Like Laurie Fendrich, I have been obsessing a bit about the Catholic bishops and their stand against birth control. Since I have thought quite a bit about this stuff, I would like to chip in. I should say that I look upon Laurie as the moral conscience of Brainstorm, and what I have to say is intended as complementary and not as contradictory.
The bishops are arguing in the context of the Catholic doctrine of natural law, something that goes back to Aquinas who in turn, as always, was hugely indebted to Aristotle. I see natural law theory as an attempt to answer the Euthyphro Problem, something expressed in the Platonic dialogue of that name. The question is asked “Why should we be good?” and the answer is given “Because it is the Will of God.” To which, another question is asked. “If doing the good is doing the Will of God, does this mean that God could simply make up morality? Could God make it okay to beat little old ladies on the head on alternate Tuesdays?” To which the reply comes “Obviously not.” To which the conclusion comes “Then clearly God in turn is appealing to or governed by an external moral standard, so no answer has yet been given about this standard.”
Natural law theory agrees that what we should do is the Will of God, but then goes on to argue that the Will of God is never arbitrary. God has created the world, and what He wants us to do is to work according to that creation. In other words, He wants us to do what is “natural.” This is a teleological notion – what Aristotle would say as involving “final causes” – because to see what is natural we must see what end God intended. Morality is working according to God’s ends.
Now take sexual intercourse. God made men and women with sexual desires and with appropriate genitalia – penises and vaginas. But He wasn’t just doing this on a whim. He was doing it in mind of the end of reproduction and the production of more humans. So what we are expected to do then is have sex and produce babies. That is what is natural, which in turn is what is God’s Will. Hence, we can now see that contraception stands in the way of this – it is unnatural – and hence against God’s Will and therefore wrong.
It’s simple. Except of course it isn’t simple at all. There has to be more than this to Catholic moral philosophy. Most obviously in the sexual intercourse case we have the problems of adultery and fornication. If I am having it off with my best friend’s wife, then I may be doing something natural but I am also clearly doing something wrong. So something more needs to be said.
Now the point is that this “something more” is not going to be something that throws out the reasoning about “natural,” but rather something that qualifies or modifies it. That shows you need a more nuanced reading of the situation. Just like when you say “Killing is wrong,” you start to modify it when issues about self defence are raised. Killing is still wrong, but one must think about particular circumstances.
And so back to contraception. Yes, sexual intercourse has the end of producing babies, but there may be factors that lead to a more nuanced understanding of the situation. So what factors are there? Off hand, I can think of at least four.
First, thanks to modern medicine, most babies survive. (Obviously I am thinking of a Western context, but this piece is going to be long enough without masses of side discussions.) I take it that we consider the survival of the babies to be a good thing, something of which God would approve; but note that what this means is that instead of having just two kids or so, the normal couple can plan on 10 or more. With this come all of the consequences, like parents having no lives of their own, like kids not having proper attention from parents and older siblings having little real childhood as they are pressed into child minding, like lack of resources, and so forth.
Second, thanks to changed understanding and related factors, we now realize that females are full human beings, not rather limited entities who really are not suited for much more than childrearing. If they are stuck at home with 10 or more kids, they are not going to realize their full potentials – dare one say, their full God-given potentials. (Again I note that I am ignoring qualifications. So don’t pretend that I am saying that no person with a large family ever had a full and satisfying life.)
Third, we have cheap and efficient methods of contraception, that are going to be used whether the bishops like it or not. If you deny this, then I have one word to say to you: “Drugs.” Moreover, it is a solid fact that availability of contraception leads to a decline in abortions. This is so, whatever you may think about the morality of abortion.
Fourth, and here David Barash will probably have things to say, modern evolutionary biology makes it very clear that sexual intercourse doesn’t necessarily always serve the immediate end of fertilizing females. It is for producing successful babies, but how this is done can be a long and indirect manner. Humans require a lot of parental care, it is of value that males get involved in providing that care – most mammalian males do not help – and sexual intercourse is a jolly good way of making sure that human males stay around and help. (Note that human females are continually sexually receptive, unlike most mammalian females.) In other words, a good bonk, just for fun, can be the most natural thing in the world.
Now obviously, you have to spell all of these things out in detail, looking at qualifications. Then you have got to connect them up and show their relevance. And go on to draw conclusions. In detail, this could take some doing. That is why you employ people like me. But even before we do the spade work it is surely obvious that simply saying that, because it is unnatural, contraception is wrong – the “culture of death” was the phrase I think used by the current archbishop of New York – is simply not on. I am not sure about Aquinas. He had some very odd views when it came to sex – masturbation being worse than rape being one of them. But I am quite sure that Aristotle would be appalled.
And so in the end I come back to join forces with Laurie Fendrich. I cannot believe that the bishops are being open. They must have some other motive, and that is getting Obama out of the White House. In this, as in many other things, they should be ashamed of themselves.