Behave yourself

March 3, 2016 § 45 Comments

Based on recent combox discussions, it is clearly time for a little refresher in basic moral theology.

We are morally responsible for:

  1. Behaviors we choose.
  2. Behaviors we intend to choose.
  3. Behaviors of other people that we intend.  (This is “formal cooperation”).
  4. Imprudent choices we make (material cooperation with evil, prudential judgment, and the principle of double effect all fall here).


A (temporarily or perpetually) continent person:

  1. Does not (while continent) choose any sexual behaviors.
  2. Does not intend to choose (while continent) any sexual behaviors.
  3. Does not intend (while continent) for anyone else to choose particular sexual behaviors or specific sexual acts.
  4. May or may not be acting prudently.


That brings us to our scenario:

Cut to Germany.  Rapefugees are raging through the streets, global media cameras are all comprehensively and studiously pointed at a couple of gun toting white guys somewhere in the remote western United States.

Helga Homemaker has a diaphragm or other barrier contraceptive that she puts in as limited protection against roaming rapefugees. She takes it out when she engages in sexual activity with her husband.

If she has done moral wrong, it must be because she:

  1. Chose a contracepted sexual behavior. (nope)
  2. Intended to choose a contracepted sexual behavior. (nope)
  3. Intended for someone else to choose an immoral behavior. (nope)
  4. Acted imprudently.

Folks who believe that Helga does wrong cannot base that judgment on the intrinsic immorality of choosing (or intending to choose) contracepted sexual behaviors.  They must argue that she acts imprudently.

And I think that argument is weak.

§ 45 Responses to Behave yourself

  • Chad says:

    Thanks for writing it out. I hadn’t followed the comboxes, but its a good matter for thought for those with women in their care

  • nickbsteves says:

    From what is Helga “protecting” herself? She’s protecting herself from conception due to rape, not rape itself. She’s not intending to contracept. She’s only intending to contracept… if she’s forced into an involuntary sex act. She’s not interfering with the natural process of the sex act, she’s only interfering with the natural process of sex acts the she doesn’t intend to choose.

  • Zippy says:

    Because morally, things ‘just happen’: they aren’t the chosen behaviors of moral agents.

  • Zippy says:

    Suppose Helga’s husband invents “The Lopper”. The way “The Lopper” works is that when someone puts something where only Helga’s husband is permitted entry, “The Lopper” severs whatever is inserted and ejects it. Only Helga’s husband can deactivate “The Lopper”.

    Are the couple guilty of contraceptive sex specifically when Helga wears “The Lopper” all the time except when she and her husband are engaged in sex?

  • But preventing sex is not immoral in and of itself.

  • Zippy says:

    Right, and placing material limits on the manner in which it is possible to be violated is not choosing (or intent to choose) a sexual behavior.

  • So, essentially: There is nothing whatsoever immoral for even a suburban woman in a safe neighborhood to use contraception (via diaphragm, so this makes some sense) so long as she goes off of it every time she has sex with her husband.

    I mean, most people wouldn’t do it, but they COULD.

  • Zippy says:

    Right. There is nothing intrinsically immoral about inserting a diaphragm qua behavior.

    What is intrinsically immoral is choosing (or intending to choose) to engage in a sexual act with a diaphragm inserted.

  • slumlord says:

    There is nothing intrinsically immoral about inserting a diaphragm qua behavior.

    Oh yes there is. Privation is evil.

  • Zippy says:

    Have you stopped prescribing birth control pills yet?

  • Alex says:

    I had written a big post trying to explain my position again, but midway I realized that you are correct, Zippy. A chastity belt would be just as likely to “force” the rapist into a sin against nature as a contraceptive. I still think a chastity belt would be a better idea, though, as it would remove Ms. Homemaker more clearly from the act.But that is a far less important issue.

  • Zippy says:


    Sometimes it helps to just keep thinking it through from different angles. Just about nothing that Hypothetical Helga can do will make her completely immune to sexual assault of some kind or other. The most she can do as a practical matter is impede some kinds of sexual assault.

    Chastity belts are a reasonable technical solution, however, it is possible that their use would make murder more likely rather than less. In general the determination of technique (assuming techniques which do not in themselves involve choosing an intrinsically immoral behavior) in a particular circumstance falls under prudential judgment.

  • Alex says:

    Thanks for you patience, by the way!

  • The act of contraception is intrinsically evil. But not all intended pregnancy prevention is an act of contraception, not even if the prevention is by the aid of contraceptives. We have a problem of equivocation because by another meaning, of course that counts as contraception. Only, under this second meaning, contraception is *not* intrinsically evil. So: it’s perfectly good to intentionally prevent pregnancy, with any* contraceptive method, under the correct circumstances. That about right?

    Ok, what about the related but totally distinct suggestion that suppressing ovulation only to prevent pregnancy (i.e., not for a compelling medical reason) is itself evil? On the weight of Casti connubii:

    “…private individuals have no other power over the members of their bodies than that which pertains to their natural ends; and they are not free to destroy or mutilate their members, or in any other way render themselves unfit for their natural functions, except when no other provision can be made for the good of the whole body.”

