Friday, May 25, 2012

Sexual ethics and moral epistemology

Let A be the set of all the sexual activities that our society takes to be wrong. For instance, A will include rape, voyeurism, adultery, bestiality, incest, polygamy, sex involving animals, sex betweeen adults and youth, etc. Let B be the set of all the sexual activities that our society takes to be permissible. For instance, B will include marital sex, contracepted marital sex, premarital sex, etc.

Now there is no plausible philosophical comprehensive unified explanatory theory of sexuality that rules all the actions in A wrong and all the actions in B permissible. There are comprehensive unified explanatory theories of sexuality that rule all the actions in A wrong but that also rule some of the actions in B wrong—the various Catholic theories do this—as well as ruling same-sex sexual activity wrong (which isn't in B at this point). There are also comprehensive unified explanatory theories of sexuality that rule all the actions in B permissible but that also rule a number of the actions in A permissible—for instance, theories that treat sex in a basically consequentialist way do this.

If this is right, then unless a completely new kind of theory can be found, it looks like we need to choose between three broad options:

  1. Take all the actions in A to be forbidden, and revise social opinion on a number of the actions in B.
  2. Take all the actions in B to be permissible, and revise social opinion on a number of the actions in A.
  3. Revise social opinion on some but not all of the actions in A and on some but not all of the actions in B.
Moreover, the best theories we have fall into (1) or (2) rather than (3). So given our current philosophical theories, our choice is probably between (1) and (2).

It is an interesting question how one would choose between (1) and (2) if one had to. I would, and do, choose (1) on the grounds that typically we can be more confident of prohibitions than of permissibles, moral progress being more a matter of discovery of new prohibitions (e.g., against slavery, against duelling, against most cases of the death penalty) than of discovery of new permissions.

It is somewhat easier to overlook a prohibition that is there than to imagine a prohibition that isn't there. An action is permissible if and only if there are no decisive moral reasons against the action. Generally speaking, we are more likely to err by not noticing something that is there than by "noticing" something that isn't there: overlooking is more common than hallucination. If this is true in the moral sphere, then we are more likely to overlook a decisive moral reason against an action than to "notice" a decisive moral reason that isn't there. After all, some kinds of moral reason require significant training in virtue for us to come to be cognizant of them.

If this is right, then prima facie we should prefer (1) to (2): we should be more confident of the prohibition of the actions in A than of the permission of the actions in B.

It would be interesting to study empirically how people's opinions fall on the question whether to trust intuitions of impermissibility or to trust intuitions of permissibility. It may be domain-specific. Thus a stereotypical conservative might take intuitions of impermissibility to be more reliable than intuitions of permissibility when it comes to matters of sex, but when it comes to matters of private property may take intuitions of permissibility to be more reliable, and a liberal might have the opposite view. But I think one should in general tend to go with intuitions of impermissibility.

13 comments:

Heath White said...

moral progress being more a matter of discovery of new prohibitions ... than of discovery of new permissions.

I think here is the crux of the issue. There is a progressive/Enlightenment narrative of moral progress which is all about throwing off shackles: getting rid of restrictions on women's roles, on sex, on family style, on economic and social mobility, and so on.

It seems to me that "moral progress" is not well-defined as either an increase or a diminution of restrictions. It is rather something like an increasing acknowledgement and recognition of human dignity, which shows up sometimes as restrictions on how you treat others and sometimes as permissions which allow them to flourish.

Alexander R Pruss said...

There certainly has been laudable throwing off of shackles. But I think a number of these shackles were not of what was seen as moral prohibitions. E.g., I don't think economic and social mobility was seen as immoral--it was a matter of social prohibition, something Not Done. Granted, not everyone is clear on the distinction, but one can test things by looking at people's reactions to rags-to-riches stories like those of David in the Bible, and nobody ever thought that was a case of immoral social climbing. In the case of economic and social mobility, I think what we have come to realize is that making economic and social mobility difficult is morally impermissible. So this case fits nicely into my narrative.

The case of women's roles is trickier for my story. It would be an interesting question if we polled westerners in the 18th century and asked them whether it's immoral for a woman to practice law, after distinguishing the immoral from the Not Done, what they would say. They might say it's not immoral, but imprudent, Not Done, etc., in which case this fits into my story just fine. But it also wouldn't be that surprising if the majority thought it was immoral. If so, then that case doesn't fit as neatly into my narrative. And that's fine, because I only said that progress is more a matter of discovery of new prohibitions.

