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I ride a motorcycle. If I have an accident and suffer a head injury through not wearing a crash helmet, I only have myself to blame. How is the business with condoms any different? Forget the contraceptive issue for the moment. Isn’t this analogy more compelling than a cold analysis whether or not a condom is a prosthesis? Isn’t the preservation of one’s life the most important thing?

Crash helmets are worn, too, by rock climbers to protect the head from injury from falling stones which might precipitate the climber falling. The analogy could be extended to other items worn for protection. Wetsuits may be worn to protect the diver from contact with stone fish or coral; shoes may protect the feet from parasites like hookworm. Even more compellingly, the wearing of a face mask helps to prevent the inhalation of germs or noxious particles, and the wearing of an appropriately designed suit helps to protect the demolition worker against asbestos dust.

So how is a condom different to any of these?

* *

First it is to be noted that the argument appeals to a principle enunciated by Utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill, namely, harm minimisation. He wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century: [T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community against his will is to prevent harm to others.[1] Mill’s philosophy was founded on a limited understanding of human nature and ignorance of the end for which man was created. It proclaims a materialist conception of human liberty.

Secondly, the argument asserts, in effect, that in the circumstances there is no principle of greater importance than this. It is supreme.

Now, no explanation can be given which will satisfy the intellect that this material principle is not the appropriate measure of moral conduct if reasoning is limited to the material. One could imagine Mill’s principle of harm minimisation being accepted by the inmates of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. But we are not animals: we are men, as far above the brutes as the heavens are above the earth. It is necessary to think beyond the material, to think metaphysically, that is, according to universal principles which embrace the nature of man for what it really is including the governance of the natural moral law.

What follows is a short exposition of the relevant metaphysical principles.

The Ontological Order

The foot making a footprint in the sand is contemporaneous with the imprint it makes, as my shadow exists in time with my physical figure which casts the shadow. Yet in the order of reality––the ontological order––the foot is prior to the footprint, my physical figure prior to the shadow it casts. In each the existence, or reality, of the latter follows the existence, or reality, of the former and is dependent upon it. In the same way the host is ontologically prior to the parasite that infests it, though the two may coexist in time.

Per Se and Per Accidens

There is a fundamental difference between something which is such per se (literally, ‘through itself’), or essentially, and something which is such per accidens (literally, ‘through some accident’), or accidentally. Water, whatever it is by essence, is not by essence, hot. If it were, all water would be hot water. It is hot only through the accident, for instance, of having been heated on a stove. Nor is water blue by essence but only accidentally, as the sea is blue through reflection of the colour of the sky, or the water in a laundry tub is blue through the influence of the dye from a blue bag

The Natural; the Artificial; and the Violent

A principle, Aristotle said 400 years or so before Christ, is that wherefrom something proceeds… Again, principle means that first inherent thing from which something is brought into being…[2] A principle may be intrinsic to a subject or extrinsic to it. So the soul is a natural principle intrinsic to the human body warming it from within, while the sun, which warms the same body from without, is a natural principle extrinsic to it.

Something may proceed from an extrinsic principle in two ways; the first, in accordance with the inclination (the nature, the good) of the subject; and, the second, against the inclination (the nature, the good) of the subject. An example of the first is the carpenter who shapes and forms wood and other materials to produce a table, or the sculptor shaping marble to produce a statue. What is produced from such a process is called, in metaphysical terms, artificial. An example of the second is the action of a parasite such as a tick upon a healthy animal which can quickly reduce the animal to sickness and even death. The result of the latter process is called, in metaphysical terms, violent.

These categories, the natural, the artificial and the violent, are universal categories. They apply throughout reality, not just in that small part of it which is the material order.

Morality––the Spontaneous and the Voluntary

Man is not free to do whatever he likes. Even the most indulgent of thinkers will admit some limitation. Good and evil are objective, not matters of opinion: likewise, moral good and evil. Morality binds men. It does not bind brute animals. We cannot understand morality until we understand how it is that man differs from the brutes. And we cannot understand this until we understand how their natures differ.

There is a teleological principle in all natural things: that is to say, there is an end proportionate to each nature determining its activity embodied in it. At the heart of this reasoning, of course, is the acknowledgment that we do not bring ourselves into existence. Nor do we give ourselves our human nature. Both nature and existence are given by the author of our being who places in each nature the end to which the participant in that nature is bound. The end to which human nature is ordained is fundamentally different to the end of any other natural creature. The difference is rooted in the fact that man is not simply a material being. He is also an immaterial being[3]. Indeed, he is more immaterial than material.

The most significant of the properties of this characteristic of immateriality is the fact that, in contrast to the participants of every other nature, man is free to choose what it is that he wants[4]. It will be objected that the brute animal also chooses: for instance, a dog chooses this meat, or that bone. But the brute is limited by its nature as to the choices it makes as it is limited in the acts it can perform.

Both man and the brute act according to an intrinsic principle which accords with their respective inclinations or natures; and both have knowledge of the ends they choose. But in man, the knowledge of end is formal, that is, it is knowledge of the end as end. Man knows what he chooses, and why he chooses it. In the brute, the knowledge of end is material only, that is, knowledge of the end as something suitable or not suitable to it, but nothing more. The animal is predetermined about the end it may choose and the end it chooses is one consonant with its limited nature, eg, food. But the brute does not know what it chooses. Nor does it know, or have the power to know, why it chooses it.[5]

The metaphysical term for the process which terminates in the act of the brute is called the spontaneous. The metaphysical term for the process which terminates in the human act is called the voluntary.

