Traditionally, Christianity has forbidden fornication, claiming that it is an offense against God. But why might God see it as a transgression? Miguel A. Endara contends that natural law reasoning applied to sexual anthropology helps us to discover that fornication promotes human objectification and existential fragmentation. In accord with natural law, that which undermines human flourishing is morally illicit. Fornication undermines human flourishing. Therefore, fornication is morally illicit. This argument constitutes grounds for us to consider why fornication is an offense against God. Mr. Endara is an adjunct philosophy instructor at Azusa Pacific Online University.
We do not offend God except by doing something contrary to our own good.— Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles III.122:2
Many Christian traditions, especially conservative ones, view sex before marriage as a sin, an offence against God, something that we should flee from or shun. But apart from these traditions and apart from biblical exegesis, are there reasons that may help us to understand why sex before marriage might be wrong? Can we figure out by means of rational deliberation why it may be an offense against God? Such reasons exist and are discoverable through natural law reasoning applied to sexual anthropology.1 In other words, if we observe and reflect on the human being qua salient human features and if we reflect on the nature of sex, we may discover that sex before (and outside) of marriage is morally illicit and hence is an offense against God.
After a brief venture into our human features, I analyze the character or nature of sex, contending that it has great unitive power that is fulfilling or perfecting of us as human beings. We may harness this power only if sex takes place within a suitable relational context consistent with its nature. I then argue that sex also has great power to thwart our well-being. It may, in fact, inwardly disintegrate as well as dehumanize us, if we engage in it outside its suitable context.2 Insofar as engaging in sex before marriage promotes the undermining of our flourishing as human beings, we act outside of rational moral bounds that provide reasons for action, thus, it is not morally licit and is an offense against God.
Prima facie, sex between two people appears to involve a significant mutual interchange in that it influences us in a personal manner.3 While this prima facie observation may make intuitive sense, it is limited in that it does not inform us adequately about the character of the interchange or the moral implications of the act. One way to begin to analyze the character of the interchange is to consider the human attributes or features that allow us to engage in such activity. It is clear that the most salient human attribute involved in sexual relations is our biological sexuality. However our biological sex may be interpreted or understood by individuals and however it may be shaped or molded by social and cultural factors, it nevertheless influences who we are and who we become.4 If this is true, our biological sex is a basic and significant attribute of our individual humanity.
In addition, we possess personal, organic, intrinsic unity. This unity has significant implications for sex. We possess the capacity to act as unified wholes, where the attributes of our being, such as the bodily, rational, volitional, and emotional work together in harmony toward our desired goals. For example, the act that I am now engaged in, that of writing this essay, requires that I work as a unified whole. Reason and autonomy allow me to integrate arguments so that I may reach the goal of successfully maintaining a moral position. Also, as part of this unified effort, my fingers hit specific keys in specific sequences so as to record my thoughts on my computer. Concurrently, I am seated in a certain position so as to be in a comfortable physical state. Moreover, my emotions are favorably predisposed to the task. If I was overly angry or even overly joyous, for example, I would not be able to accomplish my endeavor. Thus, I work as a unified whole and in a harmonious manner to accomplish this task.
We may also imagine completing a project at work or even driving home, where our mind, will, body, and emotions work in harmonious unison, taking on specific and mutually advantageous roles to accomplish the task at hand. These kinds of activities, then, intimate that a type of unity exists within the human being.
Nonetheless, artifacts also possess a type of unity. In the case of objects, the component parts also take specific and mutually advantageous roles to accomplish a particular task or function. For example, computers, cars, and cameras are composed of component parts united to realize certain tasks. The component parts of these objects are super added to each other from the outside. If someone decides to create a computer, car, or camera, she designs, constructs, and fits suitable parts together to work in unison so as to accomplish certain tasks. In these cases, an accidental unity exists between the components of the object.
We humans possess personal, organic, intrinsic unity. Our human attributes arise and develop over time and in a natural manner. That is, these attributes arise and develop slowly as integral elements of whole living organisms through a complex interplay between genotype and environment. To contrast, the component parts of artifacts primarily function in unison for non-self-directed ends that are extrinsic to them. For example, computer users, car drivers, and photographers use computers, cars, and cameras for ends suitable to them. On the other hand, the unity of human attributes exists directly and primarily for the good of the whole living organism, the particular human being, who self-directs these.
