in 'sex' is not analogous. The original sentence is not saying that pleasures are only permissible when they lead to man's preservation, or that of his lineage. It is saying that insensibility (the rejection of pleasure) is a vice because pleasures attend those natural operations with man's preservation as their end.

Moreover 'sex' is not substitutable for 'pleasure' there, for sex itself is not an instance of pleasure. Sex is an activity; our sexual faculties are a power. Pleasure is in a different category, since there is no activity that is pleasure. Pleasure attends certain operations, and so insensibility subverts natural operations.

Scott said...

@Greg:

Thanks for the heads-up. That book is now in my Amazon shopping cart, with me eagerly awaiting it too.

Scott said...

"Is Aquinas, when he says that heretics should be put to death, suffering from the cousins of the daughters of lust, the sons of hatred or some such?"

Here's what Aquinas actually said on the subject.

Brandon said...

Anon,

In addition to Greg's point, it's not literally possible to 'intend pregnancy' in the relevant ethical sense, if we are dealing with any sort of ordinary sexual act; this is because a considerable part of the process is quite obviously not a matter of deliberate manipulation but a biological process that proceeds on its own regardless of what the partners might be hoping or not. The most one can do is not actively interfere with its natural disposition. Aquinas is also quite clear on other points dealing with sex (e.g., in dealing with the question of how sexual activities can be rational acts) that much of what goes into proper intention in sexual matters is simply making sure that it only occurs in an appropriate context.

I'm not sure what's supposed to be 'for fun' about speculating about the vices of others. Your summary of Aquinas on heretics is not strictly accurate, since it involves ignoring half of what Aquinas actually says. But I take it that this is not your real point, and you are really asking about explanations for things that can be considered seriously wrong: Daughters of vices (they are all daughters, in part because the words for character traits in Latin overwhelmingly tend to be feminine in form) are themselves vices stemming from capital vices, and thus not to be confused with particular acts, which may be due to anything from vice to dangerous bias to confusion to innocent mistake to perfectly reasonable judgment in unusual and unfortunate circumstances. Virtue is not a guarantee of rightness, although it makes it more likely, and being wrong is not a guarantee of vice, although when consistent it can become a vice. It is a fundamental Catholic doctrine that saints can sin, and it is an obvious truth that saints can err.

Greg said...

@ Scott

If you haven't read it, Jensen's Good and Evil Actions is also quite good.

Scott said...

@Greg:

Thanks. That one looks good too and I've added it to my cart.

Irish Thomist said...

@Greg & other bibliophiles

Bear in mind I on the occasion of hearing of a good book desire it in my ownership. So a thousand books later and you still are adding to my imagined 'wish list'.

You are also profiting bookstores and online retailers no end by such suggestions in the case of my purchasing.

Although my budget versus my 'need to buy' list are well how shall we put it.... mutually opposed?

Joking aside is this a philosopher thing, does anyone else end up doing the same thing with most book suggestions here?


On another note much more in line with the what I mentioned about the OP and Prof Feser writing a book. I imagine our lively debates greatly assist his thinking through problems when he wants the counter position fleshed out in detail?

Timocrates said...

Freud was quite right to focus on man's sexual inclinations, beliefs and activities as vital to understanding a human person. His observations about the development of man's faculties and concomitant pleasures and pains is also important, as increasing powers of sense result in increasing power to enjoy and take pleasure as well as the possibility of loss (the desire to preserve the power or ability to enjoy such pleasures, e.g., the taste of food or to behold the physically beautiful). Of course, there is a summation here in sexual activity, which is exactly why pubescence is so notoriously fraught with pain, confusion, disorder and as it were energy that in a new and radical way is either going to be productive or utterly destructive.

So I don't think Freud was wrong to note these things and give them a very important serious place in understanding man. Where I think he is rightly criticized is insofar that his philosophy of man ended in man's animal nature. The good of the intellect, the good and joy of philosophizing, was yet apparent. Moreover it begged the question: the psychoanalyst was continually making rational pronouncements on the nature and purpose of all these things - on sensuality. Reason here was both considering and judging man's animal nature and natural animal powers. Who or what, then, was to judge the basis of or for those reasons? Traditionally it would have been, at the very least, an ethicist.

So while Freud today is I think seen as being too materialistic; notwithstanding, I do rather think that his philosophy and observations might actually be quite useful for a Thomistic-modernist synthesis that can more directly speak to modern man and our contemporaries. Freud's noting of the stages of man's natural development was in the lines of the development of his capacity of certain pleasures. That is objective and true and has much to say even to this day about man's total sensual desires and pleasures insofar as there is a latent desire to maximize all of them and, perhaps, even unite them for the sake of pleasure or enjoyment. It should be rather obvious for instance that there is a close link between sexual desire and pleasure and physical beauty.

Timocrates said...

And bravo, professor Feser! These two posts I am sure are going to get a lot of traction in the days ahead.

Scott said...

@Irish Thomist:

"[D]oes anyone else end up doing the same thing with most book suggestions here?"

I do it with a lot of them, but some are priced just way too high. I had a great time with the "Scholastic's Bookshelf" series.

Donald said...

I read Scott's link and Aquinas says heretics should be put to death if they refuse to repent. It's all very logical--heretics endanger the soul--but I assume most of us today think he is wrong. It sounds very much like the sort of thinking we'd associate these days with Saudi Arabia or Iran.

Scott said...

@Donald:

"It sounds very much like the sort of thinking we'd associate these days with Saudi Arabia or Iran."

Not quite, and one of the important differences is that Aquinas expected the execution to be performed by secular authorities.

Since he lived in a time when heresy was in fact a capital offense under secular law, that expectation isn't necessarily an endorsement of that law. Although of course he does make the hypothetical argument that if e.g. forgers are executed, heretics should be too, it's not at all clear that he would have argued that secular authorities should execute heretics if they weren't doing so already.

(He does say that the sin of heresy deserves death, but that's another matter. Not every sin that merits death is, or should be, punished by any human authorities at all.)

ccmnxc said...

I read Scott's link and Aquinas says heretics should be put to death if they refuse to repent. It's all very logical--heretics endanger the soul--but I assume most of us today think he is wrong. It sounds very much like the sort of thinking we'd associate these days with Saudi Arabia or Iran.

Yeah, I am in a position where I do not think heretics ought to be put to death, but at the same time, I can entirely understand the rationale behind Aquinas's thought here. If someone is put to death for killing of the body, how much greater a crime is it to kill the soul. Still, we are also in a position where we cannot so easily tell who/what will kill the soul given invincible ignorance and suchstuffs. Ah well.

In terms of waiting for books, this is more pricy, but I am quite looking forward to this one.

Greg said...

@ Irish Thomist

It is dangerous to link to books here. I have a pretty long reading list backed up, so I won't buy anything for a while unless I absolutely need it.

However, I do absolutely need that upcoming Jensen book.

Scott said...

I pre-ordered this and I'm happy to say that Amazon's expected delivery date is next Wednesday even though the book won't even be officially released until two weeks after that.

Scott said...

(Incidentally, the Amazon page for that book shows five books that "Customers who bought this book also bought." I have four of them.)

SV said...

It's a grea post, with this unfamiliar feeling of reading something that actually makes sense.

The mere presence of the word "sex" in the title will drive the number of comments up to four digits though, proving the Angelic Doctor's point about the second daughter of lust (rashness).

Timocrates said...

@ Scott,

"([Saint Thomas] does say that the sin of heresy deserves death, but that's another matter. Not every sin that merits death is, or should be, punished by any human authorities at all.)"

Interesting. I am reminded of the law about circumcision in the OT; that a male child not circumcised was to be cut off from the community. This seems to have been a divine stipulation in that the positive, human legal form this was to take wasn't even clear; or in other words, that man could at most make manifest what God did or decided in his own outward, external legal and social form(s). It wasn't man that cut off the soul in some way from the human community but rather this seems to have been a kind of theological reality over which man had, of course, no power. Sort of like how a Medieval Churchman might of warned someone that in choosing a certain course of action they would be automatically throwing themselves outside of grace or into "outer darkness". This was theologically accomplished and all else was human legal form that at best was meant to indicate the theological fact, so to speak. There, of course, human norms and justice do become quite relevant as well as all other requirements and demands of theological or divine law.

Brandon said...

On the heretic issue, it's also worth noting that here he is talking only about heresy considered on its own; elsewhere Aquinas explicitly says that heretics are to be tolerated when not doing so would be a scandal (stumblingblock to believers) or a disturbance to society (e.g., if there are lots of them), or under circumstances in which it could reasonably be expected to make heretics less likely to convert.

Brandon said...

'it' in the last clause being not tolerating them rather than tolerating them, of course.

Scott said...

@Timocrates:

"I am reminded of the law about circumcision in the OT[.]"

And rightly so. There are laws in the Torah that expressly call for execution (usually by stoning), but that's not one of them.

Brandon's apt comment about Aquinas also reminds me of another principle of the Torah: that in capital cases, three independent witnesses are required, and if any two are found to agree too closely (as though they were colluding), their testimony is inadmissible.

Sodomy was a capital crime, but if the sentence was carried out only when there were three independent witnesses to the act, it must have been a seldom thing.

The original Mr. X said...

@ The bibliophiles, I haven't (yet) read it, but I've heard rave reviews about "What We Can't Not Know":

http://www.amazon.co.uk/What-We-Cant-Not-Know/dp/1586174819/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1423339779&sr=8-1&keywords=what+we+cant+not+know

Anonymous said...

Not quite, and one of the important differences is that Aquinas expected the execution to be performed by secular authorities.

How secular could they be, if they have a death penalty statute for heresy?

it's not at all clear that he would have argued that secular authorities should execute heretics if they weren't doing so already.

He seemed more to be saying if you're executing anybody, you should also be executing heretics.

rank sophist said...

For it’s not just that people in contemporary Western society commonly disagree, at an intellectual level, with the natural law theorist’s judgments about what is disordered. It’s that they commonly act in ways that natural law theory says are disordered. And if such behavior has a tendency to impair one’s capacity to perceive what is true and good, especially where sex is concerned, then it follows that widespread rejection of traditional sexual morality is bound to have as much to do with the sort of cognitive corruption that Aquinas calls “blindness of mind” as it does with the making of honest intellectual mistakes. That people who don’t behave in accordance with traditional sexual moral norms also don’t believe that these norms have any solid intellectual foundation is thus in no way surprising.

Been reading MacIntyre recently, and the above passage stuck out to me as a nice counterpoint to the way he describes the learned nature of virtue in Aristotle:

Just as an apprenticeship in sculpture or architecture is required in order to recognize what excellent performance in these arts consists in, just as training in athletic skill is necessary to recognize adequately what excellence in athletic performance is, so a capacity for identifying and ordering the goods of the good life, the achievement of which involves the ordering of all these other sets of goods, requires a training of character in and into those excellences, a type of training whose point emerges only in the course of the training. Learning of this kind, as of other kinds, is what the uneducated, left to themselves, do not and cannot want: "those engaged in learning are not at play; learning is accompanied by pain" (Politics VIII, 1239a29.

It follows that for those who have not yet been educated into the virtues the life of virtue will necessarily seem to lack rational justification; the rational justification of the life of virtue within the community of the polis is available only to those who already participate more or less fully in that life.


