Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Why Masturbation is Worse than Rape

This is actually the Catholic tradition, as expostulated by St. Augustine ("of all sins belonging to lust, that which is against nature is the worst") and given logical form by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica. He covers this in Article 12, Whether the unnatural vice is the greatest sin among the species of lust?

Aquinas admits (Objection 1) that seduction and rape are contrary to charity, and that masturbation might seem like a less serious matter because it causes no injury to persons. But he rejects this view. Aquinas states his own logic most clearly in his Reply to Objection 1:
As the ordering of right reason proceeds from man, so the order of nature is from God Himself: wherefore in sins contrary to nature, whereby the very order of nature is violated, an injury is done to God, the Author of nature.
So rape mainly hurts other people, but spilling seed on the ground offends God, which is much worse.

I mention this because it gets so precisely at the difference between modern, consequentialist ethics, like my own, and the old religious traditions. I simply cannot take logic like that of Aquinas seriously. It relies on definitions of "nature" and "natural" that are based, not on a close look at actual human beings (surely few human activities are more universal than masturbation, which is also practiced by apes and monkeys) but on a view that is already moralistic. That is, it is asserted that something is wrong because it is unnatural, but "unnatural" is just another way of saying "wrong."

But I know, because I read their blogs, that many conservative Christians today still take this very seriously. (And, I assume, many conservative Muslims as well.) This view of "nature" is so thoroughly interwoven through Catholic theology that to reject it requires starting over, and the whole point of religious conservatism is not having to start over.

I simply do not see how a person who believes such things and I could ever agree about the morality of sex, marriage, and many other topics. We simply have no common language to speak in, no basis for a common understanding. Dialogue will be useless.

So, I fear, issues like gay marriage, abortion, contraception, transexuality, and the like will remain unhealable wounds in the nation, and the law will simply follow the will of the majority. We can't change the minds of believers in "natural law", but we can outvote them.

7 comments:

David said...

My understanding is actually that by "unnatural" the scholastics did not mean "what we already think is wrong." They had a special understanding of nature and natural law, by which a thing's proper "nature" would be the design and purpose God had in creating it. For this reason, masturbation is a sin against nature because God's design and purpose in sex is reproduction, and to do anything sexual whose purpose is not reproduction is a sin against nature, hence a sin against God's design and purpose, hence a sin against God.

Perhaps it is also worth pointing out that, even if Aquinas thought masturbation a worse *sin* than rape, this does not necessarily say anything about which he thought human society should punish more severely as a *crime*. Scholasticism was arguably all about such distinctions.

I don't agree personally with the scholastics' way of reasoning or their conclusions, but I think it's worth pointing out the actual way their logic worked (at least as far as I can tell, being no specialist in this area).

It is true that popular American Christianity does all too often work on the theory that God's purpose is a notional conventional white American suburban or small-town life, just as the Taliban think shari'a is synonymous with Pashtun village custom.

But the learned traditions don't work like that. Opinion in Sunni jurisprudence is, for example, divided on the question of masturbation, since nothing in Qur'an or hadith addresses the issue. Learned types at a place like al-Azhar tend to scorn the Taliban as ignorant yokels who have no understanding of how shari'a works.

On your overall point, however, I would agree: between a fairly rigorous traditional religiosity and modern secular values, there isn't much to discuss or negotiate, except a sort of truce.

John said...

That's very interesting about Islam and masturbation.

Perhaps masturbation is not the best example for attacking natural law. What about monogamy? The Catholic tradition holds that monogamy is natural and polygamy unnatural, but obviously the Islamic tradition is different. Surely this is simply because Christianity grew up in the monogamous Roman world and Islam among polygamous Arabs. Other Catholic traditions upheld slavery and kingship as natural. (Somewhere along the way slavery ceased to be natural, I am not sure exactly when.)

David said...

I'm sure there's a huge literature on all these questions, and monogamy in particular, and I'm sure the answers are complex. And a lot of what the scholastics did, of course, is rationalize decisions that had already been made (like monogamy). But their way of rationalizing could and did develop its own controlling power, and the reasoning about masturbation would, I expect, be a good example. I doubt that before Aquinas most Catholics would have actually thought that masturbation was worse than rape. And it would be interesting to know if 14th-century confessor's manuals, for example, actually prescribed more penance for masturbation than for rape.

Scholasticism was often also, well, pretty scholastic--ivory towered and impractical. I confess I always see a huge disconnect between the actual practice of politics in high medieval Europe, and the learned stuff produced by the schools. I don't mean they didn't deal with poisoning or bribery or such; I mean they seemed to be completely unaware or uninterested in basic normative practices like dynastic succession, dynastic territorial unions and divisions, and negotiations of taxes in assemblies. Where these things directly impacted the church--mostly on the issue of alienability, e. g., could a family that received rights to a mill from the royal patrimony leave those rights to the church?--they might have an opinion.

John said...

Like you, I always thought that scholasticism was an academic exercise. Which is why I was so startled to see these arguments based on natural law cited all the time by Catholic bloggers writing about gay marriage and birth control. It has become fashionable in some circles to blame everything wrong with the modern world, from Hitler to gay marriage, on Nominalism.

David said...

Yes, that is interesting. I would guess part of what's at work is Catholic bloggers are anxious to differentiate themselves from middlebrow American conservatives. I'd be surprised if many medieval churchmen took scholasticism very seriously as a guide to legislation--though, again, it would be interesting to see how much scholastic thinking started showing up in confessor's manuals, for example.

I wonder if perhaps also conservative Catholics might be, consciously or unconsciously, modelling themselves on orthodox Judaism: that is, they are framing themselves as an embattled minority clinging to a demanding, absolutist, and ponderously learned tradition that doesn't much care about outsiders' opinions of them.

G. Verloren said...

I've always hated Aquinas, but it's hard to not see him as a product of his times, so I tend to just quietly avoid his work and those who quote it.

That said, I don't think Catholics are entirely incorrigible. For centuries they actively believed that chattel slavery was "natural" and proper, but the Abolition movement changed the overwhelming majority of minds.

There were still stubborn holdouts, naturally, and of course the newly freed would still face centuries of racism and oppression in other forms, but in time the church did manage to perform a complete and utter reversal of stance. If they did it before, surely they can do it again in time.

David said...

Another thought: you (John) seem to be provisionally conflating religious thinking, on the one hand, and natural law thinking on the other. But I'm not sure religious thinking is per se characterized by natural law ideas. Rather, natural law-type thinking is the heritage of those good secular humanists, the Greeks and Romans, especially Aristotle in the Catholic/scholastic case. It's really only Catholicism that has decided to rest itself on that type of thinking (and not from its origin, but, as a matter of doctrine, at the Council of Trent). Shi'ism--whose traditional educational system for its jurists is much more steeped in Greek philosophy than Sunnism's--may also use some natural law type thinking, but I'm not sure.

Orthodox Judaism, Sunnism, and Protestantism (at least, pre-1800 or so) are much more reliant on scriptural literalism and tradition. That may be just as much a problem for modern liberals, but it's not the same as scholastic-type naturalism.

(And perhaps it's worth pointing out that religions don't always just accept and rationalize the customs of the culture they originate in. Yes, Islam accepted polygamy, but pagan Arabs also celebrated drinking and gambling, and Islam didn't accept those. Not to mention, you know, polytheism.)