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Where “Love Is Love” Goes Wrong

“Love is love.”

It’s the new mantra of our culture, the moral wisdom of the age. It’s the battle cry of a movement led by those not so wise as a sage.

A few months ago, the Coca-Cola Co. joined the chorus and launched its “Love Is Love” campaign in Hungary. Peppered throughout train stations, on billboards, and on its Hungarian Facebook page, Coke’s ads featured both opposite-sex and same-sex couples with the hashtag #loveislove. The campaign came days before the “love revolution”–themed Sziget Festival, a weeklong music and art event held annually in Budapest.

The message of this slogan is a no-brainer: “Male or female? Who cares? Love is love, and it’s all good!” As the Coca-Cola Co. stated in an email dated August 4, 2019, the ads “do indeed try to convey a message: . . . our belief that everyone has a right to love and that the feeling of love is the same for all” (emphases added).

Kudos to those who developed the slogan because it has rhetorical force. It appeals to something innate: the desire for romantic love. And, in particular, it proposes love as the foundation of a sexual relationship, which is noble and worthy of praise (something we can’t say about the motivations behind the “hookup” culture).

But when you think it through, “love is love,” the way it is used in this slogan, simply can’t be true.

Hijacking the word love

Consider, for example, that when the slogan is used, love is rarely defined. And when it is defined, it’s usually called a “feeling,” as the Coca-Cola Co. called it in its defense of the ads. (Not too different from “Taste the feeling!”)

The problem is that it is so easy to hijack the term love to justify almost anything. The grotesque North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), for example, does just that. It seeks to justify sexual acts between adult males and young boys in the name of “love,” stating on its website:

NAMBLA’s goal is to end the extreme oppression of men and boys in mutually consensual relationships by . . . educating the general public on the benevolent nature of man/boy love (emphases added).

Adopting the same reasoning as the Coca-Cola Co., NAMBLA appeals to the rights of all to express love through their bodies: “We support the rights of youth as well as adults to choose the partners with whom they wish to share and enjoy their bodies.”

Every bit of so-called wisdom that “love is love” embodies—the feeling of love is the same for all and that everyone has a right to express that love—justifies the abuse that NAMBLA promotes.

Now, someone will inevitably counter, “What NAMBLA promotes isn’t true sexual love. Minors aren’t in a position to understand what’s involved in a sexual relationship. Therefore, they can’t really consent. The slogan ‘Love is love’ is meant only to express the idea that biological sex is irrelevant to romantic love and its expression in sexual activity among consenting adults.”

Members of NAMBLA, however, could point out that their sexual relationships with minors are consensual, as indicated in the above quote. But that aside, those who live by “Love is love” don’t really think all sexual love is equal. For these people, some things rob sex of its power to express true love, such as young age.

But if biological age has something to do with determining appropriate or inappropriate expressions of sexual love, perhaps biological sex does as well. Why should we think biological sex is exempt? Perhaps sexual activity among members of the same sex is not a legitimate expression of sexual love.

To determine whether this is true, we have to first get a hold of what love is. And who better to start with than St. Thomas Aquinas?

The good of another

In his Summa Theologiae, Aquinas follows Aristotle (Rhetoric II, 4) and defines love as “to wish good to someone” (I-II:26:4) just as “he wills good to himself” (ST I-II:28:1). For Aquinas, true love apprehends the other “as his other self” (ibid.) and thus a subject of the good.

Commenting on Aquinas’s view of love, philosopher Alexander Pruss draws out two other aspects of love that are involved in willing the good of another: union and appreciation.

By willing a good to the beloved for the beloved’s sake, one is already united with the beloved in will, since the beloved also wills what is good for him or herself. Likewise, in willing a good to someone, one is appreciating the beloved as the sort of being to whom it is appropriate to will goods. Thus, willing a good to the beloved implies at least some appreciation and union (One Body: An Essay in Christian Ethics, 23).

Karol Wojtyla (later Pope St. John Paul II) affirms Aquinas’s view of love. In his book Love and Responsibility, he asserts that the “true essence of love” is realized when it is “directed toward a genuine good (not merely an apparent [good]) in the true way or, in other words, the way appropriate to the nature of that good” (82-83).

To emphasize this view of love, Wojtyla juxtaposes it with a false love: “A false love is one that is directed toward a specious good, or, most often, to a genuine good in a way which does not correspond to but is contrary to its nature” (83). He goes so far as to call such false love an “evil love” (83).

True love, therefore, involves a constant commitment of the will to the true good of the other person. Philosopher J. Budziszewski sums it up nicely:

If I delight in the good that you are, then I must want you to experience all the good that you can: I want you to exist well and beautifully. . . . I want good things for you, I want to do good things to you, I even want to do good things because of you. Good itself seems better because of you (On the Meaning of Sex, 71).