Thus, by “organic intrinsic unity” I mean unity that is not super added from the outside. Instead, this unity inheres through the origin and developmental stages of our human attributes. Further, these are self-directed by the organism for its own good. Any division claimed to exist amongst these, then, seems to be foreign to the origin, development, cohesion, and activity of the human organism. In other words, claims that humans are not holistic beings seem to be at least prima facie faulty. If, then, we are sexual beings – that is, if our sex is a significant attribute of our being – and if intrinsic organic unity exists, our sex is significantly integrated within us. Our attributes and our sex, then, function as a cohesive whole to make us who we are as individual human beings.
As part of our particular sex, we possess localized genitalia. Since our genitalia plays a primary role in defining our sex and since it is integrated within us, it makes sense to suppose that sexually employing our genitalia significantly involves and influences us.5In other words, sex involves us in ways that transcend our genitalia, engaging our whole being. Understood in this manner, we not only arrive at, but supersede the conclusion of our intuitions: engaging in sex influences us in a deeply personal manner.
But, what exactly do I mean when I claim that “sex influences us in a deeply personal manner”? Since we are coherent wholes, sexual activity involves the totality of our being at least by promoting whole-organism unity with our partner.6Here, I am restricting my discussion to sexual intercourse of the heterosexual kind where there is a physical union of male and female genitalia. Thus, for the purposes of this essay, by “sexual intercourse” I mean heterosexual sex.
Sexual intercourse deeply influences us in a personal manner in at least two ways. First, it promotes biological unity with our partner. We possess organs such as the heart, the lungs, the kidneys, and the sexual ones, among others, that perform some type of biological function that benefits the whole organism. For example, the function of the heart is to pump blood throughout the body so as to nourish it. A function of the kidneys is to filter the blood of impurities. In the case of healthy adults, organs perform on their own. Unless we are ill, for example, our heart and kidneys will perform their functions without assistance from some non-natural source external to the body, such as a pacemaker or a dialysis machine. In fact, if we are healthy, all of our organs, except for one, have no need for external assistance from technology or from some other organ external to ourselves. Insofar as procreation is the biological function of our sex organs, we need external assistance; we cannot procreate, in natural fashion, by ourselves.7 Indeed, the procreative function is unique in that its performance requires the aid of the sex organs of another human being of the complementary sex. Sexual intercourse, then, unites the sex organs of two persons of complementary sex in the performance of a biological function. This is the only type of act by means of which we may attain biological unity with another human being.9 Some may only minimally experience the drive for existential unity while others may experience a heightened form of it. A second reason may account for lacking the drive toward existential unity. Some may only negligibly experience this drive when sexual intercourse takes place after habitually rejecting or denying it on past occasions. If we habitually deny some of our natural drives, we may lessen or modify these to an extent. For example I may train myself to sleep seven hours per night, instead of the recommended eight. However, adverse repercussions may arise, depending on the type of drive and modification involved. I may not be able to train myself to sleep four or five hours per night without incurring adverse repercussions. In the case of sexual intercourse, I may be able to alter the drive I experience for existential unity in terms of its strength and, given enough practice, I may even be able to suppress it so as to virtually extinguish it, but, as I will shortly contend, not without adverse repercussions.
Human Flourishing Through Sexual Intercourse
The drive toward existential unity is plausible for at least another reason. Many times through the flourishing of sexual relations, we discover our inherent worth as well as who we are, both as creatures with the capacity to love others in a more complete manner and as creatures who are worthy of love.10 Through sexual intercourse, we may gain a sense of who we are as individual, unique, indispensible, and irreplaceable human beings. In these cases, we do not merely have sex but make love. That is, through sex, we may enter into the most humanly possible intimate communion of body, emotion, will, and mind with another human being. In this case, the drive serves as a built-in or natural pointer toward one of the ends of sex, whole-organism unity with our partner. Thus, the possibility of experiencing flourishing sexual relations, where such deep interpersonal intimacy exists, reinforces the idea that something like this unitive drive exists. If I am correct, sex is incommensurable to other types of activities, for no other provides a catalyst for biological and existential unity that involves our whole being in the most personal or intimate possible manner, thus promoting human flourishing.
