Course Notes on Sexual Ethics for Edexcel students Part 3 – A Summary

From the Edexcel Syllabus

3.2 Sexual Ethics

 a) The contribution of at least one world religion on issues in sexual ethics, including the teaching of sacred text(s) and understanding of the diversity of religious approaches, sexual relationships in and outside of marriage, including pre-marital sex, adultery, promiscuity, same-sex relationships, including marriage and civil partnership, contraception and childlessness, secular ethical approaches to these issues and social and cultural influences on them.

b) The continuing relevance and application of religious teachings and beliefs on sexual ethics, strengths and weaknesses of changing social attitudes, the success or otherwise of contributions from ethical theory in making decisions in matters of sexual ethics.

With reference to the ideas of P Vardy and J Dominian (see the end of this post for notes on these two). Additionally, the controversial views of John Boswell will be discussed in relation to homosexuality.

NOTE: There is far more information here than is needed for this topic (though the issue of childlessness is treated separately HERE in relation to IVF treatment and PGD). What follows is also an exercise in Applied Ethics so there is an opportunity to see how some of the Ethical theories studied at A level might be deployed in relation to pre-marital sex, homosexuality and contraception.


Sexual ethics is all about working out which sexual acts, behaviours and attitudes are morally right from those that are morally wrong. Philosophers have tended to look at this issue by arguing:

  1. That certain sexual actions are wrong because they are unnatural. (Example: Natural Law, RC and DCE approaches to homosexuality)
  2. That actions that involve objectification are wrong (Example: some Feminist/Kantian Ethics approaches to pornography)
  3. That sexual activity is moral if is engaged in by consenting adults (Example: Contractarian/Libertarian approaches to sexual ethics that take into account John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle)
  4. That sexual relationships can be used to cultivate virtues and avoid vices. (Example: Virtue Ethics)

This summary will look at some of the examples mentioned above in more detail below and will focus especially on homosexuality, pre-marital and extra-marital sex and contraception as these are all topics that are specifically mentioned in the syllabus.



Biblical Teachings

According to ancient Jewish law as laid down in the OT book of Deuteronomy, women were expected to be virgins when they were married. This was to ensure that a man could know that his children were his in order for him to pass on his birthright to them. The seventh of the ten commandments in Exodus Chapter 20 prohibits adultery and the punishment, according to Deuteronomy, was death by stoning for both the man and the woman. Adultery on the part of the wife was therefore certainly seen as giving the husband the right to divorce.

The Genesis story of Adam and Eve can also be taken as providing a basis for good sexual relationships and Genesis 2v24 (‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh’) suggests that marriage is the appropriate context for sexual relationships, ruling out pre-marital and extra-marital sex.

In the New Testament, Jesus only criticises one kind of sexual sin: adultery. In Mark, he quotes the passage from Genesis above and seems to imply that marriage is sacred (‘…what God has joined together, let man not separate’) and therefore the appropriate context for sexual relations.

Finally, St Paul (an early Christian convert) in a letter to the Corinthians includes ‘adulterers’ in a list of those who ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God’.

Church teachings/Christian theology

For Augustine, as sex was the means through which original sin was transmitted and sexual desire was seen as a sign of mankind’s fallen state and an expression of concupiscence (self-centered and lustful desire), marriage was seen by him as a way of restricting these tendencies. It seems reasonable to conclude that engaging in pre-marital and extra-marital sex would therefore be examples of indulging in concupiscence.

Aquinas put less emphasis on marriage as the containment for sin. Instead, extending Natural Law theory to this territory, he argued that if the primary purpose of sex is for the procreation of children then the purpose of marriage is to provide the most stable environment for them to be brought up in.  He therefore condemned sex outside of marriage, writing in Summa Contra Gentiles that ‘matrimony is natural for man, and promiscuous performance of the sexual act, outside matrimony, is contrary to man’s good. For this reason it must be a sin.’

The majority of Christian churches still regard sex as a practice exclusively for those who have made a commitment to a permanent, loving relationship. Nevertheless, some Christians are accepting of co-habitation (what used to be known as ‘living in sin’) provided that the relationship is an expression of love and is not casual in nature.  For example, the American liberal theologian Harvey Cox has argued that what is important is a relationship of love; whether the couple are married does not matter. Cox goes on to suggest that in a world of fluid relationships, extramarital sex is sometimes going to be inevitable. However, he sees it as a symptom that a relationship may have broken down. The couple should recognise this and, in love and charity, move on.

However, more traditional church teachings condemn co-habitation. For example, Pope John Paul II writing in 1981 argued that such relationships lack commitment and trust and weaken the sense of fidelity inspired by the sacrament of marriage. Marriage can therefore provide the only valid context for sexual relationships.

Fundamentalist Christians also take a less liberal path and believe that sexual relationships ought not to be undertaken outside of marriage. Many have joined the organisation True Love Waits, that was created in 1993. Members take a pledge not to have sexual intercourse until after marriage. However, it may be significant that STD rates amongst those who have made this commitment appear to be the same as those in the general population.

In the UK, an organisation called the Romance Academy encourages teenagers (who may or may not already be sexually active) to abstain from sex for a period of five months. In the TV documentary No Sex Please, We’re Teenagers, some of those participating reported that they felt less taken for granted. There are echoes of Kantian ethics here in the sense that they may have been getting treated as objects (or as ‘means’ to sexual gratification in Kantian terminology) rather than as ‘ends’ in themselves by their partners. So it may be interesting to discuss the Romance Academy as an example for both Religious Ethics and Kantian Ethics if the question you are answering allows for this.

NOTE: As of April 2020 the Romance Academy website was not accessible. So they may need referring to in the past tense. Here are a series of clips from the BBC series No Sex Please We’re Teenagers’ which was about the organisation.


