Sunday, January 20, 2008

Natural Family Planning versus contraception

Patricia and Marcus are a married couple. Each day, they prudently decide whether or not to engage in marital union. To make that decision, they weigh all the relevant factors they can, gathering information relevant to the decision ahead of time when appropriate. They do nothing to intentionally decrease the fertility of their bodies, and when they decide to unite maritally, they do nothing to intentionally decrease the likelihood of conception.

What I have described is not a contracepting couple. What may not be immediately obvious is that I have described a couple practicing Natural Family Planning (NFP). One way to look at NFP is precisely as the gathering of some of the information relevant to a prudential decision whether or not to engage in marital union at a given time, and then making the decision in part in light of that information. For, plainly, the probability of conception is information relevant to a prudent decision whether or not to engage in marital relations. The way the information is relevant will depend on other information. If, for instance, the couple is suffering from severe financial distress, the learning that the probability of conception is high will make the decision to engage in marital relations less prudent than these relations would be if the probability were low. On the other hand, if the couple is in good personal, financial and relational health, learning that the probability of conception is high will make the decision to engage in marital relations more even more prudent than it would be if if the probability were low. ("Prudence", here, is Aristotelian phronêsis, of course.). It is clear, by the way, how NFP is useful not just to the couple for whom conception would be imprudent, but also to the couple trying to conceive.

Information relevant to the decision whether to engage in marital relations includes how tired the two persons are, what privacy is available to them, what their feelings about each other are, what potentially time-consuming duties they may have, whether there are any relevant medical considerations, and so on, all enter into the decision. That this kind of information needs to enter into the decision is clear and uncontroversial. But likewise, information about further consequences of an action is relevant to deciding whether to engage in the action or not, and hence fertility information is likewise relevant.

Seen in this way, it is clear that one cannot object in principle to every instance of NFP without being committed to at leat one of two implausible views:

  1. It is wrong for a couple to engage in sexual relations when the likelihood of conception is low.
  2. It is wrong for a couple to refrain from engaging in sexual relations because the likelihood of conception is high.
For unless one holds one of these two views, one cannot object to a couple deciding to engage in sexual relations when the likelihood of conception is low, and one also cannot object to a couple deciding not to engage in sexual relations because the likelihood of conception is high. Nor can one fault a couple for making the decision whether to engage in sexual relations or not in the light of all relevant information. But making such decisions on a day-to-day basis is all that NFP need consist in. Catholic tradition rejects both (1) and (2). Hence, the Catholic tradition does not contain a prohibition against NFP. Moreover, the prohibition against contraception is a prohibition against intentionally rendering the body or act less fertile than it would otherwise would be, and does not imply either (1) nor (2). Hence there is a relevant difference between NFP and contraception.

Objection 1: Although (1) is clearly innocent, what the couple is doing is not just deciding to engage in sexual relations when the likelihood of conception is low, but because the likelihood of conception is low.

Response: Consider the sense of this "because". It is not so much that the low probability of conception is their reason for having sex--after all, there are many uncontroversial activities other than sex that have much lower probability of conception, say sharing ice cream. Rather, the low probability of conception may imply the absence of a defeater to their independent reason to unite maritally, this defeater being the bad consequences of conception in their special situation (e.g., one of financial hardship). When deciding whether to engage in any action that isn't an all-things-considered duty, we need to consider potential defeaters. So if (1) and (2) are innocent, it must also be innocent to take into account the presence or absence of defeaters, since one must always do that in the case of a decision whether to engage in marital relations.

Objection 2: Over and beyond the daily decision between engaging and not engaging in marital union, there is the "plan of action as a whole", which in the case of a couple who uses NFP to avoid conception involves the timing of intercourse so as to avoid conception, and it is this plan of action as a whole that is analogous to contraception.

Response: There need not be any such overarching plan of action. When I described Patricia and Marcus, I did not attribute any such plan to them. Rather, it is possible that the couple is deciding, on a day to day basis, whether sexual union on that day is prudent in light of all the relevant information they have gathered. Granted, there may be an on-going condition (say, financial) which renders sexual union imprudent when it has a non-low probability of conception, and they need not think through the details of that condition each day, but can simply be on the lookout for when, if ever, the condition comes to an end. But it is quite possible to decide day after day on the same grounds--and yet for it to be a genuine decision, though it may become somewhat habitual. The fact that it is a genuine decision is evidenced by the data that at times NFP couples do decide to have sexual relations even when it is imprudent to do so, apparently without a significantly prudentially relevant change in circumstances (this is probably the main source of pregnancies among couples using NFP to avoid conception).