The Inherent Exigencies in Sexual Relations
If sex indeed has the great potential for unity that leads to our flourishing, we still have to ask the question of how this potential may be activated. A clue comes from the personal nature of the act: it necessarily and deeply involves us, as a whole, at a personal level. This idea intimates that the act ought to take place within some type of suitable relational context or environment. In other words, the relational environment must at least be commensurate with the character of the act in order for it to promote great good. But, what might this environment look like? Mutual fidelity and reciprocal commitment seem necessary for there to be openness between the couple so that biological and existential unity may take place unimpeded. Also, a tangible amount of love and respect, or at least openness to these, seems to be needed. Further, as human experience and research data from the social sciences suggest, only marriage may begin to create the existential landscape where the spouses are free to express themselves fully through sexual intercourse.11 Thus, as a minimum, the exigencies of the act demand that the relational environment include the marital state where mutual fidelity and commitment, and where at least openness to love and respect exist.12 Only in this context are the spouses free to give themselves to the other, mind, will, emotions, and body, so that sexual intimacy may begin to unify them while safeguarding fragile human love so that it may grow and flourish.
Most ideally sex should take place within a marriage where a sustained and shared love commitment exists that embraces common values and goals as well as reciprocal trust, loyalty, openness, respect, care, tenderness, intimacy, and even inter-dependence. Thus, insofar as sex inescapably engages our whole being in the most personal manner possible and insofar as we meet its inherent exigencies, sex promotes our flourishing.
Comparing Sexual Relations to Other Types of Relations
Contrary to my claims, some may maintain that the relational environment in which sex takes place must be minimally comprised of love and intimacy in order to make the act morally licit. Marriage, in this case, is optional. In his theoretical survey of approaches to sexual relations, Raymond Belliotti challenges this “love and intimacy” approach.13 If Belliotti’s argument proves to be successful, a fortiori he undermines my argument, for my approach has a higher bar.
In one of his critiques of the “love and intimacy” approach, Belliotti contends that even though love and intimacy are significant attributes of human personality, it is not clear that they should always be seen as primary, for we engage in many significant activities that are not connected with love and intimacy. Why, then, must sex be different? asks Belliotti. Further, even if we discover that sex is deeply connected to human personality, this may merely be a historical fact. The importance imputed to sex may be the result of a social construction that arose sometime in history. If so, pleasure, devoid of love and intimacy, becomes a morally licit goal of sex between consenting adults.
To begin to respond to Belliotti and in conformity with the idea that sex deeply and necessarily engages us in a personal manner, we must recognize that different types of relational interchanges engage us in different ways, depending upon numerous factors. Some of these factors include the character or type of activity under consideration, the history of relational interchanges between the involved parties, cultural constructs, and personal expectations and proclivities. For example, if we enjoy tea with a neighbor, play tennis with a friend, or buy groceries from the corner store clerk, we usually do not involve ourselves or the other person at a very deep or personal level. On the other hand, if we participate in a Japanese tea ceremony and understand its cultural significance, it may foment close bonds of friendship and community between us and the other participants. So, also, playing a tennis match for the state championship, as opposed to playing with a friend for recreational purposes, does seem to involve us at a deep and personal level. Regarding these last two sample cases, Belliotti is correct, for these types of acts may significantly involve our personality, and yet, love and intimacy have no part in the ethically required relational environment I espouse. To reiterate, why, then, must sex be different?
Given that my argument is grounded on the character of sex, whatever social constructs may or may not have been imposed on these types of acts in history become secondary considerations. The deep and necessary influence of sex through the promotion of biological and existential unity cannot merely be a social construct. In contradistinction to cases of playing tennis or drinking tea with others, our social constructions of sexual expression cannot overcome the character of the act. True, there may be layers of significance placed on sex through social construction, but these do not change its inherent character. Sex remains a significant mode of expression that necessarily encompasses our whole being at its depth. Thus, its significance is not merely a historical fact.
To further respond to Belliotti, viewing sex through a via negativa argument, as applied to cases of rape, also implies the incommensurability of sex to other types of acts. A rape victim may be hurt physically and emotionally, just as victims of violent crimes that include robbery and battery. However, the emotional pain that usually accompanies rape victims who survive seems to go much deeper than the pain that accompanies victims of other violent crimes. If rape is an exceptionally vile and emotionally deleterious crime, as it seems to be, we must ask ourselves why this is the case. Why, indeed, if sex is just another physical act such as playing tennis or interchanging serviceable goods, must it be so emotionally detrimental to human beings in cases of rape? Why can we not willfully shake off the emotional effects of being victimized by rape as we might shake off the emotional effects of being forced to play a game of tennis, or of having a valuable possession robbed by force?