Those educated into virtue gradually come to see the wisdom of virtue. You understand it by engaging in it--as MacIntyre summarizes nicely when he says, "We become just by performing just acts (NE 1103a31-1103b2), acts which ex hypothesi are not yet expressions of the character trait of justice and which we cannot ourselves yet rationally justify." By contrast, those who engage in vicious acts will receive a kind of negative education: they build a vicious character that necessarily reasons about virtue improperly, as Prof. Feser said. It seems that what results from a culture of vice is a corrupt intellectual culture, just as a culture of virtue naturally spawns a rational intellectual culture. I think this would apply even to non-sexual vice, honestly.

DNW said...

"The traditional Catholic teachings on this profoundly important matter are of course based on the the toxic idea of "spirit" versus "flesh". The entire catholic social and cultural game of antisexual "spirit" against "flesh" edifice and education is so montrous, so opposed to incarnate happiness and real human responsibility, that it must be considered the primary social and philosophical issue of our time. Indeed this monstrous social script is the root cause of all of seemingly intractable social problems. All of the various kinds of addictions including alcohol, legal and illegal drugs and of course food too, pornography including the pornography of violence, environmental destruction, and world-wide terrorism/warfare too."



That is either a parody of 1940's goofball Freudianism, or written by a man who has never read any ancient history, and knows nothing whatsoever about pre-Christian European cultures.

Were the ancient Germans Christian? No? How came they then, to drowning sodomites and cowards in bogs, having no Christian dualist doctrines to make them so "cruel"?

The Pre-Christian Irish if one fails to squint, look pretty morally degenerate too despite having no Patrick to disturb their culture.


And of course we must ask if Pythagoras or Plato were Christian. Or, maybe the author is taking these two latter into account and not blaming Christianity per se, so much as a Platonic influence within Christianity - wherein Christianity merely serves as the vessel for the transmission of the bifurcation he decries as dysfunctional and alienating.


But I think that most of us who have reached adulthood have found out that the implied obverse of his proposition, i.e., the Margaret Meadian notion that sexual indulgence generates a pacifistic attitude in the male, know much better from personal experience. You know, from having say, punched some obnoxious sucker out, the "morning after" you departed from your girlfriend's house.

Why anyone would imagine that a roll in the hay makes you any more tolerant of the impositions of annoying persons, is a mystery to me.

Will we start seeing references to Hippie Bonobos before long?

DNW said...

Oops!. Clarification. See bolded addition.

"But I think that most of us who have reached adulthood have found out that the implied obverse of his proposition, i.e., the Margaret Meadian notion that sexual indulgence generates a pacifistic attitude in the male, is false and know much better from personal experience. You know, from having say, punched some obnoxious sucker out, the "morning after" you departed from your girlfriend's house.

rank sophist said...

ccmnxc,

Yeah, I am in a position where I do not think heretics ought to be put to death, but at the same time, I can entirely understand the rationale behind Aquinas's thought here. If someone is put to death for killing of the body, how much greater a crime is it to kill the soul. Still, we are also in a position where we cannot so easily tell who/what will kill the soul given invincible ignorance and suchstuffs.

More importantly, the idea that the church has a role in the state's violence at all should raise red flags. Christianity cannot appropriately condemn people to death, even if the actual killing is done by a secular authority. On the contrary, a Christian's job is to visit the condemned; and the church's job is to proclaim the city of God, of which the city of man (i.e. the secular realm) is only a distant symbol. Aquinas's claim that certain sins naturally require retributive violence, and that God's justice as preached by the church does not subvert this natural order, is quite disturbing. The prior claim on its own is mostly benign, but things change when it's combined with the latter.

Before the above is misunderstood, though, I should mention that it has no bearing on the death penalty debate. The secular state's right to apply the death penalty has been almost universally supported throughout the church's history. The difference is that the early church saw itself as separate from and superior to the polis, which is always maintained by violence. Problems arise when the church's definition of justice and the state's definition of justice become identical, as they had in Aquinas's time. (And, for the sake of full disclosure, all of this post's observations are borrowed from David Bentley Hart's article "No Enduring City".)

Greg said...

@ The original Mr. X

I haven't read that one, but I read another of Budziszewski's books, The Line Through the Heart. He is good. Not as technical or detailed as I'd like, but he does a good job of painting natural law on a broad scale, and he also stresses some topics (i.e. role of God) that other natural lawyers don't.

Greg said...

For that matter, Budziszewski also spends a lot of time talking about the subject of this OP: how error and vice influence moral reasoning. Hence the title of the book the original Mr. X mentioned: What We Can't Not Know. (But he discusses it in all of his works, I think.)

Irish Thomist said...

@ rank sophist
We must be fair to Aquinas on a number of issues where I believe he was trying his best. He accepted much of the 'science' of Aristotle for example since this was widely accepted at the time as the most reliable position etc. This filtered through into several errors on his part.

The same is true for his position on punishment - people have built upon his thought with additional insights Aquinas was not privy to that are a much more complete picture. I believe that it was Thomist type lawyers who were involved in the very early notions and development of human rights for example(?). He erred, but not by much, and not in the direction his thought was directed towards. Rather he erred because of accepted norms from which he started his deliberations.

Irish Thomist said...

Scott said...

I pre-ordered this and I'm happy to say that Amazon's expected delivery date is next Wednesday even though the book won't even be officially released until two weeks after that.


I thought the launch was to be in April. Will have to ask him about that. By the way, if you like it please do consider giving a rating (ultimately anything below a five on Amazon and people think twice about buying things - sadly). I'm sure he would appreciate it!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Aquinass-Way-God-Proof-Essentia/dp/0190224800

On the UK store it is still slotted for April. Strange how that works!

Tony said...

That is either a parody of 1940's goofball Freudianism, or written by a man who has never read any ancient history, and knows nothing whatsoever about pre-Christian European cultures.

DNW, I was also thinking of even current-day China and Japan, and (somewhat less clearly) India, all of whom were were free of Christianity as a significant influence until quite recently (speaking in terms of the movement of centuries, that is). Not to mention pre-colonial Africa and America.

John West said...

Anonymous wrote: How secular could they be, if they have a death penalty statute for heresy?

In both sex threads, I notice certain people drawing this very strange, artificial distinction between entities-existing-in-a-sense-secular-authorities-ought-to-recognize and entities-existing-in-a-sense-religious-authorities-ought-to-recognize. But whether the ontological facts motivating heresy laws are near the far edge of a person's “theoretical web” or at its center, if he's committed to those facts and they entail yet other commitments and obligations, he ought to act on those commitments and obligations. Medieval secular officials and Churchmen may have had different roles from each other, but they were making decisions based on roughly the same pictures of reality. I find insisting that one part of the population ought to act as if one set of facts is true and the other as if other facts are true very odd.

John West said...

May as well complain that they both acted as if the sun rises in the East.

Scott said...

John West has already answered this question to a degree, but since it's addressed to me I may as well have my say too.

"How secular could they be, if they have a death penalty statute for heresy?"

Entirely secular. Since Aquinas himself specifically refers to the "secular tribunal" in the passage of ST to which I linked, you might want to reconsider what you mean by "secular." In ecclesiastical writing in particular, it means of this world, not ir- or anti-religious, and civil government is a "secular authority" full stop, no matter its religious (or otherwise) foundation(s).

Scott said...

@Irish Thomist:

"I thought the launch was to be in April."

Maybe the US release date is different from those for the UK and Ireland.

Scott said...

@The original Mr. X:

I've heard good things about that book too, and it's in my shopping cart.

John West said...

Scott,

John West has already answered this question to a degree, but since it's addressed to me I may as well have my say too.

So that's who he was quoting. I was just looking for an excuse to subscribe to the feed.

Scott said...

"He seemed more to be saying if you're executing anybody, you should also be executing heretics."

And that statement isn't hypothetical?

@John West:

"So that's who he was quoting."

Aye, 'twas meself.

Scott said...

@rank sophist:

"Christianity cannot appropriately condemn people to death, even if the actual killing is done by a secular authority."

Nor, as I think I made tolerably clear in an earlier post, did Aquinas say otherwise.

"Aquinas's claim that certain sins naturally require retributive violence…is quite disturbing."

At least in the passage to which I linked, Aquinas makes no such claim. He simply observes that the sin of heresy merits death, not that it "require[s] retributive violence" by any earthly authority.

Scott said...

@Irish Thomist:

"By the way, if you like it please do consider giving a rating[.]"

Ten or fifteen years ago I was one of Amazon's top 25 reviewers. Unfortunately it takes time to write a responsible and thorough review, so I've been more sparing since the early 2000s. I will certainly consider posting a review of Kerr's work.

Greg said...

Are Fergus Kerr and Gaven Kerr related?

Anonymous said...

It simply seems a matter of this: That the intensive is ambiguous, while the extensive is clear and distinct. The more internally consistent is the mind, then the more unified it is and possesses greater positive reality: In other word, all of its judgments are formal and extensive while the intensive or sensational mode of perception is understood to be relative to form. Consequently, passions are removed and the possibilities of the mind's formal understanding of its conditions increases. These possibilities are understood under the active mode as 'power'.

Now, the extensive or formal judgment of the sexual act is clear and obvious and we well know that there are no such things as 'intensive judgments'. This is obvious when one realizes that the dualistic terms of judgment with regard to sensation, pleasure and pain, are only used under immediate conditions whereby a stimulus is perceived formally. If one mediates raw sensation through certain methods then it is clear that pleasure and pain are ambiguous, insofar as 'pleasure' merely corresponds to sensation itself which is merely the affirmation of a sense-organ's function. 'Pain' of course corresponds to a certain damaged condition of the sense-organ obtained upon a certain intensity, but it is nonetheless only a specification of sensation and is therefore ambiguous in its correspondence to 'pleasure'.

Do not merely refer these words to sexual sensations specifically, for the possibilities are much more extensive. Emotion, considered under the specification of 'passion', can be almost entirely eliminated. This adjustment of the general experience will produce diverse benefits, including 'practical' benefits. It is necessary to maintain outward appearance insofar as the vulgar are filled with unruly passions that are more-or-less only controlled or excited by external forces. Likewise, don't be intimidated by the multitude who will try to reach you through abstruse theories, excuses on behalf of their manifest inferiority and crude perversions of language.



Cheers.

Anonymous said...

In medieval Europe, reli leggio was a universal pre-civil law. Heresy is categorically indistinguishable from violating official international law in our late modern world. Death-penalty for heresy is completely valid where religion is the basis for any legitimate civil law/nation within the international society which was known as European Christendom. Heresy effectively dissolves nations and renders them susceptible to attacks by the old Caliphate.

Just as today, the prosecution of war on international rogue states or terrorists and the just execution of their leaders, etc. is perfectly valid and praise-worthy. That is to say, insofar as one supports some semblance of an international order and excludes certain relative judgments about the qualities of this-or-that particular war.

Nature is red, tooth and claw, and order among men is beautiful

Daniel said...

Correct me if I'm wrong but is not Thomas using the term ‘heretic’ in the technically correct sense of someone passing their divergent views off as those of the One True Catholic Church? So if someone professes to being an atheist or a Manichean and not a Catholic Christian they would not be classed as a heretic per say?

Matt Sheean said...

Greg said earlier,

"Pleasure is in a different category, since there is no activity that is pleasure. Pleasure attends certain operations, and so insensibility subverts natural operations."

I like this. While reading the OP I thought a thought that I have thought before, which is that pleasure typically gets little analysis in talk about sex. In some ways I think that considering pain makes the place of pleasure more clear. In the case of pain it is good that it "attends certain operations" or situations, since it would be disastrous were it not to. One wouldn't readily say that pain was good, though. It is a messenger, so to speak. If someone were to feel pleasure when he hit his thumb with a hammer, we would not encourage it no matter how happy it made him. If he insisted that it felt good, we would insist right back that it was not supposed to. His body is supposed to tell him that this action is bad, that it should be avoided, not that it is good - but it is the act that is ultimately good or bad, not the pain or otherwise.