I definitely don't want to define moral progress as an increase of restrictions. I just want to say that as a matter of fact it is more often a matter of the increase of moral restrictions than of decrease of moral restrictions.

I like your putting this in terms of human dignity. But human dignity puts demands on us. And so as we come to a deeper appreciation of human dignity, we tend to discover more demands. But occasionally we discover that something that it does not demand something that we thought it demanded.

James said...

Now there is no plausible philosophical comprehensive unified explanatory theory of sexuality that rules all the actions in A wrong and all the actions in B permissible.

Is this demonstrable? It doesn't seem obvious to me. I'd agree with something like, "No currently popular (or perhaps, well-known) philosophical comprehensive unified explanatory theory of sexuality rules all the actions in A wrong and all the actions in B permissible."

But it seems far from clear that any philosophical comprehensive unified explanatory theory of sexuality that rules all the actions in A wrong and all the actions in B permissible is necessarily implausible.

whoistheroach said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay Quigley said...

"the sexual activities that our society takes to be [wrong / permissible]"

You overlook a plausible third alternative: that most people in "our society" are [i] uncertain about the issue. Or [ii] are conflicted in their own minds. Or [iii] simply disagree too much with each other to have a coherent opinion.

Furthermore, [iv] people might agree with my own opinion that some of the action-types you list are appropriate in very approximately half of their instances--there are cases and then there are cases. The upshot is that the action-types as you describe them may fit neither in A nor in B.

Take premarital sex--or more accurately in my view, un- or barely-committed sex: sex had before people are in a committed relationship. My own view is that many instances of such sex are inappropriate. Such sex is morally inappropriate (i) where it is non-consensual, (ii) where the practitioners are insufficiently psychologically mature, (iii) where they are not careful to avoid an unwanted pregnancy or the spread of an STI, (iv) where one partner strongly desires a larger commitment and the other feigns such a desire but does not, and maybe even (v) where it is extremely casual. (Why? Basically because of the harm they can do to each other or to others.) Does this mean that 'Jay believes uncommited sex is wrong, ceteris paribus' is true? Well, the truth of that claim depends on how much work we're going to let the 'ceteris paribus' hedge do.

"typically we can be more confident of prohibitions than of [permissions]"

I think that this view does not probe deeply enough into what determines whether moral intutions are reliable. Any number of cognitive processes can produce a moralistic intuition that 'phi-ing is inappropriate'. But probably some of these will be reliable and others will not.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and colleagues have recently published a paper with the self-explanatory title "Is Morality Unified? Evidence that Distinct Neural Systems Underlie Moral Judgments of Harm, Dishonesty, and Disgust". (I strongly object to the first question in the title; what they mean to say is that *moral cognition* is not unified.)

In my view, {a} the neural systems underlying moralistic prohibitions of harm are pretty reliable, {b} those concerning trust-breaching are fairly reliable, and {c} those concerning impurity are very unreliable. In short, my argument for this last claim involves [i] the claim that disgust is far too prone to false positives to be a reliable detector of moral reasons, and [ii] the claim that disgust norms would have evolved as imperfect heuritstics for reducing harm in pre-modern societies, which are more imperfect for that purpose in modern societies.


"moral progress being more a matter of discovery of new prohibitions ... than of discovery of new permissions."

Another counterexample to this claim is the issue of miscegenation prohibitions, i.e., prohibitions of inter-racial and inter-ethnic courtship, marriage, or relations. People used to have moralistic objections to such relationships. Now people pretty much realize that such views are ungrounded and racist. In my view (and as Daniel Kelly's new book on disgust would argue), this is due to people's tendency to view foreigners with contempt and disgust. This is a tendency which was selective back in the days of tribes and hunter-gatherer bands. But it contravenes mutual flourishing in multicultural societies like our own.

In my view, prohibitions of inter-gender courtship, marriage, or relations are similarly bigoted. They are largely the product of disgust reactions, and as such should merely be dismissed.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Jay:

Good points.

When we assert that, say, polygamy is permissible, we're not saying that every instance of polygamy is permissible. Almost nobody thinks that.

Rather, we're either saying that there are some instances of polygamy that are permissible or more strong that there are some non-extreme cases where polygamy are permissible. (What do I mean by "non-extreme"? It's an unfortunately vague term. But there are going to be people who are generally very conservative about sex, but who will say, e.g., that adultery is permissible if it's needed to save an innocent life. These people are going to count in my book as thinking that adultery is impermissible, except in extreme cases. I think they're mistaken--I think it's wrong even in these extreme cases--but that's controversial.)

