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March 29, 2010

Sherif Girgis on guns and knives, sexual organs, and generative (or "reproductive-type") acts

In my twenty-five years at Princeton, I've been privileged to teach some truly extraordinary students.  None, though, is more gifted than 2008 Princeton grad Sherif Girgis, who is currently doing graduate work in philosophy as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.  Sherif's senior thesis, entitled "Why Bad Sex is Like Torture," won Princeton's prizes for the best thesis in ethics and the best thesis in philosophy.  By "bad" sex, Sherif meant morally bad sex. By morally bad sex, he meant non-marital sex (including forms of sexual conduct that are intrinsically non-marital and are, as such, immoral even when engaged in by persons who are married to each other).  Sherif reads MoJ and noticed the posting of my pal Andy Koppelman's paper criticizing the idea that coitus is a reproductive-type act (i.e., an act that fulfills the behavioral conditions of procreation, even when the non-behavioral conditions do not happen to obtain) which, as such, makes possible marriage as the two-in-one-flesh union of a man and woman as husband and wife.  Patrick Lee and I are composing a formal critique of Andy's paper and response to his criticism of our views, but in the meantime Sherif has sent me a short piece he has written rigorously criticizing Andy's key claim. With the pride in a star student that I know all of the MoJ writers have had the joy of feeling, I will post Sherif's piece below this message.   




By Sherif Girgis


Robert George and Patrick Lee have argued that marriage is possible only between a man and a woman because it must be capable of being consummated by behavior “suitable for” or “oriented to” reproduction—i.e., a “reproductive-type act”: coitus. In a message posted last month on MOJ, Andrew Koppleman answers that this conception of marriage cannot coherently include the unions of infertile heterosexual couples: “A sterile person’s genitals are no more suitable for generation than an unloaded gun is suitable for shooting. If someone points a gun at me and pulls the trigger, he exhibits the behavior which, as behavior, is suitable for shooting, but it still matters a lot whether the gun is loaded and whether he knows it.” Qtd. in “Careful with that Gun: Lee, George, Wax, and Geach on Gay Rights and Same-Sex Marriage” (January 11, 2010). Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 10-06. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1544478.


Koppleman’s objection presupposes that if artifacts and artificial processes would lose their orientation to some goal (i.e., their function) under certain circumstances, then organs and natural processes would lose their function under analogous circumstances. But this overlooks a key difference: The latter have their function by nature; the former, only by human choice. The latter retain their function as long as they exist; the former, only as long as humans can and do intend to use them for a particular purpose.


In other words, unlike knives and guns, natural organs are what they are (and thus have their natural function) independently of what we intend to use them for and even of whether the function that they serve can be brought to completion. A person’s stomach remains a stomach—an organ whose natural function is to play a certain role in digestion—regardless of whether we intend it to be used that way and even of whether digestion can be successfully completed (which depends, e.g., on the health of the person’s intestines).


By contrast, insofar as it makes sense to speak of artificial objects and processes having functions, they do so only in virtue of our intending to use them for certain goals—which in turn presupposes that we think them capable of actually realizing those goals. (After all, we cannot intend what we think impossible, and our intention is all that gives artifice its function.) So the functions of man-made objects and processes are imposed on them by the people who use them.


Thus, I agree with Koppleman, a gun has its function of shooting and killing only when and because we intend to use it for that purpose; and a precondition of our intending to use it for that purpose is its being materially and otherwise apt for it. So if we deform its barrel, empty it of bullets or even simply resolve to use it only as wall decoration, it loses to varying degrees that man-imposed function of, and "orientation" to, shooting and killing. And the corresponding (artificial) process of pulling its trigger is no longer an act apt for, or “oriented to,” shooting.


The same goes for surgery, another example cited by Koppleman in the message posted on MOJ. Though its goal is the healing of a natural organ, heart surgery, for example, is an artificial process. So it retains its function of, or “orientation to,” healing hearts only when and because we (intend to) use it for that purpose; and a precondition of our intending to use it for that purpose is its being apt for it. Thus, if we radically change the procedure (e.g., switch it to just waving our hand over someone's chest) or change what it is performed on (e.g., a ragdoll or a corpse), it loses its function of, or “orientation” to, healing hearts.


Clearly, though, genitalia, unlike guns, are not artifacts but natural organs. And sexual intercourse, unlike trigger-pulling or heart surgery, is not an artificial but a natural process (though the particulars of its performance may be matters of human choice). So male and female genitalia retain their natural functions to play certain (complementary) roles in the reproductive process regardless of whether we intend that they be so used and even of whether reproduction will be successfully completed (which depends, e.g., on sperm count). Since genitalia, like stomachs and other organs, have their functions by nature, they retain those functions so long as they exist as organs—so long as they remain parts of living organisms.


Likewise, if natural processes (or stages thereof) have their function by nature, they have it whenever they occur. And this makes sense of George and Lee’s view: the behavioral stage of the process of reproduction (penetration and ejaculation) can consummate a marriage, for it is a reproductive-type act—an act oriented to reproduction. Relatedly, genitalia remain organs oriented to playing their complementary roles in the natural process of reproduction regardless of whether later steps in that process can or do succeed.  So George and Lee’s argument, whatever its overall soundness, is, pace Koppleman, innocent of the charge of incoherence.


For Koppleman’s objection to succeed, he would have to produce examples of living organs and natural processes that lose their natural function when that function cannot be completed—and by analogy to which the same would be true of genitalia and of intercourse. But there are none.


A final note: My defense of this aspect of George and Lee’s view relies in no way on the “perverted faculty” argument, according to which it is immoral to use body parts against their natural function. With George and Lee, I consider that argument clearly fallacious. And anyway, I have said nothing directly about the morality of same-sex relations. I have only relied on the idea that organs have natural functions, in order to defend the intelligibility of the concept of reproductive-type acts, in which a man and a woman can cooperate by way of their reproductive organs, regardless of their fertility.

Posted by Robert George on March 29, 2010 at 05:53 PM | Permalink


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