Sexual Ethics Paper
The issues of sexual ethics in relation to morality and perversion have been addressed in depth by each of the gentleman at this table. Sexual activity as described by Solomon and Nagle is comprised of a moral standard and naturalness aspect. So, in claiming an act is perverted we must first examine it through a moral framework and understand how this interacts with the naturalness of a particular act. Solomon makes the distinction as follows Perversion is an insidious conceptTo describe an activity as perverse is not yet a full blown moral condemnation, for it need not entail that one ought not to indulge in such activities. Along with the examination of the nature of an act, there must be clear justification as to why sexual acts deserve special separate ethical principles. The question arises: does an act simply due to its sexual nature deserve a separate form of moral inquisition than other acts that occur in nature? In this essay I shall argue that perversion and immorality are not mutually exclusive. By this I mean that a sexual act that is, by my definition, immoral must also be perverted. It is also my contention that if an act is perverted we must also define it as immoral. This second part of the argument is contrary to what many of you have claimed. At the outset of this paper I would also like to state my support of Thomas Nagels argument holding that the connection between sex and reproduction has no bearing on sexual perversion. (Nagel 105)
I will begin first with the idea that sexual behavior should not be granted its own moral code. Sexual ethics only makes sense if sexuality plays a unique role in human life. If procreation has significance precisely because it is a contribution to God’s ongoing work of creation, sexuality is supremely important and must be governed by restrictive rules, which would therefore prohibit sexual acts that are not for procreative purposes. This justification of sexuality as a unique aspect of human life, however, is dependent on a theological claim that there exists a God who micro manages the sexual lives of individuals. Without the presence of such a God, there can exist no separate restrictive rules on the nature of sexual acts. Even if we grant that there is a God, most people will agree that sex is more often used as a way to intensify the bond between two people and therefor sex is the ultimate trust and intimacy that you can share with a person. The church defines perverse acts as sexual behaviors that are not both unitive and procreative. This theological argument exemplifies a profound disregard for the realities of human life. Our starting point will be that human sexuality has its own natural purposes, its own nature, apart from any further purposes attributed to our creator, and apart from any biological function of increasing the numbers of an already too numerous natural kind. (Solomon 271) In a similar light to Solomon, I feel the church is unjustified in claiming that acts are perverted if they are contrary to the churches teachings which are founded on the natural law, illuminated and enriched by divine revelation. (Pope Paul VI 168) Not only does this claim not qualify as an argument from reason, it is simultaneously unenlightening to those who do not believe in God the Creator.
In Kants essay Duties Towards the Body in Respect of Sexual Impulse he supports the opinion that sexual love by itself is nothing more than an appetite it is a degradation of human nature; for as soon as a person becomes an object of appetite for another, all motives of moral relationship cease to function. In believe that this conclusion is not necessarily valid and that the use of sexual activity for moral purposes and desire fulfillment is a maxim that can be universalized. Sexual pleasure is a sought after result of sex as it fulfills basic needs of touch and intimacy (Nozick). In some sense Kant is right that when sexual love is combined with human love the experience is more fulfilling to both individuals but this is not necessarily lead to a conclusion that without the bond of human love sex is perverse. I do agree with Kant that sexual relations are in fact a part of a human appetite.
