Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Natural law and contraception

Catholic philosophers and theologians who support Rome's position on "artificial" birth control attempt to construct natural law arguments in defense of that position. And pop Catholic apologists recycle those arguments.

Natural law arguments can be valuable, but they need to be formulated with great finesse. Teleology, per se, isn't sacrosanct. There's nothing wrong with impeding gravity so that we can fly airplanes. Likewise, water pumps contravene gravity to make water flow uphill.

The natural goal of a chicken egg is to hatch into a chicken, but it's not immoral to violate its tells by consuming scrambled eggs. Eating veal parmesan disrupts the natural order. After all, calves were designed to grow into cows or bulls. But eating veal parmesan is not immoral–the protestations of vegans notwithstanding. 

The nose and ears weren't designed to be a platform for glasses, but it's okay to co-opt them for that purpose. 

If letting nature take its course was a general (much less universal) imperative, that would pretty much abolish the medical profession.

The point of counterexamples is to test whether you consistently apply the principle you appeal to, or whether you make ad hoc exceptions. 

The standard Catholic argument against "artificial" contraception treats procreation as a special case of a general principle: natural teleology. The question, then, is whether the general principle is sufficiently discriminating to justify that particular application–while compartmentalizing that application from other permissible examples that run counter to the ordinary course of nature.

(When I say "special", I'm not using "special" as a synonym for "exceptional"; rather, I'm using "special" as a synonym for "specific"–in contrast to generic. For instance, brain cancer is a special case of cancer. Cancer is the general category, of which brain cancer is one example.)

The question is why the other examples, which interfere with the ordinary course of nature are permissible, but "artificial" contraception is not. 

The Catholic argument begins with the general principle of natural teleology, then treats procreation as a special case of that principle. And it regards the natural teleology as normative with respect to human procreation. 

Problem is, Catholics are forced to admit that natural teleology is not a reliable indicator of normative ethics. There are ever so many cases where it's permissible to disrupt the natural order. Take pesticides. Or selective breeding. 

Or, to consider some examples involving human pregnancy, viz. epidural anesthesia during labor and delivery. A caesarian section? Those artificially circumvent or contravene the ordinary course of nature. 

What criteria can Catholics use to refine their appeal to natural teleology while preserving their appeal to natural teleology. They can't begin with that principle, then admit that it may properly be superseded in any number of cases. In that case they have no consistent operating principle. 


  1. The penis has at least two teological purposes, (1) urination, (2) insemination. If each function occurs to the exclusion of the other by design, then why can't there be a third function of giving and receiving pleasure to the exclusion of insemination? Since it's already to the exclusion of urination?

    I'm probably misapplying the Catholic understanding of Natural Law, but I wonder if Catholics would be consistent in rejecting the chewing of bubble gum, the use of ear plugs to reduce noise when studying, and eye blinders for sleeping.

    1. Some people were born without arms or hands and use their legs and feet as substitutes. I wonder if that's a violation of natural law. The feet are poor substitutes for hands despite amazing displays like THIS ONE

    2. Feet and toes are obviously not designed to function with the same efficiency of manipulation as hands and fingers. Yet, an armless guitar player played before Pope John Paul II via pedipulation.


    3. teological = teleological

  2. If disrupting the flow of nature is the unforgivable sin, then what about fertility drugs? One can't stop ovulation with drugs, but can put ovaries into warp drive with clomiphene and other such agents. How does this natural law stuff work?

  3. Again, poor representation of Catholic teaching. The main reason why the Catholic Church consistently teaches that artificial contraception is sinful, because it is also teaching of the Church (see Pope Pius XI's encyclical Casti Connubii) that primary purpose of marriage is procreation and raising of children (there are also other purposes, such as growing in mutual love, mutual sanctification etc., but they are secondary). Thus, artificial contraception separates martial act from its primary purpose - the couple selfishly says "no" to God's possible will of bringing children.

    1. Forgive me or anyone else not convinced by:

      "the Catholic Church consistently teaches that artificial contraception is sinful, because it is also teaching of the Church"

      Some observers might struggle to find a difference between premise and conclusion. I would fail philosophy students who reasoned like that. This self-referential game does at least represent Catholic teaching. To quote a very good article I once read, which aptly describes the thinking in your post:

      "The only way in which the high church apologist manages to get away with many claims about the “Church” is simply due to a lack of interrogation of the term. But the minute you ask, “But what is the Church? How do you determine its boundaries? By what criteria do you decide who are the “Fathers”? What is Holy Tradition and how is it determined?” the entire rhetoric collapses. The “Church” rapidly vanishes into idealised platonic space."

    2. Natural family planning separates the marital act from its (allegedly) primary purpose.

      Sex with a pregnant wife separates the marital act from its (allegedly) primary purpose.

      Conjugal relations with a postmenopausal woman separates the marital act from its (allegedly primary purpose.