Is taking the Pill the same as NFP?

Someone asked for an explanation of “why, since the intentions and ideal end result is the same, why taking the Pill is ‘quite a bit different’ than NFP” [Natural Family Planning].”

The premise, apparently, is that taking the Pill and NFP are morally the same. (Let’s assume that by “NFP” we mean restricting sexual intercourse to those days of the month when the female spouse is likely infertile.)

It is asserted that the Pill and NFP are the same because the intentions and ideal end result are the same. What are the intentions and ideal end result? Presumably they would say, to enjoy sexual intercourse while not conceiving a child.

Therefore the argument runs like this:

Major: The Church teaches that it’s immoral to engage in sexual intercourse while having the intention of not conceiving a child.

Minor: Both NFP and the Pill have the same intention.

Conclusion: Both NFP and the Pill are immoral according to the Church’s teaching.

This person doesn’t see how the Pill ends up immoral in the conclusion, while NFP escapes that fate.

However I deny the conclusion since I deny the Major. As affirmed in Humanae Vitae (see paragraph 16), the Church does not teach that it’s immoral to engage in sexual intercourse while having the intention of not conceiving a child. Rather, the Church teaches that it’s immoral to take steps to artificially, i.e. unnaturally, thwart the natural result of sexual intercourse.

Correcting the Major, then, the syllogism runs thus:

Major: The Church teaches that it’s immoral to take steps to artificially, i.e. unnaturally, thwart the natural result of sexual intercourse.

Minor: Both NFP and the Pill artificially, i.e. unnaturally, thwart the natural result of sexual intercourse.

Conclusion: Both NFP and the Pill are immoral according to the Church’s teaching.

But in this case I deny the conclusion because the Minor is false: While the Pill does artificially thwart the natural result of sexual intercourse, NFP does not. Most would agree that the Pill does this, but some may dispute that NFP does not.

But NFP basically consists of two things: (1) abstaining from intercourse during fertile periods; and (2) engaging in intercourse during infertile periods. Which of these is artificial?

I deny that it’s artificial or unnatural to abstain from intercourse during fertile periods. There is nothing unnatural about abstaining from intercourse when one wishes not to conceive a child. In fact there could be nothing more natural. It’s pure common sense. Further, doing so does not thwart the natural result of intercourse, since no intercourse is occurring in the first place.

I deny that it’s artificial or unnatural to engage in intercourse during infertile periods, for the simple reason that there’s nothing unnatural about engaging in intercourse at any time whatsoever.

Therefore there is nothing unnatural or artificial about the practice of NFP.

Some may argue that it’s not the practice of NFP that is artificial, but the intention. But there is nothing unnatural or artificial about choosing not to conceive a child at a particular time; nor does such a choice violate the Church’s teachings, provided one makes the choice for a legitimate reason.

Humanae Vitae itself says,

“It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable.”

In my view, it is here that Paul VI points up the salient difference between the Pill and NFP: It’s only in NFP that the couple make the perfectly natural decision to abstain from intercourse at certain times for the purpose of avoiding the conception of a child. Whereas with the Pill, the couple make the unnatural decision to engage in intercourse at any time they please while at the same time intending that no children should result. “In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the latter they obstruct the natural development of the generative process” (HV 16). In the latter case, rather than respecting the reproductive functions, leaving them intact and working around them, they take deliberate action to suppress them, the woman deliberately and artificially rendering herself incapable of conceiving a child, not only at certain times of the month but at all times. It’s this artificially messing around with the reproductive functions that violates the natural law.

As HV says,

“[T]o experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source.”

NFP respects “the design established by the Creator” and acknowledges that man does not have “unlimited dominion” over his body or over his “specifically sexual faculties”. The Pill does not.

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32 thoughts on “Is taking the Pill the same as NFP?

  1. I think the church is doing a poor job at promoting NFP. While, as you argue, NFP has the moral high-ground; that’s not a big seller in modern culture.