As much as we may try, we cannot disengage the features of our being from each other. We cannot disengage our volition from our body or our mind from our emotions, for we are coherent wholes. If it were otherwise, if we could successfully disengage these attributes from ourselves, we would be able to put the traumatizing effects of rape to one side. But this does not seem possible, except, sometimes, through intensive therapy over a protracted period of time. Cases of rape, then, substantiate my claim regarding our deep unity as human beings, as well as the connection of this unity with sex. In fact, cases of rape imply that sex cuts through to the bone and marrow of our being by deeply and inescapably engaging us. Thus, contra Belliotti, sex deserves special consideration, for it is incommensurable to other relational acts. Though its social construction may necessarily influence our perspective on it, it cannot alter its inherent character or its deep and personal impact on us.
The Existential Fragmenting of the Self
If sexual intercourse provides for such great potential unity with another human being, it makes sense to approach the act with some type of respect for it. Why? If the act has the potential to promote human well-being, then it also has the potential to promote its compromise, as was discussed in the case of rape. How might this work? Usually, when sex takes place outside of marriage, the relational environment is deficient; mutual fidelity, commitment, and openness to love and respect are partially or altogether absent.
When sex takes place in a deficient relational environment, we experience inner disintegration or conflict. Why is this so? Sexual intercourse, through biological and existential sexual unity, propels us to connect with our mate holistically; it promotes the impetus to drive us to whole-person unity with our partner. When we limit, or cut short, this full connection for any reason (such as merely seeking physical pleasure), we short-change the process. When we short-change the process, we fragment our identity by attempting to alienate ourselves from ourselves. We pit our thoughts, attitudes, desires, emotions, and actions against one another. Our body impels us toward complete integration with our partner while our volition restrains us. This promotes the compromise of our well-being through existential fragmentation, a type of disintegration of our being. That is, when we engage in sexual activity outside of its proper environment, it frustrates our existential or emotional well-being, because it promotes a bifurcation between the distinct features of our humanity.
An example may help illustrate one way that existential fragmentation occurs. Given that sex outside of marriage usually does not take place in a suitable relational environment, we may naturally tend to be careful not to open ourselves up completely to another. Nevertheless, by engaging in sex, we necessarily expose our inner being to our partner, thereby becoming vulnerable. By exposing ourselves, we are liable to become deeply emotionally wounded. Thus, we sometimes hold back; we restrain ourselves so as not to be fully exposed to one who is not committed to safeguarding who we are. This restraint, whether willful or not, fosters the fragmenting of our self in that certain attributes of our being come into conflict with others.14 Given sufficient time and repetition, the existential fragmenting of the self usually expresses itself in, among other things, insecurity, lack of trust, emotional emptiness, dissatisfaction, and frustration. The promotion of these states compromise human well-being and thus cannot be morally licit.
Objectifying our Partner
Consequentialist Frederick Elliston disagrees with the idea that sex ought to be limited to any type of relational environment. Instead, he advocates virtually open and free sexual relations, somewhat on par with the assumptions of popular culture. In fact, Elliston promotes what he calls sexual promiscuity, “sex with a series of other adults, not directly related through marriage, with no commitments.”15 To begin with, Elliston correctly claims that sex, for most people, is enjoyable, if not, intensely pleasurable. Promiscuous sex, he argues, increments pleasure whereas its prohibition limits it. So, insofar as it promotes incrementing pleasure, promiscuous sex is good. But Elliston is no vulgar hedonist, for he claims that sexual promiscuity is beneficial to humanity not only because 1) it increases the pleasure that individuals may experience, but also because 2) it enhances the cultivation of human higher faculties, and, 3) as a consequence of the first two benefits, it enriches society. Is he correct in his claims? I will examine each of Elliston’s claims in turn, beginning with one of most blatant violations of the exigencies of sex: promiscuous sex for mere pleasure. I then examine non-promiscuous cases where mutual respect, appreciation, intimacy, and even love may exist.
