Andrew M. Haines

Andrew M. Haines is the Editor of Ethika Politika and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

Dealing with ‘Purpose’ in Sex

By | September 24, 2010

by Andrew Haines

John Paul Nunez’ recent post, “Would You Kill a Violinist?” sparked a flurry of responses — a few by me.  (Read them here.)  The article asked whether or not it would be ethically permissible to “unhook” oneself from a forcibly imposed life-support tether to a dying, famous violinist.  It’s a curious situation.

The thrust of Nunez’ argument — against pro-abortionists who use the argument to justify “unhooking” fetuses from a woman’s body — was to show that sex has as a natural end the procreation of children.  This, of course, is hotly debated, especially today.

The question gets even more perplexing when, as often occurs, advocates for abortion (or at least unrestricted sex) make the claim that modern contraceptives can actually eliminate the possibility of procreation, thereby turning sex into a different kind of act — namely, an exclusively pleasurable one.  Without the (potential) consequence of procreation, they say, sex can just be enjoyed.  Period.

A counter-response from natural law would raise the red flag: “But sex is ordered toward procreation, whether or not that possibility is realistically eliminated.”  This position is based on the idea that sex — like other bodily functions — has a clear direction, or purpose.  “The purpose of the cardiovascular system is to supply oxygenated blood to the body,” I say, “and one purpose of sex is procreation.”

Sex, of course, is a tricky thing.  As you noticed by my example, it has more than one purpose.  This is why proponents of contraceptives can get away with eliminating one purpose in favor of another (whereas those who extinguish the purposeful work of the cardiovascular system are called “murderers.”)

But beyond this bifurcation, opponents of “purposeful” sex raise the critical objection: How can a bodily function have “purpose” anyway?  After all, doesn’t purpose require intention?  And that’s not present in sex any more than in the stomach.

This is where a lot of people get flustered.  It seems logical, right?  A piece of wood doesn’t have a purpose; neither do two pieces of wood stacked on top of one another.  So how many pieces does it take to give some purpose?  We might say, “a chair has purpose,” but that’s a purpose imposed by human beings.  Human beings give purpose.  So human beings impose purposes across the board.  Right?

We can assuage a lot of heartache (and headaches!) by switching the term.  Instead of “purpose,” let’s use “function.”

Now try again.  Does a piece of wood have a function?  Do two pieces on top of one another?  Certainly, we say, “a chair has a function” — it can support something sitting on it.  And it can do this without anyone saying it can.  Of course, people build chairs, so they create chairs and their functionality.  But the function belongs to the chair whether we like it or not.

In a similar way, sex has some proper functions: to procreate; to provide pleasure; and to unite two people.  These are all part of sex, although they’re not each actualized in every circumstance.  They’re the proper functions of sex; and they’re there whether we like it or not.

Those in favor of contraception would certainly admit all of this; but they’ll go right on to say that we — as free human persons — have a right to restrict certain functions and highlight others.  Obviously, an emphasis on pleasure (and sometimes unity) is what they’re shooting for.  But is this permissible?  In other words, by the nature of the thing we’re playing with (i.e. human sexual functions), should we be allowed to artificially restrict some and emphasize others?

It seems to me no.

The reason why I (and many others) argue against the use of contraception is that it aims at all these things — the artificial restriction of procreative functionality and an unnaturally isolated emphasis on sexual gratification.  By saying this, I’m not deciding on the purpose of human sexuality; I’m simply recognizing the intricacy of its functionality as given in nature.

[N.B. You can stop reading here if you're not a closet (or professional) philosopher.]

The final issue we should confront — one that’s hardly able to fit into so few words! — is the idea of the naturalistic fallacy.  In short, it’s the quick and easy response to this sort of anti-contraception argument from natural law.  And it goes something like:

You say that we know what we ought to do based on the way things are.  But it’s well known philosophically that you “can’t derive an ought from an is.”

This is a serious concern (for those of us already concerned with such things).  Nature being a certain way can’t tell us that we have to pay taxes, or that we must not lie.  In short, morals aren’t “natural”; they’re the product of reason.  (It’s sort of like mathematics: numbers are very ‘real’ things, but you wouldn’t know 2+2=4 by simply looking at nature; it takes something else.)

In short, I don’t think the naturalistic fallacy is a problem for my anti-contraception position.  And I believe this because I don’t reach my conclusion (i.e. “contraception is wrong”) by simply extracting it from nature.  Rather, I get there by admitting that certain natural correlations “make sense,” and that if we want to have the world make the most sense, we ought not to do certain things.  One of these is to use contraception.

Of course, I anticipate a good deal of backlash (even from fellow anti-contraceptionists).  But that’s what a good blog is all about, right?

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  • http://urbanphilosophy.net Nocterro

    First, I’d like to look at this analogy:

    ”The purpose of the cardiovascular system is to supply oxygenated blood to the body,” I say, “and one purpose of sex is procreation.”

    I don’t think this analogy really works, as the cardiovascular system is an *object*, and sex is an *act*. You’re not comparing apples and oranges – you’re comparing apples and eating. So, I’ll assume you mean the objects involved in sex – the human reproductive organs. Of course, most of the body is usually involved in sex in some way (skin, brain, various erogenous zones), but I’ll focus on the “main” organs.

    You rightly say that such organs have more than one function; in addition to procreation, there are things like physical pleasure, intimacy, and commitment (at least sometimes). But then you say something odd:

    “The reason why I (and many others) argue against the use of contraception is that it aims at all these things — the artificial restriction of procreative functionality and an unnaturally isolated emphasis on sexual gratification.”

