On the Meaning of Sex 2(b): And Two Will Become One

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Okay, on to the next step. In Chapter 2, Budziszewski is focused on showing us the “meaning and purpose” of the human sexual powers. And, through the course of the following pages, he is going to show us how two can become one.

What’s that? You’ve heard this before?

No, no, no. I’m not talking about Mark 10:8 or Genesis 2:24, two becoming one flesh and all that mushy stuff. I just mean that Budziszewski starts out by claiming sex has two purposes, but ends by building an argument that it only has one.

Watch.

He writes:

“What then are the natural meanings and purposes of the sexual powers? One is procreation—the bringing about and nurture of new life, the formation of families in which children have moms and dads. The other is union—the mutual and total self-giving and accepting of two polar, complementary selves in their entirety, soul and body.”

Ok, so two meanings. That’s a promising start—although I’d object to his dismissal of pleasure as a third purpose of sex. Instead of arguing that here, I’ll just point you all to Christine Gudorf’s writing on the subject. But, two purposes, Budziszewski says, loud and clear. But then he immediately torpedoes that point:

“Let us begin, then, with procreation. Two conditions must be satisfied before one can say that the purpose of anything (call it P) is to bring about something else (call it Q), and procreation satisfies both of them.”

Uh-oh. As we saw in Chapter 1, when Budziszewski tries to express something as a mathematical proof, there’s a good chance he’s making a logical error.  This time is no exception. He continues:

“First, it must be the case that P actually does bring about Q, and the sexual powers do bring about procreation. Second, the causal connection of P with Q must be part of the explanation of why we have P in the first place.”

No. While those two conditions are sufficient to prove that a purpose of P is to bring about Q, they don’t prove that the purpose of P is to bring about Q. To prove that, Budziszewski would have to show that P has no other purposes that might also help explain why we have P. Of course, Budziszewski has already told us that sex has another purpose: bringing a couple together. But his shift from talking about the purposes (plural) of sex to the purpose (singular) of sex is incredibly revealing. 

Because over the next two pages (and later in the chapter, too), he makes a powerful case that our sexual unions serve sex’s procreative purpose. “We aren’t designed like guppies,” he writes, “who cooperate only for a moment. For us, procreation requires an enduring partnership between two beings, the man and the woman, who are different, but in ways that enable them to complete and balance each other. Union, then, characterizes the distinctly human mode of procreation.”

We unite for the good of our kids, in other words. 

That sounds right. Why is it a problem? Well, like I said, Budziszewski has already said that sex has two equally important purposes. And so has his church—in Gaudium et Spes, Pope Paul VI said that the unitive purpose of sex was by no means less important than the procreative aspect.

But Budziszewski’s reasoning very clearly subordinates sex’s unitive purpose to procreation. Though Budziszewski claims that sex has two ends, it seems like, to him, the unitive “end” is really just a means for achieving the end of procreation. 

Not to worry, says Budziszewski. He’s going to show us that the “the unitive meaning of sex is so important that the argument works just as well in the opposite direction.”

Wow. How is he going to do that? He’s just argued that we unite for the good of our kids. How is he going to take that the other way? How is he going to argue, in other words, that we have kids for the good of our unions? I mean, as a parent of three-year-old, I can vouch for the fact that having kids can bring a couple closer together; but that’s a side effect. To say that’s a purpose for having kids is to instrumentalize your children. Imagine a couple telling you: “Yeah, we weren’t very close, but we thought having a kid would make us closer. So we got pregnant!” That just sounds wrong, doesn’t it?

Oh well. Show us, Dr. B!

“We join ourselves by doing what?” Budziszewski writes. “By an act which is intrinsically open to the possibility of new life. In other words, whenever I give myself sexually, I am doing something that cannot help but mean that happy chance.”

Um.

Wait.

First of all, that’s false. For example, if you have sex with a pregnant woman, there’s no “happy chance” of producing new life by that act. 

More importantly, that response doesn’t come close to doing what Budziszewski claims it does. It doesn’t put the unitive and procreative purposes on equal footing; it doesn’t undo the subversion of the unitive end, or counterbalance it by showing how the procreative end is also subordinate to a couple’s union.  

Actually, that argument can’t show anything, because it’s just a big thought-circle: How do we know procreation is important? Because our unions lead to it. How do we know that our unions are important? Because they lead to procreation.

Circularity isn’t such a big deal when we talk about procreation, since few of us need to be convinced of the value of raising children. In fact, if you could get a hardcore materialist atheist to concede we’re “designed” for anything, it would probably be reproduction.

But unions present a problem.  Why are our unions important? Do they have any value, apart from producing children? I believe they do, and Budziszewski says they do, but his argument suggests the opposite.

Here’s another way of thinking about it, for the married folks out there: if you were told before your wedding that your spouse would never be able to produce children with you, would you go ahead and get married anyway? I’m assuming the answer is yes—I know I would have married my wife without hesitation. So the next question is why. And remember, that’s not an abstract issue for lots of real-life couples, including every gay couple that has ever married. What causes us to make that commitment—the lifetime of self-sacrifice—without an obvious biological payoff? 

Budziszewski’s “natural law” isn’t equipped to handle these questions, which is one of his main failings as a Thomist. It’s ironic, because he’s almost copying Thomas Aquinas word-for-word at times. His “people aren’t guppies” argument, for example, comes right out of Summa Theologiae II-II, 154, 2; Budziszewski just switched “dogs” for “guppies.” In that section, Thomas writes that people are more like birds, who mate for life, than dogs, who don’t, because—like birds’—our offspring fare better when they’re raised by both parents. 

But Thomas understood that while we look to the natural world for clues about how to act, the goal of natural law inquiry is to discern human nature—to figure out what sets us apart from other animals. And, when it comes to sex, what distinguishes humans is the incredibly non-procreative nature of our sexual acts. As Dan Savage puts it, “Humans have thousands of sexual contacts for every live birth.” This isn’t (just!) because we’re all a bunch of contracepting heathens. It’s actually part of the way we’re built. We don’t have a marked estrus (heat) period, for example, meaning we tend to have sex throughout  menstrual cycle, even though fertilization is impossible for much of that cycle. That’s not true of most mammals. And because we pair off more permanently than most other animals, we have more sex than they do at times when reproduction is out of the question, like during pregnancy and after menopause. 

Remember, Budziszewski says that union “characterizes the distinctly human mode of procreation.” So it’s funny when he says he’s going to argue the inverse, that procreation characterizes the uniquely human form of union. Because nature actually shows the opposite!

Or, to put it another way, if procreation is the primary purpose of our sexual activities, then we are very poorly designed creatures. And I don’t think that’s the message Budziszewski is trying to spread. 

[NOTE: If you’re interested in reading more about the non-procreative aspects of human sexuality, I recommend Chapter 3 of Christine Gudorf’s Bodies, Sex and Pleasure (I linked to Chapter 4 above) or Terence Weldon’s blog queeringthechurch.com, which has a great, long discussion on the topic here. Andrew Sullivan also touches on this in his books Virtually Normal and The Conservative Soul.]

Next: You won’t believe it, but I’m still not done with Chapter 2.

 
 
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