Contraception and Chastity


From Michael D. Bayles (ed.), Ethics and Population (Schenkman: Cambridge, MS, 1976).

(Originally from The Human World, No. 7 (1972): 9-30, with revisions by the author. Reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher, The Brynmill Publishing Company Limited, 130 Bryn Road, Brynmill, Swansea SA2 OAT, Wales, U.K.)

[For this web version, footnotes have been replaced by links within the text. If you click on such a link, use the Back button to return to where you were. Please note this remark by Bayles on the comments that follow Anscombe's main paper: The quotations in these discussions are from the original publication. In some instances, the precise passages are not found in the revised paper published in this volume, but the substance remains unchanged.]


I will first ask you to contemplate a familiar point: the absolutely fantastic change that has come about in people's situation in respect of having children because of the invention of efficient contraceptives. You see, what can't be otherwise we accept; and so we accept death and its unhappiness. But possibility destroys mere acceptance. And so it is with the possibility of having intercourse and preventing conception. This power is now placed in a woman's hands; she needn't have children when she doesn't want to and she can still have her man! This can make the former state of things look absolutely intolerable, so that one wonders why they were so pleased about weddings in former times and that the wedding day was supposed to be such a fine day for the bride.

There always used to be a colossal strain in ancient times between heathen morality and Christian morality, and one of the things pagan converts had to be told about the way they were entering on was that they must abstain from fornication. This peculiarity of the Christian life was taught in a precept issued by the Council of Jerusalem, the very first council of the Christian Church. The prohibition was issued in the same breath as the merely temporary retention of Judaic laws prohibiting the eating of blood — no black pudding — and the prohibition on eating the flesh of animals that had been sacrificed to idols. And in one way these may have been psychologically the same sort of prohibition to a pagan convert. The Christian life simply imposed these peculiar restrictions on you; all the same the prohibition on fornication must have stood out; it must have meant a very serious change of life to many, as it would today. Christian life meant a separation from the standards of that world: you couldn't be a Baal-worshipper, you couldn't sacrifice to idols, be a sodomite, practice infanticide compatibly with the Christian allegiance. That is not to say that Christians were good; we humans are a bad lot and our lives as Christians even if not blackly and grossly wicked are often very mediocre. But the Catholic Christian badge now again means separation, even for such poor mediocrities, from what the unchristian world in the West approves and professes.

Christianity was at odds with the heathen world, not only about fornication, infanticide and idolatry, but also about marriage. Christians were taught that husband and wife had equal rights in one another's bodies; a wife is wronged by her husband's adultery as well as a husband by his wife's. And Christianity involved non-acceptance of the contemptible rôle of the female partner in fornication, calling the prostitute to repentance and repudiating respectable concubinage. And finally, for Christians divorce was excluded. These differences were the measure, great enough, of the separation between Christianity and the pagan world in these matters. By now, Christian teaching is, of course, known all over the world; and it goes without saying for those in the West that what they call "accepting traditional morals" means counting fornication as wrong — it's just not a respectable thing. But we ought to be conscious that, like the objection to infanticide, this is a Jewish-Christian inheritance. And we should realize that heathen humanity tends to have a different attitude towards both. In Christian teaching a value is set on every human life and on men's chastity as well as on women's and this as part of the ordinary calling of a Christian, not just in connection with the austerity of monks. Faithfulness, by which a man turned only to his spouse, forswearing all other women, was counted as one of the great goods of marriage.

But the quarrel is far greater between Christianity and the present-day heathen, post-Christian, morality that has sprung up as a result of contraception. In one word: Christianity taught that men ought to be as chaste as pagans thought honest women ought to be; the contraceptive morality teaches that women need to be as little chaste as pagans thought men need be.

And, you know, if there is nothing intrinsically wrong with contraceptive intercourse, and if it could become practically universal where there is intercourse but ought to be no begetting, then it's very difficult to see the objection to this morality; for the ground of objection to fornication and adultery was that sexual intercourse is only right in the sort of set-up that typically provides children with a father and mother to care for them. If it's all right to exclude children, if you can turn intercourse into something other than the reproductive type of act (I don't mean of course that every act is reproductive any more than every acorn leads to an oak-tree but it's the reproductive type of act) then why, if you can change it, should it be restricted to the married? Restricted, that is, to partners bound in a formal, legal, union whose fundamental purpose is the bringing up of children? For if that is not its fundamental purpose there is no reason why for example "marriage" should have to be between people of opposite sexes. But then, of course, it becomes unclear why you should have a ceremony, why you should have a formality at all. And so we must grant that children are in this general way the main point of the existence of such an arrangement. But if sexual union can be deliberately and totally divorced from fertility, then we may wonder why sexual union has got to be married union. If the expression of love between the partners is the point, then it shouldn't be so narrowly confined.

The only objection, then, to the new heathen, contraceptive morality will be that the second condition I mentioned — near-universality of contraception where there ought not to be begetting — simply won't be fulfilled. People just won't be so careful. And so the widespread use of contraceptives has in fact led to more and more rather than less and less abortion. And abortion is now being recommended as a population control measure — a second line of defence.

Now if this — that you won't get this universal "taking care" — is the only objection then it's a pretty miserable lookout. Because, like the fear of venereal disease, it's an objection that's little capable of moving people or inspiring them as a positive ideal of chastity may.

The Christian Church has taught such an ideal of chastity: in a narrower sense, and in a broader sense in which chastity is simply the virtue whose topic is sex, just as courage is the virtue whose topic is danger and difficulty. In the narrower sense chastity means continence, abstention. I have to say something about this though I'm a mediocre worldly person leading an ordinary sort of worldly life.

What people are for is — as guided missiles — to home in on God, God who is the one truth it is infinitely worth knowing, the possession of which you could never get tired of, like the water which if you have you can never thirst again, because your thirst is slaked forever and always. It's this potentiality, this incredible possibility, of the knowledge of God and of sharing in His nature which Christianity holds out to people and because of this potentiality every life, right up to the last, is infinitely precious. Its potentialities in all things the world cares about may be slight; but there is always the possibility of what it's for.

Now there are some people who want this true end so much that they want to be totally concerned with this and to die to their own worldly, earthly and fleshly desires. It is people who are so filled with this enormous desire and are able to follow it, who pursue the course of chastity, in the narrow sense — this is the point, the glory, of Christian celibacy and virginity and of vows of chastity. I think one has to know about it in order to appreciate the teachings of Christianity about chastity in a wide sense. But as I say I do not speak well because I'm not very well qualified.


Turning to chastity not in the narrower sense but in the sense in which it is simply the virtue connected with sex, the Christian Church has always set its face against contraception from the earliest time as a grave breach of chastity. It inherited from Israel the objection to "base ways of copulating for the avoidance of conception," to quote St Augustine. In a document of the third century a Christian author wrote of the use of contraceptives by freeborn Christian women of Rome. These women sometimes married slaves so as to have Christian husbands but they were under a severe temptation because if the father was a slave the child was a slave by Roman law and this was a deterrent to having children; and they practised some form of contraception. This was the occasion of the earliest recorded explicit Christian observation on the subject. The author writes like a person dragging into the light a practice which Christians at large must obviously regard as shameful.

