Friday, March 20, 2015

Hobby Lobby, Contraception, Cats — & the "Goal" of Sex (18 July 2014)

      It's significant that in deciding what's being called The Hobby-Lobby Case the Supreme Court of the United States found, in the words of Justice Samuel Alito, that "The owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients." Writing in Mother Jones, Erika Eichelberger and Molly Redden — like many others — have taken issue with this finding since "According to the Food and Drug Administration, all four of the contraceptive methods Hobby Lobby objects to [...] do not prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg into the uterus, which the owners of Hobby Lobby consider abortion. Instead, these methods prevent fertilization." I.e., these methods are not abortifacients causing, well, an abortion, if a very early one, but contraceptives, preventing conception: the uniting of egg and sperm to make a zygote, in this case a unique human individual (either immediately or down the line of development with poorly-labeled "identical" twins and triplets and such). Eichelberger and Redden assert that Alito "and the other conservative justices are saying that in a conflict between a religious view and scientific research, religion wins."

      I'll put it provocatively (and alliteratively) that five male Roman Catholic Justices prudently set a precedent privileging belief on the issue of contraception — and will be able to back that up down the line with adding traditional beliefs, even if those beliefs aren't exactly scientifically correct.
There are Biblical injunctions — mitzvot —  to be fruitful and multiply, injunctions we humans have fulfilled faithfully and probably excessively, dangerously excessively. (Caring for the poor, honesty in our business dealings, loving one another, welcoming the stranger — these we've been less good at, but let that go.)

      There are complex Biblical views on "levirate marriage," and you can argue if you like whether or not the Biblical character Onan did evil and deserved to die because he wouldn't impregnate his bother's widow  (Genesis 38.8), but it's a stretch to go beyond that reading of the story to condemn all "spilling of seed" by human males.

      And, in general, Scripture is screamingly silent on contraception, condoms, "Plan B" and other matters. To get the (pro)natalist job done, the Judaism and Christianity had to go outside Scripture.
Roman Catholicism went to Natural Law, and that's where Justice Alito knew what he was doing to privilege personal belief over science and the Court later will be able to bring in traditional belief over what seems to be pretty clear science.

      A strong traditional Roman Catholic position contra contraception is that contraception violates Natural Law because the natural goal (finis, telos) of sex is reproduction.

      And what if there are strong reasons to believe on scientific grounds that such beliefs are wrong and wrong-headed?

      Consider a profound "stupid question" (my phrase) I'm getting from somewhere in the work of the ethologist Konrad Lorenz: probably On Aggression —  or maybe out of the textbook Ethology: The Biology of Behaviror by Lorenz's student Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt. Ready? Then, Why do cats hunt?

      The teleological answer is that cats hunt, and hunt very well, in order to eat. Okay, but do this thought experiment: Take a hungry cat and put him/her into a large room. (I'll now switch to "her" because English mildly genders cats female.) Introduce into the room in some humane way — the nastiness will come soon enough — a mouse.

      The cat spots, tracks, and stalks the mouse. If all goes well, from the cat's point of view, she approaches, pounces, bites, shakes, and kills the mouse, and then eats it.
The cat has hunted and she has eaten.

      Introduce another mouse.
The cat will spot the mouse, track, stalk, pounce, bite, shake, kill, and then eat at least the good parts.
Introduce another mouse.

      The cat will spot, track, stalk, pounce, bit, shake, kill — probably — but, if no longer hungry, leave the mouse or look for some hunting-challenged human to give it to as if that human were a mildly retarded kitten who just couldn't get the hang of mouse hunting and needs help ("Look, dear; this is what we hunt and kill and eat").

       Throw in another mouse.

      Or don't, since by now you should have figured out where this is going.
At least if I remember the experiment correctly — and if this interpretation has held up — cats' hunting is not some sort of holistic instinct with the telos of mouse-eating but an ordered series of stereotypical, genetically-based (although that's complicated) behaviors that in this weird experiment will finally get the cat just sitting there while mice run around it.

      In nature, however, the natural order of things is that this series of behaviors will — increasingly as the cat learns her craft — result in the cat's catching small critters of various sorts and eating them. Common cats hunt as a hierarchy of behaviors and eats and frequently go on to reproduce as excessively as humans.

      Why do humans have sex?

      In some cases human beings engage in vaginal intercourse with the intensely desired goal to have children. But not often. Usually we have sex to "get off," for pleasure.

      And, often enough, and nowadays more often than is good for our survival, human beings will get off in such a way that they eventually (re)produce more humans.

      Is sex an instinct? In the old ethological sense of an innate and species-stereotypic pattern of muscle movement, the only thing instinctive about sex is that final, semi-convulsive humping before climax. The rest is a vastly complicated superset of behaviors resulting from intricate interactions among culture, immediate social structures, individual history, and maybe even some freely-willed decisions.

      Maybe sex is a "drive," if such terms are still used.

      It does not seem likely that sex is, scientifically viewed, a goal-directed, "teleological" ... whatever, as suggested by Aristotle, accepted as commonsensical by generations of anyone who thought about such things at all — and pretty much dogmatized by the Roman Catholic Church.
Arguments from "Natural Law" are helped a good deal if it turns out that scientific inquiry shows that what's argued is indeed what's taking place in (small "n") nature. Such arguments are undercut when scientific study indicates — and I paraphrase here — Nope, that ain't how things work.
There is no Mosaic injunction "Thou shalt not wrap thy willy, guys" — or Jewish guys, anyway — "or otherwise practice the perversion of contraception." Moses and the pronatalist tradition didn't get specific on that one because condoms were a long way in the future, to say nothing of "the Pill" or "the morning-after pill."

      Nothing in Christian Scripture either — and I invite comments on the Quran.

      The Arustitelian  tradition and Natural Law have been the Church's best argument against contraception for centuries, and Aristotle, though still respected, just isn't the scientific authority he once was.

      We look more empirically at nature nowadays, and that kind of research hasn't been kind to the idea of goals in nature.

      So Justice Alito did well to privilege what is strongly believed to be true over what may actually be the case — at least when it comes to contraception. Down the road just a bit will be the sort of disasters that will make the Church's position of contraception very, very controversial, and what the Hierarchy believes to be the law of nature will need all the privilege it can get.

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