Sunday, October 16, 2011

Corvino on the PIB Argument (Part Three)

Philosopher John Corvino (courtesy of Flickr user yksin)

(Part One, Part Two)

This is the third part of my series on John Corvino’s article “Homosexuality and the PIB Argument”. In part one, we learned what the PIB argument was and we considered some pre-existing responses to it. In part two, we were introduced to Corvino’s preferred response to the argument. In this part, we will look at how Corvino handles the criticisms of the “new” natural lawyers such as Robert George, John Finnis and Patrick Lee.

The PIB argument works off the idea that if we accept that homosexual relations are morally permissible, we must then accept that polygamous, incestuous and bestial (PIB) relations are morally permissible. But since most people agree that PIB relations are not morally permissible, it follows that homosexual relations must not be morally permissible. As such, the argument proposes that a slippery slope exists between homosexuality and PIB: if we accept homosexuality we must slide down the slope to PIB.

As we saw in part two, Corvino challenges this argument in an unusual way. First, he argues that nonprocreative heterosexual relations and homosexual relations can be endorsed for the same moral reasons. Then he points out that if this is the case, there is no more reason to think that there is a slippery slope between homosexuality and PIB, than there is to think there is a slippery slope from heterosexuality to PIB. And since no one thinks there is a slippery slope from heterosexuality to PIB, the argument is defeated.

There is, however, one important criticism that Corvino needs to contend with. This criticism comes out of the work by the new natural lawyers. They argue that there is something crucially different about heterosexual relations (even of the nonprocreative kind) when compared with homosexual relations. And it is this crucial difference that makes the former morally permissible and the latter morally impermissible. Today we’re going to learn what that crucial difference is supposed to be, and see how Corvino deals with it.

1. The Marital Good Dilemma
The new natural lawyers — represented by the work of Finnis in Corvino’s article — believe that there is a set of basic goods toward which all human action should be oriented. (There is some doubt about the precise form of this orientation. Most natural lawyers are presumptive deontologists, but there is no particular reason why they could not be presumptive consequentialists. That, however, is an argument for another time). These are all intrinsic, as opposed to instrumental, goods. Which means they are good in and of themselves, irrespective of the other consequences that may flow from them.

Now one of these intrinsic goods is the so-called marital good. This good is achieved when a man a woman achieve a two-in-one flesh sexual union of the procreative kind ( i.e. vaginal intercourse). Why is this a good? Well, there are two answers. Either it simply is, and there are no more questions to be asked, or it has to do with value of certain biological functions: the reproductive function being the only (human) biological function that requires the coordinated activity of two people.

It is important to be clear that, according to the new natural lawyers, the marital good can only be achieved by uncontracepted vaginal intercourse between a man and a woman who have committed themselves to one another through a marriage ceremony. All other forms of sexual union are not intrinsically good; in fact, they are (intrinsically?) bad. This includes contracepted vaginal intercourse, premarital sex, non-vaginal intercourse, oral sex, masturbation and, of course, homosexual acts and PIB acts. Finnis, in particular, is remarkably clear and consistent about his moral opposition to these other sexual acts. Why are these other acts bad? A variety of reasons are cited, chief among them being the supposed damage they do to the marital good, and the mental/physical disunity they promote. We’ll talk about both in more detail later.

It is also important to be clear that, again according to the new natural lawyers, the marital good can be achieved by sterile married couples. How can this be if the activity is essentially connected to procreation? The answer is convoluted, and not entirely persuasive, but it seems to have to do with the intrinsic goodness of reproductive kind acts: it is morally good to perform an act of the reproductive kind, regardless of its ultimate consequence. Cutesy analogies are often used to support this point, such as “it’s still baseball, even if the team never wins.”

Anyway, if the marital good is recognised — and all non-marital sexual relations are thereby distinguished — an argument can be mounted against the gay-rights advocate like Corvino, and in support of the original PIB argument. To be precise, the PIB argument can be reformulated with a disjunctive major premise, a pair of hypotheticals, and a conclusion supporting the traditionalist view of sexual morality. As follows

  • (1) Either heterosexual relations are only morally permissible when they realise the intrinsic goodness of the marital good, or they are morally permissible when they are instrumentally important in achieving a range of other goods.
  • (2) If heterosexual relations are only permissible because of the marital good, then homosexual relations are not morally permissible.
  • (3) If heterosexual relations are permissible because of their instrumental importance in achieving a range of other goods, then homosexual relations are permissible but so too (probably) are PIB relations.
  • (4) PIB relations are definitely not morally permissible.
  • (5) Therefore, heterosexual relations are not permissible because of their instrumental importance in achieving a range of other goods (from 3 and 4).
  • (6) Therefore, heterosexual relations are only morally permissible when they realise the intrinsic goodness of the marital good and homosexual relations are impermissible (from 1,2, and 5).

