229. Is consent really everything when it comes to sexual morality?

When it comes to sexual morality many hold the liberal view that consent between adults is everything. Once we have consenting adults then sexual activity is moral. Violations of consent are immoral. This short and entertaining video presents a helpful way of understanding consent and concludes with the slogan “consent is everything.”

But is it everything?

At first glance it certainly seems plausible. However, another way to think about sexual morality is sometimes referred to as a natural approach insofar as it incorporates some insights about human nature and how, even if we have consenting adults, certain sexual activities might be unnatural in some way and therefore perverted and possibly immoral.

For example, we might apply a natural virtue ethics approach and think about how sexual relations do, or do not, develop virtues – good character traits – that are integral to actualizing our rational and moral natures. After all, people may consent to enter into sexual relations that cultivate excesses and deficiencies in their characters. For example, their sexual relations might make them less able to overcome their fears about love and commitment, might undermine their self-esteem, or might make them more sadistic. In these cases it seems sensible to prescribe that people shouldn’t engage in such relations despite their consensual nature. And the justification of the prescription would flow from an insight that such relations thwart, rather than facilitate, the development of certain virtues – courage, love, self-esteem, kindness, etc. – that help us flourish as the beings we are.

Roger Scruton connects this virtue ethics approach to the following three-fold criterion for natural sexual desire which he explores in his book Sexual Desire and this podcast:

1) We should have reciprocity through mutual recognition in which both partners are capable of consent and self-giving.

2) Each person in the relationship should be seen as non-transferable. 

3) And the intentionality or purpose of sexual desire should be directed towards an individual person. 

Once we have these three, we can ask how certain practices – masturbation, pornography, sex with minors, fetishes, pedophilia, open relationships, casual and impersonal sex, necrophilia, sex with sex dolls, and so on – either hinder or help the development of habits or virtues that help us actualize natural and thus non-perverted sexual desire that is reciprocal, non-transferable, and directed towards a person.

There have been other efforts in this direction. For example, Thomas Nagel “proposes that sexual interactions in which each person responds with sexual arousal to noticing the sexual arousal of the other person exhibit the psychology that is natural to human sexuality. In such an encounter, each person becomes aware of himself or herself and the other person as both the subject and the object of their joint sexual experiences. Perverted sexual encounters or events would be those in which this mutual recognition of arousal is absent, and in which a person remains fully a subject of the sexual experience or fully an object” (see the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry “Philosophy of Sexuality” here). This approach would show us that fetishism, voyeurism, and some non-interactive forms of pornography are perverted.

Finally, one might move from these psychological approaches to a more physiological one and connect sexual practices to the norms of natural sexual reproduction. This approach would try and show how certain consenting practices can still be immoral if they thwart certain natural drives. St. Thomas Aquinas is a famous representative of this approach whose ideas have come to wield tremendous influence through their adoption by the Catholic Church:

“Based upon a comparison of the sexuality of humans and the sexuality of lower animals (mammals, in particular), Aquinas concludes that what is natural in human sexuality is the impulse to engage in heterosexual coitus. Heterosexual coitus is the mechanism designed by the Christian God to insure the preservation of animal species, including humans, and hence engaging in this activity is the primary natural expression of human sexual nature. Further, this God designed each of the parts of the human body to carry out specific functions, and on Aquinas’s view God designed the male penis to implant sperm into the female’s vagina for the purpose of effecting procreation. It follows, for Aquinas, that depositing the sperm elsewhere than inside a human female’s vagina is unnatural: it is a violation of God’s design, contrary to the nature of things as established by God. For this reason alone, on Aquinas’s view, such activities are immoral, a grave offense to the sagacious plan of the Almighty” (again, see the IEP entry “Philosophy of Sexuality” here)

It is important, however, to keep in mind that many nature approaches to sexual morality, especially Scruton’s and Nagel’s, don’t warrant an immediate inference from perversion to immorality. After all, someone can be perverted and not negatively others. But if we agree that morality isn’t only what we do to others but also what we do to ourselves, then perhaps the inference can, with some further justification, be made.

All these lines of reasoning attempt to offer an account of human nature and show how sexual relations either do or do not thwart the development of certain good potentials of this nature. In doing so, they, and all other natural approaches, are bound to make certain controversial moves – especially in these times when the whole notion of people having a nature if often attacked by those who think we make our nature through an act of self-identification. But the key here is to see that there is another strategy, quite a varied one with plenty of options and room for development, that can help us approach sexual morality quite differently. This is good to keep it in mind when people try and convince us that the slogan “consent is everything” solves all the sticky issues that arise in the realm of sexual morality. For that position is, I think, quite controversial as well and can easily lead us to overlook serious issues that can’t be successfully addressed in that moral framework.

For my post on sadomasochism, go here.

For my post on whether there can be a science of Eros, go here.

For my post on how three different forms of love can benefit our relationships, go here.

For two posts on love as power, go here.

For my post on love and duty, go here.

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