Swinburne and Trump: from FB

The paragraphs below are revised versions of a Facebook post.  I was hoping to start a discussions, but failed to do so.  There are three things I think it may bring out.  First, the opposition to homosexuality in the RC Church is not an innocent implication of a venerable doctrine.  It is the product of a highly selective concentration on sex.  Secondly, people who think it is properly philosophical to label same-sex coupling as disordered, sick, etc, should ask if they are happy to say the same of the overweight.  Thirdly, it would be delicious to know what the average weight of the gay-shaming philosophers is.

……………….

Sex is only one of the areas in which natural law theorists think (or should think) about in terms of faculties, natural ends and well ordered desires. As I remember Elizabeth Anscombe pointing out years ago, consumption of food is another area. And here the spread of disordered desires is on open display throughout many countries.

Should we thank Trump for drawing our attention to the situation? Perhaps now we can all take some action.

Many people may protest that it is impossible to lose a substantial amount of weight and keep it off. That should not mean we should continue to leave heavier than average people at the mercy of their disorder desires.

Foods with fake attractions (artificial sweeteners) are surely like sex toys. Do we really want children to see such things on shelves in stores we frequent?

The recent tendency of designers to add larger sizes is clearly making big people more comfortable.

It is time to stop the growing obesity in our populations.

26 thoughts on “Swinburne and Trump: from FB

  1. As an active member of the Society of Christian Philosophers, though I was not at this meeting, I would like to respond. Mike Rea, as President of the SCP, has made it clear in his response that Swinburne’s views are in no way representative of any official position of the SCP or its members. And they are not views that I myself endorse. As to the issues you note, speaking for myself, not for the SCP:

    First, Swinburne is not a Roman Catholic—he is currently Eastern Orthodox. His ‘natural law’ ethic is a personal commitment.

    Secondly, I’m not sure that Swinburne or others who would endorse his view of homosexuality as ‘disordered’ would restrict their consideration to what they regard as deviant sex and ignore deviant food consumption or other ‘disordered’ activities. However ‘natural law’ is taken to play out in the RC Church, philosophers like Swinburne who operate within this ‘natural law’ framework may well, for all I know, take the view you suggest for reductio about eating or other activities as a serious moral commitment. Ask them.

    Thirdly, regarding ‘gay shaming’ and now in my own voice. I don’t think that there’s anything ‘disordered’ or morally wrong about same-sex sex, but I’m disturbed by the suggestion that those who, like Swinburne, do are gay-shamers or bigots or haters. They are just people who, for whatever reason, hold silly, wrong-headed views—like Pythagoreans who required followers to refrain from beans or, closer to home, people who believe that the enjoyment of recreational drugs is morally wrong .

    I agree that there’s an important difference: we don’t live in a society where bean-eating is condemned or where bean-eaters get thrown out of their homes, shunned by their communities, or face wide-spread discrimination. There are haters and bigots who condemn same-sex sex, and who shun and discriminate against LGBT people. Nevertheless, agreed that this is bad stuff and we don’t want to support that behavior, it doesn’t follow that everyone who holds the (silly, wrong-headed) view that homosexuality is ‘disordered’ is a bigot or a hater or a shamer. And I don’t think Swinburne is a bigot or hater or shamer, however much I disagree with his views on this and a range of other issues.

    Finally, again in my own voice, I don’t think the way this issue has spun out has been productive. Social conservatives were afraid that once alternative views were recognized their views would be condemned, and they would be condemned. And that is exactly what has happened, and why we’re now experiencing backlash that could get a lunatic into he Oval Office and get the earth blown up. What is the point? They’re Pythagoreans who don’t do beans. Let them be. And let the rest of us enjoy our chili.

  2. I think you’ll find that people who espouse rabidly conservative views–like the view that homosexuality is a disease or a disability–are usually quite happy to say similar things about obesity. Spend enough time in the grosser corridors of the internet (or of the philosophy blogosphere), and you can see it for yourself. They don’t tend to expend much mental energy scrutinizing themselves lest they betray some sort of inconsistency. The problem is always someone else’s, and the deficit of compassion (or rationality, or whatever) is pretty total.

    Also, I have to confess some discomfort with the schadenfreude above the dotted line, which sounds rather like an endorsement of straight-up fat-shaming. I totally get the desire to catch these people out in some sort of hypocrisy, but slinging the same kind of mud they’re tossing around doesn’t seem like a recipe for victory. We need better mud.