Biblical teachings

Genesis 1v28, God instructs the first human beings he has created to ‘be fruitful and multiply’. This suggests that one of the main purposes of human beings is to procreate and therefore that contraception, by implication, should be avoided. Genesis 4v1 (in which Eve gives birth to Cain ‘with the help of the Lord’) could be interpreted as meaning that children are produced through God’s will. Contraception therefore might be seen to possibly obstruct the will of God.

Genesis 38 tells the story of Onan, according to which he was instructed by his father to sleep with his deceased brother’s wife, Tamar, so that she could bear children and preserve the family line. However, he repeatedly withdrew before climax and ‘spilled his seed on the ground’ as any heir would not be legally considered his. As a result of this, God punishes him with death. This story has sometimes been used (e.g. in Roman Catholic teaching) to argue that contraception/avoiding pregnancy is wrong. However, it is simply the avoidance of his duty to produce an heir that seems to be the issue.

NOTE :The story of Er and Onan is told rather amusingly but graphically (!) with the help of lego HERE

St Paul also seems to have favoured celibacy (arguably a form of contraception) as the ideal state, possibly because he expected the second coming of Jesus to happen soon and therefore thought that Christians should be more focused on spiritual  matters rather than sex.

Church teachings

Roman Catholic teaching has consistently argued against the use of artificial contraception, a position reaffirmed by Pope Paul VIth in 1968 in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (which nevertheless did permit the use of the ‘rhythm method’ as well sexual abstinence as non-artificial forms of contraception). The natural purpose of sexual intercourse was procreation and anything that interfered with that purpose was considered contrary to Natural Law. However, immediate opposition to this teaching was voiced by some Catholic bishops in Canada who collectively issued a document in response called the Winnipeg Statement in which they argued that Catholics

who genuinely felt unable to follow the Pope’s instructions could follow their own consciences where necessary when making ethical decisions.

More recently (towards the end of 2010) Pope Benedict has stated that the use of condoms may be permissible in certain circumstances to prevent the spread of STD’s, especially HIV.

Protestant teaching also used to be opposed to contraception. But since the Lambeth Conference in 1930, this attitude has softened and nowadays ‘prudent family planning’ (perhaps to limit family size) is permitted and has been made a matter of conscience. Protestants may still be opposed to the use of abortifacients though, an attitude that is shared with the Eastern Orthodox Church which also having been traditionally opposed to contraception now holds that the use of contraception may be acceptable under certain conditions e.g. with the blessing of a spiritual leader.

Many Christians would still regard the use of contraception outside of marriage as unacceptable as this may encourage promiscuous behaviour.


Biblical teachings

Genesis 19v1-8 tells the story of the destruction of the town of Sodom. Part of the story involves an incident where it appears that the men of the town wish to rape some male visitors. For this reason the story has sometimes been interpreted as highlighting the evil of homosexual sex. However, it has been argued that the inhabitants were destroyed for failing to honour the important duty (in Biblical times) of showing hospitality to travellers. So homosexuality is arguably not being directly condemned here.

The term ‘sodomite’, which appears twice in the King James version of the Old Testament (Deut. 23v17, 1 Kings 14v24) is simply a mistranslation of the Hebrew ‘kadash’ [plural ‘kadeshim’] which describes prostitutes who served in pagan temples, and as there is little evidence about the practices of that time, it cannot be inferred that these prostitutes serviced persons of their own sex.

The book of Leviticus also appears to describe homosexuality as ‘an abomination’ (18v22, 20v13). However, according to the Catholic historian and theologian John Boswell (who is profiled below) the Hebrew word ‘toevah’ does not, when it is deployed, usually describe actions that are intrinsically evil, like rape or theft, but rather those that are ritually unclean for Jews, like eating pork or engaging in intercourse during menstruation. Most Christians have, of course. long since dispensed with these and other specific laws concerning diet, behaviour, dress etc. mentioned elsewhere in Leviticus. As Boswell puts it, ‘the irrelevance of [such] verses was further emphasised by the teaching of Jesus and Paul that under the new dispensation it was not the physical violation of Levitical precepts which constituted ‘abomination’ but the interior infidelity of the soul’ [e.g. see Luke 16v15, Rom. 2v22, Titus 1v10-16].

Jesus is silent on the issue of homosexuality, but St Paul appears to condemn this type of behaviour in 1 Corinthians 6v9 and 1 Timothy 1v10, and writes critically of ‘men committing shameless acts with men ‘ in his letter to the Romans. Many Christians therefore regard St Paul as denouncing a homosexual lifestyle because it undermines the natural order represented by heterosexual family life. However, the translation of the two Greek words used by Paul in 1 Corinthians has been questioned and might instead refer to those who engage in ‘loose living’ (malakoi) and male prostitutes (arsenokoitai) who serviced both sexes, rather than homosexuals (see the section on John Boswell below).

Additionally, Paul’s reference to homosexual behaviour in Romans 1v26-27 may also have been misunderstood, as a close reading of this passage reveals that those who Paul is condemning are not homosexuals, but rather heterosexuals who have committed homosexual acts. Paul’s intent here is to criticise those who have rejected their true calling and abandoned the path that they were once following, or as Boswell puts it:

‘Paul believed that the Gentiles knew the truth of God but rejected it and likewise rejected their true ‘nature’ as regarded their sexual appetites, going beyond what was ‘natural’ for them and what was approved for the Jews. It cannot be inferred from this that Paul considered mere homoerotic attraction or practice morally reprehensible, since the passage strongly implies that he was not discussing persons who were by inclination gay and since he carefully observed, in regard to both the women and the men, that they changed or abandoned the ‘natural use’ to engage in homosexual activities.’

Next there is the Epistle of Jude to consider, specifically verse 7:

‘Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.’

While the reference to ‘strange flesh’ may once more put the reader in mind of the widely held but inaccurate view that the cities were destroyed because their citizens were engaging in homosexual activity, Boswell observes that the phrase is not necessarily alluding to homosexuality, but rather the Jewish legend that the women of Sodom had intercourse with angels.

