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Sex and Sexuality: Defending Natural Law Against Pearce’s Straw-man



The natural law account of ethics has some pretty big names behind it: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, and John Locke to name just a few. This isn’t to say that all of these thinkers agreed on everything. They didn’t: Aristotle overthrew Plato’s metaphysics. Further, Aquinas certainly wouldn’t have agreed with everything Locke had to say. What these thinkers held in common, however, is that to know what’s good or bad for a human being requires examining what a human being is. Much can be said in favor of this general view and much has already been said in defense of it (see Edward Feser, Philippa Foot, or Timothy Hsiao for a more thorough defense of this point).

An examination of goodness, however, easily reveals that these natural law theorists are right. What’s good for a human being isn’t necessarily good for your dog. Grapes and chocolate taken in moderate amounts can be good for you; but they are bad for dogs. What is good for some living things isn’t good for others. So, what’s good for you depends upon the type of being that you are.

As applied to sex and sexuality this entails that what’s good sex or a good use of the sexual members within humans may not be exactly what’s good sex or a good use of the sexual members in other animal species (and vice-versa). While it may be good for female praying mantis to bite off the head of the male prior to sex, this definitely isn’t true in the case of human beings. Likewise, that homosexual acts occur among bonobos doesn’t entail that it is morally good for human beings.

So, what’s good sex for human beings? According to natural law, since the moral good depends upon the being you are considering, it depends upon the nature of human beings. But following upon the nature of human beings are powers or what we might call basic abilities that we are born with which help orient us toward our natural ends. What’s good for something depends upon what that being is, but also upon what that being’s purpose is. Corn are meant to grow and produce corn ears. So, a corn plant that doesn’t do so is a bad corn plant. It doesn’t take a biology degree to see that something has gone wrong with a corn plant that fails to grow or that uses its abilities to generate freaks of nature rather than more corn.

With human beings then we have been given basic fundamental abilities or powers. These powers are defined by their ends. The power of vision is for seeing colors, of smell for smelling odors, and of reproduction for reproducing. To use these powers for something other than their natural ends means something has gone fundamentally astray. Using sight not to see is a disordered action, so too is using smell not to smell. Likewise, using the reproductive power not for reproduction means something has gone astray.

This line of argument has been thoroughly defended by various natural law theorists. I will not attempt to give their full account here. All I wish to point out for the rest of this article is that their view has been widely misunderstood and given a caricature in such a way that many arguments against the view I have outlined above either attack a straw-man or are very weak arguments against the natural law view.

Pearce’s Misinterpretation of NL Sexual Ethics

Take the case of Jonathan MS Pearce. In an article in Patheos entitled “Sex and Sexuality: Criticising Natural Law Theory” (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/tippling/2017/06/08/sex-sexuality-criticising-natural-law-theory/) he claims that “In more recent times, and under Catholic influence, NL [natural law] has morphed into something else [beyond what Aquinas and natural law theorists traditionally held], particularly within the confines of sexual preference and activity.” This couldn’t be more false. If Mr. Pearce would have just taken the pains to actually examine what some of the great natural law thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and John Locke actually said he would have found that such thinkers all opposed homosexual behavior. Don’t believe me? Check out the history in the book Disordered Actions. So, it’s not some recent Catholic invention that claims NL prohibits certain sexual actions as morally bad. On the contrary, such a view predates Christianity.

Further, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero weren’t Catholic, so to claim, as Pearce does, that it’s only recently that natural law has held that homosexual acts and other non-procreative types of actions are wrong is just plain false. Basically, nearly every major philosopher prior to the 20th century opposed homosexual behavior; it wasn’t until about a decade ago that in the Western world people started thinking otherwise.

Pearce also thinks that natural law ethics depends upon the existence of God. This is easily seen to be false in the case of both Plato and Aristotle. Neither of them had to appeal to the existence of God in order to do most of their ethics. Likewise, the case of Thomas Aquinas is more nuanced than Mr. Pearce would have us imagine. Does Aquinas hold that God exists? Yes. Does he hold that natural law is caused by God? Yes. But if you read much of Aquinas’ ethical theory you will see that frequently he doesn’t appeal to the existence of God as a premise. For example, Aquinas’ arguments against theft and gluttony don’t invoke the existence of God anywhere as a premise.

