Summary of Alan Goldman’s “Plain Sex”

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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 makes 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.

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One thought on “Summary of Alan Goldman’s “Plain Sex”

  1. “What might those limitations be?” That is the question.

    Specific context makes a difference, but generally, if Goldman is mostly referring to sexual non-monogamy, one could argue that something like monogamy is the ideal choice because:
    (a) The most realistic immediate major threat facing humanity is runaway epidemics, and sexual ‘pluralism’ on a rather unprecedented scale, on top of widespread travel, is an ideal catalyst and vehicle for the rise and proliferation of some highly problematic new pathogens. Heck, even some of the good ol’ STDs are becoming increasingly difficult to treat and control due to skyrocketing contagion rates and the rise of microbial resistance. And it’s not as if condoms are a panacea. There are countless types of pathogens and many routes and mechanisms of transmission.
    (b) The children–yeah, the children–scoff if y’all will, but little kids do better in a stable and loving family. Moot, if one is definitely not going to have children no matter what.
    (c) Family strength–sexual ‘pluralism’ tends to act as a centrifugal force that weakens families. And families are a key source of wellbeing, stability, and privilege. So, the strengthening of families directly supports social justice objectives.

    I realize the above is totally NOT in tune with the Zeitgeist, but Zeitgeiste come and go. And not a trace of religion was used in the production of these thoughts.

    That X need not have a purpose, does not imply it does not have consequences.

    It would be nice if one could analyze the issue independently of the above three and other matters, but as environmentalist John Muir said, when you try to tease apart one thing, you find it is connected to everything else in the universe.

    Indeed, sex is not sui generis–it’s just like eating, gambling, smoking, watching TV. When is it victimless and when is it not? Depends on how large and how deep the circle of concern is. On these matters too, when kids are involved, I go full Kung Fu mama bear.

    There are of course additional dimensions to the question. I’ll mention one briefly: some people are after not so much a particular object of desire but the breaking thru of a boundary of acceptability–give them all they ask for, and they have a compulsion to move the boundary further out. When skin tattoos become widespread, the next frontier is rings thru noses, scleral tattoos, body modifications, etc. Adults’ frontal lobes are no protection from the desire to be edgy no matter the long term cost. So I even question that the seeker after a particular thrill always truly wants it in itself rather than as a way of signaling how cool and how rasa is the tabula between their ears. And who knows what a sex partner’s motives might be, even if they are an adult–really likes the same stuff? is desperate to hold on to that person no matter what? Sometimes we are the last ones to understand why we or our partner want what we want.

    In principle I am committed to the idea that ethics must stand on an epistemic base, which makes the epistemic virtues also ethical virtues in my view, and I really liked what Goldman was trying to do; maybe I’ll read the paper. But the variables that go into even just the epistemic base are a bit of a challenge to compute.

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