Can You Find A Counterexample To Feser’s Defense Of The Perverted Faculty Argument?

Here in a succinct and lovely way is Feser’s distillation of the Perverted Faculty Argument (from his paper of the defense of the same) applied to matters sexual:

  1. Where some faculty F is natural to a rational agent A and by nature exists for the sake of some end E (and exists in A precisely so that A might pursue E), then it is metaphysically impossible for it to be good for A to use F in a manner contrary to E.
  2. But our sexual faculties exist by nature for the sake of procreative and unitive ends, and exist in us precisely so that we might pursue those ends.
  3. So it is metaphysically impossible for it to be good for us to use those faculties in a manner that is contrary to their procreative and unitive ends.
  4. But contraceptive acts, masturbatory acts, homosexual acts, and acts of bestiality involve the use of our sexual faculties in a manner that is contrary to their procreative and/or unitive ends.
  5. So it is metaphysically impossible for it to be good for us to engage in contraceptive acts, masturbatory acts, homosexual acts, or acts of bestiality.
  6. But it can be rational to engage in an act only if it is in some way good for us and never when it frustrates the realization of the good.
  7. So it cannot be rational to engage in contraceptive acts, masturbatory acts, homosexual acts, or acts of bestiality.

Below, I am going to assume—please don’t laugh—that you have read Feser’s paper in full, so that terms such as unitive, agents, active frustration and so on are no mystery to you. I’ll pause here and wait for you to finish reading.

Done? His defense pertains, as you now know, more than just to sexual matters, but since sex looms large in the modern mind (understandably), it is these matters which provide most of the material. It is here that most attempts at counterexamples are given (or rather, counterexamples are given so as to defeat the arguments supporting traditional sexual morality). On that subject, Feser says:

A genuine counterexample to the perverted faculty argument’s key premise would have to involve an action that both involved the active frustration of the natural end of a faculty and yet which was in no way contrary to what is good for us, not even in a minor respect. I submit that there are no such counterexamples…

I think his argument (supplemented by writings in his other books) is sound: no counterexamples exist. But that does not imply that it not useful to search for them. Every time you think you’ve managed to slip a wedge into a crack, you realize it was not a flaw in the marble of the argument but was instead a fault in your mind. Every counterexample in which you find the flaw strengthens your understanding of the main argument.

Aiding you in your futile search is this admonition:

First, it cannot be repeated too often…that the perverted faculty argument does not entail that there is anything wrong with the use of man-made devices, or the use of a faculty for something merely other than its natural function, or the interference with natural processes where plants, non-human animals, or inanimate objects and processes are concerned.

Remember! We’re after that which is contrary to E and not “different from E” or “other than E.” A counterexample that claims wearing shoes over rocky terrain as opposed to going “naturally” shoeless does not work. Wearing shoes does not frustrate the natural function of walking; they aid in it.

The most commonly thought of supposed counterexamples—such as “Why not watch porno?” or “Why not masturbate when away from home?”—you saw have responses from Feser, so that there is no need for me to repeat what you already read. How embarrassing would it be to give the same examples Feser did!

An example (and not counter) is: “But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

Sin is easy. Overcoming it in this world hard. Constant thinking about purpose—ends, teleology—helps.

Watch the graphic language. I am not at the computer and the spam filter is brutal.

31 Comments

  1. Fruitful(?) thought: a faculty which would in theory cause no harm when used against its end would be a faculty which had “no” end – in other words, a literally useless faculty, could in theory cause no harm by going wrong (because it had no power for good in the first place).

    However, a faculty to do nothing is not a faculty.

  2. The only argument against this that I can see is the famous “No it’s not” argument. Statement: This is wrong. Answer: No it’s not.
    Ha ha. Actually, Feser’s essay presents the argument very well. You have to disagree with the principal that “it is metaphysically impossible for it to be good for A to use F in a manner contrary to E” to disagree with the conclusion.

  3. JMJ going hard on the “I don’t understand so it’s probably wrong” counter-argument.

    It is fun when ignorance is not only touted as beneficial but even something to compared to reason!

