This post is part of my series on the Blackwell Companion to Ethics. This entry is my second on the article about the ethics of sex by Raymond Belliotti.
In Part One, I covered Belliotti's discussion of the historical views on sexual morality. In this part I cover contractarian approaches, along with some critiques from the political left.
The Informed Consent Model
Before getting into the philosophical details, let's just set the scene by imagining a caricatured example of casual sexual congress. It's a Saturday night. Young (and not so young) men and women are gathering in gloomy pubs and nightclubs, tempted by the prospect of carnal interactions with the opposite sex.
Let's take two of these individuals (say, male and female as a bow to the heterosexual majority) for illustrative purposes. They meet, talk inanely, drink, dance and retire to one of their places of residence. To describe the remainder of their evening, I'll hand things over to Simon Blackburn:
The boy and girl back from the bar, stumbling and stripping in the hall, tongues lolling and panting for "it," know what they want. It's simple enough. They want sex.So what are we to make of this? Is their sexual encounter morally acceptable?
For the contractarian, the answer is simple. As long as both parties know what they are about, and both consent to the activities, their sexual encounter is morally acceptable. We can call this the "informed consent model". This seems to chime well with moral intuitions. For instance, the crime of rape is defined as sexual penetration without consent.
Belliotti thinks the contractarian model just described is libertarian in form. It permits an excessive commodification of the human body. He illustrates his concern with the example of someone agreeing to sever their finger in order to please a sadist. For a real life example, I suggest you read about Armin Meiwes, the infamous German cannibal whose victim agreed to be eaten.
Belliotti suggests we cannot agree with this level of commodification. He thus argues for a Kantian modification of libertarian contractualism. This modification would force us to consider the other party to the contract as a complete moral agent and not simply as a means to your own gratification. In other words, we accept the basic merit of the contractual approach but adds a need for moral reciprocity.
Although this Kantian modification is Belliotti's preferred approach to sexual morality, he admits that it is always somewhat fictional. In the sweaty, fumbling urgency of the one night stand, no one stops to formulate a contract (oral or written) that could be morally significant.
Marxist and Feminist Critiques
Traditional heterosexual sex is often criticised by those of the political left. Most prominent among them are the Marxists and Feminists (indeed feminist critiques owe much to Marxist theory). How could they object to good clean fun between consenting adults?
Easy, by arguing that the consent is the product of indoctrination in a particular bourgeois or patriarchal ideology. For Marxists, sex within the bourgeois family is merely a form of prostitution and exploitation. Legitimate heirs are needed to perpetuate the system of private property. So, women are deliberately excluded from the public sphere and limited in their sexual freedom in order to prop up capitalism.
For Feminists, the position is similar. Catherine MacKinnon argues that women are simply socialised to meet the sexual wants and needs of their male oppressors. In doing so, MacKinnon seeks to unmask the political implications of sex. The most extreme expression of this philosophy is the lesbian separatist movement within radical feminism (e.g. Jill Johnston). They argue that lesbianism is the only way to undermine the patriarchy.
The following are some critical questions that can asked of radical feminism (they can be modified to embrace Marxism):
- Is it really true that men are capable of nothing but oppression and exploitation?
- Does radical feminism demean women by suggesting they can never be autonomous or exercise informed consent?
- Does it too readily assume that sexual activity is the core aspect of feminine identity?
- Is it impossible to argue with? If we assume people are indoctrinated into an ideology, we assume they can never be sincere if they claim to embrace this ideology.
- How did radical feminists manage to escape indoctrination?
And with that, I call this entry to a close.