That said, one can imagine a couple who instead of deciding on a daily basis decides that over the next six months they will try to avoid conception. Still, it seems to me that they are likely to be making a daily decision whether they ought to keep to their earlier resolution. That said, I do not need to defend the actions of such a couple. To argue that NFP is morally permissible, I need to argue that there is some set of circumstances and motives under which NFP is permissible. It is false that NFP is permissible under all circumstances and with all possible sets of motives, and I actually suspect that a married couple's decision to refrain from conception ahead of time, without reference to changing circumstances, is morally problematic. Note that it is different to decide once for six months not to conceive, and another simply to expect that over the next six months one will each day have all-things-considered reason to avoid conception, but to still be making the decisions on a daily basis, since after all the reason to avoid conception might go away.

Summary: One way for NFP to be practiced, and it is this one way that I am defending here, is to think of it as the gathering of certain information relevant for the decision (I talk of "daily", but that is just a convenience--it could in principle be hourly) whether or not to engage in marital union at a given time. The information in question is fertility information. The prudent couple, of course, will also gather other information, and take that into account. Seen this way, NFP is not only clearly morally permissible, both in light of reason and of the Catholic tradition, but is positively virtuous, involving the virtue of prudence, as well as, when abstinence is called for, the virtue of self-control. What is the alternative? To fail to gather relevant information?

27 comments:

Mike Almeida said...

Moreover, the prohibition against contraception is a prohibition against intentionally rendering the body or act less fertile than it would otherwise would be, and does not imply either (1) nor (2). Hence there is a relevant difference between NFP and contraception

But, certainly, there is nothing intrinsically wrong (or bad) in rendering the body less fertile than it otherwise would be. So the moral case against contraception cannot end there. I may know that my failing to exercise four times a week rather than three increases the chances that I will die sooner, and so obviously make me less fertile than I otherwise would be. But there is obviously nothing wrong in my not exercising four times rather than three. I might know that not taking fertility drugs will make me less fertile than I otherwise would be, but not taking them involves no wrongdoing.
So what is wrong with rendering the body less fertile than it would be? Presumably, it has something to do with interfering with God's plans. In some sense, I am upsetting God's plans for populating my family or the world, or God's plans for creation. Isn't that it? But there's the rub. If I am using family planning, I am also interfering with God's plans for creation. I am thwarting God's goals for populating my family or the world. It is very difficult to see the difference between the moral status of family planning in this respect and contraception.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I was being loose. The problem is with intentionally rendering the body or act less fertile in the context of marital intercourse. Why? Well, there are three stories about it. The traditional Thomistic one, which I think has some serious problems, is that it is in general wrong to intentionally and positively interfere one's natural telê. The Finnis-Grisez story, which I also have some reservations about, is that it is an offense against the value of life to intentionally and positively impede a natural process whose telos is the promotion of human life. The personalist story is that sexual union is constituted by biological functions, and intentionally opposing the telê of these biological functions while trying to unite using these very functions is wrong--it's an offense against integrity. Note that none of these three stories as given here makes mention of God's plan. Maybe God's plan is somewhere in the background, of course.

Your example of exercise is not a case of intentionally decreasing fertility. It is a case of knowingly decreasing fertility. If, on the other hand, one refrains from exercising in order to make oneself less fertile (or in order to make one's eyesight less acute, for that matter), it is hard to deny that one is acting against one's own body, which body is the temple of the Spirit.

Moreover, there is a difference between omission and commission.

peter said...

Alex,
In your response to Mike you say:
"The personalist story is that sexual union is constituted by biological functions, and intentionally opposing the telê of these biological functions while trying to unite using these very functions is wrong--it's an offense against integrity."
But if you are not injecting here moral judgment, then sexual union's biological functions can be seen as twofold: procreation and pleasure. If so, then the use of contraception does not constitute "intentionally opposing the tele" of at least one of these biological functions, namely, pleasure.
peter

Mike Almeida said...

The problem is with intentionally rendering the body or act less fertile in the context of marital intercourse.

I have only a vague idea what that means, and it seems to me ad hoc. But suppose we table that for the moment. You say the problem is that not exercising is not intentionally rendering less fertile, presumably even if I know that is one of the things that will happen. But the use of contraception also isn't intentionally rendering oneself less fertile. I don't know anyone who has such an intention. The intention is not to be less fertile, the intention is to concieve in a timely way. But the intention of the natural family planners is also to concieve in a timely way. Both are intentionally preventing conception. I see no morally interesting difference in the means taken in these cases, just as I see no morally interesting difference between taking some artificial medication (Advil, say) to artificially interrupt naturally occurring pain and taking a natural meditative approach to interrupt naturally occurring pain. Nor do I think it is immoral that a women chooses to give birth under anesthesia rather than natural child birth. All of these plainly involve patently non-natural means to a morally acceptable goal. We have agreed that the goal of planning one's family (including the number of births) is morally acceptable. You seem to object to non-natural means that artificially interrupt the body's natural processes. But there is obviously nothing wrong with taking non-natural means that artificially interrupt the body's natural processes, as all of these cases illustrate.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mike:

The Thomistic approach does object to deliberately interrupting natural bodily processes (insofar as natural; abnormal processes can be interrupted). But as I said, I don't like this approach. The other approaches either object to the kind of natural process being interrupted (Finnis and Grisez) or to its being interrupted in a context where the biological process is interpersonally important (Wojtyla and other personalists).

