'Fidelity to the marriage bed,' an inquiry into the foundations of sexual ethics.

Author:Holbrook, Daniel
  1. Outline

  2. Humean Chastity: (The utility of heterosexual bonds)

  3. Humean Sexual Ethics:(= Emotivism + Utilitarianism + Patriarchy)

  4. The Evolution of Sexual Ethics: (Jared Diamond on concealed ovulation)

  5. The Naturalistic Fallacy:(G.E. Moore's critique of naturalistic ethics)

  6. Sexual Conservatism and Sexual Libertarianism

  7. Controversial Issues in Sexual Ethics

    7.1. Autoerotic Sex

    7.2. Homoerotic Sex

    7.3. Heteroerotic Sex

  8. The Future of Sexual Ethics

  9. Postscript

  10. Humean Chastity

    I begin with a passage from David Hume's An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751): (All book references are on fair use, except as noted.)

    "The long and helpless infancy of man requires the combination of parents for the subsistence of their young; and that combination requires the virtue of chastity or fidelity to the marriage bed. Without such utility...such a virtue would never have been thought of."

    There are seven concepts at play here:

  11. Childhood frailty (CF),

  12. The requirement of heterosexual bonds (HB),

  13. Co-parental duties to children (PD),

  14. The legitimacy of sexual ethics (SE),

  15. Empirical bifurcation (EB),

  16. Sexual ethics is a matter of conceptual analysis (SE-1), and

  17. Sexual ethics is a matter of empirical contingency (SE-2).

    I am assuming that Hume is using the extramarital sex taboo as an example representing sexual ethics in general. Childhood frailty is a biological fact about human beings. Empirical bifurcation is an underlying assumption here, and is an important tenet of Hume's philosophy, that being that all judgments are either what he calls "relations of ideas" (conceptual analysis) or "relations of facts" (empirical contingency).

    The argument then goes as follows:

  18. CF

  19. CF > PD

  20. PD > HB

  21. HB > SE

  22. SE (as a subconclusion)

  23. SE > (SE-1 or SE-2) (empirical bifurcation)

  24. SE-1 or SE-2 (from 4. and 5.)

  25. CF > ~SE-1 (to be explained)

  26. ~SE-1 (from 1. and 7.)

  27. SE-2 (from 6. and 8.)

    What Hume is saying here, first, is that childhood frailty is a contingent biological fact that, with the assumption of the value of the continuance of human civilization, implies co-parental duties (i.e., both parents care for the child), the basis for co-parental duties are the sexual bonds between mother and father, and these bonds are secured by an ethic of sexual exclusivity. Second, there is an underlying assumption of empirical bifurcation. Since the legitimacy of sexual ethics is, in part, based the contingent biological fact of childhood frailty, then sexual ethics must be of the second category--matters of fact. Being, at least in part, a matter of fact, sexual ethics as we know it cannot be purely a matter of deduction based on self-evident principles (conceptual analysis), and, therefore, "such a virtue would never have been thought of" (i.e., the ethic of sexual exclusivity in marriage would have never occurred to us, and so would never have been thought of as a virtue, if it weren't for the biological fact of human frailty.)

    Another way of looking at it is to consider the reverse course of reasoning. If we were a species that did not have childhood frailty--if human children were well-prepared for life without the long and continued care and protection of their parents--then the heterosexual bonds fostered by sexual exclusivity would not be needed. And thus, the taboo of extramarital sex will have lost its legitimacy.

    The crucial point here is that sexual ethics cannot be understood or justified independent of the biological facts and/or even the circumstances of human existence. That is, to understand human sexual ethics, we must first understand who we are and what are the principles that govern human society.

  28. Humean Sexual Ethics

    It is not surprising that there is a lack of consensus amongst scholars as to the correct interpretation of Hume's ethics. I recommend Nicholas Capaldi's "Some Misconceptions about Hume's Moral Theory" (in the journal Ethics, April 1966, pages 208-211) as a good starting point to enter this debate. My intent here is not so much to discover what were the actual sexual ethics of Hume, a topic he wrote little about, but instead I wish to investigate a view about the foundations of sexual ethics that follows from one interpretation of his thought, namely mine. So, I make it clear that what I will be calling "Humean sexual ethics" is a position based on the implications of a theory like Hume's, rather than what his actual views might have been.