  4. Per http://www.catholic.com/tract/adam-eve-and-evolution biological evolution, of both animals and the special case of humans, occurred “under the impetus and guidance of God” … but human “…souls are immediately created by God” (Pius XII, Humani Generis 36).

    If we’re ‘made in God’s image’ (Genesis 1:27), from earlier more primitive life forms, one wonders why would God would choose to retain so many biologically-based character deficits many/most of us often enough cannot help but succumb to from time to time. Why make biology so dominant over intellect/psyche? Not to mention the topic du jour being a constant and distracting drive when in lower animals that’s at least confined to certain limited periods; seems like there was a backwards step taken there designed to ensure greater sinning (aka along the lines of John Milton’s remark, ‘hopping from foot to foot’ in the movie Devil’s Advocate).

  5. F is A(cricketchirps)’s alimentary faculty, E being the sustinence of A’s life. It is then metaphysically impossible for it to be good to use any part of A’s alimentary canal in a manner contrary to E. I’m not inclined to sodomy, but a kiss which prevents (or at least hinders) eating while it is being carried out can thus never be good. I like kissing. Must I give it up?

  6. 1. @Ken. a) “Made in God’s image” refers to Man’s intellect and will, not to his physical body. b) I am grieved to learn that your intellect is subordinate to your appetites, but that is the point of exercise: to strengthen one’s will. A useful compendium in the matter is the book Thomistic Psychology by Thomas Brennan.
    https://www.amazon.com/Thomistic-Psychology-Philosophic-Analysis-Nature/dp/1944418237/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

    2. @cricket. This is not a counterexample. A kiss employs the lips, which are the most sensitive tissues of touch of the human Skin (whose primary object is the tactile). It is not a perversion, not even a diversion, to use them to kiss another. The tongue, whose primary object is the flavored, is also not perverted when used to taste another. The fact that you cannot eat while kissing is no more probative than that you cannot walk while sitting.

    The alimentary system (digestive faculty) is not perverted in kissing because it is not employed in kissing. However, if one remains lip-locked, sucking face so long and so continuously that eating becomes impossible, then one will starve to death, which is surely not a good no matter how pleasant the smooching. (This also illustrates the difference between a pleasure and a good.) As Dr. Briggs suggests, one ought to read Dr. Feser’s exposition before suggesting bootless objections.

  7. The point of contention is point (2).

    If faculty (F) exists for some end (E) then using a faculty in such a way
    that deliberately frustrates (E) is a perversion of (F).

    The (E) of Sex, according to traditional natural lawyers is both union AND procreation. Therefore the proper end of sex is realised when conception occurs through union. Fair enough. The logic of this argument is that if sex is pursued in such a matter that deliberately frustrates conception it will be considered a perversion of (F).

    Therefore having sex at a time when a woman is incapable of having children is a perversion of (F). Therefore deliberately pursuing sex during the infertile stage of the menstrual cycle, menopause, or with a breastfeeding woman is a perversion of (F).

    Natural lawyers will then argue the fact that the inability to reach the natural (E) of the act which is due to some form of privation in the act which is involuntary and therefore morally not wrong. This is where the natural law argument goes pear shaped.

    It assumes that the inability to achieve pregnancy in the states of pregnancy, menopause and breastfeeding is due to some privation in the potentiality of the act. Ideally, from a teleological point of view, the (F) should be able to achieve its (E) even when woman is in any of these states given that this is the natural end of (F) as defined by point (2). What this means is that menopause, breast feeding induced anovulation, and the infertile phases of the menstrual cycle are “mistakes” put in by God, which frustrate (F) from achieving (E).

    If, on the other hand, we assume that God, did not make a mistake, and the intrinsic infertility of these states is their teleological end, it follows that having sex with a woman in these states, is a perversion of (F) since the (E) cannot be realised.

    The whole problem of the natural law argument is that it is refuted by natural revelation. The natural biomechanics of sex operate in such a manner that when (F) is properly exercised the (E) conception occurs in a minority of copulations (F) by design. Point (2) is wrong.

    By the way, Feser’s argument pretty much makes natural family planning illicit, since what you’re trying to do is use the faculty in such a way to make (E) impossible.