Returning to the creation stories in Genesis, Boswell then has this to say:

‘The assumption that the creation of humankind through heterosexual union in Genesis and the subsequent emphasis on marriage throughout the Old Testament demonstrates tacit rejection of homosexuality is unsupportable in a modern context, and it does not seem to have occurred to early Christians. It does not figure in any polemic on the subject and would have constituted an extremely weak argument if it had[as] it would have been obvious, even to the most naive, that in order to account for for the origins of the of the human race, the writer of Genesis would inevitably describe the creation of the separate sexes which produce offspring and would comment on the nature of the union which brings about procreation. One would no more expect an account of gay love than of friendship in Genesis: neither could produce offspring, neither had, and neither would contribute to the story of peopling the earth.’

If Boswell is correct, then this surely bolsters the case for Christian same-sex marriage.

He goes on to conclude (in a passage that is also repeated below):

‘In sum, there is only one place in the writings which eventually became the Christian Bible where homosexual relations per se are clearly prohibited – Leviticus – and the context in which this prohibition occurred rendered it inapplicable to the Christian community, at least as moral law.’

Elsewhere, the sentiments expressed in Galatians 3 (which is another letter written by Paul), that ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ might arguably be extended to include categories such as ‘LGBT’ and ’straight’.

Church teachings

The approach of Natural Law to homosexuality will be treated in a separate section. More generally, there is no consensus about this issue within the various Christian churches. For example, within the Anglican church it is acknowledged that there are those who are not homosexual by choice but by orientation and that they must be accepted fully into church communities. Many of the headlines regarding the Church of England since 2002 have been about the rights of homosexual priests. The Church of England allows for the ordination of gay priests as long as they are celibate. However, in 2003 Canon Jeffrey John was appointed as Bishop of Reading. Despite the fact that he has written articles and pamphlets outlining why gay couples should live in faithful, permanent, stable relationships, he made it clear that he was personally celibate. His appointment, and the subsequent election of an openly gay bishop in America, prompted a national and international examination on the rights of homosexual clergy. Canon Jeffrey John stood down as Bishop-elect of Reading but has subsequently been installed as Dean of St Albans.

Alongside issues of homosexual clergy, the wider Anglican Communion has been wrestling with whether to sanction same-sex blessings (and two clergymen were married in an Anglican church in 2008 using a version of the marriage ceremony). Both these issues could cause divisions within the Anglican Communion with the provinces of the global south (Nigeria, South East Asia, South America among many others) threatening to split permanently from those sanctioning the blessing of same-sex relationships and the ordination of non-celibate gay clergy – mainly in North America.

Meanwhile, the teaching of the Roman Catholic church is that Homosexuality is an ‘intrinsically disordered’ state which is contrary to scripture and Natural Law, though it is accepted that some people are, for reasons which are unclear, born with homosexual inclinations.  Having these inclinations is therefore not sinful but putting them into practice is. For such individuals, a life of chastity is encouraged.


Following the philosophy of Aristotle that things in nature have a purpose that can be discerned through the use of reason, Aquinas added the thought that the purpose or telos each thing possesses is given to it by God. And so careful examination of everything in God’s creation, including ourselves, can lead us to discover the purpose that God has designed it for. In the case of the parts of the human body, we can arrive at knowledge of what is in keeping with, and what is contrary to God’s will, and therefore what is morally good and bad.

In the territory of sexual ethics, Aquinas noted that semen plays a crucial role in reproduction. That is its purpose, he supposes. So any activity that involves thwarting the natural function of semen must be contrary to nature, and therefore morally wrong. It therefore follows that homosexual acts between males involves thwarting the purpose God has assigned to semen and are therefore sinful. The same goes for masturbation, oral sex and the use of artificial forms of contraception.  All of these activities violate the primary precept of reproduction. For Aquinas, this made rape less sinful than masturbation because a pregnancy may still result from the emission of semen.

Pre-Marital/Extra Marital Sex

Aquinas also argued that ‘it is natural to the human being for the man to establish a lasting association with a designated woman over no short period of time….therefore matrimony is natural for man, and promiscuous performance of the sexual act, outside matrimony is contrary to man’s good.’


  1. According to Aquinas, semen seems designed for the purpose of heterosexual procreation. To make use of it for other purposes would then be ‘unnatural’. Fair enough. But what of the other parts of our bodies? The main purpose of our eyes seems to be to look at objects. Is the use of them to flirt therefore unnatural? And should we avoid snapping our fingers in time to the beat when music is heard since they seem designed primarily for picking things up?
  2. The claim that homosexuality is unnatural can also be seen as an empirical question. But research suggests that a minority of members of many mammalian species are exclusively homosexual. For example, studies of Longhorn sheep have shown that 10 per cent of rams will consistently choose to mount other rams rather than fertile ewes, even when both are freely available. So a powerful drive towards homosexual activity is something that God, if he exists, has given to a minority of the members of many mammalian species. It therefore seems possible that God might have given this same inclination to some members of our own species (about 1-3 per cent of whom, also seem to be exclusively homosexual).
  3. Critics of the Natural Law argue that sex can also have a non-reproductive purpose, the uniting act of love between a couple that Aquinas overlooks because of his emphasis on procreation.
  4. What about sex after the menopause, or when both partners are infertile, or when the woman is already pregnant? It seems odd to think of these acts as unnatural in some way.
  5. The issue of whether monogamy is a natural state for both men and women also seems to be a matter of debate. For example, fewer than 5% of mammals have been shown to be monogamous and according to David Barash, and Judith Lipton, co-authors of the book The Myth of Monogamy, humans also have a drive to procreate with the best possible partner, who may not always be our own. Or as Barash and Lipton put it, “In attempting to maintain a social and sexual bond consisting exclusively of one man and one woman, aspiring monogamists are going against some of the deepest-seated evolutionary inclinations with which biology has endowed most creatures, Homo sapiens included.”


