Sex, Drugs and Rock’n’Roll
Philosophical Reflections XXII
The title is just to get your attention: I don’t mention drugs or rock’n’roll.
If you found that statement amusing, it illustrates how pervasive human interest in sex is. As any advertiser knows, the mention or images of sex will grab people’s attention: whether interested or offended, they’re seldom indifferent.
So it is not surprising that moral rules about sex – with whom, how, when, where, why – have proliferated in history. But such moral rules were not worked out by a rigorous process of rational thought. So they are a mixture of the rational and irrational, of traditions that more or less “work” under circumstances more or less current – with a bias towards what those with most power wished. This raises the question: what would a rational sexual morality comprise?
Much sexual morality appears to have sprung up from nothing better than primitive herd mindlessness (like morality in general, most people simply absorb and accept what they’ve been raised with, so it amounts to: “different from our tribe’s traditions is bad”). But some important objective facts of reality have been prime influences. The two basic ones are that sex exists to produce children, but children are difficult and costly to raise.
The Sexual Evolution
In our evolution, those two facts, combined with the nature of human biology, have resulted in certain emotional and psychological consequences in the human psyche. An important point here is that the more sophisticated the brain, the more are evolutionarily desirable behaviours accomplished via emotional and psychological factors, rather than by instinctive behaviours and automatic responses. Pet owners can see this in what motivates their dog vs their budgie vs their goldfish. The basic emotional and psychological make-up of human beings is the result of such an evolutionary process.
Thus an investigation of our evolutionary history can give us useful clues about why human beings are the way they are. Having the power of reason, we have free will: but that doesn’t mean that we are free to act in any way we can imagine. If our aim is to live and be happy, then we have to live in a way proper to men and women. That includes living in accordance with not only our physical nature but also our emotional and psychological nature.
Note, however, that while such an analysis might inform us as to why people have a certain nature, tend to seek similar values or tend to behave in certain ways, it does not necessarily imply that we must or should act that way. The criterion of the good is not the leftovers of millions of years of prehuman evolution – what worked for ape troops – but what is good for the life of a thinking being here and now. We must take into account whatever tastes, tendencies and urges we have: but evaluate their desirability by objective criteria. Here is an analogy to illustrate that point. If your personal psychology included an obsessive desire to cut yourself, objective criteria would call it an illness needing to be overcome, not a mere preference to be accepted as “the way I happen to be”; while if you were born liking apples but hating pears, usually there would be no reason to fight that preference.
A rational person can neither blindly accept every urge as an unchangeable given of his or her nature – nor stubbornly fight that nature for no reason.
To put it in philosophical terms, the morality of sex must be based on the metaphysical nature of man, that is, on the essence of human nature as it is today. Man is a rational being (“rational” in the sense of having the power of reason), who therefore must live the life proper to a rational being: and what is proper includes those things in our physical and psychological make-up which are objectively good for human life and happiness.
Ancestors & Descendants
Evolution is driven by the requirements for successful reproduction. The first steps in that are mating and conception. Conception is an automatic, purely physiological consequence of mating: but mating is voluntary – and not without its costs and dangers (e.g., energy and opportunity costs in finding, courting and winning a mate; and dangers from predators and even your mate itself). As the voluntary sine qua non of reproduction, mating has attracted a lot of attention from evolution, which has made it a highly desirable activity: with both strong motivators (libido, desire, lust and love) and strong rewards (intense physical pleasure and emotional fulfilment).
One consequence of our intelligence – the biological precondition of being a rational being – is the very long childhood needed to provide time for mental development and learning. When you multiply that by the number of children, the investment of time and resources means that raising a family is very difficult and often impossible for a lone human in a pre-industrial society, in which the average personal productivity is low even without the encumbrence of young children.
(The following discussion is in the context of such pre-industrial conditions, which is how humans have lived throughout almost all of our millions of years of history as a genus: our formative years, as it were. While the circumstances are better in an advanced society – especially, an unaided parent can now raise children successfully – the emotional and psychological traits humans acquired from those millennia are still with us.)