    This, at least to me, is an incorrect view of things. No doubt a view of sex that emphasizes pure physical gratification is at least odd, it runs counter to our intuitions. But what about an emphasis on intimacy? What about cases where a couple loves each other deeply, and use sex solely as a way to express that love (imagine a situation where a couple is sterile, or is just not ready financially to raise a child yet)? I can see nothing wrong with that.

    You say earlier that sex is ordered toward procreation. Perhaps it is. But I would claim that it’s also ordered toward love and intimacy. Perhaps striving to achieve both functions is a good thing – but perhaps it’s not the only “right” way to do it.

    Consider the case of the happily married sterile couple – they know they will never achieve procreation. Is it wrong for them to have sex, even though they will actualize some very great intimacy benefits, even though they will be much closer to each other emotionally? Now that is something that runs counter to our intuitions, even more so than the case of pure physical pleasure.

    It seems to me that the only thing you can say here is this: sex without aiming toward procreation is not wrong, but it is merely ‘less good’ – in the same way donating a thousand dollars to charity is less good than donating two thousand dollars. While intimacy+procreation might be better or more preferable, this does not mean a couple who has sex just for intimacy is morally blameworthy. To get to that, you would have to argue that the only function of sex is procreation – and it’s clearly not.

    Finally, I would argue that some great goods can sometimes be achieved by using contraceptives; in the context of a loving, committed couple, contraceptives allow them to achieve the good of intimacy, while avoiding the bad of having a child one cannot financially support.

  • http://www.philapologia.org/blog/ Gil S.

    I’ll have to second what Noc said about our intuitions speaking against this. While I find interest in natural law, I am not quite convinced of all that some of its supporters may claim. Like you acknowledge, there’s more than one purpose in sex and using it for a specific purpose within a heterosexual and monogamous marriage is to only choose a certain function at a particular time. Take our sensory abilities as an example. I may choose to close my eyes and rely solely on my other senses in a “Marco Polo” game. By your argument, the artificial restriction of eyesight functionality and an unnaturally isolated emphasis on our other senses is something that I should not do under presumably any artificial circumstance.

    Even if you want to reject this example, it seems like you’re inclined to accept “natural” means of contraception. But the goal of the natural and artificial means are still the same. Why would it matter? If I use “artificial” means to save a life, does this mean I am therefore obligated to use natural herbs instead? Of course the means are different but I don’t think that really matters here unless there’s a reason. Just my two cents.

  • http://blog.cfmpl.org Andrew Haines

    @Nocterro: Thanks for the thoughtful comments. First of all, I’ll be clear that I don’t agree with you that “some great goods” can be achieved by contracepting. (Clearly, that’s the point of my article.)

    I don’t think my notions that “sex is ordered toward procreation” and that “contraception aims to divide the natural functions of sex” are as weak as you suggest. The force of my argument comes from the cooperation and possibility for actualization of all the natural functions of intercourse — procreative, unitive, and pleasurable. I don’t see how your counter-claims weaken my premises in a significant way. (To be sure, you offer examples of focusing on one or another; but you haven’t significantly undercut the natural law position, so far as I can tell.)

    @Gil: what “natural” means of contraception do you suppose I’d have to accept? (When I say artificial, I don’t mean non-herbal; I mean non-natural to the act of fully integrated sexual intercourse.) I reject herbal contraception and coitus interruptus just as strongly as the use of prophylactics and barrier methods. Contraceptives are contraceptives.

    (Perhaps you’re referring to abstaining from sex during fertile times — sometimes known as Natural Family Planning. I would, however, deny this is a “contraceptive” act, since leaves intact the cooperation of all the natural functions of intercourse.)

  • http://urbanphilosophy.net Nocterro

    @Andrew:

    Three things.

    First, of course some great goods can be achieved by using contraception. The scenario I gave was this: “contraceptives allow them to achieve the good of intimacy, while avoiding the bad of having a child one cannot financially support.”

    In this situation, goods are obtaining, and bads are not (to clarify, imagine the couple got married, then they both got laid off shortly after, and they will not be able to afford a child at all just yet). Surely raising a child in an environment in which it will go hungry and not have proper medical care is a very great evil indeed. In fact, the good of intimacy that is obtaining here would likely even be a great good for the future child in the long run – as the couple will be much closer when they can afford a child.

    Second, consider again the case of the sterile couple. You said: “The force of my argument comes from the cooperation and possibility for actualization of all the natural functions of intercourse — procreative, unitive, and pleasurable.” In the sterile couple’s case, there *is* no “possibility for actualization” of procreation (depending on why they are sterile). If, for example, the couple is sterile because the woman has had a hysterectomy, then the only way to say it’s possible for them to conceive is to rely on the possibility of a miracle happening such that she suddenly regrows her uterus. Of course, if you go this route, you would presumably have to allow non-procreative sex anyway – for example, a homosexual couple could become pregnant via a miracle as well. With contraception, it doesn’t even take a miracle – contraception occasionally fails.

    This leads me into my third point (and somehow the debate has now become over contraception instead of abortion. Go figure :P). What we’re doing with (most) contraception is not absolutely preventing pregnangy, but severely lowering the probability of it occuring. There’s an analogy here with the “Natural Family Planning” scenario. With this too, you’re not absolutely preventing pregnancy, but merely severely lowering the probability. The only difference between condoms/birth control pills and NFP is the *means* by which a couple lowers said chances. And why does that matter? You might want to say that NFP doesn’t lower the chances “as much”, but then I must ask: how much is too much?

  • Scott F

    Gil S.: Take our sensory abilities as an example. I may choose to close my eyes and rely solely on my other senses in a “Marco Polo” game. By your argument, the artificial restriction of eyesight functionality and an unnaturally isolated emphasis on our other senses is something that I should not do under presumably any artificial circumstance.

    And let us not forget the deep unnatural evil of Soccer (Football to the Brits). Don’t violate the natural purposes of your hands!