Thursday, February 13, 2014

John Corvino, What's Wrong with Homosexuality?: "It's Not Natural" (2)

Here are two more excerpts from John Corvino's book What’s Wrong with Homosexuality? (NY: Oxford UP, 2013). As with the last two I've posted here, these are from the chapter dealing with natural-law objections to homosexuality.

As Corvino notes, because many philosophers and theologians have found the presentation of natural law by classic Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas significantly flawed, especially when it's applied to sexual ethics, a school of thought has now developed that speaks of its approach as New Natural Law (NNL). Proponents of this position include Robert P. George, who drafted the Manhattan Declaration in 2009, John Finnis, Germain Grisez, and others. 

Following the lead of Aquinas's natural-law theology, NNL maintains that, built into nature is a teleology, a purposeful design, that rational people should generally be able to recognize--and on whose rational basis moral people ought to act. In the area of human sexuality, that design is self-evidently about procreation, they maintain--and any rational person ought to be able to divine this. 

At the crudest level possible--and many Catholics who adhere to this position at a popular level do present NNL ideas in these crude terms--NNL argues that the design of nature itself demonstrates to us that the proper end of all sexual activity is about inserting a penis into a vagina, tab A into slot B, for the sake or procreation. Any other use of the sexual organs is immoral, and rational human beings ought to be able to see this. 

When presented with the obvious objection to this argument as it's applied by Catholic NNL thinkers to homosexuality to declare all homosexual acts immoral--namely, that the church has always married heterosexual couples it knows to be infertile, and has done so without qualms--NNL thinkers argue that at least those couples are respecting the design of the human body (tab A into slot B) in their non-procreative sexual activities, and therefore their non-procreative sexual activities are moral, whereas all gay activities are immoral.

In line with traditional natural-law theology, NNL thinking obviously also considers every act of masturbation always intrinsically disordered and immoral, just as it considers any sexual act performed by a married couple (e.g., oral sex) as intrinsically disordered if that act leads to male orgasm without the insertion of the penis into the vagina. As John Corvino notes, one of the problems this way of thinking encounters is the problem of knowing what to do about the female orgasm, and with the fact that the female body appears to be designed in such a way that one of the primary organs of female pleasure, the clitoris, has nothing whatsoever to do on the face of it with procreation and everything to do with female pleasure.

As Corvino notes, both traditional natural-law theory and NNL thinking tend simply to ignore the female orgasm, since it complicates the argument that the human body is clearly designed so that sexual pleasure makes moral sense only when reproduction is the goal of sexual activity:

This point [i.e., that NNL theorists treat the activities of non-coital sex including female orgasm as merely a means to produce the effect of gratification] raises another question, about how to determine exactly which acts NNL prohibits. The example just cited relates to female orgasm, about which natural law theorists say very little. Instead, following Aquinas—and nearly every other philosopher who writes on these matters—they tend to focus on male orgasms and semen. (As legal philosopher Andrew Koppelman notes, "The possibility of female orgasm appears to be an embarrassment to the theory" (95-6, citing The Gay-Rights Question in Contemporary American Law [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago P., 2002] 86).

The obsession with the penis, with assuring that tab A is inserted into slot B anytime orgasm occurs, is, crudely speaking, about assuring that the "stuff" of life not be wasted in any sexual act. But that "stuff" is entirely male, and the female body is treated as a passive receptacle of the male "stuff" of life in this framework of thinking. Aquinas enshrined in his natural-law theory Aristotle's pre-scientific belief that reproduction occurs when the male inserts a "little man," a homunculus, into the womb of the woman, whose only contribution to gestation is to incubate the little man.

in its thinking about these matters, about what ought to be apparent to any of us if we simply think rationally and dispassionately about the design of the body and the purpose of sexuality, NNL has not significantly moved beyond some of the crude prescientific insights of its Aristotelian-Aquinian roots. Koppelman is, I think, entirely correct to conclude that NNL is mostly silent about the matter of female orgasms because the very existence of female orgasms is an embarrassment to a theory that is obsessively focused on what happens to the penis--where the penis is when ejaculation occurs--lest the "stuff" of life ever be wasted.