    I am simply surprised that the church doesn’t work more from the “Natural” aspect. “Family planing without altering your body!” Or the tangential benefits of simply knowing more about one’s body – NFP includes the only real sex education. Look at the industry boom of natural and organic foods and the green movement – all attempting to be more natural. I wonder that the church would be more successful if it promoted NFP from this angle in society.

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  2. Hi Joel! Nice to hear from you.

    I agree with you, although I would have said it in a more negative manner: The Church is doing a poor job making people understanding that artificial birth control is sinful. But you make a good point, that selling NFP as a natural alternative to artificially messing with your body, should appeal to the liberal/environmental crowd.

    On the other hand, I think the naturalness of NFP is self-evident and obvious. As are the unnaturalness of the pill or a condom, not to mention killing a baby in the womb. I believe there is some disconnect among the nature-love crowd on these issues.

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  3. Well put, sir. You may be surprised to find out that I believe the RCC to be correct on the subject of artificial birth control. I think you did a very nice job of explaining why NFP is different from the pill. I suppose the only difference of opinion I have with the RCC is whether the subject is so clearly dealt with in a revelatory way that it should be bound upon the conscience of the faithful. But, I suppose that is because I have a different idea of what constitutes a revelatory source:)

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  4. Thanks Andrew. The revelatory source would be primarily the Natural Law. I’m not sure how familiar you are with that idea, but if you want further explanation let me know.

    By the way, what revelatory source would you say makes abortion immoral?

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  5. Well duh. But I mean how do we know that abortion is murder? You will say it’s because an unborn child is a human being, and the Bible prohibits murdering human beings. But how do we know the unborn child is a human being? How do we know that the pro-aborts are wrong when they say it’s not human until it’s born, until it takes its first breath, until it can survive outside the womb, etc.? Why do we disagree with them when they say a week-old fetus is not a full-fledged human being, but only a potential human being?

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  6. I find your line of questioning to sophistical, my friend. The pro-aborts make an arbitrary distinction based on age and level of development.
    1. It is a being of some sort. 2. It’s parents are human. 3. Beings multiply after their own kind (Genesis 1). Therefore, it is a human being. It’s as simple as believing what God said.

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  7. Come on, I’m only quoting the arguments of the pro-aborts. Please don’t criticize them as if they’re my own.

    My point is that the Bible nowhere says that “unborn children are human beings in the fullest sense of the term”. You’ve got to use reason to reach that point, which is precisely what you just did.

    And that’s what the Church does in concluding that birth control is wrong, even if it’s not stated explicitly in written revelation (besides the fact that it’s been the constant teaching of the Church as far back as it can be traced — indeed all Protestant churches agreed until early in the 20th century).

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  8. “Come on, I’m only quoting the arguments of the pro-aborts. Please don’t criticize them as if they’re my own.”

    Yeah, I know that it isn’t your argument. But you used it against my position, implying that with only scripture I couldn’t defend my view against the pro-aborts. That is why I said what I said. Didn’t meant to tweak your nose. Beyond that I am having trouble understanding your point. I wouldn’t deny that I used reason. The point I am making is that I can arrive at the conclusion that abortion is murder reasoning from scripture.

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  9. Here is your chain of reasoning:

    ‘1. It is a being of some sort. 2. It’s parents are human. 3. Beings multiply after their own kind (Genesis 1). Therefore, it is a human being. It’s as simple as believing what God said.’

    This argument doesn’t even need 3. You can just say, it’s a being and it’s human, therefore it’s a human being. No one questions the fact that beings multiply after their own kind, not even pro-aborts. You don’t need the Bible to demonstrate that.

    But this doesn’t stop people from claiming that it’s not a “full-fledged” human being, in other words that it’s not fully developed and therefore not deserving of full human rights; or that it’s not fully developed and therefore killing it is not full-fledged murder, but more along the lines of killing a cat.

    Obviously I don’t agree with these conclusions, but I don’t see anything in the Bible that directly refutes them. The Bible doesn’t say explicitly, “an unborn child possesses the same right to life as a fully developed adult”.

