Ethics and Sex

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Moral philosophers and theologians have long pondered questions surrounding this sensitive topic, and there is a lot more to be said that goes beyond the scope of this episode. In this episode, we will exclusively be tackling issues surrounding marriage and sexuality. Visit our Patreon page to show your support and get early access to episodes!

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Utilitarianism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Aquinas: About Appraisals Charity Contact Support. The Panpsycast Philosophy Podcast. For the secular liberal, then, a sexual act would be morally wrong if it were dishonest, coercive, or manipulative, and Natural Law theory would agree, except to add that the act's merely being unnatural is another, independent reason for condemning it morally.

Robots and ethics: the future of sex

Kant, for example, held that "Onanism. By it man sets aside his person and degrades himself below the level of animals. Intercourse between sexus homogenii. The sexual liberal, however, usually finds nothing morally wrong or nonmorally bad about either masturbation or homosexual sexual activity. These activities might be unnatural, and perhaps in some ways prudentially unwise, but in many if not most cases they can be carried out without harm being done either to the participants or to anyone else.

Natural Law is alive and well today among philosophers of sex, even if the details do not match Aquinas's original version. For example, the contemporary philosopher John Finnis argues that there are morally worthless sexual acts in which "one's body is treated as instrumental for the securing of the experiential satisfaction of the conscious self" see "Is Homosexual Conduct Wrong?

For example, in masturbating or in being anally sodomized, the body is just a tool of sexual satisfaction and, as a result, the person undergoes "disintegration. Another debate is about whether, when there is no harm done to third parties to be concerned about, the fact that two people engage in a sexual act voluntarily, with their own free and informed consent, is sufficient for satisfying the demands of sexual morality.

Of course, those in the Natural Law tradition deny that consent is sufficient, since on their view willingly engaging in unnatural sexual acts is morally wrong, but they are not alone in reducing the moral significance of consent. Sexual activity between two persons might be harmful to one or both participants, and a moral paternalist or perfectionist would claim that it is wrong for one person to harm another person, or for the latter to allow the former to engage in this harmful behavior, even when both persons provide free and informed consent to their joint activity.

Consent in this case is not sufficient, and as a result some forms of sadomasochistic sexuality turn out to be morally wrong. The denial of the sufficiency of consent is also frequently presupposed by those philosophers who claim that only in a committed relationship is sexual activity between two people morally permissible. The free and informed consent of both parties may be a necessary condition for the morality of their sexual activity, but without the presence of some other ingredient love, marriage, devotion, and the like their sexual activity remains mere mutual use or objectification and hence morally objectionable.

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Sexual ethics

In casual sex, for example, two persons are merely using each other for their own sexual pleasure; even when genuinely consensual, these mutual sexual uses do not yield a virtuous sexual act. For Kant, sexual activity avoids treating a person merely as a means only in marriage, since here both persons have surrendered their bodies and souls to each other and have achieved a subtle metaphysical unity Lectures , p. For Wojtyla, "only love can preclude the use of one person by another" Love and Responsibility , p. Note, however, that the thought that a unifying love is the ingredient that justifies sexual activity beyond consent has an interesting and ironic implication: At this point in the argument, defenders of the view that sexual activity is justifiable only in marriage commonly appeal to Natural Law to rule out homosexual marriage.

On another view of these matters, the fact that sexual activity is carried out voluntarily by all persons involved means, assuming that no harm to third parties exists, that the sexual activity is morally permissible. In defending such a view of the sufficiency of consent, Thomas Mappes writes that "respect for persons entails that each of us recognize the rightful authority of other persons as rational beings to conduct their individual lives as they see fit" "Sexual Morality and the Concept of Using Another Person," p.

Allowing the other person's consent to control when the other may engage in sexual activity with me is to respect that person by taking his or her autonomy, his or her ability to reason and make choices, seriously, while not to allow the other to make the decision about when to engage in sexual activity with me is disrespectfully paternalistic.

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If the other person's consent is taken as sufficient, that shows that I respect his or her choice of ends, or that even if I do not approve of his or her particular choice of ends, at least I show respect for his or her ends-making capability. According to such a view of the power of consent, there can be no moral objection in principle to casual sexual activity, to sexual activity with strangers, or to promiscuity, as long as the persons involved in the activity genuinely agree to engage in their chosen sexual activities.

