By deeming sex is only legitimate if it is procreative, natural law theory imprisons sexuality and erotic love within procreation-as-conception. It does so, however, selectively; the aged and the infertile are let in, even though they cannot be procreative. So, sex is only legitimate if it is procreative in form, even if it is not at all in substance.
But why? Because to not to do so would be too big an ask. Telling sterile or post-menopausal married couples they could not have sex is a prohibition that is never likely to be accepted, even though it is a perfectly logical inference from defining sex by its procreative function (understood purely in terms of conception). Indeed, if conception-as-procreation defines sex, the only truly logical position is that of Clement of Alexandria—the only permitted sexual acts are those specifically intended to conceive.
But, of course, sex has many functions beyond procreation: such as catharsis, expressing intimacy, pleasure. Biologists identify a range of functions sex has in nature: functions that can, and are, fulfilled by sex acts that are not procreative in form. (As famously displayed by our closest animal relatives.) So, the natural law position becomes: it is fine for sex to perform those functions provided it remains imprisoned within the procreative form. The far more complex reality of sex in nature does not count.
But that gives the game away. That sex has other functions than procreation-as-conception is admitted by letting in the aged and infertile (not to mention permitting sex when the woman is not fertile); that sex is not purely procreative is accepted. The point of the procreative form is to conceive. So, whatever form can fulfil those other functions of sex—which have been accepted to be legitimate—must be fine too.
Unless, that is, procreation-as-conception somehow defines the proper form of sex in a way that no other function of sex does. The natural law answer is to claim that sex is essentially procreative, because it would not exist without procreation, so the procreative form does define sex in a way no other function does.
Well yes, the original function of sex was to conceive new life. That is why sex evolved. But that does not, in itself, preclude sentient beings finding other, perfectly legitimate, functions to sex. Evolution works by finding new ways of doing things and new things to do. We would not, for example, have hands if that was not so. Form and function are interactive; there is not some static once-only creation that irrevocably ties form and function together.
Moreover, non-procreative acts can serve procreation, for procreation extends well beyond the act of conception. A subordinate male providing sexual pleasure to a dominant male can re-direct the latter’s aggression, increasing the former’s chance of procreating. Male masturbation can clear out old sperm, making fertilisation more likely. Female masturbation can encourage ovulation. Male-bonding swans can steal eggs and raise the cygnets, prompting the female swan from which the egg(s) were stolen to lay more. The intimacy of sex can bind a couple together.
So, even just in terms of procreation, sex can serve way beyond conception; indeed, quite indirectly. Consider the ways procreative possibilities can be increased through expanding the capacity to support children. The existence of a minority erotically directed towards their own sex can provide people directed to passing on an enriching the binding knowledge and culture of a group, thereby strengthening it. An intensely pleasurable activity can provoke development of communications, even tool use; expanding procreative possibilities. Sex can build coalitions, it can reward efforts: both of which are part of its functions in nature. The structure and patterns of reality are far more complex than simple equating of penile-vaginal sex as the only way sex can support procreation presumes.
Hence, given these complex possibilities, nature is so prolix in its sexual expressions, constantly exploring possibilities. There is far more to procreation than merely getting someone pregnant, or even giving birth: and the more complex an organism, the more that is so. Hence a same-sex couple can serve procreation, by investing time, effort and love in raising children.
The notion that the procreative origins of sex require it to remain imprisoned in a single form is not an expression of reality, it is a profound denial of it. It is using the conclusion (sex must be procreative in form) to set the ambit of its premises (only aspects of sex in nature that allows, or mimics, the possibility of conception counts as evidence: anything else is perversity). A conclusion that itself has been shifted from sex-only-for-conception in order to deal (however inadequately) with the far more complex reality of sex. Imprisoning sex within this ludicrously narrow understanding of procreation is not a seeing into the heart of sex, of eros; it is fearfully hiding from its complexity, and its power.
If form does not even define procreative functions of sex, then there is no reason to think that forms of sex which perform its other functions are not also legitimate. Especially as human life exists well beyond procreating: as does the moral realm.
But much worse is involved than a denial of reality in so simplistically equating sexual form with sex-as-conception (albeit revealingly inconsistently). In so denying reality, profound cruelty, leading naturally to brutality, is engaged in. Imprisoning sex (however inconsistently) within conception (or, rather, the form-with-which-conception-would-be-possible-if-both-were-currently-fertile) does not protect, support or expand the moral realm; it deforms, restricts and subverts it.