  3. Sockpuppet, i think you are reading into my remarks attitudes and suppositions not there. Throughout years of membership in the RC Church, which included studying Aquinas’s texts at college level, i saw what I regarded as honorable people arrive at, or consent to, views that when enacted could cause a remarkable amount of human suffering. I do not think of them necessarily as rabid, but I think they would not advocate comparable measures about weight, etc.
    I can’t see the schadenfreude you discern. So many of us have very negative views of our own bodies, and I don’t think I have the energy to find delight in someone else’s misery.

  4. HEB, I was thinking of the defenses of Swineburn I’ve seen, which did appeal to, I think, standard Aquinas-based natural law theory. I have no doubt that if they thought of it, they might well agree with Anscombe. The fact remain that no one, as far as I have seen, has recommended restricted access to the sacrements for those in the obese range. I can’t see that natural law theory, quickly cited in Swinburne’s defense, actually rationalizes the attention focused on sex.
    So something more is going on.

  5. Harriet, if I may– What would it take, on your view, to qualify someone’s views as bigoted? Surely, it cannot be a necessary condition that they themselves avow the views under that description, for on that account neither Trump, nor David Duke, nor Anita Bryant, nor Jesse Helms, (etc) would qualify as espousing bigoted views.

  6. I don’t have any clear criterion for making the cut between bigoted views and views that are simply wrong-headed. But there surely is such a distinction and seems that some conceptual analysis would be desirable here. Has anyone done this? I’m not in ethics: is there any stuff on the question of when holding false views on ethical matters reflects adversely on one’s moral character?

    I’m thinking about intuition-pump cases. Is someone bigoted if they hold any of the following wrong-headed views:

    • Eating beans is morally wrong.
    • Using recreational drugs is morally wrong.
    • Masturbation is morally wrong.

    These seem to me clear cases of false moral judgements that don’t reflect adversely on the moral character of people who make them. Would you grant that? If so, then how do these claims differ from the claims that same-sex sex is morally wrong?

    Thinking about this, bigotry happens when one makes moral judgements primarily about the agent rather than the act or judges an action to be morally wrong because the action is associated with people one despises or regards as inferior. Think about the use of recreational drugs, which I suppose is a cases that can be understood either way thinking of Reefer Madness or the huge difference in penalties for crack and coke. When respectable white ladies dosed themselves with laudanum and such, that was fine; when marijuana became associated with black jazz musicians it was demonized. That is bigotry: when an action is condemned because ‘the wrong sort of people’ do it. But one could hold, falsely but without bigotry, that recreational drug use was wrong without that racism.

  7. Hello,

    With regard to your last comment – nobody thinks we should restrict access to the sacraments on the basis of any sin (or disorder of faculties, or whatever). Only being in an ongoing state of mortal sin and hence cut off from grace would be relevant to a priest’s decision to deny the sacrament (a decision which in any case should never be taken lightly).

    The circumstances in which gluttony would become a mortal sin are discussed in the tradition – I’ll quote from the Summa Theologica (Q148, article 2):

    “Accordingly, if the inordinate concupiscence in gluttony be found to turn man away from the last end, gluttony will be a mortal sin. This is the case when he adheres to the pleasure of gluttony as his end, for the sake of which he contemns God, being ready to disobey God’s commandments, in order to obtain those pleasures. On the other hand, if the inordinate concupiscence in the vice of gluttony be found to affect only such things as are directed to the end, for instance when a man has too great a desire for the pleasures of the palate, yet would not for their sake do anything contrary to God’s law, it is a venial sin.”

    In practice, I think that it would be unlikely either for someone in a state of appropriately mortal sin to seek communion, and even more unlikely to be sufficiently public or egregious in their sin for a priest to know that that person’s state of sin was mortal and not merely venial with sufficient certainty to be justified in refusing communion. But if you show me someone who is willing to curse God for a cheeseburger, or steal food from a homeless man, in front of thier parish priest then I’ll happily agree that said priest should refuse them the communion on account of their gluttony.