The crucial facts of human biology in this context are that women give birth and make milk, and men are generally larger, stronger and more aggressive. As a consequence of the former, women are the primary immediate care-givers for children. As the ones who give birth, they are the ones who must carry the unborn child for 9 months; as the ones with the milk, they are necessarily the primary carers up to weaning; and they remain the “logical” primary carers after that while the children are young and still relatively vulnerable (logical both as it is simply a continuation of the existing arrangement, and because it is safer for the children to remain near their mother and the other children, than trying to keep up with the more mobile, aggressive and risk-taking men).
The men, on the other hand, have the freedom, ability and aggression to be the protectors, the warriors, the hunters, and the providers of prized, valuable but difficult and dangerous foods, notably animal meat. Of course, even in the stone age women were not helpless, gathering much important food etc.: but they were relatively helpless late in pregnancy and while nursing, encumbered by children thereafter, and of course physically smaller and weaker.
A related physiological fact is that babies are difficult and expensive for a woman to produce, from the nine month pregnancy to the years of infancy. But while babies are expensive for the women who bear them, sperm is cheap for the men who father them: they could easily impregnate hundreds of women per year.
The Trouble with Babies
From these facts distil three factors which have determined the essence of the relations between the sexes.
First, most people desire, value and even need sex. That is a consequence of evolutionary inducements as discussed above.
Second, children take a lot of effort and expense to rear: but they must be reared. That too is an imperative of evolution. The genes of the childless die with them.
Third, while women are the primary direct carers, they can’t do it alone. That is a consequence of the expense: and the crux of what the sexes are to each other.
(The second factor above is why we love our children. You have only to see the haggard look of the average new parents, or yourself be the victim of the incessant and insistent demands of young children, to see that without that love, most babies wouldn’t survive their first year – especially in a pre-rational therefore pre-moral species. You have only to feel the remarkable strength of the bond normal parents feel for their children, to see why they do.)
These three factors combined are the origin of the relations between the sexes, and from that, the origin of sexual morality – and of the temptations to break it.
Since children are so much trouble, but they must be raised, but their mother can’t raise them alone, someone must help. In humans, that someone is the father (while other relatives can and do help, the father is the main helper in the cultures I’m aware of). Because children are so expensive to those who provide their care, genetically speaking it is only his own children that a man would want to raise. While a male has a motive for tricking another male into raising his children by impregnating the other’s partner, for the same reason there is a strong motive for making sure the ones he raises are his. So in general, if his children are to be raised successfully, it is he who must help do it.
Since the time from the birth of the first child to the maturity of the last is so many years, this is a long-term commitment.
The result of this, as evident in most families and human societies, is the long-term bond between a man and a woman, and the love of parents for their children and vice versa. This is the glue which holds the family together and which motivates the mutual concern and exchange of values that is required for successful human reproduction.
This, then, is one of the basic evolutionary causes of the emotional and psychological basis of human sexual relationships: men needed women to bear and care for their children, and themselves had to be protectors and hunters for the family if those children were to prosper; women needed men to father their children and to be the family’s protectors and (partial but crucial) providers.
Choices & Values
In a sexually reproducing species, the survival of your offspring depends not only on your own genes, but on those of your partner. In a species with dual parental care, their survival likewise depends not only on your own abilities, but on those of your partner. So the choice of partner is very important. And when it involves a long-term relationship, it is even more important to choose well.
It is this fundamental of human reproductive biology – choice of a long-term mate – coupled with the differing roles of male and female in that relationship, which is the evolutionary basis of human sexual psychology.
Mate choice in humans as we are now involves the conscious choice of values by a rational being: but those values are rooted in the psychological preferences inherited from our evolutionary history. One’s rational (or irrational) decisions in that regard are made from within our psychological context, not independently of it.
Note that although both parents will want to choose the best partner they can, an asymmetry remains. In our evolutionary history it was more critical for the woman to choose well: partly because if something went wrong, it was she who was likely to be left literally holding the baby (being the primary carer), partly because the men had greater opportunity for new or supplementary relationships (given the ease of fatherhood vs motherhood – an advantage accentuated with age), and partly because she was weaker physically and so needed the man in a way he didn’t need her (as warrior, hunter and protector).