From then on the received teaching of Christianity has been constant. We need only mention two landmarks which have stood as signposts in Christian teaching — the teaching of Augustine and that of Aquinas. St Augustine wrote against the Manichaeans. The Manichaeans were people who thought all sex evil. They thought procreation was worse than sex; so if one must have sex let it be without procreation which imprisoned a soul in flesh. So they first aimed to restrict intercourse altogether to what they thought were infertile times and also to use contraceptive drugs so as if possible never to have children. If they did conceive they used drugs to procure abortions, finally, if that failed, in their cruel lust or lustful cruelty, as St Augustine says, they might put the child out to die. (The appetite for killing children is a rather common characteristic in the human race.)

All these actions Augustine condemned and he argued strongly against their teaching. Sex couldn't possibly be evil; it is the source of human society and life is God's good creation. On the other hand it is a familiar point that there is some grimness in Augustine's view of sex. He regards it as more corrupted by the fall than our other faculties. Intercourse for the sake of getting children is good but the need for sexual intercourse otherwise, he thought, is an infirmity. However, "husband and wife" (I quote) "owe one another not only the faithful association of sexual union for the sake of getting children — the first society of the human race in this our mortality — but more than that a kind of mutual service of bearing the burden of one another's weakness, so as to prevent unlawful intercourse."

Augustine holds up as an ideal something which he must have known didn't happen all that much: the life of married people who no longer seeking children are able to live in continence. He considers it weakness that few ever do this. There's a sort of servitude to fleshly desire in not being able so to abstain. But marriage is so great a good, he said, that it altogether takes vice out of this; and what's bad about our weakness is thereby excused. If one partner demands sexual intercourse out of the pressure of sexual desire, he says, the other does right in according it. But there is at least venial sin in demanding it from this motive, and if one's very intemperate, mortal sin.

All this part of his teaching is very unsympathetic to our time. But we must notice that it has been a bit misrepresented. It has been said that for Augustine sexual intercourse not for the sake of getting children involves actual sin, though not mortal sin — a little bit of sin — on the part of at least one partner, the partner who demands it. What he seems to say however is not that, but something different; that if one seeks it out of mere fleshly desire for the sake of pleasure, there is such sin; and this latter teaching has in fact been constant among all the saints and doctors of the Church who have written on the matter at all. This needs clarification and I will return to it.*

St Augustine indeed didn't write explicitly of any other motive than mere sensuality in seeking intercourse where procreation isn't aimed at. What he says doesn't exclude the possibility of a different motive. There's the germ of an account of the motive called by theologians "rendering the marriage debt" in his observation that married people owe to one another a kind of mutual service. Aquinas made two contributions the first of which concerns this point: he makes the remark that a man ought to pay the marriage debt if he can see his wife wants it without her having to ask him. And he ought to notice if she does want it. This is an apt gloss on Augustine's "mutual service," and it destroys the basis for the picture which some have had of intercourse not for the sake of children as necessarily a little bit sinful on one side, since one must be "demanding," and not for any worthy motive but purely "out of desire for pleasure." One could hardly say that being diagnosable as wanting intercourse was a sin! St Thomas, of course, speaks of the matter rather from the man's side, but the same thing could be said from the woman's, too; the only difference being that her rôle would be more that of encouragement and invitation. (It's somewhat modern to make this comment. We are much more conscious nowadays of people's complexities and hangups than earlier writers seem to have been.)

St Thomas follows St Augustine and all other traditional teachers in holding that intercourse sought out of lust, only for the sake of pleasure, is sin, though it is venial if the intemperance isn't great, and in type this is the least of the sins against chastity.

His second contribution was his definition of the "sin against nature." This phrase relates to deviant acts, such as sodomy and bestiality. He defined this type of sin as a sexual act of such a kind as to be intrinsically unfit for generation. This definition has been colossally important. It was, indeed, perfectly in line with St Augustine's reference to copulating in a "base" way so as not to procreate, thus to identify some ways of contraception practised in former times as forms of unnatural vice. For they would, most of them, be deviant sexual acts.

Contraception by medical methods, however, as well as abortion, had previously been characterized as homicide throughout the dark ages. And this seems a monstrously unreasonable stretching of the idea of homicide. Not unreasonable in the case of abortion; though we might doubt the good sense of calling a fertilized ovum a human being. But soon there is something of a human shape; and anyway this is the definite beginning of a human being (or beings in the case of a split — where you get twins — the split occurs soon, at least within two weeks), and if you perform an abortion at that early stage all the same you are destroying that human life.

But of course the notion of homicide is just not extendable to contraception. The reason why it seemed to be so in the dark ages (by "dark ages" I mean roughly from the 4th-5th centuries on to the 12th, say — I won't make an apology for using the expression — scientifically it was pretty dark) was that it was taken for granted that medical methods were all abortifacient in type. You see we have to remember that no one knew about the ovum. Then, and in more primitive times, as language itself reveals with its talk of "seed," the woman's body was thought of as being like the ground in which seed was planted. And thus the perishing of the seed once planted would be judged by people of those times to be the same sort of event as we would judge the perishing of a fertilized ovum to be and hence the deliberate bringing about of the one would be just like the deliberate bringing about of the other. So that is the explanation of the curiosity that historically medical contraception was equated with homicide — it was equated with homicide because they thought it was that sort of thing, the sort of thing that destroying a fertilized ovum is.

When Aristotle's philosophy became dominant in the thirteenth century a new (but still erroneous) picture replaced that ancient one: namely that the woman provided the matter, and the man the formative principle of a new conception. This already made that extended notion of "homicide" look untenable — contraception that would prevent the formation would obviously not be destroying something that was already the beginning of a human life. With modern physiological knowledge contraception by medical methods could be clearly distinguished from early abortion, though some contraceptive methods might be abortifacient.

On the other hand intercourse using contraception by mechanical methods was fairly easy to assimilate to the "sin against nature" as defined by St Thomas. Looking at it like this is aided by the following consideration: suppose that somebody's contraceptive method were to adopt some clearly perverse mode of copulation, one wouldn't want to say he committed two distinct sins, one of perversion and the other of contraception: there'd be just the one evil deed, precisely because the perversity of the mode consists in the physical act being changed so as to be not the sort of act that gets a child at all.

And so the theologians tried to extend the notion of the evil as one of perversity — speaking, for example, of the "perverse use of a faculty" — so as to cover all types of contraception including medical ones which after all don't change the physical act into one of the type: "sin against nature."

For with contraception becoming common in this country and the Protestants approving it in the end, the Popes reiterated the condemnation of it. It was clear that the condemnation was of deliberately contraceptive intercourse as a breach of chastity, as "a shameful thing." But the rationale offered by the theologians was not quite satisfactory. The situation was intellectually puzzling. On the one hand, it would have been absurd, wouldn't it? to approve douches, say, while forbidding condoms. On the other hand, the extension of the notion of a perverse act, a deviant act, seemed strained. The ways in which intention may characterize an act had not (recently) been thought out.

Furthermore, while one doesn't have to be learned (nobody has to be learned) or able to give a convincing account of the reasons for a teaching — for remember that the Church teaches with the authority of a divine commission, and the Pope has a prophetical office, not a chair of science or moral philosophy or theology — all the same the moral teaching of the Church, by her own claims, is supposed to be reasonable. Christian moral teachings aren't revealed mysteries like the Trinity. The lack of clear accounts of the reason in the teaching was disturbing to many people. Especially, I believe, to many of the clergy whose job it was to give the teaching to the people: particularly as they used to be taught, often were taught, a dogmatic philosophy out of manuals as part of their training, and this stuff, miscalled "Thomism," was supposed to teach a true philosophy which had all the answers to any question that might come up.