This would support the conclusion that it would not make sense to reject pleasure in itself. It doesn't seem coherent to reject pleasure-in-itself, though it does make sense to forego certain acts that are naturally attended by pleasure.

Matt Sheean said...

also, it's funny that both these threads have very quickly been invaded by political dispute. There has to be a joke in there somewhere.

Matt Sheean said...

"Correct me if I'm wrong but is not Thomas using the term ‘heretic’ in the technically correct sense of someone passing their divergent views off as those of the One True Catholic Church? So if someone professes to being an atheist or a Manichean and not a Catholic Christian they would not be classed as a heretic per say?"

This is where the comparison to forgery is pertinent, I think. St Thomas as a smart dude, so he wasn't just pulling that analogy out of thin air. Suggesting any sort of punishment makes a lot more sense in that light, I think, much in the same way that folks nowadays might seek restitution in cases where their intellectual property has been used without their permission.

Matt Sheean said...

uh

St Thomas was a smart dude

Irish Thomist said...

@Scott

Ten or fifteen years ago I was one of Amazon's top 25 reviewers. Unfortunately it takes time to write a responsible and thorough review, so I've been more sparing since the early 2000s. I will certainly consider posting a review of Kerr's work.

Impressive.

rank sophist said...

Scott,

At least in the passage to which I linked, Aquinas makes no such claim. He simply observes that the sin of heresy merits death, not that it "require[s] retributive violence" by any earthly authority.

There is no meaningful distinction between the two in terms of natural law violations. For Aquinas, heresy and certain other sins merit--i.e. naturally entail--retributive violence. This is the same as saying, "Given the natural order of things, X requires retributive violence." He of course relativizes this sentiment, as Brandon pointed out, by explaining that social context can determine whether any execution actually takes place. But he still states that, on natural justice alone, heretics are required to be executed.

Also, contrary to the quote of mine that you constructed, I don't believe it's disturbing that Aquinas found retributive violence naturally just. What's disturbing is that he considers the state's violent natural justice to be linked to the church's proclamation of divine justice, such that the two form an interlocking whole.

Scott said...

@rank sophist:

"There is no meaningful distinction between the two in terms of natural law violations."

Perhaps you'll be kind enough to explain that to God, then. As I noted above, there are sins that are said in the Torah to deserve death but don't call for capital punishment (presumably leaving the outcome up to God's justice and mercy), and even for those that do, the rules for applying that punishment are so stringent as to guarantee that it's applied only rarely. (Nor does this differ much in principle from Aquinas's own stated views.) I would say that the difference between meriting death, on the one hand, and requiring retributive violence by an earthly authority, on the other, could hardly be more clear.

I suspect you're overlooking the importance of the phrase "by an(y) earthly authority." Even if a certain sin merits death as a consequence/punishment, there's nothing in natural law per se that says this consequence must be imposed only by a secular power.

Scott said...

@Irish Thomist:

"Impressive."

Oh, it's a good deal less impressive than it sounds. I just got into the game early; I started posting reviews just about as soon as Amazon started accepting them, and I'd submitted a good number before they even introduced their reviewer ranking system. (Initially they'd accidentally split my reviews into two sets, and each set made the top 50 independently. Once they combined them properly, my rank rose to something around 20.) But that was back before there were a lot of reviewers to rank.

The ranking system actually made me lose interest, so I dropped pretty quickly after it was introduced.

Edward Feser said...

it's funny that both these threads have very quickly been invaded by political dispute. There has to be a joke in there somewhere.

You bet there is. I mean, two posts about SEX and people want to talk instead about... John Rawls, and medieval civil law. I wouldn't want to be married to you guys.

As always, no threadjacks, please. You'd think for once I wouldn't need to say it!

Scott said...

Fair enough, and my apologies for my part in it. Okay, gang, let's talk about sex.

Scott said...

Oh, hang on, my wife wants to talk to me about John Rawls. I'll be back later.

Anonymous said...

"Entirely secular. Since Aquinas himself specifically refers to the "secular tribunal" in the passage of ST to which I linked, you might want to reconsider what you mean by "secular." In ecclesiastical writing in particular, it means of this world, not ir- or anti-religious, and civil government is a "secular authority" full stop, no matter its religious (or otherwise) foundation(s).

And why is this an important distinction between the Christians of Aquinas' time and the Saudi and Iranian Muslims of today?

And that statement isn't hypothetical?

Certainly, but it's a different hypothetical than the one you suggested. He doesn't seem to be saying "If you're already executing heretics, natural law doesn't require you to stop." Rather, he's saying "if you have a death penalty, use it to kill heretics."

He seems to be going beyond merely stating that heresy theoretically merits death. He seems to be saying there's ample justification for actually executing heretics. That he mentions conditions for not killing heretics is an indication he thought they should be killed when those conditions weren't met.

Anonymous said...

You bet there is. I mean, two posts about SEX and people want to talk instead about... John Rawls, and medieval civil law. I wouldn't want to be married to you guys.

As always, no threadjacks, please. You'd think for once I wouldn't need to say it!


Sorry, didn't see this until I'd already posted. Would delete if I knew how.

Edward Feser said...

Oh, hang on, my wife wants to talk to me about John Rawls. I'll be back later.

I see a new euphemism catching on: "Baby, wanna go 'talk about John Rawls'"? Could do wonders for Rawls's dry-as-toast image!

Guys, re: threadjacking, no need to be scrupulous. Heresy originally came up became someone was drawing a parallel between the daughters of lust and the effects of hatred, and that's on topic. It's also obviously on topic to discuss Rawls and liberalism vis-a-vis the way sexual morality relates to public policy, "same-sex marriage," etc. And asides on various off topic things here and there are perfectly fine.

The key is just to avoid 200-comment-long side disputes on how to define liberalism, the niceties of medieval law, etc. that get far away from anything to do with the OP.

Just use common sense. So, keep calm, carry on, and don't you be talkin' about John Rawls unless you're married.

Jakub Moravčík said...

The basic idea of traditional natural law theory where sex is concerned is that since the good for us is determined by the natural ends of our faculties, it cannot be good for us to use our sexual faculties in a way that positively frustrates its procreative and unitive ends.

I came to thought that spitting may be morally bad. Because, it is in accordance with natural end of (producing) saliva to be thrown out of mouth and so be wasted? It doesn´t seem so.
It also seems, given the verity of quoted sentence, that sex should be banned during pregnancy. But I do not know what is the stance of catholic morals concerning sex during pregnancy.

Scott said...

"Baby, wanna go 'talk about John Rawls'?"

It had something to do with the original position. I guess you're supposed to wear some kind of veil?

Scott said...

@Jakub Moravčík:

"It also seems, given the verity of quoted sentence, that sex should be banned during pregnancy. But I do not know what is the stance of catholic morals concerning sex during pregnancy."

Here's an easy way to find out.

Brandon said...

Because, it is in accordance with natural end of (producing) saliva to be thrown out of mouth and so be wasted? It doesn´t seem so.

Saliva is not itself a faculty (only innate capabilities can be faculties), but I'm not sure why anyone would say this, in any case; it seems quite obvious that one of the secondary functions of saliva production, as determined with respect to the good functioning of the body and human person, is to make it easier to get things out of the mouth that should not be swallowed. Further, it's at least not obvious that spitting positively frustrates saliva production; I spit and saliva production goes on. Dropping the 'positively frustrates' changes the entire meaning of the claim.

Edward Feser said...

It had something to do with the original position. I guess you're supposed to wear some kind of veil?

While maintaining reflective equilibrium. It's all very Tantric.

I can see where this is going. First day of class in Political Philosophy 101:

Prof: OK class, let's talk about John Rawls.

Student 1: What the hell kind of philosophy class is this?

Student 2: Wow, and to think I almost took chemistry instead!

Eventually people will just stop teaching A Theory of Justice for fear of sexual harassment lawsuits.

Edward Feser said...

Here's an easy way to find out.

Actually, Scott, that's not a good place to find out. What you'll see on that website is all presented as "Catholic teaching," but much of it is really just the personal opinion of the guy who maintains the website, and some of it is just wrong.

To be sure, he is, of course, correct to say that there is no problem with sex during pregnancy, but on other issues he takes a much more rigorist line than the Church requires or than most orthodox Catholic moral theologians do.

For example, he claims that oral-genital contact during foreplay is forbidden by the Church. That is simply false. For one thing, the Magisterium of the Church has never spoken on that issue but left it to the free discussion of theologians. For another, most orthodox moral Catholic theologians have for some time now (and correctly, in my opinion) taken the view that foreplay of that sort is permissible.

The trouble is that the guy who runs the website you linked to seems -- like Jakub here in the combox -- to endorse exactly the crude caricature of natural law theory that its critics always tiresomely attack. He, like the critics, seems to think that it is "unnatural" to use a faculty for some purpose other than what it was made for. And of course, if that were true, then it would be wrong to tap out a song on your teeth, or to rest a coffee cup on your knee, or to hold nails between your teeth when hanging a picture, etc., since teeth and knees weren't "made for" those purposes.

But as I've explained many times over the years, that's simply not what natural law theory says. It doesn't rule out using a natural faculty for something other than its purpose. Rather, it rules out using it in a way that is contrary to its natural purpose. That is to say, it rules out using a natural faculty while at the same time intentionally and positively frustrating it in the sense of preventing it from achieving its natural end.

Now, stimulating the genitals during foreplay in various ways (manually or orally) simply does not frustrate the achievement of natural ends of the sexual act. Indeed, it can facilitate it, both by preparing the organs for intercourse and by enhancing the pleasure of the act, which is apt for promoting the affection between the spouses.

Obviously if the man climaxes outside the vagina then the procreative end would be frustrated, but that's not what we're talking about. And obviously if, during foreplay, people indulge in fantasies about doing things that would frustrate the natural ends of sex, that would also be wrong. But there is nothing in the nature of the kind of foreplay in question that entails these abuses, which is why moral theologians have tended in modern times to take a more positive view of it.

Anyway, now we've gotten well beyond talk about medieval civil law and Rawls...

Jakub Moravčík said...

Saliva is not itself a faculty
Neither a semen. But I of course know that there is other problem with it.

is to make it easier to get things out of the mouth that should not be swallowed.
That sound reasonable and maybe also decisive.

it's at least not obvious that spitting positively frustrates saliva production; I spit and saliva production goes on
So does the production of sperm if you ejaculate outside of (where you are supposed to). I think this is not the meaning of frustration dr. Feser had on mind.

Scott said...

@Ed and Jakub:

Ed writes, "Actually, Scott, that's not a good place to find out."

Sorry, my bad; I should have checked it out more thoroughly before posting. For whatever it's worth, the base URL misled me into thinking the site was more "official" than it was.

Jakub Moravčík said...

like Jakub here in the combox -- to endorse exactly the crude caricature of natural law theory that its critics always tiresomely attack.

Only to make things clear: I often put objection in order to make things more clear in kinda provocative way. I do not endorse the crude caricature of NLT.

if, during foreplay, people indulge in fantasies about doing things that would frustrate the natural ends of sex, that would also be wrong

I am not sure whether I know why (it would be wrong)

By the way: what if somebody wishes sexuality to work
in another way than it in fact does? For example that it would have only unitive aspect and the creative faculty would be outside of it, working through another process? It is a wrong act / sin from the NLT / catholic point of view?

