What are the issues involved with sexual ethics? This question lies at the heart of the OCR applied syllabus. I recently came across a Bill of Sexual Rights produced by the humanists association (click here). It is interesting how many of the following principles from our major ethical theories find echoes in this document.
1. Autonomy and respect. Traditionally a Kantian concern, as expressed in the second formulation of the categorical imperative (always treat people not just as a means to an end but also always as an end in themselves), it also occurs in virtue ethics (the idea of phronesis or practical wisdom) and utilitarianism (the right to be counted as one freely deciding being). The Kantian formula implies we universalise our common humanity and treat others with dignity, rights and respect. We respect their right to say no and to be treated as more than just pleasure machines.
2. Fullness of life. The Greek telos or goal of eudaimonia, as expressed as a purpose in both Natural Law and Virtue ethics, is employed by the humanist Bill of Rights as a supreme goal. We can translate this as "welfare" or "flourishing" or "well-being" and it implies that a sexual ethic should be concerned with long term well-being (health, for example, both mental and physical). Psychologists (like Freud) would have much to say about this. contd....
3. Consequences. This is traditionally the particular concern of the utilitarians. The aim is to make a calculation of the balance of pleasure over pain or happiness over misery, and so act as to maximise the positive effects over the negative. Of course, there is a contradiction here. If I maximise my pleasure (eg by having multiple sexual partners and unprotected sex) I may not be in a position to assess the risk of, for example, contracting an STD, because I don't know about my partner's sexual history, and indeed, they may themselves be unaware that they are a carrier. The problem of imperfect knowledge bedevils utilitarian future calculations.
4. Least harm. This is actually negative utilitarianism - to minimise harm by my actions may be an easier calculation than a balance of happiness over misery. I can simply ask "am I hurting you by my behaviour?" or simply look at the expression on your face. If it causes harm, don't do it. It's interesting that the sexual Bill of Rights proclaims boldly (point 7) that "pleasure is a moral good". But is pleasure an unqualified "good"? And is it the ultimate "good" or just one moral factor among many?
5. Justice and equality. It's only recently that the equality of women has been a legal right. Rape within marriage was only illegal after 1991, women traditionally surrendered their property on marriage until the law changed in 1870. Click here for more on these issues. Only in 1967 did a woman, from a women's rights perspective, gain full control over her own body with the legalisation of abortion. To feminists these are issues of justice. Of course, a Natural Law theorist of the traditional Catholic view would argue differently, that abortion violates the sanctity of human life and affects the dignity of the person choosing abortion.