Unit Overview

In this unit we will be looking a couple of moral issues related to human sexuality. In the first reading we get the tradition religious, and also Greek rationalist, view of human sexuality, through the lens of Kant’s moral philosophy. In the second reason Bonnie Steinbock looks at the traditional arguments against adultery and finds them lacking, instead arguing for a conception in which some marriages should be “open.” The last essay looks at arguments against homosexuality and finds them lacking.


Immanuel Kant’s “On the Place of Sex in Human Existence”

Kantian Ethics and Sexuality

“What emerges is a psychological and anthropological account of sexuality, and an ethics of both sexual desire and sexual activity, according to which sexuality demeans humanity. From these foundations, Kant concludes that sexual activity is permissible only in marriage. Other expressions of the sexual impulse are, for him, morally wrong as being either contrary to nature (bestiality, homosexuality, masturbation) or contrary to reason (prostitution, adultery).”

Kant sees sexual activity as a violation of the formula of humanity in that we use the other person as a means to an end.

His argument is a little obscure:

“Kant asserts that in sexual activity each person gives himself or herself to the other. A person, however, is a unity. Thus, if one surrenders part of oneself (for example, the genitals), one necessarily surrenders the whole. But- here enters Kant’s ethics-such a surrender or giving up of oneself violates the FH: “In this act a human being makes himself into a thing, which conflicts with the Right of humanity in his own person” (Metaphysics, Ak 6:278).”

But more important than the details of his argument is his intuition that sex is wrong because it involves using another person as a means to an end.

Here is a general statement of how Kant view’s sex:

In loving from sexual inclination, they make the person into an object of their appetite. As soon as the person is possessed, and the appetite sated, they are thrown away, as one throws away a lemon after sucking the juice from it. The sexual impulse can admittedly be combined with human affection, and then it also carries with it the aims of the latter, but if it is taken in and by itself, it is nothing more than appetite. But, so considered, there lies in this inclination a degradation of man; for as soon as anyone becomes an object of another’s appetite, all motives of moral relationship fall away; as object of the other’s appetite, that person is in fact a thing, whereby the other’s appetite is sated, and can be misused as such a thing by anybody. (Lectures, Ak 27:384-85)

“”carnal enjoyment is cannibalistic in principle. . . . [Elach is actually a consumable thing . . . to the other7′ (Metaphysics, Ak 6:359-60). Kant’s view may be that sexual desire seeks to consume and possess a person as if he or she were merely a thing, which fails to respect the other’s humanity (Korsgaard, “Creating the Kingdom,” 310). Or Kant’s view may be that sexual desire reduces a person to a thing. The sexual “impulse is …directed to sex, merely, and not to humanity” (Lectures, Ak 27:387). A person is seen, approached, as a body to be manipulated, a set of genitals, or an interchangeable representative of his or her sex (Herman; Langton, “Love and Solipsism,” “Sexual Solipsism”). If sexual desire causes us to see another person as a mere thing, lack of moral regard for the other naturally follows”

Sexuality distracts one from pursuing moral perfection

“Kant noted that animal instincts, such as the desires for food and sex, can overwhelm duty. While such instincts serve purposes (eating, procreating), Kant adjures that they be disciplined so that sensuality does not overrun intellect (Lectures, Ak27:378-81). He included sexual desire among the passions, which are “appetites directed by men to men, not to things” (Anthropology, Ak 267-70; on the passions, compare Wood, Kant’s Ethical Thought, 256-59, with Baron, Kantian Ethics, 199-203). Passions, Kant claims, “do the greatest damage to freedom” (Anthropology, Ak 265). Diminishing one’s autonomy or rationality through passion or animal instinct, he thinks, violates our duty to pursue moral perfection. (Some of Kant’s ideas here the need to discipline sexuality, the conflict between sex, and freedom were also themes of Saint Augustine [354-4301.”

So, the question is then what makes sex within marriage morally permissible?

“For Kant, a legal institution is required to preserve humanity in the face of these dangers of sexuality. This institution is marriage, which Kant understands as a contract between one man and one woman in which they exchange rights of possession over each other. The marriage right is a “right to a person akin to a right to a thing,” so that “if one of the partners in a marriage has left or given itself into someone else’s possession, the other partner is justified, always and without question, in bringing its partner back under its control, just as it is justified in retrieving a thing” (Metaphysics, Ak 6:278). Each spouse must hold equal rights over the other (as in Saint Paul [5-64?], 1 Cor. 7:3-4), which rules out morganatic marriage and polygamy, for these arrangements involve giving oneself totally but receiving in return only half or less of the other person (Lectures, Ak 27:389; Metaphysics, Ak 6:279).

Marriage solves the problem that sex treats the other person as a thing

“Kant’s explanation seems to be that marriage permits sexual objectification rather than transforms the objectifying nature of sexuality. Marriage allows spouses “to make direct use of a person as of a thing, as a means to my end, but still without infringing upon his personality” (Metaphysics,Ak 6:359). A bleak reading of Kant sees this as “a system of mutual exploitation” (Wood, Kant’s Ethical Thought, 257). . . G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) denounced it as “disgraceful,” since the ethical content of marriage should not and cannot, contra Kant, be represented as a self-interested contract (Philosophy of Right, para. 75, 161A; see de Laurentiis; Pateman, 168-88).