Anonymous said...

Brandon,

What exactly does it mean to "positively frustrate?"

Vision is a faculty, and wearing sunglasses indoors would seem to positively frustrate the natural end of the faculty of vision, which is to see.

But surely it's not against the natural law to wear sunglasses indoors?

My main dispute with natural law (as I understand it) is that it would seem to make moral matters out of things that don't properly seem to be moral matters.

Matt Sheean said...

"I wouldn't want to be married to you guys."

Neither did my wife when that last thread came up in conversation. It definitely was having the dormitive virtue.

Apologies as well for my part in the jacking of threads.

Scott said...

@Jakub Moravčík:

"So does the production of sperm if you ejaculate outside of (where you are supposed to)."

Brandon wasn't offering that as the main reason. The logic goes like this: Spitting doesn't frustrate the function of saliva because one of the secondary functions of saliva is to make it easier to get certain things out of your mouth. Pretty much the only other way spitting could frustrate the function of saliva would be by reducing its production, and it doesn't do that either.

Matt Sheean said...

"But surely it's not against the natural law to wear sunglasses indoors?"

sorry, but I couldn't resist this

Edward Feser said...

For whatever it's worth, the base URL misled me into thinking the site was more "official" than it was.

Yes, from the URLs he uses to his style of presentation, he obviously wants people to think that what are really just his personal opinions are "The Official Teaching of the Catholic Church" (TM). The guy really has a lot of nerve, and one wonders how many unwary readers he has misled.

On top of that, he seems to be something of a nut. I see that his site has pages devoted to attacking Jimmy Akin as a "heretic," pages devoted to ferreting out purported sins committed during foreplay (on which he seems to have a kind of fixation), etc.

Matt Sheean said...

"For example, he claims that oral-genital contact during foreplay is forbidden by the Church. That is simply false."

One time I asked on older relative of mine, who was a very devout Greek Orthodox woman, about this sort of thing. I think I was probably making a snarky comment about natural law as I'd received it in caricature from some intro to philosophy course in undergrad. She sat up quickly, probably surprised that I had brought this up, and quickly and tersely replied that dessert is a perfectly fine as part of a well-ordered diet.

Anonymous said...

Matt, why not offer a clear explanation of the nature of my misunderstanding, instead of proceeding immediately to ridicule?

Edward Feser said...

Jakub wrote:

I often put objection in order to make things more clear in kinda provocative way. I do not endorse the crude caricature of NLT.

OK, fair enough.

I am not sure whether I know why (it would be wrong)

Well, the idea is that if a certain sexual act is intrinsically wrong, then it must also be wrong intentionally to take pleasure in fantasizing about doing the act. Hence e.g. it's wrong to sleep with someone other than your spouse, and thus it's wrong to fantasize about sleeping with someone other than your spouse. And it's hardly less wrong to do that while you're sleeping with your spouse.

By the same token, if it's wrong for a man to climax outside of vaginal intercourse (which it is), then it's also wrong to fantasize about doing that. But that need not be what is going through someone's mind during foreplay.

It's worth adding, by the way (to counteract another serious error I see the guy at the other website is promoting), that orthodox Catholic moral theologians generally agree that a wife need not achieve climax during intercourse itself. That can occur either during foreplay or after intercourse, as long as the overall context is one where the couple is having intercourse.

Matt Sheean said...

Anon,

Brandon will do a better job than me.

To explain quickly, though: I've heard similar replies like this (I think Stephen Law gave the example of walking on one's hands as a parody of natural law). It just misses the point, as far as I can tell. I might walk on my hands, for instance, for exercise, but were I to do it so that my legs would atrophy, there would be something pretty disordered in that.

Anonymous said...

I might walk on my hands, for instance, for exercise, but were I to do it so that my legs would atrophy, there would be something pretty disordered in that.

I think my sunglasses example is a better example, especially in light of Prof. Feser's comments. Walking on one's hands is using one's hands for purposes other than their natural ends, but it id not frustrating those ends.

Wearing sunglasses, on the other hand, frustrates the natural end of the faculty of vision.

At any rate, what you seem to be saying is not that it's *inherently* wrong to frustrate the natural end of a faculty, merely wrong to do so in excess. If that's the case, why insist that it's *always* wrong to use a condom, as opposed to saying that it is only wrong to do so in excess?

Matt Sheean said...

Anon,

To be clear, though no doubt something personal would be taken by my use of that gif, I did not mean anything against any particular person (you, that is). You raised an parodic objection that I have encountered before, and that I find dismaying. In general parodies, I think, have very little probative value (if any at all). The gif is a meme directed at a meme, if you will.

Anonymous said...

I'm assuming that the sunglasses are being worn for purely aesthetic reasons.

Brandon said...

Jakub,

So does the production of sperm if you ejaculate outside of (where you are supposed to).

I'm very, very sure that nobody claims that mere production of sperm is the faculty being frustrated in sexual cases; people aren't claiming that masturbation is inconsistent with production of sperm, for instance. And as Scott notes, you are missing the issue of secondary functions, which is another point at which your analogy fails.

Anonymous,

Vision is a faculty, and wearing sunglasses indoors would seem to positively frustrate the natural end of the faculty of vision, which is to see.

So the common argument goes, but it isn't very clear that it holds up. Positive frustration obviously cannot be the same as not using, in any form (including unsuccessfully trying to use); it has to be deliberately using in a way inconsistent with the natural end. But if you can still see, wearing sunglasses indoors is not inconsistent with the end of seeing. It may not be a very good way to see, but you can see. If you can't see, however, in what way can we reasonably say that are you using your eyes rather than not using them? It's not very clear what it would mean to frustrate the end of one's eyes.

Indeed, my suspicion is that only certain kinds of faculties are such as to make sense of positive frustration. Our procreative faculty can be positively frustrated, because achieving its end is not necessarily intrinsic to using it. Our rational faculty can be positively frustrated in several different ways -- lying and usury are the obvious traditional examples -- because achieving its natural ends is not necessarily intrinsic to using reason. And so forth. I don't know if there are other, additional conditions that would have to be added (although I'm fairly sure that the natural ends in question have to involve some kind of rational component to create the possibility of deliberate inconsistency), or if there are different kinds of faculties that can be positively frustrated for different reasons. Or, indeed, whether I've said things exactly right. I'm not a huge fan of perverted faculty arguments, if they are taken as establishing anything more than probabilities and presumptions, but the usual counterarguments deployed against it involve such a very simplified and flat account of how one uses one's faculties that they don't seem to me to have much traction.

Regardless, I want, however, to make a sharp distinction between 'natural law', which is an account of how principles of practical principles have obligatory force in any argument about obligation whatsoever, and 'such-and-such-argument that becomes more plausible when one specifically formulates a natural law account and looks at the argument in light of that higher level of analysis', such as the perverted faculty argument. While it's common to use 'natural law argument' as a short-cut term for the latter kind of argument, it is misleading; if any natural law account is right, all good arguments about obligation are natural law arguments, whether they mention natural law, or natural ends, or not. It's perfectly reasonable to use shortcut terms, but I think this is a case of one that has caused untold confusion.

Scott said...

"Wearing sunglasses, on the other hand, frustrates the natural end of the faculty of vision."

Just to bring out a point I think Brandon is making: the morally problematic situation is one in which we're using a faculty in a way that frustrates its natural function. Merely "frustrating the natural function" of something or other is vague and arguably includes all sorts of things that "positive use" would leave out.

Wearing sunglasses, to the extent that it blocks vision, is a way of not using one's eyes. Even if we decide to call this "frustrating the natural function of one's eyes," it's not using our faculty of vision in a way that frustrates it, and of course there's no obligation that we be using all of our faculties all the time; mere non-use, even deliberate restraint, doesn't in and of itself count as the morally relevant sort of "frustration." (To the extent that wearing sunglasses protects vision, is a way of safeguarding our faculty of vision, which is virtuous—but of course that's not at issue in the indoors example.)

I'm not sure how we might positively use our eyes in a way that frustrates their natural function either, but perhaps something like staring too long into the sun or shining a laser pointer into one's eye might count.

Scott said...

"At any rate, what you seem to be saying is not that it's *inherently* wrong to frustrate the natural end of a faculty, merely wrong to do so in excess."

Here again, I think the better way to put this is that it's inherently wrong to use a faculty in a way that frustrates its natural end or function. It isn't (so far as I can see) inherently wrong merely to prevent the exercise of a faculty even if we understand that to be a sort of "frustration." The difference is not a matter of "excess" but of positive use of the faculty in question.

Anonymous said...

But if you can still see, wearing sunglasses indoors is not inconsistent with the end of seeing. It may not be a very good way to see, but you can see.

Which now shifts the definitional issue from "positively frustrates" to "inconsistent," as depending on how that term is used, your response seems open to an obvious retort:

"But if you can still get achieve pregnancy, wearing condoms is not inconsistent with the end of sex. It may not be a very good way to achieve pregnancy, but you can achieve pregnancy."

It's not very clear what it would mean to frustrate the end of one's eyes.

But surely, the natural end of the faculty of vision isn't just to see, but to see clearly. Otherwise, (if such a thing were possible) purposely giving oneself astigmatism wouldn't frustrate the natural end of vision. People with astigmatism can still see, after all, just not very clearly.

Our procreative faculty can be positively frustrated, because achieving its end is not necessarily intrinsic to using it.

The same could be said of vision, if its end is to see clearly.




Matt Sheean said...

anon,

sorry, butting back in,

Do you think that it follows from the fact that it's acceptable to wear sunglasses indoors that it is acceptable to act in such a way as to fully intend to give yourself astigmatism?

Anonymous said...

Wearing sunglasses, to the extent that it blocks vision, is a way of not using one's eyes.

If that's the case, then isn't wearing a condom, to the extent that it blocks ejaculate, a way of not using my penis?

I don't understand what you mean by use, at any rate. Surely I'm using my vision even when I have sunglasses on. The putting on of sunglasses is not the same as the act of seeing, but the putting on of a condom is also not the act of engaging in intercourse.

Matt Sheean said...

Anon,

per your last comment,

It seems that you want to argue that condom use is analogous to sunglasses use. This is still, to piggyback on Brandon's reply, some kind of natural law argument - you are just disagreeing as to the implications of the end of the organ in question such that you would argue that condom use is more like sunglasses use than it is like staring into the sun for too long and the like.

Anonymous said...

Do you think that it follows from the fact that it's acceptable to wear sunglasses indoors that it is acceptable to act in such a way as to fully intend to give yourself astigmatism?

No, I'm merely noting that neither act positively frustrates the end of vision, if the end of vision is merely to see, however poorly, rather than to see clearly.

I am not a natural law theorist, so I don't personally think "acceptability" follows from the frustrating of ends in any event.

Anonymous said...

you are just disagreeing as to the implications of the end of the organ in question such that you would argue that condom use is more like sunglasses use than it is like staring into the sun for too long and the like.

I'm saying that both staring into the sun and wearing sunglasses seem to frustrate the end of vision, if the end of vision is to see clearly. The difference seems to be one of degree, not kind.

Also, I'm seeking to get a clearer picture of how Scott understands what it means to "use" a faculty.




Scott said...

"If that's the case, then isn't wearing a condom, to the extent that it blocks ejaculate, a way of not using my penis?"

Merely "wearing a condom" isn't a way of using or not using your penis. Ejaculating while wearing a condom most certainly is a way of using your penis.

