April 16, 2008

On Natural Law, Briefly

I have in other posts pointed out some of my difficulties with the Natural Law tradition. I find these to be well summarized in the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics article on the subject. I will detail my concerns here, briefly, based in part on an earlier comment to another post.

The problem begins as a matter of definition. There are at least three elements to “natural law” which are often rather carelessly confused or confounded in argument. For example, people sometimes use “natural” or “law of nature” to describe “what is” — reality. But it should surprise no one to find that I agree with those who say that “reality” as described by scientific knowledge can tell us what is, but not what should be. Science does not teach us morals. It is not, except in the most skeptical or cynical of moral systems, an instructor in morals at all. In fact, I believe science teaches us that nature is built on a principle that is in some respects the inverse of the guiding moral principle by which I abide: “Love your neighbor as yourself” — for the “natural world” is based on survival through the exploitation and use of other entities to one’s own benefit. As Whitehead observed, “Life is perpetual theft.”

So I do not look to nature for my ethics. Science can not tell us right from wrong: but it can tell us when we have advanced a premise that is discordant or incoherent with reality. For example, “Same-sexuality is wrong because it is ‘unnatural’” is false, if by “unnatural” one means, “contrary to the natural world” — for in the natural world it is quite common. That doesn’t, I hasten to add, make same-sexuality good. I’ve never made that claim; rather I hold it to be morally neutral, just like mixed-sexuality. But it does falsify the premise that it is “unnatural” in terms of not being part of the natural world.

Now, of course, my interlocutor will then advance to the second form of natural law and say, “By ‘unnatural’ I mean ‘not in concert with the ends for which sex is intended.’” This natural law position falls prey to the fallacy of begging the question, in that it rests on two prior premises, neither of which is self-evidently true: “Moral value is to be found in the use of things in advancement of the end for which they are intended” and further, “Sex is intended for procreation.” I have already demonstrated the falsehood of the latter premise, in that while sex may often result in procreation, there is ample evidence that it serves other purposes or ends having nothing to do with procreation. This is, in fact, the position of The Episcopal Church, as enunciated in the preface to the matrimonial rite, where procreation ranks third among the ends of marriage, “when it is God’s will.” It is also the reason marriage, and sexual activity within marriage, are not forbidden to infertile couples, and birth control is permitted.

The first premise, which gives moral value to the employment of organs towards specific ends, rests upon the presumed capability clearly to decide the “end” towards which any given human organ or activity is ordered, a task rendered difficult in face of the biological multitasking most organs serve; and the even greater leap which assigns moral value to such employment of the body. Is it, for example, immoral to eat low-calorie food? If so, how serious is this moral failing?

Finally, my opponent might deploy another form of natural law — “But all people inherently know it to be wrong.” This is, of course, the fallacy of argumentum ad populum, which supposes that ideas commonly held must be true. This is obviously a weak argument since it wouldn’t need to be made if it were true. This obvious weakness has not prevented this premise serving as a basis in a number of different forms of natural law arguments.

The fallback response, of course, is that those who don’t inherently know something to be wrong are morally defective — also a logical fallacy since it again assumes the premise and moreover besmirches those who disagree with it. While there are many social constructs and prejudices common in many people and many cultures, even perhaps in some cases universally (though same-sexuality fails to be indicted in this particular court) this does not make them self-evidently true.

Let me take an example. I think murder is morally wrong. I do not do so on the basis that the Bible says it is wrong, or the Church says it is wrong, or that it is “unnatural” (obviously it occurs in nature), or that all peoples and cultures know it to be wrong (many cultures exclude the willful killing of persons from the category of murder by definitional means). Rather, I think murder is wrong because it violates the premises upon which I base my ethics: Love your neighbor as yourself, and Do to others as you would be done by. In short, I do not need to appeal to any of the apparatus of natural law to tell me I should not murder anyone, as it violates the law of loving reciprocity, a law which I accept not merely on the authority of the One who gave it, but because it appears to be rationally coherent. I know of no serious arguments against it as a governing principle for an ethical system. (If there are any, I’d be happy to engage them; but again, I would want to see the premises upon which they are based laid out first.)