Pre-marital and extra-marital sex

Kant believed that you should never treat people as a means to an end but only as an end in themselves. Applying this formulation of the categorical imperative to the territory of sexual ethics, he concluded that sex inevitably involves using people as a means to an end because what interests those having sex is not the other person but the fulfilment of a strong sex drive. Even sex within marriage involves some degree of objectification. He defined marriage as a ‘lifelong possession of each other’s sexual attributes’ and wrote that‘sexual love makes of the loved person an object of appetite; as soon as that appetite has been stilled, the person is cast aside as one casts away a lemon that has been sucked dry’. Therefore for Kant, the pursuit of sexual pleasure is only allowed when serving more valuable goals, such as marriage for companionship.

Kant saw prostitution and the way in which the rich have mistresses as being precisely the opposite of what he wanted for human beings. Prostitutes have a contract with their clients that destroys human autonomy and makes the prostitute a thing to be used:

‘… to allow one’s person for profit to be used by another for the satisfaction of sexual desire, to make of oneself an Object of demand, is to dispose over oneself as over a thing and to make of oneself a thing on which another satisfies his appetite, just as he satisfies his hunger upon a steak. But since the inclination is directed towards one’s sex and not towards one’s humanity, it is clear that one thus partially sacrifices one’s humanity and thereby runs a moral risk. Human beings are, therefore, not entitled to offer themselves, for profit, as things for the use of others in the satisfaction of their sexual propensities.’

– From ‘The Philosophy of Law’

 He also believed that marriage had the same potential with men using their wives merely for sexual gratification and to produce children. Kant believed in the autonomy of every living person and this included married women.

However, Kantian ethics is an ethics of duty and there is, arguably, a duty to preserve the human race through procreation. And this can only happen through the sexual act unless one resorts to fertility treatments like IVF.

Kant’s summum bonum may be considered a possible solution to the contradictions in his thought. It is left to the afterlife for the age of reason to be achieved when human beings will rise above their sexual needs. A truly moral society will then exist because reason will triumph over the desires of the flesh. In the meantime, Kant’s view of sexual ethics outside of marriage was affected by his views about sex and marriage. He regarded both as imperfect, yet he saw that sex was necessary for the human race to survive, and that marriage was the best method of regulating sexual intercourse and the creation of offspring. Marriage could be abused, but sexual relationships outside marriage, he believed, created a worse situation. It led to women being treated as things, as objects, rather than as partners. Kant spoke of marriage as being designed for ‘merry conversation’, by which he meant companionship. He regarded relationships outside marriage as temporary affairs that were based on sex rather than companionship and therefore thought that they were morally flawed. Jill Oliphant has also pointed out that it would be difficult to universalise extra-marital sex as it would mean that this would be recommended for one’s wife or husband, parents, children, and so on. However, she seems unaware of Kant’s declaration about prostitution above and seems to think that offering sexual services might be acceptable on Kantian terms if no coercion was involved and the parties involved were acting rationally and autonomously.


  1. If one accepts human sexuality as a natural and good aspect of life, rather than a degrading and bad aspect, it takes away much of the force of Kant’s argument that sex inevitably involves treating someone as a means to an end. Rather than looking upon sexual desires as flaws which place us on the level with beasts, they can be seen as drives that unite us all. Whatever our station in life, the libido is common property.
  2. The objectification of people we are sexually attracted to might then be seen as natural and not necessarily immoral. However, Kantian ethics may still be useful as it flags up the dangers of treating a sexual partner mainly or exclusively as a sex object, as might happen in casual sexual liaisons. This is what some of the teenagers who took part in the Romance Academy programme of sexual abstention noticed about their relationships (see above).
  3. Feminists might also support the Kantian perspective and view pornography and prostitution as examples as proof that the morality of one group, typically that of straight men, has been imposed on women. However, Dr Brooke Magnanti (the infamous ‘Belle de Jour’) engaged in sex for money to fund her life in London and has never understood the hysterical reaction. “Part of women being permitted to make their own choices is that this was my choice, and you may not agree with it, but, nevertheless, it’s a choice. Do the people who say women should have the right to make choices mean just not this one?”


The difficulties that exist in Kant’s views about sexual relationships persist when we attempt to apply Kantian ethics to the issue of contraception. On one side of the argument is the view that procreation is an intrinsic duty of the human race. Human beings must preserve life, therefore contraception would seem to be morally wrong. Yet Kant does not say that it is the duty of every human being to reproduce nor does he say that every act of intercourse ought to result in a child. However, Kant was critical of masturbation, though not because there is no possibility of procreation but rather because it involved using oneself as a means, or as he put it, ‘’a man gives up his personality … when he uses himself merely as a means for the gratification of an animal drive’.

There are some grounds to think that Kant might have approved of contraception. In the 18th and 19th centuries women were generally regarded as the property of their husbands and little control over when they had sexual intercourse. The contraceptive pill (which became available in the 1960’s)therefore arguably liberated women from being treated as a means to an end. It allowed them to be less financially dependent on men and permitted them to pursue extended courses of professional training without having to live like a nun. As someone who had a high regard for the autonomy of every rational being, Kant did not share the view that women were property and therefore might have welcomed this development. However, it has to be borne in mind that Kant viewed all sexual activity as involving objectification, using sex as a means to an end: our own sexual pleasure. So he thought that sex should be restricted to marriage because we then only end up using one person in this way, someone who we hopefully then act towards in a respectful way in all other circumstances. And because the dangerous sex drive is effectively quarantined within marriage, we are then freed up to treat everyone else as an end in themselves.

So far, so good. However, although we have already seen that the availability of the contraceptive pill arguably liberated women and stopped them being seen as the property of their husbands, there is another way to look at this. From this alternative point of view, the pill could be said to have allowed women to enjoy more sexual relationships without fearing the risk of pregnancy as a consequence. And that means that there were more opportunities to objectify other people and to use them as means to sexual self-gratification. So from this perspective, it is possible that Kant would have been very much against the availability of contraception for this kind of purpose.

