From Natural Purpose to God’s Will: A Fallacious Move

Brian Resnick at the Atlantic treats us to a couple of essays from the 1939 edition of the magazine, one making the case for legal contraception, and the other explaining the Catholic case against their use. Resnick and my fellow writer at the League Tod Kelly find both articles fascinating for their similarity to the disagreements we’re having about contraceptives today in light of the HHS mandate, the GOP presidential campaign, and the testimonies before Congress. I encourage you to read both essays, but I’d like here to zero in on a particular argument made in the second essay because it perfectly frames the sort of “natural law” argument about which I’ve lately had the bad habit of writing subversive things.

The essay’s author, Father Francis J. Connell, presented the argument as follows:

The most general norm of right and wrong established by this natural law is that a person’s actions are morally good when they are in conformity with God’s will, and they are morally bad when they are in opposition to God’s will.

Throughout the entire universe wisdom of God can be perceived, ingeniously adapting means to ends, coordinating causes and effects. This divinely planned harmony is particularly manifest in the constitution of living beings. Each organ has its proper purpose, each faculty its proper function. Now it is certainly the will of the Creator who adapted these vital powers to definite ends that they should operate toward the attainment of these ends. He Himself directs the activities of irrational creatures by providing them with certain irresistible inclinations, so that they necessarily employ their faculties for their proper purpose. The effect of this guidance in animals we call instinct. The bird will infallibly use its wings to fly; the bee is certain to employ its marvelously constructed organs to gather pollen and to make honey. But to man, the most exalted of the living things of earth, God grants freedom of choice in the use of his powers. A human being can direct his faculties of soul and of body to the purposes intended by the Creator, or he can distort them to other ends. And on the way he chooses to employ them depends the morality of his actions. When a person uses his faculties for their proper purpose, his action is morally good, for it is in accordance with God’s will; when he deliberately frustrates their proper purpose, his action is morally evil, for it is opposed to God’s will. The gravity of the sin is proportionate to the gravity of the harm resulting from the action.

Fr. Connell went on to apply this line of reasoning to the sexual act: “when husband and wife deliberately and positively frustrate the procreative purpose of sexual intercourse, they pervert the order of nature and thus directly oppose the designs of nature’s Creator.” For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the sexual organs and human sexuality have the “naturally ordered” purpose of procreation and that God has designed them for this definite end. Does it thereby follow, as Fr. Connell asserted, that it is God’s will that the sexual organs and their vital powers should always operate toward the attainment of this end? Logically, it doesn’t, not unless one assumes, as Fr. Connell did, that God’s ordering of the vital faculties towards a particular or primary purpose means that God wills that this initial ordering always be followed.

Fr. Connell had no doubt about this assumption: “now it is certainly the will of the Creator who adapted these vital powers to definite ends that they should operate toward the attainment of these ends.” He asserts the will of God as if it were a given, when really his assertion begs the question. That God ordered vital powers towards a certain end may suggest that God wills that those ends never be deliberately and positively frustrated, but being suggestive, if we can even get that far, is not tantamount to the moral certainty Fr. Connell posited. We cannot logically derive from natural purpose, even natural purpose initiated by God, a non-negotiable moral imperative. The connection has to be either assumed or proven through another route.

Aside from the fallacious leap, there are a couple of reasons for doubting there’s a necessary connection between the vital powers having a divinely-designed ends and God’s will that these vital powers are always exercised in accordance with these ends. First, given that vital powers can evolve, we cannot be certain that these powers will always function in the same way. For example, the belief that God created human beings as male and female does not, on its own, tell us whether the human species will always remain typically male and female, i.e., a species that reproduces sexually. Second, human intelligence has the capacity to reform or improve vital functions in creative ways, a potentially that at least raises the question whether God intended the human species to use its intelligence to change nature and natural purposes.

To be sure, these are two reasons for suspicion; they are not proofs. Nothing I’ve said above discredits the Catholic understanding of human sexuality and sexual morality, or even other conceptions of natural law; I’ve addressed only one of the arguments, an argument I’m prepared to dismiss as fallacious and would like to see tossed into the dumpster. Its problem is in moving from designed ends to a moral imperative based on what God wills. An argument against contraception that begins with what God wills for moral action would not make the same mistake.