The contraceptor lowers fertility as a means to conceiving in a more timely way. Those who will the end will the means. :-) Hence they are intentionally lowering fertility. But those who fail to exercise do not will the decrease in fertility either as a means or as an end.

I don't think your claim "But the intention of the natural family planners is also to concieve in a timely way. Both are intentionally preventing conception" fits very well with the case I described in the original post. The intention there is simply to refrain from imprudent acts. There is a relevant difference between deciding on prudential grounds to refrain from a sexual act that would lead to conception and modifying a sexual act. The difference is not unlike that between (a) not giving a patient a treatment that would save the patient's life for one extremely painful hour and (b) killing a patient to save him from one extremely painful hour.

Peter:

The Christian tradition rejects pleasure as an appropriate goal for sex. Rather, as Vatican II says, the two meanings of the sexual act are reproduction and union. Of course, one might rejoice in a pleasure while engaging in act for the sake of one of its deeper meanings.

Besides, I think pleasure is not an independent good. I really like Aristotle's comparison of pleasure to the bloom on the cheeks of a youth. If the youth is already beautiful, the bloom completes the beauty. Likewise, if one is taking pleasure in something independently good, the pleasure completes the good. But (Aristotle doesn't say this, but he may have it in mind, too), if the youth is ugly, the bloom makes him uglier. Likewise, to take pleasure in something independently bad is bad. Finally, to take pleasure in something independently neutral is inappropriate.

Mike Almeida said...

The other approaches either object to the kind of natural process being interrupted (Finnis and Grisez) or to its being interrupted in a context where the biological process is interpersonally important (Wojtyla and other personalists).

That's fine, but the natural family planners are interrupting the same kind of natural process and interrupting in the same contexts. But quite apart from that, these stipulated reductions in the range of relevant cases are, as always in these contexts, wildly ad hoc. The motivation is to avoid counterexamples. There could not be more blatant examples of artificial interference in natural processes than the sorts of things that happen in operating rooms everyday. What happens there involves intimate relationships every bit as much as sexual contexts. But instead of just admitting that there is nothing wrong with artificial interference in natural processes, even in very personal contexts, these interlocuters opt for more and more tortured positions. We are offered emaciated motivation for the qualification that artificial interference in cases like R is still wrong, where, no surprise, the R cases are just the ones they want to preserve their opinions on. It just gets more and more difficult to take them seriously. I haven't read the personalists on this, but I'm sure the view would not be difficult to counterexample. But it wouldn't matter.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mike:

One shouldn't act against a natural process in and through which one is simultaneously trying to unite with another. There is an integrity worry here. There are other cases like this. For instance, having an intimate meal with someone while planning to regurgitate the food. Or maybe trying to inform someone that one loves them while trying to ensure that they don't hear one. (The latter act simply doesn't make sense, and hence is contrary to rationality, and hence immoral on a natural law or Kantian view.)

Natural family planners aren't interrupting any natural process. They're just refraining from starting the process. :-)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Another thing. "Artificial" is a red herring. The question isn't of artificiality, but of deliberate intentionality. What is forbidden is to deliberately try to decrease the fertility of the sexual organs or the sexual act in the context of marital intercourse. Whether this is done by eating bananas (supposing that science finds that eating bananas decreasing fertility), or by injecting hormones, or by surgery, or by magic, or by crossing one's fingers behind one's back while having sex (supposing that this prevents conception) is morally irrelevant.

Mike Almeida said...

The question isn't of artificiality, but of deliberate intentionality. What is forbidden is to deliberately try to decrease the fertility of the sexual organs or the sexual act in the context of marital intercourse

Take another intimate context: the healing context of surgery. My surgeon intends to remove my spleen from my body. I agree that I can live without my spleen and it has not been working perfectly. The surgeon is intentionally acting in a way to decrease the spleen's function of removing old or damaged blood platelets, etc. Since he is intentionally decreasing this natural function in an intimate healing context, it is clearly wrong--I mean by your lights.

Heath White said...

Alex,

I’d like to focus on objection 2. Your response is that “there need not be any such plan.” I guess, in principle, a couple might have a longstanding practice of gathering fertility information and not use it to plan long-term; they make their decisions on a day-by-day basis. (Just as one might theoretically keep careful financial records but make all spending decisions on an ad hoc basis.) But surely this is extraordinarily rare, in fact an imprudent way to make decisions, and contrary to the whole “pitch” to couples for NFP. After all, it’s called Natural FAMILY PLANNING.

If you are going to plan the number and spacing of your children, you have to think long-term in order to make a decent plan. Obviously, you have to choose each day to stick to your plan, just as you have to choose each day to stick to a long-term budget. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t planning long-term.