    Rather, they are refuted by arguments based on premises which are based on observation and experience, in other words common sense.

    This is why I always say that the pro-life position is not strictly a Christian position. If pro-aborts agreed that the unborn child was a full-fledged human being, then they would agree that it should not be killed, just as they (for the most part) agree that post-birth babies should not be killed.

    Their support for abortion is based on the assertion that it’s not a full-fledged human being. This is the crux of the question, and it can be answered by anyone who is willing to place facts above convenience. You don’t need the Bible to prove the pro-life position.

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  10. “Obviously I don’t agree with these conclusions, but I don’t see anything in the Bible that directly refutes them. The Bible doesn’t say explicitly, “an unborn child possesses the same right to life as a fully developed adult”.

    The bible says don’t murder. If the bible itself doesn’t make a distinction between the unborn and the already born then neither can we. Your argument from silence is unconvincing.

    “You don’t need the Bible to prove the pro-life position.”

    Without the bible there isn’t a reason for the pro-life position. Once God’s revelation has been rejected there is no god but man.

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  11. Agellius my friend,

    I am going to leave this thread alone. If you respond I will read it, but I have to be more selective in terms of what I spend a lot of time doing. We have two other threads going, both of which are more interesting to me. The fact of the matter is that we both abhor abortion. Let’s argue about something else.

    Andrew

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  12. Andrew:

    You write, ‘If the bible itself doesn’t make a distinction between the unborn and the already born then neither can we. Your argument from silence is unconvincing.’

    I don’t follow you. I’m not making any argument from silence.

    And I don’t agree that we can’t make any distinctions that are not found in the Bible. I don’t accept your premise that the Bible contains all necessary distinctions.

    You write, ‘Without the bible there isn’t a reason for the pro-life position.’

    I agree that without God there is no objective basis for morality. However there can be an objective basis for morality without the Bible. The Bible itself makes that point, as you have been trying to prove to me elsewhere using Romans 1.

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  13. You have done a great job of outlining why NFP is acceptable and the use of “the pill” is morally wrong.

    In NFP the couple is making a sacrifice to abstain from sexual relations in order to avoid conceiving a child but with “the pill” a couple is intentionally deciding to use a chemical to prevent the sexual act from being able to conceive a human life. With the pill there is no sacrifice involved. The pill is preventing God’s will from being done but that is not the case with NFP.

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  14. “In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the latter they obstruct the natural development of the generative process.”

    Yes, but why is doing this (in the context of having a family, say) *wrong*. I find the quoted pieces from Humanae Vitae uncompelling on this point.

    That it is not *natural* isn’t compelling – there are many things we do that are unnatural. For example, we are designed to walk or run places, so is riding a horse or taking a car wrong? No.

    Is it that it *obstructs* something? Well, more accurately it modulates a human hormonal system. Does modulating the human hormonal system make something wrong? Well, no – we change our hormones all the time by eating different things.

    Is it that taking the pill causes a certain *generative process* not to happen? This seems to be the crux of the matter. Why is causing a certain generative process to not happen *wrong*? That’s my question.

    (Similarly, if one does use NFP successfully, it *does* cause a certain generative process not to happen – namely, the egg does not get fertilized and begin to develop.)

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  15. More generally,

    1. I find any arguments against the pill I have seen so far (such as the ones outlined above) to not be clear or compelling. (Rather, they seem to disappear into the thickets of natural law theory.)

    2. I have no clear intuition that it is wrong. That is, it’s not that I have the intuition that it’s wrong and am therefore looking for a rational justification for that intuition (and perhaps am trying to disambiguate it from NFP) – rather, I am looking for an argument which compellingly shows that it is.

    3. On the other hand, using the pill seems to have very large, compelling benefits in certain cases. So, absent compelling arguments against it, my default position is that it’s fine to use for some people in some circumstances.

