I couldn’t let this pass without a quick notice. Here we have the academic philosopher (Notre Dame Endowed Chair in Philosophy) Gary Gutting, writing at the New York Times, decides to tackle the question of the Catholic Church’s ban on homosexual acts, which he rightly notes is based on natural law thinking:
The problem is that, rightly developed, natural-law thinking seems to support rather than reject the morality of homosexual behavior. Consider this line of thought from John Corvino, a philosopher at Wayne State University: “A gay relationship, like a straight relationship, can be a significant avenue of meaning, growth, and fulfillment. It can realize a variety of genuine human goods; it can bear good fruit. . . . [For both straight and gay couples,] sex is a powerful and unique way of building, celebrating, and replenishing intimacy.” The sort of relationship Corvino describes seems clearly one that would contribute to a couple’s fulfillment as human beings — whether the sex involved is hetero- or homosexual. Isn’t this just what it should mean to live in accord with human nature?
Natural-law ethicists typically don’t see it that way. They judge homosexual acts immoral, and claim that even a relationship like the one Corvino describes would be evil because the sex involved would be of the wrong sort. According to them, any sexual act that could not in principle result in pregnancy is contrary to the laws of human nature because it means that each partner is using it as a means to his or her pleasure. Only a shared act directed toward reproduction can prevent this ultimate selfishness.
Now, I may not be an endowed philosophy professor at Notre Dame, but I’ve read a few philosophy books about the natural law (e.g. this one) and it is basic natural law 101 stuff to note that the good professor just gets the basics wrong here. When he says “any sexual act that could not in principle result in pregnancy in contrary to the laws of human nature because it means that each partner is using it as a means to his or her pleasure” he is talking nonsense – that’s not what natural law theorists have in mind at all when they talk about the meaning and purpose of sex. Because I never get tired of quoting Ed Feser, here he is summarizing what natural law theorists mean when we talk about the telos of sex and why homosexual acts are immoral:
Classical natural law theory presupposes certain elements of Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) metaphysics, namely its essentialism and affirmation of the reality of immanent teleology. The idea is that natural substances have essences, and that these essences entail certain ends toward which a substance is naturally directed. In the case of living things, the realization of these ends will constitute the thing’s flourishing as the kind of thing it is. So, for example, a tree will, by virtue of its essence, have a natural tendency to sink roots into the ground, to grow branches and leaves, and so forth; and to the extent it successfully does so, it will flourish as a tree, while if it fails to do so (e.g. if because of external factors or internal defects it is unable to sink roots very deeply into the soil) it will atrophy. A squirrel, by virtue of its essence, will naturally tend to gather acorns, scamper up trees, and so forth; and to the extent it pursues these ends it will flourish qua squirrel, while to the extent it fails to do so (again, whether because of external circumstances or internal defects) it will not flourish.
For classical natural law theory, such natural teleology grounded in the essences of things entails an objective standard of goodness and badness. A tree with strong roots and branches is to that extent a good tree, while a diseased tree with weak roots and withered branches is a bad one; a healthy squirrel which likes to scamper about and gather food is to that extent a good squirrel, while a squirrel which has through injury lost the ability to climb trees and because of genetic defect does not enjoy the taste of acorns is a bad one; and so forth. So far this is not a moral sense of “good” versus “bad”; it is rather the sense operative when we describe something as a “good specimen” or “bad example” of a kind of thing. But it is an entirely objective sense. When we say that the healthy tree is a good tree and the diseased squirrel a bad squirrel, we are not expressing our own preferences but simply stating what follows, as a matter of objective fact, from the nature or essence of a tree or squirrel. (There is no “fact/value distinction” from an A-T point of view; so-called “values” are built into the facts from the get go.) Moreover, distinctively moral goodness or badness falls out as a special case of this more general sense. Moral goodness or badness is just the kind of goodness or badness manifested by rational agents, who (unlike plants and animals) can freely choose whether or not to pursue what is good for them given their nature. A rational agent who chooses to pursue the ends that his essence determines are good for him is to that extent morally good, while a rational agent who chooses to pursue that which is contrary to these ends is to that extent morally bad...
Now, the way this gets worked out so as to provide us with moral guidance on specific issues is complicated, and much depends on various concrete details of human nature and the physical, cultural, and historical circumstances in which human beings find themselves. (I discuss the implications for private property and related issues in the article linked to, and the implications for sexual morality in chapter 4 of The Last Superstition.) But “perverted faculty” arguments for certain moral conclusions fall out as a natural consequence of the general principles already described. The basic idea is that when some faculty F is natural to a rational agent A and by nature exists for the sake of some end E (and exists in A precisely so that A might pursue E), then it is metaphysically impossible for it to be good for A to use F in a manner contrary to E. For the good of a thing is determined by the end which it has by nature. F exists for the sake of E, and agents like A naturally possess F precisely so that they might pursue E. Hence (given the underlying metaphysics) it cannot possibly be good to use F for the sake of preventing the realization of E, or for the sake of an end which has an inherent tendency to frustrate the realization of E. Hence (to cite the best-known applications of this reasoning) it cannot possibly be good to use our sexual faculties in a way that positively frustrates their procreative end.
Or to put it in succinct terms, appropriate for a New York Times column, “any sexual act that could not in principle result in pregnancy is contrary to the laws of human nature because it means that each person would be using their sexual organs for a purpose for which it is not designed or for an end that does not promote the realization of its ultimate essence.”
I guess we should expect the New York Times to publish such tripe – but how come Notre Dame employs this learned professor? And if you really want to despair, you should read a sample of the over 600 comments on the article – only a handful (perhaps 10?) defend the Catholic position and maybe one or two recognize the problem with Gutting’s attack on natural law. The rest are folks just happy to attack the Catholic Church and/or defend homosexual acts as normal.