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  • Fundamental Inclinations and Sexual Desires
  • Stephen J. Heaney

There is a common misunderstanding of the classical natural law tradition concerning the nature of—and the naturalness of—sexual desire and sexual acts, and specifically of same-sex desires and acts. It is an argument that has its most interesting (for me, anyhow) manifestations in the writings of those within the Catholic tradition, or who at least have a Catholic background. The argument runs something like this: The basis for natural law proscriptions of same-sex acts is grounded in the fundamental natural inclinations or drives of human beings. Thomas Aquinas, to use a well-respected version of the natural law argument, says that we have fundamental inclinations to sexual intercourse and care of offspring. This would seem to indicate that sexual intercourse here is taken by Aquinas to mean an act between a man and a woman, since that is how you would make offspring to care for. However, what is different about those who consider themselves to have a same-sex orientation is that they experience a different desire than many people, a deep desire as unsought and uncontrolled as the desire in heterosexuals, but for sexual union with a member of the same sex rather than the opposite sex. By this argument, the natural law is essentially different for those with same-sex attraction.

The reasoning expressed above relies on some basic misunderstandings of the nature of the fundamental natural inclinations: first, about the relationship between these inclinations and conscious desires, and second, about the relationship between inclinations and our nature as human beings. It is an easy mistake to make, especially given how we use language today. [End Page 37]

One reason it is easy to fall into this mistake is a common contemporary notion of the self. Charles Taylor, in an analysis used brilliantly by Philip Turner to dissect the contemporary sexual understanding, notes three things about the contemporary "self": 1) it is defined by its inward depths that distinguish it from other selves; 2) a meaningful existence for this self is not heroism or sainthood, but everyday life; and 3) the point of everyday life is the satisfaction that comes from exploring one's inner depths. These principles are accompanied by three moral ideas: a) benevolence, b) equal justice, and c) elimination of suffering.1 To the degree that a person assumes that "sexuality" and "sexual desire" are not merely important aspects of one's depths, but indeed definitional of one's very self as a person, "it is immediately appealing to say that sexual relations ought to be pried loose from anything like an 'order' that prescribes for them goods that are not matters of choice or that denies some people access to these relations ab initio."2

The denial of the right to explore one's sexual depths in whatever way one chooses is seen to be a denial of all three of the moral principles invoked by the contemporary position. This is not a surprising conclusion to come to in the contemporary way of thinking. Turner references The History of Sexuality, in which Michel Foucault claims that the term "sexuality" today works now for many people as the word soul once did: as the nexus uniting the various aspects of one's being, giving one an identity.3 Nicholas Bamforth and David A. J. Richards, in the flyleaf to their book Patriarchal Religion, Sexuality, and Gender, quote none other than H. L. A. Hart: "But interference with individual liberty may be thought an evil requiring justification for simpler, utilitarian reasons; for it is itself the infliction of a special form of suffering—often very acute—on those whose desires are frustrated by the fear of punishment. … The suppression of sexual impulses generally is. … something which affects the development or balance of the individual's emotional life, happiness, and personality."4 [End Page 38]

One difficulty that arises from this contemporary notion of the self is relatively easy for Turner, and his readers, to spot:

The problem with their view is that it fails to recognize that a sexual self, liberated from any notion of undertakings that have a moral claim upon...


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pp. 37-52
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