    4. In a sense, using the pill is more natural than NFP, in that NFP requires the cessation of sexual activity at precisely the moment when a woman is fertile. This is ‘unnatural’ in some sense of that term.

    5. Moving beyond argument to real world results, I see families that have used the pill to space births (including large families by today’s standards), who seem to be healthy and happy.

    My major concerns with the pill are adverse health consequences some women report while using it. This to me seems more compelling than any of the philosophical arguments I have read thus far against its use in toto for the purposes of temporary contraception.

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  16. Ajb: I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

    My point wasn’t to prove that artificial birth control (ABC) is wrong, but to show, in answer to a question, how it differs essentially from NFP. That was also my point in linking to this post (from Bruce Charlton’s blog): I did so in response to your contention or implication that NFP and other forms of contraception fall under the same category.

    My post is on a Catholic blog, and deals with Catholic teaching in answer to a question from a Catholic. I believe ABC is wrong based on the fact that the Church has always taught that it is wrong, and in fact all Christian churches agreed on that teaching until early in the 20th century when the Anglicans (of course) broke ranks.

    Personally I consider the natural law arguments persuasive. But not being a trained philosopher, I refer you to the master: http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2013/03/a-christian-hart-humean-head.html

    I will give just a short response to each of your points:

    1. Calling natural law theory a “thicket” does not refute it.
    2. I flatter myself that this very post disambiguates ABC from NFP; I think it clearly does, and I don’t think you have refuted my arguments. I don’t know that any argument could compel you to believe that ABC is wrong, but I consider the arguments against it more persuasive than their opposites.
    3. I’m very skeptical of this claim, and I believe strongly that it has many compelling detriments.
    4. I consider this absurd, for the reasons outlined in this post.
    5. I believe countless marriages which might otherwise have been happy have instead been miserable and often ended in divorce, due mainly to the use of ABC. And countless marriages that never existed, might have come into existence but for the “easy sex” mentality that has predominated since ABC use has become virtually universal.

    You know where I’m coming from. It might help me to discuss this issue with you if I knew where you were coming from. I have no idea what your underlying premises are. Are you Catholic? Christian? Atheist?

    Thanks again for commenting. I always enjoy a good discussion.

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  17. @Agellius,

    Of course there are differences between ABC and NFP. The question is why this *matters*. That is, whether it’s a relevant difference.

    From what you said at Bruce’s:

    “I assume we would agree that a church that doesn’t even teach that contraception, divorce and abortion are wrong, and *for that reason has below-replacement level fertility*, is not a genuinely Christian church.” (emphasis mine)

    In the context of the original discussion, the point I was making was that the Catholic Church endorses a form of contraception that, if used properly, is just as effective as an ABC (according to NFP’s proponents).

    Of course, NFP is in certain ways obviously inferior to the pill, and so couples typically won’t want to use NFP their entire lives, and it is typically more difficult to use it properly in the first place. So, there probably will be higher fertility rates if couples just use NFP. In this way, I think you have a point, as far as the original discussion at Bruce’s.

    “I believe ABC is wrong based on the fact that the Church has always taught that it is wrong, and in fact all Christian churches agreed on that teaching until early in the 20th century when the Anglicans.”

    I respect arguments to tradition, and in fact it is one of the reasons why I am skeptical of the modern ethos when it comes to contraception. However, that something is tradition cannot be sufficient for it to be true, it seems to me rather to be merely suggestive – what is the actual argument and how does that meet various objections to it?

    “I don’t know that any argument could compel you to believe that ABC is wrong”

    Yes, a good one!

    “My point [in this blog post] wasn’t to prove that artificial birth control (ABC) is wrong, but to show, in answer to a question, how it differs essentially from NFP.”

    Again, I am looking for a good reason to think that doing something which in turn causes a “generative process” to not occur (for a temporary period of time) is wrong. I don’t see anything you’ve said thus far that goes towards that, except to appeal to tradition. Perhaps in a limited context that is sufficient, but I doubt it is even in a broadly Catholic context nowadays.