Again, with effective contraceptive techniques and real physiological knowledge available, a new question came to the fore. I mean that of the rational limitation of families. Because of ignorance, people in former times who did not choose continence could effect such limitation only by obviously vile and disreputable methods. So no one envisaged a policy of seeking to have just a reasonable number of children (by any method other than continence over sufficient periods) as a policy compatible with chastity. Indeed the very notion "a reasonable number of children" could hardly be formulated compatibly with thinking at once decently and realistically. It had to be left to God what children one had.

With society becoming more and more contraceptive, the pressure felt by Catholic married people became great. The restriction of intercourse to infertile periods "for grave reasons" was offered to them as a recourse at first in a rather gingerly way (as is intelligible in view of the mental background I have sketched) and then with increasing recommendation of it. For in this method the act of copulation was not itself adapted in any way so as to render it infertile, and so the condemnation of acts of contraceptive intercourse as somehow perverse and so as grave breaches of chastity, did not apply to this. All other methods, Catholics were very emphatically taught, were "against the natural law."

Now I'd better pause a bit about this expression "against the natural law." We should notice it as a curiosity that in popular discussion there's usually more mention of "natural law" in connection with the Catholic prohibition on contraception than in connection with any other matters. One even hears people talk of "the argument from natural law." It's probable that there's a very strong association of words here: on the one hand through the contrast, "artificial"/"natural" and on the other through the terms "unnatural vice" or "sin against nature" which are labels for a particular range of sins against chastity; that is those acts which are wrong of their kind, which aren't wrong just from the circumstances that the persons aren't married: they're not doing what would be all right if they were married and had good motives, they're just doing something different. That's the range of sins against chastity which got this label "sin against nature."

Now in fact there's no greater connection of "natural law" with the prohibition on contraception than with any other part of morality. Any type of wrong action is "against the natural law": stealing is, framing someone is, oppressing people is. "Natural law" is simply a way of speaking about the whole of morality, used by Catholic thinkers because they believe the general precepts of morality are laws promulgated by God our Creator in the enlightened human understanding when it is thinking in general terms about what are good and what are bad actions. That is to say, the discoveries of reflection and reasoning when we think straight about these things are God's legislation to us (whether we realize this or not).

In thinking about conduct we have to advert to laws of nature in another sense. That is, to very general and very well-known facts of nature, and also to ascertained scientific laws. For example, the resources of the earth have to be worked on to supply our needs and enhance our lives: this is a general and well-known fact of nature. Hence there needs to be control over resources by definite owners, be they tribes or states or cities or corporations or clubs or single people: and this is the institution of property. Laws of nature in a scientific sense will affect the rules about control that it is reasonable to have. The type of installations we need if electricity is to be made available, for example, and the way they work, will be taken into account in framing the laws of the country or city about control of this resource. The institution of property has as its corollary the "law of nature" in the ethical sense, the sense of a law of morality, which forbids stealing. It's useful, very useful, to get clear about all this; it should help us to think and act justly and not to be too mad about property, too.

It was in these various ways that the Pope spoke of natural laws in Humanae Vitae — the expression occurs in all these senses — and the topic of natural law in the ethical sense has not any greater relevance to contraception than to anything else. In particular, it is not because there is a natural law that something artificial is condemned.

The substantive, hard teaching of the Church which all Catholics were given up to 1964 was clear enough: all artificial methods of birth control were taught to be gravely wrong if, before, after, or during intercourse you do something intended to turn that intercourse into an infertile act if it would otherwise have been fertile.

I distinguish the substantive hard teaching here from the detailed thinking that surrounds it.

When you get a papal encyclical too, there's always a lot of rhetoric, a lot of general reflections; there's usually also some hard stuff. I think we ought always to make this distinction and to look for the hard stuff in the teaching. It's usually very clear, whereas the rest, the surroundings, may or may not be clear; may or not involve ignorance of fact, or hangovers from past and obsolete theorizing.

At that time, you will remember, back in 1964, there had already been set up by Pope John in his lifetime a commission to enquire into these things. The commission consisted of economists, doctors and other lay people as well as theologians. Pope John — who, by the way, spoke of contraception just as damningly as his predecessor: it's a mere lie to suggest he favored it — was the Pope who removed the matter from the competency of the Council and reserved to the Pope that new judgment on it which the modern situation and the new discoveries — above all, of oral contraceptives made necessary.

From '64 onwards there was an immense amount of propaganda for the reversal of previous teaching. You will remember it. Then, with the whole world baying at him to change, the Pope acted as Peter. "Simon, Simon," Our Lord said to Peter, "Satan has wanted to have you all to sift like wheat, but I have prayed for thee that thy faith should not fail: thou, being converted, strengthen thy brethren." Thus Paul confirmed the only doctrine which had ever appeared as the teaching of the Church on these things; and in so doing incurred the execration of the world.

But Athenagoras, the Ecumenical Patriarch, who has the primacy of the Orthodox Church, immediately spoke up and confirmed that this was Christian teaching, the only possible Christian teaching.


Among those who hoped for a change, there was an instant reaction that the Pope's teaching was false, and was not authoritative because it lacked the formal character of an infallible document. Now as to that, the Pope was pretty solemnly confirming the only and constant teaching of the Church The fact that an encyclical is not an infallible kind of document only shows that one argument for the truth of its teaching is lacking. It does not show that the substantive hard message of this encyclical may perhaps be wrong — any more than the fact that memory of telephone numbers isn't the sort of thing that you can't be wrong about shows that you don't actually know your own telephone number.

At this point one may hear the enquiry: "But isn't there room for development? Hasn't the situation changed?" And the answer to that is "Yes — there had to be development and there was." That, no doubt, was why Pope John thought a commission necessary and why it took the Pope four years to formulate the teaching. We have to remember that, as Newman says, developments "which do but contradict and reverse the course of doctrine which has been developed before them, and out of which they spring, are certainly corrupt." No other development would have been a true one. But certainly the final condemnation of oral contraceptives is development — and so are some other points in the encyclical.

Development was necessary, partly because of the new physiological knowledge and the oral contraceptives and partly because of social changes, especially concerning women. The new knowledge, indeed, does give the best argument I know of that can be devised for allowing that contraceptives are after all permissible according to traditional Christian morals. The argument would run like this: There is not much ancient tradition condemning contraception as a distinct sin. The condemnations which you can find from earliest times were almost all of early abortion (called homicide) or of unnatural vice. But contraception, if it is an evil thing to do, is distinct from these, and so the question is really open. The authority of the teaching against it, so it is argued, is really only the authority of some recent papal encyclicals and of the pastoral practice in modern times.

Well, this argument has force only to prove the need for development, which is really there. It doesn't prove that it was open to the Pope to teach the permissibility of contraceptive intercourse. For how could he depart from the tradition forbidding unnatural vice on the one hand, and deliberate abortion, however early, on the other? On the other hand to say: "It's an evil practice if you do those things; but you may, without evil, practice such forms of contraception as are neither of them" — wouldn't that have been ridiculous? For example, "You shouldn't use withdrawal or a condom, or again an interuterine device. For the former involve you in acts of unnatural vice, and the latter is abortifacient in its manner of working. But you may after all use a douche or a cap or a sterilizing pill." This would have been absurd teaching; nor have the innovators ever proposed it.

