What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

I May Not Be A Philosophy Professor, But I Know Bad Philosophical Arguments When I See Them

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.

Comments (10)

Even the atheist natural law philosopher, Ayn Rand, recognized that homosexual acts were immoral.

I wonder if Gutting is reading the "New" natural law theorists like John Finis. If so, he wouldn't necessarily be misrepresenting the people he's talking about, even though what he is saying doesn't fit at all with classical natural law theory.

Wouldn't Robert P. George be regarded as a New Natural Law guy? Is this a fair representation of his views? I think he has a lot more to say about the goods of marriage and instantiating an ersatz, etc.

Gary Gutting has been a hair-pulling crank of this sort for a long time. He's the Philosophy Department's Richard McBrien. There are Lutherans on the faculty who think more soundly than he does.

New Natural Law theorists tend not to be teleologists. Feser is a Thomist, and the view he's espousing in the excerpt here is an Aristotelian/Thomist view about ends. Folks like Finnis don't talk about ends (at least, they don't talk primarily or solely about ends).

Finnis's thesis about natural law is predicated on fundamental, irreducible, incommensurable goods and the relationship that human acts, by their nature, have to those goods. George is more of this school than the classical Thomist school.

Is Gutting's statement a fair summary of Finnis's theory? It's awfully cramped to be that. Finnis would say (indeed, Finnis has said) that homosexual acts are wrong because they are contrary to the fundamental human good of marriage. Their fruitlessness (and thus their inherent selfishness) is a characteristic that demonstrates their inherently non-marital character, but the analysis is not so reducible.

Similarly, the sterile-so-selfish analysis is a component of John Paul II's theology of the body, which is not, per se, a natural law theory, but is, rather, a reasoned analysis from certain premises, some of which are observed in nature and some of which are revealed. But like New Natural Law thought, it's not reducible to Gutting's comment.

Chris, I wondered the same thing. But I didn't have time to follow it up and actually check.

To be overly lenient, it's more that Gutting just guts the underlying concepts behind the theory, rather than that he badly mis-represents the results.

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.

If that were really what NL theory had to say about why it is wrong, it would not be surprising that many people give it short shrift. But it is true that each partner in contracepted or homosexual acts is "using it as a means to his or her pleasure." And it is true that shared acts that are directed toward reproduction do NOT tend toward the ultimate selfishness in the same way. But stating these as if they were (a) the foundational points, and (b) matters that everyone will easily agree upon as sensible, is indeed a bad presentation of NL theory.

The theistic natural lawyer could, if he wanted to, point to a layer of truth deeper even than the layer Jeff provides in the quote from Ed. For example: the very reason why God designed sex the way he did, and designed humans to be ready for the right kind of sex, was to formulate human nature and its sexual aspect as a pointer toward a still higher truth: that man is destined for God. He is destined for a relationship that is unique (thus marriage is faithful, monogamous), permanent (thus marriage is not fleeting but lifelong), self-giving, fruitful (thus marriage is open to life), and one of intense joy. But these truths come at least partly out of revelation, and thus are not found within natural law itself.

But what natural law can say on its own (without revealed truth) is that just as man has a nature that implies an overall telos, man has faculties which have "functions" and thus have their own telos in connection with the whole. It is impossible to correctly understand the individual faculty in isolation from the whole man: if you said "the purpose of the eye is to see, and thus it must have light, so turning off the lights is contrary to the purpose of the eye" you would distort the nature of the eye by treating it in isolation from the man whose faculty of sight it is part of. Or, (to refer back to Gutting's comment) if you use sex in a way that serves "a variety of genuine human goods" but disrupts the overall hierarchy of goods to which man is ordered, that's not serving the good properly so called. Which is, after all, exactly what we know as sin: choosing a good that is good in a limited, narrow sense but is disordered with respect to the whole hierarchy of goods. You cannot make an act of robbing a bank into a good act because the robber is going to give part of the money to charity. You cannot even make it a partly bad act and partly good act: the good end served by giving money to the poor is vitiated by the evil of the act's own nature, that of stealing, so that even serving the poor becomes morally evil in this case. Similarly, you cannot make an act of homosexual sex into a good act because it serves "a variety of human goods" in isolation from the hierarchy of goods and man's nature which is the organizing principle of them.

Hah, cross posted with Titus.

What classical law theory has that the New NL does not is the hierarchy of goods that I mentioned. Man as an integrated being is made for "an end" in a way that is not captured by saying that he has a plurality of irreducible, incommensurable goods. That classical and new NL lawyers dispute about this is obvious, and someone like Gutting should at least be aware of the differences, be able to state them clearly, or to avoid mixing them up if his point rises above the differences between the two schools. That's what we would expect of a competent professor.

Titus (and Tony),

Finnis and George respond: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/03/14635/

Not surprisingly, they take Gutting to the woodshed and highlight their own theory's focus on marriage as the key good that should guide human sexuality. I find their piece convincing, but I've also read some of Ed's stuff that pointed out some flaws in the New Natural Law theorists thinking, so I'm looking forward to his take on all this.


I tend to agree that the traditional Thomist teleological view of things is superior. Finnis's efforts have been, I think, not so much in real opposition to Thomism, but an attempt to make Thomism's key insights useful in a world where Aristole's metaphysics are almost universally rejected. (Although, I'm not sure Finnis himself would accept that characterization; it may simply be that he thinks the metaphysical underpinnings of Aristotelian teleology aren't sound, even if the revealed truth that God created man for a discrete purpose is.) Also, his discussion of the incommensurability of goods in Natural Law and Natural Rights is must-read material for anyone who comes into contact with utilitarians.

Jeff, thanks for the link. I have P.D. on an RSS feed, but I rarely click through because the articles take a while to digest when you're trying to rack up billable hours.

I've encountered similarly poor scholarship and wrote at length about the flawed utilitarian critiques of, in my particular case Divine Command Theory, by James Rachels


Utilitarianism is the only theory for the liberal Modernist that ticks their desired boxes, if they modify it slightly of course. Only Kantianism serves as rival.

"A gay relationship, like a straight relationship, can be a significant avenue of meaning, growth, and fulfillment."

How does he defend this? He presents no supporting evidence for this claim and yet it is central to his argument. Any relationship can give someone subjective meaning, but subjective meaning is simply a fantasy specific to the individual,these relationships in no way grant objective meaning. Growth is a nebulous word thrown in there. Fulfillment can be found at the end of a heroin needle or in a Chinese buffet, neither are necessarily moral goods because of it.

With Modernist philosophers, it is more about upholding and justifying the pillars of the world that provides their lifeline. Not about logic or sound argumentation.

Fulfillment can be found at the end of a heroin needle or in a Chinese buffet, neither are necessarily moral goods because of it.

This is a good point. We need some kind of higher standard of such positive words as "growth" and "fulfillment." If all we mean is what the New Homophiles mean when they say something lame like "there can be positive aspects to a homosexual relationship," this could apply to a lot of things. I suppose a man with a harem of ten wives sometimes has "positive aspects" in his relationship with them, and sometimes their relationship may be a road to "growth and fulfillment" of some kind or other for one or more members of the clan. This is a very low standard.

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.