So, for definiteness, let's make A be those action types that we have consensus are impermissible, except perhaps in extreme circumstances, and let's make B be those action types that we have consensus are permissible even in some non-extreme circumstances.

I do think there is a list of sexual activities that a large majority of members of our society considers to be not permissible, except perhaps in extreme cases. For instance: rape (of all varieties), adultery, bestiality, necrophilia, the closer cases of incest, probably polygamy (though that may be changing).

So, for definiteness, we can let A be those action types that we have consensus are wrong except perhaps in extreme circumstances, and let B be those action types that we have consensus are permissible even in some non-extreme circumstances.

Premarital sex and same-sex sexual activity aren't going to be in either A or B, since we have widespread disagreement about their permissibility.


I agree that miscegenation prohibitions are another example to the case where moral progress occurs through additional restrictions. (I also think miscegenation prohibitions were a bit of a historical blip--they came and they went rather quickly--but I don't know how much hay is to made of this.)

James:

When I said that there was no good theory that prohibited all the actions in A and allowed all the actions in B, I was only including extant theories. I was not denying the possibility of someone coming up with such a theory in the future, though it's my considered judgment (after having spent a good deal of time over the years in thinking about sexual ethics) that the probability of someone coming up with such a theory is low.

I suppose there is some small chance that there is such a theory and I just haven't heard of it. But given that such a theory would obviously be very popular, one would expect to have heard of it. Though of course maybe somewhere some scholar has just come up with one and it'll be published next week. In which case much of this post will be moot, and I'll have to use other arguments.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

20th Century miscegenation prohibitions had their roots in the eugenics movements of the 1920s and 30s. Darwinism was one of the roots of the eugenics movement. Perhaps earlier forms of mscegenation restrictions may have had their roots in slavery as practiced in the US prior to its abolition during the Civil War. Slaves were either considered non-persons or half persons depending on what legal decisions were handed down such as the infamous Dred Scott case. Certainly this did not prevent male slave owners from carrying on with their female slaves. Another justification for slavery was that some races were not as fully human as others. And the African was placed into this category. This combined with Darwinism in the late 19th century, with eugenics of the early 20th resulted in miscegenation prohibitions. Bible itself does not support such prohibitions because we read of Moses, a Hebrew, marrying a second wife who was a Cushite (translate darker skinned African from Ethiopia) in Numbers 12:1.

We should read up on eugenics, especially the eugenics as it was practiced here in the States, and that while it went temporarily dormant after World War II, is now back with us in different forms.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Ooops, typo. "I agree that miscegenation prohibitions are another example to the case where moral progress occurs through additional restrictions" should have read: "I agree that miscegenation prohibitions are another example to the case where moral progress occurs through additional permissions".

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

As an interesting aside, I used to board my thoroughbred on Taney Place Farm which has the house where one of the justices involved in the Dred Scott case, Chief Justice Roger Taney, was born.

Dagmara Lizlovs said...

One more additional thing, people supporting eugenics in the United States during the 1920's and 30's were those termed as Progressives. There were prominent people supporting eugenics such as Theodore Roosevelt, Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes (the same guy who in his wisdom said we can't yell "fire" in crowded theaters), Woodrow Wilson, Alexander Graham Bell and Winston Churchill. And we can even add to this company the aviation hero Charles Lindberg. In 1939 Lindberg made a statement in Reader's Digest about guarding against dilution by foreign races. I have read that during the 1930's Hitler admired the "progress" of the Americans in this area.

Susan said...

I think you are wrong about this: "Now there is no plausible philosophical comprehensive unified explanatory theory of sexuality that rules all the actions in A wrong and all the actions in B permissible".

The difference between the two sets philosophically is that you cannot harm other people. (I would perhaps rearrange a couple of your set members because I have my own perception of which are harmful to others.) The philosophy is this: if you can do something that is kind to others, then by all means move it to set B. Set B is considerate of the best for others.

R.K. said...

"The difference between the two sets philosophically is that you cannot harm other people".

But it's not that clear cut what does and does not harm other people. It's always debatable whether or not something has a negative effect on society down the road. And, to anticipate one common response, society is made up of individual people, so if it is harmed, people are harmed. So even with the "if it harms other people" distinction, there is still no clear-cut difference that allows us to easily distinguish between which restrictions are good and which bad.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Notice, too, that Susan herself has seems to agree that "harming others" may not be what unifies the set A, since she says that she would rearrange what goes into A.