"no harm, no foul"
Wednesday, August 13, 2003
META-REFLECTION ON SEXUAL ETHICS: I’ve not read much of the sexual ethics literature, but what I have read of it is pretty poor (by “sexual ethics literature” I’m not referring to some specifically feminist literature on sex and rape, etc. much of which is very good, and extremely practically useful). My sense is that there’s a back and forth going on, between certain religious fundamentalisms and their views on sex, and an extreme libertarian line on sex, which says that if it’s consented to, it’s OK. This leads to a pretty sterile debate, where on the one hand, you’ve got an actual ethics of sex (say, the Catholic Church’s position) but which seems both morally objectionably and dependent upon a weird metaphysics. On the other hand, you’ve just got a very thin, very legalistic, type of ethic – not really and ethic at all – which leaves out any ideas of ethically “good” or “bad” sex and instead appeals solely to the consent of both parties.

I think we need to work on a middle ground. What the Catholic Church, e.g., gets right is that there do exist ethical standards of sexual conduct, beyond merely questions of consent. The problem is that the fundamentalist religious view tends to be dominated by the idea that to go wrong on certain matters of sex is, how should I put this, an absolute wrong, rather than the failure to live up to an ideal. Thus one could imagine a toned down view of the orthodox Catholic position on gay marriage which said something like: gay marriage is permissible, it’s not to be outlawed or even frowned upon, but nonetheless it is deficient in a way, because it can’t meet up to the true ideal of marriage, which is to be in a procreative relationship with a member of the opposite sex. In other words, marriage between a man and a woman is held up as marriage’s perfection, but this doesn’t entail that other forms of marriage need to be sanctioned, or banned, etc. So there’s not a bright line between good and bad, with straight marriages on one side and everything else on the other, but a kind of hierarchy, which straight marriage on the top, and gay marriage a little below.

In fact, I don’t think gay marriages should be looked at as deficient, as failing to live up the one and only sexual ideal, but rather trying to live up to a different ideal, of life long partnership. So we have competing ideals, rather than one ideal that’s obviously superior to another. And note that once we start looking at things in an “ideal” based way, rather than a right-wrong way, we can get away from the lefty based picture where only consent matters. In a weird fashion, the libertarian scheme merely gives a negative of the religious fundamentalist scheme: where you’ve got a bright line between what’s consented to (which is OK) and everything else (which is not OK). But there are lines to be drawn within what’s consented to, so even if we want to take consent as the legal standard, which we probably should, it shouldn’t be the ethical one – because there’s a lot of consensual sex which is still extremely ethically deficient (say, sleeping around). Such sex is permissible, but it’s not especially good; and you can be faithful to the law, but still be a really rotten person. In sum, consent matters, but it’s only the beginning of the story.

Two caveats, and potential objections to what I’ve said: (1) From the left, we might worry that there are a lot of different ways of sexual expression, each of them potentially satisfying, and to start drawing lines within types of consensual sex is to risk frustrating the diversity of sexual pursuits – of legislating what is good and bad sex based on some subjective notions, and of presuming to know what is pleasurable for other people. I concede the point, but also think that there are nonetheless some commonsensical, intuitively plausible lines that can be drawn, at least for starters. We just need to be careful, not to refrain from drawing lines altogether.

(2) From the right, it might be argued that certain forms of sexual life, e.g., sustainable life-long marriages, depend not just on legally available options, but on a certain cultural climate – say, if divorce becomes too easy, this may endanger a lot of marriages that otherwise might have lasted through some tough times. Examples could be multiplied. I don’t know what to say to this. It strikes me that this is the case. But it’s also the case that some arrangements cause suffering to some (say, the couple that would benefit from a divorce), and so reform is prima facie warranted in these cases. To repeat an oft-repeated phrase: there is no social life without loss.

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