Love and Responsibility Summary Continued

by William E. May


  1. Analysis of the Verb "to Use"
  2. Interpretation of the Sexual Urge


  1. Metaphysical Analysis of Love
  2. The word "love"
  3. Love as attraction
  4. Love as desire
  5. Love as Goodwill
  6. The problem of reciprocity
  7. From sympathy to friendship
  8. Betrothed love
  9. Psychological Analysis of Love
  10. Sensuality
  11. Sentiment and love
  12. The problem of integrating love
  13. The Ethical Analysis of Love


  1. The Rehabilitation of Chastity
  2. The Metaphysics of Shame
  3. The Problems of Continence


  1. Marriage

    1. Monogamy and the indissolubility of marriage
    2. The value of the institution [of marriage]
    3. Procreation and parenthood
    4. Periodic Continence: Method and Interpretation
  2. Vocation

    1. The Concept of "Justice toward the Creator"
    2. Mystical and Physical Virginity
    3. The Problem of Vocation
    4. Paternity and Maternity

Chapter  Five: Sexology and Ethics

  1. Marriage and Marital Intercourse (pp. 270-278)
  2. The Problem of Birth Control (pp. 278-285)

This chapter has two major parts: (1) Analysis of the Verb “To Use”; and (2) Interpretation of the Sexual Urge.

1. Analysis of the Verb "to Use"

           The first subsection here concerns "The Person as the Subject and Object of Action." As subjects, persons are characterized by a specific inner self and life; as objects, persons are “entities,” “somebodies,” and not some things” (p. 21). Wojtyla affirms that human beings differ radically from animals insofar as they are persons and thus have an "inner self," and "interior life" (pp. 22-23). As persons, human beings are incommunicable and inalienable (irreplaceable) (p. 24). Note that in a later section Wojtyla explicitly affirms that "a child, even an unborn child, cannot be denied personality in its most objective ontological sense, although it is true that it has yet to acquire, step by step, many of the traits which will make it psychologically and ethically a distinct personality" (p. 26). This is most important because it makes it clear that Wojtyla holds that unborn children are indeed persons and do not become persons at some stage of development.

           The second subsection, "The First Meaning of the Verb, 'to Use,'" identifies this first meaning as the employment of "some object of action as a means to an end" (p. 25), to which the means is subordinated. Man's relationship to other creatures is one of use in this sense. Even here there are restraints on what man can rightly do; in treating animals, for instance, "man is required to ensure that the use of these creatures is never attended by suffering or physical torture" (p. 25; cf. note 4 on pp. 289-290). Now while it is true that men "use" other human beings as means to ends other than the persons themselves, Wojtyla insists that "a person must not be merely the means to an end for another person," since this is precluded "by the very nature of personhood" (p. 26). In an aside, as it were, Wojtyla also affirms that "the education of matter of seeking true ends, i.e.,real goods (my emphasis) as the ends of our actions, and of finding and showing to others the ways to realize them" (p. 27).

           The third subsection, "'Love' as the Opposite of 'Using'," seeks to find a positive solution to the problem of the proper attitude to have toward a person. Wojtyla insists that love is possible only if there is a "bond of a common good" uniting persons. Indeed, "Man's capacity for love depends on his willingness consciously to seek a good together with others, and to subordinate himself to that good for the sake of others, or to others for the sake of that good. Love is exclusively the portion of human persons" (pp. 28-29). He likewise insists that love begins as a principle or idea that people must live up to. He applies all this to marriage, which is one of the most important areas where the principle that love is possible only if there is some common good is applicable. In marriage, he says, "a man and a woman are united in such a way that they become in a sense 'one flesh,'...i.e., one common subject, as it were, of sexual life." To ensure that they do not become mere means in each other's eyes, "they must share the same end. Such an end, where marriage is concerned, is procreation, the future generation, a family, and, at the same time, the continual ripening of the relationship between two people, in all the areas of activity which conjugal life includes" (p. 30).

           In concluding this section Wojtyla considers the man-woman relationship in its widest sense and maintains that the love he is talking about "is identified with a particular readiness to subordinate oneself to that good, which 'humanity', or more precisely, the value of the person represents, regardless of the difference of sex" (p. 31). In other words, the value of the person is the "common good" uniting men and women in love.

           The fourth subsection, "The Second Meaning of the Verb, 'to Use'," identifies that meaning as signifying "enjoyment," i.e., to enjoy or experience pleasure (p. 32). At times human persons are the sources of pleasure and enjoyment. It is here that sexual morality comes into play, "not only because persons are aware of the purpose of sexual life, but also because they are aware that they are persons. The whole moral problem of 'using' as the antithesis of love is connected with this knowledge of theirs" (p. 33).

