Volume 20 Number 3, Autumn 2007
SEXUAL ETHICS seems such a quaint old subject.
Such has been the success of the almost complete purge of sex from the arena of serious, secular ethical debate that when someone does raise the topic, we immediately suspect (usually correctly) that that person has some conservative or religious axe to grind.
Though the details may be subject to debate, the story of how sexual ethics has been marginalised has been well-rehearsed. Sex has been frowned upon outside of the family in so many cultures for so many years for several reasons. Unwanted pregnancy and the spread of venereal disease are the two most obvious. Societies have a habit of erecting taboos around behaviour which harms the group and it is remarkable how many cultures have seen the establishing of long-term pair bonds as a force for social cohesion. There are also theological reasons. Religions differ, but all the major ones agree that sex is a gift from god for use only within specially sanctioned relationships. Even if these religious reasons are no more than ritualised formalisations of the more fundamental social reasons, they have come to have a force all of their own.
If you had asked anyone one hundred years ago why they should not have sex with whomsoever they wanted, these reasons would have seemed to be ample. No longer. The religious reasons no longer hold for most people, simply because most people have ceased to believe the traditional tenets of the major faiths. Pregnancy and disease have both become less of a threat with the use of contraceptives, abortion and condoms, even if these risks are higher than many seem to allow for.
There is still the question of whether the family is vital to society or not, but this only touches on sexual ethics tangentially. An extended pre-marital life still gives people many years to indulge in free love without harming the as yet non-existent family unit.
Hence many believe we now appear to have no good reason not to indulge our lusts as much as opportunity and desire allow. And there’s also a positive incentive to do so. It has entered folk psychology that ‘repression’ is a bad thing. The accusation of repression has become one of the easiest ways of dismissing an argument without recourse to rational debate. So if repression is bad and unhealthy, expression of our sexuality becomes vitally important.
But does this mean sex is no longer an important ethical issue? I don’t think so. We have become used to thinking about ethics in general, and sexual activity in particular, in terms of a particular form of morality, namely a code of conduct setting our behaviour which is or is not acceptable, desirable or required. There are rules which we ought to live by and breaking the rules is, well, immoral.
The problem here is that for such a moral system to ave any force, there must be both a respected source for the code and a set of sanctions to ensure it is followed.
In the language of the law, that means we need a legislator and an empowered judiciary. When religion was seen as the source of morality, this was no problem. God was both law-giver and law-enforcer (even though he usually postponed punishment until the afterlife). Now when we are at the stage when even many of those who believe in a god do not see either the church or any of the sacred texts as reliable sources, there is no longer any acknowledged moral legislature. Hence, in Sartre’s terminology, we have been “abandoned”.
So have we reached the end of morality? If by morality we mean that kind of authority-rooted, rule system described above, then we quite possibly have. But that doesn’t mean we’ve reached the end of ethics. Ethics-asmorality is almost certainly the most commonly held view of ethics in society in general, but it is not the only one, as any philosophy undergraduate will tell you. In fact, the major alternative is older than even morality. Pick up a treatise on ethics by one of the great Ancient Greeks and you’ll be struck by how little “morality” in the above sense they contain. What they are repeatedly concerned with is what is required to live the good life, a life that goes well. Friends, health, honour and integrity all go up to make a life go well and so are good. Poverty, isolation and disenfranchisement all help a life go badly and so are bad. The poor person is not bad in the moral sense of the word, but it is almost always the case that the poor person is living a life which is going significantly less well than it could be.
In this context it should be obvious that sex is a deeply ethical issue, for how we conduct our private lives has a great bearing not only on how well our lives go, but sometimes how well the lives of our partners do too. But in this kind of sexual ethics, rather than draw up a list of permitted and prohibited practices and positions, we need to think about how we treat other people and our own desires. Sexual ethics has not gone away, it’s just become more complicated and nuanced. It is not so much about what we do, but how we do it.
Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine and author of The Pig that Wants to be Eaten and 99 Other Thought Experiments, Making Sense: Philosophy Behind the Headlines and The Meaning of Life. Julian’s latest book is Welcome to Everytown: A Journey into the English Mind.