Wednesday, June 03, 2015

"Contraception and chastity"

Here's an oft-quoted statement by Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe:
If contraceptive intercourse is permissible, then what objection could there be after all to mutual masturbation, or copulation in vase indebito, sodomy, buggery (I should perhaps remark that I am using a legal term here - not indulging in bad language), when normal copulation is impossible or inadvisable (or in any case, according to taste)? It can't be the mere pattern of bodily behaviour in which the stimulation is procured that makes all the difference! But if such things are all right, it becomes perfectly impossible to see anything wrong with homosexual intercourse, for example. I am not saying: if you think contraception all right you will do these other things; not at all. The habit of respectability persists and old prejudices die hard. But I am saying: you will have no solid reason against these things. You will have no answer to someone who proclaims as many do that they are good too. You cannot point to the known fact that Christianity drew people out of the pagan world, always saying no to these things. Because, if you are defending contraception, you will have rejected Christian tradition.
The entire essay is currently available here:
A few preliminaries:
i) I believe her primary audience is Catholic. She's writing to and for Catholics. As such, she sometimes mounts an argument from authority which is legitimate when addressing a Catholic audience, but begs the question in reference to a Protestant reader. 
ii) Then there's the question of terminology. I don't know the intended distinction between sodomy and buggery. These are often used a synonyms. However, buggery may be broader category, which includes both oral and sex. 
iii) Assuming that's the intended distinction, it doesn't ipso facto follow that if one is wrong, both are wrong. In principle, anal intercourse could be intrinsically wrong whereas oral sex could be morally permissible under some circumstances. To condemn both requires a supporting argument, which she doesn't furnish. She just takes for granted that oral sex is morally equivalent to anal intercourse, both of which are morally equivalent to contraceptive intercourse. That's understandable when addressing a Catholic audience, where certain things are taken for granted. It's more a question of why be Catholic. But given Catholicism, you can simply punt to the authority of the Magisterium–at least in principle. However, that appeal has no sway for a Protestant reader.
iv) Conversely, is she using "sodomy" as a synonym for homosexuality, or a synonym for anal sex? 
v) In addition, there's a potential moral distinction between oral sex involving a heterosexual married couple and a homosexual man performing fellatio on another man. What would make it wrong is not the act itself, but by whom and on whom it's performed. 
To take a comparison, erotic kissing between a man and a woman is morally permissible, whereas erotic kissing between two men is morally impermissible. In both cases it's the same act. What makes it licit in one case and illicit in the other concerns the parties to the act and not the act itself. My purpose is not to argue that point, but simply draw attention to distinctions which she fails to make.

Consensual incest is another example. Copulation between a parent and a grown child involves the same sex act as copulation between a man and wife, yet that doesn't make them morally equivalent. The moral differential factor is not the nature of the act, but the nature of the parties to the act. 
vi) The same issue arises in the case of "mutual masturbation." In principle, that could be homosexual or heterosexual. If the latter, that could be marital, premarital, or extramarital. To say it's wrong in general demands a supporting argument. The fact that homosexual, and heterosexual pre/extramarital mutual masturbation is wrong doesn't entail that heterosexual marital mutual masturbation is wrong. 
Suppose, for instance, a married couple uses that as foreplay. Or suppose, for some reason, that a married couple can't engage in sexual intercourse. Is mutual masturbation wrong in that situation? If so, Anscombe needs to supply an argument. 
To ask, even rhetorically, "what objection could there be after all to…sodomy…when normal copulation is impossible or inadvisable…it becomes perfectly impossible to see anything wrong with homosexual intercourse" is very slack reasoning. Normal copulation refers to heterosexual copulation. If that's impossible or inadvisable, how does it follow that homosexual alternatives would become unobjectionable? If the context begins with heterosexual conjugal relations, how do impediments to that suddenly shift the sexual repertoire to sodomy? Perhaps she's using "sodomy" as a sexual technique (anal sex) rather than sex with a partner of the same gender (man on man). If so, that would keep all the examples within the confines of heterosexual relations. 
vii) There are at least two moral objections to anal intercourse:
a) It's unpleasant to the recipient.
b) It's hazardous–especially to the recipient. 
c) I'd add that there's a potential objection to oral sex on the same grounds: is it hazardous? 
viii) If, however, she's using "sodomy" as a synonym for homosexuality, the insinuation is that once you decouple sex from procreative intent, there's no moral distinction between homosexual and heterosexual activity. But that's not a straightforward inference. There are several moral objections to homosexual activity:
a) It is hazardous. Male and female bodies are sexually complementary in ways that two bodies of the same gender are not. That results in physically destructive behavior as well as diseases that are either unique to homosexual activity or aggravated by homosexual activity. 
b) Humans of the same gender are psychologically unsuited to form erotic emotional bonds with each other. It's a kind of mental illness. 