Masculinity vs Femininity
Masculinity and femininity are concepts pertaining to the psychological differences between men as males and women as females. They are valid concepts, as there are objective differences (one symptom being the plethora of man jokes, woman jokes etc.). And by the nature of sexual interest, in which people find the opposite sex attractive, it is the valuable differences (both physical and psychological) which are the basis of the attraction. That is, men will be attracted to “feminine” women, and women to “masculine” men. (Interestingly, even in homosexual couples there tends to be a “masculine” and a “feminine” partner, I believe.)
It is important to bear in mind that masculinity and femininity are sexual concepts: they apply solely to the relationships between the sexes, not to men and women as human beings: that is, not to men and women in their relationship to reality. Both men and women are primarily human beings: their essence is neither masculinity nor femininity, but rationality (both in the sense of having the power of reason, and in the sense that living rationally with its concomitant virtues are desirable for and achievable by either sex).
The fundamental source of the asymmetry between men and women is simple physical strength. It is that which makes feasible the greater aggressiveness of men, and with that aggressiveness enabled their role as hunters, protectors and warriors. Thus, the essence of masculinity is strength. However, while crude physical strength is the fundamental origin, the derivatives in a thinking being run the whole gamut of what a man needs to actually fulfil his roles: every quality determining his ability to handle reality. Depending on a woman’s own sophistication, values and circumstances, what she regards as masculine, strong and attractive could therefore comprise anything from big muscles, to political power, to wealth, to intellectual power, to moral integrity.
As masculinity and femininity pertain to differences, they must pertain to traits which are opposite or complementary. So the essence of femininity is something which is opposite or complementary to strength, without implying weakness – as “weakness” implies inability to deal with reality, hardly desirable in a human being in general, let alone the one you entrust your children to! The word that I think comes closest is softness, encompassing such things as gentleness, nurturing and even vulnerability. However, it does not exclude strength, assertiveness, independence and the like. Like masculine strength, “feminine softness” is a relative term: what a woman seeks is someone stronger than her (in at least some ways which she regards as important); what a man seeks is someone softer than him. Thus, the stronger a woman is in an absolute sense, the stronger must a man be to be interested in her, and interesting to her. This is reflected in the difficulty often encountered by attractive, successful professional women in finding a mate: her strength “frightens away” many men – and any man unable to meet her strength, and indeed be attracted by it, is not attractive to her anyway.
Heroes and Heroines
Given that in human evolution a critical male role was protector and warrior, what a female needed and therefore wanted was a male able to be those things: that is, a man able to be her hero. Thus, another aspect of femininity is the desire to find a man she can look up to. Before I’m eaten alive by feminists for that one, it must be made clear that this does not apply to a woman’s standing before reality, but solely to what she wants from a man in a romantic relationship. In a free, industrialised society where neither physical strength nor the rule of force are determining factors, success proceeds solely from the mind. In such circumstances women are as capable as men of achieving success, as they are as capable of all the human virtues – such as rationality, independence, productiveness, courage and pride – which produce it.
Ayn Rand, herself a pre-eminent novelist and philosopher – highly accomplished professionally, and very strong in mind and personality – put it this way:
For a woman qua woman, the essence of femininity is hero-worship – the desire to look up to a man. “To look up” does not mean dependence, obedience or anything implying inferiority. It means an intense kind of admiration; and admiration is an emotion that can be experienced only by a person of strong character and independent value-judgments … a woman has to be worthy of it and of the hero she worships. Intellectually and morally, i.e., as a human being, she has to be his equal; then the object of her worship is specifically his masculinity, not any human virtue she might lack … Her worship is an abstract emotion for the metaphysical concept of masculinity as such – which she experiences fully and concretely only for the man she loves. (Quoted in The Ayn Rand Lexicon)
If the essence of femininity in terms of how women view men is hero-worship, then I would say the essence of masculinity in terms of how men view women is the desire expressed by the phrase “to have and to hold”: the desire to win the love of the woman he chooses, the pride felt in calling her “my wife”, the wish to hold and protect her. And for both sexes, the sexual act is the expression and reward of these: for a woman, what she grants to the man she admires, and her reward for being worthy of him; for a man, what he wants from the woman he admires, and his reward for being worthy of her.