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  18. Ajb:

    You write, “From what you said at Bruce’s: [quoting me] I assume we would agree that a church that doesn’t even teach that contraception, divorce and abortion are wrong, and *for that reason has below-replacement level fertility*, is not a genuinely Christian church.’ (emphasis mine)”

    When I made this statement I was not thinking of NFP as contraception, for the reasons I’ve explained.

    [For those who may be following this discussion and wondering what went on at Bruce’s blog, here is a link to the post in which the whole thing started: http://charltonteaching.blogspot.com/2013/03/mere-christianity-losing-faith-in-power.html

    You write, “In the context of the original discussion, the point I was making was that the Catholic Church endorses a form of contraception that, if used properly, is just as effective as an ABC (according to NFP’s proponents).”

    As long as you keep referring to NFP as contraception, we’re going to have trouble understanding each other. Let me try to state it plainly: The Catholic Church does not endorse NFP per se. Saying that the Church “endorses a form of contraception” called NFP, makes it sound like the Church is actively trying to persuade its members not to have children. It does no such thing.

    The Church *allows* NFP, simply because there’s nothing wrong with it; there is no moral ground upon which to forbid it, since its essential component is simply abstaining from sex when you don’t want to have children. Nothing could be more natural. The Church’s problem is not with abstaining from sex, the Church’s problem is with *having* sex while thwarting its natural results.

    I suggest that you re-read my post and tell me which if any of my arguments is wrong, and specifically where. I think I laid them out pretty simply and logically.

    You write, “Again, I am looking for a good reason to think that doing something which in turn causes a ‘generative process’ to not occur (for a temporary period of time) is wrong.”

    I disagree with your characterization of ABC. The sinfulness of ABC does not lie in “doing something which in turn causes a ‘generative process’ to not occur”. Again I refer you to the post above for an explanation of what’s wrong with it from the Catholic perspective.

    As I said, it was never my intent to prove ABC was wrong. I accept the Church’s teaching on the matter because I’m a Catholic. Apart from the Church’s authority in the matter, I also find the natural law arguments persuasive. As to those, again I refer you to Feser (linked to above).

    If you insist that I make the natural law arguments myself, I’m willing to do that. But I warn you in advance that I will mostly be quoting Feser. I just thought you’d like to go directly to the source and cut out the middle man.

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  19. “As long as you keep referring to NFP as contraception”

    As I pointed out on the aforementioned thread, NFP *is* a form of contraception, according to the generally accepted use of the term ‘contraception’. You may not like that, and the Catholic Church may not classify it as such, but that doesn’t change what the word means.

    “The Catholic Church does not endorse NFP per se […] The Church *allows* NFP.”

    ‘Endorse’ means ‘to approve, support, or sustain,’ according to a definition from Dictionary.com. You must be aware that NFP education is a part of mandatory marriage preparation courses approved by the Catholic Church, and is the only form of sexually active contraception spoken of favorably in such courses.

    “makes it sound like the Church is actively trying to persuade its members not to have children. It does no such thing.”

    No, the Church leaves it up to couples to figure out if using NFP is appropriate. The obvious, predictable effect will be fewer children.

    “again I refer you to Feser”

    IIRC, I have read an argument from Feser regarding NFP, and so I assume I felt he didn’t deal with the sort of questions I have in particular. However, the link you posted to seemed a very general post concerning natural law. Is this what you are referring to?

    ” The sinfulness of ABC does not lie in “doing something which in turn causes a ‘generative process’ to not occur”. Again I refer you to the post above for an explanation of what’s wrong with it from the Catholic perspective.”

    Turning to the post above, I read:

    ““In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the latter they obstruct the natural development of the generative process” (HV 16). In the latter case, rather than respecting the reproductive functions, leaving them intact and working around them, they take deliberate action to suppress them, the woman deliberately and artificially rendering herself incapable of conceiving a child, not only at certain times of the month but at all times. *It’s this artificially messing around with the reproductive functions that violates the natural law.*”

    So, again I ask, why is a delaying of a ‘generative process’ wrong?

