Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Ethical Case Against Sex Outside of Marriage (Part I)

Ever since the sixties, those of us who profess an opposition to sexual activity outside of marriage have been on the defensive. Sex outside of marriage has always been common, but now those of us who actually live up to this standard seem to now be in a heavy minority. Those of us pushing abstinence education are in a difficult position. We cannot directly use religious arguments to make our case so we resorted to making it a health issue. The problem with this is that, by the normal standards of safety, sex done in the manner prescribed by social progressives, with condoms and birth-control pills, is not physically particularly dangerous; certainly no more so than skiing or teenage driving. There is a heavy stench of dishonesty hanging over this whole issue. The reason why conservatives want to spend millions of dollars promoting abstinence programs in schools is not because they are in a panic about STDs. It is because religious Christians believe that pre-marital sex is a sin and they do not want teenagers engaging in it. Conservatives have fumbled the ball and left the moral case wide open for the liberal side. Within the context of the sixties narrative, liberals have been able to make the moral argument that conservatives, by focusing on sex and ignoring the racism of the culture around them, were the immoral ones. From this perspective, any act of "sexual liberation" becomes not only morally acceptable but a moral positive. This argument has been updated in recent years to include homosexuality. With all this under consideration, I do believe it is possible to formulate an argument against extra-marital sex meaningful to the most ardent secularist, one that could justify moderate government interference to discourage students from engaging in such behavior. The argument I offer is no less than sex outside of marriage is fundamentally unethical.   

When most people hear about the immorality of sex they conjure images of repressed hypocritical Victorians. Therefore it is all the more important to define what we mean by sex outside of marriage being unethical. Sexual activity is problematic in that the action itself, by definition, involves physically using another person's very body as a means for gaining pleasure for one's self. This is a very basic violation of Kant's categorical imperative that all humans must be treated as ends and not as means. (Kant even took this to the extreme position of saying that masturbation was unethical because it involved using yourself as a means.)

To put this into concrete terms, you go off to a bar, pick up a girl, take her home, sleep with her and then send on her way. You have taken another human being and used them as a means to procure your own pleasure. Now you have to ask why she agreed to do this. Is it not possible that she did this because she believed that she could get you to agree to a long-term relationship and there was even falsehood and manipulation involved? This would still be an issue even when both sides have made it clear that this is supposed to only be a one night stand. Two wrongs do not make a right; two unethical people objectifying each other and using each other as a means to give themselves pleasure is simply double the unethical behavior. Furthermore, maybe one of the parties merely said this because they believed that with their talent and personality they would be able to convince the other to stay on. (You see a similar line of logic in regards to gambling. There are many rabbinic authorities who argue that gambling is a form of theft because the losing party only made the bet on the assumption that he would win. So to take the money from him involves taking something of his against his will.)

This is not just some ethereal issue, only relevant to students of Kantian thought; it is the foundation of all intellectually honest liberalism, explaining why all forms of tyranny are inherently unethical. Any system that views individual people as simply means to serve the larger good or the good of the elites is unethical. Ask a liberal why slavery and segregation are by definition wrong and even evil. If that liberal is a Kantian he can explain that these institutions violate a categorical imperative; it places blacks in situations where they cease to have inherent value as beings in an ongoing process of becoming more rational and only serve to benefit whites. Without this Kantian imperative, we are left with vague mutterings of taste and personal feelings. If my arguments against white supremacists carry the same universal validity as my arguments against their stylistic choices in neckties then I have lost the debate.

(To be continued …)


YUngerman said...

I appreciate what you're trying to do here, but I think you misquoted and therefore misapplied Kant. The exact language of the second formulation of the categorical imperative is this:

"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never MERELY as a means to an end."

You ARE allowed to use someone else's body for your own pleasure, just as long as they get something out of it as well; in this case that would mean pleasure for the woman.

Miss S. said...

Sexual activity is problematic in that the action itself, by definition, involves physically using another person's very body as a means for gaining pleasure for one's self.

I don't think that definition is universal by any means. In fact, with many people, sex is more about what they can give/offer to the other person more so than their own pleasure.

Back in my college days, my friends and I had many frank conversations about sex. One of them expressed that they felt that sex was just a way to show affection. If you remove religion from the equation, there is nothing wrong in saying that. As taboos melt away and society grows more "open", it becomes harder to put forth a compelling argument as to way non-married people should remain abstinent. With marriage on the decline (both because it either doesn't happen to begin with, or doesn't last), it is unrealistic to expect sexual activity to be put on haitus simply because there is no marriage agreement.

Before I get touted as being hypocritical, I would offer that I am rather 'unconventional'. Jews are masters of elevating the mudane...and this includes sex. The Jewish laws in regards to sex raise them to a higher level of respect (just like eating). I can't really force the Jewish stance on keeping sex within marriage on gentiles any more than I can push for them to keep kosher.

Vox Populi said...

Doesn't your argument prove way too much? If sex is all about the unethical manipulation of others to provide you with pleasure, then what makes marital sex okay? The formality of the agreement? But if the agreement is on the face of it manipulative, then what difference the formality? You don't think the manipulation games end with marriage do you?

Izgad said...


Your reading of Kant is so wide open as to make his categorical imperatives practically meaningless. For Kant the key issue is moral intent. I need to look at myself and ask why I am honestly doing something. If I am just doing something or primarily doing something to someone else out of a desire to benefit me then I am using that person regardless of whether that person also benefits.

