Saturday, September 10, 2005

"But that would justify sodomy!"

I've long been meaning to write about Max Goss' hilarious comment on this old Right Reason post. Goss objects to a proposed moral theory on the grounds that "It would justify sodomy." I couldn't believe my eyes, it's so mind-bogglingly wrongheaded. One must be a complete moral retard to think that the "wrongness" of sodomy is somehow a central and unrevisable moral truth. And just think what would happen if Goss' objection were legitimate: why, we could instantly refute every non-arbitrary moral theory in one fell swoop! Just imagine it...
  • Utilitarianism? Well, on the one hand it is pretty plausible to think that only human wellbeing matters. But on the other hand, "it would justify sodomy!"

  • Kantianism? It's all well and good to treat other people always as an end in themselves, and never as a means only. Then again, once the universalizability constraint is properly understood, that too "would justify sodomy!"

  • Contractarianism? It tends libertarian, allowing people to do what they will so long as they don't harm others. But, gosh, you know what? That too would justify sodomy! Oh no!

  • How about ethical egoism? Surely that can be relied upon to give ridiculous results. Alas, not in this case. Given that gay individuals are going to be better off having loving sexual relationships than being lonely and miserable their whole lives, even this poor excuse for a moral theory is going to justify sodomy.

And so forth. Try a few others for yourself -- you'll be amazed at how easy it is to refute otherwise plausible theories using this one simple objection. Who ever said there's no progress in philosophy, eh? In a few short minutes we've managed to overturn centuries of moral philosophy! All that's left are those few moral theories that are completely arbitrary.

Divine command theory might work -- God can command whatever he likes, so he could stipulate that sodomy is wrong, and rock music too. That's gotta count for something. Otherwise we might try moral relativism: if conservatives think that sodomy is wrong, then it really is "wrong for them", no rational reasons required. Or we could ask the magic 8-ball -- at least there's a chance it'll answer "no" when we ask it whether sodomy is justified, and we're really running out of options since we ruled out all the non-arbitrary moral theories already. How about flipping a coin to decide?

I guess we might resort to natural law theory, and claim that sodomy somehow violates the natural "purpose" or "function" of the sex organs. But good luck explaining why clapping isn't immoral, then, given that hands are for grasping. The aforementioned Right Reason post tries to draw a distinction between using an organ for "other than" its purpose vs. "contrary" to its purpose, where only the latter is "immoral". But then - though the author refuses to recognize it - that would justify sodomy, because sodomy only temporarily disables the sex organs, just like clapping temporarily disables my hands, but either can be put back to their "proper" use soon afterwards. I can see no principled difference between these two "unnatural" practices, insofar as their relation to natural purposes is concerned. (More here.)

Devastating though the "but it would justify sodomy!" objection no doubt is, there's more to be said against natural law theory. For one thing, it's patently false. I've talked before about "Creator's rights" and the illegitimacy of externally-imposed purposes. Quick refutation: suppose humans had a scorpion-like tail, the (evolved or God-given) purpose of which was to kill our enemies. Further suppose that modern scientists could remove the tail and extract useful medical substances from it. The idiot's law theory implies that it would be wrong to use the tail to save lives in such a way, for that would be contrary to its "true purpose" of killing!

Clearly, such externally imposed "purposes" have no intrinsic bearing on morality. They're morally arbitrary. What little plausibility this theory has arises because evolution has tended to provide us with organs whose natural functions promote our wellbeing. And of course it's our wellbeing that really matters. But a few conservative dullards get confused by the correlation and decide that it's the natural functions that really matter. How depressing.

Anyway, I was supposed to be ranting about morally retarded homophobes, not natural law theorists (though I suppose the two categories do tend to overlap -- at least when the homophobes can think of no other rationalization besides "it's unnatural!").

I must say, one good thing to come from all of this is the sheer entertainment value. We've already had wingnuts arguing for their (purportedly) factual claims by asking: "If you doubt this is possible, how is it there are PYGMIES + DWARFS??" Now we can complement this with the similarly inane moral objection: "But that would justify sodomy!" As with the "pygmies + dwarfs" remark, it can be applied to just about anything. That's sure to come in handy.


