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Sexual Ethics

Applied Ethics Issue of Sexual Ethics.  We have four different views:  First Bertrand Russell argues that we are better off taking a more open attitude toward sexuality, that sexual repression is not a productive thing in the twentieth century. Thomas Mappes considers the role of consent in sexuality.  Sidney Callahan argues that a "commitment model' rather than an "erotic model" is better suited to the sexual needs of women.  Roger Scrutin argues that marriage and commitment are ethically superior to sexual promiscuity.

Textbook: pg. 56

Teenagers and young adults often think of “morals” and sexual morals as equivalent expressions.

Do you agree?

Question: what are the big issues of sex and ethics:

1. Is it ethical to have sex before marriage?

2. Is it ethical to have more than one sexual partner, at a time, in your lifetime?

3. Is it ethical to have a same sex sexual partner?

4. Is it ethical to coerce or deceive someone into having sex?

5. Is it ethical for people who are related in a power hierarchy to have sex with each other?

6. Is sexual ethics just a matter of personal choice, or perhaps, part of one’s religious upbringing?

7. What is sexual harassment?

Talk about two authors today, two on Thursday

Today: Bertrand Russell and Thomas Mappes

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

Our Sexual Ethics

Tell some of Russell bio

Piece written 1936, Russell, about 64, middle aged for him

Working as a free lance writer.

Pg. 37: Russell’s thesis


Sex, more than any other element in human life, is still viewed by many, perhaps by most, in an irrational way.

Russell’s appeal is to “the conditions of the modern world”

We become more rational about sex.

Question: what would it mean to be more rational about sex?

Russell (elsewhere) critical of what he calls “taboo morality”

Russell looks at monogamy: what supports it are lack of opportunity and superstition.

In the modern world–the world of cities, more people interact, more possibility for sexual relations.

How does the ‘conventional morality’ deal with this?

Russell: gives us moral rules that we can’t live up to.

Russell–makes a utilitarian case: we need a moral code that promotes human happiness.

Pg. 58

Many adults, in their hearts, still believe all that they were taught in Sunday School. The harm done is not merely to introduce a division between the conscious reasonable personality and the unconscious infantile personality; the harm lies also in the fact that the valid parts of conventional morality become discredited along with the invalid parts, and it comes to be thought that, if adultery is excusable, so are laziness, dishonesty, and unkindness.

Question: what is Russell saying here?

Russell looking for what he calls “a workable sexual ethic”

Looking analytically: what is involved in a sexual ethics

Problem: we are torn between conflicting impulses toward polygamy and jealousy

We look at our partners as a kind of property.

We want more sex, we’re jealous if our partners do too.

Problem: if we lessen the sense of property we run the risk of losing our concept of paternity–rights and duties of fathers.

58–one option– radical social change

If women are to have sexual freedom, fathers must fade out, and wives must no longer be expected to be supported by their husbands. This may come about in time, but it will be profound social change, and its effects, good or bad, are incalculable.

Other option: if we continue to have paternity and marriage: we need a compromise between “complete promiscuity” and “lifelong monogamy.”

Russell says throughout that he doesn’t have a final plan but he lists three important things for the new sexual morality:

1. Women shouldn’t have children before the age of twenty.

2. Unmarried people should have “considerable sexual freedom” as long as children are avoided–birth control is important.

3. As we would say today, need for ‘no-fault’ divorce, especially for childless couples.

4. Freeing sexual relations from economic relations, the entanglement of money with sex.

Wives should not be prostitutes.

No alimony–women should work.

Question: do these conditions sound reasonable?

Next two parts of the article concern modesty and jealousy and sex education.

Origin of “our currently accepted code of sexual behaviour” (59)

Two primitive impulses: modesty and jealousy.

Modesty–a limited but important role:

Russell contends that Modesty is not a “Victorian invention” but a basic part of human experience.

Modesty defines what is not modest: the obscene.

We seek to avoid the obscene.

Asceticism–possibly a part of modesty

We admire those who can refrain from desire

Mark of high civilization: freeing the spirit from the bondage of the flesh.

We can hardly imagine a person of religious sanctity engaged in love making.

But really, the more important primitive impulse is jealousy:

Russell’s Process: jealousy ➔ anger ➔ moral disapproval

One thing that reinforces jealousy is men’s desire to be sure of paternity

Question: is this true? What about the Jenny Jones show?

Incidently: no corresponding right of wives.

Subject of women: women’s equality necessitates a new code of morality

59–two ways to deal with jealousy and equalize the status of men and women:

One: require men to be strictly monogamous

Two: allowing women to relax the traditional code.

