Rowe Fisks Feser

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.

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Did you actually read what I wrote? I explicitly denied that the sexual organs have "no other purpose" than procreation, and I also explicitly denied that any use of those organs other than for procreation is unnatural. I also make a crucial distinction between different senses of "unnatural," a distinction you completely ignore here.

The point of the of the post was to clear up some common misunderstandings of what traditional natural law theory says. Your ill-informed response exhibits many of those very misconceptions. No doubt you would still not like the view that I describe there even if you correctly understood it, but you should at least know what you're talking about before rejecting it.

So here's a suggestion: Why don't you try reading something before you criticize it. That way you won't mislead your readers, and you might actually learn something yourself.

By Edward Feser (not verified) on 22 May 2005 #permalink

"The point of the of the post was to clear up some common misunderstandings..."

This is neither the point, nor the intent, of Feser's post. The 'misunderstandings' exist only if one assumes that Feser's axioms are valid, which they cannot be, due to their own inherent tautological fallacies. Positing sets of principles, that are then qualified, and necessarily ambiguously interpreted("I also make a crucial distinction between different senses of "unnatural"), then applying them to sets of human behaviors in order to derive a specific conclusion, amounts to nothing more or less than demanding that you would also be correct in stating that the square root of two is blue.

Reading Ed's post i kept arriving at the same conclusion in my head, repeating itself over and over. As i was framing a sentence for response, i then read Ed's last two lines, which succinctly, and as usual, more clearly stated my very thoughts. Thanks Ed.

Yes, I read your essay. And I know that you say that you've addressed these arguments and shown them to be misconceptions, but the logic of the arguments you make proves otherwise. I pointed out the specific arguments you make and why they contradict that claim; you didn't bother to address them at all in your reply. In particular, your analogy for the different meanings of "unnatural", in which you declare that even occasional use of birth control is analogous to ripping one's teeth out so they can't be used for their intended function, argues against your position, not for it. Merely pointing out that you denied the arguments I made before I made them, without bothering to address the substance of why your reasoning in rejecting even short term or occasional use of birth control is inconsistent with those declarations, is meaningless.

In his comment above, Feser writes that "The point of the of the post was to clear up some common misunderstandings of what traditional natural law theory says." Yet in his original post at Right Reason he said that his aim was ALSO to show that his version of natural law "is at least a coherent theory."

Yet it is clearly NOT a coherent theory, at least in the sense that accepting Feser's stated premises leads inevitably to his stated conclusions. One can very easily accept his premises yet come to conclusions that are just as plausible yet diametrically opposed.

Let us accept Feser's premises about form, teleology, etc. Let us also accept that something can have more than one intended purpose--somethin Feser admits when he says the penis is designed for both procreation and urination. (I should point out here that despite this admission Feser's language suggests that he doesn't really believe it. He consistently uses singular pronouns and articles in reference to purpose, as if things typically have a SINGLE purpose--an utterly unwarranted assumption, and one that deeply colors his beliefs.)

Let us assume in particular the idea that real world objects, whether squirrels or human beings, are more or less imperfect instantiations of platonic Forms. Let us assume further that, for human beings at least, morality consists primarily of acting in ways that further, or at least do not frustrate, the ends implicit in these Forms.

But wait. Is there really just a single "human" Form? Or are there in fact two human ideals, one male and one female? A fair reading of a broad swath of conservative thinking would suggest the latter: there is Man, and there is Woman, and a man's moral duty is to strive to realize the formal essence of Man, and a woman's moral duty is to strive to realize the formal essence of Woman. (Of course, I don't believe this crap myself--I'm just trying to work with Feser's natural law premises.)

But again, wait. If there is not one common Human, but rather two forms of humans, why not more? Who's to say that we should not in fact be speaking, not of Man and Woman, but of Heterosexual Man and Heterosexual Woman, in order to distinguish them from those other forms, Gay Man and Lesbian?

Perhaps the essence of Gay Man is different from that of Heterosexual Man, and the essence of Lesbian different from that of Heterosexual Woman, just as the essence of Man differs from that of Woman. If so--and Feser has given us absolutely no reason why it might not be so--then it stands to reason that Gay Man and Lesbian--as well as those naughty organs, Gay Penis and Lesbian Clitoris--have been designed by their Creator toward rather different ends than Heterosexual Man and Heterosexual Woman. Who can say? Perhaps Feser can read the Mind of God, or perhaps the Pope can, but I cannot, and anyway I'm trying to proceed on the basis of reason rather than revelation.

