In my recent reading-up about the ethics of sex and prostitution, I found one paper being mentioned over and over again. The paper was David Benatar’s “Two Views of Sexual Ethics”. Now, Benatar is a consistently provocative, and annoyingly careful, philosopher so I was intrigued. In the past, he has defended the anti-natalist thesis that coming into existence is a great harm, and more recently he has defended the notion of anti-male sexism. It is no surprise then to find that this particular paper defends an equally controversial conclusion, namely: that if we accept the permissibility of causal sex, we will struggle to explain the wrongness of paedophilia and rape.
In this post, I want to take a look at Benatar’s argument. Ultimately, I think it is wrong, largely because it conflates the permissibility of promiscuity with the permissibility of casual sex (as defined by Benatar), but, as I say above, Benatar is a careful philosopher and it is not always easy to locate the flaws in his reasoning. Hopefully, this post can do that by first elucidating the structure of his reasoning, and then subjecting it to some critical scrutiny.
1. Benatar’s Dilemma: casual sex has unpleasant implications
Benatar’s stated aim in his paper is to tease out the implications of two competing views about the ethics of sex. The two views are the significance view, and the casual view, which are defined in the following manner:
The Significance View: Sex is only permissible when it is romantically significant, i.e. when it expresses or cements a relationship of reciprocal love and affection between the sexual partners.
The Casual View: Sex need not be romantically significant in order to be permissible. It can be permissibly pursued in the manner of any other pleasure.
In this form, the casual view is somewhat opaque. What does it mean to say that sex can be permissibly pursued in the manner of any other pleasure? Isn’t the category of human pleasures too diverse to warrant such a broad-brush claim? I’m inclined to think so, and to think that the tendency to paint with a rather broad brush is what lends Benatar’s argument an unwarranted degree of credibility.
Still, to be fair to the guy, he does offer us an analogy to explain what he means by the casual view. The analogy is to the pleasure we derive from eating food. As he sees it, gastronomic pleasure can be pursued in many contexts, in many forms, and for many reasons. In some contexts it will be immoral, but that will only be because some more general moral principle applies, e.g. a prohibition on stealing food. In most cases it can be pursued without regret, shame or worry: we won’t deserve criticism for eating around, and we needn’t always enjoy the food we eat for it to be permissible. Benatar is claiming much the same for the casual view of sex.
In the modern era we have embraced the casual view of sex by embracing the permissibility of promiscuity, and Benatar thinks that this is problematic. To be precise, he thinks it gives rise to a dilemma, which can be stated in the following manner:
Benatar’s Dilemma: Either we embrace the significance view of sex, or we embrace the casual view:
(a) If we embrace the significance view, then we can easily explain the (special) wrongness of paedophilia and rape, but not the permissibility of promiscuity;(b) If we embrace the casual view, then we can explain the permissibility of promiscuity but not the (special) wrongness of paedophilia and rape.
The twin horns of the dilemma are illustrated below.
As you can see, I’ve put the word “special” in brackets before “wrongness” on each of the horns of the dilemma. The reason for this is that the major alleged implication of the casual view is not that it forces us to accept paedophilia and rape, but rather that it forces us to view rape or paedophilia as equivalent in wrongness to other things that may or may not be all that wrong. Hopefully this will become clearer as we proceed.
In the remainder of this post, I want to look at Benatar’s defence of the dilemma, and then offer some suggestions for where I think it goes wrong.
2. Benatar’s Defence of the Dilemma
Benatar doesn’t spend long on the first horn of the dilemma. He thinks it is pretty obviously true. If permissible sex must be romantically significant, then it is easy to see that rape and paedophilia must be wrong. Children, we can assume, are not emotionally mature enough to appreciate romantically significant sex, and in any event will be coerced into the sexual acts without much thought for their emotional needs. The same is true of rape: non-consensual sex will always lack the emotional reciprocity that is required by the significance view.
