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Ethical Theories are of no Help When Discussing Matters of Sex and Relationships Essay Sample

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Introduction of TOPIC

In order to frame any relevant discussion on the helpfulness of ethical theories when considering matters of sex and relationships, it will be necessary for us to have established a clear understanding of our key terms which in this instance will be taken to be help and ethical theories. We will also need to recognise a clear distinction between the moral position which academics adopt in terms of specific sexual acts or practices and the quite separate area of sexual relationships.

Against this background the essay will explore the ethical theories of Aquinas and Kant with regards to the act of sex itself and then consider the moral implications of these bodies of thought for human relationships. I hope to demonstrate that these ethical theories are not helpful as the boundaries they impose on sexual practice are essentially artificial, outdated and patriarchal. Furthermore, I propose to maintain that these systems fail to adequately sustain the view that marriage is the only valid moral agency for sexual practice. Having discussed this view, I intend to support the alternative, liberal ethical theory of Utilitarianism as a sound approach to considering matters of sex and relationships.

Help is a multifaceted concept which within the context of this essay will be restricted to one of the definitions proposed by the Hamlyn World Dictionary as ‘to give aid; be of service’.

For the purpose of this essay we shall take an ethical system to be one which can ‘clarify the implications of certain very general beliefs about morality, and show how these beliefs can consistently be put into practice’ (Warburton).

The Thomist approach to sexual ethics was informed by a combination of ‘negative’ views on sexuality. The origins of Aquinas’ ‘Natural Law’ formulation can be traced back to Pythagorean, Platonic and Stoic teachings on sexuality as an irrational force which must be checked by the firm application of will and sustained reason. Allied to this, Pauline ethics place suppression and virginity as the most preferable state, with marriage acting purely as a stop-gap for those who can not exercise sufficient self-control, ‘it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion’. REFERENCE. Augustinian thought supports this restrictive approach by explaining the apparently sinful nature of sexuality as being rooted in the Fall: the irrational nature of sexuality is regarded as a punishment for mankind’s rejection of God’s Divine reason. Thus, the Augustine ethic regards sexuality as a shameful process designed to punish man for his rebelliousness.

Fro this foundation, Aquinas attempted to reconcile the Hellenistic philosophy of sexuality with Christian theology. Aquinas maintained that if sexuality is intrinsically shameful, it is necessary to attempt to understand its external use in the Logos of God’s creation,

“God has care of everything according to that which is good for it… now it is good for everything to gain its end, and evil for it to be diverted from its due end … but as in the whole so also in the parts, our study should be that every part of man and every act of his may attain its due end” SUMMA CONTRA GENTILES BOOK 3, Chapter 122

Aquinas maintains that sex, or rather the ’emission of the semen’ has two key roles to play;

I) to be so directed as that both the proper generation may ensue and

II) the education of the offspring may be secured.

Thus, according to the traditional Christian perspective sex is only moral if it is generative: any emission of semen which can not result in the possibility of conception is sinful. Significantly, Aquinas adds the qualification that the accidental emission of semen in a situation in which a birth is impossible is not in itself against nature nor is it sinful: ‘accidental’ in the context of sterile heterosexual partners. However, Aquinas refers indirectly to the perceived unnatural character of homosexual sex according to his criterion,

“it is clear that

every emission of semen is contrary to the good of man which takes place in a way whereby generation

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is impossible… as in the case in every emission of the semen without the natural union of male and female: wherefore such sins are called ‘sins against nature”

With this preliminary established, Aquinas then considers the subscribed purpose of procreation. Aquinas rejects animal’s natural instinct (suas prudentias) to provide solely for themselves as a reasonable basis for morality, and maintains that man as a rational being must support his mate as ‘the female is clearly insufficient of herself for the rearing of the offspring’. Hence, Aquinas held that,

“it is natural for man to be tied to the society of one fixed woman for a long period… this social tie we call marriage… marriage then is natural to man, and an irregular connexion outside of marriage is contrary to the good of man… which is the conservation of the species”.

Put modern stuff in?

The Natural law perspective has come under sustained critism. Paul Taylor Smith queried Aquinas’ reading of Aristotle: in ‘Politics’ procreation is regarded as somewhat subsidiary to social interaction, love and friendship.