    Humean sexual ethics has elements of emotivism, utilitarianism, and patriarchy. If someone says, "Masturbation is ethically unacceptable," then this is analyzed as being an expression of disapprobation (like emotivism) towards masturbatory acts based on the belief that such acts undermine the patriarchal social order which is believed to be essential to the continuance and welfare of human civilization (utilitarianism). Using Hume's example, to state that marital fidelity is a virtue is to be expressing approbation for marital fidelity, on the assumption that marital fidelity is essential to patriarchy which is, in turn, assumed to be necessary for the continuance and welfare of human civilization.

    A bit later, I'll be looking at Sexual Conservatism, the view that only heteroerotic sex between two people married to each other is ethically acceptable. Humean sexual ethics best explains Sexual Conservatism. I'll be arguing this, even though the vast majority of people who are committed to Sexual Conservatism, or views similar to it, are very likely unaware that this is so.

  29. The Evolution of Sexual Ethics

    Concealed ovulation is an unawareness of ovulation on the part of the female, coupled with a lack of communication to the male as to the timing of the ovulatory cycle. This is another peculiar biological fact about the human species that is especially relevant to sexual ethics. Human sexual behavior is not governed by the ovulatory cycle, or, at least, not nearly to the extent that it is in most other mammals. This explains why humans clearly have an interest in sex and a need for sex that goes far beyond the requirements of reproduction. As you shall see, there is a connection between childhood frailty and concealed ovulation in our species.

    In a chapter titled "Wrong Time for Love...," Jared Diamond explains human sexual behavior and the phenomenon of concealed ovulation through a reconstruction of our evolutionary past. He writes:

    "Since we humans are exceptional in our concealed ovulations, unceasing receptivity, and recreational sex, it can only be so because we evolved to be that way..."

    and this "inefficiency" in our species is related the fact that

    "the helpless condition of human infants makes lots of parental care necessary for many years." (Why Sex is Fun, Basic Books, 1997, pages 67-68)

    Diamond's argument is a bit complicated, but goes something like this: Concealed ovulation evolved in our ancient non-human progenitors initially as a means to counteract infanticide, and with our moving from a polygamous (or promiscuous) social order to monogamy, the function of concealed ovulation changed to a "keep daddy home" strategy. (page 86) All of which is to say that the more modern function of concealed ovulation is to create the bonds necessary for co-parenting by means of the couple having lots of sex, and thus, the connection between concealed ovulation and childhood frailty.

    Apart from the evolutionary disadvantages of having lots of sex--it takes time from food gathering, it seemingly wastes a lot of energy, an embracing couple is susceptible to predators, etc...--Diamond notes there are advantages, too. Besides the fact that sex can be quite pleasurable, a continual interest in sex fosters a bond between the male and female, and so, the female gains a co-parent. If the relation is sexually exclusive, the male also gains what anthropologists call "parental certainty," the knowledge that the children he is supporting are biologically related to him. A promiscuous social order leads to males committing infanticide when they have won control over a particular female (as in many feline species), as there is an evolutionary advantage to only caring for his own progeny. Diamond speculates that concealed ovulation created an ambiguity between sexual commerce and fertilization, and so counteracted infanticide in a promiscuous species and then, later, fostered co-parenting in a monogamous species. (pages 86-87)

    If all this is true, then Hume hit the nail on the head. Our sexual behavior and our sexual ethics are directly related to the contingent biological facts of our existence. Thus, sexual ethics must be, to a great degree, a "matter of fact," and thus, is something that is variable, depending on changes in human nature and changes in human society.

  30. The Naturalistic Fallacy

    I now turn to what might be a damaging objection to the course taken by my argument so far. In Chapters I and II of Principia Ethica (1903), G.E. Moore argues that there is an abstract concept, "the Good," that is a non-natural property, and to define "the Good" as being identical to any natural property that exists in the temporal world is to commit the "naturalistic fallacy." The proof of this is that for any supposed naturalistic definition of what is ultimately intrinsically valuable, there is always some sense in asking, "Is that naturalistic property good?," something he calls the "Open Question Argument." He is mostly concerned with - are hedonistic theories of intrinsic value where pleasure is identified as the ultimate intrinsic good.

    In Chapter II, Moore discusses ethical theories of the category he calls "Evolutionistic." The idea here is that natural evolution only explains the course of events for natural beings, such as ourselves. It is another question as to whether or not this course of events is a good thing. This is relevant because I am claiming that much of human sexual ethics is connected to the evolution of the species...

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