If Mappes's free and informed consent criterion of the morality of sexual activity is correct, we would still have to address several difficult questions. How specific must consent be? When one person agrees vaguely, and in the heat of the moment, with another person, "yes, let's have sex," the speaker has not necessarily consented to every type of sexual caress or coital position the second person might have in mind.

And how explicit must consent be?

Can consent be reliably implied by involuntarily behavior moans, for example , and do nonverbal cues erection, lubrication decisively show that another person has consented to sex? Some philosophers insist that consent must be exceedingly specific as to the sexual acts to be carried out, and some would permit only explicit verbal consent, denying that body language by itself can do an adequate job of expressing the participant's desires and intentions.

Note also that not all philosophers agree with Mappes and others that fully voluntary consent is always necessary for sexual activity to be morally permissible. We negotiate our way through most of life with schemes of threats and offers. Murphy implies that some threats are coercive and thereby undermine the voluntary nature of the participation in sexual activity of one of the persons, but, he adds, these types of threats are not always morally wrong.

Alternatively, we might say that in the cases Murphy describes, the threats and offers do not constitute coercion at all and that they present no obstacle to fully voluntary participation. As suggested by Murphy's examples, another debate concerns the meaning and application of the concept "voluntary. It is safe to say that participation in sexual activity ought not to be physically forced upon one person by another. But this obvious truth leaves matters wide open. Onora O'Neill, for example, thinks that casual sex is morally wrong because the consent it purportedly involves is not likely to be sufficiently voluntary, in light of subtle pressures people commonly put on each other to engage in sexual activity see "Between Consenting Adults".

One moral ideal is that genuinely consensual participation in sexual activity requires not a hint of coercion or pressure of any sort. Because engaging in sexual activity can be risky or dangerous in many ways, physically, psychologically, and metaphysically, we would like to be sure, according to this moral ideal, that anyone who engages in sexual activity does so perfectly voluntarily. Some philosophers have argued that this ideal can be realized only when there is substantial economic and social equality between the persons involved in a given sexual encounter.

For example, a society that exhibits disparities in the incomes or wealth of its various members is one in which some people will be exposed to economic coercion. If some groups of people women and members of ethnic minorities, in particular have less economic and social power than others, members of these groups will be therefore exposed to sexual coercion in particular, among other kinds. One immediate application of this thought is that prostitution, which to many sexual liberals is a business bargain made by a provider of sexual services and a client and is largely characterized by adequately free and informed consent, may be morally wrong, if the economic situation of the prostitute acts as a kind of pressure that negates the voluntary nature of his or her participation.

Further, women with children who are economically dependent on their husbands may find themselves in the position of having to engage in sexual activity whether they want to or not, for fear of being abandoned; these women, too, may not be engaging in sexual activity fully voluntarily. The woman who allows herself to be nagged into sex by her husband worries that if she says "no" too often, she will suffer economically, if not also physically and psychologically.

The view that the presence of any kind of pressure at all is coercive, negates the voluntary nature of participation in sexual activity, and hence is morally objectionable has been expressed by Charlene Muehlenhard and Jennifer Schrag see their "Nonviolent Sexual Coercion". They list, among other things, "status coercion" when women are coerced into sexual activity or marriage by a man's occupation and "discrimination against lesbians" which discrimination compels women into having sexual relationships only with men as forms of coercion that undermine the voluntary nature of participation by women in sexual activity with men.

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But depending on the kind of case we have in mind, it might be more accurate to say either that some pressures are not coercive and do not appreciably undermine voluntariness, or that some pressures are coercive but are nevertheless not morally objectionable. Is it always true that the presence of any kind of pressure put on one person by another amounts to coercion that negates the voluntary nature of consent, so that subsequent sexual activity is morally wrong?

Conceptual philosophy of sexuality is concerned to analyze and to clarify concepts that are central in this area of philosophy: It also attempts to define less abstract concepts, such as prostitution, pornography, and rape. I would like to illustrate the conceptual philosophy of sexuality by focusing on one particular concept, that of "sexual activity," and explore in what ways it is related to another central concept, that of "sexual pleasure. To be sure, as philosophers we easily conclude that oral sex is a specific type of sexual activity.

