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How Sex Becomes Dehumanizing

Sexual acts that involve thwarting the procreative end of sex are dehumanizing acts and as such are immoral. Here’s why

According to the English Oxford Living Dictionary, to dehumanize someone is “to deprive [that person] of human qualities, personality, or dignity.” It involves the rejection of some essential aspect of human nature, treating man as something he is not.

But the act of dehumanization, or the failure to reverence man for what he is, is an act that most people intuitively recognize as a moral evil. It’s not difficult to see how such an act runs contrary to human nature and thus contrary to human flourishing. It would seem, therefore, that moral responsibility entails that any human action, including sexual activity, be consonant with what a human being is.

What if it could be demonstrated that to violate the procreative end of sex while engaging the sexual faculty is not consonant with what a human being is? Such an act would be considered dehumanizing.

And assuming that moral responsibility entails that human acts must bear upon man as if he is what he is, such activity would be considered immoral.

In this article, we’re going to demonstrate that sexual acts that involve thwarting the procreative end of sex—in particular contraception and same-sex sexual activity—are dehumanizing acts, i.e., they treat man as what he is not. And given the supposition that dehumanizing acts are immoral, it follows that such sexual acts are immoral.

The proposed argument can be put in the syllogistic form in sidebar 1.

Not much work is needed to justify premise 1, since rejecting an essential aspect of man’s nature belongs to the essence of a dehumanizing act. If it can be shown that the standard by which people commonly judge a sexual act to be dehumanizing is the same standard that marks sexual acts that thwart the procreative end of sex as dehumanizing, then people of good will may be more inclined to view thwarting the procreative end of sex as a dehumanizing action.

Consider the 2017 events involving accusations of sexual assault, harassment, and rape against some of Hollywood’s elite—what has become known as the Weinstein effect. Film producer Harvey Weinstein, and others like him who plead innocent, claim that their actions were not illegal or immoral because the sexual acts were consensual.

Sexual coercion and the dehumanizing principle

But why is consent necessary for establishing the moral permissibility of sexual activity? Or, to put it negatively, why is the violation of consent in sexual activity wrong in the first place?

Most people who judge that sexual coercion is wrong are unable to articulate a moral principle that underlies their judgment, basing their condemnation on intuition rather than reasoned argumentation. Well, there is an underlying moral principle, but it requires a little effort to tease it out.

A good starting point is man’s freedom. Unlike an arrow that is moved to its target by an archer, or an animal that is directed entirely by instincts, man has a power by which he is able to freely move himself to an end (see Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I-II:1:2).

We call this power free will, and it follows upon man’s power to reason. When he acts, he acts based on a judgment that something should be pursued or avoided. And, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out, “Because this judgment . . . is not from a natural instinct but from some act of comparison in the reason,” we act from “free judgment and retain the power of being inclined to various things” (ST I:83:1).

Herein lies the reason why unjust coercion, and in particular sexual coercion, is judged to be immoral: to unjustly impede someone from self-determination is to dehumanize that person. It entails the rejection of an essential aspect of man’s nature, seeing his rationality as an evil to be avoided. The rejection of man’s rationality reduces a person to something lower than a human: a tool, an object for use.

Karol Wojtyla (Pope St. John Paul II) makes this point forcefully:

Anyone who treats a person as the means to an end does violence to the very essence of the other, to what constitutes its natural right (Love and Responsibility, pp. 26-27).

Such violence is what makes sexual coercion an immoral act. It directs a person to an end that he or she does not consent to but should be free to consent to: namely, sexual activity. And since it is a rejection of the rational part of man’s nature to unjustly direct him to an end that he doesn’t consent to, it follows that sexual coercion is a dehumanizing act.

Dehumanization and anti-procreative sex

The immorality of treating man as something he is not (a dehumanizing act) still remains to be proven, which would constitute a defense of premise 3 of our argument. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of this article, we can’t do that here. We assume for argument’s sake that dehumanizing acts are immoral (see the sidebar 2 for at least a brief sketch of the rationale). But suffice it to say that the above reflection on the dehumanizing nature of sexual coercion and its relation to premise one nicely tees up a defense of premise 2 of the present argument.

Premise 2 follows the same logic, stating that any sexual activity that thwarts the procreative end of sex necessarily entails a rejection of an essential aspect of the human being. And inasmuch as it rejects an essential aspect of a human being, it is a dehumanizing act.

But what aspect does it reject? What reason does one have to think that such an aspect is essential to human nature? How does engaging in sex that thwarts the procreative end of sex entail a rejection of this essential aspect? The remainder of our article will focus on answering these questions. In doing so, the truth of premise 2 will be made clear.

The body: essential to the person or a mere accident?

As I argued in my article “Let’s Think About Sex” (Catholic Answers Magazine, November-December 2017), sex’s natural orientation to procreation and union between the spouses flows from man’s essence as a rational animal: the
procreative dimension flows from man’s animality (body), and the unitive dimension flows from man’s rationality (soul). Just as the human being by nature is both body and soul, so too human sex is by nature both procreative and unitive.