So here are a couple of concrete questions. (1) A couple decides early in their marriage that they want to have three children, three years apart, starting in three years. This will allow the husband to get his career started, the couple to have some time alone together, they get to build up some savings, etc. They regularly practice NFP and with considerable discipline stick to their plan. Things go as expected. Have they done anything wrong?

(2) After the third child, they continue with their plan: they intend to have no more children. (Or more weakly: they do not intend to have more children.) They continue with NFP and they continue to have sex. In either weak or strong versions, have they done anything wrong?

I’m asking because (a) I expect some version of this scenario is extraordinarily common; (b) it strikes me as just as much a “contraceptive mentality” as a couple who uses the Pill.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Heath:

A couple of alternate responses:

1. In both cases, if they stick to their plan not because they continue to judge that they have serious reasons to avoid conception, but for some other reasons (such as adherence to the plan for adherence's sake), then they are doing wrong, because a married couple should only refrain from conceiving in the light of serious reasons to avoid conception.

2. I was trying to exhibit one set of motivations that would make NFP permissible. There may well be others. Here is one other such set. Assuming information gathering as part of background practices (NFP couples often gather information even when trying to conceive), NFP as a plan for avoiding conception consists of two subplans:
(A) Refrain from sexual union on days when conception is likely; and
(B) Engage in sexual union on days when conception is unlikely and there are no other defeaters.

Now in some cases, plans (A) and (B) will have independent rational justification. Thus, the justification for (A) lies solely in the serious reasons to avoid conception, and the justification for (B) lies in the good of marital union. When there is independent rational justification for the two sub-plans, I think it is fair to say that the couple is acting in a way disanalogous to a contracepting couple. For when they are nontrivially following (B), they are not doing anything to decrease the likelihood of conception, and when they are nontrivially following (A), they are doing something to decrease the likelihood of conception, but what they are doing is abstaining which is the uncontroversial way of reducing the likelihood of conception.

We could even imagine that a couple in their planning first decided to abstain altogether because of the strong reasons against conception. So far they are not like a contracepting couple. Then they realized that their reason for general abstinence did not apply on days when the woman was infertile. And so they decided not to abstain on those days. This second decision does not make them any more like a contracepting couple. After all, the second decision increases the chance of conception.

Both of these ways of seeing NFP (unlike the day-to-day way that I described in my post) require that the reasons to refrain from conception are sufficiently strong to justify total abstinence. Only on that assumption are (A) and (B) independently justifiable. This is a limitation on this argument.

However, I actually think that a useful pastoral heuristic for a couple trying to figure out whether they have sufficiently strong reasons to delay conception is whether their reasons are strong enough to justify total abstinence. I do not know if following this heuristic is morally required, but it seems plausible in most cases. And in those cases we get the independent justification of plans (A) and (B), or we can also think of the plan as a plan for total abstinence together with days of deviation from that plan.

3. I also think that when there are sufficient reasons for avoiding conception, I can probably accommodate your example to the setup in my post. The couple does not plan to follow the NFP regimen no matter what. That would be silly. Should career circumstances change, should an unexpected financial windfall happen, etc., they are willing to conceive. (This by itself doesn't set them apart from a contracepting couple, of course.)

Rather, we can simply see them as observing each day that no new information has come in, and so deciding they will on that day follow the practice they earlier decided would be best. This decision can be tacit. It can be just an attitude of being open to changing circumstances.

This is in fact how we do many things in life. We do something because we've once figured out that this is the thing to be done, and when we do not have any new information, that old decision stands.

But it is still a daily decision whether to stick to the old decision, even if the decision is made tacitly.

4. It may be that what I say in the previous point may not be doing full justice to your example. For it may be that you think of a "plan" as something having independent justificatory weight, rather than just being of heuristic value. (A similar question comes up vis-a-vis the famous almanac in Mill.) What I said above works best when the plan has merely heuristic value, not if it creates additional reasons for delaying conception. And here I am inclined to think this is how it should be. I do not think a couple has the right to deliberately create additional reasons not to have children. If the plan is like a mutual commitment, it has strayed from the openness to life that a married couple is called to. (The plan should be like the almanac would be on an act-utilitarian reading of Mill, bracketing the question whether that's a good reading of Mill.)

This creates some psychological problems with adherence to a plan, since one might erroneously think (especially if one's faculties are temporarily impaired in some way) that one has good reason to deviate from a merely heuristic plan, and adherence would sometimes be better served by setting the plan in stone. But I think a good spiritual director should be able to find one good ways to get around this problem.

5. In particular, I am strongly inclined to think that a couple should not plan at the outset how many children they are going to have. They might, of course, think to themselves what kinds of future circumstances they will be in, and in light of these expected circumstances decide that that a certain child spacing is likely to be prudent. But the number of people who can at the outset of their marriage correctly predict the relevant future circumstances seems to me to be likely low. Finances change from one's expectations, as does one's career. And how can a couple predict how they will cope with N children until they have at least close to N children?

