To address issues of sexual morality, one must first recognize the purposes of the human sexual faculties, Edward Feser, associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College, said in a lecture on Saturday.
The event was moderated by politics professor Robert George.
“The human sexual act is a seamless unity between the procreative and the unitive [ends] directed at the same time toward both biological generation and emotional communion,” Feser said, describing the unitive end as the relational and emotional strengthening between a man and woman.
These two natural ends of sex — the procreative and unitive — are inseparable from each other, Feser said, because human beings perceive reality in both a sensorial and conceptual way. The ability to conceptualize is a critical distinction between rational human beings and non-rational animals, he said.
A dog and human being may both possess the faculty of visual perception in viewing a tree, Feser noted to illustrate his point. However, there is a conceptual element found in human perception that is notably absent in the dog’s perception, he said, noting that while the dog is able to perceive the tree, it is unable to conceptualize it as a tree to form a judgment about it as a human would.
“While perception is a good for both non-human animals and human beings, that perception in our case participates in our rationality and makes of it a different and higher sort of good than that of which non-human animals are capable," he said.
Basing his remarks off of Aristotelian metaphysical principles, he explained, human sexual faculties exist not only for the natural end of conceptual unity but in conjunction with the natural end of procreation.
“[There] is no such thing as a sexual act which of its nature is merely unitive and in no way procreative, any more than there is such a thing as a human perceptual experience which of its nature is merely conceptual and in no way sensory," he said.
Feser also addressed the relevance of the natural law approach to matters of sexual ethics. He defined morality as an act which is good for the rational agent according to the act’s natural ends.
“[Since] the natural ends of our sexual capacities are simultaneously procreative and unitive, what is good for human beings, vis-a-vis those capacities, is to use them only in a way that is consistent with these ends," he said.
A faculty cannot be used or directed toward more than one natural end and an agent cannot intend to actively frustrate the realization of that end, Feser added. Therefore fornication, homosexual acts, contraception, pornography and masturbation are examples of sexual behaviors inconsistent with the natural ends for which human sex exists, he said.
“It cannot possibly be good for us to use [our faculties] in a way contrary to these ends, whether or not an individual person thinks it is, any more than it could possibly be good for a diseased or damaged tree to fail to sink roots into ground,” he said. “This is true whatever the reason is for someone’s desire to act in a way contrary to nature’s purposes — intellectual error, habituated vice, genetic defect or whatever — and however strong that desire is."
During the moderated session, George said that critics who would claim that Feser’s argument is about not frustrating natural functions have missed Feser’s central claim.
“His argument is that there is something wrong with using a faculty — not a function — in a way contrary to the end for the sake of which by nature the faculty exists,” George said.
Feser addressed an audience of approximately 60 students and community members at the Anscombe Society’s annual spring lecture, titled “Natural Law and the Foundations of Sexual Ethics.” The lecture took place at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday in Guyot 10.