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Philosophy 220. Natural Law Theory and Human Sexuality. Putting Nature in Natural Law. Natural Law Theory is based on the assumption that there are objective facts about human nature that can serve as the ground for objectively true moral principles.

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Philosophy 220

Philosophy 220

Natural Law Theory and Human Sexuality

Putting nature in natural law
Putting Nature in Natural Law

  • Natural Law Theory is based on the assumption that there are objective facts about human nature that can serve as the ground for objectively true moral principles.

  • Because of this, NLT is a value-based moral theory, one that focuses our attention on the value of the intrinsic characteristics of human nature highlighted by the specific version of NLT that is employed.

Aquinas on intrinsic value
Aquinas on Intrinsic Value

  • The chief historical proponent of NLT is St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

  • According to his theory of human nature, there are four basic intrinsic goods.

    • Human Life

    • Human Procreation

    • Human Knowledge

    • Human sociability

  • These four values serve as the basis for his NLT.

Basic principle of nlt
Basic Principle of NLT

  • However we conceive of human nature and its intrinsic value, the theory of right action (TRA)of NLT is:

    • NLT: An action is right if and only if (iff) in performing the action one does not directly violate any of the basic (intrinsic) values.

  • Thus stated, NLT seems to straightforwardly and non-controversially satisfy both the theoretical and practical aims of Moral Theory. But this picture is more complicated than it first appears.

The doctrine of double effect
The Doctrine of Double Effect

  • In many cases, a proposed action both potentially protects one and violates another of the basic values.

  • To deal with these cases, proponents of NLT rely on the Doctrine of Double Effect.

    • DDE: An action that would bring about at least one evil and one good effect is morally permissible if and only if:

      • Intrinsic Permissibility: action (minus effects) is permissible.

      • Necessity: good effect requires the action.

      • Nonintenionality: evil effect is not intended

      • Proportionality: evil effect not out of proportion with good effect.

    • Example: Ectopic Pregnancy

Nlt in context catholic teachings on sexual morality
NLT in Context: Catholic Teachings on Sexual Morality

  • In a series of teachings (notably Casti Connubii and Humanae Vitae), the Roman Catholic church has spelled out the consequences of Aquinas’s version of NLT for a range of human sexual practices.

  • This is a particularly challenging area in which to apply NLT, as the opening paragraphs of our reading highlight.

  • Sexuality is clearly a basic and natural part of our humanity, but the Church, for complicated historical reasons, cannot merely affirm it as one of the basic intrinsic goods.

What type of moral theory
What Type of Moral Theory?

  • Church teachings are further complicated by the fact that in addition to the NLT tradition, it also looks to “divine law” as a justifying basis for its theory of intrinsic value.

  • This raises the specter of Divine Command theory, which we have already seen provides only dubious foundation for MT.

Guiding principle of catholic sexual morality
Guiding Principle of Catholic Sexual Morality

  • Consistently, the church has argued that human nature and the divine law point in the same direction.

  • From both perspectives, the specific character and dignity of human sexuality is grounded in marriage and “the finality of the function proper to marriage,” in other words, reproduction (80c1).


  • Premarital Relations?

    • NO, “any human genital act whatsoever [must] be placed only within the framework of marriage” (80c2).

  • Homosexuality?

    • Hell no! The propensity may be natural, but the act is objectively evil, “Homosexual relations are acts deprived of the essential ordination they ought to have” (81c2).

  • Masturbation?

    • Tempting, but no, “…masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act” (82c1), once again because it is counter to the finality that, according to the Catholic tradition of NLT, is consistent with the intrinsic value of sex.

Corvino s defense of homosexuality
Corvino’s Defense of Homosexuality

  • Corvino takes aim at those critics of homosexuality that decry it as unnatural or claim that there are special harms that accompany it.

  • His positive position is straightforward.

    • Homosexual activity, like heterosexual activity, is both pleasurable and supportive of fundamental human relationships.

    • Children are not a necessary product of either.

    • There are no special harms resulting from homosexuality.

    • Therefore, there is nothing immoral about homosexuality.

But it s unnatural
But it’s Unnatural!

  • Corvino is responding to a common ground for the condemnation of homosexuality.

  • Ranging from mere revulsion to a consideration of the finality of sexual practices, many claim that homosexuality is unnatural.

    • One problem with this claim is that the term “unnatural” can and is used in a number of different ways.

    • An important step to untangling this charge is distinguishing the various senses.

    • With the help of Burton Leiser, Corvino does just this.

Unnatural as unusual or unique
Unnatural as Unusual or Unique

  • Some people claim that homosexuality is unnatural because it is uncommon or because it is not part of the behavior of non-human animals.

  • With regard to the first of these two senses, Corvino notes that many types of behavior or uncommon, but we don’t for that reason label them as unnatural.

  • With regard to the second, Corvino merely notes that the claim is false.

What is not innate is unnatural
What is not Innate is Unnatural

  • A more compelling claim is that behaviors that do not spring from natural human tendencies is unnatural.

  • One common (but mistaken) way to respond to this claim is to start arguing about whether homosexuality is in fact innate.

  • The real issue concerns the moral significance of the relation between behavior and tendency. All behavior, whether grounded in tendency or not is to some degree in our control. As such, the moral evaluation of the behavior is independent of the tendency.

That s not what that s for
That’s not what that’s for.

  • Another argument that is sometimes made is that homosexuality is unnatural because it makes use of human sexual organs in a way that is contrary to their natural function (this is an instance of the finality argument).

  • Of course, many of our organs admit of many possible uses. It would be arbitrary to acknowledge the appropriate use of sexual organs in a wide range of instances where procreation isn’t possible, but deny it in the context of same-sex relations.

Enough about finality let s talk about filth
Enough about Finality, Let’s Talk about Filth

  • Many people have objected to homosexuality on the basis of the claim that it is obscene. Corvino’s response to this claim is fairly typical.

  • Of note is his discussion of aesthetic revulsion that some people attest to in connection to homosexual practice.

  • Leaving aside the obvious psychological rejoinder (we are often strongly repulsed by that to which we feel an uncontrollable attraction), we should note that aesthetic concerns of this sort do not rise to the standard of moral condemnation.

What about the harm question
What about the Harm Question?

  • Corvino considers both the possibility that homosexual behavior can harms its practitioners and that it can harm third parties.

  • With regard to the first, he just points out that there is no evidence to suggest any special harm from the behavior itself.

  • With regard to the latter, he considers the special cases of children and species existence, arguing that there are no special concerns in either case.

Question to corvino
Question to Corvino

  • One thing we should note is that the conceptual analysis of “unnatural” does not directly refute the NLT position.

  • An evaluation of NLT based arguments against homosexuality must ultimately come down to a dispute about human nature and values and ends appropriate to it, and that’s not a discussion which Corvino joins