McGinley’s opening already betrays a misunderstanding, that arguing against a position without articulating one’s own impoverishes the discussion. If a scholar proposes a theory, other scholars can criticize the theory even if they don’t have an alternative theory, and it’d be a mistake for the scholar to accuse his critics of impoverishing the discussion. Likewise, McGinley’s complaint seems misplaced when it is he who is proposing a specific theory of sexual ethics.
The bulk of McGinley’s column is spent arguing that the implicit assumptions of campus orthodoxy on sexual conduct would deem certain instances of incest or adult-youth sexual relations acceptable. I suppose this is supposed to be a kind of reductio ad absurdum. It’s not.
To McGinley, sex may or may not be acceptable, since the definition of sex doesn’t contain in itself a categorically condemnable quality; its moral quality therefore depends upon additional non-definitional properties. Analogously, to me, incestuous or adult-youth relations may or may not be acceptable, albeit that with overwhelming probability they entail condemnable qualities that, as a matter of social norm and policy, it may be reasonable to reject it categorically. McGinley can contend that incest or adult-youth relations by definition possess categorically condemnable properties, but, without that, his simple reliance on common intuitive repugnance isn’t intellectually rigorous.
The Anscombe Society is far from having advanced a logically tight system. Its position statement on sexual ethics and chastity says: “Outside of the context of marriage, then, sex ultimately reduces the participants to mere instruments serving an incomplete end — be it the desire for emotional intimacy, physical pleasure, or personal security ... To use sex for pleasure or emotional fulfillment alone not only fails to realize the essential purpose of sex, but degrades the inherent dignity of the human being to that of an object — a means to an end.”
This is extremely unsatisfying. If the “traditionalists” condemn the “instrumentalization of the body” for emotional intimacy or physical pleasure, then why do they praise the “instrumentalization of the body” for the “actualization of the marital union”? This argument can work only if they define “sex within marriage” as a self-evidently worthy end-in-itself; otherwise they’ll likewise be using the body and sex merely as a means to some other end. But then, by definition, the worthiness of this “end” cannot be established by appeal to other ends and can only be realized by some mysterious access to this “self-evident” end-in-itself. At the very least, McGinley must concede that we haven’t yet found a foolproof method for this access, and that there certainly exist reasonable disagreements on what qualifies as a self-evident good.
If objectification is the main concern, then this may or may not exist in marital or non-marital relationships, and Anscombe errs gravely if it deems it obvious to equate the “objectifying/dignifying” and “abusive/non-abusive” divisions with the “marital/non-marital” division.
Further, what is this “essential purpose of sex”? Why must there exist an essential purpose? And, even if there is, how can we discover it? And why must there be only one, which is common to all, always? If Anscombe does not rely on a theology, sex is just some act that we engage in to achieve some purpose intended by each of us, since there’s no other agent that can endow the act with a purpose.
I may eat some food which has almost no nutrients or energy content merely because I derive pleasure from, say, its texture. Even if the “natural end” — whatever that means — of the act of eating is to replenish nutrients, it seems extremely radical to say that I thereby commit a moral wrong through instrumentalizing the body, degrading human dignity and trivializing the act of eating for others.
Anscombe may, on the other hand, identify tremendous social costs for allowing sex outside marriage. This would be a dangerous tactic, however, since the argument will cease to be “objectively moral” but instead social and psychological, which is much more circumstantial and relative. Further, if it’s going to speak about the social cost to “family values” and the psychological cost to individuals, it should also recognize its contribution (intended or not) to the stigma and prejudice, and the resulting sense of guilt and alienation, experienced by the LGBT community, for instance. Does it really claim to have the analytical capacity to quantify these various costs and unmistakably conclude that upholding its values is and always will be the best thing for us? And since when were they utility-maximizers anyway?
My aim isn’t so much to definitively refute Anscombe as it is to show that its arguments contain significant points of contention. If it wants to claim moral truths, then it should tighten up its logic and respond to its critics on neutral grounds. In the meantime, it seems rather imprudent and immodest for it to tell others to live their lives according to its vision when its doctrines are yet ill-founded. Not to confuse legality with morality, but is this epistemic humility not the basis of the “innocent until proven guilty” doctrine?
It is Anscombe that imposes an extremely difficult onus on itself by trying to prove that sex outside marriage necessarily, in every instance, adversely affects one’s sense of moral worth and capacity to love. As things stand, the Anscombe Society’s condemnation of its detractors stands on weak logical ground.
Eric Kang is a math major from Christchurch, New Zealand. He can be reached at email@example.com.