    The question of if and when homosexual activity ought (by the lights of the RC church) to count as a mortal sin is fraught, but I hope you can see that it would be at least problematic to treat committed public homosexuality as a venial sin, to be discouraged, frowned on, and taught against but tolerated in communion, like being a spendthrift or habitually lying about small things – in particular it seems that if you publically own your sin as a part of your identity which you wouldn’t be without, feel no shame about it, and deny its sinfulness, not in ignorance of the teaching of the church on the matter but in defiance of it, it’s a little bit cheeky of you to then go up and ask to participate in the body of the church through communion.

    It is worth noting as a side-point here that though many people might be proud of (or okay with) being fat, I doubt very many would profess to be proud of being gluttonous; and the analogy to homosexuality isn’t with fatness, but with the vice: gluttony: the pursuit of gratification by eating for its own sake, beyond the bounds of reason and in opposition to the good for you as a human and the common good of your community. Someone who was relevantly analagous to an out gay person would have to publically affirm that gluttony itself (as opposed to mere fatness) was fine and good. I don’t know for sure what the Church’s reaction would be to a gluttony pride parade but I can’t imagine they’d be thrilled. And perhaps if the ‘gluttony pride’ movement took off then denying communion to prominent gluttons would become as much of a live issue as denying it to homosexuals.

    All that said, the question of how willing priests should be to refuse communion to people who are up to their necks in less talked-about mortal sins, such as ‘injustice to the wage earner’, is very much a live one and you do find catholic writers sounding off about it. I’m sure they’d be up for denying communion to the occasional outstandingly bad glutton as well.

    Cordially,
    Lambton

  8. I know plenty of people who are not only proud of their gluttony but self-righteous about it. They are food fetishists. They read about food, collect cookbooks, make a hobby of cooking and trying out expensive restaurants, obsess about food, congratulate themselves for ‘eating healthy’, and condemn people who don’t, by their lights, ‘eat healthy’. I’d call that gluttony.

    Does the Church refuse communion to these foodies?

  9. Lambton, i am surprised to find myself in disagreements with you on matter of both practice and doctrine. First, the Church’s views on sex outside of marriage don’t seem to have changed since I was first told (decades and decades ago) that any voluntary enjoyment of sexual pleasure outside of marriage was a mortal sin. Thus from a recent National Catholic Reporter

    How do you plan to handle potentially lifelong, involuntary celibacy? It’s a question I’ve never had anyone in church leadership or a layperson in a heart-to-heart discussion ask me that directly, because it is never assumed that a heterosexual woman … will be single forever — even though abstinence until marriage is still taught and to some degree expected;… and even though women of all races far outnumber men in churches in all denominations.

    About gluttony: doesn’t the question just arise again: why the distinction between this and unmarried sex/gay sex?
    In the meantime priests do refuse the sacrements sometimes to people living in sexual sin, including gay couples, and that poor overeater/drinker, GK Chesterson, may not get his holiness officially recognized.

  10. Hello again,

    Clearly I have not made myself clear.

    My position is as follows:
    a) a person who takes gluttony to the point of mortal sin sould not seek to take communion.
    b) a priest who knows that a given parisioner has taken gluttony to the point of mortal sin should refuse them communion.

    In order to refuse communion a priest has to know that the petitioner is in a state of unrepented mortal sin, and if they do not know it, and with a good amount of certainty, they should not refuse communion. This applies even when the petitioner is almost certainly – but not quite certainly – in a state of mortal sin. Thus priests will habitually give communion to divorced people with live-in partners, on the basis that they might be living as brother and sister, if they ask for it. Even the strictest interpretations of the canon law allow a priest to act in this way and more liberal interpretations positively recommend it; and in any interpretation the priest should be very reluctant to refuse communion if the person asks for it, even in situations where they’re pretty certain the person is in a state of mortal sin.

    In the case of homosexuality, a person who publically professes that they are practicing homosexuality (i.e. that they are in a state of mortal sin) that they see no wrong in it (i.e. that they are impenitent) and that they affirm it as a part of their character and identity (i.e. they leave you in no doubt that the sin is mortal and untouched by contrition), then it is reasonable for a priest to regard themselves as being in sufficient certainty to deny the petitioner communion (and it’s damn cheeky of them to ask for communion in the first place).

