This is a blog about sexual ethics and the philosophy of sexuality. I am writing it in conjunction with a course on this topic, which I am teaching in the 2012 winter term at the University of Manitoba. However, it will deal with issues beyond those taken up in class, and will (hopefully) outlive the end of the course.
Sexual ethics is, in my view, one of the most exciting areas of contemporary philosophy. And this is not just because it is about something, sex, that is itself pretty exciting – although that helps. It is also because debates in this field are moving very quickly. People’s values are evolving as rapidly as they ever have. Just look at views on gay marriage, the widespread legalisation of which twenty years ago would have seem inconceivable to most people and which a majority of the public now takes for granted. Technology is changing the context in which the debates are taking place. How useful is an article about the right to privacy that was written in 1990? And, stepping back to look at the broader picture, as a culture we have moved into a zeitgeist that makes philosophical debate about sex timely and urgent. Once upon a time, people’s views and behaviour were shaped by a set of traditional values and institutions that restricted open debate about sex. Then, people rebelled against all that, and sort of went crazy. Now, over the past couple of generations, we’ve moving into a different, perhaps more mature and thoughtful phase, when people are honestly questioning and debating how they should approach sex and sexuality.
So let’s talk about it.
The issues I’ll be discussing fall into three broad categories:
History of ideas about sex
I will discuss how some of the great figures in the history of philosophy, from Plato and Aristotle to Marcuse and Foucault, have approached sex and sexuality.
Moral philosophy is for people who want to examine, critically and in good faith, their beliefs about what is the right thing to do, and possibly revise those beliefs in the light of evidence and argument. I’ll be trying to do this with issues relating to sex. What’s wrong with infidelity? Is it alright to have sex with a co-worker? Should we out anti-gay politicans who we know are themselves gay? These are examples of the sorts of issues I’ll take up.
Disputes about sexuality often get settled not by moral debate but by legislatures and courts. But moral and legal questions are inevitably intertwined. This is especially true because I want to approach the law normatively. That is, I am not interested in establishing what the law currently is, but rather how it should be, in an ideal world. For instance: we can answer the question, does drunken consent to sex count as legitimate consent, with reference to precedents and statutes, depending on what jurisdiction we are in. But I want to go beyond that, to figure out what a good legal system would say about it.
What you won’t find here
I have no qualifications as a counsellor, and I’m probably not the person to tell you whether or not you should break up with your boyfriend because he won’t give up weed, or whether you should take a job as a gaffer for a porn movie shoot, or whether you should do a three-way with a couple of people you met on the subway. And I’m not a lawyer, so you certainly shouldn’t take my advice on any legal questions. Even when I talk about existing law, I do so based on research that is often at an early stage, and I freely admit I may make mistakes.
A point of view
Well okay, I do have opinions on a lot of issues. Hopefully in the course of writing this blog, I’ll come to have more – for me that is part of the point. And I have certain core convictions that inform my approach to these issues. I believe in the importance of individual autonomy and equality. And I believe that sex is a good thing, and so on balance people should have more of it rather than less. But I don’t start out with some over-arching philosophical world-view that spits out solutions to particular problems in a systematic way. I try to address issues where there are genuine disagreements among intelligent, well-meaning people, and I present all sides as sympathetically as I can. Even if I have strong opinions about something, I don’t want them to foreclose debate.
I have no problem with people who are guided by their faith in approaching ethical issues. But I don’t approach the issues that way, and I won’t presume to tell you how God wants you to behave.
If that sounds at all interesting, stay tuned.