Sex and the Straw Man–an Exercise in Logic

This post is an exercise in objective thinking. Dalrock is a blogger who has views on sex and marriage that are generally similar to mine, but some of his arguments are deeply flawed. The exercise is for me is to pick out the weaknesses in his argument even though I may generally agree with his overall point. The exercise for you, if you care to join me, is to read my critique of Dalrock’s argument, without reading into it an endorsement of the opposite opinion. Objectively, there is a big difference between criticizing an argument and arguing the opposite.

A straw-man argument is a sort of fallacy, where you invent an easily-refuted position to argue against rather than the position your opponent actually holds, and then act as if you are arguing against your opponent. Instead of tilting against a real armored knight, you set up a straw dummy that you can easily knock down.

So with that, let’s get to some concrete examples: Here is a post by Dalrock that illustrates the straw-man argument against two other writers. In one example, he quotes Pastor Tim Bayly,

sex that is not mutual is not sex as God designed and commands it. As Mary Lee and I agreed when we discussed it a few minutes ago, that means an awful lot of sex down through history has not risen to the level of true intimacy and love, and therefore violated God’s design, sexually

and then interprets it like this:

Note that according to Pastor Bayly’s argument the only married sex that St. Augustine considered truly sinless is sinful because it lacks the sanctification of romantic love. According to Bayly’s rules, a married couple that doesn’t feel romantic love or sexual attraction is violating God’s sexual design if they have sex with the goal of conceiving a child!

It would be pretty ridiculous if Bayly said that for a married couple to have sex without romantic love or sexual attraction is sinful, but he didn’t say that. Bayly said sex that is not mutual is not as God designed and commands. It is not at all clear that “mutual” means “with romantic love” or “with sexual attraction”. From context, “mutual” seems to mean that both spouses freely agree to engage in sex; that neither spouse feels forced or coerced.

Also, and just as importantly, there is no talk of sin. Bayly seems to be quite deliberately making a weaker statement that does not imply sin. God’s design and command is for us to enjoy food. If you have to go on a diet that you do not enjoy are you sinning?

Dalrock also quotes John Milton:

And although copulation be considered among the ends of marriage, yet the act thereof in a right esteem can no longer be matrimonial, than it is an effect of conjugal love. When love finds itself utterly unmatched, and justly vanishes, nay rather cannot but vanish, the fleshly act indeed may continue, but not holy, not pure, not beseeming the sacred bond of marriage; being at best but an animal excretion…

and offers this straw-man interpretation:

sex without romantic love in marriage was brutish, the act of animals, and therefore sinful

First, note that word “brutish” which does not appear in the quote by Milton. Second, it would be pretty ridiculous if Milton said that X is the act of animals and therefore sinful. We do all kinds of things that animals do, and not only bodily functions. Animals play, enjoy the company of others, explore, and build homes, so it would be ridiculous to say that since something is an act of animals it is “therefore” sinful, but Milton didn’t say that either. The word “sinful” appears nowhere in the Milton quote, nor does any equivalent word. Like Bayly, Milton seems to be deliberately choosing a weaker way to say “not the best you could do” rather than “sinful”. It is a straw man to strengthen this deliberately weakened statement to something that makes it ridiculous.

Dalrock characterizes both authors like this:

in our modern rebellion we have twisted this around and assert that romantic love sanctifies marriage and sex.

The emphasis is mine. Both quotes he is discussing are about what makes sex good, not what sanctifies marriage. Bayly cannot reasonably be said to be talking about sanctification at all. Milton could arguably be paraphrased as saying that conjugal love sanctifies sex (not marriage), but that is a very implausible reading. A better reading is that sex without conjugal love is a violation of what is already sanctified.

But even given Dalrock’s hostile reading–that conjugal love sanctified sex–it is not at all clear that Milton would therefore deny that marriage sanctifies sex because these are not contrary statements. If I eat steak because it is good for me, this is not contrary to saying that I eat steak because it is tasty. Both can be true at once. If I say that the blood flows faster when you are exercising because your cells need more oxygen, that is not contrary to saying that the blood flows faster because the heart is beating faster. Both can be true at once.

Furthermore, neither of these quotes by Bayly or Milton can reasonably be construed as an argument that if two people are not in love and get married anyway, that their marriage is not therefore sanctified, nor that if two married people are not in love, they can’t have sex.

Notes: A statement A is stronger than statement B if A entails B but B does not entail A. For example, suppose A is “John is very tall.” and B is “John is tall.” If A is true, then B is true, but B can be true without A being true. This makes A a stronger statement. Another way to say it is that A adds information to B without contradicting B.

This explains why strengthening a statement can weaken the argument for that statement, and why it is a straw-man argument to strengthen a conclusion of the opponent. Stronger conclusions are harder to defend, therefore, they require stronger arguments. An argument can be strong for a weak conclusions, but weak for a stronger conclusion. In that sense, by pretending that the argument is for a stronger conclusion, you make it weaker.

Also, notice my frequent use of analogies or examples in the above. I am using the method of substitution of terms, which is arguably the most powerful tool in the logician’s toolbox. If you can properly substitute terms in an argument to get an obviously bad argument, then this shows that the argument with the original terms is invalid or at least incomplete, containing assumptions hidden in the original terms. Of course, there is a lot hidden in that word “properly”. I’ll try to examine that in a future post if I can think of a non-mathematical way to explain it.



4 thoughts on “Sex and the Straw Man–an Exercise in Logic”

  1. Though much that Dalrock says is quite true, this sort of problem is systemic in his writing. I’ve often wanted to point it out as my father is the Bayly mentioned above and I’m an analytical thinker. But it appears to me he cannot be argued with for the reasons you mentioned in your previous post, “Logic and Status.”


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