Families as the principle of harmony for the “dual ends” of sexuality.

Catholic discussions of sexual activity are dominated by ends-talk, which on the whole is a good thing. The ends are agreed on by all (procreation, union, relief of concupiscence), but there is some disagreement about their order and relation.

One popular account stresses “dual ends” (relief tends to get jettisoned or subsumed under union). If this simply states the fact that there are two ends, this is fine, but it doesn’t say anything about their relation or order. Most people, I suspect, take this to mean that the ends are equal- but why would this follow? For that matter, what would be the argument that they are unequal? And regardless of whether they are equal or unequal, how are we to harmonize the various ends with one another?

The first and easiest way to analyze sexual activity is by its organs. Sexual activity is the activity of the reproductive system. It’s for reproducing. Anyone who can’t acknowledge this as a goal is being either sophistical or obscurantist. I doubt that anyone would deny it anyway. People would be more likely to deny that that a “biological” fact is of any “moral” significance. So what if it’s for reproducing? Don’t we neuter dogs? Who cares what’s natural? I’ll fix nature! All these arguments involve a failure to understand the first principle of morality: that it is according to nature but not by nature (Book II chap 1 of the Nic. Ethics) For our purposes here, however, organ analysis is not the most helpful, since it doesn’t show how one can harmonize various ends. The analysis of multiple ends is best seen by considering not the organs of sexual activity, but the proper context of sexual activity: marriage.

Marriages form families, but even so, the marriage oath doesn’t suffice to form a family simply speaking. Simply speaking, husband and wife are more the principle of a family than a family. They become a family simply by having a child. A husband and wife are a family, to be sure, but if you ask someone about his “family” you expect to hear something about his kids. Likewise, people refer to their first child as “starting their family”, not because the husband and wife aren’t a family, but because they are not what we mean by a family when we say the word without qualification.

But if families simply speaking must have kids, it follows that they have to be fathered. Taken in this sense, procreation is the first good that belongs to a family simply speaking, because it is the first cause of a family simply speaking. But all families, whether we are speaking of them simply or with qualification are constituted by bonds of union, and the first of these bonds are those between the husband and wife. These bods of union need to be understood clearly: it is not as if the husband merely loves his wife as some individual, and she loves him back as some mere individual. Marriage bonds allow for us to love another person more than we could love them without the marriage, for the marriage itself constitutes a family, which is a good which exceeds any of the members and therefore allows us to love any member in a way that exceeds all goodness that they have as mere individuals.

It is precisely because marriages constitute families that we can discern “dual end” within them. The family simply is constituted by fathering children, for there is no existence of a family before the child is fathered. At the same time, the family that springs up is constituted by bonds of union, and even presupposes the qualified family of a husband and wife- which itself was made by vows to give goods to each other (i.e. to love). The family looks to procreation for its existence, but to union for its preservation in existence (this union is not limited to sexual activity, or course, but sexual activity finds its meaning within this union, insofar as it finds its meaning in a familial context).

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1 Comment

  1. August 11, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    So, kids are sufficient for a family, and union is necessary for a family. But what if there are kids, but the parents are divorced? Is there still a family?


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