Category Archives: Sexual Ethics

“Plain Sex”

Here is an outline of Alan Goldman’s influential article, “Plain Sex.”

Two Lessons about Ethical Thinking

(1) Many ethical disagreements hinge upon disagreements about facts, not about moral principles.

(2) Being a moral objectivist needn’t mean being morally conservative.

Both lessons help limit the appeal of moral relativism. Let us consider each in turn.

1) Many ethical disagreements hinge upon disagreements about facts, not about moral principles.

Goldman claims that views about immoral sexual behaviour are rooted in our definition of sexual behaviour & desire.

Goldman criticizes ‘Means-End’ Analyses

i. The end (i.e., purpose) of sex is reproduction.
ii. The end is the expression of love
iii. The end is communication
iv. The end is interpersonal awareness.

Why?  Should we reject these analyses?

Goldman’s reason for rejecting those analyses:

Theory (i) mistakes nature’s ‘purpose’ for reproduction for our own.  First of all, why should we think that nature really has any purposes at all?  Only conscious things can have purposes, but nature isn’t a conscious thing.  Secondly, even if nature does have purposes, why should consider them our purposes?  For example, if nature has purposes then probably the purpose of eating (from nature’s point of view) is nutrition, but we often think of eating differently.  To us, the purpose is not just nutrition but also enjoyment.

Theories (ii) – (iv) mistake things that may, in particular cases, be associated with sex for things that are essential to sex.  For example, Goldman thinks that sex may in particular cases be a way of expressing love, but it doesn’t have to be.

Are these convincing reasons for rejecting the these analyses?

Goldman’s Analysis:  “sexual desire is desire for contact with another person’s body and for the pleasure which such contact produces; sexual activity is activity which tends to fulfill such desire of the agent.” (268)

Sex is ‘plain sex’ and nothing more.

Is this the right account?

How will the account you endorse affect your position on sexual morality?

Consider:  once you define the purpose of sex, then it seems make sense to consider sex that doesn’t serve that purpose as perverted, immoral sex.

Think about the implications of each of the above analyses of sex for what counts as immoral sex.

Notice how disagreements about something as seemingly uninteresting as the definition of sex can lead to substantial moral disagreements.

(2) Being a moral objectivist needn’t mean being morally conservative.

Goldman considers both Deontological (i.e., Kantian) & Consequentialist (i.e., Utilitarian) ways of considering sexual morality.

(a) Utilitarianism

The moral rightness and wrongness of an action is determined by how much happiness it produces in total.

Thus, the rightness or wrongness of  a sexual act is a function of how much happiness is produced by the act.

What implications does this view have for sexual morality?

(Note: Goldman seems to disapprove of utilitarianism.)

We might suggest it will lead to a fairly liberal view of sexual morality.  With some limitations, if those involved in a sex act fully consent to it, it’s likely to lead to an overall increase in happiness, so the sexual act is morally OK.

What might those limitations be?

(b) Kantian Morality

The Categorical Imperative:  “Act only according to that maxim [i.e., rule] whereby you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”

An Alternative Formulation of the C.I.:  Always treat others as ends in themselves, not simply as the means to an end, i.e., never just use people.

What implications does this view have for sexual morality?

Again, it might be thought to lead to a liberal view of sexual morality.  With some limitations, so long as people fully consent to a sexual act no one is being treated simply as a means to an end so the act is morally OK.

What might those limitations be?

Here, the thing to notice is that both of these objective moral theories seem able to support quite liberal views about what are morally acceptable ways of behaving.  The lesson is that one can be a moral objectivist and have liberal moral views at the same time.

“Sexual Morality and the Concept of Using Another Person”

Here is an outline of Mappes’ “Sexual Morality and the Concept of Using Another Person.”

Mappes develops an essentially Kantian sexual ethic by appealing to the idea that in our dealings with others, we ought never to treat someone as a mere means to our own ends.

Mappes defines using someone as intentionally treating them in a way that violates the requirement that our involvement with others be based on their voluntary and informed consent.