We have seen that the theological defence of the Church's teaching in modern times did not assimilate contraception to abortion but characterized it as a sort of perversion of the order of nature. The arguments about this were uneasy, because it is not in general wrong to interfere with natural processes. So long, however, as contraception took the form of monkeying around with the organs of intercourse or the act itself, there was some plausibility about the position because it really amounted to assimilating contraceptive intercourse to plain acts of unnatural vice (as some of them were), and so it was thought of.

But this plausibility diminished with the invention of more and more sophisticated female contraceptives; it vanished away entirely with the invention of the contraceptive pill. For it was obvious that if a woman just happened to be in the physical state which such a contraceptive brings her into by art no theologian would have thought the fact, or the knowledge of it, or the use of the knowledge of it, straightway made intercourse bad. Or, again, if a woman took an anovulant pill for a while to check dysmenorrhea no one would have thought this prohibited intercourse. So, clearly, it was the contraceptive intention that was bad, if contraceptive intercourse was: it is not that the sexual act in these circumstances is physically distorted. This had to be thought out, and it was thought out in the encyclical Humanae Vitae.

Here, however, people still feel intensely confused, because the intention where oral contraceptives are taken seems to be just the same as when intercourse is deliberately restricted to infertile periods. In one way this is true, and its truth is actually pointed out by Humanae Vitae, in a passage I'll quote to you in a moment. But in another way it's not true.

The reason why people are confused about intention, and why they sometimes think there is no difference between contraceptive intercourse and the use of infertile times to avoid conception, is this: They don't notice the difference between 'intention' when it means the intentionalness of the thing you're doing — that you're doing this on purpose — and when it means a further or accompanying intention with which you do the thing. Contraceptive intercourse and intercourse using infertile times may be alike in respect of further intention, and these further intentions may be good, justified, excellent. This the Pope has noted. He sketched such a situation and said: "it cannot be denied that in both cases the married couple, for acceptable reasons," (for that's the case he imagined) "are perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and mean to secure that none will be born." This is a comment on the two things: contraceptive intercourse on the one hand and intercourse using infertile times on the other, for the sake of the limitation of the family.

But contraceptive intercourse is faulted, not on account of this further intention, but because of the kind of intentional action you are doing. The action is not left by you as the kind of act by which life is transmitted, but is purposely rendered infertile, and so changed to another sort of act altogether.

In considering an action, we need always to judge several things about ourselves. First: is the sort of act we contemplate doing something that's all right to do? Second: are our further or surrounding intentions all right? Third: is the spirit in which we do it all right? Contraceptive intercourse fails on the first count; and to intend such an act is not to intend a marriage act at all, whether or no we're married. An act of intercourse at an infertile time, though, is a perfectly ordinary act of intercourse, and it will be bad, if it is bad, only on the second or third counts.

It may help you to see that the intentional act itself counts, as well as the further or accompanying intentions, if you think of an obvious example like forging a cheque to steal from somebody in order to get funds for a good purpose. The intentional action, presenting a cheque we've forged, is a dishonest action, not to be vindicated by the good further intention.

If contraceptive intercourse is permissible, then what objection could there be after all to mutual masturbation, or copulation in vase indebito, sodomy, buggery, when normal copulation is impossible or inadvisable (or in any case, according to taste)? It can't be the mere pattern of bodily behavior in which the stimulation is procured that makes all the difference! But if such things are all right, it becomes perfectly impossible to see anything wrong with homosexual intercourse, for example. I am not saying: if you think contraception all right you will do these other things; not at all. The habit of respectability persists and old prejudices die hard. But I am saying: you will have no solid reason against these things. You will have no answer to someone who proclaims as many do that they are good too. You cannot point to the known fact that Christianity drew people out of the pagan world, always saying no to these things. Because, if you are defending contraception, you will have rejected Christian tradition.

People quite alienated from this tradition are likely to see that my argument holds: that if contraceptive intercourse is all right then so are all forms of sexual activity. To them that is no argument against contraception; to their minds anything is permitted, so long as that's what people want to do. Well, Catholics, I think, are likely to know, or feel, that these other things are bad. Only, in the confusion of our time, they may fail to see that contraceptive intercourse, though much less of a deviation, and though it may not at all involve physical deviant acts, yet does fall under the same condemnation. For in contraceptive intercourse you intend to perform a sexual act which, if it has a chance of being fertile, you render infertile. Qua your intentional action, then, what you do is something intrinsically unapt for generation, and that is why it does fall under that condemnation. There's all the world of difference between this and the use of the "rhythm" method. For you use the rhythm method not just by having intercourse now, but by not having it next week, say; and not having it next week isn't something that does something to today's intercourse to turn it into an infertile act; today's intercourse is still an ordinary act of intercourse, an ordinary marriage act. It's only if, in getting married, you proposed (like the Manichaeans) to confine intercourse to infertile periods, that you'd be falsifying marriage and entering a mere concubinage. Or if for mere love of ease and hatred of burdens you determined by this means never to have another child, you would then be dishonoring your marriage.

The anger of the propagandists for contraception is indeed a proof that the limitation of conception by the "rhythm" method is hateful to their spirit. It's derided for not working. But it does work for many. And there were exclamations against the Pope for pressing medical experts to find out more, so that there could be certainty here. The anger I think speaks to an obscure recognition of the difference between ordinary intercourse with abstention at fertile times when you are justified in seeking not to conceive at present, and the practice of contraceptive intercourse.

Biologically speaking, sexual intercourse is the reproductive act just as the organs are named generative organs from their rôle. Humanly speaking, the good and the point of a sexual act is: marriage. Sexual acts that are not true marriage acts either are mere lasciviousness, or an Ersatz, an attempt to achieve that special unitedness which only a real commitment, marriage, can promise. For we don't invent marriage, as we may invent the terms of an association or club, any more than we invent human language. It is part of the creation of' humanity and if we're lucky we find it available to us and can enter into it. If we are very unlucky we may live in a society that has wrecked or deformed this human thing.

This — that the good and the point of a sexual act is marriage — is why only what is capable of being a marriage act is natural sex. It's this that makes the division between straightforward fornication or adultery and the wickedness of the sins against nature and of contraceptive intercourse. Hence contraceptive intercourse within marriage is worse — is a graver offence against chastity — than is straightforward fornication or adultery. For it is not a true marriage act. To marry is not to enter into a pact of mutual complicity in no matter what sexual activity upon one another's bodies. (Why on earth should a ceremony like that of a wedding be needed or relevant if that's what's in question?) Marriage is a mutual commitment in which each side ceases to be autonomous, in various ways and also sexually: the sexual liberty in agreement together is great; here, so long as they are not immoderate so as to become the slaves of sensuality, nothing is shameful, if the complete acts — the ones involving ejaculation of the man's seed — that they engage in, are true and real marriage acts.


