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Natural Law Theory and Rightly Ordered Sexual Pleasure: Some Syllogisms

Does natural law ethics entail any sort of sexual pleasure is morally good? Traditionally nearly every major natural law theorist (and virtue theorist) held that a man enjoying sex with his wife is a good thing; and when a woman enjoys sex with her husband­­—that’s good too. What natural law theory condemns is someone who takes pleasure in acts of bestiality, or someone who engages in sexual acts with a catamite, or someone who engages in sexual actions with a plant. These actions are not the only ones seen to be evil on traditional natural law; contraceptive sexual activity as well as homosexual actions are also considered to be evil actions.

Johnathan Pearce has attempted to challenge the reasons given for the aforementioned conclusions of natural law theory, as well as in some cases the conclusions themselves. The difficulty is that he frequently misunderstands the natural law view. In his short piece “Natural Law Theory and Sexual Pleasure: A Proposed Syllogism” he endeavors to give a syllogism for the opposite conclusion, that is, for a conclusion opposed to the findings of traditional natural law sexual ethics. His proposed syllogism I have quoted below (but it can be found online here -

1. “Certain body parts have no apparent function other than pleasure production.”
2. “Some body parts have more than one function.”
3. “We have no way of knowing which functions are designed in, and which are means to an end, or incidental.”
4. “C[onclusion]. Denying that humans (and many animals) are designed to masturbate is purely ad hoc speculation.”

The first thing to notice about the above quote from Mr. Pearce is that his syllogism technically isn’t a syllogism at all in the proper sense of the term. It’s an invalid syllogism and further it has more than four terms. There are no middle terms or premises that indicate to us how the conclusion is supposed to follow. How might we most reasonably interpret what he is trying to say here? I suspect Mr. Pearce was trying to communicate these two types of arguments:

Syllogism 1:

1. According to natural law theory, using a body part for its function is morally good.

2. Some body parts apparently have pleasure alone as their function.

3. Thus, using such body parts for pleasure alone is morally good.

Syllogism 2:

1. We have no way of knowing what the functions of human body parts are or those which are merely incidental sorts of abilities.

2. If that is so, then all talk of function within the arguments of natural law ethics is arbitrary or ad hoc.

3. Thus, all talk of functions within natural law theory are either arbitrary or ad hoc.

Both arguments given above are valid; in other words, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must follow. But are the premises all true?

The Pleasure of the First Syllogism

Let’s begin with the first syllogism. The first premise is held by natural law theory and Pearce is willing to grant it for the sake of argument. For the second premise Pearce gives the examples of “the male g-spot” and “male nipples for many men.” But then he goes onto add “whether the location [i.e. the male g-spot] actually exists is arguable, and it might have the function of having a ‘mini-orgasm’ to pump semen further into the vagina.” Pearce isn’t so confident about his example after all. But what exactly is the g-spot? In females the g-spot is the area where they are said to be most intensely aroused and it’s said that “to be located inside the vagina, on the front vaginal wall, about a third to halfway up” (International Society for Sexual Medicine, However, many sources indicate that it is doubtful whether this spot really exists. According to the aforementioned source, for example, “Some women find that stimulation of this area does lead to exceptional orgasms. But some are unable to find this type of pleasure spot and wonder if something is wrong.”

Let’s say for the sake of argument that the female g-spot exists. What’s its purpose? From an evolutionary viewpoint there’s nothing advantageous about a spot used solely for sexual pleasure unless that spot has some other advantages with which it is associated. In other words, if some spot existed that only gave you intense pleasure after scratching it all day, it’s hard to see how such a spot would be beneficial for the species or the individual as a whole. Pleasure exists for the sake of some good associated with that pleasure. Of course, there are disordered pleasures, but let’s set those aside for the moment. I mean what’s the difference between the pleasure in seeing a beautiful sunset, the pleasure of hearing beautiful music, the pleasure of eating food, and the pleasure of orgasm during sex? All such pleasures are parasitic upon some prior good and we might say exist for the sake of some good. Gustatory pleasure is ordered towards tasting, which in turn is ordered towards the good of the individual; likewise, sexual pleasure is ordered towards sex which in turn is ordered towards the generation of new offspring which is a good of the species. If the female g-spot really exists then, it’s very clearly a part of the reproductive system and as such is ordered towards the good of bringing about new offspring by its very nature. So, a female who’s letting her g-spot by activated by her husband isn’t doing anything bad; she’s using it for its purpose. Likewise, if a male g-spot does exist as part of the male reproductive system, then using it for procreation is likewise morally good.