  1. I'll leave aside the ad hominem and appeal to ridicule to simply point out that I don't think you've been a careful reader in regards to the context of Max's comment. Perhaps philosophers don't operate by the principle of charity in southern hemisphere. You and I might agree that natural law theory is a bunch of junk, and that it leads to moral views that just seem obviously false. However, I think one can still examine a philosophical theory and ask if various things are consistent within that theory. I take it that Max was simply pointing out where Beckwith's comment would introduce such an inconsistency.

    First the context of the tread is natural ends and natural law. The context of Max's comment then is in regards to Beckwith's probing question about the natural purposes of sex organs. Now on every version of natural law theory I am familiar with sodomy is wrong. If natural law theory is correct, and that is the context of the comment, then Beckwith's suggestion must be wrong because it would justify sodomy. Had you read down you'd have noticed that Feser makes the same point in regards to Max's post:

    "since the traditional natural law theory entails that sodomy is immoral, then it also entails that any view that would justify sodomy must be false."

    Given what I've said above I think it would be a serious misreading to suggest that Max would employ such an objection against consequentialism, ethical egoism, etc. His objection seems restricted to the question at hand, one of natural law.


  2. Probing questions about sex organs, eh?

    Even if charity is in short supply in the southern hemisphere, perhaps tongue in cheek humor is in ample supply up north?

  3. Oh, and apart from the jokes, I'm not absolutely convinced, Matt, that you have the context right. There is far too little in Max's remarks that clearly tell us whether this is an internal or external criticism. Maybe charity requires for that very reason not ascribing Max a definite view, but then Richard could simply add a very simple qualification to address the worry you raise. I'd be curious to see whether he would be willing to assert that he does not regard the 'It would justify sodomy' criticism as a reasonable external criticism. At any rate, the conversation is amongst individuals who think that the theory in question is viable so this too blurs the distinction between internal and external criticism, does it not?

  4. Great fun! I'd missed that post the first time around, and wish I'd been there to further explore the intricacies of the sex organs' "contrary to purpose" and "other than purpose" uses. For instance, though Feser at least makes an attempt to count unnatural uses of the penis as contrary to its purpose, it seems that even he would have a hard time forbidding women from non-procreative sex. Their vaginas aren't wasting sperm or ejaculating in the wrong place or doing whatever it is that's improper about rogue penises. I never thought I'd use this term outside of pure parody, but the Right Reason crew is being phallocentric. Cured of its phallocentrism, their semi-consistent natural law philosophy might even be feminist.

    The other fun direction to take this discussion would be into sexual lifestyles. Whether a nonstandard use counts as contrary to purpose or other than purpose seems to depend on whether it fits into a lifestyle that includes sufficient uses according to purpose. Thus, it seems that the lifestyle, rather than the individual act, should be the fundamental unit that we judge. That means that you can have all the crazy, kinky sex you want, as long as you're able to make a few babies along the way. If you go sodomous to the exclusion of reproduction, though, then you're immorally subverting the will of the penis or the vagina. Ditto if you choose a life of abstinence instead of a life of sodomy. Now, I would be concerned that this natural law philosophy operating at the level of lifestyles might be used to drastically curtail the liberty of gay people, but fortunately we can strike it down with that powerful little modus tollens: it would justify sodomy!

  5. One other little comment on whether Max considered "It would justify sodomy" to be an internal or an external criticism. Commenter craig calls Max on his use of that argument, writing: "Stop right there; you have the cart before the horse. As a matter of form, you can't reject an argument because you don't like the conclusion it leads to. You'll have to rely on your other two objections." Max's reply: "Actually, as a matter of form, I can. It's called modus tollens." This counts in favor of Richard's external criticism reading.

  6. The argument could be based upon an assumption regarding Francis - ie that that fact might be convincing to him and need no further explination since they both know (even if we dont) that that point has been proven to their satisfaction.

  7. Anon - the fact that they find the sodomy objection "convincing" is precisely what I was lampooning in this post.

    Matt - since Beckwith was suggesting a variation on natural law theory, it would make no sense for Goss to criticize him on the basis you suggest. It was internally consistent, it merely clashed with Feser's original proposal. So your interpretation would have Goss objecting, "Your proposal is different from ours. So if ours is right, then this entails that yours must be wrong." Well, duh.


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