Natural Law and the Unity and Truth of Sexual Ethics: A Reply to Gary Gutting

Public Discourse, March 17, 2015, with John Finnis.

Gary Gutting is a Notre Dame philosophy professor who thinks that what counts about arguments is whether they “work.” And so his complaint against natural-law arguments for Catholic teachings about sex is that they “no longer work (if they ever did)”. His New York Times “Opinionator” post of March 12th (“Unraveling the Church Ban on Gay Sex”) names us as two people who are “still” exponents of such arguments. For us what counts about an argument is whether it is sound, i.e., whether its premises are true and its logic valid. If a line of thought about the morality of sex is reasonable today, it was reasonable in the time of Jesus or Plato or Abraham or as far back as we find men and women and their children. Whether arguments “work” persuasively in one era but not another is philosophically irrelevant, as any philosopher should take for granted.

Gutting seems to think none of the positions of Judeo-Christian civilization on sex ethics are true, though he mentions only a few acts or practices that his own principles would leave immune from moral objection, carefully stopping short of calling attention to others such as polygamy, polyamory, prostitution, adultery, promiscuity, incest, bestiality and the man-boy sex that Plato’s friends and associates admired (but Plato himself condemned, like his teacher Socrates as Plato depicts him). This is not surprising, since his whole article never mentions, even by implication, the idea that grounds and unifies the whole set of sex-morality teachings, not only for Catholicism but also for Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and other great thinkers.

The idea is not “heterosexual union,” nor “shared acts directed towards reproduction,” nor any of the other concepts Gutting refers to and associates with “nature.” Instead, it’s the idea—the intrinsic human value—of marriage.

Public Discourse
All of Robert George's essays at Public Discourse may be found here.