According to a fundamental Kantian principle

1) it is morally wrong for A to use B merely as a means to achieve A’s ends
2) Using someone as a means is okay, but using them merely as a means is incompatible with respect to their personhood

We use people as mere means

1) when we undermine the voluntary or informed character of their consent to interact with us in some desired way
2) Hence, using another person can arise in at least two important ways
a) coercion – which undermines voluntary consent
b) deception – which undermines informed consent

Coercion can be occurrent or dispositional

1) Occurrent coercion involves the use of physical force
2) Dispositional coercion involves the threat of harm
3) The victim of dispositional coercion does intentionally choose a certain course of action; however, one’s choice, in the face of the threat of harm, is less than fully voluntary

Deception and Sexual Morality

1) Even if a child “consents” to sexual interaction, he or she is, strictly speaking, incapable of informed consent
2) We can also visualize the case of an otherwise fully competent adult temporarily disordered by drugs or alcohol. To the extent that such a person is rightly regarded as temporarily incompetent, winning his or her “consent” to sexual interaction could culminate in the sexual using of that person

Lying is not the only form of deception

1) Under certain circumstances, the simple withholding of information can be considered a form of deception
2) Mr. A, knowing that it is very unlikely that Ms. B will consent to sexual interaction if she becomes aware of Mr. A’s involvement with her sister, decides not to disclose this information. This is deception.

Coercion and Sexual Morality

1) Rape that employs dispositional coercion is surely just as wrong as rape that employs occurrent coercion
2) With dispositional coercion, the victim’s consent is not bypassed; it is coerced
3) There are numerous ways in which one person can effectively harm, and thus effectively, threaten, another

Consider four cases

1) Mr. Supervisor makes sexual overtures to Ms. Employee, which are rejected. Eventually, Mr. Supervisor makes it clear that sexual favors is a condition of employment

2) Ms. Debtor borrowed a substantial sum of money from Mr. Creditor. Ms. Debtor is sexually attracted to Mr. Creditor, but he doesn’t share her interest. When the debt comes due, she says she’ll pay if he consents to sex

3) Mr. Theatergoer has two tickets to the most talked about play. He finds a woman sexually attractive, and who would love to see the play. Mr. Theatergoer offers to take her to the play on condition she have sex with him

4) Ms. Jetsetter is planning a trip to Europe. She would like to have sex with a man whom she knows would love to go to Europe. Ms. Jetsetter proposes that he accompany her, all expenses paid, understanding that sex is expected

Cases 1 and 2 involve attempts to sexually use

1) another person, whereas cases 3 and 4 do not
2) We need to distinguish threats from offers
3) Threat: If you do not do what I am proposing you do, I will bring about an undesirable consequence for you
4) Offer: If you do what I am proposing you do, I will bring about a desirable consequence for you

The person who makes a threat attempts to coerce consent

1) The person who makes an offer attempts not to coerce but to induce consent
2) It is not uncommon for threats to be advanced in the language of offers

If it’s unclear whether a proposal is a threat or an offer

1) ask this question: Does the proposal have the effect of making a person worse off upon noncompliance?
2) The recipient of an offer, upon noncompliance, is not worse off than he or she was before the offer. In contrast, the recipient of a threat, upon noncompliance, is worse off than he or she was before the threat

A person can be effectively coerced by being threatened

1) with the withholding of something (a benefit) to which the person is entitled
2) Consider an example: B says I’ll help you, A, out of the quicksand if you pay me $1 Million”

This is a threat

1) because B is morally obligated to help A when such help involves no significant sacrifice of time, or risk, or resources. Before B’s proposal, A legitimately expected assistance from B “no strings attached.” In attaching a very unwelcome string, B’s proposal effectively renders A worse off
2) B threatens A with the withholding of something (assistance) that A is entitled to have from B

Cases 1 and 2 involve threats; 3 and 4, offers

1) Consider cases 5 and 6 in which Prof. Highstatus is sexually attracted to a student. Ms. Student, confused and unsettled, has begun to practice avoidance behavior

Case 5

1) Prof. Highstatus tells Ms. Student, though she deserves a B, she will be assigned a D unless she agrees to sex

Case 6

1) Prof. Highstatus tells Ms. Student, though she deserves a B, she will be assigned an A if she agrees to sex

It is clear that case 5 involves an attempt to use Ms. Student

1) Case 6, at least at face value, does not. In this case, Prof. Highstatus is undoubtedly acting in a morally reprehensible way. He is abusing his institutional authority.
2) There is however a suspicion that case 6 might involve a threat. Might not Ms. Student feel threatened? Is he not likely to retaliate should she turn him down?

Is Prof. Highstatus naïve to the threat

1) that Ms. Student may find implicit in the situation? Perhaps. In such a case, if she reluctantly agrees to sex, we may be inclined to say that he has unwittingly used her.
2) More likely, Prof. Highstatus is well aware of the way in which Ms. Student will perceive his proposal. Indeed, it may even be the case that he exploits his underground reputation for retaliation
3) To the extent, then, that he intends to convey a threat, he is attempting coercion

The Idea of a Coercive Offer – Case 7

1) Ms. Starlet, a glamorous and wealthy model, wants to be a movie superstar. Mr. Moviemogul invites her for a screen test in his office. After the test, he tells her he’ll make her a star on condition she agree to sex. She’s not at all attracted to him. With great reluctance, she agrees

Mr. Moviemogul has not used Ms. Starlet

1) She accepted his offer. The situation would be different if it were plausible to believe that, before accepting the proposal, she was entitled to his efforts to make her a star

The more general claim at issue is that offers are coercive

1) precisely inasmuch as they are extremely enticing or seductive
2) Though there is an important reality associated with this claim, we must not agree that an offer is coercive merely because it is extremely enticing or seductive

(It should not surprise readers to know that Mappes is a Christian thinker.)


Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart): A man takes a drop too much once in a while, it’s only human nature.
Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn): Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above. ~ The African Queen (1951)

Which is more natural for human beings, monogamy1 or polygamy? If one is more natural, does that make it preferable?

Most documented human societies, about 85%, have been polygamous. This almost always involves polygyny, men having multiple wives. Polyandry, wives having multiple husbands and polyamory, having more than one consensual, intimate relationship at the same time, are far less common. Even in so-called monogamous cultures people have affairs, and they often engage in serial monogamy, the custom of having multiple, consecutive sexual relationships but not more than one at a time. Perhaps humans are naturally polygamous.

Yet there are examples in nature of mostly monogamous relationships: lar gibbons, mute swans, malagasy giant rats, waved albatrosses, california mouses, black vultures, shingleback skinks, sandhill cranes, prairie voles, convict chiclids, some African antelopes, and … humans. Humans are capable of long-term, happy, monogamous relationships, just as they are capable of having polygamous ones.

So it is hard to say whether monogamy or polygamy is more natural. It might be like asking whether it is more natural to speak English or German. Humans are wired to learn language just as they naturally crave contact with others, but culture largely determines the language they learn and the forms of their relationships.  Nature doesn’t determine which language or relationship is best. And even if one is more natural than the other that doesn’t make it better. Some natural things are good, but some are bad—like smallpox!

Moreover humans have both long-term and short-term mating strategies. We associate long-term mating strategies with monogamy. These strategies value commitment, gene quality, economic prospects and parenting skills. We associate short-term mating strategies with polygamy. These strategies value physical attractiveness, sex appeal and sexual experience. But nature doesn’t decree which types of relationships are morally or biologically better.

Regarding the origins of monogamy the situation is straightforward:

The genetic evidence for the evolution of monogamy in humans is more complex but much more straightforward. While female effective population size (the number of individuals successfully producing offspring thus contributing to the gene pool), as indicated by mitochondrial-DNA evidence, increased around the time of human (not hominid) expansion out of Africa about 80,000–100,000 years ago, male effective population size, as indicated by Y-chromosome evidence, did not increase until the advent of agriculture 18,000 years ago. This means that before 18 000 years ago, many females would be reproducing with the same few males.[36]

This strongly suggests that monogamy is a cultural imperative not a biological one. And the modern world favors monogamy—polygamy is illegal in the entire developed world.  Why the transition from polygamy to monogamy? The main reason is that polygyny is detrimental to society. It creates an incentive for men to take many wives, leaving other men without wives—and men without mates cause problems. In polygynous societies levels of crime, violence, poverty and gender inequality are greater than in monogamous ones as a recent study at the University of British Columbia confirmed:

… monogamy’s main cultural evolutionary advantage over polygyny is the more egalitarian distribution of women, which reduces male competition and social problems. By shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, institutionalized monogamy increases long-term planning, economic productivity, savings and child investment …

Monogamous marriage also results in significant improvements in child welfare, including lower rates of child neglect, abuse, accidental death, homicide and intra-household conflict, the study finds. These benefits result from greater levels of parental investment, smaller households and increased direct “blood relatedness” in monogamous family households …

… By decreasing competition for younger and younger brides, monogamous marriage increases the age of first marriage for females, decreases the spousal age gap and elevates female influence in household decisions which decreases total fertility and increases gender equality.

It seems that we should favor the wisdom of culture over our genetic lease. Still you might object. “Even if it’s in society’s interests to have stable monogamous unions that doesn’t mean it’s in mine. I like polygamous or polyandrous relationships.” It is hard to give a knockdown argument against this. If all involved parties are happier in such relationships, and the effects on society are limited, then so be it.

I can only speak for myself by echoing the words of that great freethinker Voltaire:

As I had now seen all that was beautiful on earth, I resolved for the future to see nothing but my own home; I took a wife, and soon suspected that she deceived me; but notwithstanding this doubt, I still found that of all conditions of life this was much the happiest.2


1. I am referring to marital monogamy, marriages of two people only, and social monogamy, two partners living together, having sex together, and cooperating in acquiring basic resources.

2. Voltaire, The Travels of Scarmentado.