Pearce’s 5-point Critique Summarized

Mr. Pearce claims there are five problems for natural law sexual ethics:

1. “This presupposes the existence of God.”

2. “This negates the idea of evolution, and that bodies and minds adapt to usage to give the organism more survivability or greater chance of reproduction.”

3. “There are times when competing ideas or purposes interact…”

4. “There are so many things that NL theorists do that could contravene the purposes set out for our organs.”

5. “How do we know what God’s purpose actually is?”

We will examine in what follows Mr. Pearce’s critique point by point. However, at this point it should be easy to see that we can easily dismiss his first point. Yes, in the ontological order natural law depends upon the existence of God; just as every being that exists depends upon God for its existence so too do human beings and the moral law depend upon God to exist. But this doesn’t mean that in the epistemological order we need to appeal to the existence of God to have any decent account of natural law ethics. Certainly, both Plato and Aristotle gave a decent account without explicitly appealing to God’s existence. Even much of Aquinas’ ethics still works if God were out of the picture. We don’t need to appeal to the existence of God to see that Aquinas gives decent arguments against theft, back-biting, lying, and gluttony. In none of those cases mentioned does Aquinas appeal to God as a premise. Then again, perhaps, Mr. Pearce never really read much Aquinas.

Does Evolution Refute Natural Law Ethics?

Pearce also thinks that evolution poses a problem for natural law sexual ethics. He claims that some organs “have been co-opted to another purpose.” While this may be true, it doesn’t entail that there never was a purpose for the organs to begin with or that the new function has replaced the older function. Whatever his views about evolution may be, it’s pretty obvious that the purposes of our reproductive power haven’t evolved in such way that that our reproductive members are no longer reproductive members. The sexual organs are called sexual only because they have reference to sex. It’s because these members are for sex that we even call them sexual in the first place. And sex is so named from reference to the good of offspring which tends to result from that action. If two bodily members rub together in such a way as never to have produced offspring in the history of mankind, then what we have certainly isn’t truly a case of sex. So, even if the penis could evolve in the future for other sorts of purposes, at the present moment in history, it’s evident that it’s still a sexual member and so part of the reproductive power. So, when used in a sexual manner, it’s evident that its purpose really is for sex, which is for generating offspring. If the penis evolved in such a way in the future where its use never resulted in the production of offspring, then what we would have would be a bodily member that no longer technically is a sexual member, let alone a penis. It would only be a penis or sexual member equivocally. Instead you might have something that just makes you happy. But then again two men can help the other attain happiness by simply playing a board game or working on a project together instead of engaging in homosexual behavior. All the NL theorist needs to point out is that at this current stage of evolution the penis or vagina when used sexually are part of the reproductive power and so when used sexually their natural purpose is for reproduction.

Mr. Pearce also claims that the hands were “designed” “to hold on to branches for climbing.” So somehow, this entails that engaging the reproductive power not for its purpose isn’t immoral. I wonder just what evolutionary textbooks Mr. Pearce has been reading (if any), but this almost certainly isn’t what every evolutionary biologist would tell you. Not even monkeys use their hands just for holding onto branches. Many use them to eat food; Spider Monkeys use them to groom the bodies of their peers; and some even use them to make tools.

It’s in principle scientifically impossible to know what the first use of the hand actually was, because there’s no way we can go back in time to see who or what the first organism was that actually possessed hands in the relevant sense. Much of the fossil record has likely disappeared anyway. So, evidently evolution alone cannot really tell us what the purposes of the hands are. But if you think about the hands, you will see that they are what we might call a jack-of-all-trades, they are the instrument of instruments (to borrow from Aristotle). Their purpose is really to help us attain whatever end we desire.

What about Competing Purposes?