That is how a Christian will understand his duty in relation to this small, but very important, part of married life. It's so important in marriage, and quite generally, because there just is no such thing as a casual, non-significant, sexual act. This in turn arises from the fact that sex concerns the transmission of human life. (Hence the picture that some have formed and even welcomed, of intercourse now, in this contraceptive day, losing its deep significance: becoming no more than a sort of extreme kiss, which it might be rather rude to refuse. But they forget, I think, the rewardless trouble of spirit associated with the sort of sexual activity which from its type is guaranteed sterile: the solitary or again the homosexual sort.)

There is no such thing as a casual, non-significant sexual act; everyone knows this. Contrast sex with eating — you're strolling along a lane, you see a mushroom on a bank as you pass by, you know about mushrooms, you pick it and you eat it quite casually — sex is never like that. That's why virtue in connection with eating is basically a matter only of the pattern of one's eating habits. But virtue in sex — chastity — is not only a matter of such a pattern, that is of its rôle in a pair of lives. A single sexual action can be bad even without regard to its context, its further intentions and its motives.

Those who try to make room for sex as casual enjoyment pay the penalty: they become shallow. They dishonor their own bodies; holding cheap what is naturally connected with the origination of human life. There is an opposite extreme, which perhaps we shall see in our day: making sex a religious mystery. This Christians do not do. Despite some rather solemn nonsense that's talked this is obvious. We wouldn't, for example, make the sexual organs objects of a cultic veneration; or perform sexual acts as part of religious rituals; or prepare ourselves for sexual intercourse as for a sacrament.

As often holds, there is here a Christian mean between two possible extremes. It is: never to change sexual actions so they are deprived of that character which makes sex so profoundly significant, so deepgoing in human fife. Hence we would not think of contraceptive intercourse as an exercise of responsibility in regard to sex! Responsibility involves keeping our sexual acts as that kind of act, and recognizing that they are that kind of act by engaging in them with good-hearted wisdom about the getting of children. This is the standard of chastity for a married Christian. But it should not be thought that it is against wisdom for poor people willingly to have many children. That is "the wisdom of the flesh, and it is death" (there's a lot of this death around at present).

Sexual acts are not sacred actions. But the perception of the dishonor done to the body in treating them as the casual satisfaction of desire is certainly a mystical perception. I don't mean, in calling it a mystical perception, that it's out of the ordinary. It's as ordinary as the feeling for the respect due to a man's dead body: the knowledge that a dead body isn't something to be put out for the collectors of refuse to pick up. This, too, is mystical; though it's as common as humanity.

I'm making this point because I want to draw a contrast between two different types of virtue. Some virtues, like honesty about property, and sobriety, are fundamentally utilitarian in character. The whole point of them is just the obvious, material well-ordering of human life that you have if people have these virtues. Some, though indeed profitable, are supra-utilitarian and hence mystical. You can argue truly enough, for example, that general respect for the prohibition on murder makes life more commodious. If people really respect the prohibition against murder life is pleasanter for all of us — but this argument is exceedingly comic. Because utility presupposes the life of those who are to be convenienced, and everybody perceives quite clearly that the wrong done in murder is done first and foremost to tire victim, whose life is not inconvenienced, it just isn't there any more. He isn't there to complain; so the utilitarian argument has to be on behalf of the rest of us. Therefore, though true, it is highly comic and is not the foundation: the objection to murder is supra-utilitarian.

And so is the value of chastity. Not that this virtue isn't useful: it's highly useful. If Christian standards of chastity were widely observed the world would be enormously much happier. Our world, for example, is littered write deserted wives — partly through that fantastic con that went on for such a long time about how it was part of liberation for women to have dead easy divorce: amazing — these wives often struggling to bring up young children or abandoned to loneliness in middle age. And how many miseries and hangups are associated with loss of innocence in youth! What miserable messes people keep on making, to their own and others' grief, by dishonorable sexual relationships! The Devil has scored a great propaganda victory: everywhere it's suggested that the troubles connected with sex are all to do with frustration, with abstinence, with society's cruel and conventional disapproval. As if, if we could only do away with these things, it would be a happy and life-enhancing romp for everyone; and as if all who were chaste were unhappy, not only unhappy but hard-hearted and censorious and nasty. It fitted the temper of the times (this is a rather comic episode) when psychiatrists were asked to diagnose the unidentified Boston Strangler, they suggested he was a sex-starved individual. Ludicrous error! The idea lacks any foundation, that the people who are bent upon and who get a lot of sexual enjoyment are more gentle, merciful and kind than those who live in voluntary continence.

The trouble about the Christian standard of chastity is that it isn't and never has been generally lived by; not that it would be profitless if it were. Quite the contrary: it would be colossally productive of earthly happiness. All the same it is a virtue, not like temperance in eating and drinking, not like honesty about property, for these have a purely utilitarian justification. But it, like the respect for life, is a supra-utilitarian value, connected with the substance of life, and this is what comes out in the perception that the life of lust is one in which we dishonor our bodies. Implicitly, lasciviousness is over and over again treated as hateful, even by those who would dislike such an explicit judgment on it. Just listen, witness the scurrility when it's hinted at; disgust when it's portrayed as the stuff of life; shame when it's exposed, the leer of complicity when it's approved. You don't get these attitudes with everybody all of the time; but you do get them with everybody. (It's much too hard work to keep up the façade of the Playboy philosophy, according to which all this is just an unfortunate mistake, to be replaced by healthy-minded wholehearted praise of pleasure.)

And here we're in the region of that constant Christian teaching, which we've noticed, that intercourse "merely for the sake of pleasure" is wrong.

This can mislead and perturb. For when is intercourse purely for the sake of pleasure? Some have thought this must mean: when it's not for the sake of getting a child. And so, I believe, I have been told, some Catholic women have actually feared pleasure and thought it wrong, or thought it wrong to look for it or allow oneself to respond to feelings of physical desire. But this is unreasonable and ungrateful to God. Copulation, like eating, is of itself a good kind of action: it preserves human existence. An individual act of eating or copulation, then, can be bad only because something about it or the circumstances of it make it bad.

A severe morality holds that intercourse (and may hold this of eating, too) has something wrong about it if it is ever done except explicitly as being required for that preservation of human life which is what makes intercourse a good kind of action. But this involves thoroughly faulty moral psychology. God gave us our physical appetite, and its arousal without our calculation is part of the working of our sort of life. Given moderation and right circumstances, acts prompted by inclination can be taken in a general way to accomplish what makes them good in kind and there's no need for them to be individually necessary or useful for the end that makes them good kinds of action. Intercourse is a normal part of married life through the whole life of the partners in a marriage and is normally engaged in without any distinct purpose other than to have it, just as such a part of married life.

Such acts will usually take place only when desire prompts, and desire is for intercourse as pleasurable; the pleasure, as Aristotle says, perfects the act. But that does not mean that it is done "purely for pleasure." For what that expression means is that sensuality is in command: but to have intercourse when desire prompts and the desire is for pleasure, does not prove, does not mean, that sensuality is in command. One may rightly and reasonably be willing to respond to the promptings of desire. When that is so, the act is governed by a reasonable mind, even though no considering or reasoning is going on. The fact that one is thus having intercourse when, as one knows, there's nothing against it, makes it a good and a chaste marriage act and a rendering of the marriage debt.