Russell leaves this point open and turns to question of knowledge.

Traditional superstitions say: don’t talk about sex.

But–to, for example, fight “venereal diseases” [old name for STDs]

Important to have knowledge.

60 Russell claims

What we have to do positively is to ask ourselves what moral rules are most likely to promote human happiness.

Part III: sex education:

Russell says that Children should be told what they want to know.

The whole unvarnished truth

They should even be allowed to see their parents naked.

Claim: 60 Russell’s idea: get rid of the pruriency of sex by not making it a taboo.

Prurient: characterized by an inordinate interest in sex.

Implied formula here:

Repress sex get prurience


Don’t repress sex, children get a more healthier understanding of sex and they’re not as sexually obsessed.

Question: do you agree, a person becomes more sex obsessed when sex is the forbidden thought?

Russell concludes: decides that he doesn’t have the final sexual ethics

Speculates about the future:

Discusses the possibility of the end of marriage, if some other economic means is developed to support child rearing.

In any event, Russell recommends that we practice the ordinary virtues of: kindness, truthfulness, and justice.

Concludes 61 Interesting point:

Those who, by conventional standards, are sexually virtuous too often consider themselves thereby absolved from behaving like decent human beings. Most moralists have been so obsessed by sex that they have laid much too little emphasis on other more socially useful kinds of ethically commendable conduct.

Question: do you agree with that point?

Thomas Mappes, “Sexual Morality and the Concept of Using another Person”

1992 article, Mappes, professor at Frostberg State University in Maryland.

Specialty is applied ethics, in particular bio and medical ethics

Mappes starts out claiming you can’t really defend conventional sexual morality philosophically:

          A) non-marital sex is immoral,

          B) sex without love is immoral.

Come back to these on Thursday

What can we say, in a philosophically defensible ethical way about sexual morality?

Mappes follows Kant–second version of the Categorical Imperative:

          Treat others as ends, never simply as means.

Interpretation of this: don’t simply use people!

Sexual morality based on the principle of not using people.

We all “use” other people, but not simply using people.

Key here: what Mappes calls “voluntary, informed consent”

What are cases where there is no voluntary, informed consent

1. Cases of Deception

2. Cases of Coercion

In these cases, if A uses either of these to fulfill sexual desires for B, A has used B

Question: is this a good distinction?

Can children give informed, voluntary consent?

No–children are incompetent to give consent.

As is someone mentally retarded, and someone temporarily disordered by drugs or alcohol.

How might deception work?

Mappes gives examples:


1. Lying promise to marry

2. Lying about, for example, herpes

3. Lying about birth control

4. Lying about being married

5. Lying about sexuality–saying you’re strictly gay, when you are bisexual.


63      If one person’s consent to sex is predicated on false beliefs that have been intentionally and deceptively inculcated by one’s sexual partner in an effort to win the former’s consent, the resulting sexual interaction involves one person sexually using another.

Question: do you agree with Mappes conclusion here?

Coercion: use of force

Coercion either removes consent or removes voluntary consent.

Forcible rape the most clear case here of coercion

Pure “objectification” of the victim

Also: distinction, pg. 64 between: dispositional and occurent coercion

Not only forcing someone to do something with force, but forcing with the threat of force

Dispositional coercion undermines the voluntariness of consent.

In this case, the person consents, but not really.

Leads Mappes to ask: what are other cases to this.

Six Cases (first four)

Case 1. Mr. Supervisor tells Ms. Employee that she better give in to his sexual advances if she wants to keep her job.


Case 2. Ms. Debtor has borrowed money from Mr. Creditor. She will only pay him back if he agrees to have sex with her.


Case 3. Mr. Theatergoer tells a woman he has a ticket for her for the hottest show in town. When she expresses interest, he tells her, “Oh by the way, I always expect sex from my dates.”


Case 4. Ms. Jetsetter planning a trip to Europe. Her friend would really likely to go to Europe but he doesn’t have the money. Ms. Jetsetter suggests she will take him to Europe on the understanding that sex is part of the arrangement.

Mappes says the first two are cases of attempts to sexually use another person, while the second two do not.

Question: what do you think?

Mappes argument turns on a distinction between threats and offers.

Threat: do what I say, or else

Offer: do what I say and it will be good for you.

One involves coercion, the other is an attempt to induce consent.

Sometimes threats are presented in the language of offers

Definition of threat: you are worse off than you were initially because of non-compliance

Offer: you are not worse off than you were at the start because of non-compliance.

