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Dealing with ‘Purpose’ in Sex

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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