My favorite atheistic blogger (probably because he’s an existentialist philosopher), Dan Fincke of Camels with Hammers, has decided to start a Theists’ Thursdays series, where he answers questions from theists every Thursday. Well, I am a theist, and I have a question! What are atheistic sexual ethics?
Now, of course, atheism is a lack of belief in gods of any sort, and therefore it cannot be an identity to itself (see such posts as this or this for ways in which a lack is not an identity). So as I ask this question, I mean to ask, what is a philosophical system or ideal which provides an account of sexual ethics in a way that does not involve God?
I don’t ask this like one might ask rhetorically, “How can you be good without God?” Rather, while I find myself agreeing with many atheists more than with conservative Christians on issues of sexuality (with important distinctions), I also am unclear on the foundation of any sort of secular sexual ethic. The strongest narrative in need of criticism here is that, as Alisdair MacIntyre suggests in After Virtue, we have inherited a vocabulary of ethics from our formerly-Christian culture, but we have forgotten that heritage and tried to find foundations for it elsewhere — with little philosophical success.
The question is important, because much of the secular/Christian public debate tends to be about sexuality and its place in society. Therefore, aside from the issues arising from After Virtue, I would like to point out a few key points which need addressing in the (hopeful) reply.
1. We do need sexual ethics
This goes without saying, but sexual ethics are obviously not just “anything goes.” Rape is obviously out of the question, as is sexual child abuse (we should distinguish this from pedophilia as an incurable attraction to children). Incest is certainly gross and cause for disdain from a bioethics standpoint. There are certainly more issues within sexual ethics, but these already demonstrate the need for such a thing to exist.
2. Mutual consent is necessary but not sufficient
One of the primary maxims I hear in regard to sexual ethics is to strive for “mutual consent.” We certainly do not want one person having sex without the consent of the other — we call that rape; thus, mutual consent is necessary for ethical sex. But in the case of incest, we clearly demonstrate that the biological component of sex is a factor in sexual ethics. While an incestuous couple could theoretically remain childless (say, through a surgical procedure), I am fairly certain we would all still frown on such action.
3. Children are a significant factor
The reason I would put forward for why we still frown upon incest even if the couple takes biologically responsible actions is that incest shows disrespect for sex as a procreative action, particularly if we understand its genetic implications. Her, I find myself agreeing with the spirit of the Catholic sexual ethic, though disagreeing on many, many specifics such as gay marriage and birth control, supposing that there is a telos or purpose to sex which factors into how we should treat it, and that we must respect sex as a reproductive act* as much as a pleasurable act. This would obviously discourage other more widely-accepted sexual practices (casual sex, perhaps), but I am not sure how to object to incest consistently, otherwise.
I’m hopeful to receive a reply! Fellow Christians, please refrain from expounding upon what your idea of sexual ethics might be; this is strictly a question to Dan (and other atheists), so please let them speak for themselves.
*In the case of infertile or same sex couples or couples on birth control, I only mean to suggest that sex should take place with a sense of “as if,” respecting the spirit of the sexual act as a biological act.