There are at least three respects in which sex has special moral significance, and manifestly so:
Tuesday, January 27, 2015
What’s the deal with sex? Part I
In the second edition of his book Practical Ethics, Peter Singer writes:
[T]he first thing to say about ethics is that it is not a set of prohibitions particularly concerned with sex. Even in the era of AIDS, 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. (p. 2, emphasis added)
I have long regarded this as one of the most imbecilic things any philosopher has ever said. That sex has special moral significance, indeed tremendous moral significance, is blindingly obvious. That is why all of the world religions, and major thinkers from Plato to Augustine to Aquinas to Kant to Freud, have regarded sex as having tremendous moral significance. Nor do you have to agree with the specific teachings of any of these religions or thinkers to see that it has tremendous moral significance. Indeed, you don’t necessarily have to take any particular stand on any of the usual “hot button” issues -- abortion, extramarital sex, homosexuality, contraception, etc. -- to see that it has special significance. What takes real effort is getting yourself not to see the unique significance of sex. That takes ideological thinking, intellectual dishonesty and slovenliness, or just plain moral obtuseness -- or all of the above, as in the case of “ethicists” like Singer.
There are at least three respects in which sex has special moral significance, and manifestly so:
1. Sex is the means by which new people are made. Now, how we treat people, especially in matters of life and death, obviously has moral significance. Indeed, ethics is largely (even if not entirely) concerned with how we treat other people. So, since sex is the way new people come into being in the first place, it obviously has special moral significance. Moreover, no one denies that we have special moral responsibilities toward our immediate family members, and especially children. But the new people who we bring about through sex are, of course, precisely our children. Hence sex is very morally significant indeed.
Of course, some people deny that new people are directly brought into being by sex. For example, defenders of abortion often claim that embryos and even fetuses are not really persons but only “potential persons.” Naturally, I disagree with this. Embryos and fetuses are not “potential persons”; rather they are persons, but persons who have not yet realized certain of their key potentials. But for present purposes this is not a debate that needs to be resolved. Even people who make claims of the sort in question admit that abortion raises serious moral issues that the defender of abortion has to deal with. For even they would at least allow that embryos and fetuses are “potential persons” in a way that other things are not “potential persons,” insofar as they have a natural tendency to become persons that other things (an unfertilized ovum, a dog, etc.) do not have. But the way these “potential persons” typically come into being is, of course, through sex. Hence sex has at the very least a unique indirect connection to the generation of new persons. Thus if aborting so-called “potential persons” raises serious moral questions, it follows that sex raises serious moral questions.
To be sure, defenders of abortion take different views about how serious the moral questions raised by abortion are. Some admit that abortion is at least regrettable and better avoided all things being equal, even if they think it ought to be permitted. They maintain that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” Others don’t particularly care whether it’s rare. But even they typically admit that it takes a fair amount of argumentation to show that this attitude is morally legitimate. Hence even Singer -- who explains that his book “contains no discussion of sexual morality” because he thinks sex lacks any special moral significance -- devotes an entire chapter to the subject of abortion. Now if it weren’t for sex, there would of course be no abortion issue in the first place. Hence if even Singer admits that abortion raises morally significant questions, he should also admit that sex has special moral significance. After all, the reason for most abortions is precisely to avoid having to take the special moral responsibility for a new human being that letting the child be born would entail. Even the abortion defender should admit that any behavior that puts you in the situation of having either to get an abortion or take special moral responsibility for some new human being is itself a pretty morally significant kind of behavior.
Note that it is not a good objection to point out that much sexual behavior does not actually result in new people, and that new people might come about in other ways (artificial insemination and cloning). Obviously, sex and the production of new people are nevertheless connected in a special way. For one thing, the biological function of sex is to make new people, even if it doesn’t always in fact result in new people. Sex only exists in the first place because it has this reproductive function. (This is so even given a reductionist naturalistic analysis of biological function rather than a non-reductionist Aristotelian analysis; and it is so whether or not one thinks biological function has all the specific moral implications we traditional natural law theorists claim it does.) For another thing, the other ways in which new people might come about are either relatively rare (only a small percentage of pregnancies are the result of artificial insemination) or still theoretical (cloning), and they are in any event parasitic on the usual way new people come into being, viz. sexual intercourse. It is only because people already generally reproduce by means of sex that there are natural processes which we might interfere with and thereby cause people to come into being in these other, idiosyncratic ways.