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  20. Ajb:

    You write, “NFP *is* a form of contraception, according to the generally accepted use of the term ‘contraception’. You may not like that, and the Catholic Church may not classify it as such, but that doesn’t change what the word means.”

    I have never argued over the “objective” definition of “contraception”. All I’ve said is that (1) I don’t think of NFP as contraception, and (2) lumping both ABC and NFP under the same definition is bound to cause confusion when the topic of discussion is why the Catholic Church believes one is wrong and not the other. If you insist that the number one dictionary definition is the only valid one, so be it, but let any confusion or ambiguity be on your head.

    You write, “‘Endorse’ means ‘to approve, support, or sustain,’ according to a definition from Dictionary.com. You must be aware that NFP education is a part of mandatory marriage preparation courses approved by the Catholic Church, and is the only form of sexually active contraception spoken of favorably in such courses. … the Church leaves it up to couples to figure out if using NFP is appropriate. The obvious, predictable effect will be fewer children.”

    Your implied argument seems to be, A. When someone does something with a predictable effect, that effect must be his purpose in doing it; B. The Church teaches the use of NFP; C. It’s predictable that teaching NFP leads to fewer children; therefore D. The Church must be trying to produce the effect of fewer children.

    I deny your conclusion because I deny premise A. I believe the Church teaches the use of NFP, not to reduce procreation but to reduce the use of ABC. The reduction of procreation is “a foreseen but unintended byproduct” (to borrow a phrase from Feser).

    In any event, the teaching of NFP is not a universal phenomenon in the Church. As far as I know it’s not a directive from on high, but something that local bishops and pastors choose to do for the reason I already named. I for one was not taught anything about NFP when my wife and I took our marriage prep course. We were told that sex needed to be open to procreation, and that ABC was sinful, and that’s about it. We were aware of NFP, but apparently it wasn’t a standard component of marriage preparation in our diocese.

    You write, “the link you posted to seemed a very general post concerning natural law. Is this what you are referring to?”

    To appreciate the force of natural law arguments, you need to have a general understanding of the philosophical premises upon which they rest. From some arguments you made against natural law theory (“we are designed to walk or run places, so is riding a horse or taking a car wrong?”), it seemed like you didn’t quite catch their drift. I think if you read the article that Feser was rebutting (which he links to), and then read Feser’s article, it might help you to better understand the natural law point of view.

    In any case, I will just answer the above argument with a quote from Feser:

    “One … frequently hears objections along the lines of “Wouldn’t this theory entail such absurdities as that it is immoral to prop up a table with one’s leg, or to get a hysterectomy to save a woman’s life, or to clean earwax out of one’s ears?” No, no, and no. Natural law theory does not condemn using a natural capacity or organ **other than** for its natural function, but only using it in a manner **contrary to** its natural function, frustrating its natural end. Hence holding a table up with one’s leg, or holding nails in one’s teeth, does not frustrate the walking and chewing functions of legs and teeth, especially since nature obviously does not intend for us to be walking and eating at every single moment. But having one’s leg amputated to make some sort of bizarre political statement, or throwing up one’s food so as not to gain weight **would** frustrate nature’s purposes and thus be condemned by natural law theory as immoral.”

    And a little more to our purpose:

    “Natural law theory does not entail that every frustration of nature’s purposes is a serious moral failing. Where certain natural functions concern only some minor aspect of human life, a frustration of nature’s purposes might be at worst a minor lapse in a virtue like prudence. But where they concern the maintenance of the species itself, and the material and spiritual well being of children, women, and men – as they do where sex is concerned – acting contrary to them cannot fail to be of serious moral significance.”

    Edward Feser, The Last Superstition (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008), 148-149.

    You write, “So, again I ask, why is a delaying of a ‘generative process’ wrong?”