Was Kant right to think of sex in this way? Well, it could be argued that at the moment of orgasm it makes absolutely no difference whom, if anyone, you are with (a point made by the philosopher John Moulton). So perhaps sex really is just about one’s own pleasure in this sense. However, the intimacy experienced both before and after orgasm might be said to count for something too.


Kant argued that homosexuality was wrong (it was legal at the time in his native Prussia). Possibly because he was under the influence of Natural Law theory (though this is by no means certain as Kant does not refer to Aquinas in his discussion), in his Lectures on Ethics Kant contends that homosexual acts are unnatural ‘crimes against nature’ that degrade human beings below the level of animals. In this respect engaging in homosexual acts would fail the test of duty we have in terms of the categorical imperative not to use ourselves or others as a means to an end, the end being mere sexual gratification or to degrade ourselves.

Remember that Kant regarded all sexual activity outside of marriage as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. We have already seen that his reason for rejecting extramarital sexual relationships is that marriage is a permanent commitment while extramarital affairs are unstable.

Additionally, homosexuality fails to cross the barrier of universalisation as far as the first formulation of the categorical imperative is concerned. This is because if everyone were to become homosexual the population of the world would decline to zero. So for this reason too, Kant sees homosexuality as morally unacceptable.


  1. Perhaps it is true that if everyone were homosexual, there would be no society. But if everyone was celibate (like Kant who never married, and Catholic priests), society would collapse just as surely. So Kant’s position is hypocritical. Jeremy Bentham made a similar point somewhat more forcefully roughly 200 years ago: ‘If then merely out of regard to population it were right that [homosexuals] should be burnt alive, monks ought to be roasted alive by a slow fire.’
  2. As we have already noted, if one accepts human sexuality (and by extension homosexuality) as something natural (see the discussion about Longhorn sheep above)and positive and good rather than degrading and bad, it takes away much of the force of Kant’s argument that homosexual acts are unnatural crimes of the flesh.


Pre-marital and extra-marital sex

The central feature of Utilitarianism is, of course, the principle of the greatest good/happiness/pleasure of the greatest number. Utilitarians want a happy society and sexual pleasure might be thought of as an important part of social happiness. The utilitarian approach to sex and relationships is therefore often thought of as being libertarian, as it allows consenting adults to do what they want and protects their freedom to do so. Nevertheless, the principle of utility would give some weight to the emotional side of relationships. For example, sexual pleasure by itself according to Bentham’s hedonic calculus would score highly in terms of ‘Intensity’ but less so for ‘Duration’ in terms of how long the pleasure lasts for and, perhaps, ‘Fecundity’ in terms of how emotionally nurturing a casual sexual encounter might be. The lasting pleasure of satisfying, deep relationships might therefore rate more highly when a hedonic calculation is made.  Mill’s emphasis on ‘higher’ non-physical pleasures might also be employed to argue that a sexual relationship within a context of companionship, love and commitment (and perhaps a shared interest in higher pleasures) is preferable to a casual, sexual encounter.

Applying these ideas to pre-marital and extra-marital sex may depend on the specific circumstances. For example, co-habitation may include a high level of emotional commitment. As far as adultery is concerned, if someone is genuinely trapped in a stale marriage but finds deep fulfilment in an extra-marital affair then a utilitarian calculation may view this situation positively. On the other hand, the deception involved in extra-marital affairs is an important factor to also be considered.

Bentham’s view of sexual relationships was strikingly modern for his times. He thought that gay relationships were morally acceptable as they harm no-one and give pleasure to many. He also believed that pornography and prostitution should be lawful for similar reasons. He regarded sex as a basic human need that exists to give pleasure, however transitory this may be. Bentham distinguished between offences against the self and offences against society. Homosexuality, pornography and prostitution are classed as offences against the self. They affect the individuals concerned but do not affect the wider population. What a person reads, pays for or does in the privacy of their own home has no bearing on society as a whole.

Bentham was, however, concerned about those he regarded as the idle, criminally minded poor and their capacity to produce unwanted offspring. This kind of utilitarian thinking could be used to justify eugenics and particularly the idea that only certain types of people should be allowed to have children. The forced sterilisation of these types regardless of their marital state might therefore be one outcome of a hedonic calculation in this area.

Mill’s rule utilitarianism starts from a different perspective. Human freedom, for Mill, is necessary for human beings to be happy. Therefore without liberty utilitarian values are not possible. Mill’s view of sexual relationships is therefore guided by the need for freedom. Importantly, this freedom is equal for men and women. The liberty of the woman is as vital as that of the man. Mill regarded sexual intercourse as a necessary but lower pleasure. Marriage was essentially about friendship and companionship, which were considered higher pleasures.

Mill thought that sexual intercourse outside of marriage should not be unlawful. Following Bentham, Mill regarded prostitution as a fact of life, a personal matter between the prostitute and the client. However, writing with his wife Harriet Taylor, Mill examined the issue of reputation. Together they argued that it would be wrong, for example, for a husband to cause embarrassment to his wife’s reputation by visiting brothels, and generally treating her with contempt. Here we see Mill’s Harm Principle at work. In On Liberty, Mill argued that self-harm is one’s own affair:

‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his own will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.’

Applying this principle to extra-marital sex with prostitutes, we can see that the wife’s reputation may be harmed by the behaviour of her husband.

Mill also did not consider premarital and extramarital sex as wrong. What was wrong was the exploitation of women, which he believed was more likely to occur outside of marriage than within it.


  1. It could be argued that personal harm is important too. Today, for example, self-harming is taken very seriously. And the state is arguably right to use its power to compel us to wear seatbelts in cars, or a protective helmet when riding a motorcycle.
  2. But self-harm is difficult to evaluate. Suppose like Belle De Jour (see above), a woman claims that she freely chose to become a prostitute. As Freud has argued, our true motives for our actions are sometimes hidden from view in the unconscious mind and might only be uncovered through psychoanalysis. So we may think that our choices are free when their origin may lie in an unconscious and unresolved emotional trauma from childhood.


