Book Review



Ethical Sex CoverFoundationless Ethics


Anthony McCarthy, Ethical Sex: Sexual Choices and Their Nature and Meaning (South Bend, IN: Fidelity Press, 2016), 326 pp., $25, Softcover.


Reviewed by Rev. Jeffrey Langan


McCarthy's book is about ideas. It is not seeking an immediate change to anyone's behavior. But the author understands that to see reality properly has profound implications for how we act. And so, he has done impressive and important work to bring the philosophical discussion on marriage back to its foundation, that is, its basis in the morality of human action. He does so in the context of modern English and postmodern thought, illustrating the deficient efforts of the New Natural Law School to defend marriage in an adequate way.

To begin, we need to place McCarthy's book, as well as the arguments that he puts forth in it, in their proper philosophical frame. Moral action has three elements: the object of the act, the intention, and the circumstances. The object is what is done, the intention is why it is done, and the circumstances are the accidental characteristics surrounding the act. For an action to be good, all three parts of the act need to be good. If one element is evil, then the action as a whole is evil. Ethicists study the different parts of the act, sometimes in isolation from the other parts, in order to consider whether a given part of it is good or evil.

Over the last few centuries, leading British and American ethicists have been trying to greatly de-emphasize or remove the importance of the object of the action when evaluating whether it is good or evil. They have been doing so because to assess the object of the action requires a rational understanding of God, creation, and human nature that the Anglo-Americans have refused to acknowledge. And so, much of their ethical reasoning becomes based on intentions and sentiments in relation to rational constructs relating to justice, rights, and freedom.

The New Natural Law theorists arose in the 20th Century, and they arose within the context of a British and American culture that belittled the moral insights that previous generations of philosophers had made into human nature, God, Providence, and the nature of creation. In order to meet American and British philosophers on their own turf, the New Natural Lawyers attempted to come up with philosophical arguments to defend traditional morality without direct reference to God, Nature and Creation.

Instead, they honed in on intentions, and how intentions relate to various goods that humans could choose to guide their lives: life, knowledge, sociability, play, aesthetics, practical reasonableness, and religion, see A Summary of John Finnis’s Theory of Natural Law. If, they claimed, we develop our practical reason properly, we can come up with norms that guide our behavior without having to delve into questions that the British or now American Empire finds uncomfortable with respect to God, Creation, Nature or Man. Armed with these new norms at our disposal, we can convince our neighbors to accept them, along with the basic guiding principles of the natural law.


McCarthy's book begins midstream a debate with the New Natural Lawyers. He does so because they have had their influence in Catholic circles, often replacing other Catholic scholars in important positions in seminaries and moral philosophy and theology departments, and, in places like the United States, put themselves forth as leaders of explaining Catholic morality in the public sphere, especially when it comes to explaining the nature of marriage to their secular foes.

 McCarthy feels that the Natural Lawyers end up following a Kantian form of reasoning about intentions that results in an excessive absolutism. For example, they equate someone choosing to use contraception or adopting a contraceptive mentality with failing to value human life or inappropriately relating themselves to the goods of life. Of course, anti-life dispositions might be present in persons who choose to contracept, or to spread anti-life policies. For example, Bill Gates once proudly commented that through vaccination, sterilization, and birth control programs various international aid groups could reduce the population of a planet by several billion. But, the debate between New Natural Lawyers and their opponents can quickly become one of questioning intentions or imagining potential intentions of people ad infinitum. But, as the old saying goes, it is always better to assume that people have good intentions, even if the road to Hell is paved with them. The conflation of these two sayings leads us to see that we must also consider the object of the act when considering the morality of human action, and that requires a discussion of God, nature, and man.

In the case of Kenya, independently of any intentions, when the Kenyan Bishops realized that a vaccination program was making the women of their country incapable of getting pregnant, they spoke forcefully to encourage women to avoid vaccination programs. Sure, the intentions of the Bill Gateses of the world are nefarious, but, independent of those intentions, it is not good to take vaccines that will make one sterile.

Likewise, McCarthy thinks that it is futile to engage in a form of reasoning that leads the ethicist to ask whether someone has a practical hatred for a future baby if he engages in contraception or natural family planning. McCarthy shows that to excessively emphasize intention, because an ethicist does not want to resort to a discussion of God, Creation, and nature, leads to an inability to tell the difference between contraception, which is a form of lying, and natural family planning, which is a form of not speaking, and not lying. That is to say, there is an analogy between language and the language that we speak with our bodies. We should always speak the truth. To lie is a sin, but to not speak is not a sin. Likewise, our marriages should be open to the truth of love between the spouses and children. To willfully block the pathways of life is the equivalent of a lie.