The second premise of Pearce’s first syllogism (Some body parts apparently have pleasure alone as their function) is false. He provides the example of the male g-spot, which is doubtful whether it exists, but even if it does and arouses the penis, then it’s natural purpose is for reproduction. So the male g-spot (if it’s real) is hardly support for his position. Likewise, his example of male nipples is hardly telling. What type of sick man finds sexual pleasure in rubbing his own nipples? I don’t know, but they’re what we call vestigial organ, or one that used to exist for a purpose but no longer do. We might say then there is really no purpose to the male nipples.

Indulge me for a thought experiment: imagine if a woman spent her life on a desert island scratching some patch on her body that exists only for the sake of intense pleasure, the greatest sort of bodily pleasure possible. Would this woman be better off evolutionarily than say a woman who instead had a spot that when used by a man is both just as pleasurable and also when activated tended to result in babies? The point here is this: It would be evolutionarily disadvantageous if we had a part solely for the sake of pleasure, as it would be superfluous and distract members of the species from types of behavior more beneficial to the species. This is why no such body parts exist whose sole purpose is pleasure.

Pearce’s Second Syllogism & the Mind of God

What about Pearce’s second syllogism? Pearce boldly states “When it suits them, theists loudly proclaim to know God’s intentions and his mind. But when it doesn’t, regarding (say) the Problem of Evil, ‘you cannot know the mind of God.’”

Now, that might be a fair critique of some theists, even many Protestant or Catholic Christians, but that such people are mistaken doesn’t mean those who have thought more deeply about such issues are mistaken. It doesn’t take a medical degree to see that Aristotle was right that there are inherent purposes or points to various powers or organs of the body. Open a medical textbook and you will see teleology or final causes all over the place. The purpose of the heart is to pump blood, the purpose of the lungs is to facilitate oxygen exchange, etc. Likewise, the purpose of the reproductive powers is reproduction. Aristotle, Aquinas, and virtually every major natural law thinker got the picture here. Not all were theists—Aristotle wasn’t a Christian, although he held to a weird type of god. Natural law sexual ethics is simply a reflection upon broadly Aristotelian teleology and anthropology and seeing that if we want to attain what is truly good for us, the only natural means to that is by using our powers for what they are for. Sight is for seeing, the faculty of thinking is for thinking, and the faculty of reproduction is for reproducing. Using such powers in any way not ordered towards their ends is bad for you and for me. Imagine someone who went around proclaiming they found pleasure in using their power of sight not to see, or someone who found intense pleasure in eating so as to starve. What’s so different about someone who proclaimed they found intense pleasure in using their reproductive powers not for reproduction?

Not all discussions about teleology or final causes need to appeal to the divine. Anatomists don’t need to appeal to the Bible or the Quran to write textbooks about the human body and the various functions of its parts.

Do we know at least in some cases know the intentions of the divine? Yes. We know God intended to created the universe, and in creating the universe he created creatures such as man and beast. In creating such creatures, he gave them their natural powers which are defined in terms of their ends. We know that sight is for seeing, and so we can say God intends it to be used for such purpose, not because we know in advance the mind of God, but rather because of rational reflection upon what the nature of sight is. This can be gathered from experience, observation, and reflection. We can read about sight in various biological texts, etc. which might help us in understanding its nature and purpose.

There are three views about the mind of God. On the one hand are people who are superstitious and think they know the mind of God in more areas than they really do (those who adamantly insisted the Bubonic Plague was divine punishment would be an example). On the other extreme, however, are people who believe we never in any case whatsoever know the mind of God. It is wholly hidden from us. Such people are mistaken, because at the very least we know God intended to create the universe, because he did. In the middle are people who hold that yes in some cases we can know the mind of God—but it is accessibly only via either the infusion of grace or by rational reflection upon the workings of nature. In the case of the so-called problem of evil, it’s not that we can never know the mind of God, it’s that in such a case we have reason to believe God has good reasons for allowing evil to exist, what these reasons are we often don’t and cannot know in concreto. There are perfectly sound arguments to hold an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God exists; nothing about the existence of the privation of due goods (i.e. evil) undercuts these arguments. Yes, God could have always made a better universe; creatures are always finite, so no matter how much good is added to the universe it can never match the one who is truly perfect or infinitely good in himself.

Anyway, most of this has been a distraction or red herring by Pearce from the real argument. Let us return to the second proposed syllogism by Pearce. If the first premise of Pearce’s second syllogism is true (i.e. ‘We have no way of knowing what the functions of human body parts are or those which are merely incidental sorts of abilities’), then all biological and medical talk of the function of organs is mere fanciful thinking. But I propose here that the doctors’ are right. Our organs have functions and the purposes that are there aren’t arbitrarily imposed by some natural law theorist.


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