MonoRealism Philosophy Site

Sex, Drugs and Rock'n'Roll

Part D

Exceptional Sex

My previous analysis leads to the conclusion that human nature tends toward monogamous, long-term male-female pair bonds, cemented by sex and love, by pleasure and shared values. What of the exceptions?

Certainly polygamy, polyandry and promiscuity have been common in human history. One would in fact expect promiscuity to become more common when conditions are easy and rarer when conditions are hard, as the desire for sex is strong under most conditions, while how bad it is to have a child out of wedlock depends on how tough life is. One would expect polygamy in societies based on male power, and polyandry in societies of female power: as signs and rewards (genetic and sexual) of that power. Indeed, in societies based on physical force and strength, frequently women have been regarded as practically rightless chattels. Also, although most if not all societies display the masculine vs feminine asymmetry of relationships, one also sees examples of dominant wives with submissive husbands.

Of course, that exceptions have occurred among individuals or whole societies doesn't necessarily mean they are right now or even were right then (after all, societies based on rape, pillage and murder have been common in history too). It is the task of history, anthropology or sociology to determine what is or has been: it is the task of philosophy to determine what is right and wrong.

In this case, I think what philosophy tells us about which kinds of relationship you should enter is basically this: do your own thing unless it involves degradation of yourself or your sex partner, the sacrifice of a higher value for a lower one, or the initiation of physical force. The desire to degrade your partner (let alone yourself) is an inversion of values and an attack on self-esteem. Values require exaltation, admiration, self-esteem and esteem of your partner: the wish to degrade, hurt or humiliate your partner or yourself indicates a sickness of mind and anti-life psychology that should not be tolerated. Choosing greater over lesser values is a general principle of rational morality. And of course, the initiation of physical force has no place in human relationships in general, let alone those based on love. Rape and sexual assault can never be justified.

But beyond that, people are different. What they offer and want in a relationship differs. Whether what you want is "normal" or not, "ideal" or not, the principle is the same as in all other things: what you must determine is which is more rational – to try to change your nature, or to enjoy what you are as best you can – and then to act accordingly.

Illicit Sex

Every person has the right to decide for themself what form their happiness will take, what person or persons they love and why, and what sexual practices they should engage in to maximise their pleasure: as long as no one else is hurt unjustly.

Since the only valid purpose of the law is to protect individual rights (see Philosophical Reflections 16-19), it follows that anything should be legal between consenting adults in private. That somebody's personal preferences might offend the sensibilities of their neighbours or community – or for that matter, go against what is objectively best for human beings in general or even that somebody in particular – gives nobody the right to stop them doing whatever they wish to in private. (What they do in public is subject to property rights, as is any other public behaviour.) As noted in discussing the philosophy of politics, nobody's morality, rational or irrational, justifies the initiation of physical force: which is what any law not aimed against physical force is, by its nature.

Note that the emphasis is on both consenting and adult. The initiation of physical force or fraud is barred – on the basis of fundamental ethical and political principles. And no adult has the right to sexually abuse a child: mentally, children have neither the maturity nor the knowledge to give valid consent in such matters; physically and psychologically, they are not sexually mature and are therefore inappropriate as objects of lust.

Other than those issues, there is no justification for laws to regulate sexual behaviour. Nobody has the right to impose their morality on other people by initiating force, whether they are a single despot or the entire population of a country. Laws against premarital sex, adultery (except to the extent of upholding marriage contracts), or any consensual "perversion" are invalid at their root.

For the same reason, there is no justification for laws against prostitution. It is a voluntary transaction. The grotesque spectacle of police officers having to act as Peeping Toms has no part in a civilised society. And among all the ribald comment about the actor Hugh Grant's misadventure with a prostitute in the USA, little was heard questioning the right of the police to sink to the level of spying on the private, voluntary actions of adults, merely because some other people would disapprove of what they were up to if they knew about it.

Gay Abandon

Of all the things that have been classified as "perversions", homosexuality is the most politically charged at present. It is a complex issue, clouded by a welter of mainly irrelevant arguments.

Arguments about whether homosexuals are born, made, somehow chosen in early life, or some combination of these, are really beside the point ethically. However they got that way, homosexuals are homosexual, and they cannot change it now. But that they are that way doesn't necessarily make it an "equal alternative" to heterosexuality: diabetes, depression, colour-blindness and losing an arm are things that happen to people too. An "is" does not itself imply an "ought", and that alternatives exist does not imply they have equal value.

Based on evolutionary considerations, I think that homosexuality is neither normal human biology, nor healthy. That homosexuality occurs occasionally in many animal species is irrelevant: so do sterility and other physical reproductive disorders. That homosexuality is normal in some species (such as the bonobo) is also irrelevant: what counts is human biology. And in human biology, reproduction and the constellation of psychological and emotional factors around it centre on male-female pairing.

Thus if one's sexual preference was a matter of pushing a button, I would say that one should choose heterosexuality. It is what humans are evolved for; and sexuality is so intimately and profoundly tied into human psychology that the default expectation (in the absence of hard data to the contrary) would be that abnormal sexuality would reduce one's potential for happiness.

But sexual preference is not merely a matter of pushing buttons. And homosexuals are perfectly capable of leading happy lives – including having long-term one-on-one romantic relationships. So, far from it being immoral to engage in homosexual sex, if you are homosexual and cannot change it, it would be immoral to deny yourself (at least, in a society where your rights were protected), and an even worse immorality would be to forbid it to others who prefer it. Romantic love and sexual relations are such high values that they are not to be dismissed lightly – whatever the sex of the objects of one's affections. And of course, to persecute or prosecute homosexuals when their relationships are mutually voluntary, is completely immoral, and a far greater perversion of morality than homosexuality ever could be.

Sexual Rationality

What can we conclude about rational sexual morality?

Sexual morality, like all of ethics, is based on the fundamental value of life, so it must recognise that happiness is crucial to life, and that pleasure and the achievement of values are crucial to happiness. Romantic love, which is one's highest response to the values and virtues embodied in another person, and sexual pleasure, which is one of the greatest pleasures of life and love, are therefore important components of happiness and life.

From this it follows that sexual behaviour is completely moral. The only limits to that are those derived from general morality: like all things it is subject to rationality, honesty, integrity, pride and justice – to reason and self-esteem – to never sacrificing a higher value to a lesser – and to never initiating force or fraud. Special rules are not required for controlling peoples' sex lives, to forbid this practice and impose that. All that is required is the application of general moral principles to an important, high-value part of life.

An objective (life-based) morality has no quarrel with sex. Indeed, it encourages sex, especially as part of a romantic relationship with a person who shares your values, and in general as part of a value-seeking, happy life.

What more appropriate way to end an article on sex than with a quote from the famous lover Casanova? He was not an epitome of the sexual morality described here: promiscuity is not the ideal. But he knew a crucial thing. He knew that happiness can be had in this life – and should be had – and that sex is part of it:

I loved, I was loved, I was in good health. I had a lot of money and spent it all, I was happy and laughed at the fools of moralists who say there is no real happiness on earth. Where else could it be sought?

© 2000 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.