    For a self-rightous glutton to leave a priest in the equivalent state of certainty, they would have to profess that they were in a state of not just gluttony, but mortal gluttony (“for the sake of which he contemns God, being ready to disobey God’s commandments, in order to obtain those pleasures”), and that they were impenitent about their gluttony, not under a different description but *as gluttony*. Without such a profession it would be very rare that a priest could conclude that the glutton was in a state of genuinely mortal unrepented sin with sufficient certainty to justify refusal of communion. Though people may be self-righteous about their eating habits I do not believe that this happens very often and certainly not often enough for it to be strange that the Magisterium has never spoken decisively about it.

    Thus a priest has the responsibility to teach against gluttony and a thoughtful person who is also a mortally sinful glutton should feel themselves bound to not ask for communion, but it is profoundly unlikely that the issue of a priest actively refusing communion to a glutton on account of their gluttony will come up with the remotest regularity; while priests must reasonably often have to make the relevant decision about homosexuality.

    So I don’t think you can accuse the Magisterium and the philosophers in its orbit of inconsitency on the specific matter of refusal of the sacraments.

    Cordially,
    Lambton

  11. Hello again,

    – I am getting website maintainance messages so I apologise if this is a double post.

    Clearly I have not made myself clear.

    My position is as follows:
    a) a person who takes gluttony to the point of mortal sin sould not seek to take communion.
    b) a priest who knows that a given parisioner has taken gluttony to the point of mortal sin should refuse them communion.

    In order to refuse communion a priest has to know that the petitioner is in a state of unrepented mortal sin, and if they do not know it, and with a good amount of certainty, they should not refuse communion. This applies even when the petitioner is almost certainly – but not quite certainly – in a state of mortal sin. Thus priests will habitually give communion to divorced people with live-in partners, on the basis that they might be living as brother and sister, if they ask for it. Even the strictest interpretations of the canon law allow a priest to act in this way and more liberal interpretations positively recommend it; and in any interpretation the priest should be very reluctant to refuse communion if the person asks for it, even in situations where they’re pretty certain the person is in a state of mortal sin.

    In the case of homosexuality, a person who publically professes that they are practicing homosexuality (i.e. that they are in a state of mortal sin) that they see no wrong in it (i.e. that they are impenitent) and that they affirm it as a part of their character and identity (i.e. they leave you in no doubt that the sin is mortal and untouched by contrition), then it is reasonable for a priest to regard themselves as being in sufficient certainty to deny the petitioner communion (and it’s damn cheeky of them to ask for communion in the first place).

    For a self-rightous glutton to leave a priest in the equivalent state of certainty, they would have to profess that they were in a state of not just gluttony, but mortal gluttony (“for the sake of which he contemns God, being ready to disobey God’s commandments, in order to obtain those pleasures”), and that they were impenitent about their gluttony, not under a different description but *as gluttony*. Without such a profession it would be very rare that a priest could conclude that the glutton was in a state of genuinely mortal unrepented sin with sufficient certainty to justify refusal of communion. Though people may be self-righteous about their eating habits I do not believe that this happens very often and certainly not often enough for it to be strange that the Magisterium has never spoken decisively about it.

    Thus a priest has the responsibility to teach against gluttony and a thoughtful person who is also a mortally sinful glutton should feel themselves bound to not ask for communion, but it is profoundly unlikely that the issue of a priest actively refusing communion to a glutton on account of their gluttony will come up with the remotest regularity; while priests must reasonably often have to make the relevant decision about homosexuality.

    So I don’t think you can accuse the Magisterium and the philosophers in its orbit of inconsitency on the specific matter of refusal of the sacraments.

    Cordially,
    Lambton

  12. I like it. It is not impossible to lose weight and keep it off. It just takes work and excuses are so much easier. I used to be the one who made all the excuses but with the exception of a few medical diseases, all of are bodies are close enough to the same that we can all do it if one person can. It is harder for certain body types. It just takes work.

  13. Lambton,
    For me the central problem on your account is that to live as self-respecting gay person is of the same moral status as living as a God-defying glutton. I think – and hope – that that eqivalence is what is in question.

  14. Lambton,

    I think that I have gotten confused about the order of your comments. Inany case, I think that this is th heart of our disagreement:

    In the case of homosexuality, a person who publically professes that they are practicing homosexuality (i.e. that they are in a state of mortal sin) that they see no wrong in it (i.e. that they are impenitent) and that they affirm it as a part of their character and identity (i.e. they leave you in no doubt that the sin is mortal and untouched by contrition), then it is reasonable for a priest to regard themselves as being in sufficient certainty to deny the petitioner communion (and it’s damn cheeky of them to ask for communion in the first place).