The good of the person

The key theme in these reflections on love is the good. Genuine sexual love, therefore, will be consistent with what constitutes the good for human beings in the sexual arena. This means that authentic sexual love involves willing what is good relative to the beloved’s sexual powers.

And I don’t think those who tout “Love is love” would disagree with any of this thus far. They believe, for example, that our sexual powers should be used only among consenting adults and condemn any form of sexual coercion. Also, I think it’s safe to say that many believe our sexual powers should be used only to express love for the other as opposed to merely “hooking up.”

When it comes to procreation, however, these folks part ways with traditional sexual ethics. They don’t believe the biological hardwiring of our sexual faculties for procreation has any relevance to what’s good for us as human beings. Because of this, they don’t perceive this aspect of our sexual powers has having any moral significance.

But as I argued in my article “Let’s Think About Sex,” procreation, along with union, constitutes the good for our sexual faculties (and for us as a whole person) because it’s
the due end to which nature directs such powers. This argument is based on the principle that the ends (goals) for which our natural faculties exist determines what is good for us. As Aquinas teaches, the essence of good is that which “perfects another as an end” (Questiones Disputate de Veritate 21, v. 2).

For example, the intellect has truth as its natural end, and inasmuch as it knows truth, it is perfected. So truth is the intellect’s good. And since the intellect is a power of a person, truth is the person’s good.

Procreation as an end

Similarly, procreation is an end of sex. As such, it’s perfective of our sexual powers—and thus good—to achieve the end of procreation. And since these powers belong to a person, procreation is a good for the person.

Because the good has the nature of an end, and procreation is an end of sex, it follows that to voluntarily engage in sexual acts that in principle can’t achieve the end of procreation (same-sex sexual activity), or to engage in sexual union while thwarting the achievement of the procreative end (contraceptive sex), is nothing less than a rejection of the order of the good inscribed in the nature of our sexual powers.

To use an example from philosopher Steven Jensen in his book Good and Evil Actions, the perversity of such behavior would be similar to a doctor who tries to make someone ill. In such a scenario, the doctor would be positively rejecting his good as a doctor—namely, health—viewing the order of a good doctor as an evil to be avoided. A doctor who rejects the order of a good doctor can only merit the charge of being an evil doctor.

It’s not hard to see contempt for the order of the human good for sex in the example of sexual coercion since the man who sexually coerces a woman rejects the order to the good of spousal friendship. Obviously, such an act cannot in principle be an expression of love.

But contempt for the human good for sex is no less present in sexual acts that voluntarily reject the end of procreation since that is constitutive of man’s sexual good. Therefore, the love that men and women intend to express in sex that perverts the procreative end, no matter how sincerely they intend it, merits the charge of an “evil love.”

Acts that positively reject the order of a human good cannot possibly be expressions of authentic love, even if they are done in the name of love. In fact, they are directly opposed to love, showing disdain for the beloved instead.

Moreover, inasmuch as the good of the beloved is rejected, there is no union of wills (a key characteristic of genuine love) since the so-called lover doesn’t will the good that the beloved necessarily wills for herself.

To say that a couple can express authentic love while engaging in sexual activity that voluntarily thwarts the procreative end of sex is like saying a person can express love by voluntarily crushing another person’s windpipe. Love is by nature opposed to the rejection of another’s good as well as one’s own good. And since that good includes man’s biological sexual good (procreation) just as much as it includes his rational sexual good (spousal union), love demands reverence for the procreative dimension of sex.

Humans as moral agents

The view that to violate the procreative end of sex is a rejection of the order of a human good leads to another reason the perversion of the sexual faculty undermines love. Unlike brute animals, human beings are free to determine their course of action, whether it be in accord with what is truly good for human nature or not. As such, humans are moral agents.

Humans are morally good when they direct their activities in ways that facilitate the achievement of the general goods to which nature orders them, as well as the particular goods to which nature orders their inherent powers. Humans are morally bad if they reject this orderedness to the good.

Since engaging in sexual activity while actively thwarting the procreative end of sex is a rejection of the order of the human good as proven above, it follows that such activity makes those who participate in it morally bad.

But to encourage another to engage in immoral activity is to will harm to the other, though not in the physical sphere. It wills harm to that person’s character. And the willing of moral harm is no less a violation of love than willing physical harm as an end in and of itself, since every human person is a composite of both body and soul. (So much for the idea that sex is okay as long as no one gets hurt).

Since wishing moral harm to another is directly opposed to love, and to encourage another to engage in sexual activity that thwarts the procreative end of sex is to will moral harm, it follows that if a person wishes to express love through sex, then that person should not engage in sexual activity that transgresses the procreative meaning of sex.

Along with this account of man’s good, and man’s sexual good in particular, there’s another way in which we can see how thwarting the procreative end of sex violates love.