Contraception gives women control over their lives. It prevents unwanted pregnancies, gives women the option of planning when to have children (and how many) in relation to their career plans and allows them to follow and complete extended courses of professional training without having to be celibate. So the benefits in terms of the greatest happiness of the greatest number seem undeniable.

J.S. Mill was the first utilitarian to campaign in favour of contraception. Mill was arrested for distributing obscene literature, material which showed how to use contraception.  Mill saw that the greatest good of the greatest number would not be possible if women were denied this liberty. In this he was influenced by Annie Besant (1847-1933), a woman who campaigned for the legalisation of contraception and for women’s rights. Besant herself was tried for obscenity in 1877 (for publishing a pamphlet on contraception) and quoted from Mill in her defence, arguing that the widespread use of contraception would lead to fewer unwanted pregnancies, less poverty and a reduction in crime.

A group known as the Cambridge Welfare Utilitarians (who were followers of the utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick) also campaigned for the legalisation of contraception in the 1920’s and 30’s.

Today, issues relating to population growth, to unwanted children and to AIDS lead modern utilitarians to continue to campaign in favour of birth control.


In early 19th Century England, homosexuality was commonly regarded as morally evil and homosexual acts were sometimes punished harshly. Homosexuals were even regularly hanged. This was the situation when Jeremy Bentham wrote his Essay on Paederasty (the term ‘paederasty means sex between a man and a boy; in the 18th century it was used as a general term for anal sex.  It was written in 1785 but not published until after his death. In it, he argues that homosexual practices do not harm society and do not lead to the break-up of family life. Therefore, on utilitarian grounds, homosexual activity is to be allowed even if, as was the case, Bentham personally disapproved of it. The law should enter into the bedroom only when what occurs there does harm to society. Bentham compared the English situation with ancient Rome, where homosexuality was legal. He argued that Roman society was not affected detrimentally by homosexuality.

Mill supported the basic thrust of Bentham’s message. In On Liberty he makes the point that sexual acts performed in public would be indecent but not when performed privately where they are morally neutral (unless Mill’s Harm Principle is violated, as it would be in cases like marital rape, for example).

Elsewhere, Mill argued in On Nature that what is natural and unnatural for humans is no indication of what is morally right or wrong. Here, he seems to be repeating Hume’s view that one can never derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. In other words, moral judgements can never be derived from mere states of affairs (see your notes on meta-ethics for more on this). So Mill would not have agreed that homosexuality can be condemned on the grounds that it is unnatural.


  1. We might go further than Mill and argue that virtuous behaviour often requires us to struggle against our natural inclinations, a point noticed by Kant in his emphasis on rising above self-centred desire in order to do our duty. This criticism could also be made in connection with Natural Law.
  2. Thomas Schmidt in his book Straight and Narrow has argued that certain homosexual practices are dangerous because of the health risks involved (in terms of the spread of STD’s and the tendency of the anus to rupture and incur damage through anal sex). In effect, he is appealing to Mill’s Harm Principle in terms of the physical risks that are involved). However, STD’s and especially AIDS are arguably no more of a ‘gay plague’ than they are heterosexual diseases, especially when factors like sex with prostitutes, unprotected sex and hard drug use are considered in relation to AIDS. Additionally, some heterosexual couples enjoy anal sex, and it is not difficult to find online information describing how to engage in the practice safely, as well as advice about dealing with situations where one partner wants to try it but the other does not (which usually entails being sufficiently confident in oneself to say ’no’ to this or any other sexual request that someone does not feel comfortable with).

Appendix – Mill’s Harm Principle re-stated

  1. Decisions should be made on the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number) and rules/laws designed to bring about that good.
  2. Individuals should be free to do whatever gives them pleasure, even if it could harm them.
  3. But they are not entitled to do things that could harm others.
  4. Individuals can choose to do things that affect their own bodies, but not those of someone else.
  5. Over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.


Pre-marital and extra-marital sex

The starting point in Virtue Ethics is the virtuous state of the moral agent, with Virtue ethicists generally agreeing that sexual activity should not be treated lightly as just a pleasurable bodily sensation. Sexual relationships should take place within a loving and stable relationship. With regard to pre-marital sex, one Virtue Ethics response might assert that a stable and loving relationship can exist outside of marriage. What is important is whether the couple love each other and whether they are committed to a long-term relationship. However, other Virtue ethicists might argue that such a relationship cannot exist outside of marriage. This second position follows Aristotle’s view that marriage creates the conditions in which virtuous love can flourish.  An argument in favour of this second approach might take the line that marriage involves a deeper commitment to become a certain kind of person – a sexually faithful one – and involves the cultivation of additional virtues of love, trust and affection.. This would make extramarital sex harder to justify, though in a marriage no longer characterised by these emotional commitments, adultery could be seen as less bad (even though the virtue of being sexually faithful would be undermined).


There is no clear-cut answer among Virtue ethicists concerning the morality of contraception. Some start from a position similar to that of Natural Law and argue that what is virtuous lies in human reproduction and the loving and caring relationship that exists within a family. This is the view maintained by Rosalind Hursthouse, who argues that that contraception leads to casual sex, which is inherently immoral as it treats the other person as a mean to personal satisfaction. A virtuous person would, contrastingly, place value on the other person.

There are other ways of looking at contraception. Michael Slote emphasises the caring nature of a virtuous person which includes:

  • care for yourself
  • care for family and friends
  • care for humanity

It can be argued that all three types of caring might involve the need to use contraceptives. If you care for yourself, you would not wish to become sick or die as the result of contracting an STD. If you care for your family and you might wish to give birth but only if the child is going to be wanted and brought up in a loving and caring environment. Finally, your desire to care for all humanity will take into account the growth of the world’s population and the consequential damage done to the environment.

However, this approach might be criticised on the grounds that it is too simplistic. For example, is the Chinese one child policy an illustration of care for humanity or can it be seen as inhumane and therefore not virtuous?

