Course Notes for Edexcel students : Introduction to Sexual Ethics

This introduction should help you to get clearer about your own views about sexual morality in terms of which actions you think are morally right and which are morally wrong. So it’s about finding out where our own boundaries are.

Interestingly, a couple of philosophers who have contributed a lot to the debate about sexual ethics never had sex once in their lives, like Kant for example, who remained celibate throughout the whole of his life, or St. Thomas Aquinas.  Aquinas’s own family actually hired a prostitute to try to stop him from becoming a monk, but he chased the woman from his room.

Typically, philosophers have attempted to draw the line in one of 4 ways:

By arguing that actions that treat someone purely as a sex object are wrong

This is actually what Kant thought. He argued that using someone in this way was always wrong. Unfortunately, Kant also seemed to have thought that all sexual activity was like this, even sex within marriage. He wrote that ‘sexual love makes the loved person an object of appetite; as soon as that appetite has been stilled, the person is cast aside as one throws away a lemon that has been sucked dry.’ Kant also believed in respecting other people. He argued that it was morally wrong to lie or manipulate someone to get them into bed.

By arguing that certain actions are wrong because they are unnatural

An example of a philosopher who thought this was Thomas Aquinas. He argued that by looking at the design of our bodies, we could figure out how God wanted us to behave sexually. For example, the male and female ‘down there’ bits seem to only allow for heterosexual behaviour, which would then make homosexual behaviour wrong. This is why many (but not all) Christians are against gay marriage. However, Aquinas also believed that each sexual act between a man and a woman had to involve the possibility of the woman becoming pregnant. So masturbation and the use of artificial forms of contraception like the condom are things that he would have criticised (he was a medieval philosopher and so lived before the time of things like the pill and the condom). He also thought that rape was less sinful than masturbation, as at least a pregnancy might result from it.

Not surprisingly, Aquinas isn’t quite so popular these days, though our own tendency to see certain sexual acts as unnatural and therefore immoral can still be seen in our attitude to incest.

By arguing that sexual activity should only take place between consenting adults

This would mean that things like paedophilia and rape are wrong, because neither children nor the victims of sexual attack were capable of consenting to these acts. In order to count as a ‘consenting adult’, you have to be rational and well-informed (you know what you are getting yourself into). This point of view tends to appeal to people who think that Kant was too extreme in his views, as he seemed to be suggesting that actually fancying someone was morally wrong. The consenting adults approach recognises that both sexes do this anyway, but that treating someone as a sex object is just a small part of a relationship that is hopefully loving and fulfilling as well. However, a possible downside of this approach is that casual sex taking place between consenting adults would not be seen as a bad thing. The American comedian Woody Allen highlighted this issue when he wrote, ‘Sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as far as meaningless experiences go, it’s pretty damn good’. This view is broadly consistent with the philosophy of Utilitarianism.

It’s not about moral rules. It’s about becoming a certain kind of person, someone with the right qualities for a lasting relationship

You might have already been told that you ‘have to work on relationships’ to make them successful. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had a view like this. Rather than believing that morality was about following rules like ‘Don’t cheat on somebody’, he thought that being good at things like relationships involved practice. Just as sportspeople have to train and practice regularly to develop certain skills, Aristotle thought that you needed practice to develop virtues like ‘trust’ and ‘loyalty’. A person following this view might therefore simply work on becoming a better person with a boyfriend/girlfriend and might be more forgiving when things go wrong. In other words, this is the Virtue Ethics approach to this topic.