Consider the following analogy. I think it’s safe to suppose that most people who would take Singer’s attitude toward sex would also say that guns raise special moral questions that other human artifacts do not, because of the special dangers they pose to human life. And they would say this despite the fact that most gun use does not result in death, and most deaths do not result from the use of guns. For guns nevertheless have a propensity for causing death that entails that we ought to be very cautious in using them, and that raises special moral and legal questions. (Note that it raises these questions however we end up answering them. The point does not depend on whether one takes a liberal or a conservative view on questions about gun control.) By the same token, sex obviously has a propensity for causing new people to exist that suffices to give it special moral significance, even if not all sexual intercourse results in new people and even if not all new people result from sexual intercourse.
2. Sex is the means by which we are completed qua men and women. Needless to say, a person’s sexual organs require those of another human being of the opposite sex if they are to fulfill their biological function. In that sense we are incomplete without sex. But it’s more than just plumbing or physiology. Most people, for at least a significant portion of their lives, will feel frustrated and unfulfilled if they are unable to have the sort of romantic relationship with another person which has sex as its natural concomitant. As I argued on natural law grounds in an earlier post, our psychology, no less than our physiology, is naturally “directed toward” another human being as the end required for its completion. As I also there argued, this sexual psychology forms a continuum, from (to borrow some terminology from C. S. Lewis) mere Venus or basic sexual desire at one end to Eros or full-on romantic longing at the other.
Of course, there are exceptions. There are people who forsake such relationships because they are called to a higher state of the sort represented by the priesthood or religious life. Precisely because the good is a higher good, the person so called is able to overcome the frustration that might otherwise attend such forsaking. There are also some people who simply lack any significant sexual or romantic desires in the first place. But in the typical case, human beings will be frustrated by the lack of a sexual relationship with another human being.
Now of course, we traditional natural law types maintain that such a relationship ought to exist only in the context of marriage, and also (as discussed in another earlier post) that the natural end toward which human sexual psychology is directed is a human being of the opposite sex, rather than merely “a person” in the abstract. But once again, for present purposes, you needn’t agree with all that. The book of Genesis characterizes our sexual incompleteness in decidedly heterosexual terms. The myth of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium famously portrays it in a much more freewheeling way. But both testify to the antiquity of the idea that a human being needs another human being sexually for his or her completion. Advocates of “same-sex marriage” testify to this need as well to the extent that they defend “same-sex marriage” in the name of romantic love and personal fulfillment.
Failure to succeed in romantic relationships can be not only frustrating in itself, but can affect a person’s sense of self-worth, as can any indication that one simply lacks the capacity to attract or satisfy a lover. Thus, to belittle a person’s romantic feelings or sexual advances, or to disparage his or her sexual performance or attractiveness to the opposite sex, are all actions considered especially cruel and humiliating. The presence of a sexual aspect to other harms and misfortunes also makes them much harder to bear. Adultery is considered a far deeper betrayal than any mere breach of contract. Rape and child molestation are far more cruel and psychologically scarring than a non-sexual assault. Exposure of one’s private sexual foibles is regarded as far more humiliating than the disclosure of financial improprieties or other crimes.
Now, that people take there to be a great deal at stake where sex is concerned -- that they regard success in sexual matters as so important to their happiness, and misfortune in sexual matters as a source of such misery -- makes it simply ludicrous to suggest, as Singer does, that “sex raises no unique moral issues at all” or that “there is nothing special about sex” vis-à-vis the moral considerations relevant to it. Given the importance people naturally attach to it, they can obviously do serious harm to themselves or to others depending on how they behave sexually. You might as well say that there is nothing especially morally significant about being a parent, or about being extremely rich, or about being a policeman or a public official.
It is fatuous to pretend that the moral considerations are entirely extrinsic to sex -- mere “considerations of honesty, concern for others, prudence, and so on… [which apply also to] decisions about driving a car,” as Singer claims. You could equally well say this of matters Singer thinks do have special moral significance. For example, you could with no less plausibility say about the distribution of wealth or the state of the environment that they “raise no unique moral issues at all” and that “there is nothing special about” them, but that they merely involve attention to “considerations of honesty, concern for others, prudence, and so on… [which apply also to] decisions about driving a car.” Yet Singer devotes to each of these topics a chapter in Practical Ethics, and has devoted much attention to them elsewhere as well.
