Thursday, January 25, 2018

Best explanation and sexual ethics

Consider three ethical claims about sexuality:

  1. Rape is always wrong.

  2. Incest is always wrong.

  3. Bestiality is always wrong.

Take these claims in the strong sense: they hold genuinely always, no matter what the circumstances. Rape is wrong even if the victim is in a coma, is unharmed physically, permission is given by a proxy, and nobody (including the victim) ever finds out. Incest is wrong even between consenting adult relatives raised apart, with no chance of conception. Bestiality is wrong no matter whether the animal is aware of the event, and no matter how low on the evolutionary scale the animal falls or how much the animal wants the act. All these things are wrong even if much rides on them: they are wrong even to save multiple lives, including the life of the victim in case (1).

Now, although it is easy to find ethical views of sexuality that explain why rape, incest and bestiality are almost always wrong, it is hard to find coherent and well-developed views that explain why these are always wrong. But such views do exist. I know of two families of them: there are traditional natural law views and there are views like those of Karol Wojtyla which meld natural law with personalism (my One Body is in this category). However, these two families of views also entail highly controversial further prohibitions on unmarried sexuality, artificial contraception and same-sex sexual activity.

This yields an indirect inference to best explanation argument for the controversial further prohibitions: the best views we have that explain (1)–(3) also entail these further prohibitions.

Of course, one can try to turn the argument around. But I think generally speaking we have better epistemic access to what is forbidden than what is permissible, and so arguing from commonly accepted prohibitions to controversial prohibitions is better than arguing from commonly accepted permissions to controversial permissions.

I am not saying that those who deny the controversial prohibitions need to deny that (1)–(3) are exceptionlessly true to be consistent. I am just saying that they probably aren't going to have a good explanation for why (1)–(3) are exceptionlessly true.


Angra Mainyu said...


But the claim that any of those (let alone all three) holds without exception is itself pretty controversial. My position is that none of them does. Leaving aside probably easier (though more controversial) examples for 2. and 3., one can always construct scenarios in which a person properly reckons that either he engages in rape (or incest, or bestiality), or else something far worse happens to the victim, assuming there is a victim in the first place (a necessity in the case of rape if it's carried out, but not in the others). By the way, while I don't think rape is wrong in order to save the life of the victim at least in many cases, in any event one can always construct a scenario in which what would happen to the victim (if rape is not committed) is far worse than death as well.

Walter Van den Acker said...


I agree with Angra on this.
I do believe that the three actions are almost always wrong, but I don't think they are wrong without exceptions.
Apart from Angra's examples, e.g. I don't think incest between consenting adult relatives raised apart, with no chance of conception is necessarily wrong. I wouldn't recommend it, e.g. because of possible psychological consequences. But there's lots of things I wouldn't recommend, that doesn't mean they are necessarily wrong.

William said...

Max Lerner quote: "When you choose the lesser of two evils, always remember that it is still an evil."

Angra Mainyu said...


That's ambiguous. As long as it only means that it's a bad thing - but not immoral behavior -, I agree it's a bad thing if events like that happen. But that is not to say that it is immoral for a person to do it.

For example, suppose a President facing a military attack has to decide between surrendering (which would result in mass murder, oppresion, etc.), or ordering the armed forces to fight back, knowing that in fighting back, they will surely kill innocent people in the other country, and also even in their own. She is choosing between two evils - i.e., two bad things -, but it is not the case that whatever choice she makes, she behaves immorally.

Walter Van den Acker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Walter Van den Acker said...


That depends on how "evil" is defined.
If evil is defined as something that can never be done under any circumstances, then the "lesser evil" is not really an evil, because there may be cases in which it is the only available option to prevent the more evil option.
If Max Lerner were correct, God would be an evildoer for choosing to create an imperfect world.

William said...

If I choose to create popcorn versus soup, that is a choice of two goods. If I choose to steal rather than rape, that is a choice of two evils. And in both of those cases it is very likely we are actually facing a false dichotomy.

Walter Van den Acker said...


Yes, stealing and rape are two bad things, but the choice between them is not always a morally wrong choice.
The choice between two evils doesn't make the evils good, but the point is that the choice isn't necessarily morally wrong.

Angra Mainyu said...


What Walter said.
Also, if Bob chooses to steal from Jane rather than rape Jane, it's very likely (I would say certain) that that is no a dichotomy, and also, that both choices would be immoral. But if Bob chooses to steal from Jane rather than not stealing from Jane because Bob rationally reckons that if he refrains from stealing from Jane, Jack will murder Jane, but if he steals from her, Jack will leave her alone (and won't bring about another evil instead), and Bob steals from Jane in order to save her life, Bob is not behaving immorally (all other things equal; e.g., no further bad things happening if Jane survives, etc.). I would say that in many hypothetical scenarios (infinitely many), also rape is not immoral.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I suspect that in a lot of the "hard cases", the thing that people call stealing isn't actually stealing. This is because property rights exist for the sake of the protection of people, and the rights to property may cease when there is a serious conflict. Thus, Aquinas and Ambrose say that when the poor person is literally starving, it is not theft for her to take from someone who has an excess.

On my view, this makes the case of stealing not parallel to the case of rape.

Angra Mainyu said...

I think if A is starving and takes B's food against B's consent (but B has plenty more food), that food was still B's property, and so the action would be theft. For example, if C also takes a portion of the food when A does, but C is only pretending to be starving (A believes C is also starving) and C is taking the food just for the fun of it, C's actions would be both immoral and clearly classified as theft. A's actions, on the other hand, would not be immoral in my view, but I think they would be theft. Now, I don't think A is violating B's rights, because I don't see rights as other than the reverse of obligations, and A has no moral obligation not to take the food. But if A later wins the lottery or something like that, then I think A has an obligation to refund B for the food, at least if A still remembers the event and is not at risk of being identified and punished if he pays.

In the scenario I considered in my reply to William (e.g., Bob chooses to steal from Jane rather than not stealing from Jane because Bob rationally reckons that if he refrains from stealing from Jane, Jack will murder Jane, etc.), Bob's behavior is not immoral because of his intention, but if Bob were to instead take something from Jane against her will and just for fun, his behavior would be immoral even if he saved her life as a side effect he couldn't care about. In the latter case, it's clear that Bob's actions would constitute theft, which I think also support the assessment that the stuff is still her property, and so it seems to me that Bob's behavior is properly characterized as theft in both cases, even if it's not immoral in the first one. Also, if Bob takes Jane's stuff and gives it to Jack to save her from Jack, it seems clear to me that Jack has also committed theft (and immorally so), even if by proxy.

Granted, it might be argued that as long as it's not immoral, it's not theft even if it's taking someone's property against their will. But for that matter, it might be argued that as long as it's not immoral, it's not rape to engage in any sexual activity, regardless of consent. I don't think either of those arguments would succeed, but I think in any case these questions about the meaning of "theft" or "rape" don't make a difference with respect to the morality of the behaviors involved.