Have you come across the term ‘physicalism’ related to moral questions? I understand it to refer to the imperatives indicated by our biology. A simple example would be the question of certain homosexual acts which stand condemned as a disordered use of our sexual plumbing.
While the Church insists that such acts are intrinsically evil, many moral philosophers argue (in line with the philosopher David Hume) that no moral significance can be deduced from the facts of biology alone. ‘No ought from is’ is the dictum which applies.
Hume, himself, believed that our moral sense arose from an emotion of beneficence rather than a judgment. Darwin and others would no doubt argue that the value of such beneficence to the flourishing of the human race would indicate its source to be evolution.
Physicalism of course plays a strong part in the condemnation of artificial contraception. The marital act is, in my view correctly, understood as being procreative in its fundamental structure. It would follow that a deliberate action which removes that aspect changes the nature of the act. It is, in physicalist terms, as much a perversion (etymologically, a ‘turning away’) as a homosexual act.
That of course leaves open the question whether or not such ‘perversion’ can be justified. The orthodox Church teaching has been that, since the nature of the act is defined by God’s creation, it must invariably be wrong, irrespective of intention. And Aquinas taught that actions contrary to the procreative nature of sexual connection were the most serious form of sexual sin, placing others such as incest or adultery at a lower level of importance.
This view was dealt something of a blow when the moral theologians who were members of the Papal Commission which preceded Humanae Vitae had to accept that the step from sexual structure to moral imperative could not be demonstrated through reason. This did not prevent Humanae Vitae from expressing its prohibition in physicalist terms. Nor did this inhibit John Paul II’s Theology of the Body in its wish to show an intrinsic connection between the outward sign of an action and its inward intention.
While of course the physicalist approach remains current in formal Catholic teaching it does not seem to be popular with the moral theologians with whom I have discussed these issues (though these may well not be representative). I am sometimes referred to the ‘new natural law’ which eschews physicalism and concentrates on the ‘goods’ towards which it is claimed human nature is intrinsically ordered. Procreation is one such good, and it is argued that any action which defies this good is ipso facto contrary to natural law. A deliberate act against the procreative nature of the sexual act would be such a defiance. I am not impressed with this line of argument, but perhaps I do not understand it well enough.
I think we would all be interested in an exchange of views about current approaches to this vexed subject. As far as I know, no current contributor claims to be a moral theologian, but the quality of our exchanges suggest that we have quite enough intellectual clout to do some useful analysis.