Another point that strikes me in Corvino's presentation and critique of NNL: as he notes, the determination of NNL thinkers to include marriage (as the union of a male and a female) as a "basic good" that should be self-evident to any rational thinker as a basis for moral action really does not appear in NNL thinking until the question of same-sex marriage came on the cultural scene. Up to that point in history, NNL thinkers had not listed marriage as one of those basic goods without which a rational society cannot function, and which should be self-evident to any rational thinker: 

Recall that basic goods are fundamental reasons for action—they are intrinsically action-guiding. It is worth observing that marriage—as a two-in-one-flesh organic bodily union—was not included on lists of basic goods until relatively late: Finnis mentions it in 1996, but not in 1980; Grisez includes it in 1993 but not in 1983. Perhaps most telling is the fact that natural law theorists who are not particularly concerned with condemning homosexual conduct don’t include it at all.** It is hard to escape the impression that, far from identifying a genuine good, the NNL [New Natural Law] account of "marriage" is just an artificial construct designed expressly for including sterile heterosexual couples while excluding same-sex ones (93-4; * citing John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1980] 86-90, Finnis, “Is Natural Law Theory Compatible with Limited Government?” in Robert P. George, ed., Natural Law, Liberalism, and Morality [Oxford: Oxford UP, 1996] 5; Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, vol. 1: Christian Moral Principles [Chicago: Christian Herald Press, 1983] 121-2, Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, vol. 2: Living a Christian Life [Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1993] 568; ** citing Mark Murphy, Natural Law and Practical Rationality [NY: Cambirdge UP, 2001] 96, T.D. Chapell, Understanding Human Goods [Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1995] 43, Alfonso Gomez-Lobo, Morality and the Human Goods: An Introduction to Natural Law Ethics [Washington, DC: Georgetown UP, 2002] 10-23).

In other words, it's impossible to dissociate NNL's description of what's "rational" or "good" or "sane"--things all of us should see if we ourselves are rational and sane and determined to do what's good--from the strong intent of these thinkers to rule gay people and gay relationships out of the picture, as the rational, good, and sane are defined. There's an inherent anti-gay impulse built into the very heart of NNL as it's currently promulgated by people like Robert P. George and others. 

That inherent anti-gay bias is strongly apparent in the strange--even bizarre, it seems to me--conclusion that non-procreative sex of an infertile heterosexual married couple is morally licit because tab A is inserted into slot B, while the non-procreative sex of a homosexual married couple can never be morally licit solely because the plumbing is incorrect. What this fixation on having the penis inserted into the vagina at all cost tries to mask is the fact that, for a majority of heterosexual married couples in their sexual lives, sexual activity isn't always and never has always been about procreation in the first place.

Even when tab A is in the picture and slot B is also there--when we're speaking of a married couple who meet all the requirements of gender complementarity--sexual activity has always been far more diverse within the marital context than NNL wants us to imagine it is, or should be. If much of the sexual activity that occurs between a man and a woman in marriage, both of whom are fertile, is non-procreative and deliberately not oriented to conceiving a child, and if sexual activity between a male and a female one or both of whom are infertile is morally licit as long as the penis is inserted into the vagina when the penis ejaculates, then on what compelling rational ground can it be argued that all homosexual relationships are intrinsically disordered because the sexual activity that occurs within these relationships can never lead to procreation?

When a philosophical theory must take such pains to specify that members of a targeted minority group contravene nature in their most intimate activities (and in their own natures), while it takes pains to shield members of the majority who also necessarily contravene the same norms used to attack the targeted minority group, something seems to be seriously awry. And when the concepts of nature and of reason are being used to mount these eminently irrational attacks on a targeted minority group . . . . 

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