Chapter 35. Scotistic Musings: Marriage as a Basic Good

Recently, I have thinking about marriage, and in what sense one could say it is a basic good amongst other basic goods Finnis had earlier identified.

I extract the following from my working paper, “Showing What Marriage Is” (


…the bearing and rearing of children is that which, specifically and irreplaceably, can draw you out of the idol-gazing solipsism which one risks in sexual pleasure.  There is healing. This then enables each parent to mature into persons who care for the other besides oneself, and who is better, epistemologically, to really know and understand each other rather than be gazing at one’s own idolatrous imaginings, and to become dedicated to furthering the mutual friendship which entails a permanent exclusivity that refuses to threaten the mutual bond.  It follows therefore then that, under this state of affairs, spouses will be better able to coordinate, mind and body, inside and outside of the bedroom, thus synchronized as if “one-flesh”. But not merely in this sense! – lest only knowing and caring, and coordinated actions, this is no different from playing tennis with a partner one knows very well after many years of training. What is unique in this phenomenon is that willingness and readiness, as the situation demands it, to give one’s life on behalf of another.  Clearly on behalf of the child, but also on behalf of the spouse whom the child clings to in need.  One is hence willing to substitute one’s life for another, and this typically means, given that we are bodily beings, that we are willing to give also our own body in the place of the other’s. Our body is ready to stand in for, the other body (even if often physically impossible to fulfill).  Yet the intention and disposition is one of complete self-giving, including the willingness to give to the other one’s own body, to stand in his or her body’s stead.  It is this willingness to give of one’s complete self, including our bodily life, for the other, that marks such relationships as being one-flesh, for a body is prepared to be substituted for, and to stand in for, another. They have become equivalently the other’s person’s.  And whilst we do not get opportunities to throw our bodies on behalf another in salvific sacrifice, as parents or spouses, we do spend our lives, wasting our bodies away, in daily toil and labour when the need arises, to improve the embodied lives of our children or spouse. In other words, the conjugal project leads to one-flesh unions – not at the level of some kind sexual activity or merely as coordinated activity, but also in the sense of a complete self-giving.  And all this can begin, even in the planning stage, before the child is conceived or born.

What I have just described, is I believe, in its essence, the life-world of a project that is called a “conjugal union”.   Such a conjugal life-world, with its nature that is constituted by (both externally-physical-structural and internally-volitional-intentional) essential elements and teleological orientation, viz., procreative intent, a preferential love for the child(ren), permanent, sexual exclusivity, unitive dynamism, seems to me to be, or at the least close to, what Finnis (in Monist; Aquinas) refers to as “marriage in its focal sense” (Monist), and taking from Aquinas, describes as a “societas…unified by its dual point {finis}: the procreation, nurture, and education of children, and the full sharing of a home” (p. 146), and in relation to the latter point, couples can be motivated by fides, which is the “disposition and commitment of each of the spouses to ‘cleave to {accedere} – precisely, to be maritally united with – the other and no other person” (p. 145) .

Of course, the procreative intent that is one of the points of a “conjugal union”, can be realistically said to be subject to degrees, from excitement and full enthusiasm to the lesser half-hearted, mere openness to children.  Coupled with the variation of degrees of intention is also the variation of consistency of the intention to procreate in each act of pleasurable sexual intercourse: at times fully enthusiastic, other times or days merely open.   However, if my analysis above is correct, then: given such variation in the degrees of enthusiasm for and stability of procreative intention, one might speak of those acts which seem more or less excellent, with those pleasurable sexual encounters that gravitate towards having stronger and more stable procreative intention as virtuous, because these afford, in their guileless seriousness to procreate, the self-giving “one-flesh” union; whereas, those pleasurable sexual encounters that gravitate towards half-hearted, unstable, mere openness to children as at least tending towards viciousness (if not yet clearly vicious), with sexual encounters in which one knows there cannot be conception  given sterility between ovulation and where one is not at all keen for there to be conception rationalized as being ‘still open to procreation’ at the farthest peripheral border, since the capacity to afford one-flesh union is clearly diminished if not absent in these cases, risking as they do on bordering being indistinguishable from sex pursued merely for pleasure, carrying along with them disintegrating tendencies.    Still, on a acceptably broader interpretation, all these and relevantly similar scenarios are possible life-worlds of a conjugal union, since the bearing and rearing of children (more or less intended) is very much included in the life-plan of the couple, leading to “one-flesh union”, more or less.  Because: even in cases that are “less” efficacious insofar as leading to “one-flesh” union is concerned, conjugal unions still tend towards such “one-flesh” union; whereas all revisionist unions, because all lacking in the intention to bear and rear children, and incorporating sex for pleasure that leads to idol-gazing falling apart, are pointed in a different and opposite direction.