For, let us be clear. Given the reality of human sexual diversity, given that people do not choose their sexuality, there is no form of preaching against homosexuality that does not involve profound and insidious cruelty. Cruelty in alienating people from their own nature; cruelty in alienating parents from their children; cruelty in isolating and denigrating vulnerable individuals. For few are more vulnerable than queer teenagers and young adults, growing up as solitary individuals in families and social milieus overwhelmingly straight.
We know that people do not choose their own sexuality; not merely from introspection (tell us all about the moment when you chose to be heterosexual?) but because, in all the vast array of human songs, poems, stories, narrative, films etc about love, lust and romance there is none about choosing to fancy men or women (or both), because no one has that moment. To say people should not be homosexual is exactly like saying people should not be black: it is to demand that they change a characteristic that is not subject to choice. (After all, being black in the US, for example, means lower life and income expectancy; so there are reasons to “choose” not to be black.) The theory that people “choose” to be homosexual is just a way of hiding one’s cruelty from oneself, of absolving God from cruelty, and making it easier to engage in denigration and hatred.
And to say, if they cannot be other than homosexual, people should not act upon it, is also profoundly cruel, for it requires them to be at war with their own sexual nature; to live lives either of profound constraint, crippling their possibilities, or of profound deceit. It is also to denigrate them, to dismiss their nature as deformed; to dismiss their hopes for love and intimate pleasure; to deny them standing about the most intimate aspects of their natures.
A writer whose juvenile novels include various queer characters has told of how, when she talks at schools, teenagers come up behind her and, talking quietly over her shoulder, speak of how grateful they are for being able to read of folk like them. It is so hard to convey the profound loneliness, even despair, that can come from being not as folk assume; particularly for someone who is struggling with the onrush of sexuality (let alone the “wrong” sexuality).
The proscription of homosexuality is such an insidious and vicious cruelty. There is no “morality” in it. Particularly as people who advocate its proscription so wilfully block any consideration of awkward contrary facts, any genuine empathy for others.
Indeed, the proscription is a form of moral psychopathy because of its denial of empathy. A denial that is patent in the more rabid rantings against human sexual diversity, against the “evil” of homosexuality, but also exists in the condescending “treat them with charity/hate the sin, love the sinner”. The latter is moral condescension of a particularly sickening kind—“you’re not a proper version of the human, so we are going to pity you: please be grateful for our magnanimous forbearance”. Denial of equal protection of the law is pretty much a give-away for the underlying contempt, the morally stunting denial of common humanity.
Precisely because proscription of homosexuality cannot do other than begin with cruelty and denigration, it is so easy for preaching against homosexuality to lead directly to hatred and intense brutality, as the historical record attests. The evil consequences of proscribing homosexuality are vastly greater than letting people be themselves.
But such massive imbalance is inherent in moral exclusion. By letting a ludicrously narrow focus on the mechanics of conception override the constrained respect for others that is at the heart of morality, people are stripped of moral standing and moral protections without them having transgressed in the slightest against the moral protections of others. If you place people outside the boundaries of the moral, and moral protections, of course hatred and brutality will follow. But that hatred and brutality is then rendered morally invisible; for the suffering of the morally excluded is itself excluded from moral consideration. Worse, such suffering becomes “their” fault for being the sort of person who is morally excluded.
The conservative burden
Because enforcement of this cruel and vicious religious taboo, this unilateral overriding of moral protections, is traditional, it provides a particular problem for conservatives. The conservative concern for order and stability has always been deeply intertwined with notions of hierarchy: hence conservatives are perennial opponents of attempts to escape social subordination and exclusion. Social subordination or exclusion often justified by some claims about the “natural” order: an order invariably imposed forcefully. As, for example, same-sex marriage rights (which existed under Roman law and Amerindian social practice) were stripped from people via the imposition of monotheist taboos about sex and gender.
In fact, there was never anything “natural” about such subordinations and exclusions (of women, of Jews, of slaves …). They were merely “accepted background constraints”. Not the same thing at all. But a mode of argument that, as natural law theory does, allows the conclusion to set the ambit of its premises—so permitting the dismissal of inconvenient facts as perversity—is as useful in service of social hierarchy as it is for supporting religious doctrine.
There is no form of prescription of homosexuality that is not grounded in cruelty and denigration. Hence hate and brutality come so easily to it. It does not represent the preservation of morality, but the stunting and subversion of it: and there is no fixing that, except by abandoning parading the exclusory religious taboo against homosexuality as morality. For moral is precisely what it is not, as the historical record so amply attests: by their fruits shall ye know them (and their ideas).
[Cross-posted at Critical Thinking Applied.]
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