    I don’t know where the phrase “delaying of a generative process” comes from. I suspect it’s a typo. The part you quoted contains the phrase “obstruct the natural development of the generative process”. I assume that’s what you meant.

    To answer your question I will – as I warned you – provide a long quote from Feser:

    “Let’s … see what morality in general looks like from a point of view informed by Aristotelian metaphysics, and then return later on to the question of sexual morality in particular. Like Plato, Aristotle takes a thing’s form, essence, or nature to determine the good for it. Hence, a good triangle is one that corresponds as closely as possible to the form of triangularity, its sides drawn as perfectly straight as possible, etc. A good squirrel is one that has the typical marks of the species and successfully fulfills the characteristic activities of a squirrel’s life, e.g. by not having broken limbs, not gathering stones for its food rather than acorns, etc. So far this is obviously a non-moral sense of “good” – the claim isn’t that triangles and squirrels are deserving of moral praise or blame – and corresponds closely to the sense in which we might think of something as a “good specimen” or “good example” of some kind or class of things. But it is the foundation for the distinctively moral sense of goodness.

    “Even from the squirrel example it is obvious that for any animal there are going to be various behaviors that are conducive to its well being and others that are not, and that these latter will be bad for it whatever the reason it wants to do them. So, to return to an obvious example …, if a squirrel has some genetic mutation that makes it want to lay itself out spread-eagled on the freeway, the fact that it enjoys doing this obviously does not entail that it is good for it to do so. Or, to take another but less obvious example …, if you somehow conditioned a squirrel to live in a cage and eat nothing but toothpaste on Ritz crackers, to such an extent that it no longer wanted to leave the cage, scamper up trees, and search for acorns, etc., even when given the chance, it wouldn’t follow that the life of a Colgate addict is a good life for this particular squirrel. The sickly thing is simply not as healthy and “happy” a squirrel as he would have been had he never got himself into this fix, even if he has (of course) no way of knowing this. And again, this would remain true even if the squirrel had a genetic predisposition to like the taste of Colgate and dislike the taste of acorns, one that was not present in other squirrels. That predisposition simply wouldn’t “jibe” with the overall structure of the natural physical and behavioral characteristics that are his by virtue of his instantiating the nature of a squirrel, however imperfectly. The predisposition would be a defect, like a puzzle piece that won’t fit the rest of the puzzle.

    “When we turn to human beings, we find that they too have a nature or essence, and the good for them, like the good for anything else, is defined in terms of this nature or essence. Unlike other animals, though, human beings have intellect and will, and this is where moral goodness enters the picture. Human beings can know what is good for them, and choose whether to pursue that good. And that is precisely the natural end or purpose of the faculties of intellect and will – for like our other faculties, they too have a final cause, namely to allow us to understand the truth about things, including what is good for us given our nature or essence, and to act in light of it. Just as a “good squirrel” is one that successfully carries out the characteristic activities of a squirrel’s life by gathering acorns, scampering up trees, etc., so too a good human being is one who successfully carries out the characteristic activities of human life, as determined by the final causes or natural ends of the various faculties that are ours by virtue of our nature or essence. Hence, for example, given that we have intellect as part of our nature, and that the purpose or final cause of the intellect is to allow us to understand the truth about things, it follows that it is good for us – it fulfills our nature – to pursue truth and to avoid error. So, a good human being will be, among other things, someone who pursues truth and avoids error. And this becomes moral goodness insofar as we can choose whether or not to fulfill our natures in this way. To choose in line with the final causes or purposes that are ours by nature is morally good; to choose against them is morally bad.

