On Mondays Prof J. Budziszewski of the University of Texas at Austin answers questions from students. Here is this week’s.
Query: I’m a law student. I also have some background in theology. Though I haven’t studied natural law before, I’ve been reading [your book] On the Meaning of Sex and have enjoyed it (I haven’t quite finished it yet). You talk in the book about the natural procreative and unitive purposes of the sexual powers, and that brings me to a problem I’ve had in conversation.
I was wondering how to talk with people who argue that the nature of our bodies, the difference of the sexes, and the reason why we have sexual powers in the first place don’t matter. Their main argument is that most things can have a multitude of uses. “What’s ‘natural’ anyway? We do ‘unnatural’ things all the time, like using mouths for kissing instead of eating! Any part of the body can be used for almost anything. So what’s the problem?” Such arguments frustrate me because they seem to be mostly about warping definitions.
Reply: I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the book. I see why it seems to you that your friends are warping definitions, because they seem to have fallen for the non sequitur that since words are just names, we may call anything whatever we want. But I can think of several other reasons for the conversational problem you describe. Here are a few of them.
The first problem is that your friends are attacking straw men. No natural law thinker in history has ever suggested that the mouth is made only for eating and that any other use of it is unnatural; go ahead and kiss your wife. Rather, the argument is that any use of our natural powers which undermines, degrades, and dishonours the purposes of our natural powers is inappropriate. So if you get angry, don’t bite her.
The next problem is that your friends can’t see any difference between objective purposes of their natural powers and their own subjective purposes in using them. But this distinction shouldn’t be difficult either. I might use my respiratory powers for the purpose of sniffing glue, but the inbuilt purpose of the power is to oxygenate my blood.
Third, they don’t understand the relationship of the “fitting” – they deny that anything could be naturally fitting or unfitting, appropriate or inappropriate, to anything else. But this idea shouldn’t be difficult either. Surely there would be something disordered if Grandma encouraged her Thanksgiving guests to eat until they were bursting, purge, then return to the table for the pleasure of another four courses. Surely there would be something wrong with us if we didn’t get it. Yet wouldn’t this also be a “use of the mouth”?
The final problem is that when the disordered ways in which we live give us something that we want — perhaps pleasure, perhaps the approval of our friends — we resist recognizing even what should be obvious. To justify ourselves to our consciences, we do violence to our grasp on reality. I mentioned that the points I made above should not be difficult for us — yet they become difficult for us because we work so hard to make them that way.
One can correct the first, second, and third problems by argument, because they lie in the intellect. But one cannot correct the fourth problem that way, because it lies not in the intellect but in the will. Moreover, the fourth problem causes us to resist the correction of the other three. So I have several suggestions for you.
Focus on the good and the beautiful. We more readily recognize the bad from the good than the good from the bad; we more easily identify the ugly through the vision of the beautiful than the beautiful through the nightmare of the ugly. Despite all they may do to destroy the loveliness of truthful order in their lives, your friends do long for it. It is impossible not to.
Learn to distinguish when it is useful to speak with someone and when it isn’t. Some people ask questions to find out the answers; others ask questions to avoid them. Some people engage in conversation to explore what may be true; others engage in it to be clever. Talking with people who are in the wrong state of mind to gain by conversation may do more harm than good.
Try to stay in relationship with misguided friends. In the lives of each of us, there come times when our evasions and rationalizations begin to wobble, when slivers of light pierce through to our eyes despite all the shrouds we use to shut them out. These are the times conversation can accomplish the most good.
And pray for them. I don’t think it is possible to love truth without loving the persons who resist it.
J. Budziszewski, a Professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin. This article is reproduced with permission from his blog, The Underground Thomist.