MonoRealism Philosophy Site

Sex, Drugs and Rock'n'Roll

Part C

Love and Sex

Religious sexual morality is often anti-sex. Not only is sex outside of marriage banned, but even sex inside marriage can be suspect: tolerated but not encouraged. This attitude covers a range of perverse attitudes: sexual desire is a base result of sinful human nature, which only the sacrament of marriage can legitimise; sex is valid only for reproduction, not pleasure; to have "excessive" desire is to commit adultery with your wife (!); love is pure but sex is degrading, shameful or evil; love is spiritual and good but sexual desire is animal and bad.

The premise behind such assertions is that bodily pleasure is bad: a mystical sentiment, based on a spirit/body dichotomy, which is anti-life and therefore wholly immoral (for the importance of pleasure in a rational morality, see Philosophical Reflections 20: The Pursuit of Happiness).

As Ayn Rand said (quoted in Part B), romantic love can be the greatest reward of a person's life. It is the psychological reflection and counterpart of sex itself, which is the greatest pleasure of a person's body. This is not an accident: the whole evolutionary purpose of love is sexual, which is why the two are so intertwined in human emotions and psychology. To attempt to strip romantic love of sexual desire is to attempt to drive a wedge through human nature. To attempt to label one or both as immoral is to attack man's capacity for joy and happiness, and therefore to attack life itself. Love and sex are among the greatest pleasures life has to offer and hence among the highest values a person can pursue: they are therefore moral pursuits – in any non-mystical morality with human life and happiness as its aim. To deny yourself love and sex (under normal circumstances) is fundamentally anti-life, because pleasure and happiness are the rewards which make life worth living, the fuel and sanction of life.

Rand linked love and sex especially tightly:

Romantic love, in the full sense of the term, is an emotion possible only to the man (or woman) of unbreached self-esteem: it is his response to his own highest values in the person of another – an integrated response of mind and body, of love and sexual desire. Such a man (or woman) is incapable of experiencing a sexual desire divorced from spiritual values. ("Of Living Death", The Objectivist 1968)

However, while I agree that sex as part of romantic love is the ideal, and that romantic love without sexual desire is a contradiction in terms, I do not agree that a person of "unbreached self-esteem" can feel no desire in the absence of love. Rather, the drive, desire and pleasure of sex are so high (at least for most men and many women) that sexual activity is a value in its own right.

Unlike love, sex is not solely a response to a person's character and virtues. It is a value which can be experienced in and for itself: in the absence of love, sex for the sake of sex is a valid and natural motivator. Certainly sex with someone you love is the most desirable form, a union of the values of your mind and the pleasure of your body. But in the absence of such a relationship, sex for pleasure with someone you like, or even with a stranger where there is no motive but mutual desire, is valid. Even paying for sex, whether for curiosity's sake, variety's sake or simple desperation, is not immoral (provided that no higher relationship or value is compromised).

That is, what is moral to seek in the hierarchy of sexual value from love to infatuation to affection to lust to commerce, is: the highest you have now in reality or as a feasible target. And of course, these levels of emotional commitment are not fixed: they can increase or decrease over time with your increasing knowledge of the person concerned (or with how you or they change).

Perhaps this is a characteristically "male" view of sex, whereas Rand's view (that the desire for sex cuts off somewhere between affection and infatuation) is more characteristic of women. Such a difference between the sexes would not be surprising given the asymmetry in ease of parenthood, roles and resultant attitudes discussed earlier. Indeed, the average difference between men and women in their attitude to casual sex is almost proverbial – and borne out by experiments. Of course, neither view is universal in either sex; and in any event, what counts in your own hierarchy of values is how much a value sex is to you – and how much a value your partner if any is to you.

If romantic love is the greatest reward of your spirit and sex the greatest pleasure of your body, then plainly the union of the two is the greatest value one can seek in the realm of personal relationships. But a theoretical value not yet reached in your own life is not a rational reason for rejecting a lesser value that is available here and now. So to reject sex with an attractive stranger – or do it and feel guilty about it – is not moral if you want it and your sole reason for rejecting it is the theoretical possibility of higher things. While it is not rational (moral) to sacrifice a higher long-term value to gratify a short-term urge, nor is it rational to sacrifice a value which exists to one which doesn't, whatever their ranking would be if both existed.

Marriage Rules

Marriage existed long before codified laws about it. It is a formalisation of a reality of human nature – that the fundamental social unit is a male-female pair. Hence we see "marriage" – a social announcement, recognition, denotation and protection of the rights and responsibilities of such pairs – in some form in all cultures. Even "free love" communities eventually find themselves pairing off, according to reports I have seen.

Thus, marriage is not an arbitrary construct: it is a recognition of a fundamental human relationship based on fundamental human nature. Because of that, it is in principle valid for a society to have laws concerning marriage. To be actually valid, such laws must correctly respect the rights and define the obligations of the parties. For example, it can be argued that marriages must be monogamous, because (1) that is the fundamental unit: which is why in polygamous relationships, the wives are not equal in the affections of their husband, and if they start that way, it doesn't last; and (2) polygamous marriages generally are disadvantageous to the less favoured spouse(s): and the purpose of marriage laws is not to impose dominance, but to protect rights.

