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The Natural Law and Sex

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 16, 2012

Let’s suppose you want to construct an effective case for confining sexual relations to lifelong marriage between one man and one woman, in which each marital act is open to both life and love. You might turn directly to official Catholic teaching, but not unless your intended audience considers official Catholic teaching authoritative. Failing that, you would probably turn to the natural law, even though the natural law is out of fashion nowadays. Your presupposition would be that all men and women are inescapably part of nature even if they are not all Roman Catholics. You would reason that an appeal to principles derived from nature should have at least a chance of resonating with your audience.

But there are further questions. In making this appeal, would you primarily emphasize the general values we all ought to follow and then apply them to sex, or would you emphasize the specific moral demands which arise from the design of our sexual powers? Moreover, arguing at the natural level, would you try to establish the purposes you ascribe to nature with or without at least a rudimentary recognition of God?

These questions are both raised and answered differently in two new books which attempt to define optimum sexual relations according to the natural law. Though both are copyrighted this year, Fr. John J. Piderit’s Sexual Morality: A Natural Law Approach to Intimate Relationships actually appeared late in 2011, from Oxford University Press. J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex appeared in February of this year, from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Framing the Argument

Fr. Piderit is a Jesuit priest, formerly the President of Loyola University in Chicago, and currently president of the Catholic Education Institute. His view of the natural law is strongly influenced by thinkers such as John Finnis and Germain Grisez, who in the last century articulated a new approach to the natural law based on an understanding of the key incommensurable goods which ought to motivate human behavior. Though the exact enumeration of these goods can vary somewhat from thinker to thinker, Fr. Piderit identifies seven “fundamental values” which “we know by experience and reflection” to belong to “the heart of what it means to be human…. In the end, the values that humans call fundamental have to correspond to our being, the way we are made, the way we are constituted, in part by our DNA” (77).

For Fr. Piderit, these values are: life, knowledge, beauty, friendship, playfulness, religion, and practical reasonableness. These fundamental values reflect who we are and point to the goods which we must pursue if we are to be true to our own nature. Morality is determined by our response to these values and, in particular, we act both immorally and destructively when we ignore or deny these values in our decisions and actions.

I am convinced that it is morally important to reflect on these values, to consider how they reflect deep truths about the human person, and to be sensitive to their role in the goals we set for ourselves and the actions we perform. But I am equally convinced that there is a problem with the fundamental values approach to the natural law. Yes, it is possible to write persuasive explanations of how the values are to be discerned and weighed in coming to a decision about whether or not a particular action (say, sexual relations outside marriage or contraception) is humanly desirable, or moral, or good. But again and again when one reads a particular author’s reconstruction of this evaluative process, one cannot help entertaining the suspicion that the writer could not have arranged his arguments in precisely the way he did unless he already knew the answer to the moral question he was addressing.

We distinguish two things here: First, there is the importance of reflecting on goods and values for our own growth in moral understanding; second, there is the need to arrive at definite conclusions about the morality of particular acts. The former is generalized and, at some level, inescapably subjective. The latter requires unerring traction where the rubber meets the road. The two, in other words, are not the same.

The form of natural law argument J. Budziszewski uses does not lead to this dilemma. Starting from an older, more traditional view of natural law, Budziszewski seeks to provide his moral answers by simply explaining, as his title forthrightly indicates, “the meaning of sex.” Budziszewski, a convert to Catholicism, is a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas and the author of several works based on the natural law, most notably What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (see my review in 2011, The Natural Law). His trademark is to come at human capacities and powers directly, figure out from their design what they signify in terms of purposes and ends, and draw moral conclusions accordingly.

I have enormous respect and appreciation for what Fr. Piderit has done in Sexual Morality. But I believe Budziszewski has chosen the better and more fruitful approach to explicating the natural law.

True to Values, True to Self

One interesting way this difference works itself out is seen in how each author argues for specific moral behavior. Having established the key human goods or values early in his book, Fr. Piderit goes on to explain a number of moral decisions which are either conducive to human flourishing or corrosive of it. He covers drinking and drugs, sexual activity outside of marriage, social norms for the young, marriage, cohabitation, contraception and having children, sexual variations, unnatural interests and same-sex orientation. He explains his positions through reasonable applications of the value structures he has established; all of his conclusions accord with Catholic moral teaching.

I have already said this is valuable but, once again, I do not believe for a moment that Fr. Piderit has unerringly chosen the correct answer to each moral quandary without adverting to moral data he already possesses from other sources. In addition, there is, perhaps, reflected in these explanations one of the thorny problems of values clarification. It really is important to reflect on, clarify, and consistently implement our values. But being true to our values is not quite the same thing as being true to ourselves. Our values may be incorrect and, in any case, they are already abstracted at least one step from ourselves. It is very hard to unerringly implement an abstract value system without employing other forms of moral reasoning.

