Sunday, February 14, 2010
Sex by Raymond Belliotti (Part One)
I've burdened myself with the task of blogging every article in the Blackwell Companion to Ethics. Today, with the help of Raymond Belliotti, I cover everyone's favourite topic: sex.
Belliotti's essay covers a lot of ground, dealing with many historical views on sex. However, his focus is mainly on sexual activity (broadly defined) and its moral permissibility, and not on issues pertaining to sexual identity.
Part One will cover Belliotti's discussion of historical schools of thought on sex; Part Two will cover more modern approaches, along with some critiques.
When in Greece...
As with everything philosophical, we begin with the Greeks. And within the Greek tradition we focus on the Pythagoreans. They, famously, set up a duality between body and mind. The human mind was part of a great spirit, but it was corrupted by the body. Sex was bodily and thus corrupting.
This view was influential on Plato's vision of philosophy as a preparation for human assimilation with the divine. And the Stoics were likewise eager to distance us from the material and bodily.
This dualistic approach naturally supported a form of sexual asceticism and predated Christian influences.
The Old Testament had a reasonably positive attitude toward sex. We are all familiar with the injunctions to be fruitful and multiply. Likewise, although Jesus condemned adultery and divorce, he had little else to say on the topic of sexual morality.
It was with St. Paul that Christian attitudes toward sex started to turn sour. For Paul, we were all living in the end times and so the goal in life was to achieve eternal salvation. Sex was an unnecessary distraction from this goal. That said, Paul did not think sex was inherently evil.
As Christianity began to spread, it absorbed some of the Greek dualism and asceticism. St. Augustine in his work Of Holy Virginity and On Marriage and Concupiscence was the most systematic expositor of such idea. Central to his rejection of sex was the concept of the Fall. Before the Fall, sex was uncontaminated by raging passion; after the Fall there was no way to engage in sex without being consumed with sinful passion. Sex became a necessary evil. Only permitted in marriage and then only for the purposes of reproduction.
Aquinas reiterated Augustine's views, but dropped the suspicion of bodily pleasure within marriage.
Protestants and Catholics
For the early protestant reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, sex was still a distasteful business. However, they did not accept celibacy as an ideal. Sexual activity within a marriage was acceptable if it was restrained, decorous and procreative.
The Catholic position on sex has remained consistent for a very long time: sex is only permissible within marriage, and only then if performed for procreative purposes. At this juncture it is appropriate to watch this video:
Of course, there can be some modifications of these positions. For example, it might be argued that all sexual activity within a marriage is acceptable because sexual pleasure is a legitimate aspect of the marital relationship.
Criticisms of Christian Views
For those who don't accept the metaphysics of Christianity, there will be little reason to think that sex is corrupting. But even if we leave that to one side and adopt a more secular perspective, there are problems with the Christian position.
Chief among them is that the Christian view adopts a narrow functionalistic view of human nature. Proponents simply pick out some aspect of sexual "nature" (reproduction) and argue that it is the only acceptable one. Furthermore, it is difficult to see why a marriage ceremony makes sex any more legitimate than it might otherwise have been.
The Exaltation of Sex
A more interesting and modern development, associated with Roger Scruton and Vincent Purzo, is the view that sex is legitimate only if it is accompanied by love and intimacy. In other words, it must take place between two partners who are deeply committed to and trusting of each other. This requires an ability to rationally reflect on the needs, wants and thoughts of the other.
This view elevates sexual activity to a quasi-spiritual level. Sex without love and intimacy is said to be psychologically disintegrating and dehumanising.
The problem with this approach is that the exaltation of sex ends up being just as irrational as the crude functionalism of Christian attitudes to sex. Furthermore, it is not clear that psychological disintegration actually does result from sexual activity without love and intimacy. And even if it did, it does not follow that it is morally impermissible for we would first have to establish that any acts that lead to existential fragmentation are morally reprehensible.
Okay, that's it for now. In Part Two the informed consent model will be discussed.