3. Sex is that area of human life in which the animal side of our nature most relentlessly fights against the rational side of our nature. Sexual pleasure is the most intense of pleasures. The reasons for this have to do with the considerations raised in the first two points. Sex is necessary for the generation of new human beings, but generating new human beings imposes on us enormous costs and responsibilities which we are very reluctant to take on. Nature has thus made sex so extremely pleasurable that people will engage in it anyway, despite its propensity to generate new people for whom they will have to take responsibility. Sex is also that act which consummates, in the most physically and emotionally intimate or unifying way possible, those romantic relationships in which we seek to remedy our sense of incompleteness. This adds a further, psychologically rich layer of pleasure to the act, which greatly enhances what is already intensely pleasurable just at a raw animal level.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the satisfaction this kind of pleasure promises us can lead us to do all sorts of deeply irrational things. For just a few moments of sexual pleasure, many people will risk damage to their reputations and the breaking up of marriages and families, both their own and those of others. Sexual or romantic passion can prevent people from seeing that a certain person is simply not a suitable marriage partner or someone with whom to have children. Romantic and sexual jealousy can tempt people to spy on and stalk the object of their affections, or even to commit murder. The quest for romantic and sexual pleasure can take on a compulsive character. Hence people become promiscuous, or addicted to pornography, or prone to excessive romantic fantasizing, constantly falling in and out of love. And of course there are various less serious ways in which romantic love or the desire for sex can lead us to act in ways we would otherwise regard as obviously foolish (ill-considered attempts to impress someone to whom one is attracted, crude sexual advances, etc.).
There is another way in which sex can lead us to act irrationally. We can be so troubled by its tendency to make us act irrationally that we overreact to its potential dangers. Horrified by the extremes to which some people go in the pursuit of sexual pleasure, other people sometimes tend toward the opposite extreme. They might prudishly judge that all sexual pleasure is of its nature suspect and better avoided entirely, or at least as far as possible, even in marriage. Even when married, they might scrupulously fret and worry over the minute details of every sexual desire or every aspect of their lovemaking, constantly in a panic over whether they have fallen into sin. (This is, of course, much less rare a tendency these days than the opposite extreme is. But judging from some of the oddballs you’ll find pontificating here and there on the internet, and some of the email that shows up occasionally in my combox, it does exist. Certainly it has existed in a great many people historically.)
Everyone knows all this; once again, you don’t need to agree with traditional natural law theory to see the point. But it is obvious that this tendency of sex to cloud our reason is of special moral significance. What it tempts us toward is a kind of vice; naturally, then, there must also be such a thing as virtue where sex is concerned, a sober middle ground that avoids irrational extremes. Those who reject traditional natural law theory will of course disagree with it about the specific content of virtue where matters of sex are concerned, but it simply defies reason to pretend, as Singer does, that “sex raises no unique moral issues at all.”
Indeed, people who say, in the face of all the obvious evidence, that sex is “no big deal,” thereby merely provide yet a further example of the irrationality to which we are prone in matters of sex. For this sort of remark is, of course, typically an attempt to rationalize or excuse sexual behavior widely thought to be morally questionable but which the speaker would like to engage in anyway.
So far I have been appealing to considerations which, as I have said, any reasonable person should agree with, whether or not he accepts everything a natural law theorist or a Catholic moral theologian would maintain vis-à-vis sexual morality. The point is to show that one needn’t be committed wholesale to traditional sexual morality to see that sex clearly has the kind of moral significance Singer denies it does.
But even what has been said so far goes a long way toward showing how reasonable traditional sexual morality is. Catholic moral theology distinguishes three ends or purposes of marriage: the procreation and education of children, the mutual aid of the spouses, and the remedying of concupiscence. It should be evident that these purposes are aimed precisely at dealing with the three respects in which sex raises special moral problems. Sex has a propensity to result in the generation of new human beings; marriage functions to secure for these new human beings a stable environment in which their material and spiritual needs can be met. Our desire for sexual and romantic relationships reflects our sense of being in some deep way incomplete; the institution of marriage, by which we commit ourselves to another person through thick and thin, functions to ensure that we find completion that is stable and substantive rather than ephemeral and superficial. Sexual desire tempts us to act contrary to reason in ways that threaten to damage both ourselves and others; marriage functions to discipline sexual desire by channeling it in a way that is both socially constructive and conducive to our own best interests.
Obviously, further argumentation would be required to defend the entire range of claims Catholic moral theology and natural law theory would make about sexual morality, but that is not to the present point. The point is rather that there is simply no basis at all for the view -- by no means unique to Singer -- that “sex raises no unique moral issues at all,” or for the common, tiresome allegation that traditional moralists’ concern with sexual morality reflects mere superstition or prudery.
Much more can be said about the special moral problems posed by sex, from a specifically Thomistic (and thus inevitably more controversial) point of view. But that will have to wait for a follow-up post.