Perhaps there are therefore no hard and fast answers when it comes to Virtue Ethics and contraception. Each case has to be weighed on its individual merits in terms of the virtues that are being cultivated. For example, it is arguably virtuous for a person to use a condom so as not to infect their partner with AIDS/HIV but the use of contraception as an aid to sleeping around might be deemed to be not virtuous.


There is no such thing as a shared view on homosexuality amongst Virtue ethicists. Some regard homosexuality as being contrary to the conduct of a virtuous person because an intrinsic virtue of humanity is the desire to reproduce. Another virtuous state is that which is found within a loving and caring relationship within the family. This view of Virtue Ethics (represented in the writing of Germain Grisez and Rosalind Hursthouse) rejects the idea that it is possible for homosexual couples to have the same reproductive and family life as that of heterosexuals. However, this view does not take into account the possibility for same-sex couples to create a family using modern fertility treatment.

Another approach to Virtue ethics and homosexuality is concerned more with character traits. Some scholars have argued that virtuous character traits can be found in the lives of homosexuals and therefore that there is nothing incompatible between the virtuous life and being gay. Additionally, it could be argued that there is nothing especially virtuous to be admired in many married family situations. Yet another approach highlights the temporary nature of many gay relationships between men. So that if fidelity is a virtue, a gay lifestyle of this sort works against it. However, the same could be said for non-marital heterosexual relationships that involve a degree of promiscuity. It should also be noted that a lesbian lifestyle involves longer term relationships.



Freud thought that the human personality was divided into three aspects: id, ego and superego. The term ‘id’ is a word Freud used to describe the largely unconscious part of our personality that contains our natural, instinctive drives, including the drive for sex and other forms of pleasure. Freud called this natural sex drive the libido. Freud thought that the desires of the id were dangerous and needed regulating by the super-ego, our inner conscience that represents the  voice of parental and cultural authority figures that we eventually internalise telling us what we can and can’t do (for example, when you say to yourself ‘I ought to be doing more revision’ that could be said to be the voice of your superego at work in an attempt to deflect the id from its constant pursuit of the pleasure of consulting your mobile phones )*. He also claimed that infants have a sexuality.  For example, male children lust after their mothers and want to murder their fathers whom they regard as rivals (a state known as the Oedipus complex) Freud can therefore be used to criticise Aquinas because Freud is effectively arguing that we sometimes may need to struggle against our natural inclinations, which in many cases dispose us more to vice than virtue. He is also suggesting that our morality is highly influenced by our sexuality. The boundaries that ethical theories and societies attempt to establish between moral and immoral sexual behaviour could actually be expressions of neuroses, unresolved internal conflicts within us that cause us stress and anxiety and that have their basis in sexuality. So for Freud, instead of subscribing to a particular ethical theory, we should undergo a course of psychonalysis in order to express and hopefully resolve some of our inner turmoil. Freud believed that people could be helped by making conscious their unconscious thoughts and motivations, thus gaining deeper insight into their problems.

The aim of psychoanalysis therapy is to release repressed emotions and experiences, i.e. make the unconscious conscious. It is only having a cathartic (i.e. healing) experience can the person be helped and “cured”.

A criticism of Freud is that his claims are untestable and therefore unfalsifiable.  For example, there are no psychology experiments that can be created to test whether all male children suffer from an Oedipus complex. A further criticism is that not all our neuroses may be explained as resulting from sexual neuroses.

* the third part of your personality is known as the ego,  which  tries to strike a balance between the id pulling you in one direction and the super-ego pulling you in another.


Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was a French Philosopher who built his philosophy around the idea that ‘knowledge is power’. If you reject the idea that there is any such thing as absolute truth, Foucault thought that all you would then be left with is what most people in a society at any one time decide is true. In other words, consensus dictates the moral agenda when it comes to what is normal and abnormal, natural and unnatural as far as human behaviour is concerned. From his study of history and , in particular, the history of sexuality, Foucault found that what was regarded as perverted sexuality varied according to time and place, depending on who was in charge and got to decide on this. So Foucault was an ethical relativist in this respect. For example, not so long ago, the power and influence of the Christian church was sufficient to ensure that homosexuality was regarded as unnatural , while more recently, psychologists like Freud and psychiatrists have been regarded as experts when it comes to deciding what is and what is not morally acceptable sexual behaviour. In particular, Foucault thought that all attempts to classify human sexuality in this way were misplaced and dangerous because they are designed to get people to conform to the moral standards of the most powerful and marginalise those who fall into the abnormal category. Foucault believed that we should not allow our sexual behaviour to be dictated by what he referred to as these dominant ‘discourses’. Foucault’s ideas have been developed by his followers into what is sometimes called ‘queer theory’, where the word ‘queer’ is intentionally used to question existing fixed views of sexuality. Foucault’s ideas might be used to challenge the idea that any ethical theory might be helpful when considering matters of sexual ethics because that theory might simply be one of the dominant ‘discourses’ employed by a powerful group in society to pressure others into conformity or to marginalise people. And if we have bought into a ‘discourse’ by internalising as the voice of our conscience or super-ego ( perhaps manifesting itself as guilty feelings around sex) then Foucault ‘s view of sexuality suggests that we should be questioning whether our conscience is reliable.

Peter Vardy (1945 to Present)

Vardy is critical of both the commodification of sex (in terms of ready access to pornography and sex toys) and the elevation of it to a point where he claims that ‘the gods of Sex’ have returned, an allusion to the historical fertility cults of paganism. At the same time, he also condemns what has been described as the ‘transactional-utilitarian’ view of sexuality, in other words the ‘consenting adults ‘ approach that entails that whatever goes on between adults who know what they are getting into is morally acceptable. For Vardy, this undermines the basis of sex in loving relationships and the stability and social cohesion that is lost when sex is no longer linked to marriage.