    “’But **why** should we choose to do what is good for us in this Aristotelian sense?’ someone might ask. The answer is implicit in what has been said already. The will of its very nature is oriented to pursuing what the intellect regards as good. You don’t even need to believe in Aristotelian final causes to see this; you know it from your own experience insofar as you only ever do something because you think it is in some way good. Of course you might also believe that what you are doing is morally evil – as a murderer or thief might – but that doesn’t conflict with what I’m saying. Even the murderer or thief who knows that murder and stealing are wrong nevertheless thinks that what he’s doing will result in something he regards as good, e.g. the death of a person he hates or some money to pay for his drugs. I mean “good” here only in this thin sense, of being in some way desirable or providing some benefit. And that is all Aquinas means by it when he famously tells us that the first principle of the natural law is that “good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” This is not meant by itself to be terribly informative; it is meant only to call attention to the obvious fact that human action is of its nature directed toward what is perceived to be good in some way, whether it really is good or not.

    “But when we add to this the consideration that the good for us is **in fact** whatever tends to fulfill our nature or essence in the sense of realizing the natural ends or purposes of our various natural capacities, then there can be no doubt as to why someone ought to do what is good in this sense. For you do by nature want to do what you **take** to be good for you; reason reveals that what is **in fact** good for you is acting in a way that is conducive to the fulfillment of the ends or purposes inherent in human nature; and so if you are rational, and thus open to seeing what is in fact good for you, you will take the fulfillment of those ends or purposes to be good for you and act accordingly.”

    Feser, 135-138.

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  21. Thank you for this response.

    “The reduction of procreation is “a foreseen but unintended byproduct” (to borrow a phrase from Feser).”

    I think this is correct on an intellectual level. On a practical level, my guess is it’s more ambiguous – some within the Church probably think it’s a good idea to reduce population, and see NFP as a means to do that, others don’t.

    “Natural law theory does not condemn using a natural capacity or organ **other than** for its natural function, but only using it in a manner **contrary to** its natural function, frustrating its natural end. Hence holding a table up with one’s leg, or holding nails in one’s teeth, does not frustrate the walking and chewing functions of legs and teeth, especially since nature obviously does not intend for us to be walking and eating at every single moment. But having one’s leg amputated to make some sort of bizarre political statement, or throwing up one’s food so as not to gain weight **would** frustrate nature’s purposes and thus be condemned by natural law theory as immoral.”

    I find natural law arguments intuitively plausible at the outset – there is certainly *something* right about (some of) them. It is when I try to begin to get specific and find consistent examples that I find it runs into problems. Let’s grant that delaying ovulation is contrary to the generative process. (I’m not sure that it is. Is delaying walking contrary to its natural function in a morally significant sense?) *If it is*, it doesn’t seem that doing something temporarily that is contrary to a natural process is necessarily wrong. Consider that one might naturally want to take a nap, but instead drinks coffee to stay awake, delaying the natural sleeping process until the evening. It seems obvious that, yes, doing so probably has negative consequences, but it also can have positive consequences. We weigh those, and try to figure out which makes more sense.

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  22. ajb:

    You write, “… some within the Church probably think it’s a good idea to reduce population, and see NFP as a means to do that, others don’t.”

    I’ve never heard of any member of the Church hierarchy who believed it was necessary to reduce population per se, though plenty who have taken the contrary view. I know there have been a lot of liberal bishops, but population reduction has not been on their list of priorities that I’m aware of. Nor have I ever heard a priest preach a homily on the need to not have babies.

    I understand your point, that natural law doesn’t spell everything out for us. That’s true. I don’t worry about it because I hardly ever have trouble figuring out what is right and wrong in my life based on Catholic moral teachings. Some Catholic teachings may be based on natural law, but other people have already figured those out so I don’t worry about that either. I agree that if someone were to try to guide his morals based only on natural law morality, which he figures out for himself, often it wouldn’t be easy.

    This is one of the reasons why God gives revelation, according to St. Thomas Aquinas: Because if everyone had to figure out for himself the purpose of life and morality, most people wouldn’t be able to do it until they were old and gray, and even then they would get a lot of things wrong. Revelation allows us to know these things at the outset, so that we can live our whole lives the right way (if we choose to); those of us who are born in the faith, that is.

    By the way, you never answered my question: Are you Catholic? Christian? Atheist? None of the above?

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  23. Pingback: Is NFP contraception? | Agellius's Blog

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