Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Anscombe and Intentional Act

Two sex posts in one day!!!

Actually, that shouldn't be too surprising. Obviously, when one is contemplating a topic one is bound to have a cascade of thoughts that don't necessarily make it into the first post, that are the result of further reflection or discussion with readers.

A friend of mine recommended an article by Elizabeth Anscombe from back in 1972 defending the Humanae Vitae and the Church's notions of the virtue of chastity.

One thing I like about this article is how it addresses all the common objections both practical and theological, but most especially "historical," to the Church's teaching (and the "wedge in the door" some people on both sides of the argument see NFP as being, the "change" some think its allowance represents).

Another thing I like is how, though it does touch on very specific technical questions of morality, the overall outlook of the article is ultimately broad and "big picture." Rather than obsess about this or that point of the minutiae of sexual morality being discussed out-of-context (as I've sometimes done in my attempt to get everything pegged down)...I like Anscombe's organizing principle that the Good actualized in sex is nothing other than Marriage itself (and that, basically, since marriage cannot be separated from the idea of parenthood, only the conceptive sort of act can be The Marital Act and actualize the good of marriage, even if the good of conception itself is not always actualized).

However, I am going to be obsessing over one minor technical point, because it involves changing or modifying an opinion I've expressed in the past.
Specifically, I have maintained that it would be helpful, in defending the teachings, for the Church to maintain a clearer distinction between contraception (which modifies the sex act itself through non-vaginal ejaculation) and sterilization (which occurs before the fact, and is wrong whether sex in fact follows or not, but which does not necessarily render the sex itself unchaste; for example, men with vasectomies aren't required to get them reversed, and canon courts have recognized sex on the pill as valid consummation of marriage in a way they never would for condoms.)
However, Anscombe's article got me thinking that perhaps there is less of a distinction than I had thought.
Oddly enough, it was specifically her mentioning douching as a contraceptive method that got me thinking. My sterilization/contraception dichotomy doesn't really take into account after-the-fact methods of preventing conception. Oh, I had thought of douching, but had just sort of assumed it was lumped in with contraception given that it ultimately involves a sort of post facto frustration of actual seminal deposit.
However, I was thinking today that if what matters for morality is the character of the act of the will at the time, that post-contraception may be as distinct as pre-contraception (ie, sterilization). Because, obviously, just as a man might get a vasectomy and then repent before having sex with his wife (separating a bad act of mutilation from a good sex act) too a couple might have perfectly chaste sex, only for the wife to decide 20 minutes later that she was going to douche.
In both cases, there is a question of potential temporal separation between what are in effect two different acts of the will (the choice to do something to prevent conception on the one hand, and the choice to actually have sex on the other), whereas in what I was calling "contraception" in the strict sense, the two choices seemed inseparable (ie, there was one choice only: to have an unnatural sort of sex).
And yet, then, I thought...I suppose there could be separate acts even during sex. For example, the choice to start sex with a condom (intending to finish like that) would be unchaste and immoral by that intent, but if the couple had a miraculous change of heart even during the act itself, and removed the condom, the choice to continue and finish naturally would be a new separate good choice (that would not, however, excuse the first bad intent/choice).
So, it seems to me, before-the-fact and after-the-fact methods perhaps cannot be differentiated in kind from during-the-act methods. Although before-the-fact methods, by the nature of their temporal separation, allow for the possibility of the sex being a new act (with a potentially new intent if the couple repents of the contraceptive intent in the meantime) most cases the intent of the sterilization will be, obviously, to exclude conception from the sex later, and as such forms virtually one act with the sex itself (and has the character, by that very intent, of unchastity and not merely mutilation as I had argued before) unless, as I said, a new resolve is made in the meantime (which then involves two acts of the will: first bad, then good).
Likewise, though an after-the-fact method might be made separate from the choice to have otherwise natural intercourse itself, if it was intended already before or during the act, it renders the whole act unchaste by intent. And even if the decision is made 20 minutes after, then this decision simply constitutes the "reverse" of the "changing resolves" situation described for before-the-fact methods in the last paragraph: it involves a second act of the will that is unchaste, even though the first was moral and good.
So, I would now admit that sterilization and contraception are the same species of sin, and that while before-the-fact methods might allow (by their temporal separation) for a greater likelihood of a second act to take place that is good (in the form of repentance or changing resolve, even without reversing the procedure), in most cases they form virtually one intent with the act itself, and do have the character of unchastity by that intent.
Of course, to clarify, the intent not to actually reproduce is not bad in itself, obviously, or all celibacy or abstinence would have to be condemned! We are not required to be actualizing any particular good at any given time unless there is a positive obligation. However, as I discussed before, the deformity in contraception lies in this intent entering into and changing the internal structure or logic of the type of act chosen itself. In NFP there may be an intent to not conceive, yes, but it is "parallel" to the choice of having sex (obviously no one would say the couple is having sex "in order to not conceive"!) and actually related to the choice to abstain on the fertile days.

