Contemporary sexual ethics, II

(An idea I’m mulling over in a field I have little academic training in. Read charitably)

So what principles are lying about in contemporary culture that might allow for sexual ethics? Isn’t there at least a widespread agreement that sexual activity is good if it is used for building up a healthy human relationship? But if this were true,  it’s difficult to see how we can avoid considering hook-up culture as immoral, given that causal sex is defined defined by its lack of intention to build up anything at all:

Casual, adj: (1): feeling or showing little concern nonchalant <a casual approach to cooking> (2): lacking a high degree of interest or devotion <casual sports fans> <casual readers>(3): done without serious intent or commitment <casual sex>

But how can one and the same thing both have and lack a normative order to relationship-building? Sexual normativity can apply to either relationship building or hook up culture, or perhaps to neither. But if we lose “relationship building” as a normative goal, it’s very difficult to see what this leaves us. Sexual activity becomes an activity that one simply cannot perform in a morally good or evil manner.

Daydream of judgment

Come, ye blessed of my father:

For I was irritating, and you gave me good cheer;

Obnoxious and ill mannered, and you bore me no contempt in your heart;

Vexatious, and you dealt no wounds that could not do me well;

I spoke in naive folly, and you spoke with me.

In all these things you were perfect as our father is perfect.



Three arguments why immanent processions are one with their source

In explaining how God can both proceed from God and also be entirely indivisible, St. Thomas responds that the divine procession is in the mode of an immanent procession, and that the more perfect an immanent procession is, the more unified it is with its source. I agree with Lonergan that  if it is given that the divine persons proceed, this principle is the solution to all the fundamental problems of the Trinity. But how to explain it?

-One account is from comparing transitive to immanent operations. Transitive operations, like building, lifting, inflating, etc. are finished when something other than the maker is complete – when the house is built, the obelisk is set upright, or the tire is filled. The action is understood by a division between the maker and the made. But immanent operations negate this division, and the negation of division is unity. And so the unity of immanent operations with their acts follows from the ratio of such actions, and the definition of unity.

Notice also that while we talk of the immanent action completing or perfecting the thing which acts and not something else, it is not right to say that it perfects the source of the action as such. All agents act so far as they are in act and not so far as they are in potency to the operation. An operation perfects an agent only qua subject; in a source of being that lacked all potency and subjectivity, the resultant act would not be a perfection of the subject, even though it would be one with it.

-St. Thomas’s reason is more properly from the unity of the knower and known. As Cajetan, following Avicenna, explains the unity of knower and known by pointing out how it is a greater unity than a physical subject can achieve with a form that determines it. Though a physical subject and its determining form make a single, undivided material entity, nevertheless the matter (physical subject) never becomes the form. The cognitive subject, on the other hand, does become the thing known in the intentional order. This is simply what “being objective” entails. Intelligible (and thus spiritual) action is thus understood as resulting in a greater unity than the physical action generating a physical thing, and, by way of eminence and extrapolation, the divine action results in absolute unity.

-Experientially, those of us who write can understand the unity of the operation and the source in those rare moments when we manage to say exactly what we wanted to say, i.e. when the source of the expression (the thing we need to say) and the expression are perfectly one, as opposed to coming out in one of the thousand ways an expression can be lame or stillborn. As a related example of the same thing, there are also those times when someone else manages to say exactly what we wanted to say – when we can see the very thoughts we could not expressed as expressed in their words (when this happens perfectly immanently, there is the perfect clarity of thought, and vice-versa).

Note on “science destroys creation myths”

Mike Williamson:

Religion has really become a bad joke. Physics destroys creation myths. Biology destroys creation myths. Geology destroys creation myths. Either Creation is a tale told to Bronze Age peasants as a way to explain a universe they couldn’t grasp, or this God person is running a serious long con.

But given that “destroying a creation myth” means “showing that the myth is not true”, why does one need a science to do this? We don’t need sciences to know that myths are, well, myths. Or is the claim that no one recognized that (the relevant) creation accounts were myths until science told us so? But then the claim is just false: we didn’t need the sciences to know that creation accounts are mythical. Millions of people could recognize creation myths as such before any of the modern sciences. It takes no knowledge of science at all to recognize a myth for what it is and to take intellectual satisfaction in it and this, if anything, should show us that myth is a different way of satisfying intellectual curiosity than science is and therefore is not the sort of thing that science destroys.

True, some took creation myths as more or less scientific truth, and they were mistaken. But to wonder if a myth is also a scientific truth is a reasonable thing to wonder and to hold as a hypothesis, and the worst that can happen is that our hypothesis fails and we are left with the same myth we started with.