Of course, mate selection is a mutual choice in which both partners want the best they can get. A rational man will be satisfied with nothing less than a woman he can admire: he wants to win a heroine. But there is a different “flavour” in that, compared to what a woman wants from her man, derived from the millions of years of human and prehuman history in which the one thing where men are superior to women – physical strength and its concomitants – were vital characteristics for the man. The aspects of masculinity and femininity exist in both sexes: what differs is primacy and emphasis.
Clearly, although it is all based ultimately on physical strength, there is no place for actual physical domination within a pair. After all, the purpose of that strength from the woman’s point of view is the protection and provision of her family: to have it used against her or them negates the very reason for its attractiveness. And of course no rational woman of self-esteem would accept physical force from her partner.
Hearts and Flowers
So far we have looked only at the basic psychological implications of human biology and evolution as they apply to the underpinnings of mate choice. But how that choice is felt and expressed, the direct motivator of the pairing and the essential for sticking with it through thick and thin, is romantic love. Just as the act of sex is the most intense natural physical pleasure we can experience, so is romantic love the most intense positive emotion we can feel – and for the same evolutionary reason.
By “romantic love” I mean love coupled with sexual interest, encompassing both the initial intense infatuation, and the longer term, less intense but deeper and more permanent form into which it develops as and if it matures.
You have no choice about being a sexual being, or about having the capacity for romantic love, or having certain basic psychological criteria for choosing a mate. (Though one can fight all these things, it is hard to imagine a rational reason for wanting to!) However, you do have a choice in which specific mate you choose. And like all choices made by a rational being, that choice is based on values, whether conscious or unconscious, chosen or by default.
All forms of love from friendship up are responses to values perceived in the person loved. This is especially true of romantic love, which is the highest form of love held by one adult for another. The basis of mate choice – “I want the highest quality mate I can get” – in a thinking being translates into “I want a mate who embodies my highest values, who expresses my ideals and highest virtues.” Of course, this is more than some kind of ticking off a checklist. Like one’s response to art, it is an emotional response to a sum: in this case to the sum of a person, to both their theme and their details, goals and expressions: their heart, soul, body and mind. As Ayn Rand put it in The Romantic Manifesto:
I am referring here to romantic love, in the serious meaning of that term – as distinguished from the superficial infatuations … Love is a response to values. It is with a person’s sense of life that one falls in love – with that essential sum, that fundamental stand or way of facing existence, which is the essence of a personality. One falls in love with the embodiment of the values that formed a person’s character, which are reflected in his widest goals or smallest gestures, which create the style of his soul – the individual style of a unique, unrepeatable, irreplaceable consciousness. It is one’s own sense of life that acts as the selector, and responds to what it recognizes as one’s own basic values in the person of another. It is not a matter of professed convictions (though these are not irrelevant); it is a matter of much more profound, conscious and subconscious harmony.
Thus love is not blind, nor causeless, nor irrational: though like all human choices, it can be, usually with painful results. Love is a response to values, your philosophy of life writ large and small in the person of another human being. As Rand continues:
Many errors and tragic disillusionments are possible in this process of emotional recognition, since a sense of life, by itself, is not a reliable cognitive guide … One of the most evil consequences of mysticism – in terms of human suffering – is the belief that love is a matter of “the heart,” not the mind, that love is an emotion independent of reason, that love is blind and impervious to the power of philosophy. Love is the expression of philosophy – of a subconscious philosophical sum – and, perhaps, no other aspect of human existence needs the conscious power of philosophy quite so desperately. When that power is called upon to verify and support an emotional appraisal, when love is a conscious integration of reason and emotion, of mind and values, then – and only then – it is the greatest reward of man’s life.
Love and Sex
Religious sexual morality is often anti-sex. Not only is sex outside of marriage banned, but even sex inside marriage can be suspect: tolerated but not encouraged. This attitude covers a range of perverse attitudes: sexual desire is a base result of sinful human nature, which only the sacrament of marriage can legitimise; sex is valid only for reproduction, not pleasure; to have “excessive” desire is to commit adultery with your wife (!); love is pure but sex is degrading, shameful or evil; love is spiritual and good but sexual desire is animal and bad.