If Gay Man and Lesbian are Forms of their own, then natural law tells us that the moral thing for gays and lesbians to do is to strive to realize their essence qua Gays and Lesbians. The immoral thing for them to do would be to frustrate that realization. BTW, that applies to straights as well--including, I will assume, Feser. It is immoral for Feser or anyone else to deliberately frustrate the ability of gays and lesbians to realize their essence as Gays and Lesbians.

I don't necessarily expect to see Feser marching in a gay pride parade, but it would certainly be immoral for him to actively frustrate gay and lesbian efforts to realize their full potential as gays and lesbians--say, by opposing gay marriage. Feser might not like this conclusion, but hey--it's not my fault his theory is so incoherent.

At this point Feser might interject that the homosexual is not a Form of its own but rather a defective version of Man. He's free to do that, but if he does so he is not using natural law to prove the defectiveness of the homosexual; rather he is building that defectiveness into his theory as one of its unstated premises. The inferiority of the homosexual would not then be based on reason, and certainly not "right" reason; it would be plain bias.

My purpose thus far has been to show that one can start from Feser's premises and reach conclusions just as plausible as, yet diametrically opposed to, his own. In that sense he is wrong to claim that his theory is consistent.

There is also, of course, the question of the truth of natural law's premises. Feser illustrates one of those premises with the example of a squirrel. There is such a thing, we are told, as an ideal Squirrel, and the squirrelness of every actual squirrel is something it has "by virtue of participating in its form." Is this idea consistent with evolutionary fact? It's hard to see how it could be. Plato and Aquinas both adhered to the idea of Forms as timeless essences, which is pretty hard to square with the evolutionary fact that "squirrelness" is not eternal but historically contingent, in fact accidental. Are there a multiplicity of Forms out there that were instantiated by the squirrel's evolutionary forebears, but are now "empty," as it were? Are there a multiplicity of other Forms biding their time out there in the ether, waiting on the vanishingly slim chance that they might find themselves instantiated by one of the squirrel's evolutionary descendants, whatever it might be? I doubt that even Aristotle could reconcile natural law with the fact of evolution. Given his empirical turn of mind, it is far more likely he'd change his mind and line up with Darwin.

In summary, natural law is founded on false premises and is internally incoherent to boot. Other than that it's not a bad theory.


This is my first encounter with "Natural Law." The way I understand it, it's OK to have sex with a woman who "happens" to be pregnant or infertile. It's only when one takes positive action to prevent pregnancy by usng a contraceptive that it's "illicit."


I thought it was coherent in a simple minded sort of way. Wrong, but coherent. Who defines the ideal squirrel? Aye, there's the rub.

I left Feser this comment,

"Very enlightening presentation of Nature Law Theory. It's in a squirrel's nature to run up trees and gather acorns. Yet this seems a lot like instinct to me. We have the instinct to eat and have sex. Yet strictly following our nature could cause us to overeat or over procreate, either of which could have negative consequences. We would do well to counter our nature in these cases, to eat less and use contraceptives to ensure that we have no more children than we are able to raise. Call it common sense, but that's what my moral system would tell me to do."

"...after all, we use the very same penis to urinate with..."

Speak for yourself! :)

That reminds me of a Kids in the Hall sketch of a 12 step program for men trying to overcome the daily habit of going to the bathroom. Willpower, friends!

I could expound at length--and would, if I had the time--but I'll merely point out that so-called "natural law" is a religious concept, not a scientific one. It is nothing more than a subterfuge that the Roman Catholic Church used to fool the rubes.

I don't agree with some of what is here, but an excellent discussion of so-called "natural law" is at What is the myth of "Natural Law"?

I'll also point out that, if sex was "designed" for only procreative "purposes," after the wife goes through menopause, straight men should not be having sex with their wives. I've noted that on a number of message boards over the last decade. It's interesting that nobody picked up on the message.

