Law’s Role: To Encourage Passion or Virtue?

For years, many have been trying to ban state and federal funds to those who perform abortions or are associated with an organization that perform abortions. And these types of legislative initiatives have received renewed interest in light of the videos released by the Center for Medical Progress. Therefore, it comes as no surprise when abortion advocates not only oppose such measures, but also make fire and brimstone predictions about such legislation as when they state, “Reducing access to family-planning services raises the risk of unintended pregnancies and increases the need for abortion.” However, recent articles have shown that in Texas, where Planned Parenthood has not been eligible for state funds since 2012, there has been a decline in both abortions and unintended pregnancies. The dire forecasts that abortion advocates predicted simply did not come true.

When considering this decline, we must ask—why is this the case? Dr. Michael New gives three possibilities. The most notable possibility is that the lack of funding altered the behavior of the people it affected. He states, “People’s conduct might have changed. There is an impressive body of academic research showing that sexual activity is affected by the availability of contraception.”

PregnantWomanThose who advocate for abortion essentially take the position that people’s sexual desires cannot be curbed and predict that there will be a jump in the abortion and unintended pregnancy rates when funding is cut off. As a result, they believe that both abortion and unintended pregnancies will rise. This position is fundamentally utilitarian and the philosophy itself can be traced back to the 18th Century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, who wrote, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do…” (See An Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation).

But what does this utilitarian philosophy have to say about human nature? Fundamentally, utilitarianism does not ask the question if human beings are intellectual and social creatures, rather it asks, as Bentham states, “…the question is not, ‘Can they reason?’ nor, ‘Can they talk?’ but, ‘Can they suffer?’” (See An Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation, emphasis mine). It is little wonder why Peter Singer equates animals with humans when the primary question becomes an inquiry of suffering. Utilitarianism, then, asserts that human persons are essentially fueled by passions and those passions should be fulfilled to avoid suffering.

It is on the basis of suffering that Bentham continues, “Pleasures then, and the avoidance of pains, are the ends that the legislator has in view” (See An Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation). This philosophy has obviously been taken on by the likes of abortion advocates, who make the dire predictions that if you cut off the funding for Planned Parenthood then pregnancy and abortion rates will rise. Why? Because they believe that since mankind is driven by pleasures, men and women will still seek sex rather than curbing their inhibitions.

As Catholics, however, we can look to St. John Paul II’s criticism of utilitarianism:,

Utilitarianism is a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of things and not of persons, a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used. In the context of a civilization of use, woman can become an object for man, children a hindrance to parents, the family an institution obstructing the freedom of its members (see Gratissiman Sane, no. 13).

The Church certainly does not take this pessimistic view of mankind, “The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2339). Truth certainly recognizes the reality that man, being made in the image and likeness of God, is an intellectual creature who has the ability to discover right and wrong and to resist his passions when necessary.

Consider this instance in the Gospel of Mark, “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly. Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. At this he turned around and, looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (NAB, Mark, 8: 31-33). Peter is obviously not too keen on the idea that Jesus must suffer. He even has the tenacity to rebuke Jesus. But Jesus turns the tables on his lead Apostle. Christ literally calls him Satan. It is a reminder to Peter that Satan is the great tempter that has lead human beings astray. Peter has been tempted by the utilitarian thought that Jesus ought to avoid suffering. Jesus reminds Peter that His suffering is the will of God the Father and it is something that is necessary.

The Christian, then, is to live the life of the Gospel, a life of virtue that leads to true happiness—God. As a result, mankind has the obligation to make the civil law, which is to be reasonable, reflective of the Natural Law. St. Thomas Aquinas certainly answers the idea of how law is directed towards happiness when he states,

Now the first principle in practical matters, which are the object of the practical reason, is the last end: and the last end of human life is bliss or happiness, as stated above (2, 7; 3, 1). Consequently the law must needs regard principally the relationship to happiness (See Summa Theologica I-II, Q. 90, A. 2).

The great Doctor of the Church continues about the role the law has in encouraging virtue,

Virtue is twofold, as explained above (Question 63, Article 2), viz. acquired and infused. Now the fact of being accustomed to an action contributes to both, but in different ways; for it causes the acquired virtue; while it disposes to infused virtue, and preserves and fosters it when it already exists. And since law is given for the purpose of directing human acts; as far as human acts conduce to virtue, so far does law make men good. Wherefore the Philosopher says in the second book of the Politics (Ethic. ii) that “lawgivers make men good by habituating them to good works (See Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 92, A. 1).

Utilitarianism ignores the reality of virtue since it relies on the habituation of passions. Unchecked passions lead to vice and vicious people. Unfortunately, some laws have encouraged people to engage in this behavior. Sexually permissive laws have certainly created problems, such as college campuses ignoring cases of rape that happen on their campuses. But since utilitarians do not share the same view on human nature as Christians, these sorts of problems exist. Interestingly, simple statistics indicate that a utilitarian ethic is not truly compatible with human beings nor is it conducive to creating a better society. Time after time, abortion advocates have been proven wrong. Why? Because it is as Jesus said to Peter, abortion advocates will themselves to think as [fallen] human beings do, not as God does.

Joe Kral has been involved in the pro-life movement since he has been in college.  His MA in Theology was completed at the University of St. Thomas where he specialized in bioethics.  From 1996-2003 he was the Legislative Director for Texas Right to Life.  During that time he was also a lobbyist for the Department of Medical Ethics at National Right to Life.  From 2004-2007 he consulted the Texas Catholic Conference on pro-life legislative initiatives.   In 2006 he was awarded the “Bishop’s Pro-Life Award for Civic Action” from the Respect Life Ministry in the Diocese of Dallas.  He currently serves as a voluntary legislative advisor to Texas Alliance for Life, is a member of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, taught as an adjunct professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas, teaches as a Forward Toward Christian Ministry instructor for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, is a member of the Knights of Columbus, and is doing doctoral studies at Harrison Middleton University where he is specializing in the ethical and legal theory of St. Thomas Aquinas. He has been married to his wife, Melissa, since 2004 and they have 2 children together. They attend St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Sugar Land.
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  • Randal Agostini

    I find myself in the peculiar position of using my age to enlighten, for a great deal of this article would have been dealt with very differently when I was a young man. I grew up in an age before Playboy, the pill, Cosmopolitan, free sex and legal abortion, yet with probably the same passion as any of today’s generation. Evangelicals believed in the same morals as Catholics; Presbyterians and Methodists were even more strict.

    A good guide regarding sexual activity would be paperbacks and movies pre the 1960’s, discounting the WW2 break, which introduced some short romances. Pre marital sex was simply taboo. Kissing was the accepted norm, with occasional further exploration confined above the waist. Condoms were the common protection and available in the drug stores, but were carried only by “experienced” men and loose women.

    Of course accidents happened, but were not well known, especially amongst teenagers and young adults. An accident usually terminated in a wedding or dealt with over a delivery vacation, at which time the baby was adopted. Divorce was also rare and I never knew about annulment.

    Men were Gentlemen and women were Modest. All of my close school friends are still married to their original partner, except one who died and he had the same life partner for over forty years.