That said, a further differentiation of what is more clearly a central case of a “conjugal union”, from amongst all admissible cases of “conjugal unions”, is possible.  Indeed, my preferred reformulation of Finnis’ description of marriage’s focal sense (if I may), and therefore “marriage” in its best and most virtuous sense is: “a friendship in which a couple pursues two ends – fides and procreation – which, whilst conceptually separable because ontologically distinct ends, can in practice only be pursued, when pursued through sexual intercourse, in such a way that the quest for fides is sought together with procreative intent, lest separated from the latter, such a quest quickly degenerates into a quest for mere pleasure, and thus fides is corrupted by idol gazing and alienation.”   Thus Finnis’ claim, on behalf of Aquinas, that “a virtuous choice to engage in an act of marital intercourse need not be motivated by the hope of having children” (p. 143) seems to me in need of qualification for greater precision, for it borders dangerously on the permission to pursue these separate ends separately, which if so pursued I think would risk ending up vicious.  Meaning, regardless of what Aquinas may have said, it seems to me more correct to say that: even if one seeks merely to achieve fides in pleasurable sexual intercourse, having the accompanying intention to procreate is the safer passage through which the goal of fides is achieved. The two ends are conceptually separable, but in the real, when separated intentionally, i.e., when focusing on fides, absent procreative intent, actually ruins fides.[1]

One could say, to adapt a distinction from Duns Scotus, that: in any conjugal union  that is virtuous, and most excellent, the procreative intent and the unitive intent are to be pursued through sexual intercourse as if formally distinct at best – meaning, that while one can imagine in one’s mind their ontological difference and conceptual autonomy one without the other and think of ourselves intending one without the other, in practice the pursuit of fides through sexual intercourse must always be pursued together and cannot be intentionally separated with the procreative intent, or else fides is corrupted.  Or better, in a borrowed form of the thomistic formulae, one can say that while both intentions are really distinct intentions, to seek through sexual intercourse the one fides without the other procreative intent is to hurt and ruin fides, likened analogously to the separation of an essence from its really distinct esse, which will lead to the destruction of the essence. To seek fides through pleasurable sex well and successfully, one needs to really compose that quest with procreative intention. Compare this, say, with spouses dining together intended as the pleasurable cultivation of spousal relationships (e.g., eating ice-cream together to further emotional bonds) also done with procreative intention (e.g., eating ice-cream as part of a courtship or date with a view to seductively leading the other person to become one’s future spouse with whom one wishes to have a child); each can be pursued independently of each other without corrupting either one goal – one can seek merely to eat together for pleasure’s sake in order merely to further cultivate the mutual relationship without procreative intention, and still successfully cultivate the friendship.  Not only are these conceptually distinct intentions and activities, when practiced they can indeed be practiced as really distinct intentional acts without harm to these intentions and their goals. The trouble with sex for pleasure is that, because the object of pleasure replaces, as an idol, the real person, when it is indulged in without procreative intention, even for the sake of fides, it tends therefore to undermine fides. In this way, contraceptive sex which seeks fides but does so in the absence of procreative intent, signaled by the direct interruption of intercourse’s procreative potential, is fully self-contradictory, leading ironically to harms to fides, and hence being vicious, is seriously, practically unreasonable.

This needs to be taken note of especially if our interlocutor points out, (I think rightly) that romantic love between two persons, apart from the procreative intention, also could lead very strongly to an other-caring, self-sacrificial logic leading to one-flesh union, and hence would object (here, wrongly) to the relevance of any kind of procreative intention.  Of course love for one’s spouse can have these beneficial affordances – and possibly even more!, but once more, the devil is in the details. Unpack what happens subjectively when one engages in sex for pleasure, even when so mutually in love – the point is precisely that absent such procreative intention when couples engage in sexual intercourse, then whatever self-sacrificial logic and one-flesh union that could have arisen from such mutual friendship and love, so central for fides, would be corrupted. Again, the wrongfulness of such separation of the procreative and the unitive intent is not merely in the interrupted physical sex act, but really in the wrong acting, precisely when the intention to secure fides through sexual intercourse is separated from the intention to procreate (signaled no doubt by usefully relevant physical actions), which then corrupts fides, effecting disintegrating alienation instead. [2]

Given that in practice, the intention to secure the composite dual goals of fides and procreation as if merely formally distinguishable (even if these are in fact really distinct) through coitus is the most desirable intentional configuration that is virtuous, then one can say that, under the focal and hence most excellent sense of a conjugal union, such a dual goal composite is for all practical purposes always present in sexual intercourse. Yet in each of these instances, such a dual goal composite is really one (unum) goal, viz., the one goal of a conjuction of (fides-and-procreation).   Let me explain.