"I don't understand what you mean by use, at any rate"

I don't think that's the problem; see below.

"Surely I'm using my vision even when I have sunglasses on."

That's why I was careful to say to the extent that it blocks vision. I take it that sunglasses can have either of two effects on vision: under some ambient conditions, they can protect our eyes from over-bright light, and under others, they can make it harder for us to see. It's the latter that's at issue in your example: is it all right to wear sunglasses indoors even though they make it more difficult to see?

I don't see that this is any more problematic than, say, wearing a blindfold while playing "Pin the Tail on the Donkey." In each case you're preventing a faculty from being exercised— with sunglasses only partly, and with a blindfold, completely. In the former case, sure, you're obviously still using your eyes because you're still seeing, but the effect of the sunglasses is to limit that use: to the extent that they block your vision, they keep you from using your eyes, and to the extent that they still allow you to see, you're still using your eyes.

And so what? You're under no obligation to run around exercising all your faculties all the time; you might as well say that you were immorally frustrating the natural function of your eyes by closing them.

A better (though still far from perfect) analogy with the condom case would be wearing your sunglasses indoors while you were performing delicate neurosurgery. In that case you'd be impeding the normal function of your eyes under circumstances in which you were obliged to use them as fully and carefully as possible.

Edward Feser said...

Anonymous's example falsely supposes that natural law theory and Catholic moral theology require that we strive to achieve some pristine, Platonic form of proper function in every use of a faculty. That is not the case.

Hence Catholic teaching allows, for example, that a perforated condom can be used for the sake of gathering a sperm sample for medical reasons -- even though this will of course keep some of the semen from getting into the vagina. And it does not require ejaculating as close to the cervix as possible, but only that ejaculation occur somewhere within the vagina. (People like to pretend that Catholic teaching requires married couples to fret and worry over the precise mechanical details over what goes where, to master intricate rules about which body part can touch which other one and for how long, etc. That is precisely the opposite of the truth. Make sure ejaculation occurs within the vagina -- pretty easy, that -- and otherwise chill out already.)

This is all very different from actively trying to prevent the sexual organs from realizing their procreative end.

Similarly, wearing sunglasses has nothing to do with actively trying to prevent the eyes from fulfilling their natural function, even if some light doesn't get in.

There are other disanalogies too. Seeing is more or less an ongoing non-stop process that we can't turn on or off (other than by closing our eyes, and even that doesn't turn the eyes off but just covers them up). By contrast, the process of arousal-through-to-ejaculation is a discrete episode that requires special initiation of the process and has a distinct and decisive culmination. That makes a difference to the teleology. Seeing as an essentially non-stop waking process can fulfill its function in a general way even if we sometimes cover the eyes up, but arousal-through-to-ejaculation cannot fulfill its function if we block the semen from getting where it's intended by nature to go. Then there's the fact that nature itself gives us eyelids to cover the eyes, but no built-in condom.

(As it happens, I've got a long paper on all this coming out, the appearance of which has to my very great annoyance been long delayed by circumstances outside my control. I'll announce it ASAP.)

Matt Sheean said...

"I am not a natural law theorist, so I don't personally think "acceptability" follows from the frustrating of ends in any event."

Of course you don't. The issue here is not whether or not it it is in fact acceptable, but whether or not, were it a matter of it being acceptable, would the acceptability of injuring or blinding one's eye follow from the acceptability of wearing one's sunglasses indoors. It seems to me that the answer to that question is "no" and the reason it is no might serve to illustrate the difference between the two acts in question, and thus why it is a bad example to trot out in order to skewer natural law. One of the reasons it is "no" is because, in a very straight-forward way, the sunglasses cause no harm to the eye.

To add to what I said in the following post, I'm suspicious that you are running two different arguments together, one is a parody of natural law theory, and the other is an argument to the effect that the traditional natural law conception of condom use is incorrect.

I'll butt back out, though, and leave it to the pros.

Anonymous said...

Ejaculating while wearing a condom most certainly is a way of using your penis.

I suppose I could augment the analogy by supposing the person wearing sunglasses was trying to read a book, but no matter. I agree with your assessment this isn't where my problem lies.

And so what? You're under no obligation to run around exercising all your faculties all the time; you might as well say that you were immorally frustrating the natural function of your eyes by closing them.

I see now the wisdom of Brandon's point about the limited use of perverted faculties arguments. My problem is that I can't see any moral dimension to any of these examples, including condom use. I simply don't see how teleology entails moral obligation. On my view, obligations are to persons, not to functions. Even when natural law can, to borrow a phrase from philosophy of science, "save the appearances" of our observations of evil, it seems to go wrong in explaining why we observe some particular act as evil.

For example, in your surgery analogy, the wrongness of the action doesn't seem to stem from misusing the faculty of vision. Rather, it comes from needlessly endangering the life of the person undergoing surgery.

This is why it's so difficult for me to see any immorality attending contraception. Who am I harming by using contraception with my wife? And I don't mean that in the crude sense of "do whatever you want, as long as you're not hurting anybody else." I'm not that much of a libertine. I just mean, as I said before, I can't make much sense of having a moral obligation to a particular function.

Scott said...

"On my view, obligations are to persons, not to functions."

That's true of natural law ethics as well. It's just that one of the persons to whom you have those obligations is you.

If that seems odd, then I suspect that like so many of us, you've fallen under the Kantian spell and haven't quite shaken it off yet.

Scott said...

"For example, in your surgery analogy, the wrongness of the action doesn't seem to stem from misusing the faculty of vision. Rather, it comes from needlessly endangering the life of the person undergoing surgery."

Those two aren't mutually exclusive, but yes, that's one of the drawbacks of my analogy. (Hey, I said it was far from perfect.)

But like Matt Sheean, I'll bow out now and leave it to the pros.

Anonymous said...

Hence Catholic teaching allows, for example, that a perforated condom can be used for the sake of gathering a sperm sample for medical reasons -- even though this will of course keep some of the semen from getting into the vagina.

You learn something new everyday. I didn't know there were any Church-approved uses of condoms.

This is all very different from actively trying to prevent the sexual organs from realizing their procreative end.

I see. So, the immorality flows from the intent, rather than merely the result. That makes sense.

However, it seems that Natural Family Planning (NFP) is also actively trying to prevent the sex organs from realizing their end. Yet NFP is allowed by the Catholic Church.

I anticipate the reply that NFP is open to pregnancy, but as I understand it, modern NFP methods are nearly as effective as contraception in preventing pregnancy. Or, I suppose it could be said that contraception is active, and NFP is passive, but I don't understand the essential moral difference. In both case you are purposely engaging in sex in a way to avoid pregnancy. In both cases, pregnancy is still possible. So long as the spouses in both scenarios are equally willing to welcome new life should it occur, I don't understand why one is a mortal sin and not the other.

At any rate, I won't waste any more of your time here, out of a selfish desire to read the paper you're working on.

Thank you Prof. Feser, Matt, Scott and Brandon.

Matt Sheean said...

Thanks for the lively conversation, anon

Scott said...

Thank you as well, Anon. And now back to weightier subjects:

"And what did the professor do, ma'am?"

"He—he stood up there in front of all of us and talked about John Rawls."

"I see. Did he disrobe, or expose himself in any way?"

"No, no. He talked about John Rawls."

"Yes, I heard you, ma'am. Who was his partner? Was any coercion involved?"

"He didn't have a partner. He was just up there by himself."

"Oho. So he 'talked about John Rawls' with himself? While all of you watched?"

"No, he talked about John Rawls with all of us."

"Ma'am, I'm finding this very puzzling. He 'talked about John Rawls' with all of you, but he was standing alone in front of the class the entire time?"

"Yes, exactly."

"Fully clothed?"

"Yes. And he was holding a book called…I don't know, A Theory of something or other."

"Then I don't understand. What's the basis of your complaint?"

"Professors aren't supposed to talk about John Rawls with students. That's sexual harassment. The student handbook says so."

Matt Sheean said...

All I can think of are puns:

Wanna come up to my place later for some John Rawls?

Sorry, Kant tonight

not even for a little Coffey?

Scott said...

"not even for a little Coffey?"

And we'll even put on a little light music to set the mood (with apologies to Lerner and Loewe).

[To the tune of "They Call the Wind Maria"]

Away out here they got a taste
For Proclus and Plotinus.
But there's this medieval sage
And they call the man Aquinas.

He says men should ejaculate
Into their wives' vaginas
But nowhere else; he's got a point,
This man they call Aquinas.

Aquinas! Aquinas!
They call the man Aquinas.


…Okay, never mind.

Matt Sheean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J Tyler said...

I had a general question about how to go about reasoning from the apparent natural ends of our various physical faculties/organs to conclusions about how we ought to use them (I am a neophyte when it comes to Natural Law ethics so forgive me if I commit any conceptual mistakes). In particular, I was curious about when exactly it is valid to make an inference from a) certain aspects of our physiology seem to function in order to do x, to b) we therefore ought to do x.

I am curious about this question because certain of our natural, physiological tendencies appear to run counter to aspects of Natural Law ethics as they are commonly construed. For example, there is a phenomenon called the Coolidge Effect that has been studied scientifically in various animal species (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coolidge_effect). Basically, males of many species are more easily aroused by novel sexual partners than by partners they've already copulated with.

Although the relevant experiments obviously wouldn't be ethical in humans, it doesn't seem implausible to say that human males also show this tendency. Certainly, this might be a reason why even men who are passionately attracted to their wives at first might become more inclined to cheat over time as the freshness of the marriage wears off, or why pornography addicts often report needing a continuous stream of new material in order to satisfy their urges. There are also, perhaps, evolutionary arguments for why it might be conducive to reproductive fitness to copulate with several different partners, so as to cover one's losses if the initial partner had a hidden genetic defect (I do not mean to equate reproductively optimal behavior with what is moral, obviously).

Now, maybe this effect--that men sexually habituate to the same partner over time and experience re-awakened sexual interest to new partners--is real in humans or maybe it isn't (I am just using this example in particular because the Coolidge anecdote is funny). But for the sake of argument, let's say that it is. Then it would be the case that there is some feature of the male human nervous system that is pointing to or directed towards copulating with as many distinct partners as possible (if not towards this, then towards what?), in the same way that the design of the male penis indicates that it is directed towards ejaculating into a vagina. Since the AT theorist fully accepts that pleasure is physical and a result of neural activity, it seems that it makes just as much sense to talk about aspects of the nervous system being directed towards certain ends no less than features of the genitalia. And so in the same way that Natural Law adherents say that the design of the penis tells us that it should be used to ejaculate into a vagina, one might conclude that the design of whatever feature of men's nervous systems causes them to experience greater arousal to new partners tells us that they should copulate with multiple partners. This seems to be a Natural-Law justification of polygamy.

Is there a way of resisting this conclusion (again, supposing for the sake of argument that the Coolidge Effect is an empirically real phenomenon in humans)? Does the analogy break down at some point? If so, where?

Scott said...

@J Tyler:

"This seems to be a Natural-Law justification of polygamy."

You might want to read what Aquinas has to say on the subject of polygamy before concluding that any sort of "natural" tendency toward polygamy poses a problem for natural-law theorists. Aquinas's conclusion is that polygamy is in one way contrary to natural law and in another way not.

Scott said...

(I realize, of course, that that leaves the "Coolidge effect" unaddressed, at least directly. But I think any discussion of the subject should start a few steps further back.)

Brandon said...

