Chapter 4: Natural law
We now get to the section on “natural law” morality, which Feser begins by telling us that New Atheists and secularists hate “traditional morality”, by which he means homophobia, and insinuates that Richard Dawkins is, if not a pedophile, then at least an apologist for pedophilia.
He starts by going back to final causes, applied to organs: eyes are for seeing. And it’s not wrong to wear glasses, if you need them, because they help you to see, and seeing is what eyes are for.
He tries to preempt the “being gay is natural, and has a genetic component” argument by comparing homosexuality to having a clubfoot or a predisposition to alcoholism: harmful genetic defects that impart no blame to the victim, but also conditions that we are expected not to wish for:
Even amid the depravity of modern civilization, most people realize that the life of an alcoholic is simply not a good thing, even if the alcoholic himself thinks it is and even if he “doesn’t hurt anybody else.” We know in our bones that there is something ignoble and unfitting about it. […] We all know in our bones that someone obsessed with masturbating to pictures of naked toddlers is sick, and not living the way a human being ought to live [p. 134]
If you’ve spent any time discussing gay rights, you know how this dance goes: pedophiles are icky and bad, zoophiliacs are icky and bad, necrophiliacs are icky and bad. So what about gay people? Well, homosexuality is defined by buttsex, which is icky and thus, by induction, bad. To which the obvious rejoinder is that if you don’t like buttsex, don’t engage in it.
Feser tackles this argument thusly:
Now I realize, of course, that many readers will acknowledge that we do in fact have these reactions, but would nevertheless write them off as mere reactions. “Our tendency to find something personally disgusting,” they will sniff, “doesn’t show that there is anything objectively wrong with it.” This is the sort of stupidity-masquerading-as-insight that absolutely pervades modern intellectual life, and it has the same source as so many other contemporary intellectual pathologies: the abandonment of the classical realism of the great Greek and Scholastic philosophers, and especially of Aristotle’s doctrine of the four causes. [p. 135]
In other words, homosexuality and any other icky sex is immoral because of the ick factor, and the ick factor is a reliable guide to morality because Aristotle, even if you fools are too foolish to recognize his brilliance.
Feser then explains, at length, that living beings have an essence, and conforming to this essence helps them to live in a way that promotes health and well-being. Sex was designed for reproduction, and “Mother Nature very obviously wants us to have babies, and lots of them [p. 142]”, and it’s immoral to choose to go against what nature wants.
Now if there really are Aristotelian natures, essences, final causes, etc., then the lesson of all this for sexual morality should be obvious. Since the final cause of human sexual capacities is procreation, what is good for human beings in the use of those capacities is to use them only in a way consistent with this final cause or purpose. This is a necessary truth; for the good for us is defined by our nature and the final causes of its various elements. It cannot possibly be good for us to use them in any other way, whether an individual person thinks it is or not, any more than it can possibly be good for an alcoholic to indulge his taste for excessive drink or the mutant squirrel of our earlier example to indulge his taste for Colgate toothpaste.
This comes across as a variation on the naturalistic fallacy (which, it amuses me to note, is often used by crunchy-granola hippie types whom Feser would, I’m sure, abhor), combined with condescension, with Feser in the role of the parent telling his child, “No, you can’t eat the entire bag of cookies. You may not realize it, but it’s bad for you. Trust me.”
Unfortunately, he fails to explain why the sorts of sex acts he doesn’t like are bad for you. He just says that they’re not in line with what nature intended. He also repeats his earlier mistake, of thinking that there are only two possibilities: either everything has an Aristotelian final cause, or nothing does.
But lest you think that he’s simply a prude who doesn’t want anyone having fun in bed, he magnanimously concedes that there’s more to sex than merely delivering sperm to a vagina;
All sorts of lovemaking might precede this. It does mean, though, that every sexual act has as its natural culmination [dare I say “climax”? — arensb], its proximate final cause, ejaculation into the vagina, and that the man and woman involved in such an act cannot act in a way to prevent this result, nor act to prevent the overall process from having conception as an outcome, whether or not that outcome is what they have in mind in performing the act, and whether or not that outcome would be likely to occur anyway even in the absence of their interference. It also means, partly for reasons evident from the foregoing, that they may indulge in this act, in a way that is consistent with its procreative final cause or natural end (understood in the broad sense of not only generating children but also rearing them, with the need for stability that that entails), only if they are married to one another.
In other words, blowjobs are immoral. Hand jobs are immoral. Frottage is immoral. Hell, go to your favorite porn site, click on “categories”, and cross out everything except “creampie”.
Feser’s moral code is remarkable in that it seems to take little or no account of what a person wants; it places a fairly low value on personal freedom. You shouldn’t use your sex organs just for fun because someone else designed them for reproduction:
Nature has set for us certain ends, and the natural law enjoins on us the pursuit of those end. [p. 147]
It’s also remarkable how many hoops he’s willing to jump through to justify doing the things he likes, while condemning the things he doesn’t like: on one hand, he considers slavery to be immoral, as we all do. But Aristotle, on whose ideas he basis his moral system, endorsed “natural slavery”. He gerrymanders his way out of this dilemma the same way that so many apologists do, by saying that slavery as endorsed by Aristotle (or Old Testament Hebrews, in the case of other apologists) was very different from that practiced in the antebellum south. In other words, it’s not intrinsically wrong to own another human being as property; it’s just that Americans did it wrong. (See p. 147 and endnote 9.) Ditto polygamy, which permeates the Bible, on p. 151.
If the penis is meant for ejaculation, and you’re only supposed to use organs for their intended use, then that would make peeing immoral. He gets around this by saying that the penis is designed for both ejaculation and urination, and that it’s only immoral to act against one of these functions (for instance, I’m guessing, by having a vasectomy). But then, that would imply that it’s not immoral to, say, have oral, non-procreative sex with your partner, as long as you retain the ability to have procreative sex at some other time. (I’m guessing that similar reasoning allows him to use his ears and nose to hold up his glasses without having to say penance.)
It’s also not immoral, he tells us (p. 148) for a sterile couple to marry, as long as their sex always ends with semen in a vagina. And no kinky stuff!
Finally, we get to his opinion on gay marriage:
The $64 question in recent years, of course, is: “Does natural law theory entail that homosexuals can’t marry?” […] they can marry someone of the opposite sex. What they can’t do is marry each other, no more than a heterosexual could marry someone of the same sex, and no more than a person could “marry” a goldfish, or a can of motor oil, or his own left foot. For the metaphysics underlying natural law theory entails that marriage is, not by human definition, but as an objective metaphysical fact determined by its final cause, inherently procreative, and thus inherently heterosexual. There is no such thing as “same-sex marriage” any more than there are round squares. Indeed, there is really no such thing as “sex” outside the context of sexual intercourse between a man and woman. Sodomy (whether homosexual or heterosexual) no more counts as “sex” than puking up a Quarter Pounder counts as eating; […] For if “same-sex marriage” is not contrary to nature, than [sic] nothing is; [p. 149]
In other words, reproduction involves sex, so Feser decrees that nothing you do with your genitals aside from trying to conceive counts as sex, and further defines marriage as being for sex. And this definition must on no account be changed! In short, Feser has come up with a rationale to pretend that his prejudices and opinions are objective facts.
There’s a bright side to the above: if nothing other than semen-in-vagina counts as sex, and if pornography is a depiction of sex acts, then nothing outside of the aforementioned “Creampie” category counts as sex, and whatever you masturbate to ouside of that category isn’t pornography.
Series: The Last Superstition