The couple should be committed to having as many children as serious reasons to the contrary that arise permit. One might predict ahead of time that that number will be three, but one is probably at least as likely wrong as right about that (in either direction).

There may come a time when the couple do not foresee its being prudent for them to have more children in the future. But they should not commit themselves to not having more children in the future. For only God knows what medical advances may make having more children medically prudent, what financial changes may make it fiscally prudent, and what, God forbid, might happen to the children one already has.

6. In summary, while it may be that it is sometimes possible for an NFP-using couple to depart from one of three scenarios I've outlined (daily decision, independence of plans (A) and (B), or an independent decision to abstain followed by a second decision to make exceptions to the abstinence), such departures should be a warning signal to the couple that perhaps they are not being sufficiently open to life.


Some of what I say in the above points is neutral on the question whether contraception is permissible. If per impossibile contraception were permissible, it would only be permissible when there were serious reasons not to conceive.

peter said...

Alex,

I think there is a fundamental issue here that keeps coming up in one form or another.
From a purely biological point of view and without any normative perspective, sex has two functions: procreation and pleasure.
I am not sure whether you are denying this proposition (from the relevant Catholic perspective)
But, once this proposition is admitted, then one might make a normative claim; e.g., it is prohibited to have sex for pleasure alone.
I am fairly certain you accept this later proposition.
Now we may ask the following (in my mind) fundamental question:
What is the underlying rationale for such a prohibition?
Consider the following somewhat parallel example:
Eating food has two biological functions: nourishment and pleasure.
(It is undeniable that some food just tastes pretty good and so it is pleasurable)
Now suppose that someone proposes a new moral dictum to the effect that eating food for pleasure alone is prohibited.
(The point is not excessive eating that might be harmful. The point is that eating any amount of food, of any kind, under any circumstances,for pleasure alone is immoral).
I think it would be reasonable to ask the following question: What is the motivation for such a prohibition?
I think a similar question can be legitimately asked about sexual matters.
peter

Alexander R Pruss said...

Peter:

Interesting. My initial reaction was to deny that pleasure is a biological purpose of mating. But I may have been confusing instrumental goals with non-instrumental goals in this reaction.

Biologically, presumably mating is pleasant in order to encourage us to mate (eating is a more involved case, since the pleasures of food probably help distinguish between noxious and wholesome foods). In one sense, then, it seemed not to make sense to think of the pleasure as a purpose of mating, for then the purposes become viciously circular or regressive: mating for pleasure in order to mate for pleasure.

But a more careful view would allow me to say something like this: Pleasure is not an independent biological goal of mating. Rather, the pleasure is there in order to get us to realize the value of the mating, which of course has a further biological value, namely reproduction. But pleasure is, of course, appropriately produced by mating, and the organism is structured in such a way that pleasure would result from mating, and if that is all one means by saying that pleasure is a biological purpose of mating, then I guess that's true.

In any case the pleasure of mating is not intelligible as an independent good.

I am inclined to think it is wrong to mate or eat solely for the sake of pleasure while trying to thwart the independent goods of mating and eating, because to do so is to treat something that has no independent value as if it had independent value. However, the fault is greater in the mating case. The reason for that is this: The pleasure in mating is the pleasure of uniting with another person, a uniting that should be a consummation of a basic form of love (i.e., erotic love). To seek this pleasure apart from the reality that this pleasure is to deceive oneself in a way directly relevant to interpersonal love. And that is an offense against love.

Objection: The meaning of sexual pleasure is not "This action is independently good" but "A repetition of this action would be independently good."

Response: This seems mistaken. The reason that one feels that a repetition of a pleasant action would be independently good is because one takes pleasure in the action itself, and in doing so, one feels about the action as if it were good.


Important to what I said above is the view that pleasure is the (fallible) perception of a normative state of affairs, viz., the state of affairs of something being good.

peter said...