But is this the problem, sc. myth itself? Are we no longer able to take intellectual satisfaction in myth, which makes us think that to see something as mythical is the same as to say it has nothing to offer our intellect, i.e. it is not true? Is “science” the only thing that is allowed to satisfy the intellect now and give us an account of the way the world is? Quite the opposite seems to be the case – far from wanting to do away with myth it seems we’re more interested in advancing a scientific mythology. Science in the popular imagination is idealized (science cannot explain everything or solve all our problems now, but just give it time!); and only its successes are seen as integral to it (i.e. vaccinations, space travel, and computers are seen as the direct and proper work of science while Hiroshima, Tuskegee, Mustard gas, scientific eugenics and sterilization programs, Josef Mengele, climate change, industrial pollution, etc. are never seen as the necessary products of “science”). IOW, this is obviously not a scientific view of science but one that makes it into an exalted, inerrant  messiah that will set everything right if we only give it our total devotion.  Ultimately, it’s not that we want to destroy creation myths with science but that we want to replace an ancient creation myth with a modern one.

Art and natural law

One of the sharpest and clearest views I have of the natural law is through Anna’s adultery in Anna Karenina. At the end of a scattered, self-pitying stream of consciousness, Anna sees her own situation with (diabolical) clarity:

Come, let me try and think what I want, to make me happy. Well? Suppose I am divorced, and Alexey Alexandrovitch [ed. her first husband] lets me have Seryozha [her son], and I marry Vronsky [her lover].”

(Thinking of Alexey Alexandrovitch, she at once pictured him with extraordinary vividness as though he were alive before her, with his mild, lifeless, dull eyes, the blue veins in his white hands, his intonations and the cracking of his fingers, and remembering the feeling which had existed between them, and which was also called love, she shuddered with loathing.)

“Well, say I get divorced, and become Vronsky’s wife. Well, will Kitty cease looking at me as she looked at me to-day? No. And will Seryozha leave off asking and wondering about my two husbands? And is there any new feeling I can awaken between Vronsky and me? Is there possible, if not happiness, some sort of ease from misery? No, not” she answered now without the slightest hesitation. “Impossible! We are drawn apart by life, and I make his unhappiness, and he mine, and there’s no altering him or me.

Anna thus recognizes a contradiction in the act of adultery itself. The full force of this contradiction requires the entire novel to explicate – Tolstoy goes out of his way to give every possible benefit to Anna to make the adultery work: her first husband is emotionally distant and cannot relate to her; her new lover is dashing, virile, and wealthy enough to meet all of her needs and give her a glamorous and adventuresome life of opulence and travel; her society is tolerant of adultery, if not envious, etc.. And yet for all that, The happiness she was looking for in adultery is not just illusory but made impossible by the act itself.  We are drawn apart by life, and I make his unhappiness, and he mine, and there’s no altering him or me. 

On this account of natural law, an intrinsically evil act is one that cannot be incorporated into a happy life, due to the very sort of action it is. But how to give a philosophical account of this in the case of a concrete act like adultery in such a way as to manifest what is wrong with it is a very difficult thing to do. Could we explain exactly what Anna sees when she sees the contradiction in her action? Even if we could, would this universalize to all cases of adultery, or would they be incompatible with happiness in a different way? Through Anna, we can see why her actions made happiness impossible, and we get a sense that something like this would have to happen in every case; and yet to explain this same thing without Anna, using philosophical abstractions, and yet in such a way as to touch on what makes the act repugnant is a terribly difficult thing to do. Tolstoy, in fact, seems to think that it is impossible – that philosophy and abstract reasoning is simply not proportioned to life – that the only way we can manifest the truth of natural law is through an encounter with concrete reality – either through art or mystical experience.


Both Marie Antoinette and Anne Boleyn were attacked by mobs of angry women: the mob in search of Marie sacked Versailles looking for her and (when they failed to locate the secret room she was hidden in) slashed and shredded her marriage bed with butcher knives; Anne narrowly escaped being beaten to death by a stick-wielding mob of 7,000 women.

Evangelization, given the Church is a new mode of consciousness

A: This desire to prove the tenets of the Christian Church is offensive.

B: Why?

A: Because “to prove X” means “to treat X as unknown or uncertain, and then try to conclude to its truth by whatever you have left to work with”. But if we treat the Christian Church as unknown or uncertain, all this leaves us with are those things outside the Church – with what Christ called the world; and we can no more conclude to the Church from the world than we can illuminate a room with shadows.

B: But it’s not right to say that only the world is outside of the Church – if we take the Church as the sphere of grace there is also nature outside of it.

A: And by “nature” you mean whatever is outside the Church that somehow points to it?

B: I guess this is what I have to mean.

A: But this overlooks the fact that the Church consists in those who come to see things in the light of Christ: this light is simply a new consciousness that empowers us to see new truths and gives us the power to live holy lives.  One can only reason within a given mode of consciousness and by the light of that consciousness – you can’t reason your way into a new consciousness. It would be like a sober person trying to reason his way into what drunkenness is like.

B: But on this account, couldn’t a Christian give a defense of his beliefs by showing the inadequacy or imperfection of natural consciousness?

A: But what would that even look like?

B: Return to your idea of the sober and intoxicated consciousness. We can certainly make sense of someone talking another into acquiring the  consciousness of the intoxicated? Timothy Leary did something like this; so did the rest of drug-promoting culture.