Compare this example of murder with the arguments adduced in the debates over sexuality, and I hope one can see the difference. The natural law approach assumes certain premises to be true, but the premises are the very things that are in question. It may not be naked circular argument, but it is certainly very scantily clad. We are spinning our wheels, and getting nowhere if the same un-agreed-upon assumptions are merely reasserted as conclusions. Perhaps we will not get anywhere except by the slow process of the death of such ideas, whose hegemony is coming slowly to an end. It took over a century for the church finally to abandon the distinction between Jew and Greek; and another millennium and a half to free itself from its unhappy acceptance of society’s division into slave and free; we now find ourselves beginning to grasp, two millennia on, that the difference between male and female is also irrelevant in Christ.

Tobias Haller BSG


the Reverend boy said...

Thank you for pointing out the natural world is based on "survival through exploitation." This is sadly one instance of the mark of a fallen Creation.

Tobias Haller said...

Actually, RB, I see it not so much in light of the Fall but as part of the necessary structuring of a complex world. I hope some day to post a longer and more rigorous examination of how I see this playing into the evolution (or genealogy) of morals, which I know I've promised umpteen times before. I see the process as divinely guided at every step; somewhat in the spirit of Teilhard de Chardin, who was one of my major formative influences.

the Reverend boy said...

Cool! I look forward to reading it, even a short version. I am the first to admit I have a lot to learn about a lot of things.

bls said...

Wow! That is one terrific closing sentence! Good job.

And a strong argument overall, too. Thanks for putting these posts up, Fr. Haller; it's nice to have all this discussion in one place (where we can one-stop shop when we need stuff to put into our future new Catechism!).


Pfalz prophet said...

Dr. Haller, I enjoy your posts immensely, for the ideas you convey but also for the economy of your delivery--I see Ockham's Razor vigorously employed, and rejoice.

I have heard stated that there exists one and only one "nature" of things, in the current imbroglio, sexuality; all else is "unnatural." Is this a variant of argumentum ad populum, or a different one? I wonder if it originates with Aristotle, or perhaps from him through Aquinas. Perhaps you can help me here.

Tobias Haller said...

Scott Carson has responded to my post at his blog rather than here, and I have made the following comment in reply:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks for the comment. I think that reductivist phenomenon is very much at work -- seeing sex as monolithic and intended to only one primary end. Actually Scott Carson's response to my reflection, cited in the previous comment, is a good example of that reductionist approach, which, as I note, begs the question.

Anonymous said...

"I think murder is morally wrong. I do not do so on the basis that the Bible says it is wrong....Rather, I think murder is wrong because it violates the premises upon which I base my ethics: Love your neighbor as yourself, and Do to others as you would be done by. In short, I do not need to appeal to any of the apparatus of natural law to tell me I should not murder anyone, as it violates the law of loving reciprocity, a law which I accept not merely on the authority of the One who gave it, but because it appears to be rationally coherent."

Here you state that your standard is not derived from Biblical norms, but you then root your ethical base in a precept from Leviticus (blessed by Jesus as the "second-greatest" commandment) and the golden rule as articulated by Jesus. You say that you have no need of "natural law" concepts because of those precepts, and accept what you call the "law of loving reciprocity" partly on the basis of who gave it (part of the Biblical thing, which I think you said isn't sufficient) and because it's "coherent."

But surely "coherence" alone isn't sufficient to justify an ethical system. Most such systems are coherent--I don't know that Christian ethics are any more coherent than, say, those of the stoics, or Marxist ethics, or those of the Marquis de Sade. Internal inconsistency will make any system of ethics difficult to apply. But I don't think that it's sufficient to command adherence.

What is it exactly against which you measure ethical norms? How do you determine which obliges you to follow it and which should be shunned? Seems to me that if you accept that ethics are anything more than personal preference, a matter of individual "taste," you've already accepted that there is a law outside your desires, natural to human beings, as ethical creatures. How we define and parse that law is not an easy matter. But I don't see how you can say that it's something irrelevant to your own ethic.