McCarthy shows, as Russell Hittinger did before him, that the New Natural Lawyers always, in the end, have to have discussions about God and nature to resolve the intellectual dead ends into which they lead themselves and others. In other words, if we are going to discuss marriage, we need to have a discussion about marriage within the context of discussing God, creation, and nature. Yes, it might be difficult to have these discussions, as one could easily see from the way that popular culture might mock anyone attempting to defend morality these days, but better to face the full range of real questions in order to understand the nature of marriage, than to dilly dally over debating intentions and sentiments with one's opponents.

In short, McCarthy wants us to take a serious look at the object of the action as revealing the meaning of acts, and not just the intentions. In fact, while intentions can be evil, it is better to focus on something that is more objective, and less easily manipulated, than intentions.


Marriage is a partnership for life, and the deeds that are part of marriage are part of that partnership. We need to look at human nature as well as the purpose of marriage, in order to understand and present a full account of marital morality. Nature determines what are or what are not the goods of marriage, not my capacity to reason about my intentions. Speaking about nature also leads to speaking about what God has created and what is the intention of God in creating each being to exist as it does. It leads us to understand what is needed for the human to function well or flourish.

There is also a relationship between what a couple does in their home and the society around them. Social institutions influence marriage and vice versa. At the same time, there is an essence to marriage, an aspect to it that is independent of any social conventions. So, marriage is not a construct that can be manipulated to serve various social goods according to our good intentions.

McCarthy, as we said, focuses on the species of the act, or the object of the act, when assessing the evil of contraception. There is an analogy between lying and contracepting. The body speaks a certain language, just as the mouth does. Both have social effects. Just as one cannot lie in speech, but one can remain silent. So too, one cannot lie with one's body, but can remain silent.

McCarthy's argument has important effects at how we view marriage and homosexual efforts to equate what they do with marriage. There is a teleology that is natural to marriage between a man and a woman that does not depend on their intention to fulfill social goods. While it might be rhetorically difficult in our age to discuss nature with respect to marriage, McCarthy understands that it is better to do so than to focus on how our intentions relate to the good of marriage in relation to the goods of practical reason without reference to nature.

In later chapters, McCarthy takes the student through an extended discussion of the natural desires of man, and how those desires are tamed by marriage, resulting in flourishing persons in a partnership. Going back to the Symposium, and including the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, marriage results in a real union that is the proper result of the desires that man by nature possesses. Virtue in this area has much to say about the building up of the common good.


As McCarthy surveys the debates of the New Natural Lawyers, he sees that they often find themselves in a position in which they need to argue for the metaphysical and teleological realities that they initially flee. That is, they have to resort to arguments about the nature of the human person, the nature of his actions, and how those actions make themselves manifest in marriage and society. Marriage is the institution that conforms to our created nature in relationship to the goods that make up the common good (also determined by nature).

The husband and wife, expressing their love in a union that open to children, participate in an institution that leads to human and societal flourishing. To deviate from this ideal, in specific or overall instances, is to fail to see one's nature properly and act on it. It is to fail to relate properly to God and to the other in the pursuit of friendship with God together.

McCarthy's book ends on a rather ominous note. He references the works of Faramerz Dabhoilwala, who has shown in a series of articles and books the relationship that the likes of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill saw between religious freedom and homosexual rights or the cause of sexual freedom. That is to say, that the promoters of free market capitalism took their own theories seriously. They saw that to divorce human action from nature and metaphysical truths would mean that anything goes in all matters of morality, in personal action, public action, and economic action. Thus, to take seriously the principles of the likes of Mill or Bentham is to lead to certain paralysis when discussing public morality or freedom of religion. Their principles lead to the effective collapse of ethics and the free reign of chaos.

McCarthy argues that when we understand the urge to possess, we see its fruition in an institution, property, that gives rise to an orderly way for men to fruitfully realize their power. If there is no property, then there is no possibility for something like robbery to exist, or all attempts to own are forms of theft. Likewise, our desire to procreate must give rise to a natural institution, marriage, an institution that enables men to fruitfully realize their powers at the service of the common good.

This review appeared in the November 2016 issue of Culture Wars.

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Cover ImageEthical Sex: Sexual Choices and Their Nature and Meaning by Anthony McCarthy. Is sex important? How concerned should we be about our sexual choices and their effects? Is sexual desire best understood in terms of pleasure, love, interpersonal union and/or procreation? In an era of radical redefinition of marriage and rapidly changing views about the nature of sex, Ethical Sex seeks to bring some philosophical clarity to our thinking. This book explores reasons as to why our sexual behaviour is uniquely morally important. It examines arguments for and against differing views on what might constitute "ethical sex." Anyone interested in the philosophy of sex and love, the nature of marriage, metaphysics and the human world around us will want to engage with this original and provocative work. 326 pp. $25 + S&H, Paperback. Read Reviews

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