Certitudo prolis, a critique of it, and a response

St. Thomas argued for limiting sex to marriage by appeal to the certitudo prolis. A general mode of the argument is (1) Given that women will tend to raise their own children, men should be involved also; and (2) Men will not be involved in raising a child apart from a permanent and exclusive relationship to the woman.  The premises seem to get us to the point where, if children are a possibility, fathers should be bound to mothers by permanent and exclusive relationships.

Both premises are based on sex characteristics or “typical gender roles” and so tend to trigger allergic reactions and the search for some other basis. But let’s charge ahead anyway. The sex characteristics of (1) are pretty minimal and don’t seem bound up with any inherent sexism: women are certain that their children are theirs (labor isn’t the thing one tends to miss), tend to feel more natural affection for them, and have a natural power to feed them after birth.  That it would be better for the father to be involved is a simple solution and a boon for all involved: the mother gets a supporter and an extra pair of hands to help her out; the child gets all this plus a guardian, model for behavior, educator (in the broad sense of one who can teach speech, basic skills. etc.) and the father gets something to do beyond running around in packs of males impregnating random women and otherwise lying about.

The characteristics of (2) are more subtle and more interesting. The basic problem is that, absent some permanent and exclusive relationship, the father will either see the kids as someone else’s or, more problematically, the woman will be sexually involved with some other man. Either way, one of the more common natural male reactions is “well, let him raise the kids then.” It’s difficult to tell a man that he has to give up some of his free time, liberty, and property for the sake of a woman who’s sleeping with someone else or to raise the children of another man who has to sacrifice nothing for them (note that none of this makes step-fatherhood or adoption inherently impossible, since both of them can occur in the context of a marriage).

Premise (2) also allows for scientific justifications. The neo-Darwinian justification is ready-at-hand: reproduction is a fight to preserve one’s own genes, and so no man will fight to preserve the genes of another. Michael Shermer argues in exactly this way for an impulse of sexual jealously which, according to him, grounds an inveterate desire and behavior, if not a moral code. This genetic reduction struggles to explain adoption and step-fathering, to say nothing of the fundamental problem that no individual gene has ever been preserved by reproduction (a gene can live no longer than its natural lifespan, regardless of whether one reproduces or not) but we can let genes stand as place-holders for a desire to exist that is grounded in the very being of the organism.

Now in some sense even the contemporary sexual ethic seems respect the reality of certitudo prolis. Sex, which can begin at any point in adolescence, has to be kept “safe” (infertile and without permanent consequences, unless marriage is seen as a possible consequence) and making children (or, more cynically, allowing them to live) is typically the work of those who are not only married, but have been married for a few years. It’s as if we view marriage as graduate work and the child as the degree. This seems to be certitido prolis taken to an extreme. True, there are exceptions to the rule: children, especially of the underclass, aren’t caught by the safesex dragnet or its surgical safety net. But the technology of safesex is accessible and foolproof enough for us to see any children as arising from culpable irresponsibility. We don’t need to pity them or even take them into account. The rules were clear enough.

And so the technology involves a real challenge to the older arguments that certitudo prolis serves as an argument against pre-marital sex. It only needs to count as an argument against pre-marital conception or acceptance of pregnancy. In fact, the arguments of certitudo prolis boomerang into arguments for the new sexual ethic. And so the technological challenge force us to reconsider: do our arguments against pre-marital sex fall through, or were our arguments based on certitudo prolis just a proxy for something more subtle and profound?

I’m convinced of the second option, and it seems to be the path along which any legitimate sexual ethic has to progress if it is convinced of the conclusions of a more traditional sexual ethic, now that technology has undercut its practical reasons. The conclusions of the sexual ethic have to be based on the nature of sex not as reproductive, but as erotic. Specifically, we need to rediscover the force of Plato’s account of eros in Symposium. 

Love, Plato argues, is a desire to possess that becomes a desire to keep possessing, and so is essentially without a terminus. Loving a person is absolutely divided from leasing them or renting them for some term of use. Whatever one might call such an arrangement, it’s not love. The permanent and exclusive character of erotic love, therefore, is not attached to it extrinsically to construct a safe environment for possible children: it’s demanded by sexual love itself. Seen from this angle, the idea of a “marriage lease” (which has been batted around, though it has not caught on) is more contrary to traditional sexual morality than the contemporary idea of homosexual marriage. The analogy might raise as many problems as it solves, but it does strengthen and support an important, very hard fact: we need to cast out, root and branch, the idea that we can play around with erotic love on a trial basis. So far as we aim to preserve the nature of erotic love, we are better off with brothels than with trial marriages or the idea that we can just play the field with our sexual desire. True, prostitution involves its unique set of degradations and injustices (especially when it is kept to a black market) but it does less damage to the nature of eros than the idea that we can love someone just to see if loving them will work out.


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