Introductory Remarks on the Ethics of Sexuality

Of the three main general positions on sexuality, the Restrictive one appears to be oldest. In our economic life we are not constantly told to follow rules that governed the ancient Hebrews or early Christians. But when it comes to sexuality, the matter is different. Large numbers of individuals still take their guidance on this matter from religious texts that are 1800-3000 years old. However, the changes that affect every other aspect of life are finally beginning to be felt in the area of sexuality.

Hedonistic utilitarians in the 18th century used utilitarianism to criticize British common law against homosexuality. Jeremy Bentham argued that the prejudices and laws against homosexual activity between mutually consenting adults were unjustified, but not because these laws violated anybody's natural rights. Bentham thought the idea of natural rights was philosophical nonsense. He opposed anti-homosexual laws because they decreased the balance of pleasure over pain in society at large.

Libertarian writers also opposed laws prohibiting such sexual activity. Only they appealed to the idea of rights. They argued from the right to engage in mutually consenting sexual activity of any kind so long as it violated no voluntary agreements and avoided harm to others.

Scientific developments in the twentieth century also chipped away at the conservative establishment where sexual morals is concerned. Psychological research on sexuality has led to the following claims accepted by most psychologists:

1) There is a gap between the general social pronouncements made in our society about sexuality (which tend to be quite restrictive) and actual practice of sexuality.
Sometimes this can be quite dramatic, as in the case of popular TV evangelists several years ago (Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert) who on the one hand were preaching "family values" and traditional sexual mores and on the other hand were engaging in sexual activites (e.g., using the services of a prostitute) that directly contradicted those standards.

2) Human sexuality is very limited for many people, because of traditional sexual ideas, and this is a major reason that sexual relations are not very satisfying for many.

3) Sexuality is extremely important to human living and relationships.

This suggests that the role of sexuality in expression of love and friendship should be given greater emphasis than it has been traditionally, and that a third path, between the view that restricts sexuality to procreation and the sexual libertarian view which emphasizes pleasure and freedom, is possible.

One relatively new but increasingly respected general theory of ethics was omitted by Thiroux from his book. It is known as Care Ethics. Most of the work on this style of ethical reasoning derives from women psychologists and philosophers. Whereas rights, justice, and utilitarian theories emphasize impartiality, Care Ethics insists that these theories leave out something important: At least where certain long-lasting relationships are concerned, we have special duties to care for individuals with whom with have those relationships, especially to the extent to which the others in the relationship are vulnerable. The most often mentioned example of such a relationship is the mother-child relationship. Other examples are father-child, sibling-sibling.

    Key features of Care Ethics:

  1. The emphasis is on concrete relations with particular persons
  2. The most important relations tend to be the long-lasting ones (history of the relation is significant)
  3. There are special duties of care towards the vulnerable/needy within the relationship

The Care Ethic can shed light on a healthy relationship between spouses. Spousal relationships are concrete relationships and meant to be long-lasting. What about vulnerability? Obviously, it is not the best spousal relationship if it is unequal like the typical relationship between parent and young child. Still, spousal relationships are intimate ones. What that means is that the partners will reveal their vulnerabilities to the other from time to time. And if it happens often enough that they cannot care for each other--because one or both partners is too needy or too unable to care for the other, then the relationship is in trouble. These ideas suggest that "good sex" between partners is part of a larger relationship of mutual caring between the partners.

How is "good sex" related to the rest of the mutually caring relationship? Like frosting on a cake, maybe? You can have the cake without the frosting but it is somehow better and more complete with it. On the other hand, according to the perspective of the Care Theory, sex without the larger context of the caring relationship will not be "good sex."

The Care approach to Sexuality, then, occupies the middle position which Thiroux calls Moderate. But it's not just a half way point or compromise between the view that procreation is the only good reason for a couple to have a sexual relation and the view that sexual pleasure is the only good reason. It has its own moral justification, which does not exclude pleasure and allows for the possibility of procreation but does not require it. It is like the Restrictive or Conservative view in that it stresses the importance of long-term relationships, but without the opposition to divorce found in the fully restrictive view.