You deride the possibility of a universal human moral sense, on the basis that there is no agreement, and that many people are wicked. But I don't see how that suffices. Surely the fact that we, as human beings, are endowed with the faculty of reason doesn't mean that we all reason equally well, or that we all care about reason, or cultivate or ignore reason equally, or have equally developed habits useful to or prejudicial to our use of reason, or may even be impaired in our exercise of it.

AS the logos of God it is certainly to be expected that Jesus' own teaching with respect to right and wrong will point to the correct use of that moral faculty with which all are endowed-- pagan, Christian, Buddhist, atheist--whoever. But I would not want to confine that teaching to two maxims, however useful such rules of thumb may be.

Love of neighbor and the rule of reciprocity are surely a very important part of the law given to us by God and the law that we can rightly discern written on our hearts, just be virtue of being human. But how exactly do they issue in your version of sexual ethics, and not in the traditional one? Does consent justify all sexual behaviors?

-rick allen

Tobias Haller said...

Rick, I seriously wonder sometimes if you really want to understand. Perhaps it is just that you are so wedded to natural law that you are incapable of conceiving any other possibility. I do not know. However, if you would stop the lawyerly search for irrelevant contradictions, and begin by dealing the the actual premises I advance, it would be helpful.

For example, in this particular comment you seek to highlight what you see as an inconsistency between my saying "I don't reject murder because the Bible says so..." and my reliance on the law of loving reciprocity that is, I admit, contained in the pages of the Bible. You get off into the irrelevancy of the status of Scripture, which I've already said isn't the issue. I don't accept the teachings of Jesus because they are in the Bible, the Written Word, but because they are the teachings of Jesus, the Living Word of God. The Bible is simply the means of transmission. I do not (nor do you) give equal weight to any number of other Biblical injunctions or admonitions -- nor does the Church. It isn't their being Biblical that commends them.

My reason for privileging the Law of Loving Reciprocity (particularly as embodied in the Golden Rule) is that I do think this is the law written upon the human heart. Where we differ is that I don't think it is "natural" -- rather it is supernatural, and is written by grace. It is also rationally coherent, in that I've never seen an argument against it that makes any sense. Both aspects are important.

Obviously rational coherence alone is insufficient for a moral system, divorced from anything else. There are many rationally coherent systems that have no morality at all. But you seem to be unable to understand the importance of the supernatural element in this: it is the Holy Spirit that ratifies the Golden Rule, not nature. The "moral sense" is not natural to people -- it must be received and cultivated. It is not, in short, a 'virtue' (in the sense of 'natural to the entity' but is rather a 'charism' -- a divinely bestowed gift; which, it is true, is given widely and not restricted only to the Children of Israel or to the Church, but to many, many others. But not, clearly, to all. There are some people who lack this charism. That is why it isn't "natural."

The law of loving reciprocity reflects the "ratio" of the Logos, as you suggest -- but it is not natural -- i.e., there by birth -- but rather by adoption, which God, in God's grace, can bestow where God wills by the Spirit. This to me is a robust and lively moral principle, beside which the irrational spinnings of "natural law" simply appear tautological and incoherent.

I can't put it any more bluntly than to say, "There is no natural law." (Maimonides takes that view.) There is no universal natural law written on the human heart "just by virtue of being human." It is just as absurd, to take your example, to say that human reason is universal. Do you believe that human beings incapable of reason are not human? This is the nonsensical part of your argument, which relies on exceptionalism or defect as a basic premise. Your build on what I can only call "universals with exceptions." That to me is incoherent and pointless. Where you posit a universal that some lack and others ignore, I posit a supernatural gift that is not bestowed on all, and imperfectly fulfilled even by all who possess it. (Unlike the law of gravity, or Carson's boiling water, it is so very off even to apply the term "law" to something so little observed!) So I take the approach that moral law is positive, not natural, which has the virtue of not requiring such exceptions. My system "covers the evidence"; yours doesn't. Perhaps we see here once again the difference between idealism and realism?