However, while it might be justifiable for a society to define the limits of what is and is not "marriage", it does not have the right to impose that definition on all sexual relationships. For example, if the only valid form of marriage is a monogamous, faithful, male-female pair, that could not justify legally forbidding all other kinds of relationships. If a man and two women, or two men and one woman, or two women, or whatever, want to live together in a sexual relationship, then they have the right to do so, and to do so under whatever voluntary agreement they wish. On the other hand, that right doesn't give them the right to demand that their relationship be considered a "marriage". Marriage is a legal recognition and protection of the "natural" human sexual bond: it should neither be a restriction on other sexual bonds, nor be stretched to include them.

It is common for people to have sex with one or more lovers before committing to the special bond marriage represents. There is nothing immoral about this, whether it is casual sex for curiosity or pleasure, or between people who are "in love" but not yet ready for a permanent relationship. Moral bars against premarital sex made sense in the past when children were likely to result from it. But given the modern availability of reliable means to prevent or terminate unwanted pregnancies, and that there is nothing immoral about sex unless it involves compromising other moral considerations (such as honesty, integrity and respecting the rights of others), premarital sex can be perfectly moral.

The other side of marriage is divorce. Only the most corrupt morality – such as that of some Christian churches – would demand that people submit to a life of misery with a partner they despise, replacing what should be the greatest reward of their life with boredom at best or pain at worst. People make mistakes, or they change: and they have a right to terminate an unhappy marriage, and seek their happiness where they may. (Of course, marriage laws must observe and preserve people's property rights in such cases, and ensure that any children are properly provided for.)

Exclusivity & Jealousy

Most forms of marriage imply sexual fidelity (and in cultures where it doesn't, it is usually hypocritically one-sided, giving men the exclusive right to play around!)

This again reflects the facts of human biology as discussed earlier. Men do not want their wives to be promiscuous, lest they end up raising other men's children instead of their own. Women do not want their husbands to be promiscuous either, since sex and love are so tied together, and they would run the risk of being abandoned for another woman. And for both sexes, the tie between love and sex is important: love is the glue that binds them together, and they do not want that love compromised: sex is as powerful a wedge as it is a glue. As usual, this is reflected on the emotional level: when you love someone, generally you want them for yourself, and want only them in your turn.

Thus from an evolutionary perspective, jealousy is a valid and understandable human emotion. It is a recognition and result of your partner's intense personal value to you. A value is "something you act to gain and/or keep": and jealousy is the emotional result, prompting you to such action.

However, from a rational perspective, its validity is strictly circumscribed.

Exclusivity is not a primary moral imperative but a consequence. To demand the consequence of love – fidelity – in the absence of love itself (or worse, despite hostility or mistreatment on your own part) is to try to reverse cause and effect. There is no such thing as the right to the unearned in any human relationship. Just as love itself must be earned by your own virtues, so sexual fidelity must be earned – by your own character generating in your partner the desire to have you and only you, and by your own actions to meet their sexual needs.

The essence of jealousy is not "I want you for myself": that is a consequence of love, of the person being precious to you. Jealousy is more than that. It is: "I want you for myself alone, but I don't want to bother having to earn you." It is based on the presumption that once joined, you own your partner for ever after. But no one can own another person, only earn them. Love must be earned, or it is literally valueless; fidelity must be earned, or it is meaningless. Anything else is the worst kind of injustice: to demand a person's highest response and regard but not pay for it: to demand the best from someone else while offering nothing in return. The correct, rational and just response to your desire for the love and fidelity of the one you love is the same as for any other value: the desire to earn it, to gain it and keep it by your own virtues. And it is the recognition that should you fail, you must respect their decision: for you cannot love someone without respecting their rights to make their own decisions, and live their own life according to their own values.

The extra-marital affairs which jealousy fears are in fact widespread. Are they necessarily wrong? No: provided more fundamental virtues such as honesty, justice and rationality (which includes acting according to a rational hierarchy of values) are preserved. As noted above, fidelity is a consequence, not a primary. Circumstances can change. In the context of their own lives and values, a couple might decide that affairs are acceptable or even desirable. That is a decision only they can make. It depends on what values they seek, what values they gain from each other, how closely sex and love are tied in their own minds, etc. In general, fidelity is desirable and certainly safer; but in particular cases, it might not be. Indeed, an inappropriate insistence on fidelity as an end in itself above all other considerations, foments hypocrisy, dishonesty and other vices that end up being more destructive to the relationship than an affair itself need be.

It is unrealistic to believe that infidelity automatically means the end of a marriage: that depends on the values of its partners. But it is equally unrealistic to assume that affairs can be sought with impunity. In any event, it follows from the previous paragraph that any extra-marital affair must have the agreement (at least in principle) of the spouse. And if such agreement is not forthcoming, each must decide where in their hierarchy of values lie their marriage, their partner's fidelity, and/or their desire for an affair: and act accordingly.