           Man can make pleasure the aim of his activity (use in its second sense). One can "use" another person as a means of obtaining pleasure. Wojtyla's thesis is that "the belief that a human being is a person leads to the acceptance of the postulate that enjoyment must be subordinated to love" (p. 34). This leads him to offer a critical analysis of utilitarianism.

           The fifth subsection is his "Critique of Utilitarianism." The basic norm for utilitarians is that an action ought to produce the maximum of pleasure for the greatest possible number of people, with a minimum of discomfort or pain (pp. 35-36). Wojtyla then exposes the superficiality of which erects the subjective experience of pleasure into the "common good" uniting persons and argues instead that there must be an objectivecommon good as the foundation for true love between persons (pp. 37-38). Utilitarians at times respond to criticism of this kind by holding that the pleasure they seek to maximize is to be enjoyed subjectively by the greatest number. The trouble with this is that "'love' in this utilitarian conception is a union of egoisms, which can hold together only on condition that they confront each other with nothing unpleasant, nothing to conflict with their mutual pleasure. But this simply means that human beings use each other as means of obtaining their own subjective experience of pleasure. The person becomes a mere instrument to obtaining pleasant experiences (p. 39).

           The sixth subsection, "The Commandment to Love, and the Personalistic Norm," begins with a statement of the love commandment of scriptures. Wojtyla holds that utilitarianism is incompatible with this commandment, but to make this incompatibility explicit it is necessary to show that the love commandment is rooted in what Wojtyla calls the personalistic norm. According to him, “the commandment does not put into so many words the principle on the basis of which love between persons is to be practiced.” This principle is the personalistic norm, which, in its negative aspect, states that the person is the kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as such the means to an end. In its positive form the personalist norm confirms this: the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love" (p. 41). This norm, so Kantian in tone, is then explained: love is a requirement of justice, yet at the same time it goes beyond justice since justice is concerned chiefly with things in relationship to persons whereas love is concerned directly and immediately with persons (p. 42). The whole matter is then related to the realm of sexuality.

2. Interpretation of the Sexual Urge

           This part of chapter 1 contains 7 subsections. The first, called "Instinct or Urge," or perhaps "Instinct or Impulse," argues that in man the sexual drive is better called an "urge" or "impulse" than an instinct. An instinct is merely a "reflex mode of action," not dependent on conscious thought (p. 45). Since man, however, is a being who is by nature "capable of rising above instinct in his actions," and can do so in the sexual sphere as well as elsewhere, it is far better to speak of the sexual "urge." "When we speak of the sexual urge in man we have in mind not an interior source of specific actions somehow 'imposed in advance,' but a certain orientation, a certain direction in man's life implicit in his very nature. The sexual urge in this conception is a natural drive born in all human beings, a vector of aspiration along which their whole existence develops and perfects itself from within" (p. 46). It "creates as it were a base for definite actions, for considered actions in which man exercises self-dominion....This property permeating the whole existence of man is a force which manifests itself not only in what 'happens' involuntarily in the human body, the senses and the emotions, but also in that which takes shape with the aid of the will" (p. 47).

           In the next subsection, "The Sexual Urge as an Attribute of the Individual," Wojtyla emphasizes that every human being is a sexual being, and that "membership of one of the two sexes means that a person's whole existence has a particular orientation which shows itself in his or her actual internal development" (p. 47). This orientation is felt both internally and turns outward, having as its object "the other sex" as a complex of distinctive properties.

           Wojtyla says that if we look at sex exclusively from the outside we can "define it as a specific synthesis of attributes which manifest themselves clearly in the psychological and physiological structure of man" (p. 48); the phenomenon of sexual attraction makes the complementary of the sexes obvious (note that Wojtyla here does not attempt to specify in what this complementarity consists). He then raises the question: "Is it that the attributes of each sex possess a value for the other, and that what we call the sexual urge comes into being because of this, or do these attributes, on the contrary, possess a value for them because of the existence of the sexual urge?" (p. 48). Wojtyla believes that the second alternative is correct inasmuch as the sexual urge is even more basic that the psychological and physiological attributes of man and woman. In addition, the sexual urge is not fully defined as an orientation towards these attributes of the other sex as such: rather it is directed "towards another human being...[and] if it is directed towards the sexual attributes as such this must be recognized as an impoverishment or even a perversion of the urge [homosexuality and bestiality]....The natural direction of the sexual urge is towards a human being of the opposite sex and not merely towards 'the other sex' as such. It is just because it is directed towards a particular human being that the sexual urge can provide the framework within which, and the basis on which, the possibility of love arises....the sexual urge in man has natural tendency to develop into love simply because the two objects affected....are both people" (p. 49).