And yes, it is true, as you observe, that my system results in the sexual ethic which I advance rather than the one you advance, but without the requirement of exceptions. I begin to suspect that the only reason the incoherent natural law philosophy has endured is precisely because it appears to result in the "traditional" sexual ethic to which the Roman Church has wedded itself.

As to my system, it is not simply about "consent" -- I'm not sure where you got that! Although, as with the traditional teaching on sexual ethics, consent is clearly a part of the mix. But again, I can define consent within the constraints of "I would not want that done to me to which I do not consent, so I should not do that to others." But that is a purely negative view of the Golden Rule, which is actually based on a positive mandate to do to others, as one would be done by.

Part of the problem, then, is that it seems to me you are coming from a place of prohibitions -- your primary interest seems to be defending those traditional prohibitions rather than examining them to see if they can and do in fact fulfill the higher moral law, which is positive in both senses of the word. Because of this divergence of world views, I'm not sure you will ever grasp what I am getting at. Your comments a the other post follow the usual train of circular reasoning and reassertion; though you do raise a few interesting points about infertility and the role of parenting (though, as I noted in an earlier comment here, the avuncular role of the celibate or infertile non-parent is equally important; and the notion of parents being the best at child-rearing is a cultural adaptation, and only one of many such patterns. It is also quite plain that a good nanny is better than a bad parent; there is no abstract virtue in a parent raising his or her own child.)

Finally, on your final comments, ask yourself, Why was Jesus willing to use these maxims as the basis for his moral teaching, maxims which you appear to find insufficient, and want to treat as mere "rules of thumb." Who am I to believe, Jesus, or you?

Grandmère Mimi said...

But I would not want to confine that teaching to two maxims, however useful such rules of thumb may be.

Rick, if by the two maxims, you mean the Two Great Commandments given us by Our Lord Jesus Christ, Jesus himself said that the whole law and the prophets were contained therein.

To say that Jesus' teachings are derived from the natural law seems a diminishment of the Gospel. To me, the source of the teachings of Jesus is supernatural, a divine intervention and gift to the people of God.

I strive to live my life by those two maxims, with God's help. They're at the very heart and center of my practice of the Christian faith. I can't work out how you arrive at an ethics of personal preference from following the two commandments of Jesus. Sometimes, because of those commands, I act exactly opposite to my personal preference.

Anonymous said...

I am a little taken aback by this idea that the moral sense is not natural, but only a matter of special grace. It seems to me to presuppose such a thoroughgoing corruption of man's original goodness that it outstrips even Calvin in that regard.

"you are coming from a place of prohibitions"

I think ethics is largely a place of prohibitions. Look at the decalogue--do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do no bear false witness. Ethics is not the gospel--but it is presupposed by it. Jesus' positive command to love entails the prohibition of sinful, hurtful and harmful behavior.
And forgiveness is there whether we transgress the negative or positive commands.

" Why was Jesus willing to use these maxims as the basis for his moral teaching?"

Because they are true and helpful--but they are not his whole teaching, and, in epitomising the law and the prophets, they do thereby imply that the law and the prophets have some normative force. Yes, we "pick and choose," we have to interpret and weigh. But the particulars are not eliminated in the general, unless we want to do away with all but two verses.

"we now find ourselves beginning to grasp, two millennia on, that the difference between male and female is also irrelevant in Christ."

But it is obviously not irrelevant to the birth of children. Which is where we began.

(I don't mean to be so abrupt. Perhaps I should blame the format. I really do appreciate your articulating your position so well, and letting others do so at your own place. Hope all is going well with you.)

--rick allen

FranIAm said...

Fascinating thread, of course.

After reading this post, listening to a podcast interview with Greg Epstein and then some Alber Nolan, OP, I am stirred to do my own post on this topic.

Whether I will publish it on FranIam or my other blog, I don't know yet.

Thank you for providing such a stimulating forum and for your candor Tobias.

Tobias Haller said...

Dear Rick,

Thanks for the note. I am indeed well though a bit busy between plumbing work at the rectory and my other duties. Actually I had a meeting with a publisher today, who has expressed interest in publishing my series on sexuality as a book. If that happens, it will also include some of what I've learned from the comments on this blog.