The premise behind such assertions is that bodily pleasure is bad: a mystical sentiment, based on a spirit/body dichotomy, which is anti-life and therefore wholly immoral (for the importance of pleasure in a rational morality, see Philosophical Reflections 20: The Pursuit of Happiness).
As Ayn Rand said (quoted in Part B), romantic love can be the greatest reward of a person’s life. It is the psychological reflection and counterpart of sex itself, which is the greatest pleasure of a person’s body. This is not an accident: the whole evolutionary purpose of love is sexual, which is why the two are so intertwined in human emotions and psychology. To attempt to strip romantic love of sexual desire is to attempt to drive a wedge through human nature. To attempt to label one or both as immoral is to attack man’s capacity for joy and happiness, and therefore to attack life itself. Love and sex are among the greatest pleasures life has to offer and hence among the highest values a person can pursue: they are therefore moral pursuits – in any non-mystical morality with human life and happiness as its aim. To deny yourself love and sex (under normal circumstances) is fundamentally anti-life, because pleasure and happiness are the rewards which make life worth living, the fuel and sanction of life.
Rand linked love and sex especially tightly:
Romantic love, in the full sense of the term, is an emotion possible only to the man (or woman) of unbreached self-esteem: it is his response to his own highest values in the person of another – an integrated response of mind and body, of love and sexual desire. Such a man (or woman) is incapable of experiencing a sexual desire divorced from spiritual values. (“Of Living Death”, The Objectivist1968)
However, while I agree that sex as part of romantic love is the ideal, and that romantic love without sexual desire is a contradiction in terms, I do not agree that a person of “unbreached self-esteem” can feel no desire in the absence of love. Rather, the drive, desire and pleasure of sex are so high (at least for most men and many women) that sexual activity is a value in its own right.
Unlike love, sex is not solely a response to a person’s character and virtues. It is a value which can be experienced in and for itself: in the absence of love, sex for the sake of sex is a valid and natural motivator. Certainly sex with someone you love is the most desirable form, a union of the values of your mind and the pleasure of your body. But in the absence of such a relationship, sex for pleasure with someone you like, or even with a stranger where there is no motive but mutual desire, is valid. Even paying for sex, whether for curiosity’s sake, variety’s sake or simple desperation, is not immoral (provided that no higher relationship or value is compromised).
That is, what is moral to seek in the hierarchy of sexual value from love to infatuation to affection to lust to commerce, is: the highest you have now in reality or as a feasible target. And of course, these levels of emotional commitment are not fixed: they can increase or decrease over time with your increasing knowledge of the person concerned (or with how you or they change).
Perhaps this is a characteristically “male” view of sex, whereas Rand’s view (that the desire for sex cuts off somewhere between affection and infatuation) is more characteristic of women. Such a difference between the sexes would not be surprising given the asymmetry in ease of parenthood, roles and resultant attitudes discussed earlier. Indeed, the average difference between men and women in their attitude to casual sex is almost proverbial – and borne out by experiments. Of course, neither view is universal in either sex; and in any event, what counts in your own hierarchy of values is how much a value sex is to you – and how much a value your partner if any is to you.
If romantic love is the greatest reward of your spirit and sex the greatest pleasure of your body, then plainly the union of the two is the greatest value one can seek in the realm of personal relationships. But a theoretical value not yet reached in your own life is not a rational reason for rejecting a lesser value that is available here and now. So to reject sex with an attractive stranger – or do it and feel guilty about it – is not moral if you want it and your sole reason for rejecting it is the theoretical possibility of higher things. While it is not rational (moral) to sacrifice a higher long-term value to gratify a short-term urge, nor is it rational to sacrifice a value which exists to one which doesn’t, whatever their ranking would be if both existed.
Marriage existed long before codified laws about it. It is a formalisation of a reality of human nature – that the fundamental social unit is a male-female pair. Hence we see “marriage” – a social announcement, recognition, denotation and protection of the rights and responsibilities of such pairs – in some form in all cultures. Even “free love” communities eventually find themselves pairing off, according to reports I have seen.
