As for Rhonheimer’s theory of the natural law, my problem with it is that he specifies acts by virtues, not virtues by acts. And, as we have seen, he thinks that this is Aquinas’ doctrine:
Contraception is against nature because it impedes the virtue of chastity (especially the subset of it which I call procreative responsibility) by rendering superfluous the need to imprint right reason into bodily behaviour (by acts of refraining from sexual intercourse for reasons of procreative responsibility). A sinful act must be defined from the starting point of the requirements of the virtue of temperance and, in the present case, chastity, and not vice versa, as you propose. This, after all, is the methodology Aquinas has taught us: that to know whether an act is sinful you must know to which virtue it is opposed. It is the ends of the virtues – which coincide with the principles (or precepts) of natural law – which, by looking at what opposes them, define sinful moral behaviour.
Such is a basic foundation of Rhonheimer’s moral theory. In many of the works in which he has tangled with specific moral issues, his general presentation consists of a presentation of the moral question; then a presentation of how a physicalistic emphasis on nature will yield one answer; then, he reminds the reader of the an ethics based on the goal of virtuous integration of rational moderation into human action; then, he presents what answer such a view will yield to the case in question, whether that answer is substantially the same or different from “more traditionalistic” views.
Now, it is of course true that virtue is important for Thomas. Indeed, he even has this to say (De Malo 2, 6):
It must be considered that since the moral act is that which is voluntary, proceeding from reason, it is necessary that the moral act have its species according to something considered in the object which has an order to reason. And thus in the preceding question it was said that if it be fitting to reason, it will be a good act according to its species; if, however, it be discordant with reason, it will be bad according to its species. However, that which is not fitting to reason concerning the object considered can diversify the species of sin in two ways: in one way, indeed, materially, in another way, formally. Materially, indeed, through the opposite of virtue. For the virtues differ in species according as reason discovers the mean in diverse matters; for example, justice is according as reason constitutes the mean in exchanges and distributions and such actions; temperance, however, according as it constitutes the mean in concupiscences; fortitude, according as it constitutes the mean in fears and darings; and so on with the others… Thus, therefore, also through the opposites of virtues, sins differ in species according to diverse matters, for example, homicide, adultery, and theft.
Thus it seems that comparison to virtue is a very convenient way to recognize what is for or against the natural law. However, St. Thomas continues:
But since concerning one matter, it happens that there are sins different in species, although there may be one virtue, it is necessary secondarily to consider the diversity of species in sins formally, namely, according as one sins either according to superabundance or according to defect, as fearfulness differs from presumption, and illiberality from prodigality; or according to the different circumstances…
What St. Thomas is saying here is that specification from virtue is only a material consideration of moral action, and it is broader than specification from act, and that specification of sin is more narrow than specification of vice. Consideration of a habit only provides the genus, not the specification. Fornication and homo-sexuality are both species of unchastity, but how do they get their species within their genus? From their objects, not from their opposed virtues, for one bears upon a member of the opposite sex not joined to the subject by marriage, the other bears upon a member of the same sex. The order is: objects specify acts, and acts specify habits.
A habit is said to be good or bad only from the fact that it inclines towards a good act or a bad act. Hence, it is because of the goodness or badness of the act that the habit is said to be good or bad. And thus it is that the act is stronger in goodness or badness than the habit: because that because of which something is such is all the more such. (I-II, q. 71, a. 3)
Virtue can be a handy help to definition, since genera are helpful as a definition is sought. But the virtue or vice is not the cause of the goodness or wickedness of the act. It is rather the other way around. Indeed, Rhonheimer’s view of the natural law, like his moral action theory, is quite circular, for just as his exterior act is specified by the exterior act, so his virtue is specified by virtue, as he himself says explicitly:
For virtues are shaped by and aim at concrete performances of acts and their corresponding choices; and single acts and their corresponding choices are morally specified by their intentional contents which spring from the virtues they belong to. (“Contraception, Sexual Behavior, and Natural Law: Philosophical Foundation of the Norm of ‘Humanae Vitae’,” The Linacre Quarterly 56, no. 2 (May 1989): 22)
Why does Rhonheimer insist on virtue as being the sole determinant of morality to such a degree that he ends up reversing the revered specification-by-object truism of the Thomistic tradition? It is because he thinks that other proposed accounts lead to the Physicalism bogeyman.