    Does Casti connubii in fact favor this view? Is suppressing ovulation not rendering oneself unfit for one’s natural functions?

  • Zippy says:

    Ioannes Barbarus:

    My understanding is that contraception is deliberate mutilation of the sexual act. Mutilation of the body absent choice of (or intent to choose) sexual behavior is distinct; but that does not make it permissible.

  • slumlord says:

    Have you stopped prescribing birth control pills yet?

    No. I actually prescribed some today to sexually chaste woman with hormonal issues, but perhaps I shouldn’t have just in case she got raped.

    BTW. I’ve prescribed the pill to nuns as well.

  • slumlord says:

    Mutilation of the body absent choice of (or intent to choose) sexual behavior is distinct; but that does not make it permissible.

    Well then, Houston, we have a problem. You see, when I prescribe the pill for a condition such as dysfunctional uterine bleeding, the treatment privates physiological fertility. If this is “intrinsically wrong” then such treatments are always wrong, yet Humanae Vitae permits them.

  • William Luse says:

    Have you stopped prescribing birth control pills for women whose intent in using them is to insure a pregnancy-free sex life?

  • Zippy says:

    I don’t know if Houston has a problem, but people who mutilate their healthy bodies have a problem.

  • Zippy says:

    Those who have actually read Humanae Vitae may have noticed that what it prohibits choosing is “sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong”. The kind of behavior which it is immoral to choose is not “impairment of fertility” understood clinically as something distinct from choosing particular sexual acts: contraception as a moral wrong involves a choice to mutilate a particular voluntary sex act. Each and every single act of contracepted sex is a distinct sin, like each and every act of masturbation or sodomy.

    Outside of the domain of sexual sin specifically, self mutilation is morally wrong. Self mutilation is a choice to destroy some healthy body part or function. This includes sexual function, so permanently destroying healthy sexual function (e.g. vasectomy, getting tubes tied, etc) is morally wrong even for a perfectly continent person with no intention of ever choosing any sexual acts.

  • What about this category of rendering unfit for natural functions? Is it totally implausible that “‘impairment of fertility’ understood clinically as something distinct” is also immoral to choose without a medical reason? It’d be a position outside the mainstream of modern Catholic ethics, but that’s not unusual around here.

  • Zippy says:

    Ioannes Barbarus:

    It depends on the specifics in question, it seems to me. Putting on a Darth Vader mask which temporarily impairs the ability to eat – with the mask on – does not seem especially problematic. Having your lips sewn shut so you have to be fed through a tube does seem rather problematic

    In general there seems to be a kind of permanence – though not necessarily complete irreversibility – to anything which could legitimately constitute self mutilation.

    Heck, simply being in public can – one would hope – impair sexual function. Contraception isn’t any action which impairs fertility: it is attempting to use the sexual faculty in a mutilated manner which – the manner in which one attempts to use it – impairs whatever natural fecundity it might otherwise have. Humanae Vitae: “The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse.” (Also, the sky is blue and water is wet).

    I do think that (e.g.) things like tattoos and piercings can be more problematic than most modern people assume. In fact I think the modern tattoo and piercing epidemic is quite precisely driven by the attitude “this is my body, I can do with it what I will”.

  • slumlord says:

    @William Luse.

    Yes I do.

    @Ioannes Barbarus

    Is it totally implausible that “‘impairment of fertility’ understood clinically as something distinct” is also immoral to choose without a medical reason?

    It’s always immoral to induce a deliberate privation even with good medical reason. The reason why HV permit pill use in instance of Dysfunctional Uterine Bleeding is because the infertility is an unintended consequence of treating the primary medical condition. i.e double effect principles. Now Zippy doesn’t agree with double effect since, as the infertility is foreseen, it must therefore be intended.

    I, on the other hand, don’t subscribe to Zippy’s notion and believe in a more traditional view of double effect. The problem with double effect calculations is how to “weigh” the intended good of the act vs the unintended bad. For instance; is the symptomatic relief of regular painful periods equivalent to a female’s fertility? It’s an interesting question because it would appear to me that the potentiality of fertility is far greater than the regular temporary discomfort of a woman’s periods. If that is the case then HV is in error. The tradeoff is sterility vs temporary pain relief.

    BTW. The pill does not mutilate the act, it mutilates the consequence of it.

  • William Luse says:

    “I, on the other hand, don’t subscribe to Zippy’s notion and believe in a more traditional view of double effect.”

    No you don’t. Double effect can’t be brought to bear on intrinsically evil acts. Engaging in intercourse made intentionally sterile by your own hand is intrinsically evil.

  • Zippy says:

    You really need to get some new material.

    It is still opposite day, because when slumlord says that I don’t subscribe to the doctrine of double effect what he means is that he doesn’t subscribe to it — because the first principle of the doctrine of double effect is that if the behavior in question is intrinsically immoral, double effect does not apply.

    So what slumlord is actually saying is that he does not think the behaviors he is defending (whatever they may be) are intrinsically immoral. He may be right, depending on what specific kinds of behaviors he means: but either way invoking double effect is just begging the question. He ought to be able to justify his claim that [insert behavior here] is not intrinsically immoral on grounds other than double effect.

