What are atheistic sexual ethics?

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.


About Chris Attaway

Raised in the digital wilderness of the pre-Internet 2.0 era, Chris Attaway is a true gamer and Internet citizen. After a stint studying computer science, his life got flipped turned upside down, and he ended up studying philosophy to help him sort out his life. Now the black sheep in a family of engineers, he has set out to get his footing in the world of freelance journalism. With interests ranging from gaming and technology to LGBT rights, race and politics, Chris is a diverse and skilled writer who always tries to give a fair shake to his subjects.
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13 Responses to What are atheistic sexual ethics?

  1. Comicbookguy78 says:

    As an atheist, I would say that that we make a distinction between sex for pleasure and sex for the purposes of procreation (which is why I believe religious people have such a problem with birth control) and we believe that sex purely for pleasure is not only healthy but nothing of which to be ashamed. Studies have shown that sex between individuals enhances intimacy and improves the relationship in addition to promoting physical and emotional health. As a general rule, we believe that sex between consenting and mentally capable adults is no one’s business but their own and no one has the right to judge. The presumption that someone outside the relationship believes that they not only have the right but also the authority to dictate the terms of the nature of the sexual relationship is not only arrogant but also immoral and offensive. Obviously, there are exceptions to this such as incest as you’ve already mentioned or people who are being taken advantage for sex is regarded as wrong and unethical. Examples include someone grieving, drunk, sexual relations between teachers and pupils, doctors and patients and so on. It should be noted that not only do we believe such interactions to be unethical but also punishable e.g. a doctor may lose his/her license to practice medicine. Bottom line, religion does not have the monopoly on ethical nor moral behaviour. I treat people with dignity and respect because that’s how want to be treated and it’s as simple as that.

    • All good insights. I hadn’t considered sex in compromising professional situations, but it is a good point.

      I will likely type up a more comprehensive formulation of my own sexual ethics through virtue theory.

  2. Michael says:

    (My definition of right and wrong is based on the principle that anything that increases suffering is “more wrong” relative to something that reduces it. )

    I think the place that I diverge from the religious is much earlier in the discussion. In many respects, sex is not meaningfully different from the other aspects of our biology which are essential to the survival of the species. For example, feeding our young is essential to the survival of the species. Reducto ad absurdum, giving a child something to eat that has no nutritive value shows disrespect for an essential process of biological survival.

    I think you’ll find it hard to make a compelling (or practical!) evidence-based argument there’s something inherently wrong with feeding your child something purely for the pleasure of its taste.

    • A good point which provides a way for me to distinguish my argument here from the Catholic view.

      Where the Catholic would say sex must always take place in such a way as to allow its natural telos, I am saying that we should respect the sex act, oftentimes engaging in it strictly for pleasure and companionship but in a context that does not undermine its role in society.

  3. David says:

    “…as is sexual child abuse (we should distinguish this from pedophilia as an incurable attraction to children).”

    Thank you for including this statement. This is something that needs to be communicated and discussed to a much broader audience. Having an attraction is NOT controllable or morally wrong in and of itself. What you DO with that attraction IS controllable and can result in ethical or unethical actions. Thanks for the distinction.

  4. Not in any way Arthur says:

    If your reason against infertile people having incest is it’s against some telos of sex why are you ok with homosexual sex and infertile people having sex? Presumably these also violate this reason d’sextra.

    Remember also, most heterosexuals also find gay sex icky to be in the presence of or think about (unless it’s lesbians then most males are ok)

    • Not in any way Arthur says:

      I realize this ammounted to basically a “well your face”, so I’ll describe my face. Sex is kind of like vice. Drugs and gambling might not be evil 100% of the time, but they are taken to excesses. Other than informed consent, I think this is what sex is like. There are also STDs that get proliferated, but we’ll assume your careful enough to avoid AIDS and Syphallus and Herpes if you’re careful enough to avoid the most prevalent of STDs (unwanted children)

      I’m not even sure if I’m against sterile incest truth be told, but too much sex and not enough… else… is called sloth which is bad because you aren’t applying yourself, but this can be said about any such thing that takes up too much of your time.

  5. Nick Gotts says:

    I am fairly certain we would all still frown on such action [incest]

    You’re wrong. I don’t feel I have any right to judge consenting sexual activity between partners where there is not an excessive power differential as wrong. The objection to an excessive power differential rules out adult-child, cognitively normal-cognitively disabled, teacher-student, etc. sex, even where there is consent. Aside from that, honesty, and care for the health and safety of partners and where relevant, possible children, cover it, as far as I’m concerned.

    we have inherited a vocabulary of ethics from our formerly-Christian culture

    As far as sex is concerned, this inheritance is vile, and the sooner we get rid of it altogether, the better: misogyny, homophobia, compulsory monogamy, arbitrary restrictions on the type of sexual activity, guilt and shaming.

    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*

    This is just drivel.

    • I did not intend to provide extensive defenses of my positions here. I only intended to start the conversation. I intend to write a more full defense of a virtue ethics take on sexual morality in the near future, but I am currently occupied otherwise.

      I would remind you that there is no need to be adversarial. Atheistic opinions are more than welcome here.

  6. fergusson says:

    I’ll jump in, because I think Nick makes excellent points. Sex has consequences, physical and emotional, that we should respect, but to say it has a “purpose” makes no sense to an atheist.

    I’m afraid that, at the risk of sounding adversarial myself, I agree with Nick that the Christian tradition has largely retarded rather than advanced the rational discussion of sexual ethics. By declaring that sex has a purpose (as opposed to a function), and that you know what it is because of a claim of divine inspiration by somebody in bronze-age Syria, you’ve made a choice to put yourself outside what I (and any non-religious person) would consider rational debate. I don’t mean that to be insulting, simply factual. Does it contribute to the well-being (reduce the suffering) of sentient creatures or not? If it does not, then it frankly doesn’t matter to me who proposed it or where or when.

    Of course, if we don’t agree on the definition of “good” or “bad” as being fundamentally about the well-being of conscious creatures, then our disagreements are more fundamental than this topic allows for. We can agree on that much, though. Right?

    • “Purpose” as used here is going to be a societal concept, a sort of function which we assign it to play through cooperative agreement. I believe in very few metaphysical concepts outside of what it means to be.

      • Nick Gotts says:

        That still makes no sense to me, nor, I would guess, to most atheists. Why should we all have to agree about what sex is “for”, or indeed, that it’s “for” anything?

        *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.

        Again, this just looks like nonsense to me. What on earth could it mean to say “the sexual act” (which sexual act? I’m a vanilla heterosexual, but I’ve still tried more than one!) has a spirit? Do other biological acts (eating, excreting, sneezing, running…) have spirits?

      • The idea here is that society sets forth ideals to which we aspire in such a way as to accommodate for the common good of the participants in society. Performing well in such an endeavor is what we call virtue. The question at hand is how to conceive of virtue for sex. There are no literal “spirits” of any of these things, but there is a general sense of how they function within society, which is my meaning when I say “spirit.”

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