           Love, however, is "given its definitive shape by acts of will at the level of the person" (p. 49). The sexual urge in man "functions differently from the urge in animals, where it is the source of instinctive actions governed by nature alone. In man it is naturally subordinate to the will, and ipso facto subject to the specific dynamics of that freedom which the will possesses" (p. 50).

           "The Sexual Urge and Existence," the third subsection of this part, emphasizes that the end of the sexual urge, its end per se, is "something supra-personal, the existence of the species Homo, the constant prolongation of its existence" (p. 51). This is an exceptionally important section. Wojtyla stresses that "existence is the first and basic good of every creature," and that the sexual urge in man has an "existential significance, for it is bound up with the whole existence of the species Homo" (p. 52). But homo is a person, and hence the sexual urge as orienting us toward the existence of the species man as its proper end is something deeply personal. This is most significant. Unlike some "personalists," Wojtyla does not regard the procreative meaning of human sexuality as something merely biological that must be assumed into consciousness in order to become personal; rather it is personal, for it is this meaning of human sexuality that is oriented to the preservation of the species, to the prolongation of persons. "If the sexual urge has an existential character, if it is bound up with the very existence of the human person--that first and most basic good--then it must be subject to the principles which are binding in respect of the person. Hence, although the sexual urge is there for man to use, it must never be used in the absence of, or worse still, in a way which contradicts, love for the person" (p. 52). It therefore follows, he urges, that deliberate attempts to impede the existential (procreative) significance of the sexual urge will have a damaging effect upon love between persons (p. 53).

           In Wojtyla's judgment, it is the link between the sexual urge and the existence of human persons that "gives the sexual urge its objective importance and meaning" (p. 53). This is reflected in the character of true conjugal love of persons who "facilitate the existence of another concrete person, their own child, blood of their blood, and flesh of their flesh...[a] once an affirmation and a continuation of their own love" (p. 53).

           In the following section, "The Religious Interpretation," Wojtyla stresses that the love of human persons, who transcend the material universe, while being fertile in the biological sense because of the sexual urge, is likewise fertile in the spiritual, moral, and personal sphere (p. 55). The sexual urge in man, who is a created being, is linked to the divine order "inasmuch as it is realized under the constant influence of God the Creator. A man and a woman, through their conjugal life and a full sexual relationship, link themselves with that order, agree to take a special part in the work of creation" (p. 56). The generation of new human persons is indeed an act of procreation: "The sexual urge owes its objective importance to its connection with the divine work of creation...and this importance vanishes almost completely if our way of thinking is inspired only the biological order of nature" (p. 57).

           The next section, "The Rigorist Interpretation," repudiates the rigorist or puritanical interpretation of the sexual urge, which claims that in using man and woman to assure the existence of the species Homo God himself "uses" persons as means to an end, with the corollary that conjugal life and conjugal union are only instrumental goods. To the contrary, the union of man and woman in sexual intercourse, if freely chosen and justifed by true [marital] love between persons, is something good in itself, so that we cannot maintain that in using men and women united in marriage to continue the species God is using them merely as means to an end: "The Creator's will is not only the preservation of the species by way of sexual intercourse but also its preservation on the basis of a love worthy of human persons" (p. 60).

           In the next section, "The 'Libidinist' Interpretation," Wojtyla attacks the view, common to Freud and many today, that the sexual urge is essentially a drive for enjoyment, for pleasure. To the contrary, man is capable of understanding the part the sexual urge plays in the divine order and realizes the existential, personal meaning of the sexual urge. It has to do with that most precious of goods, the person (p. 65), and it cannot be reduced to a mere libidinist impulse.

           In his "Final Observations" Wojtyla speaks of the traditional "ends" of marriage: the procreation and education of children, mutual help, and the remedy of concupiscence. These ends are to be realized on the basis of the personalistic norm: "sexual morality and therefore conjugal morality consists of a stable and mature synthesis of nature's purpose with the pesonalistic norm" (p. 67). This norm is a "principle on which the proper realization of each of the aims mentioned, and of all of them together, depends--and by proper I mean in a manner befitting man as a person." To realize these ends rightly the virtue of love is necessary because "only as a virtue does love satisfy the commandment of the Gospel and the demands of the personalistic norm embodied in that commandment" (p. 67).    


William E. May was a Theological Advisor to Catholics for the Common Good Institute, emeritus Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C., and Senior Research Fellow of the Culture of Life Foundation.

 Copyright ©; William E. May 2007. Posted with permission of the author.

Version: 21st September 2007

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