As Elliston explain it, sex is good at least because it is pleasurable. Sex is not only an intensely pleasing activity, but, as in the case of eating, it serves for the satisfaction of an appetite and, as in the case of a good drive in golf, it serves as a release of tension. Moreover, it is a sensual activity that engages all of our senses in a unique manner.16 Virtually no one will disagree with Elliston’s connection between sex and pleasure, yet his claims are morally questionable. As with most good or beneficial activities, such as sunbathing, eating food, and playing tennis or golf, there are deleterious repercussions if these are done outside contexts that accord with their character. Once we step outside of these proper contexts, we get ourselves in trouble. If I sunbathe on the Equator without sunscreen, eat the wrong types of food, or use kinetically wrong techniques while playing tennis or golf, the formerly beneficial activity may become detrimental. Thus, the proper context for the participation in an activity primarily depends on the type of activity in question.
Sex, in distinction from other activities, is very complex in that it uniquely and deeply engages our whole being at a profound personal level. In this sense, it is much more complex than receiving a tan or playing golf, for we human beings have complex self-identities and motivational and desire structures that sex necessarily engages. Thus, given the character of the act, the minimally qualified claim that sex is good “at least because it is pleasurable” is too simplistic to make much sense. Further, promiscuous sex is not only morally problematic because it compromises our well-being by promoting existential fragmentation; it also promotes reification or objectification. To reify or objectify someone in a sexual manner refers to the morally objectionable act of using or treating a person without regard for the whole of his or her humanity. That is, the term connotes treating another in a sub-human or dehumanizing manner.
Objectification and fragmentation become most evident when we enter into sexual relations for the purpose of mere sensual pleasure. In these cases, the moral and relational requirements of the act do not disappear even if mutual consent exists. Though we might agree to mutually use each other, the act remains the same in that we nevertheless attempt to isolate the sensual experience of our bodies from our emotions and maybe the rest of ourselves. In other words, by entering into sexual relations in these contexts, though not necessarily cognizantly, we do not treat ourselves and the other person as whole, unified human beings. In a context that demands otherwise, we deny features of ourselves as well as those of the other person. We may do this in at least three ways, by using each other as an instrument, by denying each other’s subjectivity, and by treating each other as fungible.
First, those those who participate in sexual relations based purely on pleasure usually treat each other as mere instruments. When we instrumentalize another, we treat that person as a tool for our own purpose.17 The moral problem stems from the fact that the exigencies of the act demand that we treat our partner in the most personal of ways. By doing otherwise we contradict our partner’s inherent worth and dignity by at least partially denying their personhood. Second, those who participate in sexual relations based purely on pleasure also usually objectify each other by denying each other’s subjectivity. That is, we deny his or her existential biography in that we do not care who our partner is or what he or she has done. We deny his or her experiences, accomplishments, and goals, for we are solely concerned with what that person might produce in us, namely, exhilarating sensations of pleasure. Third, the participants of sexual relations based purely on pleasure may objectify their partner in another way, by treating him or her as fungible. In these cases, we treat each other as if they were interchangeable; we reduce our partner to a set of body parts to be employed in a sexually fitting manner. We are willing to replace these body parts arbitrarily for the sake of achieving our desired end. Any person will suffice, as long as he or she possesses the suitable body parts and employs these by means of suitable techniques to delight our senses.
Again, no one denies Elliston’s claim that experiencing sex may be pleasurable, even highly pleasurable, but this, unqualified, does not make the activity good given the complexity of sexual relations. In these cases, we objectify our partner by dehumanizing him or her; we treat them as if they were something less than human. We deny the fact that our partner is a singular, unique, indispensable, and irreplaceable human being.
For Elliston, a second beneficial a second beneficial consequence of promiscuity exists: the enhancement of the cultivation of higher human faculties through the exercise of human powers.18 Many times, claims Elliston, the cultivation of human powers takes place through experimentation and diversity. Through promiscuity we engage in this by encountering a broad range of sexual partners and practices. Further, promiscuity is a means by which we may engage reason, judgment, and good taste.