So I am glad to provide a place for people to talk about these issues as I do learn something from the discussion; as I hope others do as well.

Briefly to address a couple of the points you raise in this note:

The idea of a fall from original goodness is not actually necessary, or the only possible reading of Genesis. The Eastern Church takes a rather different view than the Western Church does since Augustine articulated his doctrine of original sin and the fall. (Scripture never actually refers to a "fall" -- that is a later reading of the story.) I think it is quite possible to read the Genesis account as one of a fall "upwards" into consciousness of self and the other, from the primitive self-absorption of infancy (remember that Augustine used the infant as his analog for self-centered neediness, not as a symbol of goodness.) This leads to the first sin as the choice for the self rather than for God. (The first violation of Jesus' first part of the "great commandment.") Consequent to this "fall" to consciousness and choice of self-over-Gd is the price of loss of access to life, and the turning in and against of persons in relationship to one another. (Cain and Abel representing the first violation of the second half of the "great commandment.")

My point here is that Genesis is not a historical account but an allegorical explanation for the phenomenon of human selfishness. In one sense it is possible to see the acquisition of "knowledge" as the human beginning of consciousness of mortality, which comes with self-awareness. Note that the allegory does not describe immortality as being "natural" to humans but as a product of their being able to partake of the fruit of the tree of life, access to which they lost through their "rise" to consciousness of sin in the choice of self over God. The grace of Christ acts upon this capacity for self-consciousness to be turned towards the conscious choice of the other over the self, reversing the pattern of Eden, beginning with Mary, the new Eve. This process can be at work in all people regardless of their baptismal condition; it is a supernatural grace available to all, and actually at work in all. The only good any person ever does is a result of Christ at work in them. (Eph 3:20, Heb 13:21). Personally, I don't see this as a pessimistic position; nor need it be seen in terms of "corruption" but rather in evolutionary terms (under God's constant guidance) in the creation of creatures capable of consiousness, self-consciousness, and eventually other-consciousness. (This is key to the "genealogy of morals I keep talking about!)

The fact that Jesus gives us the Golden Rule as a summary of the law and the prophets, (Matt 7:12) does not mean that we disregard either the rest of his teaching or the law and the prophets themselves. But it does mean we use the Golden Rule as a lens through which to interpret the law and the prophets. For example, rather than using the somewhat artificial lens created at the Reformation --- that the ritual and ceremonial law no longer applies --- we look at the whole of the law and see those portions of it which are not in accord with the Golden Rule. Just to take one example off the top of my head, we no longer give parents the right to execute their disobedient children. This is clearly not a ritual or ceremonial matter. Similarly, we no longer permit people to hold slaves. And we challenge the internal logic of a law which punishes male same-sexuality with death but doesn't even mention female same-sexuality.

The other side of this of course is that the Golden Rule is expressed positively: it is about doing to others as one would be done by, not merely avoiding doing harm. This puts it in an entirely more helpful moral universe, as far as I'm concerned, and is where the "prophets" come in: for their interest is in justice and mercy, as active virtues beyond mere avoidance of wrong.

Finally as to your point about the difference between male and female not being irrelevant to childbirth. I have never suggested otherwise. The problem is, how do you move from the obvious fact that we agree upon --- sperm and egg are necessary for procreation, which is normally carried out through sexual intercourse between a man and a woman (but which can also be carried out in vitro) --- to the conclusions that, for example, in vitro fertilization is wrong, or same-sex relationships are wrong, or that birth control is wrong. This, for me, is the dilemma in nuce. It is a question of logic as much as of morality. What are the steps in this syllogism, and can you chart them out? To date, the only arguments I have seen on this matter fail on the grounds I've noted before, by introducing the conclusion as a premise. Can you come up with additional premises -- to which I will agree or which we can both acknowledge to be true -- by which you can lead me to your conclusion?

Have a good weekend.

Tobias Haller said...

Scott Carson has posted a response to my response to his response to this essay. I have posted this in response:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tobias Haller said...

An additional comment to Scott:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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