Mappes says that cases 3 & 4 aren’t attempts to use someone sexually

Question: do you agree, though 3 & 4 are clearly trying to use their theater and plane tickets to get sex.?

Go to Cases 5 and 6

Case 5

Professor Highstatus tells Ms Student she’s getting a D in the class instead of the B she earned unless she consents to sexual interaction.

Case 6

Professor Highstatus tells Ms Student she will get an A rather than the B she earned if she consents to sexual interaction.

Case 5–a threat–a clear attempt to use someone sexual

Does the same apply to case 6?

Case 6–morally reprehensible but, logical form of an offer rather than a threat

Mappes says perhaps a threat is implicit in case 6

Question of power relations

Compares problem of student/teacher relations or employer/employee relations

However: Mappes claims it is not a case of someone attempting to use someone sexually.

Question: do you agree?

 Sidney Callahan: Abortion and the Sexual Agenda, 1986

Here’s her e-mail address:

Today, Callahan a professor at St. Johns University, a psychologist

Psychology v. philosophy

Psychology–branches off from philosophy about 1890.

More scientific and factually oriented

Philosophy more abstract, more emphasis on abstract argument.

Psychology–more willing to develop categories to explain phenomena

Philosophy–always seeks to question categories

Opens: pg. 69


Pro-life feminists seek to expand and deepen the more communitarian, maternal elements of feminism–and move society from its male-dominated course

Question: pro-life feminism?, Communitarian, maternal v. male dominated? What do all these mean?

Callahan is pro-life, her husband, medical ethicist Daniel Callahan is pro-choice

Callahan’s argument: “current cultural trends” on women’s sexuality have gone wrong in that they masculinize female sexuality–the “phallic fallacy.”

Callahan takes a view that could be criticized as “gender essentialism”

View that there are specific male and female roles, etc–these are not cultural constructions but essential to our nature.

Constant: (not mentioned by Callahan) Judith Butler: normativity

Gender norms, gender roles, even body types, are entirely gender constructed.

Question: what do you think?

Callahan points to three “passionate pleasure giving experiences for women:

                     Orgasm, Birth and Nursing.

Problems with male view: looks at pregnancy as a disease.

Callahan argues that the male sexual view is tied to physical aggression and dominance

Male Model: An “erotic model of sexual life” emphasizing: (70) pleasure, play, passion, individual self-expression, and romantic games of courtship and conquest.

Requirement of “a variety of partners and sexual experiences.”

Callahan says this model works for men, both straight and gay.

Question: what about Cosmopolitan Magazine?

Points to Cosmo magazine–pushes this model for women

Problem: (70)

“Women can only play the erotic game when they are young, physically attractive, economically powerful, and fulfilled enough in a career to be willing to sacrifice family life.”

Callahan is “pro-life”–meaning she opposes abortion.

How does this fit in here?

Abortion is essential for the pro-choice, permissive, male model for female sexuality because it allows women to separate sex from childbearing.

Pg. 71

The male-oriented sexual orientation has been harmful to women and children. It has helped bring us epidemics of venereal disease, infertility, pornography, sexual abuse, adolescent pregnancy, divorce, displaced older women and abortion.

Callahan poses the “commitment model” against the “erotic model”

The former can encompass pleasure while the latter cannot encompass commitment.

Question: Does Callahan simply want to go back to the old “feminine mystique”?


The problem with the traditional view is that it makes sexuality so sacred it can’t be humanly shaped at all.

Callahan doesn’t think that women can only fulfill themselves in childbirth and marriage.

          A woman can be fulfilled without these things.

Even though she opposes abortion, she doesn’t likewise oppose birth control.

About abortion: she worries that abortion is increasing

So called “hard cases” only constitute 3 % of abortions

Gets to the close and crosses same ground Russell looks at:


New reproductive arrangements–“far reaching struggles over the role of human sexuality and the ethics of reproduction.

Callahan suggests that the abortion debate might just be the beginning here.

Question: what do you think she means here?

Possible, but Callahan says 71

“This time, instead of humbly buying entree by conforming to male lifestyles, women will demand that society accommodate to them.”

Closes: 71

Pro-life feminists pursue a vision for their sisters, daughters, and granddaughters. Will their great-granddaughters be grateful?

Question: what does she mean here?

Are you grateful your great-grandmothers fought for women’s right to vote?

Question: do you think Callahan is pushing a too traditional model of women’s sexuality, or do you agree with her?

