Sexual Ethics
Part I
The Foundations of Ethics
By Keith Allen

In Association with

Sexual Ethics
Part I
Introduction and The Foundations of Ethics
23 March, 2008

We live in an age of a great and enthralling spectacle. Today, we, as onlookers and participants at once, cannot help but immerse ourselves in the ferocious battle being fought between those attacking and hoping to tear down that grim, cyclopean structure, tradition, and those who want to defend it and shore it up.

Like some vast and terrible castle, tradition looms over us yet, but this edifice's walls, weakened by the pickaxes of reason and by the disintegration of their aging matter, are crumbling. Nonetheless, this frightening construction is not falling into ruin as fast as its destroyers would desire, nor even as fast as it would be were it left on its own. There are those who, raised in its shadows, are either as blind as worms or as fearful of the light as cockroaches, and these venomous things oppose all the efforts of those who would demolish the walls that provide them with their reassuring gloom. These hordes, shaking with fear and anger, wage a war against the men with the bright torches and the complex tools. They are horrified that the structure built over the centuries to imprison them and keep them away from the light of reason might collapse. As their venerated castle, attacked by its enemies, falls down about them, as its walls tremble and its joints groan, they, while snapping and clawing at their foes, build crazy networks of scaffolding to keep the great heap from tumbling down.

This fight between those who would knock down the prison of tradition and those who would lock themselves in it rages all about us today, and its outcome is not, by any means, certain. Those who strive to create a world guided by reason might yet be defeated and mankind might yet be made to huddle in the darkness of bigotry and superstition.

Reason is not some adamantine sword capable of cutting through the toughest integuments of ignorance and stupidity. Nonetheless, there are people who, though intelligent, have been tricked by the magic lanterns, prestidigitation, and crude deceits of old fashioned magicians. They are not themselves stupid, but, like any person, they can be fooled. It is for the sake of these individuals that I now provide arguments. Perhaps I can, directly or indirectly, help someone to look at things critically, because, if a person does so, reason might just slice through the thin layer of prejudice that keeps him away from rationality.

Obviously, the great prison of tradition covers virtually every field of human existence with its darkness, and I cannot in one short essay dispel the gloom from every place it is found. I can, however, venture forth and raise my own torch in some corner, hoping that I might illumine at least some tiny part of the world.

So now, looking around for a suitable opponent, I immediately discover that, in the world today, there is much debate about sexual ethics. Everywhere I cast my gaze, I notice how gangs of people, inflamed by traditional teachings, rail against promiscuity, homosexuality, prostitution, polygamy, or whatever practice goes against the customs with which they were raised. Having spied these individuals, I cannot avoid noticing that not only are they turning away from a great many of the pleasures life has to offer, but they are also both keeping others from those pleasures and punishing many of those who enjoy them. Here are some opponents worth fighting.

The Foundations of Ethics
To make my attack on the position of those advocating traditional sexual ethics, I must ask what it is that makes some sexual act ethical or unethical. To do this, however, I must lay certain foundations. Specifically, I must ask what makes any action ethical or unethical.

My answer to this question begins with a simple claim, that all living things have innate worth. Perhaps this statement is an axiom, but it is one that I am willing to accept. Innate worth and being alive are effectively synonyms, since having innate worth is simply being alive. If we are to start looking at what constitutes worth, I cannot think of a less arbitrary or less controversial place. There will, of course, be those who will deny that all living things are of equal worth. They will say, for example, that a human being has greater worth than does an oyster. I will not deny that it is possible to assign degrees of worth to different kinds of entities. Doing so is not, however, the point of this essay and can be ignored for the moment. I will, for now, be happy even if the reader will accept that all human beings have equal innate worth. If someone does not accept that all human beings have innate worth, then I suppose I can stop discussing ethics with that person (although I'm sure I'd be wise to keep a watch on someone who denies the worth of other human beings, if only to make sure he doesn't try to kill me or steal from me). If a person claims the innate worth of one person can be greater than is that of another, then he will have to prove it. While he is doing so, I, however, will be keeping an eye on his activities. I'm afraid I've seen more than a sufficient number of the actions of people who make such claims (like Hitler, for example) to make me wary of those individuals. To the person who will admit that all people equally possess innate worth, I do have something to say. Because of an individual 's innate worth, and because, unless it can be shown otherwise, the innate worth of every person must be admitted to be neither greater nor less than the innate worth of another person, every person has a sort of native autonomy. Being of no less worth than another, a person has a right to make decisions for himself, and a right to be free of having the decisions of another imposed upon him. At the same time, since one person is no better than another, no person has a right to make decisions for another and impose his desires upon that other. What is more, because of his innate worth, the desires of a person also have worth, although this is an assigned worth, a secondary worth.