YUngerman said...


One of my profs explained that the above formulation basically means that you must respect another person's decision to say no. If this is an open interpretation, then so be it. Without it, I don't think you could justify the existence of markets (a la Adam Smith) in which people are self-interested. You, on the other hand, haven't given an interpretation that satisfies the "merely" clause.

James Pate said...

Hi Izgad. I've not read much of Kant, but I think what YUngerman says makes sense. There can't be a blanket ban on using others for our own pleasure. If I hang around with a friend and have a good time, then I'm using a person for my own pleasure. If I read a book, then I am using the author for my own pleasure. But I don't think that we should ONLY regard people as means to an end.

I may be missing a nuance, though.

Izgad said...

YUngerman and James

The issue with “merely” is a matter of primary objective. Sexual activity is a special situation because it involves literally taking someone and using them for your own benefit. Therefore it requires a greater effort in order to make it ethically justifiable. This effects how the individual approaches sexual activity and how the surrounding society, desiring to be a society of ethical people, approaches the sexual activity of its members.

In truth business relationships and friendships would require a similar thought process even if, in practice, they might not require as extreme demonstrations of acting in good faith. The person who simply looks at other people as an opportunity to get rich and have a good time is in the same moral situation as our players, mack-daddies and Howard Wolowitzes. To engage in business and friendship we have to be motivated by more than our own pleasure. Whatever our personal desires, we also need to be motivated by a desire to build up the world and provide support for a family. Friendship is much more than just “having a goodtime with someone,” it is relationship building; it allows one to join with people walking a similar road to pursue similar goals such as the creation of a more ethical society through the use of Kantian categorical imperatives.

PrincessMax said...

The concept of sex as "literally taking someone and using them for your own benefit" seems to be a particularly male definition of sex.

It is extremely rare that a woman could take a man and use him for sex without his consent and mutual enjoyment. (Except in the cases of exploiting purely hormonal response, which is generally limited to teenaged boys and chemical involuntary stimulation, both of which have ethical problems of their own.) The definition seems non-generalizable, which should make it suspect.

Additionally, that definition of sex ignores the fact that sex functions as much more than a vehicle for pleasure. It communicates trust, friendship, tenderness, stability (even temporarily) and reassurance. Additionally, it can increase a partner's self-esteem, healing and wisdom. Many people have sex with purely these goals in mind. (Pity f**ks are a crass example but apropos.)
These motivations seem to fit the rationale you lay down for why friendship and business relationships are OK. Making a partner feel good about his or herself - if you mean it honestly - can absolutely make the world and society a better place. The intimacy of sex often broadens a person's ability to empathize because of knowledge gained uniquely that cannot be gained through interactions that do not involve touch. Empathy is the strongest glue that holds society together, which is why God made is such a strong instinct in us.

Your argument seems to be an argument against exploitative and dishonest sex and I totally agree with that. However, I agree with Vox Populi that formalizing the arrangement is not necessarily correlated with making the sex respectful. It's a spurious categorization.

Thanks for bringing up the topic. I was brought to this post by a link and I'll be interested to keep reading your blog in the future.

Izgad said...

Welcome to Izgad. Feel free to openly disagree with me to your heart’s content. I think it is interesting how you bring up the male female dynamic. I grant you that men are far more likely to cross that line into unethical sexual behavior and push it to extremes. The traditional model of human sexuality is that men pursue sex as an end in of itself (unethical) while women purse sex within the context of a relationship (ethical). As I go on to explain in the second post of this argument, I understand marriage in a fairly wide open sense to include all forms of committed relationships even if I argue, as a pragmatic matter, that society should insist on formal documented marriage (for heterosexual and homosexual couples). Thus we cover communications of “trust, friendship, tenderness, stability and reassurance.” It would not be unethical to offer pity sex, but it would be a problem to accept it. The whole success of pity sex is predicated on feeding off the illusion of empowerment over other people. “Hay I am not as lame as I thought just a few minutes ago, because this beautiful girl promptly agreed to have sex with me.” What would we say to a black person who serviced white racists and made them feel better by playing traditional servile negative black stereotypes for them? A Soldier's Play uses this concept. You have a black man who agrees to play the role of the black monkey with a tail for whites and another black person murders him for it.

PrincessMax said...

Thanks for your thoughts and your welcome.

First, I tend to think of pity sex as the final sexual act before a break up because a person wants to counter-balance breaking another's heart rather than a one-night stand kind of thing. I see it as comfort. So, in Kant's definition of ethics (which I do not necessarily accept as a reasonable premise for policy-making), is it unethical for anyone to accept comfort from someone else?

In children, receiving comfort is developmentally necessary to thrive. It's not too far of a stretch to say that adults physically need it, as well, given studies on the effects of isolation and lack of touch. Are we really supposed to stunt ourselves in the name of ethics?

Izgad said...

I think we need to distinguish here between different types of comfort. There is a general sort of comfort and yes it is ok to allow someone to be nice to you. There is also a comfort that works by playing to and inflating a person’s ego. This is a problem, particularly if it involves the sense of dominating others.
I do not oppose all touch between sexes. I agree that touch can be legitimately beneficial as long as it is removed from a using or domination context. Personally I think that Orthodox Judaism has gone too far with its shomer negiah policies, which de facto ban all physical contact between sexes. I would love it if we were more like the Mormons and actually cultivated formal dance. (It would certainly make weddings more interesting.)