Cross-posted at Vox Nova

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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8 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    What you’ve said above does, in fact, descredit the alleged “natural law” understanding of human sexuality (if the “natural law” understanding is meant to be axiomatic), at least until such time as the questions you’ve raised have been answered.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Depends on what you mean by natural law. As you’ve no doubt noted on the Vox Nova thread, not even the Thomists can agree on what it means and how it works.

      • Brandon says:

        I don’t think this is the right way to interpret the discussion. Natural law theory is a family of theories sharing a basic and uncontroversial structure; everyone agrees on what it means and how it works at that general level. There are, however, splits among these different families into

        (1) deontological views of natural law and virtue ethical views of natural law;
        (2) providentialist views of natural law and practical reason views of natural law;
        (3) personalist views of natural law and objectivist views of natural law.

        Split (1) arises depending on whether one treats natural law theory as relatively stand-alone (as a deontology in its own right) or as wholly subordinate to virtue ethics; split (3) arises depending on how seriously one takes the is/ought distinction. Both of these are due to questions that are external to the structure and mechanics (so to speak) of natural law theory as such. Split (2), which is the only one that deals with questions internal to natural law, is over the precise role of practical reason in the theory, is also the least serious and doesn’t affect the general principles, although it does affect details. It’s a matter of some debate how deep any of these splits go, i.e., how much these splits are due just to different emphases rather than real differences.

        The disagreements on the Vox Nova thread are not particularly extensive or deep; A Sinner is mostly making a practical point about what should be emphasized in contemporary discussion, I was mostly making a point about the importance of taking Aquinas seriously as to the difficulty of natural law arguments — Aquinas is quite clear that they are very difficult when they get into specifics — and Chas was mostly making a historical point in explanation of Fr. Connelly’s argument. I agree with Chas as to the historical point and with A Sinner as to the practical point; A Sinner conceded the historical point; I think A Sinner is over-harsh about the ‘externalist’ approach; we all agree that natural law theory in general is not committed to the points you criticize; and that’s it. There aren’t any huge disagreements here.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          No, the disagreements are not huge. I agree. However, there are differences (Chas, for example, distinguished between “new natural law” theories and the classical theory of Aquinas), especially when you get outside academic philosophical discussions and into popular discourse. There, appeals to natural law often lose their rigor and become the sort of caricatures and perversions that I’m sure make natural law proponents’ skin crawl. Rodak, I sense, has these sorts of expressions in mind. Anyhow, as I said in my post, my argument, if sound, doesn’t discredit all natural law theories.

          • Brandon says:

            Yes, New Natural Law theories are a position that are, as the name implies, explicitly an attempt to revise natural law arguments in a strongly personalist direction to avoid any accusation of naturalistic fallacy; how much this is actually a substantive revision and how much it is merely a shift of emphasis is in fact controversial.

            The problem with appeals to natural law in popular discourse is a general problem; all philosophical discussions lose rigor when they enter popular discourse. If someone is specifically targeting popular versions of any ethical argument, that has to be taken into account, and approximation, loose phrasing, and incomplete argument tolerated; the right standard for evaluating popular versions of philosophical arguments is not “right” but “close enough for practical purposes”.

      • Rodak says:

        That’s because it doesn’t partake of reality. It’s like accurately describing Leviathon.

  2. Serena says:

    I don’t think it would have changed the Church’s present belief on contraceptive technologies, but I wonder if the Church Fathers, and in turn the Church’s current belief on non pro-creative sex (masturbation, oral, anal), would have been different if they new that sperm is regenerative and it is impossible for a man to “waste his seed”; although maybe oral and anal sex would still have gone against ideals on cleanliness.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Interesting question, Serena. I’m afraid I’m not familiar enough with the thought of the Church Fathers on the question of sex to give an informed answer. I suspect not. The latest Catholic thinking, which owns a lot to the last pope and his debt to Kant’s personalist principle, hasn’t fundamentally changed the teachings.