Thus, marriage is not an arbitrary construct: it is a recognition of a fundamental human relationship based on fundamental human nature. Because of that, it is in principle valid for a society to have laws concerning marriage. To be actually valid, such laws must correctly respect the rights and define the obligations of the parties. For example, it can be argued that marriages must be monogamous, because (1) that is the fundamental unit: which is why in polygamous relationships, the wives are not equal in the affections of their husband, and if they start that way, it doesn’t last; and (2) polygamous marriages generally are disadvantageous to the less favoured spouse(s): and the purpose of marriage laws is not to impose dominance, but to protect rights.
However, while it might be justifiable for a society to define the limits of what is and is not “marriage”, it does not have the right to impose that definition on all sexual relationships. For example, if the only valid form of marriage is a monogamous, faithful, male-female pair, that could not justify legally forbidding all other kinds of relationships. If a man and two women, or two men and one woman, or two women, or whatever, want to live together in a sexual relationship, then they have the right to do so, and to do so under whatever voluntary agreement they wish. On the other hand, that right doesn’t give them the right to demand that their relationship be considered a “marriage”. Marriage is a legal recognition and protection of the “natural” human sexual bond: it should neither be a restriction on other sexual bonds, nor be stretched to include them.
It is common for people to have sex with one or more lovers before committing to the special bond marriage represents. There is nothing immoral about this, whether it is casual sex for curiosity or pleasure, or between people who are “in love” but not yet ready for a permanent relationship. Moral bars against premarital sex made sense in the past when children were likely to result from it. But given the modern availability of reliable means to prevent or terminate unwanted pregnancies, and that there is nothing immoral about sex unless it involves compromising other moral considerations (such as honesty, integrity and respecting the rights of others), premarital sex can be perfectly moral.
The other side of marriage is divorce. Only the most corrupt morality – such as that of some Christian churches – would demand that people submit to a life of misery with a partner they despise, replacing what should be the greatest reward of their life with boredom at best or pain at worst. People make mistakes, or they change: and they have a right to terminate an unhappy marriage, and seek their happiness where they may. (Of course, marriage laws must observe and preserve people’s property rights in such cases, and ensure that any children are properly provided for.)
Exclusivity & Jealousy
Most forms of marriage imply sexual fidelity (and in cultures where it doesn’t, it is usually hypocritically one-sided, giving men the exclusive right to play around!)
This again reflects the facts of human biology as discussed earlier. Men do not want their wives to be promiscuous, lest they end up raising other men’s children instead of their own. Women do not want their husbands to be promiscuous either, since sex and love are so tied together, and they would run the risk of being abandoned for another woman. And for both sexes, the tie between love and sex is important: love is the glue that binds them together, and they do not want that love compromised: sex is as powerful a wedge as it is a glue. As usual, this is reflected on the emotional level: when you love someone, generally you want them for yourself, and want only them in your turn.
Thus from an evolutionary perspective, jealousy is a valid and understandable human emotion. It is a recognition and result of your partner’s intense personal value to you. A value is “something you act to gain and/or keep”: and jealousy is the emotional result, prompting you to such action.
However, from a rational perspective, its validity is strictly circumscribed.
Exclusivity is not a primary moral imperative but a consequence. To demand the consequence of love – fidelity – in the absence of love itself (or worse, despite hostility or mistreatment on your own part) is to try to reverse cause and effect. There is no such thing as the right to the unearned in any human relationship. Just as love itself must be earned by your own virtues, so sexual fidelity must be earned – by your own character generating in your partner the desire to have you and only you, and by your own actions to meet their sexual needs.
The essence of jealousy is not “I want you for myself”: that is a consequence of love, of the person being precious to you. Jealousy is more than that. It is: “I want you for myself alone, but I don’t want to bother having to earn you.” It is based on the presumption that once joined, you own your partner for ever after. But no one can own another person, only earn them. Love must be earned, or it is literally valueless; fidelity must be earned, or it is meaningless. Anything else is the worst kind of injustice: to demand a person’s highest response and regard but not pay for it: to demand the best from someone else while offering nothing in return. The correct, rational and just response to your desire for the love and fidelity of the one you love is the same as for any other value: the desire to earn it, to gain it and keep it by your own virtues. And it is the recognition that should you fail, you must respect their decision: for you cannot love someone without respecting their rights to make their own decisions, and live their own life according to their own values.