    For a self-rightous glutton to leave a priest in the equivalent state of certainty, they would have to profess that they were in a state of not just gluttony, but mortal gluttony (“for the sake of which he contemns God, being ready to disobey God’s commandments, in order to obtain those pleasures”), and that they were impenitent about their gluttony, not under a different description but *as gluttony*.

  15. Hello.

    In your original post, you say:

    “First, the opposition to homosexuality in the RC Church is not an innocent implication of a venerable doctrine. It is the product of a highly selective concentration on sex. Secondly, people who think it is properly philosophical to label same-sex coupling as disordered, sick, etc, should ask if they are happy to say the same of the overweight.”

    This seems to imply that what you’re going for is an immanent critique of natural law theory and/or the teaching of the RC church, specifically that there is an inconsistency between their teaching on sex and their teaching on gluttony.

    What I have been arguing is that no such inconsistency exists, because both the strongest versions of natural law theory (for example, the Thomistic version) and the tradition teach that gluttony is a disorder or misdirection of the faculties just as homosexuality is a disorder or misdirection of the faculties; and like homosexuality can be taken to the point of being a mortal sin, in which case it should be treated as such by the church. So there is no internal contradiction in natural law theory or in the tradition on this account.

    If the tradition or current teaching emphasises questions about the disorder of the sexual faculties over the digestive ones, I maintain that this is to do with practicalities and what happens to press upon the minds of church people and not because of a contradiction in the teaching. Perhaps the church ought to take the question of gluttony more seriously, but even if this is so it would not represent a philosophical problem and it would not count as an argument against the particular position the RC Church takes on the matter of homosexuality – only on the amount of time they spend teaching about it in comparison to gluttony.

    It is not possible to claimm that there is a “highly selective concentration on sex” as against all the human faculties, as opposed to the faculties relevant to gluttony alone, because the church talks about injustice, the environment, reconciliation, conversion and many other matters all the time; and these are understood by natural law theorists (and by the Church insofar as the Church relies on such theorists for its specific teaching) on the same model of disorder and misdirection of faculties (especially the disorder of the will and the intellect).

    When you say,

    “For me the central problem on your account is that to live as self-respecting gay person is of the same moral status as living as a God-defying glutton.”

    I find this quite strange: because I had taken the original issue to be an apparent inconsistency between the natural law theorist’s treatment of gluttony and their treatment of disorder of the sexual faculties. As I set out to argue that no such inconsistency exists, yes of course my position is that, from the point of view of someone who holds fast to the arguments and position of the RC Church, being in mortal sin as a result of gluttony and being in mortal sin as a result of homosexuality are both precisely states of mortal sin.

    If you wish to question that equivalence, then fine: you may well have good arguments. But if this is your issue then you have already conceded the point that I am arguing: that the natural law theorist is not guilty of an inconsistency in their treatments of different disordered faculties. I didn’t set out to argue that the RC Church was right: only that it was consistent.

    Yours,
    Lambton

  16. Lambton,

    Thank you for yet another careful response. I don’t think that that the problem I am trying to locate is inconsistency. A charge of inconsistency is more a matter of method. I think the fault I am trying to describe is (perhaps) that a disgust at sex is getting wrapped up in natural law theory to keep the sexual activity of its members as tightly controlled as possible. Tho’this last contains a lot of conjecture about motives.

    Let me sketch the rhetorical situation as I see it:

    BACKGROUND:
    Qustion: why does Swinburne say homosexuality is a disoder, a disease?
    Ans in a lot of places: His view is neither silly nor retrograde. Rather, it follows from a very venerable natural law theory and it is promoted by a very venerable Church.

    Present discussion:
    AJJ: but that can’t be the answer because lots of violations of natural law are not so harshly condemned
    L: but the glutton who turns away from God is condemned.
    AJJ: but the gay person needn’t turn away from God; he might in effect be like the snacking glutton, who is 40lb overweight, but not in mortal sin.

    AT THIS POINT, I’m not sure what you are saying

    Let me try to make this clearer: i think you might say that the gay person is really like the God-defying glutton. I’m inclined to think that such a position is just in error. It may be that this is the crux of the matter for some people who are outraged at/greatly distressed by the idea that gay people are diseased.