This view of the human person as a body-soul composite derives from Aristotle and Aquinas’s hylemorphic view of man. It states that the human being, like all other corporeal beings, is a unified composite of organic matter (Greek, hyle—“matter”) and a rational form (Greek, morphe—“form”). Aquinas puts it this way: “The intellectual soul is united by its very being to the body as a form” (ST I:76:6 ad 3).

What this means is that the body is as much identified with a person’s identity as is his soul. The union of an animal body with a rational soul constitutes a paradox: two distinct principles united but yet one substance. As Pope Benedict XVI stated in his inaugural encyclical letter, “It is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves . . . it is man, the person, a unified created composed of body and soul, who loves” (Deus Caritas Est, 5).

Opposed to this hylemorphic anthropology is the Cartesian view, named after the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes. For Descartes, the human person is divided into two separate substances: a mental substance (the soul—res cogitans) and a corporeal substance (the body—res extensa). And the substance that constitutes who man is as a person is solely the res cogitans—“the thinking self.”

With regard to the body’s relation to the choosing “self,” Descartes viewed the body as only loosely connected, or a mere accident (see his Discourse on Method, 4). This stands in stark contrast with Aristotle and Aquinas, who viewed the body as essential to a person’s identity.

For Descartes, therefore, the body is merely a machine in which the soul exists as a ghost; hence British philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s phrase “ghost in a machine” (The Concept of Mind, 22). This is why philosopher Paul Gondreau labels Descartes’ anthropology as a “disintegrated anthropology” in contrast to the “integrated anthropology” of the hylemorphic view of Aristotle and Aquinas (“The ‘Inseparable Connection’ between Procreation & Unitive Love and Thomistic Hylemorphic Anthropology,” Nova Et Vetera 6, no. 4 [2008]: 731-764).

Morality or mere pleasure

The above two views of the relation between the body and a person’s identity have major moral implications. If the body is essential to a person’s identity, as it is on the hylemorphic account, then the shape of human morals is going to be determined not only by the patterns that belong to the form of man’s rational life but also by the specific form of man’s animal life.

How man treats his body in all its biological hardwiring, and that of others, will determine how he treats a person, since on this model to violate the body would be to violate the person. And to treat the body as if it had no moral or personal significance would be to treat man as what he is not and thus would be a dehumanizing act. Rather than the body being “morally neutral,” on this view “the human body is morally charged” (Gondreau, “Inseparable Connection,” 752).

The moral and personal significance the body has on the hylemorphic account provides the natural design of man’s sexual faculties a point of entry into moral discussions. If man’s sexed body flows from the animal side of his nature, and if man’s animality participates in determining moral norms for human action, then it follows that man’s sexed body, along with its order to procreation, would participate in determining moral norms as well.

If the Cartesian model is correct, where the body does not belong to the identity of the thinking “self,” then man’s animality would not participate in determining moral norms for human action. In other words, the body would place no inherent moral obligation on man. It could be treated like a recreational toy, “a kind of morally neutral playground, where, as with Peter Pan in Never-Never Land, we prefer perpetually to play without a proper grown-up sense of moral responsibility” (“Inseparable Connection,” 749).

Given that the body is not morally charged on the Cartesianist view, it follows that the order of sex to procreation (which flows from man’s animality) would have no moral significance. It would be irrelevant to sexual love, and thus, as Gondreau argues, could be thwarted without any moral significance.

Sex would be reduced to an affair of internal desire and love, with the body and its biological design having significance only inasmuch as they provide pleasure. The only condition for morally acceptable sexual activity on this account of anthropology would be consent, which is provided by the rational “self.”

Existential argument

But which anthropology is correct? The answer to this question is pertinent to the truth of premise two of the argument articulated at the outset of this article.

If the body is a defining element of a human being (the hylemorphic view), then any sexual act that thwarts procreation, or is directed to an end not consistent with procreation, would reject the biological hardwiring of the body as an essential aspect of what man is and thus would be a dehumanizing act. If the body is related to the identity of a human person only accidentally, then sexual acts that thwart procreation (or directing sexual activity to ends not consistent with procreation) would not entail the rejection of the body as essential to man, and thus would not be a dehumanizing act.

There are many arguments that one could employ in defense of the hylemorphic view, but we’ll focus on only two here.

The first is more existential, arguing from man’s subjective experience. Whenever a person reads, he notices that he senses the words on the paper, but at the same time he recognizes that he understands their meaning. It is not as if he understands the words but only his body sees the words. There is one subject of action, the person, who both sees and thinks. It is this fact of human experience that led Aquinas to conclude that the body is not accidental to a person but is essential (ST I:76:1).

If it is the person who reads the words on the paper, and sensing the words involves the body, then it necessarily follows that the body is not separate from the person but, with its biological design, is the person. In other words, the body that allows man to sense the words is essential to his identity as a human person, as is his rational soul that enables him to understand the meaning of the words.