Which now shifts the definitional issue from "positively frustrates" to "inconsistent," as depending on how that term is used, your response seems open to an obvious retort:

"But if you can still get achieve pregnancy, wearing condoms is not inconsistent with the end of sex. It may not be a very good way to achieve pregnancy, but you can achieve pregnancy."


No, because we're talking morality: what matters is what one is deliberately doing. If a man is wearing a condom in order to impregnate, he's been misinformed, but he's not deliberately acting in a way to frustrate any natural end at all.

But surely, the natural end of the faculty of vision isn't just to see, but to see clearly. Otherwise, (if such a thing were possible) purposely giving oneself astigmatism wouldn't frustrate the natural end of vision. People with astigmatism can still see, after all, just not very clearly.

I don't see at all why we would take seeing clearly to be the natural end rather than seeing; the former gives us the odd result of relativizing whether one has achieved the natural end at all. (I see clearly with glasses compared with when I am not wearing glasses, but compared to a fighter pilot with 20/15 vision, I don't see clearly even when wearing glasses.) And there might be, for all I know, situations in which it would be perfectly reasonable to give oneself astigmatism. They would be odd circumstances, no doubt; but that something is unlikely to be reasonable in ordinary circumstances does not suffice for moral questions.

We can approach the matter from the opposite end: it's clear that positive frustration of natural end is possible, because we all can and do recognize one faculty whose natural ends can be positively frustrated: reason itself. Some kinds of use of reason are inherently unreasonable. This is nothing other than to say that reason can be deliberately used in a way inconsistent with its natural ends, or that there are actions that positively frustrate reason's natural ends. So the only real question is which faculties are such that their ends can be positively frustrated, not whether any faculties are such.

(It's also worth noting something that hasn't been pointed out, assuming I didn't miss it. Even positive frustration of a faculty does not suffice on any standard natural law theory to give us the claim that the action is immoral. It gives us a pretty straightforward sense in which is unreasonable, or doesn't make sense, but not every end is a morally relevant end. According Thomistic natural law theory, you only get moral obligation when common good, as opposed to private or individual good, is involved. This is another reason why Jakub's example of sperm production was misleading, and why vision is not in fact an exact analogy to procreation. This also is relevant to the problem above about obligations concerning persons rather than mere functions.)

Brandon said...

J Tyler,

And so in the same way that Natural Law adherents say that the design of the penis tells us that it should be used to ejaculate into a vagina, one might conclude that the design of whatever feature of men's nervous systems causes them to experience greater arousal to new partners tells us that they should copulate with multiple partners.

But natural law adherents aren't saying that the design of the penis tells us that it should be used to ejaculate into a vagina. Natural law is an account of practical reason, not biology. Biological facts can be relevant, in that biology is often practically relevant; but no major natural law theorist argues that moral obligations follow from "the design of the penis". Moral obligations in natural law theory follow from what is inherently unreasonable, or necessary for reasonableness, in matters of common good.

Brandon said...

Scott said,

I'm not sure how we might positively use our eyes in a way that frustrates their natural function either, but perhaps something like staring too long into the sun or shining a laser pointer into one's eye might count.

Those are both interesting ideas, particularly if we take the genus to be something like 'deliberately using one's visual system to make oneself blind'. I don't know that they would work, but they pass at least the first test of being describable in terms of an apparent practical inconsistency.

Brandon said...

Anonymous,

Actually, thank you; that was a much better discussion than one often gets on the subject, and it at least made me realize that this question of use vs. non-use, which was explained nicely by Scott above, is one that is certainly worth following up more closely.

Jakub Moravčík said...

Anon:

My main dispute with natural law (as I understand it) is that it would seem to make moral matters out of things that don't properly seem to be moral matters.

I would be maybe desperately happy to be false, but I am afraid there are no things (connected with acting and decising) which are outside of moral matters area. Imagine you are absolutely alone in some deserted place and the possibility of moving your index finger two millimeters left (or right) appeared in your mind. Now, if you would intentionally, completely exlude the motivation "move that finger in order to glorify God", you would probably commit a mortal sin. It´s horrific, but I am afraid it´s true. As far as I remember, I have read something like that in one catholic-morals-topic book.

Greg said...

@ Jakub

Now, if you would intentionally, completely exlude the motivation "move that finger in order to glorify God", you would probably commit a mortal sin. It´s horrific, but I am afraid it´s true.

I don't understand what point you take yourself to be making. This is surely psychologically impossible for most people. I don't get to stipulate my intentions; when I walk down the street, I can't stipulate that my intention does not include "appreciating my best friend who lives in Ontario". What I intend depends on what end I have identified and how the means I have conceived are ordered to that end.

One could imagine a Satanic group, one of whose rituals involves wagging one's finger. Joining in that social practice might be a mortal sin.

J Tyler said...

Brandon said,

But natural law adherents aren't saying that the design of the penis tells us that it should be used to ejaculate into a vagina. Natural law is an account of practical reason, not biology. Biological facts can be relevant, in that biology is often practically relevant; but no major natural law theorist argues that moral obligations follow from "the design of the penis".

On pg. 142 of TLS Feser writes:

Notice also that nature makes it very difficult to indulge in sex without procreation. There is no prophylactic sheathe issued with a penis at birth, and no diaphragm issued with a vagina... Moreover, human experience indicates that people simply find sexual relations more pleasurable when such devices are not used... 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 indulgence of that arousal. The obvious conclusion is that the final cause of sex is not just procreation, but procreation in large numbers.

This seems to be a pretty clear case of a natural law theorist citing biological facts (that sexual arousal is strong and frequent, that the mechanics of sex make it difficult to avoid pregnancy) to draw a moral conclusion (that the final cause of sex is procreation in large numbers). It isn't clear to me how this differs in its logic from the Coolidge example.

And Scott, thanks for the link, will give it a read.



Matt Sheean said...

"a moral conclusion (that the final cause of sex is procreation in large numbers)."

This is a similar error to Anon's earlier when he puzzles,

"I simply don't see how teleology entails moral obligation. On my view, obligations are to persons, not to functions."

The final cause of a thing, the teleology, is not the moral conclusion. It is just the account of what it is for, what nature has intended for it, or, if you like, why such and such a feature has been preserved across so many millions of years of evolution. We, being rational creatures, find ourselves responsible for our actions in virtue of that rationality - we can understand what it is that we've done and can be held accountable according to our understanding. If we want to act rightly, then our understanding should be in line with the world as it is, and that will involve, among other things, rightly discerning the ends nature has intended for the thing(s) in question.

I hope that made sense.

Mr. Green said...

Greg: "Sometimes I wonder how it is possible, given Aquinas's heroic sanctity, that he can characterize sexual error so aptly."
Scott: I suspect part of the answer is that he was, after all, a priest, and must surely have heard a few confessions in his time. (It worked for Father Brown, anyway.)

Quite so. I would also say that — and referring to the point in the article about sin making one stupid — St. Thomas was surely in a better position than most to offer a disinterested and objectively accurate assement.

Mr. Green said...

Re sunglasses: I think we should first note that saying the eye's function is to see things is a bit sloppy (though in a perfectly reasonable way for ordinary purposes): strictly speaking, the eye sees whatever light is reflected into it — that is, to be perfectly accurate, the eye by itself does not see things, it is the eye in concert with light that effects the act of seeing things. Contrary to the ancient theory, we do not emit rays from our eyes in order to see — if we did, then maybe blocking out those rays would constitute frustration of our visual faculty, but as it is, wearing sunglasses or entering a dark room or closing one's eyelids does not in any way interfere with what our eyes are doing; it merely changes what they are seeing. When your eyes are closed, you are in fact still seeing — you are looking at your eyelids. (Since they don't let in much light, you can't make out much, but nothing is blocking the process going on in your eyes and brain.)

So I would say that dark glasses or eyelids are not only not frustrating any end of vision, they do not even count as not using one's eyes. And surely Scott is exactly right when he says that staring into the sun so that one's vision is damaged does frustrate the faculty of eyesight; likewise for deliberately inflicting astigmatism. Now (and I think this perhaps gets at Brandon's point, or something related to it), typical faculties like seeing or hearing cannot really be frustrated except by damaging the organs involved, because they operate internally. The act of sexual intercourse is partly internal to the man, partly internal to the woman, but also involves co-operation between them, and that interface easily allows for interruption in a way that is less drastic than, say, gouging out your eyeball. Of course, another standard example is that of vomiting up food instead of digesting it properly: although digestion is an internal process, it is one that can be interrupted with only a bit of interference.

Mr. Green said...

I'm not entirely happy with my account of what the faculty of sight is supposed to be in strict terms in my previous post. But the point is that even in a pitch-black room, my eyesight is not frustrated — it's working just fine; it's not as though I have gone blind. (I might say I'm "blind" when I'm in the dark, but that is only a figurative use.) A man who actually is blind in the same dark room will see (or not see) just as much as I do, but his sight really is frustrated because his faculty of sight is damaged. Clearly there is a difference between being a sighted man in dark room and a blind man in dark room, so while allowing light into one's eyes or not may be moral or immoral for other reasons (e.g. Scott's example of performing surgery), it cannot be a matter of perverting the faculty of sight.

Jakub Moravčík said...

Greg>

I don't get to stipulate my intentions; when I walk down the street, I can't stipulate that my intention does not include "appreciating my best friend who lives in Ontario".

I am not sure I understand. Not every my intention/motivation has a connection to every person (I know), but it seems that every intention/motivation has some relation to God.

Jakub Moravčík said...

By the same token, if it's wrong for a man to climax outside of vaginal intercourse (which it is), then it's also wrong to fantasize about doing that.

What about case when I'm doing it in this way: I imagine that man's body works in other or changed way than it in fact does in our actual world. For example, imagine a possibility (which seems ontologically possible) that man's body is able to detect where it is currently situated and according to that information produces different types of sperm - one fertilizing, second non-fertilizing. Then I may be imagining such acts with non-fertilizing liquid involved. Still wrong?

It's worth adding, by the way (to counteract another serious error I see the guy at the other website is promoting), that orthodox Catholic moral theologians generally agree that a wife need not achieve climax during intercourse itself. That can occur either during foreplay or after intercourse, as long as the overall context is one where the couple is having intercourse.

Really? As far as I know, (some) traditionalists deny this and see it as something as post-II.Vatican perverting of really orthodox catholic morals, at least as far as it means that man has to "finish" the woman after intercourse. But maybe they are wrong, I do not know - do not know real opinions of previous-centuries moral theologians on this topic.

Daniel said...

On one interpretation Hylemorphism is terrifying as one is literally defined by one's body for all eternity (maybe this is not so in the Beatific Vision). One is not even conceptually allowed to step outside one's animal nature. Sometimes, in darker moods, Natural Law accounts give me pause to wonder why human beings should ever reproduce at all and not just wait and pray for God to release us from our boredom. Maybe in the end the only way to love is how God loves.

Ed wrote,

Thus, to hate what is in fact true and good is ipso facto to hate what is in fact God. Of course, the person lost in disordered sexual desire might claim to love God.

But suppose the person loves his disordered desires, hates those who would call him away from indulging those desires, and refuses to take seriously the suggestion that such indulgence is contrary to the divine will.


One would think the obvious answer and the only consistent one would be that the person in question does not hold those desires to be bad. Ergo they do not see themselves as hating what is true. Of course the philosophical thing to do is to ask them to spell out why their interlocutors are wrong.

Greg said...

@ Jakub

Not every my intention/motivation has a connection to every person (I know), but it seems that every intention/motivation has some relation to God.

