Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Martin on sexual virtue

In his book Practical Ethics, Peter Singer assures us that “sex raises no unique moral issues at all. Decisions about sex may involve considerations of honesty, concern for others, prudence, and so on, but there is nothing special about sex in this respect, for the same could be said of decisions about driving a car. (In fact, the moral issues raised by driving a car, both from an environmental and from a safety point of view, are much more serious that those raised by sex.)”

These sentences are so morally obtuse that only Singer could have written them. That sex does raise unique moral issues of its own is obvious. Sex is the means by which new human beings come into existence – the only means historically, and the usual means for the foreseeable future even if human cloning becomes (God forbid) feasible and widespread. Sex is also fraught with emotions deeply tied to our sense of identity, shame, and self-respect. This is why rape is different from, and worse than, mere battery; why even most sexual libertines would never dream of parading around naked in public; why they also typically regard sexual harassment as a uniquely grave moral wrong; why they are jealous of rivals to the affections of their lovers in a way they are not jealous of business rivals; and so on and so forth. All of this is, I say, obvious. But then, denying the obvious is typically Step 1 in a Peter Singer argument in “ethics.”

Equally obviously, people are bound to disagree over the moral implications of these facts about sex. The point is just that there can be no reasonable doubt that sex does in fact raise unique moral issues of its own, however we end up answering them. (I defend the traditional answers in chapter 4 of The Last Superstition.)

To those with any remaining unreasonable doubts on this matter, I commend Christopher F. J. Martin’s fine article “Are there virtues and vices that belong specifically to the sexual life?”, published several years ago in Acta Philosophica (you’ll have to scroll down to get to it). Like Martin’s writing generally, this article evinces an unusual combination of wisdom, philosophical depth, and humor. Martin is often characterized as an analytical Thomist. I have on several occasions recommended his excellent book Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations. Another book well worth tracking down is his An Introduction to Medieval Philosophy.


  1. Well, I've always assumed that the main reason sexual acts are regarded as having a unique significance, by Christians anyway, is that they carry eternal consequences in a way that our other acts do not (ie, providing the circumstances for the direct creation of an immortal soul). Or is that too simpleminded?

  2. I thought the article was ponderous - and not very profound. I am not sure what idea Martin actually develops in the article. In any case, I do not see a big audience for a new academic study of the Philosophy of Sex (although the conference socials might be interesting!).

  3. @ Burlus: I doubt you eve read all 17 pages of Martin's article.