Rather oddly, he also contends that the widespread availability of safe and reliable forms of contraception have not resulted in greater autonomy and freedom for women but instead have ‘allowed and encouraged them to acquiesce in a new form of slavery and male dominance’. What he possibly means by this is that the agenda is still being set by men. This might, at least, be a valid point when it comes to the period of ‘free love’ in the late 1960’s before the second wave of feminism, when women might possibly have been taken advantage of by men who were simply trying to get them into bed. Whether Vardy’s view still holds today is another matter. It could also be argued that access to contraception permits women to pursue careers without having to live like nuns when undertaking the sometimes lengthy undergraduate and professional studies that are required in order to do so.

However, the widespread availability of online pornography could partially vindicate Vardy’s perspective as it may lead inexperienced men (the main consumers of it) to possibly continue to objectify women and create some unrealistic expectations about the ins and outs of sexual relationships.

Jack Dominian (1929 to 2014)

Jack Dominian was both a practising psychiatrist and Roman Catholic who was critical of his own church, arguing that it had grown to be too hierarchical and increasingly out of touch with its own laity. Specifically, he challenged the traditional view (derived from Aquinas’s Natural Law theory) that the primary purpose of sex was merely procreative. Instead, Dominian regarded sex as a vehicle for appreciation of one’s sexual partner, and potentially as healing and therapeutic (if there was a need for reconciliation) within the context of a loving, marital relationship. Sexual pleasure for its own sake was also something that he regarded as a gift from God, again as an aspect of a relationship founded on love. Additionally, he regarded same-sex relationships as morally acceptable if, once again, they were based on love.

John Boswell (1947 to 1994)

John Boswell was a professor at Yale University, a remarkable scholar who read or spoke seventeen languages. Like Jack Dominian he was a Catholic. Boswell was openly gay and therefore understandably concerned about the wider issue of religion and homosexuality, and specifically the historical treatment of homosexuality within the Christian faith.

Boswell therefore deployed his linguistic skills to produce two controversial books. In the first of these, the 1980 American Book Award-winning Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, he challenged the traditional readings of Old and New Testament passages that are typically invoked to demonstrate that homosexual behaviour is sinful and proscribed. Some of his alternative interpretations of these passages have already been described in these notes (see above).

Here’s a little extract from the book to give a sense of the line he takes :

In sum, there is only one place in the writings which eventually became the Christian Bible where homosexual relations per se are clearly prohibited – Leviticus – and the context in which this prohibition occurred rendered it inapplicable to the Christian community, at least as moral law. It is almost never cited as grounds for objection to homosexual acts. 

The notion that Genesis 19 – the account of Sodom’s destruction – condemned homosexual relations was the result of myths popularized during the early centuries of the Christian era but not universally accepted until much later and only erratically invoked in discussions of the morality of gay sexuality. Many patristic authors concluded that the point of the story was to condemn inhospitality to strangers; others understood it to condemn rape;most interpreted it in broadly allegorical terms, only tangentially related to Christianity.

There was no word in classical Greek for ‘homosexual’, and there is no evidence, linguistic or historical, to suggest that either the kadeshim of the Old Testament or the arsenokoitai of the New were gay people or particularly given to homosexual practices. On the contrary, it is clear that these words merely designated types of prostitutes: in the case of the former, those associated with pagan temples; in that of the latter, active (as opposed to passive) male prostitutes servicing either sex.’

Boswell also argued that the Roman Catholic Church had not always been hostile to gay people, and until the 12th century, had regarded homosexuality with considerable tolerance with some prominent Christians even expressing the love between men through the medium of poetry. In a later publication (see the cover directly above), Boswell’s primary argument was that throughout much of Medieval Christian Europe, unions between figures of the same sex and gender were socially acceptable and he claims to have discovered a liturgical manuscript that appears to describe a ceremony for same-sex union between two men.

Given ongoing Catholic opposition to same-sex marriage, it is perhaps to be regretted that Boswell’s thesis – controversial and well-known in its time – does not receive attention in A Level publications that look at the issue of sexual ethics.

Recalling the recent school protests in Birmingham, Boswell’s discussion of Moorish Spain is also worth briefly quoting with regard to Islam:

‘Although the Qur’an and early religious writings of Islam display mildly negative attitudes towards homosexuality, Islamic society has generally ignored these deprecations, and most Muslim cultures have treated homosexuality with indifference, if not admiration. Almost without exception, the classic works of Arabic poetry and prose, from Abu Nuwas to the Thousand and One Nights, treat gay people and their sexuality with respect or casual acceptance…The Arabic language contains a huge vocabulary of gay erotic terminology…Erotic address by one male to another is the standard convention of Arabic love poetry; even poems really written to or for women use male pronouns and metaphors of male beauty: it is not uncommon to find poetry addressed to a female in which the object of the poet’s affections is praised for ‘a dark mustache over pearly white teeth’, or the ‘first downy beard over damask skin’. Poems about the physical allure of a young man’s first beard constitute an entire genre of Arabic poetry…’

For anyone inclined to look into Boswell’s ideas in more detail, in addition to the publications already mentioned, some footage survives of one of his presentations:

Critics of Boswell might argue that – as a gay Catholic – he is obviously motivated to interpret Biblical passages in a manner which runs counter to the view that homosexuality is sinful. However, this seems a rather crass objection if all it amounts to is the suggestion that Boswell is deliberately finding what he seeks whilst wearing gay-friendly, rose-tinted spectacles in each and every instance. His familiarity with Hebrew and Greek and the nuances of some of the specific terms is palpable, and it remains for those critics to engage with the same passages and terminology in a like fashion, and with the same attention to detail, if they consider his exegesis to be flawed and wish to defend the position that homosexuality is immoral.

Additionally, the line that Boswell takes in Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe appears to have been borne out by subsequent scholarship. The objections of historical theologian Philip Lyndon Reynolds and American Roman Catholic journalist Marian Therese Horvat notwithstanding, Alan Bray has defended Boswell’s thesis in his book The Friend, apparently confirming that, “[f]or a very long period, formal amatory unions, conjugal, elective and indissoluble, between two members of the same sex were made in Europe, publicly recognised and consecrated in churches through Christian ritual.”