But "sexual activity" is a technical concept, while "having sex" is an ordinary language concept, which refers primarily to heterosexual intercourse. Thus when Monica Lewinsky told her confidant Linda Tripp that she did not "have sex" with William Jefferson Clinton, she was not necessarily self-deceived, lying, or pulling a fast one.

She was merely relying on the ordinary language definition or criterion of "having sex," which is not identical to the philosopher's concept of "sexual activity," does not always include oral sex, and usually requires genital intercourse. Another conclusion might be drawn from the JAMA survey. If we assume that heterosexual coitus by and large, or in many cases, produces more pleasure for the participants than does oral sex, or at least that in heterosexual intercourse there is greater mutuality of sexual pleasure than in one-directional oral sex, and this is why ordinary thought tends to discount the ontological significance of oral sex, then perhaps we can use this to fashion a philosophical account of "sexual activity" that is at once consistent with ordinary thought.

In common thought, whether a sexual act is nonmorally good or bad is often associated with whether it is judged to be a sexual act at all. Sometimes we derive little or no pleasure from a sexual act say, we are primarily giving pleasure to another person, or we are even selling it to the other person , and we think that even though the other person had a sexual experience, we didn't.

Or the other person did try to provide us with sexual pleasure but failed miserably, whether from ignorance of technique or sheer sexual crudity. In such a case it would not be implausible to say that we did not undergo a sexual experience and so did not engage in a sexual act. Lewinsky's performing oral sex on President Clinton was done only for his sake, for his sexual pleasure, and she did it out of consideration for his needs and not hers, then perhaps she did not herself, after all, engage in a sexual act.

Robert Gray is one philosopher who has taken up this line of ordinary thought and has argued that "sexual activity" should be analyzed in terms of the production of sexual pleasure. He asserts that "any activity might become a sexual activity" if sexual pleasure is derived from it, and "no activity is a sexual activity unless sexual pleasure is derived from it" "Sex and Sexual Perversion," p.

Perhaps Gray is right, since we tend to think that holding hands is a sexual activity when sexual pleasure is produced by doing so, but otherwise holding hands is not very sexual. A handshake is normally not a sexual act, and usually does not yield sexual pleasure; but two lovers caressing each other's fingers is both a sexual act and produces sexual pleasure for them.

There is another reason for taking seriously the idea that sexual activities are exactly those that produce sexual pleasure. What is it about a sexually perverted activity that makes it sexual? The act is unnatural, we might say, because it has no connection with one common purpose of sexual activity, that is, procreation. But the only thing that would seem to make the act a sexual perversion is that it does, on a fairly reliable basis, nonetheless produce sexual pleasure.

Undergarment fetishism is a sexual perversion, and not merely, say, a "fabric" perversion, because it involves sexual pleasure. Similarly, what is it about homosexual sexual activities that makes them sexual? All such acts are nonprocreative, yet they share something very important in common with procreative heterosexual activities: Suppose I were to ask you, "How many sexual partners have you had during the last five years"?

If you were on your toes, you would ask me, before answering, "What counts as a sexual partner? What I should definitely not do is to tell you to count only those people with whom you had a pleasing or satisfactory sexual experience, forgetting about, and hence not counting, those partners with whom you had nonmorally bad sex. But if we accept Gray's analysis of sexual activity, that sexual acts are exactly those and only those that produce sexual pleasure, I should of course urge you not to count, over those five years, anyone with whom you had a nonmorally bad sexual experience.

You will end up reporting to me fewer sexual partners than you in fact had. Maybe that will make you feel better. The general point is this. If "sexual activity" is logically dependent on "sexual pleasure," if sexual pleasure is thereby the criterion of sexual activity itself, then sexual pleasure cannot be the gauge of the nonmoral quality of sexual activities.

What is sexual ethics?

That is, this analysis of "sexual activity" in terms of "sexual pleasure" conflates what it is for an act to be a sexual activity with what it is for an act to be a nonmorally good sexual activity. On such an analysis, procreative sexual activities, when the penis is placed into the vagina, would be sexual activities only when they produce sexual pleasure, and not when they are as sensually boring as a handshake.