Rejecting man’s good

Consider that to treat another human being as anything other than what he is—namely, a rational animal—is to fail to will what is good for him as a human.

The example of sexual coercion, again, provides illumination. In such activity, the perpetrator rejects the rational dimension of a woman (that she is a self-determined being) and treats her merely as an animal. He does not will her rational good. And inasmuch as he does not will her good as a rational being, he does not will her good as a human person. Such failure to will the good cannot possibly be an expression of love.

Similarly, to engage in sexual activity that involves thwarting the procreative end of sex entails a rejection of an essential aspect of the human person: the body and its biological hardwiring to procreation. Where sexual coercion entails a rejection of the rational part of human nature, anti-procreative sex entails the rejection of the animal part of human nature. It treats man as merely a rational being when man is a rational animal. The biological hardwiring of man’s sexual faculty, which involves the order to procreation, constitutes man’s nature just as much as his rationality.

It follows, therefore, that to engage in sexual activity that entails the rejection of man’s biological hardwiring to procreation, such as same-sex sexual activity and contraceptive sex, is to reject man’s good as a rational animal. And inasmuch as such sexual activity entails the rejection of man’s good as a rational animal, it entails the rejection of man’s good as a human person.

It follows that such activity cannot possibly be an expression of love, since it directly opposes what love is, to will the good of another.

Hardwired for love

Every human being is hardwired for love. It belongs to man’s nature as a rational being to love and be loved, regardless of the type of relationship in which he finds himself. Such a desire for love takes on a unique characteristic in romantic relationships since it seeks not only spiritual union of willing each other’s good but physical expression of that union that involves man’s sexual faculty.

For those in our culture who live by the “Love is love” slogan, reverence for sex’s natural order to procreation, which necessarily entails the complementarity of the sexes, is not an essential criterion for appropriate expressions of sexual love. It’s believed that the procreative end of sex and the complementarity of the sexes that comes with it can be dispensed with for the sake of pursuing the unitive end.

But in light of the above analysis of what constitutes authentic sexual love, it’s clear that such acts that seek to thwart the procreative end of sex while voluntarily using the sexual powers cannot in principle be authentic expressions of love. Rather, they undermine love.

This kind of “sexual love” is self-contradictory in nature. What it gives with one hand, the attempt to express love in the body, it takes back with the other, rejecting the order of good that belongs to the beloved as an embodied being. In the words of Karol Wojtyla, such a love could only be called an “evil love.”

The “Love Is Love” slogan, therefore, is nothing but a smokescreen that distracts us from the real question: does same-sex sexual activity will the good of the other? Since the answer is no, the slogan’s wisdom just ain’t “the real thing.”

And who wants a mantra
That’ll come back to haunt ya?

Sidebar 1: The Natural Ability of the Sex Act

A critic might object: “If same-sex sexual activity isn’t an authentic expression of sexual love because it’s nonprocreative, then wouldn’t sexual acts where a woman is unintentionally infertile, whether it is due to her natural cycle, old age, or some sort of physical defect, also fail to express true love?”

The answer is no.

One reason is that the inability to generate children from sexual acts when a woman is unintentionally infertile is not the same as the inability to generate children from sexual acts among same-sex couples. When a same-sex couple is unable to generate children after four years of engaging in sexual acts, no one wonders why. That is because the nature of their sexual activity is not procreative—that’s to say, it’s not the type of activity that is naturally ordered to producing children.

On the other hand, male-female couples that, due to age, a medical condition, or even the woman’s natural cycle, cannot conceive a child do engage in a procreative act. The genital union that they achieve is the kind of activity that nature ordains to produce children. And if not for age, or the accidental physical defect, or the natural time of the woman’s cycle, the natural end of procreation would be achieved. So, the inability of a male-female couple to generate children in their sexual act, where the inability is nonvoluntary, involves an impeded natural ability; whereas a same-sex couple’s inability to generate children in their sexual activity involves no natural ability.

Sidebar 2: Frustrating Sex’s Procreative End

Another reason male-female sex that is unintentionally infertile doesn’t parallel same-sex sexual activity is that male-female sex that is unintentionally infertile doesn’t actively frustrate the procreative end of sex like same-sex sexual activity and contraceptive sex does. The latter act involves a perversion and thus is unnatural, whereas the former act does not.

The term unnatural in the moral sense refers to actions that violate human nature. If nature gives humans faculty A so that humans might achieve end B, then it would be a violation of nature’s design ant thus unnatural to use A in a manner that actively frustrates the realization of B or directs A to some end that in principle makes the achievement of B impossible. Same-sex sexual activity fits the unnatural bill.

Sex for a male-female couple where the woman is unintentionally infertile involves no perversion. The couple places no impediment in the way of realizing sex’s natural end of procreation. And since there is no willful disabling of the act to achieve its due end, it’s not unnatural.

 

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