The extra-marital affairs which jealousy fears are in fact widespread. Are they necessarily wrong? No: provided more fundamental virtues such as honesty, justice and rationality (which includes acting according to a rational hierarchy of values) are preserved. As noted above, fidelity is a consequence, not a primary. Circumstances can change. In the context of their own lives and values, a couple might decide that affairs are acceptable or even desirable. That is a decision only they can make. It depends on what values they seek, what values they gain from each other, how closely sex and love are tied in their own minds, etc. In general, fidelity is desirable and certainly safer; but in particular cases, it might not be. Indeed, an inappropriate insistence on fidelity as an end in itself above all other considerations, foments hypocrisy, dishonesty and other vices that end up being more destructive to the relationship than an affair itself need be.
It is unrealistic to believe that infidelity automatically means the end of a marriage: that depends on the values of its partners. But it is equally unrealistic to assume that affairs can be sought with impunity. In any event, it follows from the previous paragraph that any extra-marital affair must have the agreement (at least in principle) of the spouse. And if such agreement is not forthcoming, each must decide where in their hierarchy of values lie their marriage, their partner’s fidelity, and/or their desire for an affair: and act accordingly.
My previous analysis leads to the conclusion that human nature tends toward monogamous, long-term male-female pair bonds, cemented by sex and love, by pleasure and shared values. What of the exceptions?
Certainly polygamy, polyandry and promiscuity have been common in human history. One would in fact expect promiscuity to become more common when conditions are easy and rarer when conditions are hard, as the desire for sex is strong under most conditions, while how bad it is to have a child out of wedlock depends on how tough life is. One would expect polygamy in societies based on male power, and polyandry in societies of female power: as signs and rewards (genetic and sexual) of that power. Indeed, in societies based on physical force and strength, frequently women have been regarded as practically rightless chattels. Also, although most if not all societies display the masculine vs feminine asymmetry of relationships, one also sees examples of dominant wives with submissive husbands.
Of course, that exceptions have occurred among individuals or whole societies doesn’t necessarily mean they are right now or even were right then (after all, societies based on rape, pillage and murder have been common in history too). It is the task of history, anthropology or sociology to determine what is or has been: it is the task of philosophy to determine what is right and wrong.
In this case, I think what philosophy tells us about which kinds of relationship you should enter is basically this: do your own thing unless it involves degradation of yourself or your sex partner, the sacrifice of a higher value for a lower one, or the initiation of physical force. The desire to degrade your partner (let alone yourself) is an inversion of values and an attack on self-esteem. Values require exaltation, admiration, self-esteem and esteem of your partner: the wish to degrade, hurt or humiliate your partner or yourself indicates a sickness of mind and anti-life psychology that should not be tolerated. Choosing greater over lesser values is a general principle of rational morality. And of course, the initiation of physical force has no place in human relationships in general, let alone those based on love. Rape and sexual assault can never be justified.
But beyond that, people are different. What they offer and want in a relationship differs. Whether what you want is “normal” or not, “ideal” or not, the principle is the same as in all other things: what you must determine is which is more rational – to try to change your nature, or to enjoy what you are as best you can – and then to act accordingly.
Every person has the right to decide for themself what form their happiness will take, what person or persons they love and why, and what sexual practices they should engage in to maximise their pleasure: as long as no one else is hurt unjustly.
Since the only valid purpose of the law is to protect individual rights (see Philosophical Reflections 16-19), it follows that anything should be legal between consenting adults in private. That somebody’s personal preferences might offend the sensibilities of their neighbours or community – or for that matter, go against what is objectively best for human beings in general or even that somebody in particular – gives nobody the right to stop them doing whatever they wish to in private. (What they do in public is subject to property rights, as is any other public behaviour.) As noted in discussing the philosophy of politics, nobody’s morality, rational or irrational, justifies the initiation of physical force: which is what any law not aimed against physical force is, by its nature.