There is indeed such a thing in marriage as intercourse "purely for pleasure"; this is what the Christian tradition did condemn. Marks of it could be: immoderate pursuit of, or preoccupation with sexual pleasure; succumbing to desire against wisdom; insisting against serious reluctance of one's partner. In all these cases but the last both parties may of course be consenting. For human beings often tend to be disorderly and extreme in their sensuality. A simple test of whether one is so is this: could one do without for a few weeks or months in case of need? For anyone may be faced with a situation in which he ought to do without; and he should watch that he does not get into a state in which it is impossible for him. But we ought to remember also, what isn't always remembered, that insensibility and unjustified abstention is also a sin against moderation, and is a defrauding of one's partner.

Well now, people raise the cry of "legalism" (one of the regular accusations of the present day) against this idea which I have taken from the old theologians of "rendering what is owing," the giving the other person this part of married life, which is owing. It embodies the one notion, I would say, that is honest, truthful and quite general. People would rather speak of the expression of mutual love. But what do they mean by "love"? Do they mean "being in love"? Do they mean a natural conjugal affection? Either of these may be lacking or onesided. If a kind of love cannot be commanded, we can't build our moral theology of marriage on the presumption that it will be present. Its absence is sad, but this sadness exists; it is very common. We should avoid, I think, using the indicative mood for what is really a commandment like the Scout Law ("A Boy Scout is kind to animals" — it means a Boy Scout ought to be kind to animals). For if we hear: "a Christian couple grow in grace and love together" doesn't the question arise "supposing they don't?" It clears the air to substitute the bite of what is clearly a precept for the sweetness of a rosy picture. The command to a Christian couple is: "Grow in grace and love together." But a joint command can only be jointly obeyed. Suppose it isn't'? Well, there remains the separate precept to each and in an irremediably unhappy marriage, one ought still to love the other, though not perhaps feeling the affection that cannot be commanded. Thus the notion of the "marriage debt" is a very necessary one, and it alone is realistic: because it makes no assumption as to the state of the affections.

Looking at the rightness of the marriage act like this will help in another way. It will prevent us from assuming that the pleasant affection which exists between a happy and congenial pair is the fulfilment of the precept of love. (It may after all only be a complacent hiving off together in a narrow love.) We ought absolutely not to give out a teaching which is flattering to the lucky, and irrelevant to the unhappy. Looked at carefully, too, such teaching is altogether too rigorist in a new direction. People who are not quite happily married, not lucky in their married life, but nevertheless have a loyalty to the bond, are not, therefore, bound to abstain from intercourse.

The meaning of this teaching "not purely for pleasure" should, I think, have a great appeal for the Catholic thinking of today that is greatly concerned for the laity. We want to stress nowadays, that the one vocation that is spoken of in the New Testament is the calling of a Christian. All are called with the same calling. The life of monks and nuns and of celibate priesthood is a higher kind of life than that of the married, not because there are two grades of Christian, but because their form of life is one in which one has a greater chance of living according to truth and the laws of goodness; by their profession, those who take the vows of religion have set out to please God alone. But we lay people are not less called to the Christian life, in which the critical question is: "Where does the compass-needle of your mind and will point?" This is tested above all by our reactions when it costs or threatens to cost something to be a Christian. One should be glad if it does, rather than complain! If we will not let it cost anything; if we succumb to the threat of "losing our life," then our religion is indistinguishable from pure worldliness.

This is very far-reaching. But in the matter in hand, it means that we have got not to be the servants of our sensuality but to bring it into subjection. Thus, those who marry have, as we have the right to do, chosen a life in which, as St Paul drily says, "the husband aims to please his wife rather than the Lord, and the wife her husband, rather than the Lord" but although we have chosen a life to please ourselves and one another, still we know we are called with that special calling, and are bound not to be conformed to the world, friendship to which is enmity to God.

And so also we ought to help one another and have co-operative pools of help: help people who are stuck in family difficulties; and have practical resources in our parishes for one another's needs when we get into difficult patches.

The teaching which I have rehearsed is indeed against the grain of the world, against the current of our time. But that, after all, is what the Church as teacher is for. The truths that are acceptable to a time — these will be proclaimed not only by the Church: the Church teaches also those truths that are hateful to the spirit of an age.


From The Human World, No. 9 (1972): 41-51. Reprinted by permission of the authors and the publisher, The Brynmill Publishing Company Limited, 130 Bryn Road, Brynmill, Swansea, SA 2 OAT, Wales, U.K.

A Letter to the Editor

Peter Winch

Professor Anscombe's reflections on "Contraception and Chastity" seem to me to contain much good sense and wisdom on a subject which seldom stimulates such qualities. But one crucial passage in her argument is surely very weak.

There's all the world of difference between this [sc. contraceptive intercourse] and the use of the "rhythm" method. For you use the rhythm method not just by having intercourse now, but by not having it next week, say; and not having it next week isn't something that does something to today's intercourse to turn it into an infertile act; today's intercourse is simply an ordinary act of intercourse, an ordinary marriage act.a

This occurs in a context in which Professor Anscombe (rightly) emphasizes that acts as intentional are in question. But an act of intercourse considered as intentional plainly does become something different from what it would otherwise be, if linked, via the notion of a "method," with the resolution not to have intercourse on another occasion when there would be a higher risk of conception. The method in question is aimed at enabling a couple to have intercourse without begetting children and the application of such a method surely changes the character of any individual act of intercourse just as much as does the method, say, of using an oral contraceptive. Professor Anscombe continues by commenting that the use of the rhythm method would only be suspect if undertaken with further motives such as "mere love of ease and hatred of burdens." But here she is clearly raising different issues which seem to have nothing to do with any distinction between this and other methods.

As her discourse is directed explicitly at Catholic Christians I should not wish to comment on those aspects of it aimed at articulating the sense of a specifically Catholic view of sexual relations. But I should like to challenge the (perhaps unintended) suggestion that the "Christian mean" between the two possible extremes of regarding sex as casual enjoyment and as a religious mystery is the only possible alternative which anyone who accepts her criticisms of those extremes could find acceptable.b


Bernard Williams and Michael Tanner

Professor Anscombe's article "Contraception and Chastity" originated in an address to a Catholic audience, but we do not take her to suppose, with regard to most of it, that its relevance is confined to such an audience, nor that its major positions depend upon distinctively Catholic or even Christian premises. Indeed, we understand that its major message to Catholics, on the rationale of the ban on contraception, is itself independent of religious premises, being rather an example of those "discoveries of reflection and reasoning when we think straight about these things" which constitute laws promulgated by God "in the enlightened human understanding when it is thinking in general terms about what are good and what are bad actions":1 that is to say, the moral truth about these matters should be accessible to rational reflection, without benefit of revelation. We take it, therefore, that the reflections of two pagans will not be by that fact alone irrelevant to her argument.

There are some parts of Prof. Anscombe's address which are addressed exclusively to Catholics; these include such matters as the Church's historical attitude to contraception, the opinions which in the past have provided the basis of that attitude, and advice on how to read an encyclical. These we shall not say anything about, beyond remarking that it is a curious feature of Prof. Anscombe's view of these things that both Church and Pope turn out to be so much better at conclusions than reasons: the Church, it appears, has always held the right doctrine, but much of the time for reasons which she admits were based on physiological ignorance, while in the recent encyclical, like all encyclicals, one must look for the "hard stuff," the "substantive teaching," as distinct from "the thinking that surrounds it," the "rhetoric" or "blurb."2 No doubt it is a problem for Catholics why their authorities should have to surround solid moral truth with such rotten thinking, but that problem will not concern us.

