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The Metaphysical Foundations of Sexual Morality


Defenders and critics of traditional sexual morality disagree so radically that each side often finds it difficult to credit the basic reasonableness and decency of the other. Feser argues that the two sides at least implicitly operate from very different basic metaphysical commitments and that their views about sex are perfectly intelligible given those commitments. In particular, they differ over how to interpret what Wilfrid Sellars called the “scientific image” of the world and its relationship to the “manifest image” of common sense. Those who uphold traditional sexual morality also tend to affirm the continuing validity of the manifest image, whereas those who reject traditional sexual morality also tend to favor radically revising the manifest image or replacing it altogether with the scientific image.

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  1. 1.

    Wilfrid Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” in Science, Perception, and Reality (Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview Publishing Company, 1991).

  2. 2.

    P. F. Strawson, Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (London: Methuen, 1959), p. 10.

  3. 3.

    For example, Roger Scruton’s defense of traditional sexual morality in Sexual Desire (New York: The Free Press, 1986) reflects a respect for the manifest image, but as philosophically articulated by way of phenomenology rather than Aristotelian metaphysics. Friedrich Engels’ critique of traditional sexual morality in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (London: Penguin Books, 2010) reflects the perspective of the scientific image, but as interpreted through Marxism rather than liberalism. To complicate things further, in Sex and Social Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), Martha Nussbaum is critical of traditional sexual morality, despite being sympathetic to a broadly Aristotelian point of view. Whereas in “Why Homosexuality is Abnormal” (in The Monist 67 (2): 251–283, 1984), Michael Levin is sympathetic to traditional sexual morality, despite approaching the question more from the point of view of the scientific image than that of the manifest image. Again, I claim only rough correlations between the moral and metaphysical views I’m describing, not exceptionless ones.

  4. 4.

    Steven J. Jensen, Knowing the Natural Law (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2015), pp. 72–73.

  5. 5.

    Aristotle, Physics, translated by Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 33. Emphasis added.

  6. 6.

    Ibid., p. 34.

  7. 7.

    Philippa Foot, Natural Goodness (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001).

  8. 8.

    Wilfrid Sellars, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” in Science, Perception, and Reality, at p. 169.

  9. 9.

    Summa Theologiae I-II.94.2.

  10. 10.

    Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals (Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1999).

  11. 11.

    Cf. Wittgenstein’s critique of the notion of a private language, Hilary Putnam on the division of linguistic labor, Tyler Burge’s anti-individualism, Donald Davidson on radical interpretation, and so on.

  12. 12.

    Thomas Aquinas, On Love and Charity: Readings from the “Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard,” translated by Peter A. Kwasniewski, Thomas Bolin, O.S.B., and Joseph Bolin (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2008), p. 34.

  13. 13.

    Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book Three: Providence, Part II, translated by Vernon J. Bourke (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), Chapter 123, at p. 148.

  14. 14.

    Summa Theologiae II-II.46.3, in Summa Theologica, in five volumes, translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Bros, 1948). Emphasis added.

  15. 15.

    Summa Theologiae II-II.153.5 and II-II.53.6.

  16. 16.

    Nicomachean Ethics 1148b 15–19a 20.

  17. 17.

    I have said more along those lines in “In Defense of the Perverted Faculty Argument,” in Neo-Scholastic Essays (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2015).

  18. 18.

    The latter phrase is from Tim Crane, The Mechanical Mind, Third edition (London: Routledge, 2016), p. 1. Crane’s expression may have been inspired by the title of E. J. Dijksterhuis’s The Mechanization of the World Picture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961).

  19. 19.

    In Descartes’ version of the mechanical philosophy, reality consists of two radically different kinds of substance: the mind or res cogitans (“thinking substance”), and the material world or res extensa (“extended substance”). On this Cartesian dualist picture, the material world is pure geometrical extension, utterly devoid of any of the properties associated with thought or consciousness and also of any teleology or purpose. Meanwhile, the mind just is pure thought or consciousness, standing altogether outside the desiccated, mechanical material world and projecting onto it whatever qualitative features it thinks it sees there. The mind relates to the material world thus conceived as a “ghost in the machine” (in Gilbert Ryle’s famous phrase).

  20. 20.

    I am aware that “the liberal individualist self” is a loaded phrase, but my focus here is less on liberals’ conception of the self than on their implicit conception of nature—even if, as my remarks indicate, the two topics cannot be entirely disentangled. Hence for present purposes I put to one side disputes about the nature of the self between liberals and communitarian critics like Michael Sandel, which prescind from the specific metaphysical issues I’m addressing here. Cf. Sandel’s Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

  21. 21.

    I survey these developments in “Natural Law Ethics and the Revival of Aristotelian Metaphysics,” in Tom Angier, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Natural Law Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

  22. 22.

    Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2011).

  23. 23.

    I have developed a systematic articulation and defense of Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics and a critique of scientism in Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction (Heusenstamm: Editiones Scholasticae, 2014) and Aristotle’s Revenge: The Metaphysical Foundations of Physical and Biological Science (Neunkirchen-Seelscheid: Editiones Scholasticae, 2019).

  24. 24.

    I thank David Boonin for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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Feser, E. (2022). The Metaphysical Foundations of Sexual Morality. In: Boonin, D. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Sexual Ethics. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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