There are "solid reasons" for (vii) and (viii) alike. It's intellectually irresponsible for Anscombe to say otherwise. Indeed, that's inconsistent with her larger position. There are natural law arguments against anal intercourse and homosexuality. And she herself resorts natural law ethics. 
ix) Then there's the meaning of the phrase "copulation in vase indebito." That's a quaint technical term in Catholic moral theology. I don't know if she's using it to denote anal sex or "Onanism" (i.e. coitus interruptus). If the latter, that begs the question, since the very issue in dispute is whether contraception is morally licit or illicit. If the former, see above. 
Furthermore, while one doesn't have to be learned (nobody has to be learned) or able to give a convincing account of the reasons for a teaching - for remember that the Church teaches with the authority of a divine commission, and the Pope has a prophetical office, not a chair of science or moral philosophy or theology - all the same the moral teaching of the Church, by her own claims, is supposed to be reasonable. Christian moral teachings aren't revealed mysteries like the Trinity. The lack of clear accounts of the reason in the teaching was disturbing to many people. Especially, I believe, to many of the clergy whose job it was to give the teaching to the people.
That exposes a dilemma for Catholic apologists like Anscombe. The argument from authority won't work, even if you acknowledge the religious authority in question, because moral theology is grounded in natural law, and natural law reasoning must rise and fall on the merits of the argument from proper function. The argument should work on its own terms, within the natural law framework. It should be sound apart from appeals to religious authority. The arguments must be reasonable on their own grounds. 
As a Catholic apologist, Anscombe must play the hand she was dealt. But what if her denomination's position on birth control is ad hoc? Then her supporting arguments will be ad hoc. Ultimately, the supporting arguments can't be better than the underlying position they are deployed to defend. 
Again, with effective contraceptive techniques and real physiological knowledge available, a new question came to the fore. I mean that of the rational limitation of families. Because of ignorance, people in former times who did not choose continence could effect such limitation only by obviously vile and disreputable methods. So no one envisaged a policy of seeking to have just a reasonable number of children (by any method other than continence over sufficient periods) as a policy compatible with chastity. Indeed the very notion "a reasonable number of children" could hardly be formulated compatibly with thinking at once decently and realistically. It had to be left to God what children one had.
With society becoming more and more contraceptive, the pressure felt by Catholic married people became great. The restriction of intercourse to infertile periods "for grave reasons" was offered to them as a recourse - at first in a rather gingerly way (as is intelligible in view of the mental background I have sketched) and then with increasing recommendation of it. For in this method the act of copulation was not itself adapted in any way so as to render it infertile, and so the condemnation of acts of contraceptive intercourse as somehow perverse and so as grave breaches of chastity, did not apply to this. All other methods, Catholics were very emphatically taught, were "against the natural law".
The substantive, hard teaching of the Church which all Catholics were given up to 1964 was clear enough: all artificial methods of birth control were taught to be gravely wrong if, before, after, or during intercourse you do something intended to turn that intercourse into an infertile act if it would otherwise have been fertile.
The new knowledge, indeed, does give the best argument I know of that can be devised for allowing that contraceptives are after all permissible according to traditional Christian morals. The argument would run like this: There is not much ancient tradition condemning contraception as a distinct sin. The condemnations which you can find from earliest times were almost all of early abortion (called homicide) or of unnatural vice. But contraception, if it is an evil thing to do, is distinct from these, and so the question is really open.
i) Which is a backdoor admission that artificial contraception doesn't really contradict tradition. It's anachronistic to prooftext opposition to contraception from church fathers or scholastic theologians, for given their primitive scientific understanding, they were unable to distinguish between abortion and contraception. So even if you think we should defer to the wisdom of church fathers and scholastic theologians, you can't invoke their opinion in this case, for it involves a more specialized question than they were in a position to consider at the  time. 
ii) And, of course, this has no cachet for Protestants. It's not that we should simply disregard tradition. Rather, tradition has no inherent authority. We should give the church fathers and scholastic theologians a respectful hearing. But it comes down to the quality of their arguments. They are not authority figures. 
We have seen that the theological defence of the Church's teaching in modern times did not assimilate contraception to abortion but characterized it as a sort of perversion of the order of nature. The arguments about this were rather uneasy, because it is not in general wrong to interfere with natural processes.