  17. Hello –
    Thank you – I think I’m getting a bit more of a grip on things.

    I think it might be salutary to distinguish explicitly between the element of natural law theory that identifies something as a disorder or defect and that which identifies it as a vice or sin.
    A person who merely has homosexual desires is by the lights of the natural law theory in a state of disordered desire (because their desires are not directed at the proper object of sexual desire) but they aren’t in a state of vice. In order for the disorder to become a vice or sin, the person has to will their disorder.

    I was once taught by someone who professed (I have every reason to believe genuinely) to be in a chaste homosexual relationship (they were old Catholic men and in their way very sweet). This person seemed to regard his homosexuality as a kind of mild misfortune, like myopia (though I gather it was more of a problem for him when he was younger). No thoughtful Catholic theoretician could plausibly condemn such a person: there is nothing about gayness as such which is sinful. The proud gay person we’re imagining being denied the communion, however, is presumably someone who wills their disorder of faculties: who regards the disorder, or as Swinburne puts it the sickness, of their faculty as a kind of health. To will this disorder of faculty and to carry this will over into decisive and unrepented action is what constitutes the ongoing state of sin.

    So prima facie this is a case for why it is that the most usual cases of gluttony are condemned less strongly, even though they may represent a disorder of faculties, while the most usual cases of homosexual activity are condemned decisively.

    I’ve also said that the homosexual sin is more likely to be mortal, and I think a little thought will bear this out. A mortal sin is one that concerns a grave matter, and is committed with full knowledge and wilful consent of the sinner (this criterion meaning not only that it must be voluntary but also that the person must be aware that it is a sin, and will it under its description as a sin). (I’d also add the Thomistic requirement that the sin must proceed from a settled habit as opposed to, say, a one-off excess of feeling.) If you’re willing to grant that sex is a grave matter, it seems like the cases in which consensual homosexual sex between adults would not count as a mortal sin are relatively rare; and certainly much rarer than equivalent cases of gluttony. There are edge cases, and probably there are some venial acts of homosexual sex; but this is not going to be the normal case and certainly not the usual case of a person who engages habitually in homosexual acts in full knowledge of the relevant teaching of the church without repentance or admission of wrongdoing.

    Yours,
    Lambton

  18. Lambton,

    Perhaps I am incorrigible, but I still can’t see the force of the argument. But first let me say that I do feel sad at the tale of the old gay men. One thing to know is that lots of the quite elderly are interested in sex. But whether they were sexually active or not, your teacher seems to have maintained a long term loving relationship. That’s such a fine accomplishment and the fact that one of them regarded his sexuality as a mild misfortune seems itself very unfortunate. Mind you, the forces for self-hatred homosexuals face are so immense I suppose we might think ‘mild’ is not so unfortunate.. My husband and I moved a 3 and a half year old from a unisex Oxford to an insistently hetero Princeton, and I felt that half our world at least was bizarrely obsessed with the signs of heterosexuality.

    In any case, your description

    someone who wills their disorder of faculties: who regards the disorder, or as Swinburne puts it the sickness, of their faculty as a kind of health. To will this disorder of faculty and to carry this will over into decisive and unrepented action is what constitutes the ongoing state of sin.

    Seems to me to fit also a lot of ordinary gluttons. It does seem to me that there are a host of over-eaters who create and enjoy a food culture. One can see this in families and in workplaces. Most people seem to be aware that the activities are hardly promoting health, but nonetheless they see it as required for sociability, or at least as what is done. They will unrepentedly.

  19. Hello,

    Possibly we are talking at cross purposes.

    It would be very strange if my description of a sin did not fit many ordinary gluttons – after all gluttony is a sin (one of the seven deadly sins, if I recall) and most human beings are sinful in minor ways all the time.

    What I’ve been arguing is that homosexuality differs from gluttony in its seriousness (mortal-ness or liable-to-be-mortal-ness) as a sin, and that that is why the theory and rhetoric appears to emphasise it.