As I see it—though I will happily concede if I am wrong—there is a clear alternative: either to root morality simply in facts of nature and physical patterns, like the factual deposition of a man’s semen into a woman’s vagina, or to link morality with virtues. In this case, the virtue of temperance integrates the body into the life of the spirit and, even more concretely, integrates sexual, bodily behavior into procreative responsibility. (NCBQ, Summer 2007: 289)
But if virtue is defined by acts, and not the other way around, as St. Thomas says, how do we know which acts are good and bad? How does reason judge the object and circumstances of actions as making actions good or bad if virtue comes after acts and not before? In short, how does reason see that something is against its order, against the natural law?
Well, the modern age doesn’t like it, but St. Thomas says it:
I respond that it must be said that in all things, there are naturally present certain principles by which they can not only effect their proper operations, but by which they may also render them fitting to their end, whether they be actions which follow upon a thing from the nature of its genus, or from the nature of the species… However, just as in things that act from a necessity of nature, the principles of the actions are the forms themselves, from which there proceed proper operations fitting to the end; so in those things which participate in knowledge, the principles of acting are knowledge and appetite. Wherefore, it is necessary that in the cognitive power there be a natural concept, and in the appetitive power a natural inclination, by which the operation that befits the genus or the species may be rendered suitable to the end. But since man, among all the other animals, knows the notion of the end, and the proportion of his deed to the end, therefore, the natural concept endowed upon him, by which he may be directed to working fittingly is called the natural law; in the other animals, it is called a natural estimation. For the beasts are impelled by the force of nature to working those acts that are fitting, rather than regulated as if acting by their own judgment. Therefore, the natural law is nothing other than a conception naturally endowed upon man by which he may be directed to acting in a fitting manner in his own actions, whether they befit him from the nature of the genus, such as to generate, to eat, and such; or from the nature of the species, as to reason and the like. Every thing, however, which renders an action unfitting to the end which nature intends from some work is said to be against the law of nature. (IV Sent., d. 33, q. 1, a. 1)
And so, to apply: Reason asks, Is semen reasonably spilled into a latex bag?
Well, what is semen ordered to? The generation of offspring. Is this done by putting it in a latex bag? No. Is it reasonable to make use of semen and intentionally prevent the semen from its end? No, that just isn’t reasonable.
To apply St. Thomas’ argument, I cannot see how one can say yes, for semen’s very purpose is to generate, which it must do in conjunction with the female ovum. This means that it is reasonably employed only when the human subject does at least what it can to dispose for this conjunction of sperm and egg, which at the very least requires local proximity and deposit in the due vessel. Rhonheimer thinks that this is old-fashioned morality based on the view that the seed was the sole generative principle, and he keeps repeating this. It does not take much intellectual effort, however, to see that the moral agent must do what it can to act reasonably in its free actions, even if chance or nature prevent an action from having its primary effect. That is, even if both sperm and ovum are necessary for generation, and mere deposit in the right place is not enough, that does not mean that the old obligations cease; it merely means that deposit of seed is not an immediate disposition for implantation, but just one more remote disposition for generation. But what is clear is that seed in a latex bag is no disposition at all for generation. And this is so clear, that it is quite comical that Rhonheimer thinks that only the old biology makes seminal deposit necessary, as if the discovery of the ovum now made condoms a remote disposition for generation. But again, Rhonheimer does not share St. Thomas’ view of the natural law.
I know that by this post, I will convert no one. But I only hope it goes to show that I do not assume that Rhonheimer is wrong; rather, I judge that he is incompatible with St. Thomas, and I choose St. Thomas. And I hope it at least demonstrates that I have thought through the arguments, but, on both counts (moral action theory, and natural law as set by virtue), Rhonheimer merely hides circular justifications of intuitions in Thomistic-personalistic lingo.