  8. YOS takes the bait: ““Made in God’s image” refers to Man’s intellect and will, not to his physical body.”

    Why then is is the human “designed” (or, evolved ‘under the impetus and guidance of God’) such that so much intellectual capacity, or lack thereof, is so extremely affected by bodily matters? Are we to infer that our intellect, in all its manifestations of health, nutrition, sleep deprivation/arousal, etc. are all in ‘God’s image’, or, only our intellect under particular circumstances? How do we know which??

    Nevermind that…Consider Feser’s acceptable counterexample:

    “A genuine counterexample to the perverted faculty argument’s key premise would have to involve an action that both involved the active frustration of the natural end of a faculty and yet which was in no way contrary to what is good for us, not even in a minor respect. I submit that there are no such counterexamples…”

    Doesn’t the human intellect — as applied under religious influence — meet that criteria!?

    Whatever else the human intellect is for, its natural end MUST include the SEARCH FOR TRUTH.

    But that is exactly what one observes NOT occurring, time & again, among the religious. What one does observe is an ongoing willful and subconscious effort at suppressing truths a given believer perceives to assault and undermine their particular belief about what “truth” is. It is a perversion of intellect, for example, to choose to believe or retain a belief that the Earth is the center of the universe, or is 6000 yrs old, and to support that belief by truly twisted logic and ways of looking at nature to avoid seeing and accepting facts to the contrary.

    Anti-science sentiment is commonly found in direct proportion among those finding scientific discovery incrementally encroaching and undermining their particular version of “truth” — science is the target of attack, anything to not adjust, or abandon, wrong belief.

    Such self-delusional rigid retention of false belief in the face of objective evidence to the contrary is the kind of perversion of intellect one encounters most intensely among the religious.

    Religion itself creates the values that enable adherents to undermine their own human [“God-given”?] intellect.

    Feser’s entire basis for the procreative conclusions reached are founded, at their core, upon religiously-based values — metaphysically, a natural function/Faculty (F) applied to a non-natural end (E) implicitly has a moral value that is “bad” based on a religiously-assigned moral judgment. The religiously-based assignment of such a moral value is arbitrary:

    Our intellect is entertained by scary movies, even roller coasters (we know they’re safe, but are thrilled anyway)…such are some of the non-natural ends (E) to which we apply our intellects (Faculty/F) (and more)…but for some reason that’s ok. At least for us … if “we” were Al-Queda in Afghanistan in 2001, for example, we’d apply exactly the same Perverted Faculty rationale…and find ourselves executing offenders for things like laughing, dancing, creating art, etc., etc. that are also violations of natural ends (E) to human Facultys (F).

    That just illustrates the hypocrisy in applying such logic to real-world contexts. If Feser’s logic were correct, then he & Briggs should be condemning humanity for numerous transgressions of Perverted Faculty (not just on procreative-related themes) … but they, and most religions, do not. Because the Perverted Faculty rationale can only be applied arbitrarily establishes its fundamental flaw — nobody can truly survive in all things under such a value criteria. Its a sophisticated rationale to justify one’s particular value, and then impose it more broadly.

  9. Therefore having sex at a time when a woman is incapable of having children is a perversion of (F). Therefore deliberately pursuing sex during the infertile stage of the menstrual cycle, menopause, or with a breastfeeding woman is a perversion of (F).

    But…
    “Nor does the premise imply that there is anything inherently wrong with having sex during pregnancy, or during infertile periods, or with a sterilespouse, or after menopause, or in general under circumstances in which it is foreseen that conception will not result. For none of this involves using one’s sexual faculties in a way that actively frustrates their natural end. Fore-
    seeing that a certain sexual act will in fact not result in conception is not the same thing as actively altering the relevant organs or the nature of theact in a way that would make it impossible for them to lead to conception even if they were in good working order.”

    {Feser, p. 400}

    I thought we were supposed to have read the paper before proposing counterexamples.

    The whole problem of the natural law argument is that it is refuted by natural revelation. The natural biomechanics of sex operate in such a manner that when (F) is properly exercised the (E) conception occurs in a minority of copulations (F) by design. Point (2) is wrong.