The end the animal chooses is determined for it by the animal’s nature. It cannot choose something unsuitable or unfit for it. But the end a man chooses is not determined for him. He chooses that end freely. The end he chooses may, or may not, be suitable or fitting to him as man. Even if it is unfitting, he is free to choose it. How does he determine whether it is fit or unfit? The standard he uses is the rule of morals. Without going into the content of this rule, or its grasp by any particular man, it suffices for present purposes to note that what is fitting or unfitting for man to choose depends on whether the act is consonant or not with his human nature. Any act which is against the order of his nature conflicts with man and his dignity and is morally evil.

Finis Operis and Finis Operantis

The actions a man may perform are divided between those which are done without thought, spontaneously[6], which are called ‘acts of a man’, and those which are governed by his intellect and will, called ‘human acts’. Only human acts can have moral implications.

Many human acts are morally indifferent. The act of swinging my arm may be carried out for a morally good end, as e.g., for exercise, or for a morally bad one, as a signal to a confederate to strike an innocent man. Some acts have their object embodied in the very nature of the act itself. The procreation of new life is the inherent end of the act of intercourse though husband and wife may perform the act for a different end. It is necessary to distinguish carefully between the natural, or inherent, end, the finis operis[7] of an act and the intended end, the finis operantis[8]. Where there is discrepancy between the natural end and the intended end of such an act both ends must be morally good.

* *

In the light of these principles let us consider the question.

As a preliminary point, there should be no dispute that the analogy proposed can only operate in the case of a husband seeking to protect himself from transmission of the AIDS virus by an infected wife. The condom is, allegedly, a protective device worn by the one seeking to protect himself from injury. Only the husband can wear it. The analogy cannot operate, then, so as to justify the use of a condom by an AIDS infected husband in an endeavour to protect his wife from the virus.

1. A careful consideration of the various items cited in the opening paragraph (each of which is in metaphysical terms an instrument) reveals two things about them. First, each falls into the category of the artificial. Secondly, each serves as such instrument to protect the body from something extrinsic likely to do harm to it, that is, from something violent.

What, in contrast, does a condom do? It mediates the natural contact between the genitalia of husband and wife and prevents the transmission of the husband’s semen into the genital tract of his wife. To what end? In the example under consideration there are two ends. One is that intended by husband and wife, the finis operantis, that thereby the transmission of the AIDS virus may be impeded through preventing the mixing of the body sera of the husband with the cervical mucus of the wife[9]. The second is the finis operis, the intention embodied in the very nature of the action they perform, the impeding of the natural consequence of intercourse, contraception.

2. The host is ontologically prior to the parasite; the cervical mucus of the wife is ontologically prior to the AIDS virus it may be carrying. The operation of the condom per se, or essentially, is to prevent contact between mucus and body sera. It is only accidentally, secondarily, that the condom has (may have) the effect of preventing transmission of the AIDS virus to the husband via his body sera. The two operations may occur together in time, but ontologically, that is, in the order of reality, the prevention of natural contact between mucus and body sera occurs first.

3. The condom is itself something artificial and an instrument. But its use as such, taken per se or essentially, is not to be included with the instruments cited in the opening paragraphs of this article as offering protection against some species of violence. On the contrary, since the usage of it in the act of intercourse interferes with the natural ordination of that act, the usage operates against the inclination, (that is, against the nature, against the good) of both husband and wife. Far from being an instrument designed to protect the body from something extrinsic (likely to do harm to it), the condom is designed to prevent the transmission of something intrinsic (intended by nature for its due good). In serving to prevent this good its use effects a proportionate harm. Hence, the very use of the thing constitutes a species of violence.

4. It matters not that the husband, or both husband and wife, may have the good intention of using the condom to prevent the transmission to him of the AIDS virus. A good intention is not enough. The end embodied in the thing they do (finis operis) determines that their action is against the order of their human nature and of their dignity and is eo ipso morally wrong.

The condom is a contraceptive and its use involves an act of contraception. It does harm to husband and wife as husband and wife, because it attacks their marriage in its most intimate act.

* *

It follows that there is no analogy between the crash helmet, or indeed any of the other protective devices listed, and the condom.

Michael Baker

[1] Cf. J.S. Mill, On Liberty, Ch.1.

[2]Metaphysics Bk V, ch.1

[3] By immaterial we mean something real yet not comprised of matter.

[4] There is much more to it than this. This freedom is a property of will. Will is the appetite that follows on intellect, the power whereby man knows not just things, but the natures of things—not just that they are but what they are.

[5] The operation of a computer illustrates wonderfully the way the brute animal acts. It is programmed to perform certain acts and it is not free to act outside the limits of that program.

[6] In this they resemble the acts of the brute.

[7] literally ‘the end of the work’

[8] literally ‘the end of the one performing the work’

[9] They may include in their intention the prevention of conception of a child but, for the purposes of argument, we will assume that their intention is only the prevention of transmission of the AIDS virus.