Mr. Pearce secondly claims that natural law sexual ethics cannot handle cases where there are conflicts in teleology. It’s not clear what Pearce means by this and he doesn’t provide clear examples. Maybe he thinks that in certain cases if we don’t use the sexual members non-procreativity, then we will lead less healthy lives. Then again that argument is obviously weak. I mean the same argument could be said against justice: if we don’t act contrary to justice in certain cases we may end up leading a less healthy life. If Mr. Pearce wishes to use some version of consequentialism to justify his relatively modern Western version of sexual ethics, then his position entails even bigger problems (e.g. if the only way to survive the plague is by murdering and cannibalizing another human being, then would Pearce be in favor of this?). I don’t think the horrors of consequentialism are a good direction to go and I would hope Mr. Pearce would join me in rejecting it as a bad ethical theory.

Pearce’s Fourth Objection: Other purposes?

Mr. Pearces’ fourth point is ambiguous: “There are so many things that NL theorists do that could contravene the purposes set out for our organs.” If he is meaning to commit an ad hominem here against NL theorists, then I would like to remind him that this an informal fallacy. On the other hand, if he means that there are various counterexamples that can be given against the perverted faculty argument given by NL theorists then he is giving an argument which I must answer here.

Pearce thinks that the NL theorist is committed to the view that using the feet to play soccer is morally wrong. But that hardly follows. The purpose of the feet is to move about (either the person or other things). In playing soccer you are moving about and are at times moving other things about. To claim that the feet are better adapted for walking than for moving a soccer ball hardly entails that the sole purpose of the feet is for walking. Aristotle knew about other functions of the feet beyond merely walking (e.g. as used to swim) so their use in soccer hardly constitutes a counterexample. It’s also highly doubtful that Aristotle decided in advance that such was the use of the teeth solely in order to exclude non-procreative sexual behavior.

The other examples given by Pearce are dubious at best. He claims that “one of the functions of our minds is to have desires, so having homosexual desires but not acting on them is both unnatural and natural at the same time.” Huh? First, Pearce has some sort of philosophical training, so even he should know that what’s meant by mind is ambiguous. Second, is the purpose of the mind really to have desires? Certainly, Aquinas wouldn’t say so. For Aquinas the intellect is distinct from the will, so the intellect isn’t exactly the desiring property of the soul. Third, even if the mind’s purpose is to have desires, it doesn’t follow that its purpose is to have any particular desire. It doesn’t follow from saying the purpose of the mind is to have desire that its purpose is for homosexual desires anymore than saying the purpose of the mind is for desires so its purpose is for cannibalistic desires.

Pearce also claims that “there are many things human do that are not, at first look, within the design remit for our natural bodies. I wonder how many humans, and Catholics in particular, do extreme sports, dive, parachute/glide/ascend and so on and so forth.” His claim reminds me of a very old article claiming that women’s bodies weren’t designed for riding bikes. Certainly, if this is just what NL theorists or Catholics held, then their view would be manifestly absurd. But neither the Catholic Church nor NL theorists hold this. Pearce has essentially given a caricature of the NL view.

According to the natural law philosopher, then, what is the purpose of the human body taken as a whole? Aquinas would say it’s to live in accordance with reason, to promote the common good (or at least not take away from it), to love God, etc. Perhaps, for some people such as the old extreme sports are just too risky for healthy reasons and so for them it would be morally bad. But for the young there is no principled reason why extreme sports or diving cannot be used in a manner that is consistent with love of God or serving the common good, etc.

Pearce’s Final Objection Refuted

Pearce’s final objection is: “How do we know what God’s purpose actually is?” This objection seems to assume that the natural law account of ethics explicitly needs to appeal to God’s existence in order to do ethics. But we have seen that’s definitely false. Further, we don’t need to appeal to the existence of God to discover the purposes or final causes latent within human powers. I don’t need to be a theist to know that the power of vision is for seeing or that the power of the intellect is for knowing. Pickup any anatomy textbook and you will find teleology all over the place without much, if any, need to appeal to the existence of God.

I would like to invite Mr. Pearce to actually read some serious natural law scholars. Edward Feser is a good place to start. Otherwise, for sexual ethics see Hsiao or Skalko. Finally, I challenge Mr. Pearce to construct a coherent account of sexual ethics, one not founded upon prevailing cultural prejudices.

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