Roger Scrutin, British philosopher, noted conservative

from his Sexual Desire, 1986

Where Russell takes a utilitarian approach and Mappes takes a Kantian approach

(Callahan takes a feminist approach) Scrutin takes an Aristotelian approach:

Discussion of moral virtue.

Opening question: is there such a thing as sexual virtue?

And, how is it acquired?–typical Aristotelian question

Midwesterners: morals equals sexual morality

Scrutin kind of agrees with that–in sexual desire we’re most aware of the distinction between virtue and vice.

Aristotle talks about temperance as a virtue.

Scrutin: sexual desire more than just a question of temperance.

Look at people and sexual desire

We have sexual desires and we have the capacity to avoid them.

Erotic love, overall, is a good thing:

Element of mutual self-enhancement, binding self and other.

Giving and receiving love: an important aspect of self-fulfillment (an Aristotelian idea)

Scrutin talks about love and man’s fallen-ness, his Geworfenheit

Question: any clue what he means here?

My interpretation: notion of embodiment

Question: what is embodiment?

Also: in love, things are at stake.

We feel love with our bodies, with our minds

Love can create us or ruin us.

Kind of arguing that there is a natural connection between sex and love.

Also: pg. 75: discusses the relation between us and our bodies.

We are in our bodies as an incarnate self.

Our bodies are identical to us.

74: “the development of the sexual impulse towards love may be impeded: there are sexual habits which are vicious, precisely in neutralizing the capacity for love.”

Virtue Ethics Terms: Vicious = vice = the opposite of virtue

Question: what kind of sexual acts are vicious–vice ridden?

We should educate our children to avoid these habits.

Scruton poses a contrast between “the nuptiality of desire” and a “doctrine of emancipation” or “liberation.”

Scruton’s Argument:

Look around the cultures of the world, look at their “common sense morality,” even those that seem different from ours still emphasize a relation between sexual desire and nuptiality.

Even Islam–which permits polygamy has some of the greatest monogamy love literature.

So: sex education for Scruton: reinforce the notion of erotic desire and nuptial commitment.

Sex and marriage.

Read an extended passage, pg. 74 key to Scruton’s Aristotelian approach


The nuptiality of desire suggest, in its turn, a natural history of desire: a principle of development which defines the “normal course” of sexual education. “Sexual maturity” involves incorporating the sexual impulse into the personality, and so making sexual desire into an expression of the subject himself, even though it is, in the heat of action, a force which also overcomes him.



If the Aristotelian approach to these things is as plausible as I think it is, the virtuous habit will also have the character of a “mean”: it will involve the disposition to desire what is desirable, despite the competing impulses of animal lust (in which the intentionality of desire may be demolished) and timorous frigidity (in which the sexual impulse is impeded altogether).


Education is directed toward the special kind of temperance which shows itself, sometimes as chastity, sometimes as fidelity, sometimes as passionate desire, according to the “right judgment” of the subject.


In wanting what is judged to be desirable, the virtuous person wants what may also be loved, and what may therefore be obtained without hurt or humiliation.

Question: what is Scruton saying here?

Remaining focus: on sexual education

Traditional: focuses on language of the “ethic of pollution and taboo.”

Here the child is taught to regard his body as sacred.

Pollution–more than just bad sexual encounters

Child learns to avoid “dirty habits”

To be sexually pure and as a child (young adult) chaste

And dream of idealized love objects.

Question: what is chastity?

Scruton worries that what he’s talking about is a little like training a dog,

          Sexual training like toilet training.

He’s okay with that.

Key: Scruton praises childhood innocence

Generates rational conduct by impeding sexual impulses until it’s time to get married:


75      The end: the “project of union with another person, who is wanted not merely for his body, but for the person who is this body.

Scruton argues that it harms the child’s development to have him acquire “the habit of gratification” too early.

Uses the example of novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s character Lolita

Lolita experiences sex too early and thus cannot have a fulfilling marriage.

Question: do you think the example of a character in a novel is helpful? Does it prove anything?

Sexual morality is the morality of embodiment: emphasis is on the attitude to one’s own body and its uses.

Goal: innocence in the young, fidelity in adults

Traditional sexual education “despite its exaggerations and imbecilities” is truer to human nature than the libertarian culture that has succeeded it.

Scruton’s idea: sexual integrity, pg. 76

Defines this as:

a sexuality that is entirely integrated into the life of personal affection, and in which the self and its responsibility are centrally involved and indissolubly linked to the pleasures and passions of the body.

Question: what do you think of Scruton’s view?

Which one of these: Russell, Mappes, Callahan, Scruton resonates with you?