We shall consider first Prof. Anscombe's specific argument about what is wrong with contraceptive intercourse, and then go on to some other matters that relate more widely to her treatment of sex. Now what is wrong with contraception is not, whatever the Church may have thought in the past, that it is killing, since evidently you can't kill a human being who doesn't exist. Nor is it that contraception is, as such, a species of "unnatural vice," though some types of it, involving physical interference with the sexual act, may come to that; but that can't apply to the contraceptive pill.3 Yet, contraceptive intercourse "does fall under the same condemnation" as physically "deviant acts": "for in contraceptive intercourse you intend to perform a sexual act which, if it has a chance of being fertile, you render infertile."4 As it is also put: "the action is not left by you as the kind of act by which life is transmitted, but is purposely rendered infertile, and so changed to another sort of act altogether."5

There is "all the world of difference" we are told6 "between this and the use of the 'rhythm' method. For you use the rhythm method not just by having intercourse now, but by not having it next week, say; and not having it next week isn't something that does something to today's intercourse to turn it into an infertile act; today's intercourse is simply an ordinary act of intercourse, an ordinary marriage act." The fact that the rhythm method is employed with the intention of avoiding pregnancy is not the point, since that is a "further or accompanying intention with which you do the thing,"7 and not the intention which defines the nature of the act itself.

The whole argument, then, turns on the notion of a sort of act, and this notion involves that of the intention which one has in doing what one does. Intercourse by those using the rhythm method is one sort of act, an ordinary act of intercourse; intercourse by those using the pill is quite a different sort of act. But now the couple on the pill are also, in very many respects, engaged in an ordinary act of intercourse; we need, for Prof. Anscombe's case, descriptions of the two sorts of act which, relevantly with respect to the intentions involved, will bring out the difference between them. What will these be?

How are we, first, to characterize what the rhythm couple are doing? Prof. Anscombe's view seems to be this: the fact that they are following the rhythm method comes out in their having intercourse this week and their not having it next week, and their intention to avoid pregnancy comes into it only in the answer to a further question about why they are having it this week rather than next week. But to put it this way grossly undercharacterizes what they are doing. To say that they are having it this week and not next week, or even that they are having it this week rather than next week is in itself on the same level as describing the pill couple merely as having intercourse after the woman has swallowed something she got from the pharmacist. If we are to characterize that latter act more specifically, as of course we should, and say that the pill is part of a régime that makes her infertile, then equally we should characterize the others' act by saying that it is not a question of this week or next week as such — it is not like some superstition about not having intercourse on Friday just because it's Friday — but that it is part of a régime of having intercourse when she is infertile: and that sort of act (the sort picked out by the description just italicized) is not "the kind of act by which life is transmitted."

The identity of sorts of actions is indeed a slippery subject, and Prof. Anscombe shows startling confidence in her hold on it. But "having intercourse when the woman is infertile" is a description which picks out a type of act; and both the rhythm couple and the pill couple equally perform an act which falls under that description because it falls under that description, and this fact represents equally in both cases their intention. Both of them, we might say, have brought it about that their act falls under that description.

But, Prof. Anscombe may say, the way in which the pill couple have "brought it about" that this description applies to their act is relevantly different from the way in which the rhythm couple have. The first have brought it about by doing something (her taking a pill), whereas the second have brought it about only in the more general sense of taking steps to establish that the description applies — for instance, by waiting (though it would be a rash person who, particularly in this connection, claimed that waiting wasn't doing anything). One might say: the rhythm couple have merely brought it about that they have intercourse when she is infertile, while the pill couple have intercourse when they have brought it about that she is infertile. Now a difference which might be expressed in these terms of course exists. But all that represents is the obvious difference which we knew from the start, that the pill involves an intervention in the physiological course of things, which the rhythm method does not; and the question we are discussing is why that is supposed to make all the difference. Now the difference between, on the one hand, taking the opportunity presented by an observed regularity, and on the other, securing the same state of affairs by causal intervention, is not of course in general a difference between the permitted and the immoral; if it were, the move from foraging to agriculture, or virtually any other form of human improvement, would be morally forbidden. So what has to be explained is why in this case this sort of difference does import the vital moral distinction; that is to say, we need some further description of the two types of act, such that causal intervention makes the difference between the one type and the other. But this is precisely what we have not been given. For the only distinction between types of act which Prof. Anscombe has brought to the scene at all for this purpose is that between acts "of the reproductive type" and acts not of that type. But the type of act: "having intercourse when the woman is infertile" is an act not of that type; and both the rhythm couple and the pill couple equally, intentionally engage in it. We conclude that Prof. Anscombe has failed, even within her own kind of argument, to provide any coherent defence of the moral distinction between the pill method and the rhythm method.

One of many assumptions which were granted to Prof. Anscombe in the previous argument was that there is a clear distinction between the rhythm (taking the opportunity) principle and the pill (causal interference) principle. But this is itself an artificial assumption. It would be interesting to know how Prof. Anscombe would apply the vital typology of actions in certain easily conceivable circumstances. Suppose, for instance, that there were some natural herb, or, perhaps, water from a certain source, which could form a normal part of diet, but which made you infertile for as long as you took it, so that you became fertile by desisting from it? Is it obvious that this is not, as much as the rhythm method, an example of "taking the opportunity presented by a natural regularity?" If it were an example of that, could it be seriously urged that this should be allowed, and the pill forbidden? Is it certain, further, that no such thing exists?

In any case, the idea that much should turn on whether such a thing could, or does, exist, or whether it would be classified by Prof. Anscombe and the Pope with pills or rhythm, seems to us deeply offensive and absurd. She herself has stern words8 against any innovator who might propose that the pill was legitimate, but other methods of contraception involving physical intervention were not; such, she says, would have been "ridiculous," "absurd teaching." We take it that she means, not that there are no general differences between the pill and these other methods (she herself has mentioned some), but that they are not differences on which any reasonable person could base a moral distinction. But an authority which thinks it not absurd to teach a difference between rhythm and the pill, will have to decide about the herb and the water, if such exist, whether they go with the one or the other. And either way, their teaching will be absurd in just the sense that Prof. Anscombe means. Or is it essential to Catholic teaching that there are in fact no such substances? Besides involving a principle more akin, one might think, to Christian Science than to the Catholic religion, this would rest this vastly significant prohibition on an empirical contingency at least as insecure as the niceties of classification we have already considered.

The distinction that Prof. Anscombe defends, between rhythm and the pill, is at least as absurd as the distinction between the pill and other methods, which she rejects. We agree that the latter distinction would be absurd; since, further, we have already shown that the grounds she offers for her distinction are illusory, and since she herself seems to think that some other grounds that the Church has offered for it are confused, we conclude that she should accept a combined reductio ad absurdum of the entire prohibition on contraception.