A sexual perversion according to Nagel must reveal itself in conduct that expresses an unnatural sexual preference. (Nagel 105) Sexual desire however is simply one of the appetites that the majority of animals possess. As such I contend that the significance of sexual activity is little different from the need to satisfy other desires that we encounter including Mills higher and lower desires. Since humans and animals share the same lower level desires for food, shelter and sex, no separate human sexual ethical values should be conceived. Behaviors such as eating and breathing all arise from the needs of the body. The desire for sexual pleasure is little different from the desire for food; sexual behavior is to be constrained by moral principles that apply to behavior in general. The ethics of sex is no more important than the ethics of anything else. An appetite is identified as sexual by means of the organs and erogenous zones in which its satisfaction can be to some extent localized, and the special sensory pleasures that form the core of the satisfaction. (Nagel 106) Therefore any act that produces sexual pleasure can not be called unnatural. We can use our sexuality in creative, consensual, safe, and loving ways, or in destructive, coercive, unsafe, and unloving ones. If it is creative, consensual, safe, and loving, then it is moral. If it is destructive, coercive, unsafe, or unloving, then it is immoral. Most counter arguments against sex as an appetite arise from the idea that sexual relations are a special form of bonding and interaction. Although society seems to have endorsed this claim, and as such looks disrespectfully on those with numerous sexual partners, it is a cultural creation with no moral basis. In an analysis of sexual behavior it is difficult to separate the emotional bond from the physical act. One view holds that sex should be separated from love and affection. Sex is basically an intensive, exciting sensuous activity that can be enjoyed in a variety of suitable settings with a variety of suitable partners. The situation in regard to sexual pleasure is no different from that of the person who knows and appreciates fine food. (Wasserstrom 163) All morality deals with is the act or intention of the act and as such this unique bond that appears to be created through a sexual relationship is irrelevant to the morality of sexual behavior.
As sexual activity does not deserve its own set of ethics it implies that there is no unique human good at issue during sexual activity. Because there is no such good then no distinctive dispositions are required in us if we are to act virtuously in regard to sex. According to this view, sexual activity requires no more moral dispositions in us than does driving a motor car. In both kinds of activity considerations must include justice and prudence where relevant. We should not endanger others when we drive, we should respect their space and we should avoid killing people. And in a similar way, in sexual activity we should avoid endangering people by, for example, getting them pregnant, or giving them AIDS, and we should respect their rights over their bodies and not assault them (Soble). Under this definition sexual desires are immoral when there is an assault or infringement on human rights. This understanding of the nature of sexual desires is the key component in distinguishing what is moral from what is immoral in the sexual realm. If sexual activity is objectifying and selfish, except when purified by commitment as Kant claims, its wrongness follows from the wrongness of objectification and selfishness. These moral faults are hardly confined to sexual behavior. Sexual ethics is possible only if there are sexual acts that are intrinsically and irreducibly wrong, not as instances of selfishness, deceit, harm, and so forth, but wrong as sexual acts. In so far as perversion is concerned no act can be perverted as long as we follow strict moral guidelines that govern the rest of our life.
I will use contraceptive heterosexual acts as an example. One could argue that this practice is morally wrong on the grounds that it weakens the family and the social fabric (Humanae Vitae) or on the grounds that this form of sexual activity tends to be exploitative or degrading (Kant), insofar as such acts overemphasize the goal of pleasure. But if contraceptive sexual acts are wrong for these reasons, they are not wrong because they are sexual. Therefor no sexual ethics frame is needed to evaluate the morality of a sexual act. The fact that an act is sexual in itself, never renders it immoral. It is indisputable that sexual acts can be morally wrong.
As there is no equivalence between an act’s morality and its naturalness, oral sex, anal sex, mutual masturbation, and consensual sadomasochism, even if statistically deviant from the norm, can not be morally wrong if they are performed under ideals purported by Christianity such as respect for people and the Golden Rule. The most immoral sex act is not homosexuality, but rather rape. I will now suggest that the ethical yard stick to measure all sexual behavior against is the Golden Rule. If a person consensually enjoys an act to the point where they would wish it to be reciprocated then the act can not be perverted.
There is no foundational basis to the papal argument that non procreative sexual activity is unnatural. The churchs defense of the position arises from a claim that it is Gods will to have all sexual acts open to procreation. If this is true why would God have created each of us with individual unique desires. Much like every person has varying preferences in food so to individuals are not perverse for their unique sexual desires. It is the capacity of a human to have an appreciation, due to our higher evolutionary status, to have multiple sometimes complex sexual desires that may include sadomasochism or anal sex. If participation in sexual activity is not objectionable to the people involved or harmful to third parties, this is sufficient to prove that participants are not treating each other merely as a means to sexual pleasure, and so the activity is morally permissible.