This argument is my own interpolation into Corvino’s article, but I think it’s a valid reconstruction of how he views the impact of new natural law. I also think it’s valid (someone might check this for me). As you can see, the argument is partly dilemmatic. It’s challenging the gay-rights advocate to either accept the new natural law position or accept the permissibility of PIB.

But is there any reason to accept this argument? Corvino thinks not. He points to three problems that make the natural law argument deeply implausible.

2. The Sterility Problem
First, there is the sterility problem. How can natural lawyers consistently believe that: (a) sexual acts are only morally permissible if they are of the reproductive kind; and (b) that sexual acts are still permissible even when they have no chance of achieving reproduction? Admittedly, there is no blatant contradiction taking place here, but there is, nonetheless, a strange metaphysics of value underlying this set of beliefs. It is reminiscent of the sympathetic magic rituals that are sometimes practiced by primitive tribes: imitating or metaphorically representing the act or object that you really value is deemed equally valuable.

But saying this highlights a potential stumbling block for the natural lawyer. If a sterile, but reproductive-kind, sexual act is morally valuable because it metaphorically mimics or represents a genuinely reproductive act, is it really that much of a stretch to say that certain homosexual acts are valuable because they metaphorically represent genuinely reproductive acts? Admittedly, there are dissimilarities between the two kinds of act, but if we’re going to allow that the act need not have even the remotest possibility of leading to reproduction (e.g. as in intercourse between a castrated male and a woman with a hysterectomy), isn’t there a new slippery slope argument to be made?

The situation is not helped by the analogies offered by the natural lawyers to support the alleged link between reproductive-type acts and sterile sex. Robert George and Patrick Lee, for instance, ask us to imagine a man who has some severe digestive disorder that leads him to vomit-up all food that he eats. Nevertheless, the man continues to eat. George and Lee contend that even though no food is fully digested, the man is still performing acts of the “nourishing-type”.

Presumably, the point behind the analogy is that the man’s nourishing-type acts have the same intrinsic value as genuinely nourishing acts. But as Corvino points out, this really stretches the bounds of credulity. Surely, there’s no way such a man could be said to be performing acts of the nourishing type. And similarly, surely there’s no way that a sterile married couple could be said to be performing acts of the reproductive kind.

Natural lawyers could respond by pointing to other goods realised by sexual acts between sterile married couples. The problem is, once you go beyond the supposed good of traditional reproduction, these other goods will tend to be available to homosexual couples. So there’s no longer a principled line to draw between heterosexual sex and homosexual sex.

3. The Damage-to-Marriage-Problem
A second problem arises from the supposed link between the value of the marital good and the impermissibility of homosexuality. Just because one set of activities is deemed morally permissible for one reason, it does not follow that another set of activities are not morally impermissible for the same reason. Both sets of activities could be deemed permissible for different reasons. For example, chess might be deemed valuable because it improves our cognitive powers, whereas tiddlywinks might be deemed permissible because it helps forge bonds of loyalty between those who play it. Why couldn’t something similar be true of heterosexual and homosexual relations?

The typical answer from the natural lawyers is that homosexuality somehow damages the marital good. Finnis, for example, argues that once you allow non-marital sexual acts, you allow for the possibility that the marital good is a “merely incidental” dimension of sexuality. This, according to him, is wrong. The complete exclusion of all other sexual acts from one’s sphere of morally acceptable behavior is an “existential, if not logical, precondition” for the marital good. What’s more, damage can be done to the marital good even by those who have no intention of trying to realise the traditional marital good themselves. Finnis supports this second claim — which is more important in the present context — with the following:

Just as a cowardly weakling who would never try to kill anyone yet deliberately approves of the killings of innocent people in a terrorist massacre has a will which violates the good of life, so [someone] violates the good of marriage by consenting to (deliberately approving) non-marital sex acts such as solitary masturbation.

Corvino thinks this whole line of reasoning is unpersuasive and question-begging. It’s not at all clear that people who have no interest in marriage, who do not actively try to break-up traditional marriages, and who nevertheless engage in non-marital sex acts damage the traditional marital good. They certainly don’t thereby prevent others from realising it, if that is what they wish to do. To suggest that the fact that others treat the marital good as a merely incidental aspect of sexuality will necessarily lead others to do the same is to engage in armchair psychology.

Furthermore, this kind of argument neglects the dilemma involved in either approving or disapproving homosexual relations. There are possible goods that sex acts carried out in committed homosexual realtionships can help to realise (e.g. those listed in part two) that would otherwise not be achieved. Surely, these need to be taken into consideration when deciding what to do? Then again, natural law has never been particularly good at dealing with dilemmatic situations of this sort.