As Anscombe says, "you use the rhythm method not just by having intercourse now, but by not having it next week, say; and not having it next week isn't something that does something to today's intercourse to turn it into an infertile act." So the intent to avoid conception in NFP does not change the sort of act chosen as it does in contraception. The intent exists, yes, but "parallel" to the choice to have sex in itself, because the non-conceptive intent is actually ssociated with the choice of abstinence on the fertile days, not with the choice of sex on the infertile days (because, obviously, no conception would happen on the infertile days whether sex takes place or not).


Anonymous said...

NB readers: Elizabeth Anscombe often wrote as G.E.M. Anscombe, should you wish to read her other works. Her specialty was analytical philosophy. She studied under Ludwig Wittgenstein. One wonders what Ludwig would've thought of Anscombe's thoughts on sexuality! Then again, what did Elizabeth think of Wittgenstein's sexcapades! :-0

Aristotelian Anscombe, and her writings on marriage as the substance (ens)* for sexuality and ultimately human fulfillment certainly foreshadows TOB. TOB unambiguously states that marriage is the ens of all vir et mulier (male and female He created them). The ordained or consecrated life is substantia to the ens of marriage. Marriage is substantial even in religious vows and ordination, even if sexuality is sublimated. The sublimation is realized in marriage to Christ or the church through ritual language. Even those who are not married are in some way lacking in the ens of marriage. Such is the implication of CCC 1658. In this case, the single laity are entrusted to the care of the Church and church, but lacking a fundamental substantial completion of "human".

What, then, is the ens of the eunuch? It's as if Anscombe (in her capsule defense of HV), and JP II (in a doorstop) cannot truly understand that some people are eunuchs by birth and cannot ethically fulfill the substance ot accidents of the ideal human biological, soteriological, and existential economy. To admit an "other" is simply not possible in Catholicism. I am simply disgusted that Catholicism considers it ethical for me to wed. vir et mulier, even if "mixed orientation marriages" are cruel to women. Am I bound to the Catholic ens for humanity in the accident of the matrimonial sacrament, even if the practical effects are ethical repugnant?

Even persons with deep-seated sexually ordered tendencies are not excluded from the hair-splitting of Catholic sexual moral theology. Your precise moral theology spins the substantial knowledge that is, supposedly, written in all persons' hearts. And yet, many, even those disposed to wed, see nothing more than a logic puzzle to untie rather than any practical existential and moral guidance for living.

I am beginning to realize that Catholic academic and practical morality cannot escape the hair-splitting questions, simply because split hairs are the fine threads that, when viewed together, ensure a moral human sexuality. Without precision, there is no definition. This is why I sometimes mutter, "I'm so glad not to've been born a breeder, what a relief!" However, a self-exemption from the moral cloud which surrounds Catholic sexual morality is not possible. Perhaps it is even a sin to reject, and even happily reject, the substance of human existence.

* yes, I am using the Aquinan Latin translations of Aristotle's terms. This is laziness on my part.

Bryan said...

I only heard the late Eliz. Anscombe once. She spoke to the Newman Society at the Oxford Catholic Chaplaincy in about 1992.

She compared the adulterous couple who did NOT use contra-ception with a married couple who were using contra-ception. She argued that the adulterous couple were co-operating with nature and therefore their adultery was a lesser sin than the married couple.

Bryan Dunne

Bryan said...

How relevant is this when we find that so many women are getting married at 30+ or even 35+ ? and then find it difficult to fall pregnant.

Bryan said...

Anon above scripsit:

"Marriage is substantial even in religious vows and ordination, even if sexuality is sublimated. The sublimation is realized in marriage to Christ or the church through ritual language. Even those who are not married are in some way lacking in the ens of marriage."

I bet Eliz. Anscombe would have taken you to task for such gobblygook.

How exactly can marriage be substantial in religious vows?

Bryan Dunne