On the one hand, it is true that if we engage in sexual relations to develop our human experiences, we not only engage our bodies but other attributes of ourselves, such as our emotions, will, and intellect. After all, in these cases, we are not merely seeking sensual pleasure. Instead, we may, for example, have a genuine desire to know and learn about ourselves and others. We may even want to demonstrate affection or appreciation to our partner to broaden our experiences. Thus, we diversify our experiences by sexually engaging a variety of persons through a variety of means and for a variety of reasons. We may even go further than what Elliston suggests. How about non-promiscuous relationships where sensual pleasure is not the primary goal? Are these morally licit? For example, are non-promiscuous sexual relations where mutual respect, appreciation, intimacy, and even love exist morally licit, even though these may violate the exigencies of sex? After all, in these cases we are not using our partner as a mere instrument, denying his or her subjectivity, or even treating him or her as fungible. My response to this question and to Elliston is akin to the one I gave to Belliotti’s arguments. If sexual morality was purely predicated on our intentions and proclivities together with cultural factors, there would be no moral problem. But, this is not the case, for one must primarily consider the character of the activity in order to judge its moral licitness. If we violate the exigencies of sex, we objectify by, at least in part, dehumanizing ourselves and our partner. That is, whether we are entering into sexual relations for the sake of pleasure, for the cultivation of our higher faculties or, even, for non-promiscuous mutual intimacy, deficiencies exist. How so? In these cases, we still necessarily circumscribe our emotions, volition, and intellect. While there is a total merging on the physical level, there is a concurrent decision to deny or not to unite fully the other attributes of the self. Yet, sex demands otherwise. Thus, even in these cases, we sexually engage ourselves and our partner in service of ends that fall short of the demands of the act. Insofar as this occurs, we may become fragmented and be objectified at least to a slight degree.
To respond to Elliston more directly, even if it may help us to promote the enhancement of our higher faculties, sexual promiscuity is not moral. Consider a white-collar criminal who, by promoting the enhancement of his higher faculties and cultivating his human powers, implements a brilliant scheme through which he monetarily defrauds the stockholders of his company. Just as this criminal did not commit a morally licit act, though he promoted the enhancement of his higher faculties, so also, the person who engages in sex in violation of its exigencies, though promoting his or her higher faculties, does not commit a morally licit act. Therefore, Elliston’s third benefit, the enrichment of society by means of incrementing pleasure and enhancing the cultivation of human higher faculties, cannot take place via sexual promiscuity or any type of sex outside its proper relational environment. Instead, sex that violates its inherent exigencies encourages moral poverty within society.
Adverse Repercussions Admit of Degrees
Belliotti presents another difficulty for the claims that I have made. I have claimed that those who engage in sexual relations outside of its proper context become existentially fragmented while dehumanizing each other. But, is this always the case? Belliotti contends that dehumanization and fragmentation and its accompanying maladies have not always visited upon those who engage in sex outside of love and intimacy. As he states, “[I]t is clear that many people have not confined themselves to sex only with love, yet such people do not necessarily exhibit the effects of dehumanization and psychological disintegration so feared by the proponents of this approach.”19
Given its inescapable depth of interpersonal, mutual interchange, the inherent character of sex does not vary. Even though personal proclivities and cultural constructs may not concur with sexual restraint, the exigencies of sexual relations will not alter, for these are not malleable. We cannot coax sex to conform to similar expectations to those of sharing tea, playing tennis, or exchanging serviceable goods. By engaging in sex outside of its proper relational context, we act against our own good. We create conflict within ourselves and our partner by promoting full existential union while concurrently rejecting it. It does not matter whether we engage in sex for mutual pleasure or mutual sharing outside of its proper relational context; we act as though we can amputate some of the features of our being while engaging in the most intimate physical and emotional expression possible with another human being. Indeed, relationally deficient sexual interchanges attempt to join and sever the features of our being as well as our relationships, resulting in the fragmentation and the objectification of ourselves and our partner. This results in mutual fragmentation and objection to the extent that we violate the inherent exigencies of sexual intercourse. Therefore, insofar as we may decipher moral principles by observation and reflection on that which fosters or frustrates our realization as human beings, we may discover that pre-marital (and extramarital) sexual relations are morally illicit. This discovery provides grounds for us to consider why pre-marital sexual relations are an offense against God.20
Cite this article
- My perspective on natural law theory is a broadly neo-thomistic one. I view it as an ethical theory that grounds morality upon considerations of us human beings as coherent wholes whose fulfillment or realization engenders our well-being. By means of common-sense observation and reflection, natural law provides a structured rational approach or template for moral deliberation. By employing this rational approach, we may discover which types of acts are good and which are evil, based on whether these foster or frustrate our realization as human beings, thereby discovering moral principles.
- For approaches to sexual relations similar to mine, see, Roger Scruton, Sexual Desire (New York: The Free Press, 1986); Vincent Punzo, Reflective Naturalism (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1969), 186-206; and especially Patrick Lee and Robert P. George, Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 176-217.
- Even though sexual relations sometimes take place between more than two persons, for the purposes of this essay I will only consider cases of sex between two persons. Nonetheless, the conclusions of this essay apply a forteriori to cases where more than two people are involved.
