Tuesday, February 24, 2009

LDS Doctrine and Same-Sex Couples, part 2: Natural Law

The first objection that a member of the Church might have against homosexual relationships is that it is “just wrong.” A popular version of this “argument” is that “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” While this argument may be dismissed as crude and conclusory, it deserves a serious examination. If right and wrong can be determined by the natural order of things, and sex desire is a natural product of the biological imperative of reproduction, then why would a non-procreative sex act between two members of the same sex be moral?

Natural lawyers therefore make the argument for the immorality of homosexual sex. Law professor Teresa Stanton Collett observes that

To many, acts of anal intercourse, fellatio, or cunnilingus are unnatural and degrading. Opponents argue that these acts treat the human body as a mere instrument for selfish pleasure and fail to express any meaningful union of persons. To affirm relationships involving such acts would not promote good conduct, but instead would falsely suggest an equality of these acts with penile-vaginal intercourse, the distinctive activity of heterosexual marriage.1

Likewise, Natural Law scholar John Finnis argues for the distinctive nature of penile/vaginal intercourse: "The union of the reproductive organs of husband and wife really unites them biologically (and their biological reality is part of, not merely an instrument of, their personal reality); reproduction is one function and so, in respect of that function, the spouses are indeed one reality . . . ."2

This argument has appeal to members of the Church, given its resemblance to the Proclamation on the Family’s statements that "[g]ender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose," and "[m]arriage between man and woman is essential to [God’s] eternal plan." However, There are many problems with this formulation, from both a logical perspective and for Mormons especially. First, the logic of the natural law position relies on the idea that homosexuality is not "natural." This is a position that is belied by observations of biologists who note homosexual behavior throughout the animal kingdom.3 Also, the argument necessarily concludes that there is one “right” way to act, or even to exist, and all variation is inherently sinful. Simple observation of human behavior and the variety found therein leads one to conclude that there are many decisions that are morally neutral.

Natural law is also a difficult fit with LDS theology. First, the argument posits that morality can be deduced by observing nature or using natural reason. This is problematic for Latter-day Saints, who tend to take a dim view of nature, viewing "the natural man [as] an enemy to God . . . ." (Mosiah 3:19) Natural law theology also relies on Platonic Idealism, something that LDS theology rejects in favor of materialism. Damon Linker, a Catholic scholar and former visiting professor at Brigham Young University, explains that the LDS concept of God contradicts the very foundations of natural law theology:

Unlike the God of Catholics and Protestants—who is usually portrayed as the transcendent, all-powerful, all-good, and all-wise creator of the temporal universe out of nothingness—Smith’s God is a finite being who evolved into his present state of divinity from a condition very much like our own and then merely "organized" preexisting matter in order to form the world . . . . Mormonism tacitly denies that the natural world possesses any intrinsic or God-given moral purpose. Everything we know—or could ever know—about right and wrong comes entirely from divine commands communicated to humanity by prophets.4

The other problem with adopting the natural law position as a Latter-day Saint is the argument’s overinclusiveness. Not only are homosexual acts sinful according to natural law, so are any non-procreative heterosexual acts, even within marriage. Recent LDS pronouncements have not condemned birth control or non-procreative sex acts, referring to this question as a matter between husband and wife. The Church has also recognized a purpose in sexual relations within marriage beyond that of procreation, namely "to express love for one another—to bind husband and wife together in loyalty, fidelity, consideration, and common purpose."5 Natural Law theology is therefore a problematic basis for LDS arguments against homosexuality.

  1. Teresa Stanton Collett, Should Marriage Be Privileged? The State’s Interest in Childbearing Unions, in SAME-SEX MARRIAGE: THE MORAL AND LEGAL DEBATE 163, 168. (Robert M. Baird & Stuart E. Rosenbaum, eds., 2004).
  2. John Finnis, Law, Morality, and "Sexual Orientation", 69 NOTRE DAME L. REV. 1049, 1066 (1994).
  3. BRUCE BAGEMIHL, BIOLOGICAL EXUBERANCE: ANIMAL HOMOSEXUALITY AND BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY 12 (1999) (recounting scientific observations of homosexual behavior in over 450 animal species).
  4. Damon Linker, The Big Test, NEW REPUBLIC, Jan. 1, 2007, at 18, 19–20.


micah e. said...

I wonder if Natural Law theory also hits bumps in its road because a notable portion of people across all cultures, geographies, and time are born with indistinguishable genitalia.

If God wanted gender and gender-oriented behavior to be so finite and precise, why would such mutations regularly occur?

Just a thought.

Mark said...

Hey Nate. Thoughtful posts, as always. Here's my two cents:

I wouldn't rely on examples from elsewhere in the animal kingdom to justify any human behavior. There are examples of mammals who eat their young under strained circumstances, but that would do little to justify its emulation in the human realm. Can we not see humans as something more divine than rats?

The very premise that anything can be classified as "sin" implies that there is a right and wrong way to act. The existence of both types of behavior does not mean that neither is sinful. If you don't believe that any behavior is capable of being classified as sinful, then we should be having a different conversation.

The common use of the modifier "natural" in "Natural Law" and "natural man" is unfortunate, and does not necessarily require that Natural Law is that to which a natural man is obedient. Ironically, it's generally the opposite. But then again, I find "Natural Law" to be ill-defined by both the proponents and opponents thereof.

Which brings me to my conclusion: I hate natural law arguments. They are probably the most conclusory arguments I have ever heard. It generally comes down to "because I said so."

You may be on to something with your last paragraph.

Can you explain the meaning of: "Mormonism tacitly denies that the natural world possesses any intrinsic or God-given moral purpose." What is "the natural world" and what would it mean for it to have a "moral purpose"? Without further guidance, I find these statements vague and unhelpful, but I'm not a philosophy major.

Nate W. said...

Micah: Agreed. Hermaphroditism (including ambiguous genitalia and genitalia that does not match chromosome structure) is a major difficulty in the way of accepting sex (not gender) as an inherent or eternal construct.

Mark: Agree totally that natural law is a conclusory standard. I would freely admit that natural law may not be the same thing as natural man or behavior in nature, but if not that, what is it? the standard of "right reason" obscures more than it enlightens, and in the end, it is some sort of a moral intuition argument without any reliance on anything outside the self to determine right or wrong.

And, it would take a book to unpack the sentence you describe, but it refers to the fact that Mormons are materialists, not idealists. It starts with the idea that being is eternal and there is no such thing as immaterial matter and goes from there. Honestly, materialism is one of the things I find most appealing about the Mormon worldview.

I know that didn't really explain much, but I hope it helped a little.