Once again, as good as Fr. Piderit’s message is, J. Budziszewski’s message is even better. We must, according to Budziszewski, be true to ourselves quite literally and directly, true to how we are made, how we are constituted as persons, how we are designed. At the level of nature, we do not want to behave sexually one way rather than another primarily because values x, y and z have been demonstrated to be fundamental human values applicable to all men and women, but rather because I myself, as a human person, am made a certain way, designed for the fulfillment of my natural powers in a certain way, destined for happiness in a certain way, all of which is intelligible upon close examination. Therefore, in the natural order, right behavior derives not from an external standard but from an internal reality. I must understand myself deeply so that I can be true to myself rightly.

There are, of course, dangers everywhere. For example, all persons are flawed. Therefore, to know myself deeply, I must also know human nature generally, for otherwise I might confuse my flaws with my design, whereas self-knowledge must obviously apprehend flaws. Fr. Piderit would argue that the seven values are in fact derived from a proper understanding of the nature and ends of man. As such they can help prevent moral analysis from degenerating into mere solipsism. This at least points to a danger which must be avoided. But I am more interested here in highlighting a difference in methodology and emphasis which enables one author to speak more decisively, directly and concretely to our inner identity than another. And this difference is evident in the structure, content and style of both books.

Fr. Piderit proceeds with sequential moral analysis based on fundamental goods or values, but he immediately perceives that this creates a classic problem of abstraction, which is a tendency toward dullness. Consequently, he alternates his analytical chapters with chapters detailing the ongoing tensions and discussions between two fictitious characters, a young couple possibly headed toward marriage, Dave and Maria. This helps keep interest from flagging, adding a personal element to each stage in the development and application of the moral theory.

It also makes the book longer. Moreover, because Fr. Piderit uses his technique to address a large number of subsidiary questions about intimate relationships one after the other, the book lends itself to becoming the base text for an undergraduate seminar either on sexual relations or on this particular approach to the natural law. However, interesting as the book often is—and even as compelling as its subject matter may be to many young adults—I suspect few people will read the whole work for sheer enrichment, unless they are pushed just a bit for other reasons.

Budziszewski’s book is tighter and more focused, yet it reaches farther at the same time. In comparison with Fr. Piderit’s thirty-three chapters, Budziszewski offers just seven, and the titles of the first six come at the reader like arrows from the same quiver:

  1. Does Sex Have to Mean Something?
  2. The Meaning of the Sexual Powers
  3. The Meaning of Sexual Differences
  4. The Meaning of Sexual Love
  5. The Meaning of Sexual Beauty
  6. The Meaning of Sexual Purity

I’ll hold off on the seventh chapter for the moment, but you can see the intensity here, the determination to explore our very nature to get at the heart of these important things. And Budziszewski uses anything and everything—what we all know about ourselves, insights from biology and other sciences, suggestions from literature and various wisdom traditions, universal personal experience, discussions with past students, cultural history—whatever will enable him to shed more light on what he wants to explain about how the human person is designed, and how men and women are designed differently within the human mode, so that we can understand the meaning of sex.

It turns out that I was slightly surprised by this eclecticism in Budziszewski’s approach. Where, I wondered at first, was the more systematically straightforward philosophical argument of What We Can’t Not Know? But then I realized that it would not have worked to write this book in a more formal philosophical manner, for we do not ordinarily perceive our own deepest nature and meaning through philosophical argument. As I have argued in several other places, the human person is designed to see reality whole, yet he can and does constantly use different types of information from different sources to deepen and clarify his own innate perception of reality, including his understanding of his very self. Budziszewski does the same.

In all this, as I have said, Budziszewski really is describing ourselves, quietly inviting us to be true to ourselves, and stirring us to hope that we really need not settle for anything less after all. It will be a rare reader, I think, who fails to see himself in this book almost immediately. Despite its seriousness, the book in some ways has the character of a personal daydream, a haunting reverie in which the reader discovers something deeper about who he or she actually is. In any case, most people will be absorbed in the book if only because they are absorbed, inescapably, in themselves. Nor is the prose academic, excessively formal, or strained. There is poetry in these depths. Few will lay the book aside before the end.

The God Question

One of the questions with which I opened was this: Arguing at the natural level, should an author try to justify his claims about purpose in nature by insisting on at least a rudimentary recognition of God? The answer to this question would be obvious if we lived in an age in which the culture broadly recognized and insisted on the existence of God, especially the existence of a Creator. But our culture, especially in academia, which presides over precisely those persons who ought most to be reading these books, has no such recognition. In fact, much of our culture resists this recognition mightily. Both authors are aware of this unfortunate reality.

As a result, both authors are aware that a premature introduction of a specifically religious perspective could drive many readers away before they have a chance to be persuaded by the central arguments of the books. No author wants this to happen. Therefore, both authors have contrived solutions to the problem. Once again, I find Budziszewski’s solution more attractive than Fr. Piderit’s, but the reader’s mileage may legitimately vary. Let me explain the difference.

