Philosophy 2800
Week 8

'Unnaturalness' & Sexuality

Sex has often been thought of as moral dynamite, i.e., something that it fraught with ethical risk and must be handled with care.

On Unnatural Sex:  "Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. . .. Though they know God's decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them" (Romans 1:26-28, 32).

On Sex in General:  "Sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite.... Taken by itself it is a degradation of human nature" (Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics)


Two Questions for Tonight

1. What is the moral status of sexual acts?

2. What does it mean for something to be unnatural?

We'll turn to the second question first.

A Common Way of Criticizing Homosexuality

[Note:  it's not crucial that we pick homosexuality as our subject here.  Similar claims are made about any non-heterosexual sexual orientation, e.g., being bisexual, being queer (which some claim isn't identical to being homosexual or bisexual).  We'll work with the example of homosexuality since that's what the articles in the text discuss.]

'It's unnatural'

So what?

The underlying assumption is that what's unnatural is therefore immoral.

Two Questions:

1. What does it mean to say something is unnatural?

2. Does unnatural = immoral?  If not, what is the relationship between the unnatural and the immoral?

These questions are important not just for what they might tell us about the moral status of homosexuality.  The 'unnatural, therefore immoral' move is a very common one in discussions of all sorts of ethical issues.  Think of discussions of cloning, other 'unnatural' sexual practices, the adoption of children by homosexuals, in vitro fertilization, etc.

We'll proceed by considering some accounts of what it means to say something is unnatural.  For each account we need to consider whether it's true that homosexuality is unnatural & what this might or might not have to tell us about the moral status of homosexuality.

Accounts of Unnaturalness

1.  In terms of the laws of nature
To be unnatural is to go against the laws of nature
Problems: (i) Is homosexuality unnatural in this sense?  There are many reports of homosexual behavior in the 'natural world', e.g., bonobos.

(ii) Suppose it is true, why think this has any moral implications?  The laws of nature are "descriptive", not "prescriptive". (Leiser, 158)

2.  In terms of a thing's proper function
A thing is used in an unnatural way when it's used for something other than its 'proper function'.
Problems: (i) Does the idea of function make sense except when we're considering designed objects?

(ii)  Suppose we accept that non-reproductive sex is unnatural in this sense.  If we go on to say this makes it immoral, won't we have to say the same of all sorts of other sexual activities?  E.g., oral sex, sex while wearing a condom, sex after menopause

3. In terms of artificiality
Unnaturalness is to be understood in terms of being artificial.
Problems:  (i) In what way is homosexuality artificial?

(ii)  What's wrong with being artificial?

4. In terms of unusualness
  Those things which are unusual or abnormal are unnatural.
Problems:  (i) Does this apply to homosexuality?
"about half of all American males engage in homosexual activity at some time in their lives" (Leiser, 159-60)

"37 percent of men had at least one homosexual experience to orgasm in their adult lives; an additional 13 percent had homosexual fantasies to orgasm." (Mohr, 141)

Note: these figures are controversial.
(ii)  So what if it does?

A Side Issue:  Does it matter if a person's sexual orientation is something he/she chooses?

Some people think that it does.  Some claim that, if it is a choice, then people can be held responsible for the consequences of making that choice. So, for instance, it might be argued that, if being homosexual is a choice, then it is okay to discriminate against homosexuals in the workplace or deny them the right to marry because they always have the option of making a different choice and so avoiding discrimination.

So, is our sexual orientation something that we choose?

Certainly, few people think it's something that we choose in the same sense that we choose what to eat for breakfast.  You don't just snap your fingers and become homosexual or heterosexual.

Still, some people do argue that we choose our sexual orientation in the same way that we choose other fundamental aspects of our lives, e.g., our careers.  Just as you can decide to try to be a lawyer and have a realistic shot at succeeding, some claim that one can work towards a particular sexual orientation and have a realistic shot at succeeding.

The above claims are, to say the least, controversial.  Mohr denies them fairly strongly.  (151-3)  However, we're not going to try to assess them.  What's more important, philosophically speaking, is that it's by no means clear that it would matter even if it turned out that our sexuality is something we choose.

The thing to notice here is that there it doesn't follow from the fact that we choose to live a certain way that it's OK to discriminate against a person for making that choice.  Consider the religion one follows.  Surely the religion a person believes in is as much (if not more) a matter of personal choice as his/her sexual orientation.  But we still don't think it's OK to discriminate against people based on their religion.

The lesson here is that we should be very careful not to overstate the importance of choice.


Sexual Morality

As we noted, sex in general has often been thought of as moral dynamite.
"Sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite.... Taken by itself it is a degradation of human nature" (Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics)

Kant's Solution:  "Matrimony is an agreement between two persons by which they grant each other equal reciprocal rights, each of them undertaking to surrender the whole of their person to the other with a complete right of disposal over it.... If I yield myself completely to another and obtain the person of the other in return, I win myself back..."


How should we think about the moral status of sex?

A Conservative View: Sex is an intimate act in which people are entirely vulnerable and open to one another.  It is wrong  to engage in it without the presence of love.

Why might a person believe something like this?

In many cases, the answer is that we view sex as having a purpose such that sexual activity which does not serve that purpose is morally suspect.

Four views of what sex is all about:

i. The purpose of sex is reproduction.

ii. The purpose of sex is the expression of love

iii. The purpose of sex  is communication

iv. The purpose of sex  is interpersonal awareness.

Are any of these views correct?


A more liberal view of sex:  "sexual desire is desire for contact with another person's body and for the pleasure which such contact produces; sexual activity is activity which tends to fulfill such desire of the agent." (Alan Goldman, "Plain Sex")
In other words, sex is 'plain sex' and nothing more.

Is this a better account?

On Goldman's view, sex carries no special moral 'weight'.  The usual sorts of rules about consent apply, but that's about it.  If two (or more) people consent to a particular sex act and no one gets hurt then there's nothing wrong it.

Groupwork:  Is Goldman's 'liberal' view of sex correct?

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