Alex,
“Pleasure is not an independent biological goal of mating. Rather, the pleasure is there in order to get us to realize the value of the mating, which of course has a further biological value, namely reproduction.”
I certainly agree that pleasure and procreation as biological functions of mating are *causally* interconnected. Namely, until perhaps just recently, reproduction had to be achieved by means of mating alone and the pleasure obtained from mating is a reasonably reliable causal incentive to increase the frequency of mating and, thus, the probability of procreation. But it is far from clear that any specific normative consequences follow from this causal/biological fact. Let me even grant for the sake of this point (only) that “pleasure is not an independent biological goal of mating.” Is it so obvious that this causal fact (provided it is a fact) by itself warrants the normative conclusion that the pleasure of mating decoupled from procreation is morally wrong? Such an inference is certainly not justified on the basis of any logical considerations (Hume’s problem). What general principle is involved in such an inference? I have mentioned previously the example of the pleasure of eating and its nourishment function. The same holds for drinking: while one might grant that the function of drinking is hydration and the pleasure of drinking is a good causal incentive to accomplish this biological function, surely there is nothing wrong with a moderate liking of drinking wine, for instance, even though it is certainly not necessary for hydration. There are plenty of such examples.
You say: “In any case the pleasure of mating is not intelligible as an independent good.”
This is a very strong claim. Can’t we imagine circumstances in which it would not only be intelligible that the pleasure of mating is an independent good, but it would be even true? Imagine circumstances in which due to some global contamination the likelihood of procreation through mating approaches zero. Suppose human males produce extremely small amount of sperm, so small in fact that the probability of conception through mating is for all practical purposes zero. Scientific research succeeds to increase the sperm level (say by cloning samples of sperm) and then artificially inseminating the resulting sperm. Now the probability of conception increases to (say almost) normal levels. Under such circumstances mating is no longer required for the purpose of procreation. In fact it is not required at all, except for the pleasure it offers to its participants. The pleasure of mating now is an independent good. It certainly makes sense and under the imagined circumstances, it is even true.
peter

Alexander R Pruss said...

Peter:

Thanks for pressing me on this point.

"Is it so obvious that this causal fact (provided it is a fact) by itself warrants the normative conclusion that the pleasure of mating decoupled from procreation is morally wrong?"

Well, the fact, assuming it is a fact, is actually a thoroughly normative fact: it is a fact about what the normal results of sex are, and about what sex is for. It is a fact akin to the normative fact that eyes are primarily for seeing, and that eating is primary for nutrition.

I don't have an epistemological story for how we derive these kinds of normative facts. I think it would be a mistake to see the question in terms of some Humean problematic where we try to derive these facts from non-normative sense data. I don't think we have much, if anything, in the way of non-normative sense data. (What things do we typically see? Well, we see tables, gaucheries, chairs, cats, frowns, dogs, etc. All these are things we cannot understand except in a normative way. Tables are flat things for eating on, and dogs are supposed to be four-legged--these facts are essential to our understanding of the objects, and so to claim that something is a table or a dog is to make, at least inter alia, a normative claim.)

My claim about the pleasure of mating does not seem to me to be affected by your thought experiment for several reasons. First, I think it is wrong to conceive except through marital union. Second, even if such conception were permissible, to conceive through intercourse is valuable, and indeed valuable in a unique way (in that the child is the fruit of the organic union of the couple). But even if it were not valuable in a unique way, it would still be valuable i a non-unique, and the pleasure of intercourse could be bound up with the value of procreative striving. Third, and most importantly, what I mean by saying that x is not a good independently of y is not that x cannot be had independently of y, nor that y cannot be had independently of x. What "x is not a good independently of y" means is that x's being a good depends on x's association with y. Where sexual pleasure is not associated with mutual cooperative procreative striving (as, e.g., in the solitary sin), there sexual pleasure is of no value whatsoever.

This follows either from the Aristotelian point that pleasure completes the good or from what I think is the best account of pleasure, viz. the account that a pleasure is an apparent perception of a good (I think Socrates is committed to this cognitive view of pleasure based on what he says in the Protagoras). On the latter view, a pleasure not associated with an independent good is like a hallucination--it is a non-veridical and false perception, and thus of no intrinsic value. Moreover, while it may be licit to self-induce illusory perceptions of non-normative states of affairs (e.g., by looking a visual illusions), to self-induce illusory perceptions of normative states of affairs is to act contrary to our invariable duty to always love good and hate evil.

peter said...

Alex,

(A) You say: “Well, the fact, assuming it is a fact, is actually a thoroughly normative fact: it is a fact about what the normal results of sex are, and about what sex is for. It is a fact akin to the normative fact that eyes are primarily for seeing, and that eating is primary for nutrition.”
There is here a conflation of two different notions of *normativity*. On the one hand, we have the concept of *normal* as you use it in this quotation. In this sense, *normal* can mean one of three things: stochastic or statistical, teleological or functional, or simply causal regularities. On the other hand, there is a concept of *normativity* that signifies some set of norms, principles etc., from which certain normative claims follow: in epistemology the relevant claims pertain to what is or is not rationally acceptable; in morality the relevant claims pertain to what is right/wrong, obligatory/prohibited/permissible, etc.
Now my question to you (which you quoted in your response) was this:
“Is it so obvious that this causal fact (provided it is a fact) by itself warrants the normative conclusion that the pleasure of mating decoupled from procreation is morally wrong?”
The point of the question, then, is to press the point that a *normative* claim in the second sense above; i.e., a conclusion of a moral character, simply does not logically follow from a claim about what the normal distribution of something is (statistical), what the normal result of something is (functional) or from certain causal regularities unless you smuggle in some premises that are themselves moral in character (that is what I have referred to as ‘Hume’s problem).
I press this point in order to uncover these hidden moral premises so we can discuss them in the open. Otherwise, both sides of such a dispute appear to disagree on some factual matters when in fact the whole disagreement is about hidden moral premises.