4. The Integrity Problem
Even if non-marital sex acts do no harm to the marital good, there is another sort of damage they may do. They may damage personal integrity. This an argument beloved by Finnis. He says the following: sexual acts that do not realise the marital good are motivated by a desire for gratification (or conscious pleasure); a desire for gratification involves the instrumentalisation of body (i.e. the use of the body as a means to a good, rather than as an element of an intrinsic good); the instrumentalisation of the body leads to the disintegration of body and mind; and this disintegration is necessarily bad.

To put this more succintly and more formally, we say:

  • (7) All acts in which the body is used as an instrument for achieving some good are morally impermissible (because they lead to personal disintegration).
  • (8) Non-marital sexual acts involve the instrumental use of the body in order to achieve gratification.
  • (9) Therefore, non-marital sexual acts are morally impermissible.

With its logic exposed, Finnis’s argument becomes much less tenable.

For starters, (7) is not obviously true. Corvino suggests there may be situations in which the instrumental use of the body is not morally impermissible. He cites an article by Perry in support of this, but since I haven’t read it I can’t say what it contains. I have a suggestion though: suppose there was a fire in an inner city building and suppose the only escape route was to go out through the window of the building and into an adjacent building. Suppose, however, the gap between the two buildings was too wide to jump for a number of small children in the building with you. Now suppose you use your body as a human bridge for these small children to crawl or walk across the gap. Would this be impermissible because it involves the instrumental use of the body? Surely not.

Premise (8) has two flaws. First, the only reason Finnis can say that sexual gratification involves the instrumental use of the body is because he assumes the mind and the body are distinct, that the conscious experiences in the mind are separate from the physical activities in the body. But this is to assume the truth of mind-body dualism, something that he cannot do here. Second, the whole premise rests on a massively impoverished view of sexual phenomenology. As Corvino points out, the idea that outside of the marital context people only engage sexual acts for gratification is almost insulting. People also engage in sexual acts to forge bonds, attain intimacy, and to share experiences. These are commendable things.

5. Turning the Natural Law Argument on its Head
With these three problems identified and described, the natural law version of the PIB argument looks like its in trouble. So much so that one might be inclined to leave it there. But why not twist the knife a little further?

All along, we have been assuming that if heterosexual relations are only permissible because they secure the marital good, it follows that PIB relations are impermissible. But this is not an assumption we are warranted to make. Although, the marital good cannot be achieved in bestial sex acts, it’s possible that it could be achieved in polygamous and incestuous sex acts. After all, its reproductive type acts that seem to matter for the natural lawyer and multi-partner or sibling-sibling sex can be of this form.

No doubt natural lawyers will balk at this, but have they any right to do so? They might demand monogamous commitment, but this — along with the other goods discussed in part two — is ultimately incidental to the marital good. They might also speak in horrified tones about parent-child sex, but this is to focus on the most objectionable form of incest (a form that can be rejected on other moral grounds). What can they object to about sibling-sibling sex?

To be clear, the suggestion here is not that polygamy and incest are permissible, but, rather, that the natural law argument doesn’t actually give good grounds for thinking they are impermissible. Thus, the natural law version of the PIB argument must be deemed a failure.

All of which raises a final question: are there any good grounds for deeming PIB relations impermissible? We’ll answer that in the final part.

Note: All quotes from and references to Finnis are in relation to "The Good of Marriage and the Morality of Sexual Relations".


  1. (7) All acts in which the body is used as an instrument for achieving some good are morally impermissible

    Recall that in part 1, the claim was that "impeding a natural function" was the criterion for moral impermissability. Thus "wearing spectacles on the bridge of ones nose" was not a proper counterexample.

    However, now the claim is that instrumentality is the criterion: all those counter-examples would seem to become valid again! Claim 7 seems to make the position much worse for the "theist". Or am I missing something?

    Certainly, in the Catholic circles that I hang around in, I see claim 7 much more than the earlier one about impeding. I'm not sure if there's an official Church position on this distinction though - would be interested to know.

  2. Interesting series, John!
    Or should I say, Dr Danaher :)
    You might be interested in this paper, which is to do with Same-Sex Marriage rather than the permissibility or impermissibility of homosexual sex. It's probably the most comprehensive case for the conjugal view of marriage that's ever been writted in an academic format, and seeing as it's got a particularly law slant on it I think you will find it interesting/worth responding to/worth posting about.

    There's also been a number of responses to criticisms here which also includes links to the critiques on each relevant post.

  3. Thanks Michael!

    I'm actually already familiar with that paper. Indeed, it was assigned reading for my class on natural law a couple of weeks back. But thanks anyway.