Note that the emphasis is on both consenting and adult. The initiation of physical force or fraud is barred – on the basis of fundamental ethical and political principles. And no adult has the right to sexually abuse a child: mentally, children have neither the maturity nor the knowledge to give valid consent in such matters; physically and psychologically, they are not sexually mature and are therefore inappropriate as objects of lust.
Other than those issues, there is no justification for laws to regulate sexual behaviour. Nobody has the right to impose their morality on other people by initiating force, whether they are a single despot or the entire population of a country. Laws against premarital sex, adultery (except to the extent of upholding marriage contracts), or any consensual “perversion” are invalid at their root.
For the same reason, there is no justification for laws against prostitution. It is a voluntary transaction. The grotesque spectacle of police officers having to act as Peeping Toms has no part in a civilised society. And among all the ribald comment about the actor Hugh Grant’s misadventure with a prostitute in the USA, little was heard questioning the right of the police to sink to the level of spying on the private, voluntary actions of adults, merely because some other people would disapprove of what they were up to if they knew about it.
Of all the things that have been classified as “perversions”, homosexuality is the most politically charged at present. It is a complex issue, clouded by a welter of mainly irrelevant arguments.
Arguments about whether homosexuals are born, made, somehow chosen in early life, or some combination of these, are really beside the point ethically. However they got that way, homosexuals are homosexual, and they cannot change it now. But that they are that way doesn’t necessarily make it an “equal alternative” to heterosexuality: diabetes, depression, colour-blindness and losing an arm are things that happen to people too. An “is” does not itself imply an “ought”, and that alternatives exist does not imply they have equal value.
Based on evolutionary considerations, I think that homosexuality is neither normal human biology, nor healthy. That homosexuality occurs occasionally in many animal species is irrelevant: so do sterility and other physical reproductive disorders. That homosexuality is normal in some species (such as the bonobo) is also irrelevant: what counts is human biology. And in human biology, reproduction and the constellation of psychological and emotional factors around it centre on male-female pairing.
Thus if one’s sexual preference was a matter of pushing a button, I would say that one should choose heterosexuality. It is what humans are evolved for; and sexuality is so intimately and profoundly tied into human psychology that the default expectation (in the absence of hard data to the contrary) would be that abnormal sexuality would reduce one’s potential for happiness.
But sexual preference is not merely a matter of pushing buttons. And homosexuals are perfectly capable of leading happy lives – including having long-term one-on-one romantic relationships. So, far from it being immoral to engage in homosexual sex, if you are homosexual and cannot change it, it would be immoral to deny yourself (at least, in a society where your rights were protected), and an even worse immorality would be to forbid it to others who prefer it. Romantic love and sexual relations are such high values that they are not to be dismissed lightly – whatever the sex of the objects of one’s affections. And of course, to persecute or prosecute homosexuals when their relationships are mutually voluntary, is completely immoral, and a far greater perversion of morality than homosexuality ever could be.
What can we conclude about rational sexual morality?
Sexual morality, like all of ethics, is based on the fundamental value of life, so it must recognise that happiness is crucial to life, and that pleasure and the achievement of values are crucial to happiness. Romantic love, which is one’s highest response to the values and virtues embodied in another person, and sexual pleasure, which is one of the greatest pleasures of life and love, are therefore important components of happiness and life.
From this it follows that sexual behaviour is completely moral. The only limits to that are those derived from general morality: like all things it is subject to rationality, honesty, integrity, pride and justice – to reason and self-esteem – to never sacrificing a higher value to a lesser – and to never initiating force or fraud. Special rules are not required for controlling peoples’ sex lives, to forbid this practice and impose that. All that is required is the application of general moral principles to an important, high-value part of life.
An objective (life-based) morality has no quarrel with sex. Indeed, it encourages sex, especially as part of a romantic relationship with a person who shares your values, and in general as part of a value-seeking, happy life.
What more appropriate way to end an article on sex than with a quote from the famous lover Casanova? He was not an epitome of the sexual morality described here: promiscuity is not the ideal. But he knew a crucial thing. He knew that happiness can be had in this life – and should be had – and that sex is part of it:
I loved, I was loved, I was in good health. I had a lot of money and spent it all, I was happy and laughed at the fools of moralists who say there is no real happiness on earth. Where else could it be sought?