Further, the victim of a rape, who has not experienced nonmorally good sex, cannot claim that he or she was forced to engage in sexual activity, even if the act compelled on him or her was intercourse or fellatio. I would prefer to say that the couple who have lost sexual interest in each other, and who engage in routine sexual activities from which they derive no pleasure, are still performing a sexual act.

But we are forbidden, by Gray's proposed analysis, from saying that they engage in nonmorally bad sexual activity, for on his view they have not engaged in any sexual activity at all. Rather, we could say at most that they tried to engage in sexual activity but failed to do so. It may be a sad fact about our sexual world that we can engage in sexual activity and not derive any or much pleasure from it, but that fact should not give us reason for refusing to call these unsatisfactory events "sexual. Philosophy of Sexuality Among the many topics explored by the philosophy of sexuality are procreation, contraception, celibacy, marriage, adultery, casual sex, flirting, prostitution, homosexuality, masturbation, seduction, rape, sexual harassment, sadomasochism, pornography, bestiality, and pedophilia.

Conceptual Analysis Sexual Activity vs. Metaphysics of Sexuality Our moral evaluations of sexual activity are bound to be affected by what we view the nature of the sexual impulse, or of sexual desire, to be in human beings. Metaphysical Sexual Pessimism An extended version of metaphysical pessimism might make the following claims: Metaphysical Sexual Optimism Metaphysical sexual optimists suppose that sexuality is a bonding mechanism that naturally and happily joins people together both sexually and nonsexually.

Moral Evaluations Of course, we can and often do evaluate sexual activity morally: Nonmoral Evaluations We can also evaluate sexual activity again, either a particular occurrence of a sexual act or a specific type of sexual activity nonmorally: The Dangers of Sex Whether a particular sexual act or a specific type of sexual act provides sexual pleasure is not the only factor in judging its nonmoral quality: Sexual Perversion In addition to inquiring about the moral and nonmoral quality of a given sexual act or a type of sexual activity, we can also ask whether the act or type is natural or unnatural that is, perverted.

Sexual Perversion and Morality Finally a third reason , even though natural sexual activity is not on that score alone morally good and unnatural sexual activity is not necessarily morally wrong, it is still possible to argue that whether a particular sexual act or a specific type of sexuality is natural or unnatural does influence, to a greater or lesser extent, whether the act is morally good or morally bad. Aquinas's Natural Law Based upon a comparison of the sexuality of humans and the sexuality of lower animals mammals, in particular , Aquinas concludes that what is natural in human sexuality is the impulse to engage in heterosexual coitus.

Nagel's Secular Philosophy Thomas Nagel denies Aquinas's central presupposition, that in order to discover what is natural in human sexuality we should emphasize what humans and lower animals have in common. Fetishism It is illuminating to compare what the views of Aquinas and Nagel imply about fetishism, that is, the usually male practice of masturbating while fondling women's shoes or undergarments. Female Sexuality and Natural Law A different kind of disagreement with Aquinas is registered by Christine Gudorf, a Christian theologian who otherwise has a lot in common with Aquinas.

Debates in Sexual Ethics The ethics of sexual behavior, as a branch of applied ethics, is no more and no less contentious than the ethics of anything else that is usually included within the area of applied ethics. Liberal Ethics We have already encountered one debate: Consent Is Not Sufficient Another debate is about whether, when there is no harm done to third parties to be concerned about, the fact that two people engage in a sexual act voluntarily, with their own free and informed consent, is sufficient for satisfying the demands of sexual morality.

Consent Is Sufficient On another view of these matters, the fact that sexual activity is carried out voluntarily by all persons involved means, assuming that no harm to third parties exists, that the sexual activity is morally permissible. Conceptual Analysis Conceptual philosophy of sexuality is concerned to analyze and to clarify concepts that are central in this area of philosophy: Sexual Activity and Sexual Pleasure In common thought, whether a sexual act is nonmorally good or bad is often associated with whether it is judged to be a sexual act at all.

Sexual Activity Without Pleasure Suppose I were to ask you, "How many sexual partners have you had during the last five years"? References and Further Reading Aquinas, St. Philosophy and Sex , 3rd edition. Simon and Schuster, Looks like you are currently in Russia but have requested a page in the United States site. Would you like to change to the United States site?

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