That's a very significant caveat, which she doesn't pursue. To oppose contraception along those lines, you'd need to present and defend a principle according to which interfering with natural processes is generally permissible, but wrong in this particular (or analogous) instance. However, having raised the issue, Anscombe fails to develop that line of thought. Perhaps because that's a dead-end. So she must look elsewhere to bolster her position. But she just leaves it hanging out there. 
At this point she draws hairsplitting distinctions regarding intent. Perhaps that's the principle which distinguishes licit from illicit interference with natural processes–at least in this case:
For it was obvious that if a woman just happened to be in the physical state which such a contraceptive brings her into by art no theologian would have thought the fact, or the knowledge of it, or the use of the knowledge of it, straightaway made intercourse bad. Or, again, if a woman took an anovulant pill for a while to check dysmenorrhea no one would have thought this prohibited intercourse. So, clearly, it was the contraceptive intention that was bad, if contraceptive intercourse was: it is not that the sexual act in these circumstances is physically distorted. This had to be thought out, and it was thought out in the encyclical Humanae Vitae.
Here, however, people still feel intensely confused, because the intention where oral contraceptives are taken seems to be just the same as when intercourse is deliberately restricted to infertile periods. In one way this is true, and its truth is actually pointed out by Humanae Vitae, in a passage I will quote in a moment. But in another way it's not true.
The reason why people are confused about intention, and why they sometimes think there is no difference between contraceptive intercourse and the use of infertile times to avoid conception, is this: They don't notice the difference between "intention" when it means the intentionalness of the thing you're doing - that you're doing this on purpose - and when it means a further or accompanying intention with which you do the thing. For example, I make a table: that's an intentional action because I am doing just that on purpose. I have the further intention of, say, earning my living, doing my job by making the table. Contraceptive intercourse and intercourse using infertile times may be alike in respect of further intention, and these further intentions may be good, justified, excellent. This the Pope has noted. He sketched such a situation and said: "It cannot be denied that in both cases the married couple, for acceptable reasons," (for that's how he imagined the case) "are perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and mean to secure that none will be born." This is a comment on the two things: contraceptive intercourse on the one hand and intercourse using infertile times on the other, for the sake of the limitation of the family.
But contraceptive intercourse is faulted, not on account of this further intention, but because of the kind of intentional action you are doing. The action is not left by you as the kind of act by which life is transmitted, but is purposely rendered infertile, and so changed to another sort of act altogether.
There's all the world of difference between this and the use of the "rhythm" method. For you use the rhythm method not just by having intercourse now, but by not having it next week, say; and not having it next week isn't something that does something to today's intercourse to turn it into an infertile act; today's intercourse is an ordinary act of intercourse, an ordinary marriage act. 
i) The problem with this argument is that it falls short of what she needs to prove. It is not enough to draw distinctions between one kind of contraceptive intent and another kind of contraceptive intent. For that, by itself, fails to explain what makes one licit and the other illicit. So she needs to take it to the next step by explicating why that's a morally salient distinction. Yet she simply drops the analysis at that crucial juncture of the argument. 
ii) Her omission is striking. She was a very capable philosopher. What is more, she was married to a very capable philosopher. Both were pious Catholics who wrote in defense of traditional moral theology. If, despite putting their heads together, she's unable to explain and defend why "artificial" contraceptive intent is wrong–unlike "natural" contraception intent–then the prospects for making that argument must be pretty dim. This is about as good as it gets. Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach were the power couple of Catholic philosophers. 
iii) And remember that by her own admission, it should be possible to mount a purely rational justification for the moral teaching of the church. A rationale that's independent of the church's authority. So she fails to solve the problem she posed for herself, as she herself framed the terms of success. 
A severe morality holds that intercourse (and may hold this of eating, too) has something wrong about it if it is ever done except explicitly as being required for that preservation of human life which is what makes intercourse a good kind of action. But this involves thoroughly faulty moral psychology. God gave us our physical appetite, and its arousal without our calculation is part of the working of our sort of life. Given moderation and right circumstances, acts prompted by inclination can be taken in a general way to accomplish what makes them good in kind and there's no need for them to be individually necessary or useful for the end that makes them good kinds of action. Intercourse is a normal part of married life through the whole life of the partners in a marriage and is normally engaged in without any distinct purpose other than to have it, just as such a part of married life.
A problem with that comparison is that some of our food consumption is purely for pleasure. It has no practical justification. Take deserts. We don't do that for the nutritional value. And the pleasure isn't a side-effect of nutrition. Rather, pleasure is the only motivation, and not an incidental consequence. Some deserts may have a bit of nutritional value, but we'd consume the desert absent nutritional value. That's not even a secondary consideration, much less the primary consideration. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Steve, for the thorough analysis.