You’ll recall that Fr. Piderit’s approach to the natural law is somewhat less directly connected to the question of design than is J. Budziszewski’s. If we look deeply enough, we inevitably perceive that the seven fundamental values cannot possibly have any cohesive or consistent meaning without God, because the human person cannot have any consistent or cohesive meaning without God. In fact, even if one supposes that it is possible for some things to exist without God, it is flatly impossible for a finite person to exist without God. (Since most of my readers already accept this conclusion, I won’t demonstrate the proposition here.)

But Fr. Piderit is content to leave the God-question in abeyance, and to leave open the question of whether we have been designed a certain way or have simply evolved a certain way (whether through the providential genius of a Creator or not). Consider this passage in his chapter on “Sexual Activity Outside of Marriage”:

Evolution culminated in human beings who are conscious and who interpret actions in terms of large goals or values…. [I]n a gradual process, which may have extended over thousands of years, sexual intimacy became a symbolic act that communicated the complete commitment of the man and woman to each other. (125)

Or this passage from the chapter “Girls, Boys, and Teenagers”:

The emergence of men and women from early primates was a signal development…. The emergence of the unique gift of consciousness is another crucial aspect of this development…. A human now had to figure out what the other human was thinking and what was not being said, as well as what was. This added complexity only increased the need for social experimentation to work out behavior patterns consonant with natural law. (134)

The thoughtful reader will see how many questions these evolutionary comments leave unanswered, but they pass for normal in our culture, and my point is that Fr. Piderit’s strategy is to avoid stirring up those questions. What we are dealing with, he argues, is the way things are. There is a long, long stretch of natural development behind what we are. We must recognize that we have been optimized for certain kinds of behavior over an immense span of time. If we behave otherwise, we will contradict, undermine and ultimately destroy ourselves. But we can discern seven fundamental values which correspond to human nature as we have received it, and the key to a fully human life is to shape our actions to these values.

Now Fr. Piderit believes in God. Moreover, one of his seven values is the value of religion, so it would be completely unfair of me to suggest that Fr. Piderit refuses to bring God into things at all. To the contrary, in dealing with the seven fundamental values, he notes something very close to what we used to call the virtue of religion: “The basis of religion is the realization that human existence is a gift from a being or power or person far beyond our understanding” (101). And “The giftedness of life calls some people to render thanks to God and praise him by suitable prayers, offerings, or reflections” (101). Respect for this impulse is a fundamental value. The older concept of the virtue of religion, of course, is somewhat stronger. It is another way of saying that all people, as a matter of fundamental justice and gratitude, are called to honor God.

Clearly, Fr. Piderit does not want to force the reader to run before he learns to walk. Fair enough. But there is a great weakness in pretending that the God question can be ignored—that only respect for religion, not religion itself, is required; or suggesting that evolution may be even temporarily understood in a sense that eliminates the question of Providence. The weakness is that this approach leaves no compelling answer (other than a prudent plea for caution) to one of the chief myths of modern culture, namely that the very evolution of the intellect is what permits man to turn against his own nature in order to make himself better than nature has made him.

This is why I prefer Budziszewski’s approach, for Budziszewski is deliberately and obviously coy on this point. He actually plays with the reader. He introduces God very early on and then rhetorically pulls himself up short, stating that—precisely so as not to alienate certain readers—he will insist only that a natural understanding of God is accessible to everyone. Other than that, he will in effect play the God card as little as possible until the end of the book. In other words, Budziszewski does not simply let the camel get its nose into the tent, he pushes him there; and he is very frank about letting the reader know that this is his very own camel. But in the role of courteous host, and for the advantage of the skittish reader’s more prolonged company, he’ll keep the camel mostly outside—for the moment.

How Love Endures

Both authors return to God in the end, Fr. Piderit with a treatment of “The Christian Difference” in part three of his book, which is tellingly entitled “Moral Skills and Religious Practice”; and J. Budziszewski in his seventh and final chapter, entitled simply “Transcendence”. Here at the end of all things he insists more forcefully that natural law theory demands the recognition of God:

Nature points beyond herself. She has a face, and it looks up. One may decline to call attention to her uplifted glance…. But there are some things we cannot help noticing eventually, if we bother to see things at all…. [U]ltimately, human love makes sense only in the light of divine love. The point is not that divine love means something and that human love doesn’t. Human love means so much, because divine love means still more. (139)

It is Budziszewski, in the end, who makes the final necessary connections. He recognizes that sexual love points at once to two separate ends, its own fulfillment in marriage and the ultimate fulfillment of the human person in God. This too is something that we can learn from the natural law, if we are observant. Or rather we can suspect that there remains an unfulfilled second end which always leaves us unsatisfied, and which too often causes us to blame (in our ignorance) our spouses or partners or “friends with benefits” when we remain unsatisfied. Everything in nature leads us to the conviction that there is something more, and sexual love is no different. Budziszewski does not fail to put the matter clearly: If we are willing to look where nature points, there is something greater than nature to be found.

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Show 1 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: jlw5096959 - May. 19, 2012 4:57 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Dr. Mirus, for postng this article. I thought your treatment of both approaches was fair and sympathetic. I believe I'll click over to Amazon.com to grab these books and further my education in what really matters.

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