A: That might be a helpful comparison. Drug culture had an intellectual component, to be sure, and even a set of arguments, but this was only a part of a much larger “evangelization” of drug consciousness. Clearly popular art, personal interactions, and meeting the emotional needs of prospective drug users was just as much of a factor in spreading drug use. How far would Timothy Leary have gotten without psychedelic music, lava lamps, pop celebrities, and countless “in club” associations of teenagers and college kids gathering together to do dope?

B: Right – and these would have to be viewed as just as essential to the “argument” that one would make for the Church. Likewise, learning about the faith is a multi-disciplinary endeavor – it’s not just study, but things like, say, chanting the psalms, building fitting buildings, engaging in the right rituals, etc. To try to deepen everything by study overlooks the fact that the Church involves not just reasoning but a new consciousness within which reasoning is possible.

A: But this new consciousness is also prior to the reasoning that is done within it.

B: Right. In that sense you’re right that there is no reasoning to the faith; and that, at best, reasoning is only a component in a multi-disciplinary awakening to a new consciousness.

Moves by itself and by another

Aristotle insists both that:

1.) Nature has a principle of motion of itself, as opposed to art, where the principle is extrinsic.

2.) Everything in motion is moved by another, i.e. by something extrinsic.

Some commentators see a contradiction here – but this goes too far.

Responses: 1.) The “principle of motion” in 1 is primarily matter. 2.) Natural things move as instruments do: they contribute some actuality of themselves to the work (e.g. the cut will resemble the saw) but not as primary movers. 3.) Nature is fundamentally an openness to be moved in a certain way by divine action; i.e. it is fundamentally a unique aspect of the exterior procession of God.

Lonergan on analogy

Univocal predicates posit the same (idem) in many things; equivocals, different; analogues predicate the same (idem), which is nevertheless verified (verificatur) differently of the things. 

Example: man and God are both persons, for both are individual subsistences of an intellectual nature, but in man this happens by numerical division into different substances; though not in the consubstantial persons of the Trinity, who are distinguished by relations. Again, intellect is distinguished in both by diverse relations to its proper object.


-We call God the threeness (Trinity – the abstract term) and not the triple (the concrete term)Every threeness for us – both in experience and thought –  is triple, but they are not the same thought.

-We use concrete terms to indicate existence and abstract terms to indicate the indivisibility of essence, but the best name for the God Christians worship is an abstract term used as a as though it named a concrete thing. What we necessarily visualize as a triple we force ourselves to call a threeness, a Trinity.

– Disputed question: Whether God as worshiped is numerically one? Argument: God as worshiped is set apart from a multitude of possible Gods- we worship God, not Zeus or wealth or the great figures of human learning.  Sed Contra: God is worshiped as he is, and God is not numerically one, since he is not a part of a larger genus.

-One person of the Trinity is not numerically one, since God is not a part of a larger genus.

Argument: God, not being physical, is not known by our sensation; not being generic, is not known by our intellect. The intellect universalizes (makes generic) all that it knows. Sed contra: being is not a genus. Sed contra II: not every universal is generic but only those that have only logical existence. The species specialissima does not a merely logical universal.

-A: “addiction is being forced to choose something”.

B: choice is always between possible alternatives, and so cannot be forced.

A: But this is not the experience of addiction – we want to choose something, but find ourselves unable to.

B: But the better description of that is to say that addiction cripples the power to choose. We do not choose one thing by force but simply fail to choose.

– Again, analogous terms are not just alike, there is something in one meaning that forces us to impose another meaning. Augustine describes one way this happens for terms related to “being”: 

[God] is, however, without doubt, a substance, or, if it be better so to call it, an essence, which the Greeks call οὐσία . For as wisdom is so called from the being wise, and knowledge from knowing; so from being comes that which we call essence. And who is there that is, more than He who said to His servant Moses, I am that I am; and, Thus shall you say unto the children of Israel, He who is has sent me unto you? But other things that are called essences or substances admit of accidents, whereby a change, whether great or small, is produced in them. But there can be no accident of this kind in respect to God; and therefore He who is God is the only unchangeable substance or essence, to whom certainly being itself, whence comes the name of essence, most especially and most truly belongs. For that which is changed does not retain its own being; and that which can be changed, although it be not actually changed, is able not to be that which it had been; and hence that which not only is not changed, but also cannot at all be changed, alone falls most truly, without difficulty or hesitation, under the category of being

De trinitate, Book V c. 2

Scruples: They are a trick that keeps us from seeing our true faults. We obsess and worry over dramatic faults and wonder if we have fallen into something that we have no real love for or even temptation towards, when in fact what we need to work on – the evils we are much more attached to – go unnoticed.

Those who suffer under scruples are eaten alive by them, but it helps to see them as impediments to moral growth. Whether by subconscious connivance or a trick of the devil, they are smokescreens that keep us from getting to the things that we really need to work on and change. We continually fantasize about dramatic moral improvements when in fact the real real improvements we need to make are at once more obvious and harder for us to see in the face of scruples.

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