Metaphysical argument

The second argument is more metaphysical—it takes a third-person point of view by looking at the relation between the body and soul. On a basic level, the soul is “the first principle of life of those things which live” (ST I:75:1)—that which makes a living thing living. It is the distinguishing factor between animate and inanimate beings.

But upon further inquiry, one discovers that the soul also makes a living thing the kind of living thing it is with its unique powers. If the soul of a living thing is its vital principle, which it is, then it necessarily follows that the soul is also the principle of that thing’s vital activities. And since it is obvious that there are different living things with different types of activities, then there must be different types of souls.

For example, plants take in nutrients, grow, and reproduce, but do not have the powers of sensation and locomotion as do animals. Therefore, plants must have a different kind of soul than animals. Philosophers call it a vegetative soul.

Non-rational animals have the powers of sensation and locomotion, along with all the vegetative powers, but do not have rational powers, namely, intellect and will. So not only do non-rational animals have a different soul than plants, they have a different kind of soul than humans. This is a sensory soul.

Human beings stand at the pinnacle of living organisms, embodying all the powers of the vegetative and sensory souls plus their distinct powers of intellect and will. Philosophers call this kind of soul a rational soul.

Just like the vegetative soul is the principle of all the powers for plants, and the sensory soul is the principle of all the powers of animals, the rational soul is the principle of all human powers: vegetative, sensitive, and rational (ST I:76:1). Since the vegetative and sensitive powers belong to the human body, and the rational soul is the principle for those bodily powers, Aquinas concludes that the soul is the “form” of the body (ST I:76:1; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 365).

What this means is that the union of the soul and body is so intimate that the two make one substance: a human being. Contrary to Cartesianist anthropology, humans are not “a ghost in a machine.” Soul and body together constitute what a human being is.

The truth of hylemorphism

The truth of the hylemorphic view establishes the ground for evaluating the truth of premise two of the present argument: Sexual acts that involve thwarting the procreative end of sex, particularly contraception and same-sex sexual activity, entail the rejection of an essential aspect of the nature of man.

Such acts, at least in practice, deny the body as an essential aspect of what man is, viewing the order of sex to procreation as having no moral significance. As such, they entail a Cartesian mindset that incites man to not live in deferential harmony with his body in all its biological hardwiring but to exploit his body and use its sexual design to serve pleasure as the highest good.

Inasmuch as these sexual acts deny the body as an essential aspect of man, promoting a “debasement of the human body” and a “hatred of [human] bodiliness” (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 5), they deny the truth of the hylemorphic unity of the human being. And to deny the truth about what a human being is, and to treat man as what he is not, is nothing other than dehumanization. Therefore, any sexual activity that does not reverence the procreative end of sex is a dehumanizing act, treating man as what he is not.

From this it follows that anyone of good will who seeks to avoid dehumanizing acts ought to avoid sexual acts that thwart the procreative end of our sexual powers.

Sidebar 1: What Makes a Sex Act Immoral

Premise 1: Whatever human act entails the rejection of an essential aspect of the nature of man is a dehumanizing act.

Premise 2: Sexual acts that involve thwarting the procreative end of sex entail the rejection of an essential aspect of the nature of man.

Conclusion 1: Therefore, sexual acts that involve thwarting the procreative end of sex are dehumanizing acts.

Premise 3: Any human act that is a dehumanizing act is an immoral act.

Conclusion 2: Therefore, sexual acts that involve thwarting the procreative end of sex are immoral acts (from premise 3 and conclusion 1).

Since this argument is formally valid, if it can be shown that the premises are true, then both conclusions must be true.

Sidebar 2: The End Goal of Our Power to Choose

To judge something good or bad depends on the end or goal that something is directed to. A good oak tree, for example, is one that achieves the ends to which nature directs it—sinking roots deep into the ground, taking in nutrients from the soil, etc. A bad or defective oak tree is one that fails to achieve such ends. The “goal-directedness” of a thing is what constitutes the standard by which one can evaluate a good or bad instance of that thing.

The same principle applies to good or bad choices. A good choice is one that will achieve the end or goal of man’s power to choose. A bad choice will be one that fails to achieve its end or goal.

So, what is the end or goal of our power to choose?

Consider that we make choices based on what reason tells us concerning the objects upon which our actions bear. This is why the medieval thinkers called this power a rational power. It is a power that follows upon man’s cognitive apprehension of, and judgment about, what is. Consequently, the end or goal of man’s power to make an intellectual judgment will determine the end or goal of man’s power to choose.

The end or goal of intellectual judgments is conformity to reality. This is why we say it’s good to hold true beliefs, beliefs that accurately describe reality, and bad to hold false beliefs, beliefs that don’t conform to reality.

Since man naturally makes choices based on what reason tells him about the way things are, and since the end or goal of such intellectual judgments is conformity to reality, then it follows that man’s power to choose is naturally ordered to relate man to things in a way that conforms to what they are as known by reason.

To know the truth is the goal or end of reason. To do the truth is the goal or end of the power to choose.

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