Indirectly, perhaps, but that does not imply that for arbitrary actions I exclude God's glorification from my intention. If you could give an account of what sort of practical reasoning and deliberation would yield such an intention, I'm all ears.

One might also move his finger and perform a mental act of blasphemy, thinking something like "I commit myself against God's glorification!" But that would be two acts that are unrelated.

Greg said...

Sorry, it does not imply that for arbitrary actions I can exclude God's glorification from my intention...

Jakub Moravčík said...

Sometimes, in darker moods, Natural Law accounts give me pause to wonder why human beings should ever reproduce at all

That hides very good and important question in background: what is the last, ultimate reason for procreating? Maybe we are naturally inclined to it, but we are inclined to many things and sole inclination does not legitimate performing the act. Why is it good that there will be next people and why the mankind should not die out? (antinatalists in the horizon)
When king Midas forced Gnome to answer to question "what is the best?", he said: the best is not to be born at all. And second best is this: when one has already been born, to die as soon as possible.

Jakub Moravčík said...

Greg:
OK. So you think that there is a kind of actions that are absolutely morally indifferent?

Brandon said...

This seems to be a pretty clear case of a natural law theorist citing biological facts (that sexual arousal is strong and frequent, that the mechanics of sex make it difficult to avoid pregnancy) to draw a moral conclusion (that the final cause of sex is procreation in large numbers).

(1) As I explicitly said, biological facts can be relevant because they are relevant to what is practically reasonable or not.

(2) Your interpretation is an egregious and very obvious misreading. Ed is not drawing a moral conclusion at all in the passage you quote. He is noting points -- and those from the passage you are quoting are explicitly supplementary points, at that -- that indicate that sexual acts are more adequate understood as procreative than as structured by a tendency toward pleasure. Note, too, that this latter isn't, taken only on its own, even remotely a moral conclusion, as one could already guess from the fact that he is talking about final causes, which are relevant to morality (because they affect what is reasonable and not) but are not themselves generally moral. You appear to be reading your own false assumptions into Ed's discussion.

Brandon said...

Sorry, that should be 'more adequately understood', of course.

Scott said...

Mr. Green writes: "[T]he point is that even in a pitch-black room, my eyesight is not frustrated — it's working just fine; it's not as though I have gone blind."

That's a very good point. And of course the same is true in the case of the sunglasses: all they do is reflect a certain amount of light rather than allow it to enter one's eyes, which no more frustrates the faculty of vision than turning down dessert frustrates the faculty of digestion.

Scott said...

(Which also means, I think, that the closest sexual analogue would be abstinence rather than condom use.)

DNW said...



Have we talked about sex enough? I want to bury Rawls up to the neck in sand again, and kick at his head some more.

Greg said...

@ Jakub

So you think that there is a kind of actions that are absolutely morally indifferent?

I don't know what you mean by "absolutely" here. It is a well-known teaching of Aquinas that there are morally indifferent action kinds but every actual action is either good or bad.

I am not saying that moving your finger could not be a mortal sin. I suggested a circumstance in which it is.

Note, though, that if the intention is what makes the action bad, it's not the case that you're performing a bad action moving-your-finger-while-intending-against-God's-glorification.

DNW said...




I also want to talk about social modalities during the Chalcolithic age, and the laws of Henry the 1st.

DNW said...

I was going to point something out that I thought needed to be said.

But apparently all I need to do is to quote Brandon.

" Natural law is an account of practical reason, not biology."


Maybe that should be reposted every 10 comments or so; along with Herbert Hart's famous comments on the undeniable role of natural law, or more specifically teleology, in making sense of any human law at all.

Matt Sheean said...

Speaking of natural law,

did anyone here see the film "Noah" last year? While there was a lot of bellyaching about the more hoity toity leftish sentiments of the film (vegans! yay!), the filmmaker made explicit reference to Thomas Aquinas in interviews as the source for the moral themes of the film. Also, the conflict between Crowe's Noah and Winstone's Tubal-Cain seemed to me like a fairly straight-forward battle between intellectualism and voluntarism (Noah emphasizes understanding, while Cain explicitly describes the imago dei as reflected in the human will).

David M said...

Scott: "And of course the same is true in the case of the sunglasses: all they do is reflect a certain amount of light rather than allow it to enter one's eyes, which no more frustrates the faculty of vision than turning down dessert frustrates the faculty of digestion."

Hmmm... Vision as a faculty for 'digesting light'? Whether in the case of food or vision or sexual pleasure, there could still be an abuse of some relevant faculty in terms of insensibility. It depends on one's reasons for acting as one does. I'd suggest that habitually wearing sunglasses indoors likely is (venially) immoral - it seems vain and silly (see, e.g., ST II-II q.169 a.1 - "can there be virtue and vice in connection with outward apparel?"). A straightforward "perversion of the faculty," however, would be looking lustfully at a woman, would it not? (regarding which perverse use someone once claimed that it would be better to tear out one's eye...)

David M said...

Mr. Green: "Clearly there is a difference between being a sighted man in dark room and a blind man in dark room, so while allowing light into one's eyes or not may be moral or immoral for other reasons (e.g. Scott's example of performing surgery), it cannot be a matter of perverting the faculty of sight."

Does this follow? A blind man could quite reasonably never turn the lights on. He might even, in unusual circumstances, live in a perpetually dark environment. But couldn't a sighted man who chose perpetual darkness be said to be perverting his faculty of sight, just as much a man who intentionally blinded himself?

Firing Fasers said...

@All

What good books or online resources are there that go into this topic especially the male/female procreation teleology of it in ridiculous detail (from a Thomist perspective)- Something really that covers all corners?

Anonymous said...

@David M

Hmmm... Vision as a faculty for 'digesting light'?

That's just plain misrepresentation.

David M said...

...the purpose of the faculty of sight is not just for verifying light conditions, whatever these happen to be ("ALL men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things.")

...any more than human sexual faculties are just for procreating (or just for pleasure).

Anonymous said...

@David M

But couldn't a sighted man who chose perpetual darkness be said to be perverting his faculty of sight, just as much a man who intentionally blinded himself?

Short answer is no. He hasn't removed the end to which sight is directed but rather altered the environment in which it is to operate.

Scott said...

@David M:

"I'd suggest that habitually wearing sunglasses indoors likely is (venially) immoral - it seems vain and silly[.]"

That's possible, but I wouldn't say that involves any perversion, abuse, or frustration of the faculty of vision itself.

"A straightforward 'perversion of the faculty,' however, would be looking lustfully at a woman, would it not?"

I'm inclined to say that it's a perversion or misuse of the faculty but not a frustration of it. And even at that, surely the basic problem isn't in the mere seeing; there would be nothing wrong with looking at the same woman without lust. The misuse of the faculty of vision here lies in something other than using the eyes in a way that prevents them from performing their function.

"[C]ouldn't a sighted man who chose perpetual darkness be said to be perverting his faculty of sight, just as much a man who intentionally blinded himself?"

I doubt the "just as much," but I suppose if choosing perpetual darkness led to a gradual atrophying of his visual faculty, it could be construed as frustrating that faculty. (If it were done for that purpose, it would actually be intentionally blinding oneself.) I'm not sure about "perverting" it, as it still doesn't seem to involve a misuse of vision.

Matt Sheean said...

What I want to know is, at what position on my dimmer switches here does the light reach immorally low levels?

Scott said...

@David M:

"Hmmm... Vision as a faculty for 'digesting light'?"

I won't go as far as Anonymous, but that's pretty obviously not what I said or meant.

David M said...

Scott: I wasn't intending to represent (or misrepresent) what you said, just offering what came to my mind based on your comparison. Is there something you find objectionable about that metaphor?

Anonymous said...

I imagine David is leading to a point... a possibly very fallacious one if my guess is correct.

So here is my bet; he takes issue with procreation being the reason and direction of sex in marriage - And that's only the first half of what I think. Hence the bringing up the light thing and so forth??

@ David

Scott: I wasn't intending to represent (or misrepresent) what you said, just offering what came to my mind based on your comparison. Is there something you find objectionable about that metaphor?

You meant it as it came across. To make fun of Scott when his position is actually well founded.

David M said...

"Short answer is no. He hasn't removed the end to which sight is directed but rather altered the environment in which it is to operate."

Really? Does that make sense? And what if he alters the environment such that the end at which the faculty is directed is guaranteed to be perpetually frustrated? Sound rather like the good old 'pill'...

David M said...

"You meant it as it came across. To make fun of Scott when his position is actually well founded."

Anonymous, seriously? Don't be a jackass. (In future I'll ignore any such inane commentary.)

David M said...

"What I want to know is, at what position on my dimmer switches here does the light reach immorally low levels?"

I guess it depends on what level of light you need, given the circumstances, in order not to frustrate the appropriate use of your faculty of sight?

Tom said...

@David M

Really? Does that make sense? And what if he alters the environment such that the end at which the faculty is directed is guaranteed to be perpetually frustrated? Sound rather like the good old 'pill'...

Not one and the same. We can use our eyes in the dark, we might not be able to see because of a privation in light but the end of our eyes seeing according to the faculty not the environment has not been frustrated. The same is not true of preventing sperm from entering the vagina; wherein the intrinsic end has been frustrated. The parallel is not exact.

DNW said...

Blogger Matt Sheean said...

What I want to know is, at what position on my dimmer switches here does the light reach immorally low levels?

February 9, 2015 at 11:09 AM"



When the naive date you have invited up for an innocent before drink, can't see what you are waggling in front of her face.

DNW said...

"Before (dinner)", as in prior to dinner out; ... if any of you are out of the habit.

Tom said...

Sorry Garbled that one up...

in light but the end of our eyes seeing according to the faculty not the environment has not been frustrated.

but the end of our eyes seeing has not been frustrated in the faculty of our eyes but rather we cannot see because there is no light.

Tom said...

Well what I was trying to say is a condom or the pill actually actively prevent something intrinsic to the actualization of a faculty. The absence of light is a passive reality and isn't really an entirely apt example in ever sense.

Tom said...

A blind fold also is not a passive interruption of the faculty of sight whereas the mere absence of light is.

Scott said...

@David M:

"Is there something you find objectionable about that metaphor?"

No, it's not objectionable at all. It's just that I didn't have any intention of equating or analogizing the ways in which vision and digestion operate—at least not beyond the fact that each requires some sort of external "input" in order to get going.

David M said...

Scott: "I doubt the "just as much," but I suppose if choosing perpetual darkness led to a gradual atrophying of his visual faculty, it could be construed as frustrating that faculty. (If it were done for that purpose, it would actually be intentionally blinding oneself.) I'm not sure about "perverting" it, as it still doesn't seem to involve a misuse of vision."

I'll concede the "just as much" point, but whether or not there is gradual atrophying is beside the point. The case is analogous to a married couple who don't want any children but use NFP. A licit end doesn't justify illicit means; but 'licit means' also don't justify an illicit end. You seem to want to restrict 'misuse' to specific occasional misuses. But why not apply the term also to misuse relating to the pursuit of illicit ends?

Tom: "The absence of light is a passive reality and isn't really an entirely apt example in ever sense."

Okay, but again, why think it's impossible to 'passively' pervert the use of our faculties?

Tom said...

@ David M

Again?

Okay, but again, why think it's impossible to 'passively' pervert the use of our faculties?

We could do so but then we aren't in the realm of ethics anymore. I'm taking it that we are using the word passive in the same way here of course.

Tom said...

@David M

The case is analogous to a married couple who don't want any children but use NFP. A licit end doesn't justify illicit means; but 'licit means' also don't justify an illicit end.