    You said in your original post: “I remember Elizabeth Anscombe pointing out years ago, consumption of food is another area”. So here, then, is Anscombe on the reason for the difference in teaching concerning the two; I quote from ‘Contraception and Chastity’ (part 4):

    “There is no such thing as a casual, non-significant sexual act; everyone knows this. Contrast sex with eating – you’re strolling along a lane, you see a mushroom on a bank as you pass by, you know about mushrooms, you pick it and you eat it quite casually – sex is never like that. That’s why virtue in connection with eating is basically a matter only of the pattern of one’s eating habits. But virtue in sex – chastity – is not only a matter of such a pattern, that is of its role in a pair of lives. A single sexual action can be bad even without regard to its context, its further intentions and its motives.”

    So this is the essence of the matter as a natural law theorist has to see it.

    I think if you think through what it would mean for the practice of homosexual sex to be a venial sin – something that you ought to feel mildly dirty about, like telling social lies, or getting unnecessarily angry with annoying people, a ‘bad habit’ which you ought to get around to correcting at some point, but which just doesn’t seem serious enough that you should bring up every occasion of it at confession – then you will be able to see that this description is untenable for most if not all gay people. That isn’t a description that can plausibly be given of any normal person’s engagement in sex. Sex cannot be understood as just a ‘bad habit’. (Note “everyone knows this” in the quote: this isn’t an attempt to describe something contentious. Someone who had the same attitude towards fidelity to a diet (or if you’d prefer, a ‘diet buddy’) and fidelity to a partner would be absurd. Oh, I’m trying to work on this personality flaw I have: fornication.)

    Thus to habitually and deliberately engage in homosexual acts is to turn away decisively (mortally) from the Church in a way that would be rare and difficult for a glutton to manage; and to publicly profess and ‘own’ such acts gives grounds to a priest to regard you as having turned from the Church in a way that would be very rare for a glutton.

    So this is the rough shape the argument has to take.

    (I will again point out that I don’t think I have conceded any ground to the notion that there is a “highly selective concentration on sex” in natural law theory or the teaching of the RC Church – because once again injustice, greed, lust, wrath and so on are understood in the same terms of disorder and misdirection of faculties; and in amongst these sex holds a very secondary place. If one goes regularly to sermons one will hear quite frequently about greed, wrath, pride, and so on, and very rarely about sex.)

    Yours,
    Lambton

  20. Lambton, I’ve been glad to try to think through these issues with you. Unfortunately, i have now to get ready for a move from Houston to Oxford. I leave on Friday. The fact that my car unexpectedly decided to play dead this morning – I may be being optimistic here – alerts me to how indulgent philosophy can be.

    I do appreciate the time you’ve taken! I hope you will be interested in another topic we pick up.

  21. (A) I really don’t think reductio ad absurdem is a wise move in philosophy. My experience is that there is always SOMEONE who thinks your absurd is quite nice actually. (B) Gluttony is a deadly sin in Catholic theology, so, sure, we live in a world that does not deal righteously with food?

  22. I wanted to add to my reply that the United States is a country where obesity IS labeled as “disordered” and “sick.” I really don’t think that this argument does the work that it wants to do?

  23. Ah – fair enough.

    I’ll say one final thing before I pack up my bag, if I may.

    I decided to argue out the anti-gay natural law position not because I believe it, but because I’ve been repeatedly frustrated by people’s responses to the Catholic arguments about sexual ethics.

    Let me give a bit more of an example of what I mean. You said earlier on:

    “I think the fault I am trying to describe is (perhaps) that a disgust at sex is getting wrapped up in natural law theory to keep the sexual activity of its members as tightly controlled as possible. Tho’this last contains a lot of conjecture about motives.”

    Take, as an example of a natural lawyer, Ed Feser, whose blog sits next to this one in my ‘most visited’ tab, and from whom I’ve been reading about this Swinburne thing from the natural lawyer’s side. He has, if I remember rightly, about six children, and though I admit it’s possible that he got them by going grimly to bed to do his duty for the expansion of the race, I bet he didn’t. He also spent some decent chunk of time as an atheist, and was brought back into the fold of the church and its moral teachings through convincement, through the study of Aquinas (a trajectory which was also followed by several other philosophers that I admire as interpreters of the Angelic Doctor, such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Dr Carrasquillo over at Ite ad Thomam). It just isn’t plausible from what he says and does to imagine that he’s disgusted by sex or that he has come to his position as a result of such a disgust rather than by patiently following the arguments.

