Wednesday, January 27, 2010

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

(Part I)

Where does this leave sex? We must accept an almost Pauline position of seeing all sex as morally problematic. Sex is in a category in of its own because it requires one to physically take hold of someone and use them for your own benefit, violating the categorical imperative in an inescapably literal way. Furthermore this categorical imperative would forbid us, to a lesser extent, from touching anyone in a sexual manner or even look at someone dressed in a sexually provocative manner. How can you indulge, through touch and sight, in the use of someone else's body as a means to your own pleasure? If it were possible we would ban sex and have everyone live in celibacy. (Catholic Church 1, Jewish outreach specialists who like to attack straw-man versions of Catholic sexuality 0) Since there is a need to procreate to create more rational beings with inherent value, we require some system that gives us at least some plausible ethical cover. The solution thought of by almost all societies is to have sexual activity take place within the context of some relationship. So I go over to a woman (this could also plausibly work for homosexual relationships) and say to her: "I desire to establish a special relationship with you that will allow us numerous opportunities to engage in ethical actions, live according to universal categorical imperatives and even bring into this world and raise up rational beings capable of engaging in ethical actions of their own." Since this woman is equally concerned about living according to categorical imperatives, she swoons at my pick-up line and immediately agrees to consummate this special relationship by having sex with me. Now societies, out of their desire to encourage such ethical behavior, have created various formal activates to make this official; we tend to call it marriage.

I grant that it is possible for a couple to be engaged in a meaningful relationship without it formally being a marriage with a marriage license. Furthermore there are plenty of sham marriages out there that are simply cover for sexual activity, regardless of a signed piece of paper. For the purposes of this discussion of marriage, the former type of relationship counts as marriage. This is the sort of marriage found among primitive tribes and the biblical patriarchs. That being said, the society at large needs to ask some questions about such a couple. Why would such a couple, living in a civilization that possesses formal marriage and stigmatizes those who do not take advantage of it, choose to live without formal marriage? The most obvious explanation would be that such a couple was not serious about their relationship and were simply engaging in a mutually parasitical set of sexual acts. Thus such couples must be presumed guilty until proven innocent of being unethical and placed under public scorn.

There are a few other alternatives that would be relevant, in theory at least, to some people. Members of Plato's philosopher's republic are not being immoral when they engage in free love. This society is built around the absolute sacrifice for the common good. Within this context, the sexual act itself becomes one more act of absolute submission as the person surrenders all claim to power over another, even a wife and children. (This is to say nothing about the feasibility or advisability of Communism.) This would require a person to be a great philosopher and have a commitment to principles to compare with the religious fanatic. Just being a casual hippie is not going to be enough to get you through the gates of this republic. Great philosopher artists like Goethe and his Faust could engage in sex outside of marriage as part of a bildung process. A great philosopher like Faust, whose genius benefits all mankind, needs to go out and physically come to terms with the world around him in order to fulfill his mission as a philosopher. He is allowed to sell his soul to Mephistopheles in order to pursue this goal and he is allowed to seduce young Gretchen. (We could possibly fault Faust for putting himself as a stumbling block, causing an innocent non philosopher to engage in unethical behavior.) Gretchen's subsequent pregnancy and her arrest for attempting to kill her fetus are a tragic accident for which Faust is not to blame. Faust is not motivated by any base desire and he has no intention of using Gretchen; she is an incidental participant in his great project. While common artists may not be at the level to truly engage in such Faustian activity, it is reasonable to allow them a greater license in terms of what they can touch or see. For example, I fully accept that nudity has artistic value and should therefore be allowed within the confines of artistic circles. Since all societies in history have been built around people who are distinctively not great philosophers (at best people working on becoming them), we cannot make calculations based on great philosophers. This leaves us, as a society, having to insist that everyone make at least an outward show of only engaging in sexual activity within the context of marriage.

I believe in creating an ethical society where all humans are recognized as rational beings with inherent value, not to be used simply to serve some other purpose. This means a society that rejects racism and all forms of bigotry as a violation of the categorical imperative to recognize the inherent value of all rational beings as ends in themselves. This also means that in our day to day personal relationships we must treat people as beings of value in of themselves. We dare not, in any way, indulge in another person's body simply to serve our own pleasure by engaging in sexual activity, even to touch or look at someone in a sexual manner. Through societal pressure we have managed, in only a few decades, to remove at least the outward manifestations of racism from the public sphere. Through similar efforts we can do the same with human sexuality. I look forward to the day when we take the bulk of our generation's movies and televisions shows, which implicitly or explicitly endorse the legitimacy of sexual activity outside of marriage, and put them next to Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will as immoral works, serving to promote unethical behavior and mind sets.


The Bray of Fundie said...

haven't read the post yet but Mazel Tov on your new layout. You've changed the blog since I last visited, commented.

Anonymous said...

The problem with this entire argument is that it labels as unequivocally unethical all human interactions whereby the human being is in some way a means. That may be a problem with Kant as well; so be it.

I think its acceptable and even beneficial to tone down our judgment of human relations and exclude this strict stance of yours.

Otherwise, all forms of business and interdependence would be unethical, unless they are completely selfless.

Consensual casual sex is like a business proposition or a mutually reciprocal favor.

This may cheapen the power of sexuality and its emotional component, making casual sex less that ideal, but it does not make it entirely unethical.

Izgad said...

I would say that we should be concerned with our personal motives in our business dealings or friendships and should not solely be out to benefit ourselves. Sex is special because its use of the other person is more direct and risks seeing the other completely as a physical object to be used. While a person needs to examine his motives in both situations, the peculiarities of the sexual relationship put the issue of using the other to an extreme requiring more stringent levels of self judgment as well as less willingness on the part of society to give people the benefit of the doubt. As I think I make clear, this would not make all non-marital acts immoral, just the vast majority in practice.