I wanna tell you a secret! Sex-talk would be fairly easy (yup, I said easy) if we humans could all answer the following question in the same way:
Which system of ethics most effectively helps us to know when sex is “ethical”?
Scholars have been working on that question for a few thousand years but we’ve yet to find the one perfect universal answer. As we look back throughout history we see it has always been the case that different people and different societies answer that question differently. While some answers have gained more traction than others, this fact has never changed, even until now. For the sake of expedience, we should wish this wasn’t the case.
It would be advantageous to academia and thus to humankind if we could all find a way to agree on the same answer to that core question. If that happened, then our sex-talk disagreements with one another (regardless of our cultural background or sexual orientation or religious creed) could amount to a mere discussion of the details. All we’d have to do is use our universally-agreed-upon system of ethics in general to discover what in sex is ethical and what isn’t, and when. We could all then proceed with specifics since we’d all operate under the same rubric and we’d all have similarly agreed-upon end-goals in mind.
This is crazy… at the popular level almost no one is asking this question. Instead, everyone seems to be obsessed not with talking about ethical systems but instead debating ethical details. And we wonder why we aren’t getting anywhere! I mean, it’s not as if we aren’t talking about this topic enough… so why can’t we all just agree? We can’t all agree on the details because we don’t all agree on the central question: Which system of ethics most effectively helps us to know when or what type of sex is “ethical”? This means we have yet to come to a universal understanding on where the conversation *should* start or how we should even begin to proceed! This is no one’s fault in particular, it is just the way it is. Humans continue to talk past each other not primarily because we disagree with each other, but because we are not able to assume the same agreed-upon sexual-ethic system by which to evaluate particular details that fall within that system! We are missing the forest in the trees, as they say.
This explains much of the confusion, animosity, frustration, misunderstanding, and shock we see when these topics come up in the public square. But, as things are, how could we expect anything different? It makes sense that every time our government makes sexual-ethic pronouncements, lots of people not only freak out but they also respond in shock. Plenty of people are not only frustrated but shocked because when someone (especially a government) prescribes an ethical detail that doesn’t fit into their own personal ethical system that that person holds, that person becomes very confused, disillusioned, frustrated, shocked.
To the disillusioned person, the legislated detail just doesn’t seem to make sense. It doesn’t seem logical (since that detail likely does not follow from their own ethical system), and thus the legislated detail is understood to be “un-fair” or “un-just.” This isn’t because legislators are always more “enlightened” or “updated” or “modern” than disillusioned people. The prescribed detail feels un-just to much of society because legislated details don’t always fit into everyone’s ethical system (Have I emphasized the distinction enough, yet?). So, dis-equilibration ensues… after that usually lots of shock, freak-out and uproar. When the most powerful try to quiet the minority by bullying or calling names admitedly they do temporarily convince some to just shut-up and/or give in, but they aren’t enabling us as a society to bring about the lasting peace we all want.
We should remember, virtually everyone wants marriage “equality.” We just disagree on our definitions of marriage and our definitions of equality. The disagreement is not in the details, it is systemic. Without knowing it, we are doomed to fail before we even begin. We are tripping and we haven’t even gotten to the gate. So the question remains: Is government legislation the answer to our problem? Perhaps we need something more…
Here is my “Something more”… Rather than trying to legislate out the controversy (as if that is completely possible) or rather than me bullying anyone who would challenge my respective answers…Rather than us trying to intimidate or guilt one another…etc., I believe a more fruitful approach is one where we each first learn to identify which system of sexual ethics we personally subscribe to. If we start the conversation here, we’ll be a lot more productive since this is the primary cause of all of our sexual-ethic disagreements in the first place. As well, if we start here, our disagreements with one another won’t feel like a “personal attack” on my beliefs or identity or whatever. Instead, our disagreements can be seen for what they are: An effort to understand why some people prescribe to a different ethical system than me!
This means instead of getting upset with someone who disagrees with me, I’ll be expecting them to disagree with me! But this won’t be shocking, or disturbing, or frustrating. It’ll all be understood to be a part of the game. The question for all of us should not be “How can I get everyone to agree with me?” (another way of putting it is, “How can I gain control so I can manipulate others to do what I want them to do?”) This is dangerous thinking, especially for the minorities in our midst. The real question we should be asking is, “How can I live well with those who disagree with me for the sake of everybody?”
Again, Miroslav Volf’s statement continues to ring true to me, “It may not be too much to claim that the future of our world will depend on how we deal with identity and difference.” My proposal is in alignment with both this project and also how Charles Taylor conceived of our “secular” city. To be secular is not to be “a-religious” or “anti-religious.” Secular societies are not societies of unbelief, but instead they are societies which include many modes of belief. No one belief-system is self-evident to everyone. Indeed, this is the sort of society we live in. My recommendation for moving forward thus connects with real-life and is far superior to many other alternatives. At the least, this proposal can get us started in the right direction.