    That E is the natural end of F does not mean it is successfully achieved in every case, or even in a majority of cases. The telos is the that-toward-which that exists in any change or motion. It may be but need not be the same thing as an intention. The natural end of an eye is to see; but an eye may be blind for any number of reasons. The artful end of an automobile is to transport, and this remains its end even if it is up on blocks in the driveway. Even in the case of purposes, people may intend as an end to become America’s Next Top Model, but never succeed in doing so. That does not mean it was not their goal. (Although in that case it is not a natural goal.)

  10. @Ye Olde Statistician

    You miss the point completely.

    That E is the natural end of F does not mean it is successfully achieved in every case, or even in a majority of cases.

    Is sex during menopause meant to be fertile? Is sex always orientated towards procreation even in the menopausal state?

  11. I thought I would just follow up with this comment to clarify things.

    I know that there could be a million reasons as to why (F) might be legitimately frustrated through some privation achieving (E).

    The rhetorical question I’m asking is, that without any privation, are sexual acts in the post menopausal state meant to be fertile?

    Privations are defects which frustrate (F) from achieving (E).
    Is menopause a privation? Because if it is, then God has designed an evil. I think you’re smart enough to see the problems with that.

    The reality is that sex in the post menopausal state is teleologically infertile. ergo, prop (2) is false.

  12. I think the argument from the NFP side is that sexual intercourse during an infertile period has no procreative potential precisely because some part of the natural and properly directed and functioning sexual nature is working. For example, during pregnancy, it’s not that something is frustrating the body’s procreative ability (rather, that procreative ability is being if anything more perfectly actualized); sexual intercourse is procreative given the larger scope of the sexual organs, bodily cycles, etc. and those must be taken into account when we determine if the procreative end is being frustrated.
    Meanwhile, since the unitive aspect is being properly fulfilled as well, it seems that there is also an active reason TO engage in further sexual intercourse, giving, if you will, a positive justification as well as a negative (“this does fulfill” in addition to “this does not pervert”).

  13. Why then is is the human “designed”… such that so much intellectual capacity, or lack thereof, is so extremely affected by bodily matters? Are we to infer that our intellect, in all its manifestations of health, nutrition, sleep deprivation/arousal, etc. are all in ‘God’s image’

    No more than we can infer that “Mona Lisa” being designed in the image of Lisa Gherardini means that she was composed of pigments and oils. A human being is a synolon, a union of matter and form or “soma and psyche.” It is natural that the state of the psyche would affect the health of the soma and that the state of the soma would affect the health of the psyche. I’m not sure why this should cause such great astonishment. But God does not have a body, which I think Briggs covered in an early post on his Contra gentiles series.

    Whatever else the human intellect is for, its natural end MUST include the SEARCH FOR TRUTH.

    But that is exactly what one observes NOT occurring, time & again, among the religious.

    Somewhat surprisingly, your major premise is correct. The intellect is properly ordered toward the True, which means “that which can be trusted.” Triewð is the Saxon equivalent of the Latin fides, meaning “faith” or “reliance on something dependable.” I’m not sure what the original Greek was.

    However, your “counterexample” is actually a supporting example, even though it alludes to facts rather than truths. Beliefs in falsehoods are not goods. Remember the challenge was to present a perverted faculty that did not result in some degree of harm. People can pervert religio [whatever that might mean]every bit as much as they can pervert sex [whatever that might mean: https://lastedenblog.wordpress.com/2016/07/25/the-word-sex/%5D.

    Religion itself creates the values that enable adherents to undermine their own human [“God-given”?] intellect.

    That’s assuming there is this one thing called “religion” that covers shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, Christianity, Jainism, Islam, Sufism, Greco-Roman paganism, etc. It’s not clear that these are even species of the same genus. As Augustine once said, “In the Gospel we do not read that the Lord said: ‘I send you the Holy Spirit so that He might teach you all about the course of the sun and the moon.’ The Lord wanted to make Christians, not astronomers. You learn at school all the useful things you need to know about nature.” So what constitutes a “religious” belief is not always a matter of personal idiosyncracy. Sometimes there are official doctrines.