Now, of course, friendship, and even more the exclusive and faithful friendship called fidelity is itself a basic good.  So also the giving and support of life, after the manner of procreation and the rearing of children, is the promotion of a basic good.  Yet one should say – and Aquinas appears to have thought this to be the case (see Finnis, Aquinas, p 146: n. 58) – that the conjugal union is focally the quest through sexual intercourse to secure the one marital goal of (fides-and-procreation), rather than merely say that such pleasurable coitus one at once wills to promote two basic goods.  Because: conjugal sex is focally aimed at a unique good distinguished from either intentional conjunct, and different to the simultaneous willing of both conjuncts each willed singly as really distinct one from the other. Hence with Finnis we can ask regarding marriage focally understood, and may answer:

“What is its point?…[M]arriage’s point is twofold, procreation and friendship, and that marriage is one of the kinds of human good so basic and constitutive in human fulfillment that each can be said to be an intrinsic good”. (Monist, SSRN 1-2)

But this I think requires clarification, better explanation and further elaboration.  For it seems to me crucial to grasp that, under conjugal union in its focal sense, couples in intending both together when having sexual intercourse, intend one goal: no more just two intentions or goals collected together, but one unified goal in their conjunction because the conjuncts are really composed, and hence as if formally distinct during coitus. It is a goal because it is a real composition of two goals.  Because two things added together in real composition is something different from two things placed side-by-side, and so could be said to be a different, one thing.  Of course, conjunctions of intentions, even if spoken of as “additions” or “composites”, are at times in final analysis merely the placing of one intention alongside another. Yet conjugal sex’s goal focally understood is a different intelligibility, understood as a good with a special configuration – not the mere co-presence of two intentions as if these were inert parts placed alongside each other, but likened to a kind of reception of a substantial form by matter so that matter is modified by the form, and a different thing emerges.  Here, sexual intimacy aimed at friendship receives procreative intention, and a different intentionality, tendency and teleological trajectory (and hence, “nature”) takes shape and becomes possible, namely: a permanent, exclusive fidelity that is self-giving for the other’s embodied life, called “one-flesh union”.  Whereas: the mere juxtaposition of two different intentions, especially if temporally apart in such wise that sex for pleasure leads to idol gazing and disintegration, and lacking the modifying qualities afforded by procreative intent, is not apt for one-flesh union.   Such a different goal is also a basic and inherent good, since it is not sought for any further good; and it is not sought for any further good because in seeking the conjunction of procreation and fides, from which it emerged, there was nothing further to these that had to be sought after when these were sought.

Indeed, even to speak of conjugal union in its focal meaning as the quest for “fides and procreation” as I just did above, whilst true, lacks precision. The “and” in “fides and procreation” fails to capture the requirement for a kind of temporal, simultaneous presence of both intentions but nevertheless undertaken as aimed at one unitary, goal during marital intercourse rather than as two goals concurrently; it risks accommodating a peripheral account of  the conjugal in which the quest for “fides-and-procreation” is pursued in such a manner through sexual intercourse that the one conjunct, the intention to further fides, and the other conjunct, procreative intention, are temporally displaced, say, one after the other in different times.  Instead, the manner in which these two basic goods, friendship and life, are promoted through coitus is done in such a way that it is not just that two goals are simultaneously intended, but also that one very different goal, of the real composition of procreative and fidelity, is sought.

In other words, in conjugal unions focally understood, intercourse aims at a different goal of a really composed fides-and-procreation, different from the merely temporally displaced collection of these two goals. Such a goal whilst conceptually analyzable into these two constituent goals is nonetheless not merely an enhanced type of each of these, and is more than their mere co-presence.  It is not just another special kind of friendship, nor is it just a special kind of life-giving, nor it is just both of these present; it is irreducibly one uniquely incommensurable goal: fides-and-procreation that leads to one-flesh union. Conjugal union focally understood is, hence, when enacted through sexual intercourse, a quest on behalf of the self-evident, basic good of, “(fides and procreation) that leads to one-flesh union”, a mouthful which for lack of a better word one might as well simply call the “marital good” and which is one basic good alongside all the other basic goods.   In this sense, then, one can speak of the marital good, understood as a real, unifying composition of fides and procreation, as a basic good, sought after through and only through virtuous conjugal unions.  It is in this sense also, that the talk of “marriage itself as a basic good” is intelligible, meant as saying that: in marriage, the marital good sought after through sexual intercourse is a basic good.


I was then thinking of what might be a nice way of presenting this unity of the quest for procreation-and-fides visually, in such a way that captures the quest for these two-as-one goods, as if they are, as I suggested in Scotistic parlance, formally distinct.   I felt that the two pictures, one of my wife looking at me, and then the other of her (and myself, the photographer) looking at my son, placed side by side, was a nice expression of this ideal.  Would you agree?