    Humanae Vitae does say that therapeutic use of the pill is not intrinsically immoral. Interestingly it fails to say that sex while on the pill is morally licit. Readers are welcome to decide for themselves if that is consistent with the OP and my other comments.

    But in any case I agree with slumlord that either his narrative is wrong or HV is wrong.

  • Wood says:

    Geez. I’m just trying to find a sweet Catholic wife such that this is even a thing.

  • Mark Citadel says:

    Zippy, would you agree with me that moral relationships are a system of duties and obligations, rather than rights?

  • Zippy says:

    Duties, obligations, and authority.

  • Wood says:

    Zippy, I’m just trying to get this right in my head. Your post makes sense to me, but I found a comment of yours circa 2007 alluding that rape victims might still be “wrong” in using contraception because of the abortifacient potential of the contraception. Have your thoughts on this changed? I just might not be as knowledgeable of such contraceptives and making things needlessly confusing.

  • Zippy says:

    An abortifacient would be morally wrong on the grounds that it kills an already-conceived child. This is morally wrong not because it is a contracepted sexual behavior but because it is abortion, that is, murder.

  • Wood says:

    Zippy, thanks for the response. I get the distinction between abortion and contraception. I guess I was more thinking in terms of prudence. It seems from the OP you were stating that the only grounds for moral objection to use of the pill in the perhaps-to-be-raped nuns was prudential. And you stated you thought prudential arguments opposed to such behavior (i.e. use of the pill) were weak. I was trying to sort out how use of the pill – with its potential for killing the innocent – plays into the prudence of the use of the pill in such a situation. I realize you were not speaking of the pill’s abortifacient powers specifically, but I thought you had written much about how prudence should take into account more than just the intended outcome. It’s unclear how such a consideration could be considered weak. To be honest I’m just a Catholic trying to get to heaven and have profited much from your site. I’m trying to sort out how I’ve failed to be prudent in my own material cooperation with evil.

  • Zippy says:


    It seems from the OP you were stating that the only grounds for moral objection to use of the pill …

    I specifically discussed barrier methods in the OP, not the pill — precisely because an abortifacient technique carries with it an entirely distinct moral calculus qua abortifacient.

  • Wood says:


    You are right. I was confusing it with an earlier post. My bad.

  • Zippy says:

    No worries. The extra clarification is good.

  • ignacy says:

    I cannot find the exact place where it has been stated, but it is implied in the discussion that sex while on the pill (let us assume the pill has no abortifacent potential), when pill is taken for therapeutic reasons, is a contraceptive act and thus intrinsically immoral. Thus, the principle of double effect does not apply. Do you agree with that, Zippy?

    If not, the following does not apply. But if yes, then it seems to me that by the same logic sex during the breastfeeding period (or using a so-called LAM method) is contraceptive. And perhaps sex during pregnancy as well.

    If you believe that pill- and breastfeeding-induced hormonal changes are different (I assume no contraceptive intention), could you clarify that, please?

  • Zippy says:


    if you believe that pill- and breastfeeding-induced hormonal changes are different (I assume no contraceptive intention), could you clarify that, please?

    In my view, the reason questions like this seem baffling is because of perverse modern metaphysics of causality: because of a (selective) incapacity to distinguish between essence and accident. With no distinction between essence (chosen behaviors) and accident (effects) in human acts, every human action collapses into evaluating subjective intentions under the principle of double effect. There is no such thing as kinds of chosen behavior: there are only intentions inside the Cartesian mind and accidents (effects) in the physical domain of atoms and the void.

    My approach to explanation is sometimes to highlight the question-begging selectivity by giving examples. No sane person can function without an essence-accident distinction in human acts, just like no sane person is (e.g.) consistently nominalist.

    Modern people do (selectively) resist essentialism though, and that is as true in the area of human action as it is in science, politics, etc.

    Contraception is the choice of a deliberately mutilated sex act, not an accidentally infertile sex act. ‘Accidentally’ here refers to whether the infertility was or was not the deliberate choice of the acting subject (for whatever reason), through his own behavior or the behavior of someone with whom he formally cooperated. If a tyrannical government lines up all the white rednecks and forcibly sterilizes them, this does not render their future sex acts illicit — because an accidentally infertile act is not the same kind of behavior as an essentially (meaning, the acting subject himself deliberately chose or formally cooperated with the behavior which destroyed his fertility) infertile act. Stolen gold is essentially different, as a moral object, from earned gold.

    In the case of natural body functions, any infertility or miscarriages are accidental in the sense meant here. Alteration of those things by medical techniques is not accidental.

    But whatever the case, even if (when) I personally reach a wrong conclusion in a particular judgment here or there it is important to resist the relentless post cartesian tendency to reduce human actions to nothing but rarified subjective intentions (as moral essence) combined with physical effects (accident). The moral essence of human action cannot be reduced to nothing but purely subjective intentions: it is a matter of objective behaviors deliberately chosen, independent of why those behaviors were deliberately chosen.

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