So the first horn of the dilemma looks pretty compelling. What about the second? This is the tricky one. Many people would like to hold that promiscuity is acceptable and that rape and paedophilia are not. Benatar has to overcome their resistance if his argument is to succeed. To do see if he does, we need to take the claims one at a time, starting with the least objectionable one: that the casual view entails the permissibility of promiscuity. This would seem obviously true. If there is nothing special about sex — if it’s like, say, singing in harmony with others — then you should be able to do it with whoever you like (subject, of course, to their consent, which is a background moral constraint).
Moving on then to paedophilia, an obvious way to block the alleged implication of the casual view would be to appeal to the just-mentioned consent principle. If children are not mature enough to consent to sex — and this is something of a default assumption — then paedophilia cannot be morally acceptable. And this is perfectly consistent with the permissibility of promiscuity since consent dictates the permissibility of casual sex as well. This is certainly the first response that occurred to me when I encountered Benatar’s argument.
The problem with this response is twofold. First, if we accept the casual view, it becomes far more difficult to explain why children cannot consent to sex. If sex is akin to singing in harmony, then why wouldn’t a child be able to consent to it? Furthermore, we seem to have inconsistent beliefs about this issue. Increasingly, legal authorities the world over apply a case-by-case capacity test to children to see whether they can consent to serious medical treatments and so forth. Sometimes they find that young children have the capacity to consent. But if they are deemed sufficiently competent to consent to these kinds of things, why not sex, especially if it is so insignificant? The second problem is that, even if children cannot consent, parents are generally allowed to coerce children into doing other things (or, to put it more diplomatically, to consent on their behalf). Benatar gives the examples of parents forcing children to take up sports, or to attend the opera in the interests of developing character and cultural sensitivity. Could similar arguments not apply to sex, especially if it is no more significant than those activities? Benatar seems to think they could.
An alternative way in which to block this alleged implication is to appeal to harmfulness. In other words, to claim that sexual relations between an adult and a child are particularly harmful. But, again, Benatar thinks there are two problems with this response. The first is that, if we are talking about physical harm, then not all sexual acts between an adult and a child will involve physical harm. The second is that, if we are talking about psychological harm, then it is not clear whether that is caused primarily by the sexual acts or by the cultural norms associated with paedophilia. Benatar does point to some research on this in his article which, allegedly, supports the latter explanation, but I’m not in a position to evaluate it here.
The net result is that Benatar thinks it is very difficult to explain the wrongness of paedophilia on the casual view of sex. Sure, you’ll be able to explain the wrongness of particular instances of paedophilia, but the general injunction against it? Not so easy.
That brings us to rape. Surprisingly enough, given the problems with explaining the wrongness of paedophilia, Benatar thinks it is actually possible to explain the wrongness of rape on the casual view. After all, rape is non-consensual sex, and the consent principle still governs the permissibility of casual sex, as we saw above. Furthermore, the notion of permissible coercion is not easily applied to adults, so this doesn’t interfere with our judgment of wrongness. But what is difficult to explain on the casual view is the especial wrongness of rape, i.e. the fact that non-consensual sex is deemed worse than other coerced activities. Benatar gives some strange analogies to make this point. For example, forcing someone to eat a tomato.
One could respond to this by suggesting that different beliefs about the permissibility of sex could modulate the wrongness of rape. Thus, for example, someone who believes in the significance view of sex is wronged to a greater degree than someone who believes in the casual view. Benatar gives the analogy here to a devout Muslim or Jew who is forced to eat pork. This might do some work, but it is not a promising way to account for the especial wrongness of rape, particularly given that it won’t apply to those who accept the casual view.
So the dilemma looks to be pretty robust. Doesn’t it?
3. Is Benatar Right?
I think there are at least three major problems with Benatar’s Dilemma. First, I think he gives the significance view too easy a time. Second, I think he conflates promiscuity with casual sex. And third, I think it may be possible to slide between the horns of the dilemma by adopting a moderate (or “embodied”) significance view of permissible sex.