Let's cut to the chase. Other primate species use sex--including homosex--to establish and maintain relationships within a clan or a tribe. Not just for procreative purposes. This "natural law" "procreative purpose" silliness regarding sex is nothing more than another ex post facto excuse to demonize homosex. To suggest otherwise is ludicrous.

The Natural Law concept seems so foolish to me. It's too much like (survival) instincts. Don't we spend time growing up learning to curb our instincts as we become more socialized? We're trying to replace the "Law of the Jungle" with a more civilized approach, moderate are propencity to precreate and so on. There's nothing moral about discouraging the use of comdoms in Africa.

In a response to a comment at his own blog, Feser tried to clarify a point of natural law by writing that "my knee is made for allowing my leg to bend, but if I use it to hold a picture up while I'm hanging it, that's not unnatural -- it involves using my knee 'other than' for its natural purpose (since knees aren't made for holding up pictures) but not 'contrary to' its natural purpose (there's nothing in the act of resting a picture on my knee that frustrates the purpose of the knee)."

Let's pursue the analogy. Tonight a man could use his penis (cloaked with a condom, despite its protests) to pleasure his lil' sweetypie and himself. Given that tomorrow night he can do the same thing, without the condom, and impregnate the ol' gal, how can it be that the first act "frustrates" the second one? My parents used contraception and somehow still managed to have six children--they simply had them WHEN they wanted to have them. An act of contracepted sex no more frustrates a subsequent act of uncontracepted sex than balancing a picture on my knee one moment prevents me from bending my knee the next.

A couple could use contraception in even-numbered years, produce a child in odd-numbered years, and before the wife was thirty could wind up with a big enough brood to make even Pope Benedict proud.

Feser's conception of natural law might a bit more sensibly ground an objection to couples choosing not to have any children, or not to have lots of children, but it cannot sensibly ground an objection to uncontracepted sex per se, since it's an empirical fact that the use of contraception is entirely compatible with producing lots of children.

On another note, I notice that Feser wrote that it is immoral to commit evil in order to do good. On this point I agree with him--but I'm just wondering: has he read the Book of Joshua? What does he make of the way that the Israelites, at God's behest, slaughter all those thousands of Canaanite women and children? Is that kind of slaughter moral? Or is God immoral? Or does an action that would otherwise be immoral become moral when God commands it?

My own answer to the issue raised by these questions is that the mass slaughter of defenseless noncombatants is inherently evil, and that God could not have commanded such a thing, and that therefore the Bible, in presenting such slaughter as it does, without moral comment, is lying to us and hence an unreliable source of moral authority. Conservative appeals to both biblical authority and natural law are both failures--but when conservatives are looking for an excuse to hate people like me, such appeals sure do come in handy!

(This is a slightly edited version of a post I made at Feser's Right Reason site.)

David Mazel wrote:

In a response to a comment at his own blog, Feser tried to clarify a point of natural law by writing that "my knee is made for allowing my leg to bend, but if I use it to hold a picture up while I'm hanging it, that's not unnatural -- it involves using my knee 'other than' for its natural purpose (since knees aren't made for holding up pictures) but not 'contrary to' its natural purpose (there's nothing in the act of resting a picture on my knee that frustrates the purpose of the knee)."
Let's pursue the analogy. Tonight a man could use his penis (cloaked with a condom, despite its protests) to pleasure his lil' sweetypie and himself. Given that tomorrow night he can do the same thing, without the condom, and impregnate the ol' gal, how can it be that the first act "frustrates" the second one?

That is exactly the problem. While he says that he doesn't believe that any use other than for intended purpose is unnatural, his opposition to even short term contraception use shows that his statement is insincere. In order to object to short term use of contraception to control the timing of pregnancy, he must take the position that using sex for any purpose other than reproduction even one single time is "unnatural". That's why I said to him that merely declaring that he takes position X matters not when the logic of his position requires that position X be false. And his absurd analogy proves my point.

Let's cut to the chase. Other primate species use sex--including homosex--to establish and maintain relationships within a clan or a tribe.

In fact, I have read that in certain primate species, bisexual females are highly sought-after by males as mates, because the children of bisexual females have a better chance of survival. It turns out that in times of food scarcity, bisexual females share food with the children of their female partners - likely because of the non-familial sexual relationship in which they are engaged. Thus bisexuality goes from being "contrary to" the function of the genitals to quite potentially a designed use of the genitals.

