Jon Rowe has a fairly good fisking of a post by Ed Feser on the alleged “unnatural” nature of any sexual act that is not intended for procreation. I think he gives Feser too much credit for coherency, though. Feser’s argument is not terribly coherent. Here is Feser’s argument in a nutshell: the sexual organs were designed specifically for the purpose of procreation and for no other purpose. Hence, any use of the genitals for any purpose other than procreation is “unnatural”, not merely in the sense of being used for something other than its intended purpose, but in the far stronger sense of being used for something contrary to its intended purpose. He actually makes the argument that having sex for any purpose other than procreation is not only contrary to the intended purpose for which it was created, but that it destroys the legitimate use of sex for its intended purpose:
It must also be emphasized that, contrary to another common misunderstanding, “unnatural” in the context of the view I’m describing does not mean “using something other than for its natural purpose.” It means “using it in a manner contrary to its natural purpose.” To borrow an example from Michael Levin, there is nothing unnatural about merely tapping out a little song on your teeth, even if that’s not what teeth are for. But there is something unnatural about painting little pictures on your teeth and then refusing ever to eat again lest the pictures be rubbed off, or pulling them out so as to make a necklace out of them. The former sort of act does not frustrate the natural end of teeth, but the latter acts do. And part of the idea in the traditional natural law understanding of the sexual act is that ejaculating into a Kleenex, or a condom, or into any bodily orifice other than a vagina, doesn’t just involve using an organ other than for its natural purpose (which is not necessarily “unnatural”) but that it uses it in a manner contrary to its natural purpose. For the “aim” or point of arousal and ejaculation, if they have an aim or point at all, is to get semen into a vagina, and the acts just described frustrate that aim.
It’s not hard to see why this is nonsense. First, because one can use birth control at some times and not at others, just as one can tap out a song on one’s teeth and still use them to eat later. His analogy is not only flawed, it proves the reverse of what he intends. Second, because we know that organs can have more than one purpose – after all, we use the very same penis to urinate with – so merely pointing out an intended purpose does not rule out using the same tool for something else in addition to its normal usage. A screwdriver is designed for turning screws, but it can also function as a small pry bar at times. Third, because taken merely one more logical step one would have to conclude that all sex by those who are infertile or past childbearing age is “unnatural” and therefore wrong. Would Feser seriously argue that a woman who was made infertile as a result of, say, cervical cancer could never have sex again because it would be “unnatural”? If he’s consistent, he would. But I doubt he’s really that consistent; the point of this exercise in faulty logic is to construct an argument for why homosexuaity is unnatural and wrong, and logical consistency be damned. Feser’s attempt to answer this argument is quite weak:
And I also hasten to add, for those readers who might be led into another common misunderstanding, that this does not entail that infertile spouses can never have sexual intercourse, or even that you could never legitimately marry someone you knew to be infertile. For in neither case are you actually doing anything that positively frustrates any natural functions — it just so happens that for independent reasons outside your control, those functions can’t in fact be fulfilled.
But remember that his argument against contraception requires that any instance of having sex for a non-procreative purpose is not just inconsistent with its natural purpose, but contrary to it. A couple who uses birth control for a few years so that they can have children when they’re older and more prepared financially and emotionally for the task of raising them is just as guilty, by his reasoning, of using sex for a purpose contrary to the correct purpose, and destructive of it, not merely inconsistent with it. The reasoning for his opposition to even short term use of birth control requires that one must risk conception each and every time they have sex and that to do otherwise destroys the intended purpose of sex. It requires that procreation be the only legitimate use of the sex organs, and that logically must rule out sex by the infertile and the post-menopausal. Because if he’s going to admit that one can legitimately have sex without risk of procreation, his principled opposition to short term use of birth control crumbles.
Our old friend Frank Beckwith actually has a pretty good response to Feser when he says:
But let me raise a question concerning the natural purpose of sex organs. Could not someone say that they have two intrinsic purposes–one flesh communion and procreation? Thus, contraception, in fact, enhances the intrinsic purpose of one-flesh communion by allowing married couples to engage in conjugal acts that nurture intimacy and shared devotion. Surely, the procreative function is stymied, but it is stymied for the sake of the organs’ other goods. So, perhaps, we can think of justifying contraception–along natural law lines–on the ground of the principle of double-effect: there are both good and bad results, but the good outweighs the bad and the intent of the actors is to will the good.
I quite agree with him. Even if one accepts the Thomistic premise of Feser’s argument, one need not reject the notion that sex has another function quite apart from procreation, which is that it both creates and expresses intimacy in a relationship. Those who are infertile do not stop having sex because procreation simply isn’t the only function of sex. And that’s without even mentioning the fact that sex is enjoyable, which can be argued as a purpose in and of itself (we do lots of things solely for enjoyment, and there’s nothing wrong with that in most cases).
Max Goss, in replying to Beckwith, pretty much gives up the game when his very first argument against his position is that “it would justify sodomy.” Goss doesn’t argue that his position is wrong, he only argues that his position would lead to a conclusion that he does not want to affirm – and therefore must be wrong. That’s as clear an admission as one could hope for that the entire exercise is disingenuous. They aren’t really looking for a coherent and consistent natural law position on the matter, they’re merely looking to justify their rejection of homosexuality, contraception and non-procreative sex.