The Last Superstition: Pie in the Sky When You Die

Chapter 4: Heaven and whatnot

Continuing his exploration of “natural law”, Feser “reminds” us that

First of all, since knowing God is our highest end, our moral duties include, first and foremost, religious duties: duties to pursue knowledge of God, to honor Him as our Creator and the giver of the moral law, to teach our children to do the same, and so forth.

This is another of Feser’s non sequiturs: even if we accept that humans are supposed to know God, how does it follow that we’re supposed to worship it? The goal of nuclear physics is to thoroughly know the atom. Does that mean that physicists shoud worship it? Do literary scholars worship Shakespeare and Cervantes, and teach their children to do likewise? Feser hasn’t even demonstrated that God is intelligent, let alone that it wants or deserves honor or worship.

He then tells us that if you don’t think there’s an afterlife,

This life, in both its good and bad aspects, takes on an exaggerated importance. Worldly pleasures and projects become overvalued. Difficult moral obligations, which seem bearable in light of the prospect of an eternal reward, come to seem impossible to live up to when our horizons are this-worldly. Harms and injustices suffered in this life, patiently endured when one sees beyond it to the next life, suddenly become unendurable. This is one reason secularists are often totally obsessed with politics and prone to utopian fantasies. They do not see any hope for a world beyond this one

This fits well, I believe, with one of Karl Marx’s more famous quotations:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

But I think Greta Christina put it better than I could in “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?”:

If people believe they’ll be rewarded with infinite bliss in the afterlife — and there’s no way to prove whether or not that’s true — people will let themselves be martyrs to their faith, to an appalling degree. More commonly, if people believe in infinite bliss in the afterlife, they’ll be more willing to accept an appalling degree of oppression and injustice in this life. From anybody.

Oddly, this is often framed as a plus. “Religion gives people hope in hardship.” It gets presented as a feature, not a bug. But I fail to see how encouraging oppressed people to suck it up until they get pie in the sky is a good thing. (For the oppressed, anyway. Why it’s good for the oppressors is crystal clear.)

[Chapter 3, “Succumbing to political oppression”]

It’s also worth noting that Feser mentions “an eternal reward”, but nowhere has he attempted to justify this. He has argued that some ill-defined thing he calls a “soul” survives people’s death (perhaps in the same way that “triangularity” persists after you’ve erased an individual triangle), but nowhere does he argue that souls are conscious, or that the afterlife can be pleasant or unpleasant, or that this is in any way connected to a person’s actions in life. In other words, the word “reward” here slips in an awful lot of presuppositions through the back door, with no justification. This seems to be part of Feser’s modus operandi: start by making and defending a weak claim (e.g., there is something worth calling “soul” that persists after a person dies), digress for a few pages or chapters, then claim that he has successfully demonstrated a much stronger claim (souls are conscious and enjoy eternal bliss or suffering).

Series: The Last Superstition

The Last Superstition: No Kinky Sex!

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