(B) You say: “I think it would be a mistake to see the question in terms of some Humean problematic where we try to derive these facts from non-normative sense data.”
The “Humean problematic” I had in mind is not specifically about sense data. It is about the logical fallacy of trying to derive any normative claims (of the second kind above) such as “you ought to do such-and-such” from purely descriptive or factual premises (whether they describe sense-data or some other facts).
E.g.,
1) God commanded that you respect your parents. (premise)
Therefore,
2) You ought to respect your parents. (conclusion)
This inference is invalid unless you add the premise:
3) You ought to do everything God commands.
But (3) is not a descriptive or factual claim; it is a moral claim.

(C) You say:
(i) “First, I think it is wrong to conceive except through marital union.”
And I ask: But, why is that wrong?
(ii) “What "x is not a good independently of y" means is that x's being a good depends on x's association with y. Where sexual pleasure is not associated with mutual cooperative procreative striving (as, e.g., in the solitary sin), there sexual pleasure is of no value whatsoever.”
Take the first sentence; let me grant that. How does the second sentence follow?
Suppose I grant that “x is not a good independently of y” means as you want “x’s being a good depends on x’s association with y” which in turn means
Premise: “x is desirable as a good because of its stochastic, functional, causal (regularity) association with y”.
How does it follow that
Conclusion: “sexual pleasure is of no value whatsoever”, where the later means: “sexual pleasure is not desirable as a good”
unless you do one of two things:
(a) you add the word “only” to the above premise to read:
“x is desirable as a good ONLY because of its stochastic, functional, causal (regularity) association with y”
or
(b) you add the words “ought to be” to the above premise to read:
“x ought to be desirable as a good because of its stochastic, functional, causal (regularity) association with y”
I submit that (a) above is false. Most people do not find sexual activity desirable as a good *only* because ….etc.
While (b) may or may not be true, it does not follow from the premise because it is a moral claim, unless you add some other moral premises.
What are they?
peter
P.S. sorry for this long and cumbersome post.

Thomas said...

Dear Alexander,

I am drifting away from the main topic, but I am interested in your theory of pleasure. I am thinking of aesthetic pleasure: to what independent good could this be linked?

Maybe you just have some reading suggestions for me, as this is off-topic.

Thomas

Alexander R Pruss said...

Peter:

On a natural law ethics, there is a close tie between what is normative in the teleological/functional sense and what is moral. Indeed, the morally right thing to do is to act humanly normally. So that's one kind of bridge premise that can be used. Another option is a fairly specific premise that erotic love is "embodied", in the sense that it is tied to the proper functions of natural processes, and that sex is supposed to be the consummation of erotic love.

I don't currently have a full philosophical story as to why it's wrong to conceive outside the context of intercourse, just as I don't currently have a full philosophical story as to why theft is wrong. But I accept both claims on faith. :-)

Let me clarify the dependence of the good of pleasure. I think of a token of pleasure as a perception of a token of an independent good. The intrinsic value of the token of pleasure is entirely dependent on the value of the token of the independent good: without the independent good, the pleasure would have no intrinsic value whatsoever, any more than an illusory sense perception.

"x is desirable" is not entailed by "x is desired". "desirable" means "appropraitely desired". Some things that are non-desirable are nonetheless desired.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thomas:

I think aesthetic pleasure takes pleasure either in beauty or in observing beauty (I don't know which). Beauty is an objective good, but I don't have any further story as to what kind of objective good beauty is.

veronica o connell said...

I would appreciate your thoughts Alex on some responses from couples who I instruct in NFP

NFP is knowledge about fertility but to be accurate couples need to be meticulous on a daily basis in observing and charting their signs of fertility. Though charting can be depicted as a wonderful opportunity for couples to share knowledge and grow in appreciation of fertility to some couples it appears too calculating an approach to one's fertility

Couples on planning marriage may say they will accept "however many children God wants to send".
Often such couples will not seek instruction in NFP. If such a couple fails to achieve pregnancy, suffers recurrent miscarriage OR some substantial medical problem requires them to postpone further pregnancies they may present for NFP instruction. For these couples this is always a fallback; and needing this information can seem like a failure or be a disappointment to them.

You alluded in an earlier email to "motivations that would make NFP permissible". Perhaps implicit in that phrase is the belief that fertility charting and implementation of the knowledge from the charting may be virtuous but is something that needs justification, whereas for a healthy couple open to life choosing not to chart needs no prior moral deliberation. Could you comment on this

Alexander R Pruss said...

Veronica:

I think the gathering of relevant information is generally a good thing. It's good to have more information, and it's good to make decisions in the light of full information. Truth is good.