    Feser’s entire basis for the procreative conclusions reached are founded, at their core, upon religiously-based values — metaphysically, a natural function/Faculty (F) applied to a non-natural end (E) implicitly has a moral value that is “bad” based on a religiously-assigned moral judgment.

    1. Of which religion was Aristotle a member?
    2. Why do you suppose that an End is non-natural? How can there be motion/change without end or direction? Change is always “toward” something. Sodium and chlorine in solution change toward salt. An acorn changes toward an oak. An evolving species changes toward greater adaptation in its niche. How are these Ends non-natural?
    3. Something is bad to the extent that it is not good. (The bad is a deficiency in the good.) If the end of an archer is to hit the mark a good archer hits the mark regularly; a bad archer misses. If the end of medicine is to restore or maintain health, a good doctor preserves his patient; a bad doctor fails. If the end of strategy is victory, a good general wins battles; a bad general loses. That is, definitions of “bad” and “good” depend on the ends that are to be attained. When the ends are natural, so are the goods and the bads. Notice that what is good for the lion may be bad for the gazelle.
    4. A moral dimension enters in when the agent is a rational being; i.e., with intellect and will. No one faults a lion for killing a gazelle. (Again, see Feser’s article.) A non-rational actor cannot pervert a faculty because there is no conceptual overlay atop the perceptual construct. (cf. p. 388)

    if “we” were Al-Queda in Afghanistan in 2001, for example, we’d apply exactly the same Perverted Faculty rationale

    No, “we” would not; since the Aristo-Thomist argument does not exist in modern Islamic jurisprudence, esp. in that school represented by al-Qaeda.

    If Feser’s logic were correct, then he & Briggs should be condemning humanity for numerous transgressions of Perverted Faculty (not just on procreative-related themes) … but they, and most religions, do not.

    Such as what?

    Of course, it is the faculty that Late Moderns most love to pervert (“turn about”). This is because of the current secular obsession with sexsexsexsexsex. In other times and places, there were perversions of the digestive faculties involving vomitoria and the like. People sometimes filled their bellies with non-nutritive substances or would eat things they could not digest. Today, we recognize behaviors like bulemia and anorexia as mental illnesses, but we are not allowed to recognize parallel sexual perversions in the same way. In some times and places, self-mutilation was practices, and this was also condemned; but this has also fallen out of favor. Tattoos aren’t in the same league.

    Poking out your ear drums with an ice pick would be contra-indicated, but there is not a great deal of enthusiasm for this. Attending rock concerts may not be a good idea. Walking around with your eyes glued to your stupid-phone can get you killed. That may be a perversion of your faculty of sight.

    Not every perversion of every faculty is equally serious nor equally in need of attention. The reproductive faculty, since it generally “takes two to tango” and is more intensely pleasurable gets the most attention. Recall that the exercise of the faculty has two natural ends. Not only the reproductive end, because humans are rational animals. But also a unitive end, because humans are rational animals. (This creates a conundrum for those who like to mock the “rational” part. If we leave that off, we have only the reproductive end left.)
    https://thomism.wordpress.com/2008/08/05/families-as-the-principle-of-harmony-for-the-dual-ends-of-sexuality/

  14. @JMJ: “metaphysically impossible” means that it is not possible, for metaphysical reasons, just as “physically impossible” means not possible for physical reasons. “Logically impossible” is a special case of “metaphysically impossible” that you will recognise, but it is too narrow to apply to the case at hand. I hope that helps.

  15. “I think the argument from the NFP side is that sexual intercourse during an infertile period has no procreative potential precisely because some part of the natural and properly directed and functioning sexual nature is working.”

    That’s not the argument from NFP. In NFP, every sexual act must be “open” to life. (even if life is not conceived). There is no “openess” during the infertile period of the menstrual cycle or due during pregnancy.