- I am merely claiming that our biological sex, along with the physical and social environment that we develop in, influences our personal identity. For example, see John W. Santroct, Life-Span Development, ninth edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), 272-273 and 377ff
- Physical features, other than genitalia, such as facial hair and morphology, are also related to sexuality. But, these do not seem to play as significant a role in involving and influencing us through intercourse at least because they are not the primary means of uniting us with our partner. So, these features usually take a secondary role.
- Some may wonder whether my argument allows for birth control. The issue of birth control is a vexed one and its debate falls outside the scope of my paper. Nonetheless, I do need to respond. Prima facie I do not see how birth control necessarily impedes the biological union that may be enjoyed through sexual intercourse. Dennis P. Hollinger, after briefly discussing some issues within the birth control controversy, concludes in a seemingly sensible manner, “But within a framework of stewardship in nature and the multiple purposes of sex, contraception can be employed for the glory of God, as long as the methods employed do not destroy life or harm the mother, child, or relationship.” The Meaning of Sex (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 166.
- By procreation in the “natural fashion,” I simply mean procreation without external assistance from biotechnological procedures such as in vitro fertilization. Also, I am not claiming that procreation is the only or even the most important function of the sex organs, for the sex organs also at least have a unitive and erotic function. Instead, I am claiming that the primary biological function of the sex organs is procreation.
- See Lee and George, 182-183. One of the implications of my argument is that biological union cannot be achieved by gay sex. Our biology is an essential characteristic of our being. This means that whole-organism unity with another human being may only be attained if biological unity is included. Since gay sex cannot provide for biological unity, whole-organism unity with another human being cannot be attained through it. Further, since this type of unity is a pre-condition for the possibility of the procreative function to succeed in a natural fashion, the unity may take place though procreation may not.
Second, sexual intercourse promotes another type of unity. As a result of biological unity, a drive or desire toward a deeper type of union naturally emerges. Of course, from the time we reach puberty, we usually begin to experience a drive toward sex and sometimes toward a deeper union with another, especially if we are romantically involved. When biological unity takes place, the desire to give ourselves to another person, our partner, especially awakens. This desire is not only for physical unity, but for a more complete one that includes the rest of our being: mind, will, and emotions. In this case, we want to experience deep intimacy. This is what I call the drive toward existential unity. Thus, biological unity promotes existential unity in that it compels us to invest ourselves in the act so as to unite our whole self with our partner.
The existence of the drive toward existential unity makes sense because we are integrated metaphysical wholes. Whatever moves us or impacts a part of our being, impacts our whole being, especially if we are moved in a deeply personal manner. This unitive drive also makes sense for another reason; the source or origin of our being would seem to require at least something like it for humanity to perdure and thrive. This point may be explained in at least a couple of different ways. First, those of us who prefer theistic explanations may contend that God built this drive in so as to promote a more complete physical and spiritual unity with our spouse. This unity, in turn, lays the groundwork for a loving and stable marital and familial relationship. This type of relationship engenders nurturing familial environments for our offspring so that theistic values and openness toward God may thrive.
Second, others may prefer to describe the drive as an evolutionary adaptation. In this scenario, the function of this drive is to increase the probability that one’s genes will continue to be passed on to succeeding generations. How so? The drive supports a stable and, sometimes, protective environment for the genetic offspring to grow and live in by fostering a deep connection between the offspring’s progenitors. Thus, the progenitors’ genes have a higher probability to be passed on.
Nevertheless, some may claim that they only minimally experience the drive for existential unity, while others may claim that it is non-existent. At least two reasons account for these claims. First, desires admit of variance. As with all desires, variations may occur at least due to one’s age, sexual identity, innate dispositions, individual temperament, and even the particular circumstances in which the act in question takes place.8 For an explanation of the variability of human desires, see Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right (New York: State University of New York Press, 1998), 45-46.
- By loving others in a “more complete manner” I mean loving another in a manner that integrates the whole of our being.