Leiser highlights the discrepancies in Aquinas’ assumption that normative ethics can be derived from the apparent order in the universe. Leiser discusses the essential difference between the ‘laws’ of nature and the ‘laws’ that apparently govern social interaction, maintaining that the latter are purely descriptive, whereas the latter are prescriptive’. Wherefore, when a scientist declares that such a rule is evident in nature, that is to say that this is the manner in which physical bodies behave- not how they should. It does not therefore make sense to say that a natural law is ‘violated’; any change in the perceived order requires a refinement in the scientists understanding of the law, not an attempt to change the behaviour of the phenomena itself. Hume might argue that Aquinas commits the naturalistic fallacy of deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’; one should examine the world as it is, rather than deriving from appearances how the world should be without qualification.


Kant’s ‘Duties towards the body in respect of sexual impulse’ (Lectures on Ethics 1775-80: Ch15) provides considerable insight into the application of duty within the field of sexual ethics. Kant regards sexual impulse as a ‘principle of the degradation of human nature’. Sexual desire ‘makes of the loved person an Object of appetite; as soon as that appetite has been stilled, the person is cast aside as one casts aside a citrus fruit that has been sucked dry’. If we leave citrus fruit aside, without qualification this response to sex itself seems even more pessimistic than that of Augustine and Aquinas- ‘sexual desire is at the root of it; and that is why we are ashamed of it’. The inherent goodness of human nature is subjugated by sexual desire: a man does not desire a woman because she is a human being but because she is a woman and thus an object of desire.

Kant poses a similar question to Aquinas: in which capacity can sex be seen as morally acceptable and not just an instrument for the satisfaction of inclination- ‘there must be certain conditions under which alone the use of facultales sexuals would be in keeping with morality’. Kant concluded that the contract of marriage- and the couples duty towards one another- transforms and ‘otherwise manipulative relationship into one which is essentially altruistic in character’ (Gadell). The right to use another’s organa sexualia for the satisfaction of sexual desire is dependent on the right to dispose over the person as a whole- the only way of winning these rights over another person is by granting reciprocal tights-‘if I yield myself to another and obtain the person of the other in return, I win myself back’.

Kant labels abuses of sexuality ‘crimina carnis’- acts contrary to self-regarding duty because they are against the ends of humanity-PUT IN C.I. 3 +LINK WITH AQUINAS. Kant breaks down crimina carnis into two types; a) crimina carnis secudum naturam – sexual acts contrary to sound reason, b) criminal carnis contra naturam – sexual acts contrary to our nature.


The latter category details Kant’s condemnation of homosexuality as an act which degrades humanity below the level of animals- ‘intercourse between sexus homogenii… this practice too is contrary to the ends of humanity in respect of sexuality is to preserve the species without debasing the person… (criminal carnis contra naturam) is the most abominable conduct of which a man can be guilty’.

One can of course level several reasonable criticisms against Kant’s grounds for condemning homosexuality. Irving Singer in ‘The Morality of Sex: contra Kant’ queries the character imposes on sexuality itself. Singer explains; ‘it is false to say that by its nature sexuality is necessarily appetitive, if in saying this we imply- as Kant does- that on all occasions, inevitably and uniformly, it seeks to appropriate other persons for the benefits of one’s own organic needs’. Singer also raises the valid the objection that sexual attraction can not be debased to the level of organa sexualia, ‘our sexual feelings are ordinarily directed towards more than just their genitals, or any other portion of their body… we enjoy people across a vast gamut of affective experiences.’

Kant’s recommendation of marriage as the sole moral agency of sex is also suspect. Is it not possible that two adults can grant each other reciprocal rights to dispose over their persons for an indefinite period of time? (PUT IN SOURCE) Kant’s assumption that a ‘union of wills’ necessarily results from a heterosexual marriage, and that any sexual relationship outside this frame is entirely divorced from correct moral conduct. One can easily imagine a situation in which one bullying spouse uses another as a means to his/her ends in a heterosexual marriage. (something about consent is contract and coercion) Is this abusive marriage superior to a homosexual marriage based on reciprocal respect? Does marriage cleanse any heterosexual relationship of all aspects of exploitation, and are all other relationships outside this structure by definition instrumental? Many would be inclined to answer ‘no’.

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