  16. You restate my very point, how is that a counterargument? To be open to life is entirely compatible with infertility being part of the natural cycle of the body. In fact, what you said of itself does not make any sense. Open-ness as you state it is a descriptor, not the NFP *argument* for that descriptor to attach to right sexual acts. Whereas I am trying to propose how I think an NFP advocate would reconcile the perverted faculty argument with NFP, that is, with the open-ness definition/requirement of right sexual acts. You give no reason to think my proposed explanation to be invalid from an NFP viewpoint, so how are you raising an objection at all?

    Besides, your objection is not an objection, because you state NFP views as if they contradicted NFP views (that sexual intercourse during infertile periods is not wrong). If this is a case of NFP views being self-contradictory, you have not shown HOW they are, but merely assume it – it is question begging. I’m sure you have some reason for thinking this to be the case, but it is unhelpful to merely assert without argument.

  17. No, I don’t think you get the point.

    To be open to life is entirely compatible with infertility being part of the natural cycle of the body.

    How is a sexual act with a post menopausal woman (i.e. intrinsically infertile) “open to life?”

  18. The Iconoclast says, with the air of one making a point:
    “All primates masturbate.”

    But so what?

  19. How is a sexual act with a post menopausal woman (i.e. intrinsically infertile) “open to life?”

    Ask Abram’s wife, Sarah.

  20. The NFPer’s notion of openness is “not rejecting,” which means in the against the odds situation that you do make a child, rather than consider it as against your purpose, you consider it within happy outcomes. The claim is that you can have sexual intercourse during a (theoretically) infertile period while considering procreation a possible happy outcome, but not if you wear a condom, pull out before, etc. which are acts inherently directed against pregnancy.

  21. Oh Yea Romans!
    So much nit-picking!
    I do hope that our dear Lord is not a nit-picker; and that, if we are to be saved, it is by his goodness alone: otherwise we are doomed.

  22. I suggest a counter example.
    My bodily organs are ordered by their nature to sustain my vital operations. To voluntarily damage or remove healthy organs is thus by its nature an intrinsically evil mutilation. But live organ donation (such as donating a kidney), which is good, removes a healthy organ. Therefore, premise 1 is not universally true.

  23. I think the important thing to recognize is that to act rationally is to act in accordance with a rule. The rule that we discover in our examination of the generative faculty is that the good is pursued rightly when we engage in natural coitus with our spouse. Whether that spouse is fertile or not makes no difference with respect to following the rule. The rule is discovered on the basis of knowing both the good of the generative faculty itself (the begetting of offspring) and in knowing what is per se ordered to achieving the purpose of nature in giving us the faculty, namely, the production of mature offspring. Knowing the nature of the faculty makes it obvious that we rightly employ our generative faculty in heterosexual coitus, but it is really the latter consideration of what is of itself suited to raising mature offspring that determines that those heterosexual acts of coitus should be with a determinate member of the opposite sex with whom one shares a common life. I can be certain, then, that my use of my sex organs is rightly ordered when I use them to engage in natural intercourse with my wife. Whether this issues in what nature intends in giving me those organs is not up to me. What is important is that I follow the rule, and thus submit myself willingly to the principle of the order that I discover in the world, who is God, the Author of nature and the common good of the cosmos.

  24. Isn’t practicing for a task a fruitful endeavor? Kittens play-fight at some risk to themselves so that they’ll be ready for the real thing.I don’t train for a marathon by sitting around and saving it all for the race. You need to work your body regularly or it loses the ability to do so. Is that a counter example?

  25. You need to work your body regularly or it loses the ability to do so. Is that a counter example?

    Sorta like the way we practice eating by chewing food, then spitting it out? Or by swallowing and then regurgitating lest we acquire an unwanted weight? Perhaps we could place a membrane in our throat so we can swallow, but capture the food before it reaches the stomach. Practice makes perfect.

    Of course, the “practice” model applied to the reproductive act requires using the Other as a mere sexual object, something frowned upon by S Thomas and others.


  26. How is a sexual act with a post menopausal woman (i.e. intrinsically infertile) “open to life?”

    Same way a sexual act with a fertile woman would be, Slumlord. I doubt you need me to spell it out. The “defect” (of infertility) is a complete red herring. It changes nothing. “Open to life” refers to proper form: As if there were no defect.

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