While initially the taking of daily temperatures is nuisance, the information is of intrinsic value. It's good to know what one's body, or one's spouse's body (after all, the two are in an important sense one body), is doing.

Of course, if a couple doesn't have serious reasons to delay having children, and they are in no hurry to improve the chances of conception using NFP data, they can reasonably choose to skip gathering fertility information. But even then gathering information would be useful. First, it's practice. Second, it seems like a very good thing to know about the pregnancy about sixteen days after conception without spending money on tests. Third, it is a good thing to know the conception date within two or three days, since that can lead to a significantly better estimate of the due date, and that can actually somewhat matter (e.g., because a better estimate of the due date might dissuade a doctor from unnecessarily inducing labor).

Knowing more is generally good. And with practice, the data gathering and recording can take two or three minutes a day.

(You know most of what I wrote here, but I'm also writing this for the benefit of other readers.)

Alexander R Pruss said...

Veronica:

Another thought. I think it might be worth trying to get the couples to have a subtler view of the will of God. I can't quite put my finger on the exact issue, though.

Another thought that might help is John Paul II's idea that practicing NFP gives an opportunity for virtue. To abstain for a good cause is virtuous (e.g., the man may be sacrificing himself for his wife's sake, or both sacrificing themselves for some good) and so the couple with medical reasons for practicing NFP can be glad that they are now able to pratice a virtue which before they didn't have a chance to practice.

entirelyuseless said...

Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae: "Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means."

Unless you add some qualification, this includes the act of gathering information, if your purpose in doing so is to avoid conceiving through a sexual act, even for a period of time. So if we take the statement literally, it would indeed prohibit some ways of practicing NFP, namely situations where the couple does not want to conceive a child during the next month, does want to have sex within the next month, and researches information for the purpose of achieving these two ends simultaneously.

As you say, however, it would not prohibit it in every sense. But it would probably prohibit it in the way done by most actual practitioners.

It might be more realistic, however, to add some qualification to what the Pope said, since he likely did not mean to prohibit such a plan.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Since the Pope clearly wanted to allow rhythm (paragraph 24), and rhythm involves such research, we definitely should not read the text to forbid such gathering of information.

Even bracketing NFP and rhythm, taking Pope Paul VI's remark without any qualification would lead to the absurd idea that it is wrong for a couple that has serious reasons to avoid procreation to go out to the movies in order to avoid temptation to imprudent marital relations.

entirelyuseless said...

Going to the movies wouldn't apply even in the unqualified way that I was talking about, because of "before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse." If the couple goes to the movies, they don't have intercourse, and so it doesn't apply.

In my scenario, the couple plans on having intercourse. But they decide some factor of that planned act, namely the timing, in order not to conceive. I think an unqualified reading of what he says would exclude this as immoral, and I think a charitable interpretation is that he intended some qualification. But at no point in the encyclical does he say what that qualification actually is.

entirelyuseless said...

Also, it seems to me if we want to get at what the Pope intended, we simply need some reference to artificial or technological intervention. Simply referring to decreasing the fertility of sexual relations doesn't seem to me to work.

Consider this scenario: a woman wants to conceive, but she is naturally infertile or not very fertile. She is taking a fertility drug permitted by the Church. In order to make sure that we are talking about a positive act, let's say that her husband adds it to her coffee every morning.

Now there is a change in their financial situation, and it would no longer be prudent to conceive. Is she permitted to tell her husband to stop adding the drug to the coffee? If she does so, she is performing a positive act which is intended to make her sexual activity less fertile.

I'm not sure what you would say about this situation, but I am fairly sure that Paul VI would not object to her behavior. If that's right, the qualification needs to allow for such things.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Well, their going to the movies probably comes after some act of intercourse (maybe a day after, maybe a month after)! Alright, that's a stretch. It seems clear that what the Pope means is: "Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation DURING THIS ACT OF INTERCOURSE—whether as an end or as a means."

But if *that* is what the Pope means, then NFP/rhythm is not ruled out, since it doesn't render THIS act of intercourse infertile.

It's very hard to specify what an "artificial or technological intervention" is. Suppose that research showed that men are never fertile within an hour of a jog. Then jogging to depress fertility would be contraceptive.

There is, however, still the drug in coffee problem. That's trickier, in that seems to be an action intended to prevent procreation during that particular act of intercourse. My best story right now is a Frances Kamm style triple effect story. An agent always has a reason to terminate a medical intervention, simply to have more bodily autonomy from medical intervention. But there is a defeater for this reason: the woman will become infertile if she terminates the medical intervention. But there is a defeater for the defeater: she has serious reasons not make use of her fertility. The end in sight is the bodily autonomy from medical intervention. The infertility and the lack of financial hardship are not intended effects, but they are weighed in the proportionality stage.

I am not entirely comfortable with this story, and have consulted some well-known Catholic ethicists about this. If I hear something better, I will update.