NFP is what it is by virtue of it's application. So if the end is never to be open to children then most proponents of NFP will tell you that it is being used illicitly. So the means and ends distinction is slightly misleading.

David M said...

I have no idea what you mean, Tom. Is that like if I 'passively' starve my child to death, we're not in the realm of ethics? Or what?

Anonymous 2 said...

Anonymous said...

I imagine David is leading to a point... a possibly very fallacious one if my guess is correct.

So here is my bet; he takes issue with procreation being the reason and direction of sex in marriage - And that's only the first half of what I think. Hence the bringing up the light thing and so forth??


How do you know that?

Scott said...

@David M:

"[W]hy not apply the term also to misuse relating to the pursuit of illicit ends?"

I don't understand how keeping one's house in perpetual darkness is any sort of "use" specifically of the faculty of vision for an illicit end. It may be a morally culpable failure to exercise the faculty, but it's not as though you're using your eyes to undermine your vision.

Tom said...

@David M

That wouldn't be a passive act according to our own faculties. It also wouldn't be a passive act according to justice.

An example of a passive act in the sense I meant is radiation causing cancer in someone but by no willed act on their part (or the source of the radiation if you want to go that far into it).

Tom said...

@David M

I also meant that it wasn't apt

Tom said...

^...in every sense

Scott said...

"So here is my bet; he takes issue with procreation being the reason and direction of sex in marriage[.]"

I'll let David M speak for himself if he wants to, but I'm fairly sure you're on the wrong track here.

"You meant it as it came across. To make fun of Scott when his position is actually well founded."

I appreciate your defense, but I don't think David M intended any offense and I didn't take any. It's true that my analogy wasn't intended to go as far as he took it, but that's pretty much all there is to it as far as I'm concerned.

David M said...

@Scott: "it's not as though you're using your eyes to undermine your vision"

Aren't you using your eyes to sense only the absence of light? Does this not undermine the true end of your faculty of sight?

Scott said...

@David M:

"Aren't you using your eyes to sense only the absence of light? Does this not undermine the true end of your faculty of sight?"

I don't see why. Sensing the absence of light is one of the natural functions of the eye, is it not?

Anonymous said...

@Scott

I'll let David M speak for himself if he wants to

Agreed. I just am always suspicious when people don't make clear their position - the chip away for a long time before making any clear point outside of analogy.

@Anon 2

Wait and see.

Tom said...

@Scott


I don't see why. Sensing the absence of light is one of the natural functions of the eye, is it not?


Some animals have 'eyes' for just that function alone, do they not? To see if there is light or no light? At least in the history of evolution there were such 'eyes'?

Scott said...

@Tom:

"Some animals have 'eyes' for just that function alone, do they not?"

I believe so, yes.

I think, though, that David M is taking the "faculty of sight" to be a good deal broader than mere seeing. That's entirely legitimate as far as it goes; certainly the human faculty of vision has as its purpose/function far more than the mere detection of the presence or absence of light.

My point is just that it doesn't have less than that as its purpose/function. Even in cases in which me may be morally culpable for not putting the faculty to its proper exercise, that's what we're morally culpable for: not-putting. Not "using it in an improper fashion," just not using it. And that doesn't seem to me to involve any perversion or positive misuse of the faculty itself. The faculty of sight isn't being directed toward an illicit end.

Scott said...

(And in particular the eye isn't being misused when it's used only to detect the absence of light.)

David M said...

@Scott: "Sensing the absence of light is one of the natural functions of the eye, is it not?"

Sure, but ejaculation of semen is one of the natural functions of the penis. It doesn't follow that no action that can be truly described as "a penis ejaculating semen" should be considered a perverted use of the penis or of the human sexual faculty. It is not sufficient for moral analysis to describe human actions solely in terms of a narrow organic function. You recognize this for the case of sexual intercourse. I don't see why one would want to resist this when it comes to the faculty of sight.

Anonymous 2 said...

@David M

It is not sufficient for moral analysis to describe human actions solely in terms of a narrow organic function.

Exactly and that is the realms of final causality and teleology. So you think that procreation is the end of sex? Is marriage related in any way to procreation?

Anonymous 2 said...

@Scott

Since marriage and the purpose of sex has been mentioned...

How would you describe marriage, What makes it what it is? Also why do we say sex is directed at something and what is it that it is directed towards?

David M said...

Anonymous 2,
I don't know what you're getting at. If you want to know my position on marriage and procreation and sex, I refer you to what Feser has written above. (I trust you read it?) I think it's safe to say that I would endorse pretty much everything he wrote. (To your questions: Procreation is one end of sex. Marriage is the institution within which human procreation ought to take place.)

Anonymous 2 said...

@David M

Thank you. The other I imagine is some kind of bonding in marriage?

David M said...

@Scott: "My point is just that it doesn't have less than that as its purpose/function. Even in cases in which me may be morally culpable for not putting the faculty to its proper exercise, that's what we're morally culpable for: not-putting. Not "using it in an improper fashion," just not using it. And that doesn't seem to me to involve any perversion or positive misuse of the faculty itself. The faculty of sight isn't being directed toward an illicit end."

I think you're contradicting yourself and the truth. You yourself noted that your eyes are still functioning in the dark: they are continually verifying the absence of light. To restrict the use of the eyes to this end alone would surely be a perversion of the true end of the faculty of sight, would it not?

[Anonymous 2: Yes, I believe bonding and procreation ought to go together too, and that both are natural ends of sexual intercourse.]

David M said...

I amend: To restrict the use of the eyes to this use/end alone would surely be a perversion of the true use/end of the faculty of sight, would it not?

Scott said...

@Anonymous 2:

"Thank you. The other I imagine is some kind of bonding in marriage?"

Yes, it also has what's usually called a "unitive" function. (I don't mean to speak for David M but I have no doubt he'll agree.)

@David M:

"Sure, but ejaculation of semen is one of the natural functions of the penis. It doesn't follow that no action that can be truly described as 'a penis ejaculating semen' should be considered a perverted use of the penis or of the human sexual faculty."

This is true but I'm not persuaded that the two cases are analogous. The function of the eye is to see. My point is that in the absence of ambient light, it's successfully performing that function by seeing that it's dark. The function of the penis (at least in a sexual context) is to contribute to reproduction/procreation, and it's not automatically successfully performing that function merely by ejaculating.

"To restrict the use of the eyes to this use/end alone would surely be a perversion of the true use/end of the faculty of sight, would it not?"

Here, on the other hand, I do see your point. At the very least I'd certainly agree that the failure to use the faculty of sight for its proper purpose can plausibly be understood as a "frustration" of its purpose in the broad sense to which I made some reference earlier. Beyond that, I'll have to give it some thought.

Scott said...

I'd also be interested in hearing what Mr. Green thinks after he's had a chance to read through this exchange. (Not that I'm uninterested in anyone else's opinions, of course. It's just that Mr. Green has already said some things that are on point here.)

Matt Sheean said...


It's the darndest thing, I tellya. Santi just sits in that dark room all the time. I think he wants to just sit there and not let any light into those eyes of his whatsoever. You can go see if he can be convinced to give this crazy behavior up, but I don't know.. I was shouting am him earlier, I said "you need to make some use of those God-given faculties of yours, man, so stop sitting in this dark room all the time! Go out, meet a girl! Have some John Rawls, for crying out loud! Live a little!"


Mr. Green said...

Since he asked, I agree with Scott's responses to the effect that darkness isn’t actually thwarting vision itself (barring cases of atrophy, etc.). But clearly David M. is also correct to say there is something wrong with keeping yourself locked up in the dark all the time. It occurs to me that perhaps the problem is focussing too narrowly on the faculty as though it were something that existed on its own. We can easily, and usefully, abstract an organ or a power away from the person who possesses it, but the person is the substance, not the faculty. So to be strict we probably should be talking in terms of a person perverting his human nature: damaging your vision would be one way to do that, but sitting in the dark all day is clearly also an unnatural way to live for an embodied, sensory creature. Thus it would violate natural law, even though it technically doesn’t frustrate the faculty of sight considered in isolation.

Step2 said...

Go out, meet a girl! Have some John Rawls, for crying out loud! Live a little!

I cannot talk about John Rawls tonight, I've got a headache.

Talking about John Rawls isn’t necessarily immoral, but doing so while walking the Appalachian Trail always is.

A woman walks into a bar and asks to talk about John Rawls. So the bartender provided this penetrating analysis: "Many believe talking about John Rawls to be broadly satisfying and a certain degree of oral skill helps thrust the fluid exchange of ideas towards its climactic realization. A firm hold of one’s naked vulnerability behind the veil is a fruitful genesis to the interaction. It is most imperative to deposit all the seeds of wisdom deeply within the recipient to ensure they grasp the root concepts and can reproduce this essential knowledge. Talking about John Rawls is pregnant with potential and sometimes messy, so it requires repetition to fully release the intricate gyrations of embedded meanings and key areas of enlarged emphasis."

Matt Sheean said...

step,

the bartender was a Slovenian philosopher who had fallen out of favor recently, and as a result had taken up serving spirits to dispirited patrons.

Mr Green,

If I may interject, your latest comment reminds me of the parable of the talents.

David M said...

Mr. Green: "Thus it would violate natural law, even though it technically doesn’t frustrate the faculty of sight considered in isolation."

Yes, and to bring out the point, a narrow or 'isolated' analysis of the faculty of sight might be okay for an optometrist or a biologist, just as an isolated analysis of semen production might be okay for a fertility specialist or a biologist, but this kind of isolated analysis is clearly inadequate from the perspective of moral analysis of related human acts.

David M said...

Edward Feser wrote: "Seeing is more or less an ongoing non-stop process that we can't turn on or off (other than by closing our eyes, and even that doesn't turn the eyes off but just covers them up). By contrast, the process of arousal-through-to-ejaculation is a discrete episode that requires special initiation of the process and has a distinct and decisive culmination. That makes a difference to the teleology. Seeing as an essentially non-stop waking process can fulfill its function in a general way even if we sometimes cover the eyes up, but arousal-through-to-ejaculation cannot fulfill its function if we block the semen from getting where it's intended by nature to go. Then there's the fact that nature itself gives us eyelids to cover the eyes, but no built-in condom."

I don't think this analysis really brings out the relevant issues. For one, seeing is unequivocally a process that we can turn off. (We will actually die if we don't turn it off regularly for appropriate periods of time.) True, seeing is more 'ongoing' (during waking hours) than an episode of sexual intercourse, but it's hard to see why this should be relevant. There are also discrete episodes of seeing, which are under voluntary control in much the same way as an episode of JR is (e.g., someone who endorses abortion rights might refuse to look at abortion imagery) - so why should such episodes be analyzed with a 'different teleology' - other than the obvious fact that the particular end in question happens to be different? There are also plenty of ongoing acts of seeing which are more or less involuntary, but as such they aren't really subject to moral analysis - but it's not because they are ongoing (as, e.g., if I watch TV non-stop during my waking hours) but because they are involuntary (just as incipient sexual arousal is).

John said...

Wouldn't something like artificial sweeteners follow the same line of logic as contraception:

The point of the pleasure of eating is to get us to eat high-calorie food that will provide energy food for the body. In general, the more accessible energy the food has, the more pleasurable it is to eat. Therefore, it is wrong to attempt to get the pleasure of eating sweet food from a non-nutritive substance.

I ask this mostly as a thought experiment, and also because I genuinely want to know-I can see the argument that it falls under something like gluttony.

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