According to the pope, sex is permissible only in the institute of marriage as this is the only true signal that a couple is committed to the happiness of each other. There are a number of conflicting conclusions that arise from this appeal to love as the justification for sex. If marriage is the natural outgrowth of love, and we have legal frameworks in a number of states and cultures that allow for same sex marriages then surely a loving homosexual couple within the legal institution of marriage are not perverted for engaging in sex. It is hardly conceivable that the church can fault a gay or lesbian couple for their homosexual sex practices not being open to procreation.
In light of my definition of perversion and sexual ethics bestiality is a perverse act as we can not meaningfully interpret consent on the part of the animal. While the animal may become sexually aroused during the activity it is impossible to say that it would willfully choose to have the act reciprocated. As perversion is an infringement of human rights it also follows that allowing or consenting for an animal to have sex out of species is a denial of that animals basic rights. Although we often use animals as a source of food that behavior has a certain survival quality that is not present in sexual behavior with animals. It is true that we do not find it morally objectionable to kill an animal for food, it is impermissible to torture animals for pleasure. In this way bestiality denies animals of a certain right of species.
Masturbation does not violate any human rights or harm any third party, as such it is a morally permissible form of sexual pleasure. The fact that masturbation is a safe sexual practice that can safely release sexual tension without injuring society at least from a utilitarian perspective it is not a perverted act. As an individual is capable of self-consenting to a sexual act such as onanism there is not an issue with the act violating the free will of a person. As I do not find masturbation morally objectionable I can extrapolate that fetishism is a sexual desire that is not perverted. The crucial difference between bestiality and fetishism or masturbation is the presence of a third party that has the ability to reproduce in its own species, and therefore must be granted certain rights.
Homosexual relations are no more or less open to being perverted than heterosexual sexual activity. Indeed the Golden Rule as I have interpreted it for matters of sexual activity clearly show that the sole fact that the sex is non-procreative is not a signal of perversion. Homosexual actions are not moral or immoral, natural or unnatural based on their sexual nature, rather this judgement is based on the consent and pleasure that arise from the activity. As long as the sexual activity is an expression of trust and intimacy it is not perverted or immoral. The case of incest, that was described, is again an example, of how as long as the act is consented by rational beings capable of making autonomous decisions it may not be scrutinized as perverted. If the two agents the 45 year old woman and 22 year old son believe that their activity is an expression of their intimacy we can not condemn it due to social perceptions or the ugh factor that it evokes in us. The act of incest does not violate any human rights and as such is not a matter of concern in the realm of perversion.
Adultery, in my view, violates both the Golden Rule and some basic human rights. I think that adultery is a clear violation of the Kantian maxim that we can not deceive. In Wasserstroms work on adultery he states the immortality of adultery focuses on the connection between adultery and deception. According to this argument, adultery involves deception. And because deception is wrong, so is adultery. (Wasserstrom 160) This very Kantian formulation of a maxim makes it seemingly impossible to find a moral justification of adultery. Even passive adultery is a form of deception and as such commits the non-adulterating partner to a false relationship. It is unreasonable to think that simply not knowing of the offence is a defense against perversion. As it is impossible to universalize the maxim that we all have adultery committed in relationships in which we are involved adultery is a very serious form of perversion and consequently is immoral.
In conclusion I will turn to Freuds appeal that sexual ethics is the core of moral personality: how we perceive and behave toward sexual partners both influences and is a mirror image of how we perceive and interact with people more generally. Freud claims that sexual desire is simply an appetite that needs to be quenched through any means. Further, a fuller knowledge of sexual practices provides a more complete foundation for acting–morally or immorally–in the world. However the failure to learn to control the pursuit of sexual pleasure undermines the achievement of a virtuous character and leads to acts that are perverted and immoral (Soble). In this way the exploration of various sexual activities is a learning curve that all humans should explore. The avoidance of perverse actions can be achieved through the application of the Golden Rule in association with the consent of a rational being; these are the preconditions required for sexual activity to be natural and moral.
Works Consulted Outside of Class Resources:
Nozick, Robert. Sexuality
Soble, Alan. Philosophy of Sexuality