E.g., even if one agrees with the "contrary to" logic, one need not agree that the short list of activities to which Feser might restrict the use of the genitals is exhaustive.

"Let's cut to the chase. Other primate species use sex--including homosex--to establish and maintain relationships within a clan or a tribe. Not just for procreative purposes."

Indeed our closest relatives, the pygmy chimpanzees (otherwise known as bonobos), use (hetero and homo) sex as the primary means of conflict resolution. This has no bearing whatsoever on human sexual morality, of course, unless you subscribe to some ludicrous "natural law" theory.

I'm interested to know Mr Feser's take on the moral status of appendix removal.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 23 May 2005 #permalink

One could go on and on demonstrating the problems with natural law theory--its internal incoherence and its problems with empirical facts--bit I'd like to point up a larger problem with such religion-based theories: the difficulty they have in assimilating new knowledge and perspectives.

Natural law theory could be plausible in ancient and medieval societies, or in any situation where new facts are not popping up all the time and where differing perspectives are effectively silenced. But once you analyze something like natural law theory in light of facts produced by science and the testimony of women, gay people, etc., they simply fall apart.

And when they do start falling apart, those who are committed to them for religious reasons--who see them as grounded in absolute, timeless Truth--are compelled to construct increasingly ludicrous defenses. (What? Evolution has no telos? Well, natural law is STILL valid, because.... What? Same-sex coupling is widely observed among nonhuman primates, and serves an obvious purpose? Well, natural law is STILL true, because, um, er--let me get back to you after I jerry-rig some counter-argument....)

Some churches respond by denying the facts AND suppressing the competing perspectives--e.g., fundamentalist Christianity, Islam, Hinduism. Others try to assimilate the facts while somehow rendering them moot, which can only be done by continuing to suppress the competing perspectives--e.g., the Catholic Church. Still others try to assimilate both the facts and the perspectives--these of course are the liberal denominations--but in doing so lose many of the characteristics that draw people to religion in the first place.

Hence the intellectual bankruptcy of Answers in Genesis, Opus Dei, etc., and the declining fortunes of the liberal churches.

Indeed our closest relatives, the pygmy chimpanzees (otherwise known as bonobos), use (hetero and homo) sex as the primary means of conflict resolution.

That was exactly what I was referring to.

Oh, and, by the way, I wonder what Mr Feser would suggest that presumed heterosexual males are going to do during the long (9 month) gestation period for the young. No sex? With anyone?

I hate to be mean, but, at some point it becomes--silly. I'll admit it. I'm gay. I have never had sex with a woman, and I never will. The closest my sperm will come to an egg is through IVF. I don't have the slightest idea about female sexual response. I really don't.

But it strains credulity to believe that a male is supposed to eschew sexual relations with someone during the 9 month gestation period after he impregnates his wife. It really does.

I hate to tell you, but, at some point someone should call "silly" for what it is: silly.

' the declining fortunes of the liberal churches'

I hear this alot but many of the nondenominational's are booming.

But really why do people seek to suppress sex so much, seems to me if people had more of it they would be far less hostile.

Yes some avenues of it carry risk, but by and large it is peaceful and enjoyable. I doubt the world would be worse of with more masturbation.

Which by the way is very normal and has been witnessed in all primate species.

From reading the above, i wish only to add one small other inconvenient matter. Feser's structural matrix of principles seems to require that all members of his "humans" are for the most part euro-americans. The history of Hindu and Buddhist tantric practices and yogas certainly would seem to indicate that within human beings there is a much "higher" purpose to sexual activity that reproduction. I mention this because most of Feser's supporters will deny that there are any evolutionary links to our closest genetic primate cousins.

Let me be Marx to Feser's Hegel. An objective examination of physiology, supported by the observed behavior of our nearest relatives, reveals that the primary purpose of the genitalia is social. They give pleasure and are the mediuum of essential social interactions. Procreation is an incidental product of this primary purpose. I might add, if I believed in design, that it was very cunning of the designer to set things up this way.

Just wondering. Where is Mr. Feser to defend his thesis?

I'm simply concerned that Mr. Feser has been peeing out of his mouth.