On the first point, Benatar assumes too quickly that the significance view is free from the problems he attaches to the casual view. At a first pass, it does indeed seem like the significance view accounts for the wrongness of rape and paedophilia in a straightforward and persuasive manner, but on a second pass things are less clear. For starters, it’s not at all obvious why children are less likely to have the emotional maturity needed for romantically significant sex than they are to have the maturity for consent. In other words, it is not clear that the significance account of the wrongness of paedophilia is decisively better than the mere consent-based account. In addition to this, it seems like the significance view might create problems for the wrongness of rape as well. For instance, it could be that rape motivated by romantic desires is, on this view, less wrong than rape that is not. (Luke Roelofs makes this point in his critique of Benatar)
But worse than all this is the fact that the significance view - contra Benatar - does not actually rule out the permissibility of promiscuity. If by promiscuity we mean “sex with many different people”, then I see no reason for thinking that this is ruled out by the significance view. After all, it is possible that one could have romantically significant sex with multiple partners. It is only if “romantic significance” is taken to be semantically equivalent to “monogamous commitment” that the contrary is true. This, I think, is a major problem for Benatar’s argument. Throughout the paper seems to conflate promiscuity with the casual view. In other words, he thinks that in order to be promiscuous one must take a casual attitude toward all sexual encounters; treat them as being devoid of all meaning or emotional significance. But this isn’t necessarily so. One could be promiscuous without being casual.
This leads nicely to the third major problem with Benatar’s dilemma. If all we want to do is defend the permissibility of promiscuity, and not the casual view per se, then maybe it is possible to craft an intermediary position, between the extremes of significance and casualness, which avoids the pitfalls of the casual view and the restrictiveness of the significance view. We might call this the “moderate significance view”. According to this view, permissible sex requires some sort of reciprocal emotional bond between two people, but not necessarily a deep or lasting emotional commitment. This would account for the wrongness of rape and paedophilia. Admittedly, the latter is a little more difficult, if only because determining the cut-off age at which someone acquires the requisite emotional capacities is always tricky (and somewhat arbitrary). But this is just as much of a problem for the strong significance and consent-based accounts, as we have seen.
What’s more, there could independent reasons for adopting this moderate view (i.e. reasons that are not linked to avoiding the dilemma). For example, it could be that the exceptional nature of sexual contact (which is not just like singing in harmony or playing squash or eating an apple), coupled with innate and difficult-to-override mechanisms of attachment, make it difficult to have sex without creating some emotional connection. Thus, in order to avoid being harmed by sexual contact, we would be well-advised to only have sex when we are reasonably sure that there is some reciprocal emotional commitment. (Again, Roelofs makes something like this point in his critique of Benatar)
Of course, Benatar is no fool. In his article he anticipates the possibility of people sliding between the horns of the dilemma, but argues that any such attempt will end up endorsing one or the other extreme view. Thus, he considers an intimacy/privacy based view of permissible sex, and finds it wanting on the grounds that any plausible defence of why sex must be intimate will tend collapse into the significance view. Similarly, he considers a “person-involving” view — which holds that sex is unlike other pleasures because it deeply affects the person/self — and finds it lacking because it won’t permit casual, no-strings-attached, sexual encounters. But there are two problems with this. First, it once again conflates the permissibility of promiscuity with the casual view. And second, the moderate significance view, at least as I imagine it, need not involve deep personal commitment, just a level of emotional commitment that goes beyond that involved in other bodily pleasures.
Just to be clear, I’m not necessarily endorsing the moderate significance view; I’m just saying that it might suffice to avoid Benatar’s dilemma.
Benatar’s “Two Views of Sexual Ethics” is certainly a provocative and disorienting piece: it really does force you to think again about the view you have of permissible sex. But I think it is not as challenging as it first seems. There are three reasons for this. First, Benatar assumes too easily that the significance view is devoid of the problems he throws at the casual view. Second, throughout the article, Benatar conflates promiscuity with the casual view. And third, it may be possible to adopt an intermediate view of permissible sex that avoids the two horns of the dilemma.