The dual “significatio” of Humanae Vitae

The centerpiece of Humanae Vitae is a description of the “dual significance” of the sexual activity as unitive and procreative. This became the dual ends of sexual activity, a turn which was as unavoidable as it was puzzling. Significatio clearly had the sense of “meaning” or “purpose” while it is nevertheless true that no action can have two ultimate ends any more than a journey can ultimately end up in two different locations. Sure, we can solve this problem by dividing proximate from ultimate ends, or means from ends, but Humanae Vitae decided against by declaring the significations dual, but ends and means are not dualities. Ends and means are parts of one action, but dualities don’t arise from separate parts but from separate principles. You might as well say that someone is a dualist about human beings for noticing they have a right and left side. So how can we preserve the duality of purpose while preserving the coherence of the action?

Assume you work for a company that needs to send someone to a conference in Boston. You’re indifferent to the conference, but your best friend lives in Boston, so every time you get a chance to go to the conference you take it. Your company might even know that you’re only agreeing to go to the conference and represent the company because you want to see your friend. Qua business trip, you’re doing nothing other than going to the conference, and this “corporate meaning” or common good is what underlies and subsidizes the whole action, and your company considers your friend a means by which they can get you to go to the conference. Qua object of desire, you’re going to Boston not for the conference but to see your friend in the downtime. You consider the conference a means to meeting your friend. This sort of thing happens in the corporate world all the time – this sort of duality is the essence of corporate benefits or a business perks.

So HV’s significatio is functioning like ratio usually does, by describing two aspects under which something can be considered, though it adds to ratio the sense of meaning and purpose. It’s not an ad hoc description of sexual activity, but a typical feature of the structure of common goods, as evidenced by corporate or business actions.


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