thought that virtue was always a mean between two extremes, a mean chosen with
reason. Thus, the courageous person is someone whose fear avoids the
extremes of cowardliness and foolhardiness. The generous person is someone
who avoids stinginess and profligacy. And so on. We do not,
of course, just look at the two extremes and choose amen halfway. We use
reason to decide where the appropriate place for the virtue: in the
virtuous person the emotion, quality or action has the appropriate
degree, neither automatically maximized nor automatically minimized (and perhaps
on occasion, an emotion might be appropriately maxed out—that is not
the extreme, as the extreme is to have the emotion to a maximum degree always).
William May uses this kind of framework
If we think of sex as all-important, we
are likely to see it as divine or demonic. If we think of sex as trivial,
we are likely to see it as casual or a nuisance. Each of these views is
mistaken, for different reasons.
The right view, on Aristotelian
principles, will make sex be somewhere between the all-important and trivial.
Nonetheless, there may be something to each of these views. (Just
as there is something to the idea of fearing always and fearing never—the
courageous person has a mix of fear and fearlessness according to Aristotle.)
Sex is important, and yet not too important. It is originally good,
May thinks, but can lead to evil.
Let us suppose, with much of our
culture, that sex is good.
Why isn’t sexual-important? May
thinks that if someone makes sex all-important and good, i.e., divine,
then sex will fail to deliver on this expectation, and the person will suffer
from disappointment, and the person’s partner will suffer for failing to
Why isn’t sex trivial and something to
be taken casually? May suggests:
We have a fascination with sex.
There is something to the idea of sex as divine, as having about it
something of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans that Rudolf Otto talked
about. Sex wouldn’t sell magazines, etc., if sex weren’t something
important to us.
Given a book with a number of chapters,
if “sex” is one of them, people will turn to it.
The “sex as casual” theory is based
on the idea of our bodies as raw materials that we can do with what we like.
May clearly thinks, at least on theological grounds, that this ideas a
The theory “lapses into akin of
emotional prudery”, in that it forces us to deny much of our sexuality, namely
“affection, … loneliness …, jealousy, envy, preoccupation, restlessness,
anger, and hopes for the future” (p. 196). Prudery is a way of
pretending we do not have sexual interests. But if we deny many of the
emotions that are a part of human sexuality, we are still prudes, May thinks.
Additional arguments can beamed for the
non-triviality of sex. For instance:
If sex were something entirely casual,
something devoid of intrinsic importance, why would rape be so much worse than a
non-sexual assault that produces comparable physical damage?
May, instead, thinks on theological grounds that human bodies are a good thing,
created by God, and so is sex. He thinks that because sex is good and
important—though not all-important—it requires discipline, i.e., ways
of restricting ourselves in order to train us to use it well. The need for
restrictions does not imply that the thing restricted is evil. For
instance, we should put restrictions on our minds—forcing ourselves not think
fallaciously—precisely because our minds are too good to waste bethinking
4. William May says that sex is a gesture. The “human community suffers strains” when gestures stop matching their inner reality. (There is something particularly evil about a smiling villain.) The gesture of sex signifies commitment. But the commitment is not there. So things are dishonest.
· But what if the members of the couple explain to each other that the gesture lacks its usual meaning? (Do they in fact do that? Do two people very often think that the sex lacks its meaning of commitment—do they simply cynically seek pleasure? Or is there almost always a little bit more?) May says that this can often sound false note. It is awkward.
o Think there is a deeper problem. If we keep on using a gesture to mean something else than what it normally means, then the gesture loses its meaning to us. If I keep on smiling all the time for no reason at all, the smile becomes meaningless. The boy who cried wolf! If we use sex in a way that does not mean total commitment, a union of two persons until death, then it stops having that meaning to us. But once it stops having that meaning to us, then we no longer have anything as appropriate to express that meaning. Should we then come upon the love of our life and marry, we would no longer be able to use sex to express the committed love—for it would no longer have that meaning to one. Or at least that meaning will be weakened.
· Secondly, love asks for a continuance of love. Single act of lovemaking is incomplete. It calls for a future development. And thus there is something definitely lacking when it occurs in a context where the future development is not planned.
5. Another argument for this conclusion (this form is due to Vincent Punzo, but other people have argued along similar lines I suspect) is that sexual intercourse is the deepest form of union of two bodies (maybe carrying a child in the womb is somewhat like that, too). If our bodies are central to who we are, then there is something dishonest, Punzo thinks, if the two bodies are deeply united, without the two persons being united. The union of bodies is a natural sign of the union of persons. Surely, one would not want to be united deeply with a stranger. But in fact, Punzo thinks that unless we are going to disconnect ourselves from our bodies, treating our bodies as mere property (in which case rape is but a property crime!), there is something wrong about having the deepest possible union of two bodies without the deepest union of two persons. But the deepest union of two persons is a union that is intended by the persons to be permanent, i.e., what has traditionally been called “marriage”.
So, on Punzo’s view, our bodies are not mere property—they are a defining part of us. What is property?