- The social sciences provide much evidence that seems to substantiate the point that there is a significant difference between couples who cohabite, and who presumably have a certain amount of commitment, love, and sexual intimacy between them, or sexually active couples who date, and couples who are married. For example, the health of married men and women is, on average, better than the health of single, cohabitating, or divorced persons. See Charlotte A. Schoenborn, “Marital Status and Health: United States, 1999-2002,” in Advance Data from Vital and Health Statistics 351 (Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control, 2004); Paul R. Amato, “The Consequences of Divorce for Adults and Children,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 62(4), (2000): 1269ff; Linda J. Waite and Mary Elizabeth Hughes, “At the Cusp of Old Age: Living Arrangements and Functional Status among Black, White and Hispanic Adults,” Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences 54b(3), (1999): S136-S144, cited in Why Marriage Matters, second edition (New York: Institute for American Values, 2005), 25. Further, marital partners are usually happier, healthier, and have less violent relationships than couples who date or cohabitate. See Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married people are Happier, Healthier, and Better off Financially (New York: Doubleday, 2000); Scott M. Stanley, Sarah W. Witton, and Howard J. Markman, “Maybe I Do: Interpersonal Commitment and Premarital or Non-marital Cohabitation,” cited in Why Marriage Matters, 15. An interesting study published in October 2009 in the Journal of Happiness Studies concluded that life satisfaction increases for married couple as the number of children living at home increase. On the other hand, having children at home has little or no positive effect on happiness or life satisfaction for cohabitating couples (Luis Angeles, “Children and Life Satisfaction,” DOI: 10.1007/s10902-009-9168-z, 523-528). In sum, couples who cohabitate do not garner the physical and emotional benefits of being married. If these and other similar conclusions are correct, they at least imply that 1) something is missing or unhealthy in the sexual relationships of those who cohabitate and 2) sexual relations within a marriage help advance human flourishing.
- I am not implying that a non-married sexually active couple cannot have a higher sense of commitment, love, and intimacy than specific married couples. Indeed, some non-married sexually active couples do have better relationships that some married couples. Instead, I am implying that, for the most part, married couples have a higher sense of commitment, love, and intimacy than non-married couples. See previous footnote.
- Raymond A. Belliotti, “Sex,” in A Companion to Ethics, revised edition, ed. Peter Singer (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd., 1993), 319.
- See John F. Kavanaugh, Human Realization (New York: Corpus Books, 1970), 106.
- See Frederick Elliston, “In Defense of Promiscuity,” in Philosophical Perspectives on Sex and Love, ed. Robert M. Stewart (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 148.
- For a more thorough explanation of “objectification” and its specific types, see Martha C. Nussbaum, “Objectification,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 24.4, (Fall 1995): 249-291. According to Nussbaum, there are benign and even beneficial forms of objectification. See 265ff. Given the purposes of this essay, I do not discuss these.
- Elliston, 152-153.
Belliotti is correct insofar as it is true that some who participate in sex outside of its suitable context have not exhibited the so-called “feared” effects. Nonetheless, we know that many times we do not take notice of detrimental effects on ourselves or on others, whether they are physical or psychological, when these admit of degrees. Many illnesses or diseases, such as hypertension or even common colds, do not become evident unless they develop to an extent. The same is true of psychological maladies such as anxiety disorder and depression.
Objectification and existential fragmentation also admit of degrees. The degree differs in accord with the amount and extent to which one disregards the relational exigencies of the act in question. In other words, we objectify and become fragmented to a greater degree when, for example, we engage in sex just for pleasure as opposed to showing appreciation. So also, we objectify and become fragmented to a greater degree when we engage in numerous casual sexual liaisons than when we engage in more committed, serial, monogamous ones.
The existence of this relational exigency continuum becomes most evident when we observe its polar ends. Here, we notice the stark differences in healthy versus detrimental cases of sexual relations. For example, we may consider cases of older couples who share in a mutual intimate physical, emotional, and intellectual communion and who, as a result, usually lead emotionally stable and psychologically flourishing lives. We may compare theses cases with those of prostitutes, many of whom lead emotionally disordered and wrecked lives. Prostitution is a paradigm case of the radical violation of the exigencies that inhere in sexual relations. Hence, since sex admits of degrees in terms of its adherence to its suitable relational environment, its deleterious consequences also admit of degrees. For this reason, and in conformity with Belliotti’s claim, many who violate the exigencies of sex may not have felt the detrimental effects of fragmentation and dehumanization.
- I thank the following people for their comments on previous versions of this essay: Dennis L. Durst, Garth Hallett, William C. Duncan, Teri Merrick, James Beebe, Mike Rota, Christopher Tollefsen, Jeff Jordan, RJ Snell, and especially Eric Kimball.