Having said all of this, let me now define ethics as that field of investigation involving determinations of what actions ought to be performed and what ought not to be performed. To make any such determinations, a person has to take into account both the innate and the secondary worth of those individuals with whom he interacts. Specifically, since every person is equal and, consequently, autonomous, that is to say, since every person has a right to make decisions for himself, a person making a decision about what is ethical must take into account the desires of other persons.

It follows from these claims that actions can be divided into three classes, praiseworthy actions, permissible actions, and improper actions. The first of these are duties; they are those actions that one ought to perform. Specifically, they are those actions that a person performs which are both intended to be and determined as likely being conducive to fulfilling those desires of another person that do not themselves impinge upon the fulfillment of the desires of yet another person. The second class of actions, morally neutral actions, are those that are intended to fulfill one's own desires but which are neither intended to be conducive to fulfilling another's desires nor are either intended or likely to impinge upon another's desires. Actions of both of these classes can be said to be ethical, in that such actions involve interactions with other people and are morally permissible. Fulfilling duties is, of course, praiseworthy while engaging in neutral actions is not, but a person does nothing wrong when engaging in actions of either sort. The last class of actions is composed of those actions that are either intended or are likely to impinge upon the desires of another. It is this class of actions that I regard as being unethical.

Because every person has the same innate worth, no person has the right to impinge upon the desires of another. However, when one person does desire to impinge upon the desires of another, because he has no right to do so, and has so acted unethically, it is not unethical to prevent him from doing so. In this case, a person is not impinging upon the desire of a second person simply to fulfill his own desire, but rather to prevent that second person from impinging on the desires of another. The measure is preventative rather than initiatory. Actually, I might add, that when one person impinges upon the desires of a second, any third individual who happens to witness this unethical action, recognizing the worth of the person being imposed upon, has a duty to help that second person, to act in such a way that this individual's desires are fulfilled. If I see a woman being sexually assaulted in a dark alley, I have a duty to help her, and walking away instead of going to help her is an immoral act. In fact, there is little difference between my walking away and the attacker's raping the woman. Both actions will result in the woman being raped. It might be a terrible nuisance, but we do actually have an obligation to our fellow human beings.

From what I have said about every person's innate worth and autonomy, it follows that, when acting on his own, in a way that does not affect others, questions of ethics are irrelevant. A person, being a free agent, makes for himself whatever choices he desires. Since he is autonomous and his decisions have conferred worth, whatever decisions he makes that affect only himself are legitimate. They are neither moral nor immoral. Of course, there are consequences of this assertion. While I have a moral duty to defend others, as I just noted, I do not have such a duty to defend myself. If another impinges upon my desires, I do not have an obligation to fight back. That said, because it is this other person who is impinging upon my desires and not me impinging on his, I do have a right to fight back. Doing so, however, is neither moral nor immoral. It is not ethically obligatory as is fighting to defend someone else. Should I be attacked by a man desiring my blood, it is morally permissible for me to defend myself, but I do not have a duty to do so. If I choose to allow him to harm me, I have the right to make that choice. Whatever choices I make for myself are mine to make, so long as they do not impinge upon the autonomy of others.

By Keith Allen

Sexual Ethics, Part 2
Sexual Ethics, Part 3 / Sexual Ethics, Part 4

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