    It’s a very common complaint by Feser and other Catholic writers and bloggers I’ve read and follow that they are pilloried as bigots by opponents who have no answer to their arguments, and indeed who are not even concerned to make a serious go at understanding the arguments and the background to them so as to be in a position to meaningfully criticise them. I think this complaint is all too often justified, and over and over again I’ve seen ‘responses’ to the Catholic arguments which make fundamental misunderstandings about the arguments in question, which often could be shot down by a few lines of clarification from Aquinas or Anscombe, and which even amateurs are frequently able to unravel with a few pulls. The number amongst their opposition who have made a truly serious effort to dig into the arguments and tackle them on their own terms is not high. And I think it is very often the case that people go straight for explanations like ‘these people hate sex’, or that they’re bigots, or motivated by irrational religion, or other things of that sort, because doing so absolves them of the responsibility of taking their opponent’s arguments seriously.

    After all, we must acknowledge that there is a very, very serious temptation to avoid looking clear-headedly and with a genuinely open mind at arguments which might tell you that a major part of the way you are living, or the way a dear friend of yours is living, and which perhaps brings you or them much pleasure and joy, is bad and wrong and should be altered. I have found it very difficult, myself, to look at the arguments with seriousness, because of this temptation; and many times I have had to force myself to go back and question this or that response I’ve thought up, because I know in my heart that I have been satisfied by it not because I have tested its soundness as it deserves, but because I desperately want it to be satisfactory. This is an area in which genuine intellectual honest is almost impossibly difficult and achieved consistently by almost nobody, and as such it is very easy to call out the speck in your opponent’s eye while being unable to notice the plank in your own.

    The Church and its philosophers have had the best part of two thousand years to work their arguments out and work them over and sort out the wheat from the chaff, and as such I have found them to be very strong and very internally consistent, and the level of understanding of them which is commanded by the philosophers on the side of the Church is very high. We patronise them and cheapen ourselves by trying to impute base motives to them; and we confirm their prejudices about us when we say such things, which weakens own own position and strengthens them in their convictions.

    So this is why I feel obliged to stand up for the natural law arguments and to seek to show if not their correctness, then at least their consistency and strength. We owe it to our opponents. And more fundamentally, if we seek to avoid taking the arguments seriously and trying to understand what it is about them which has convinced our opponents in their own search and questioning, which we must, at least at first, assume with charity is as genuine and as honest as our own, then we cannot consider ourselves honestly engaged into the enquiry into right conduct; which is to say, we cannot consider ourselves philosophers.

    Yours in friendship,
    Lambton

  24. Lambton,

    This Is unfair! I’m now swamped with things to attend to, and you’ve brought in a host of deliciously complex issues that I can’t really attend to. Let me say a few brief things: one is that I was sloppy about thecontrol issues. Lots of systems appear to exist to promote X when it isn’t correct to attribute that goal to all or even most members of the system. Second is that as marriage and sex get tied together in Western European Society it is far from clear that love has much to do with it. It’s about, among other things, securing family property, getting some guarantee of paternity, giving a male control of the children, etc. Third, the two thousand years of cogitating the RC Church went in for was done without significant input from women, a fact that is really very, very unfortunate. Part of the result is that a woman whose body is seriouly depleted by nine pregnancies is seen as holy and following God’s will. Another take is that she was cruelly used by her husband. Indeed, the doctrines about sex have led to a great deal of pain, suffering and death for Many women while male control was largely left in tact.

    Sadly, I must now vow to sort out clothes, put unusable boxes out for recycling, etc, etc.

  25. mm,

    All you say is to some degree true. But still, I think you mistake the teaching. It can be true both at once that married people have some obligation to render the marriage debt to the other, and that a partner who uses the other to their detriment because they cannot restrain their lust, acts intemperately and perhaps cruelly. A bad situation for women persisted both in places where the Church had its influence, and in places where it didn’t, and this alone should make us suspect that the Church had really very little to do with it – and even a little thought on the teachings about chastity will show that if they were carried out seriously by everyone, the situation would have been wildly different: “Wherefore temperance takes the need of this life, as the rule of the pleasurable objects of which it makes use, and uses them only for as much as the need of this life requires.”

    Still – thank you for carrying the discussion as far as you have; and good luck with your sorting and moving.

    In friendship,
    Lambton

  26. Lambton, thank you for a very ciilized discussion on what can obviously be a very fraught topic.

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