She should reflect, further, on the higher-order absurdity, or even indecency, of trying to determine a momentous social and moral issue, involving the welfare and dignity of millions of people, in this kind of way. Of course, distinctions of principle and between types of actions are essential to morality; but to place so high a degree of confidence in so vast a matter on what is, at the very best, the finest of casuistical classifications, is merely irrational. It is all the more so when other relevant distinctions are briskly obliterated. We have seen one example of this already, the distinction between the pill and other methods being thought ridiculous, while that between rhythm and the pill is supposedly clear. But it is a more general feature of Prof. Anscombe's style of argument; like sophists throughout the ages, she combines a commonsense bluffness against other people's distinctions, with the most sensitive indulgence to the niceties of her own. Thus she seems to suggest that if contraceptive intercourse is permissible, then a large class of practices of a more outré kind will not be ruled out. But other people can make distinctions, too; and while from her position she may find it hard to tell the difference between buggery and the pill, or between early abortion and infanticide, others may find these distinctions more relevant to their life, perhaps more effective in practice, than that between hoping, on the basis of a calendar and a thermometer, that one is infertile, and taking a pill to make sure that one is.

In other respects, too, Prof. Anscombe's argument deals cavalierly with others' experience. What, for example, is one to make of her reference to "the rewardless trouble of spirit associated with the sort of sexual activity which from its type is guaranteed sterile: the solitary or again the homosexual sort"?9 Ignoring for the moment that assimilation implied in the last phrase, how does Prof. Anscombe claim to know, and how dare she assert, that any and every act of "the homosexual sort" is a "rewardless trouble of the spirit"? No doubt many of them are, sometimes for reasons not unconnected with the attitude to them of her Church and others who share it. But she is blankly ignorant if she believes that there are no homosexual unions in which the sexual act is as expressive of love (a term which hardly crops up in her article), and as significant in the lives of the people concerned, as acts in a heterosexual union can be.

She expresses horror at any homosexual act, presumably because it transgresses natural law. "Natural law," she tells us10 has no particular connection with this area of morality: it is simply a way of talking about the whole of morality. But, as she would in many connections be among the first to insist, what the natural law is cannot be discovered independently of nature in other senses, of how the world is. Before she preaches impoverishment of life to a significant proportion of people, she should perhaps reflect more deeply on what can be, for different individuals, "natural." She might bring this kind of reflection to bear also more generally on the questions of the connections between sex and reproduction; for human sexuality, in its lack of a distinct breeding season and other features, is notably different, even zoologically, from that of almost every other species, and there are serious theories to the effect that it has these peculiar features precisely because it is, in humans, not merely the basis of reproduction but of pair and group-ties.

As we pointed out, she appears to assimilate homosexual acts to masturbation. The absurdity of this apart, it is worth looking briefly at the passage in which the assimilation occurs. Just before it, she says11 "there just is no such thing as a casual, non-significant sexual act," and, just after, "everyone knows this." She proceeds to a short comparison of sex and eating, pointing out that in the latter virtue arises only in the pattern of one's habits, and continues "Those who try to make room for sex as casual enjoyment pay the penalty: they become shallow." This characteristically sweeping assertion is not very hard to refute: among those who tried to do this, and in some cases indeed succeeded, one might instance St Augustine, Goethe, Wagner, Tolstoy and very probably Shakespeare.

Why, in any case, should she suppose that she knows these sorts of thing to be true? In the case of the contraceptive question, her confidence was at least derived from her supposing it to be a subject of a priori reasoning (even though, as we have already said, we regard that supposition as mistaken, and the reasoning itself as sophistical). But on the admittedly empirical questions of what sorts of sexual behavior have what sorts of effect, her confidence has no conceivable basis at all, and her bluff assertions are correspondingly not only mistaken but ridiculous. Although she claims12 "We are much more conscious nowadays of people's complexities and hangups than earlier writers seem to have been," there is no sign that she has achieved, or would indeed want to achieve, a degree of complexity in her thought and feeling about these subjects which could remotely match the complexity of the subjects themselves.

One example of this is in her treatment of pleasure in connection with sexual activity. She warns some of her faith against an error of supposing that having intercourse as a result of a desire for pleasure in intercourse is doing it "purely for pleasure, "where that means that "sensuality is in command."13 Thus she at least helps them to avoid one kind of error that they could make about sexual pleasure. But her entire discussion fundamentally depends on another, of assuming that one can isolate the "pleasure of intercourse" from the other elements in a relationship. But it is — to put it no more strongly — common knowledge that the kinds and degrees of pleasure involved in sexuality, their relations indeed to something called 'sensuality', are enormously complex and various. To suggest, as her discussion does suggest, that pleasure in sex is of a single and easily identifiable kind, is reallv to espouse, in one particular connection, part of a doctrine for which Bentham has been often criticised, not least by Prof. Anscombe.

Revised by the authors for this volume.


G. E. M. Anscombe

Professor Winch may get to see the point by thinking about the difference between sabotage and working-to-rule. Suppose a case where either course will have some typical aim of "industrial action" in view. Whether the aim is justified: that is the first question. But, given that it is justified, it's not all one how it is pursued.

If a man is working to rule, that does no doubt make "something different" of any of the customary actions he performs in carrying out the work he does. It makes them into actions in pursuit of such-and-such a policy. This is a matter of "further intention with which" he does what he does; admittedly it reflects back on his action in the way I have just stated. That is to say: we judge that any end or policy give a new characterisation of the means or of the detailed things done in executing it. All the same he is still, say, driving this vehicle to this place, which is part of his job.

If, however, he tries to sabotage his actions — he louses up a machine he is purporting to work, for example — that means that qua intentional action here and now his performance in "operating" the machine is not a doing of this part of his job. This holds quite without our having to point to the further intention (of industrial warfare) as reflecting back on his action. (And, N.B. it holds whether or not such sabotage is justified.)

Of course this doesn't answer all the questions that could be asked about this point. But it does answer Professor Winch's immediate criticism. It shows that the distinction I made is an intelligible one which we need to make elsewhere, and is not just fadged up ad hoc. For I am giving sabotage and working-to-rule, not as an analogue, but as affording another instance of the distinction in question.

My observations on Professor Winch's courteously presented criticism apply to the main point of argument against me from my friendly neighborhood philosophers, Dr Tanner and Professor Williams. In addition I will remark that they have fastened on to the fact that any description of an action under which it is intentional is a description of it qua intentional action. The point is irrelevant, since there is no such thing as the description of an action qua intentional action. The question is: Is the action one is performing of such-and-such a kind? — in the case in hand, of the generative kind — and my answer was: no, not qua intentional action, if one has taken steps to render it infertile; yes, qua intentional action, if one has merely chosen to do it at a time when it won't be fertile. Williams and Tanner disagree, but as I have said their argument is not to the point. — Is the point not particularly clear when someone resolutely refuses to do anything to make his acts of intercourse infertile? — They put the matter fairly well when they speak of the difference between "bringing it about that they have intercourse when she is infertile and having intercourse when they have brought it about that she is infertile." One only needs to add to the latter "on purpose with a view to intercourse." As they say, this is "the obvious difference which we knew from the start." Indeed it is not a recondite point.

Quite generally, it ought to be obvious that evasive and preventive procedures are not on a par. That, e.g., I may arrange a time for a meeting to exclude someone, where I may not physically bar him, and that in doing the former I may be correctly describable as doing my organizer's duties, namely to arrange the meeting, where I would be transgressing them by arranging to refuse him admission. Whether such cunning is justified is a different question.

Revised by the author [omitting portion at the end] for this volume.