Nocturnal Emissions and The End of Sexual Faculties

Gunther Laird in his book The Unnecessary Science: A Critique of Natural Law Theory has offered a number of criticisms of Edward Feser’s natural law theory. I have responded to some of his poorer arguments on abortion and same sex marriage. One of Laird’s better arguments is his argument that male nocturnal emissions refute the notion that male sexual faculties have a procreative end. Below I will evaluate the argument and show how a natural law theorist can deal with this objection.

Laird’s Argument

Laird’s argument put as a syllogism would be as follows

  1. Nocturnal emissions are regular natural events of the male sexual faculty that are not ordered towards procreation
  2. If a regular natural event is not ordered towards procreation, that faculty’s end is not exclusively procreative
  3. (conclusion 1) Thus, the male sexual faculty’s end is not exclusively procreative
  4. It is licit to take conscious control of involuntary actions that don’t violate the end their faculties
  5. Acts like masturbation for instance is merely taking conscious control of a nocturnal emission
  6. (conclusion 2) Therefore it is licit to perform of an act like masturbation

These are really two arguments but I listed them together for simplicity. The key premises I think are premises one and four. By “natural” in premise one Laird does not mean merely occurring in nature. Such an occurrence doesn’t make something “natural” in the Aristotelian sense. Rather, by natural Laird means something that is part of the regular function of the male sexual faculty or in his words “They seem to be a perfectly natural aspect of naturally functioning male sexual faculties.” Again he says, “[N]octurnal emissions are so common…it would be absurd to attribute them to any sort of disease or defect”. I think that the defender of the perverted faculty argument can either accept this claim or deny it. Let’s first see the implications of accepting this claim.

Taking Control of Involuntary Acts

Laird extends his argument from above by arguing that since nocturnal emissions are normal involuntary events, there is nothing wrong in taking conscious control of such events as is done in masturbation.

[I]t is obviously morally licit to take conscious control of both activities [i.e. breathing and blinking] and use them even when instinct would not impel us to, such as blinking quickly intentionally, or doing breathing exercises. By the same token, since non-procreative ejaculation will in most cases happen eventually and unconsciously at night, there seems to be nothing invidious about ‘taking charge’ of the process consciously and bringing it to a climax a few hours early rather than during sleep. Any form of non-procreative sex, whether masturbation, ‘sodomy’, or contraceptive sex, would seem to fulfill the same natural function wet dreams apparently do.

The Unnecessary Science 124

Since nocturnal emissions serve some natural non-procreative function, Laird thinks that taking conscious control of such acts is morally acceptable. I think this can plausibly be denied. Let us look at a few counter examples regarding sleep.


People talk in their sleep (somniloquy) with a broadly similar frequency to nocturnal emissions. According to WebMD, about 1/2 of children from ages 3-10 and a good number of adults do so. Often such speech is sporadic and sometimes vulgar. By Laird’s reasoning, two things would seem to follow: 1) the faculty of speech is properly used when sporadic often incoherent phrases are spoken and 2) consciously “taking control” of such speech is morally acceptable.

On the contrary, it doesn’t seem like either of these implications is true. The end of the speech faculty is (plausibly) to communicate truth. This is true regardless of what kind of incoherent, possibly false, offensive, and otherwise bad things are spoken in one’s sleep. Thus, at least in the case of speech, nocturnal speech events do not seem to tell us about the end of the speech faculty. Moreover, regarding 2), taking control of such acts and saying consciously some vulgar offensive thing that was said in sleep would not be morally acceptable.

Physical Movements

In addition to speech, movement of limbs (somnambulism) is also common in sleep though rarer than somniloquy. While most adult humans are more or less paralyzed when asleep, some are not and can move their limbs. This type of nocturnal activity is even closer to the case at hand since it involves movement. It seems clear that here too one cannot infer that merely actively taking control of such involuntary movements and acting them out consciously would be legitimate. Consider a person who moves their arm and slaps their bedmate during sleep. Such an act neither shows us the proper use of ones arms nor does it show that if he consciously did that when awake it would be a legitimate action. Lest one think that by adding someone else to the situation I have prejudiced the example, simply remove the other person and have the person slap themselves or do some action like falling out of bed. Does the fact that such an action occurs make doing so consciously morally right? Clearly not.

It seems then that Laird’s claims that 1) nocturnal emissions tell us something about the end of the sexual faculty and 2) taking conscious control such an action is legitimate are both dubious.

Are Nocturnal Emissions Natural?

For the sake of argument we granted already his premise one that nocturnal emissions were natural occurrences. By natural, in this context, we mean at least that such emissions are part of the ordinary function of the male sexual faculty. I think however, that the Natural lawyer can reject this claim. As Laird himself notes, nocturnal emissions typically occur when a man is dreaming about sex. It is plausible then to consider such emissions as a case of his body being “tricked” so to speak into orgasm. The case of nocturnal emission then seems close to the case of involuntary movement. Indeed, that the person is dreaming of sex seems to reinforce the relation between ejaculation and sexual intercourse. It is only by accident in the case of nocturnal emission that one occurs without the other and only because the body is deceived.

Laird might retort that nocturnal emissions are very common and that most men experience at least one during their lifetimes. This can be granted. Upon reflection, it seems plausible to think that there would be no strong natural selective pressure against the occurrence of nocturnal emissions whereas there would be against movement more generally. Moving during sleep can be very dangerous and such a behavior is therefore rare as a result of evolution. By contrast, orgasming in sleep has little downside for survival. Thus, the evolutionary pressure against such a behavior would be minimal.

The fact that most men experience a nocturnal emission does not prove that such emissions are natural. As we already explored, phenomena like somniloquy and somnabulism are fairly common despite seeming to be unnatural. We live in an imperfect and fallen world and it is not a given that every event that happens in the body, even common occurrences are in accord with the proper end of the human person. A closer inspection of nocturnal emission does seem to reinforce the notion that the end of sexual faculties is procreation since such events occur when the body thinks it is having sexual intercourse.


Overall, Laird’s argument against the procreative end of sex by appeal to nocturnal emissions is interesting but ultimately unconvincing. If one grants that nocturnal emissions are natural, it remains quite dubious to conclude that acts like masturbation, anal sex and the like are legitimate. In addition, the Aristotelian can very plausibly deny that such occurrences are actually natural. Upon inspection, they seem more like involuntary movements in sleep which are common but unfortunate side effects of living in a fallen world. They neither show us the end of our sexual faculties nor do they permit us to consciously act out our dreams.


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