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Query:

I personally find teleological arguments about sex compelling – the sort of arguments that identify the purposes of the sexual powers (procreation and the union of the procreative partners), and then draw the inference that we should behave in ways that cooperate with these purposes instead of, as you say, undermining them.  On the other hand, so many people seem to be able to wave such arguments away.  So do you think the arguments are really strong?

Reply:

I do think consider teleological arguments strong – both valid and compelling.  The significance of the fact that many people refuse to take them seriously is psychological, not logical.  If they refused to take them seriously because there were actually something wrong with them, I would worry.  But there seems to be nothing wrong with them.  The problem lies in not wanting to be persuaded.

I am reminded of a student some years ago who had just heard an explanation of what counts as a valid argument.  He asked, “But what if the premises are true and the reasoning is sound, but I just know the conclusion is wrong?”  I answered, “Then you change your mind.”

Well, other arguments about sexuality are available.  Then should you give up on this one and only use them?  That would be silly; after all, people irrationally reject the other arguments too!  Besides, even when the barrier to accepting a teleological argument does lie in the will rather than in the intellect, often something can be done to get past a person’s defenses and render the argument accessible to his mind.

Example:  If I simply ask someone, “What is the natural purpose of the sexual powers?” he is likely to reply, “Pleasure.”  This is a poor answer; if it were their natural purpose, then pleasure alone would be the criterion of right and wrong (and in fact that is how people think).  But suppose, instead, I first warm up the other fellow’s power to think teleologically.  Then he is likely to answer differently.

“What is the natural purpose of the eye?” I might ask.  “Seeing,” comes the reply.  “How about the purpose of the heart?”  “Circulating blood.”  “How about the respiratory powers?”  “Oxygenating it.”  “How about the thumb?”  “Grasping.”  “How about the power to become angry?”  “Getting me ready to defend something.”  Now if I ask “How about the sexual powers?” he is likely to reply “Procreation.”

Suppose he adds, “But isn’t pleasure a purpose too?”  I comment, “All of the voluntary powers are pleasurable.  It’s pleasurable to take a deep breath.  It’s pleasurable to flex the muscles.  It’s pleasurable to eat.  Does that fact that eating is pleasurable make pleasure the natural purpose of eating?”  He answers, “No, its purpose is nutrition.”  “So pleasure isn’t the purpose of the power to eat?”  “I guess not,” he might answer, and I agree.

He might protest, “Even so, I’m not happy that pleasure has been left out of the picture.”  “It hasn’t been left out,” I respond.  “Then where is it?” he asks.  “Just because pleasure isn’t the purpose of eating,” I reply, “it doesn’t follow that the pleasure itself is useless.  What purpose might it have?”  “I suppose its purpose would be to encourage us to take in the nutrition we need.”  “So pleasure isn’t the natural purpose of the power to eatbut only a motive for using it?”  “Apparently so,” he replies.

“But in that case,” I might add, “we can draw an analogy.  The purpose of the sexual powers isn’t pleasure, but procreative union.  But the pleasure of the sexual powers has its own purpose, because it encourages us to seek procreative union.”  Although my conversational partner may still dislike the conclusion, he now finds it more difficult to evade.

Suppose he asks, “But why should I care what the natural purposes of the sexual powers are?  Using them in other ways doesn’t hurt anyone.”  I might answer, “Are you so sure of that?  When we use them in other ways, we disorder human life.  For example, we produce offspring without giving them the assurance of being raised by their moms and dads.”  He might reply, “So why shouldn’t we just worry about that consequence?  Why drag in natural purposes?”  I might reply, “Aren’t the two things connected?  Even if you could avoid that particular undesired consequence, through drugs or something, you would still be missing the point of sexual union.  You would be using the bonding power without intending a bond.  You would be generating connections without commitments, connections that you may later tear apart.  Besides, purposes are the flip side of meanings.  It’s easy to say that sex doesn’t have to mean anything, but if use powers full of meaning without meaning anything by using them, we diminish ourselves.  What a recipe for loneliness, alienation, and resentment!”

There is plenty to talk about right there.  If the other fellow is willing to keep talking, though, I might bring up another consideration.   “Suppose we are gluttons, who eat to the detriment of the nutritional purpose.  Either we make ourselves enormous, or else, just to keep that from happening, we gorge, purge, and gorge again, keeping it up just as long as the pleasure of gorging lasts.  What would you think of this sort of behavior?”  Most people reply, “I would consider it disgusting.”  I might answer, “Isn’t it curious that we are disgusted by the use of the eating powers against their natural purpose, but not by the misuse of the sexual powers against their natural purpose?  If disgust is appropriate in one of those cases, then why not in both?  Every previous generation saw the parallel.”

Some people will agree in identifying the purpose of the sexual powers as procreative union, but then balk, merely because a conditioned reflex kicks in.  For many of us were drilled in the motto that “An is can’t imply an ought.”  Although these days most philosophers consider the motto discredited, word hasn’t got around.  Yet it is possible to get past this mantra too.

I might ask the objector, “So are you telling me that because an is can’t imply an ought, I shouldn’t derive normative conclusions from the natural purposes of things?”  “Right, that’s what I’m saying.”  “Fine.  But think about it.  Aren’t you deriving an ought from an is?”  “How am I doing that?”  “You’re telling me that that because it is the case that an is can’t imply an ought, we ought not make use of such inferences.”  “I guess I am.”  “So really you agree with me that an is can imply an ought.

If he still balks, I might tell him a story.  “You visit your ophthalmologist.  He says, ‘You’re much more nearsighted than the last time I examined you.’  You reply, ‘Would new eyeglasses clear up my vision?’  He answers, ‘Yes, completely.’  You reply:  ‘Could you make them for me?’  He answers, ‘Certainly.’  You reply, ‘Then I guess I ought to have you do it.’  Ophthalmologist (puzzled):  ‘Why?  After all, an is can’t imply an ought.’”  I conclude the story with a question:  “Wouldn't you look for a new ophthalmologist?”

And so the discussion might go.  We humans are odd birds.  Odd, because if rocks are dropped on our heads, we can expect them to make dents in our skulls – but if valid arguments are dropped on our minds, we can’t necessarily expect them to make dents in our understanding.  The whole art of reasoning with someone who is confused about sex is to get him to see what is right in front of his eyes.

This sort of discussion has the greatest punch when it is developed in the context of a personal relationship, so that the other fellow is not so concerned about saving face.  Little pieces of the argument may have to be presented many times, in many ways, on many occasions, before they all sink in.  You have to discern carefully which valid lines of reasoning can get past the other fellow’s defenses and which can’t, and you have to listen closely to know when there is no point in talking and knock off.  This isn't how they taught argument to us in graduate school.  But it's how human beings are.

And we have to keep our eyes on the ball.  The point of the discussion isn’t to have snappy comebacks for everything, but to elicit the lovely vision of what human beings are.  We are unions of body and soul.  The meanings and purposes of our biological powers are constitutive properties of our embodied personhood. They are inheritances, not encumbrances; enrichments, not impoverishments. They are not things to be struggled against, but things to be cherished as gifts.

J. Budziszewski is a Professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin. This article has been republished with permission from his blog, The Underground Thomist See also book, On the Meaning of Sex.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is a New Zealand journalist with a special interest in family issues. She began her working life as a secondary school teacher but always fancied the life of the scribe. Too late, she...