So, Let Me Ask You The Most Important Question: Which Ethical System Do YOU Subscribe To?
On the popular level, recent academic studies on the topic of sexual ethics yield four major ethical epistemologies. The following is what I see to be a sort of “Top Four Ethical Systems of Our Day.” For your benefit, I’ve included these four so as you read them you can ask yourself, “Which system do I personally adhere to, and why?” If you can answer this question, you’ll be far more ready than most to understand why others may disagree with you, and why that might be OK, and how you can begin to have more productive sexual-ethics discussions with others in the future. For the sake of everybody!
- Ethical Egoism: Look out for numero uno! For the most part, people in this camp believe whatever sexual acts make a person happy are legitimate sexual acts. Sexual actions are good when they make an individual happy, and bad when they make an individual sad. Here, ethics is all about the maximal (and usually immediate) pleasure for the individual. Implicit is the impression that to be sexually attractive and to express one’s sexuality is the key to personal happiness and success. Sex is for humans the means whereby they can actualize themselves. Thus, sex is valuable since and when it is a sort of vehicle for self-expression and self-actualization.
- Social Utilitarianism: The “greatest happiness” for the “greatest number.” For the most part, advocates of this worldview believe whatever sexual actions seem beneficial to a particular society at that time, those sexual actions should be allowed at that time. Here, ethics is all about the accepted norms and views of the broader society and especially the majority views of the people.
- Cultural Relativism: When in Rome, do what the Romans do… and as long as you don’t hurt anyone else, you’re OK! In these systems of thought, there is no such thing as “right” and “wrong” per say, only our conceptions of those ideas for the sake of a peaceful society. Here, no matter how we got here, if your society says a particular form of sex is OK, then that particular form of sex is OK.
- Divine Command Theory: God said it… I believe it… that settles it. God is the source of all truth and thus whatever God communicates to humanity about sex must be adhered to and obeyed. If God is the creator of “right” or “wrong” why wouldn’t God also be able to tell us what sex is for and when it is ethical? In this viewpoint, God knows best, and we should rest in what God says.
What is of infinite importance is when someone is talking about sex, they know which system they are advocating, why they are advocating for that system, and they should know the weaknesses of their system as well. For example, With Ethical Egoism: Huge difficulties in trying to universalize this system. Certainly no historical precedence to go off of. And besides, isn’t it a bit overly optimistic as regards to how it views the nature of human nature? With Utilitarianism: “greatest” is a comparative term, and no one knows all the results of an action before an action takes place. With Cultural Relativism: relativist principles are logically contradictory. Also, shouldn’t we look past what a society is doing and ask why they are doing it to find out if an action is moral or not? Is morality best established by taking public opinion polls or by majority vote? And with Divine Command Theory: Which “God?” What about those who don’t believe in God? What about modern issues that don’t show up in divine texts or through divine revelation?
Lastly, it’s not as if just because things are complicated we should give up on the whole “getting-along-thing.” We should be extremely wary of extremes. For example, you’ll hear some people say, “You cannot legislate morality…so stop trying…you should be able to do whatever you wanna do!” but that is a cop-out based on an un-true assumption. It’s untrue because we are happy to legislate morality all the time. Laws against murder, theft and public nudity all involve the implementation of moral principles. These are basic examples of civic morality in action – and virtually no one would argue against such things in application to real-life situations. The answer to the challenge of sexual-ethics can never be, “Just do whatever you wanna do.”
On the other hand, we shouldn’t fall into the other extremes: Getting government to legislate our viewpoint so others can’t disagree… Or maybe even worse, we shouldn’t answer the systemic disagreements of others by raising our voices LoUdEr, picketing those we dislike or reverting to intellectually dishonest ad-hominem attacks. In a secular society like ours, not only are we bound to dis-agree with one another, we are at the same time forced to see and hear from those who disagree with us by virtue of the characteristic of where we live: In a secular society. No one mode of belief can be taken for granted. And we shouldn’t pretend our own personal mode of belief is universal or should be legislated to all. It isn’t. It never was. It never should be.
So there you have it! If you want to be an effective communicator with others on the topic of sex, sexuality and sexual ethics…don’t start with the details! Please don’t put the cart before the wheel. Start with the system! Which ethical system do you subscribe to and why? This is the core question… everything else is simply mere un-shocking details…
*This is the third in a series of five posts on the topic of sex. You can see the two previous posts in this series here:*
 Volf, Miroslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Abingdon Press, 1996: 20.