Kant may be defended against Hegelian dismissals by arguing that marital rights (against abandonment, for example) protect people when the affection of a close relationship begins to fail (see Waldron). In a sympathetic reconstruction, Barbara Herman proposes that Kantian marriage rights “block the transformation of regard that comes with a sexual appetite” by “securing regard for one’s partner as a person with a life, which is what the sexual appetite by itself causes one to disregard”(62-63). On this view, marriage does transform, curtail, or diminish the obnoxious nature of sexuality and does not merely make sexual objectification permissible.”

Kant was of course against any form of sex outside of marriage and also masturbation, homosexuality, prostitution, pornography, bestiality, etc.

Bonnie Steinbeck “Adultery”

Adultery is fairly common:

  • According to a survey in Cosmopolitan 54% of American wives have had extramarital affairs
  • According to a survey in Redbook magazine, 40% of women over 40 have had extra marital affairs

But most people still disapprove of adultery.

“ . . .we might question whether the abiding disapproval of infidelity merely gives lip service to an ancient taboo. Is there a rational justification for disapproving of adultery which will carry force with everyone, religious and non-religious alike?”

1st Argument

  • Adultery is different from murder, theft, and lying.
  • Adultery is not universally seen as morally wrong.
  • Society can’t function if it allows murder, theft, and lying.
  • Adultery is a private matter, concerning the relationship between husband and wife.

Maybe it isn’t a public criminal matter but maybe it is an important moral rule

  • Pregnancy
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • But if those are our objections they don’t just apply to adultery they apply to dating and all non-monogamous sexual activity

2 Reasons for considering Adultery Immoral

  • Adultery is promise breaking
  • It involves deception

But in an open marriage or relationship, these reasons have no force!

“If an open marriage has been freely chosen by both spouses, and not imposed by a dominant on a dependent partner, would such an arrangement be morally acceptable, even desirable?”

“The attractiveness of extramarital affairs, without dishonesty, disloyalty, or guilt, should not be downplayed. However satisfying sex between married people may be, it cannot have the excitement of a new relationship.”

Perhaps the expectation of sexual exclusivity in marriage stems from emotions which are not admirable: jealousy and possessiveness. That most people experience these feelings is no reason for applauding or institutionalizing them.”

“In a good marriage, the partners can enjoy different activities, travel apart, and have separate friends. Why draw the line at sexual activity?”

The Natural Response

“. . . sex is an expression of affection and intimacy and so should be reserved for people who love each other.”

But this conception of the relationship between love and sex can be attacked in two ways:

  1. “We might divorce sex from love and regard sex as a pleasurable activity in its own right, comparable to the enjoyment of a good meal.”
  2. “Alternatively one might acknowledge the connection between sex and love but attack the assumption of exclusivity. If parents can love all their children equally and if adults can have numerous close friends, why should it be impossible to love more than one sexual partner at a time?”


“. . . exclusivity seems to be an intrinsic part of “true love.” Imagine Romeo pouring his heart out to both Juliet and Rosalind! In our ideal of romantic love, one chooses to forgo pleasure with other partners in order to have a unique relationship with one’s beloved. Such “renunciation” is natural in the first throes of romantic love; it is precisely because this stage does not last that we must promise to be faithful through the notoriously unromantic realities of life.”

An Open Marriage Isn’t Morally Wrong but Deviates from the Traditional Ideal

“On the view I have been defending, genuinely open marriages are not immoral, although they deviate from a valued ideal of what marriage should be.”

“While this is not the only ideal, or incumbent on all rational agents, it is a moral view in that it embodies a claim about a good way for people to live. The prohibition against adultery is neither arbitrary nor irrational.”


“I cannot see much if any, moral value in remaining physically faithful, on principle, to a spouse one no longer loves. This will displease those who regard the wrongness of adultery as a moral absolute, but my account has nothing to do with absolutes and everything to do with what it means to love someone deeply and completely. It is the value of that sort of relationship that makes sexual fidelity an ideal worth the sacrifice.

Neither a mere religiously based taboo, nor a relic of a repressive view of sexuality, the prohibition against adultery expresses a particular conception of married love. It is one we can honor in our own lives and bequeath to our children with confidence in its value as a coherent and rational ideal”

Corvino “Why Shouldn’t Tommy and Jim have Sex?”


Tommy and Jim have been together 14 years, they are in their forties, they are professionals, they live together in a house they restored themselves. Why shouldn’t they have sex? After all sex is pleasurable and has many emotional benefits. They clearly have a reason to have sex, although maybe there is an even stronger reason for them not to.

Corvino Looks at Five Arguments for Homosexuality:

  • Homosexual sex is unnatural
  • Homosexual sex is harmful
  • Homosexual sex violates biblical teaching
  • Homosexual sex goes against the traditional conception of marriage and sex
  • Homosexual sex will lead to polygamy, incest, bestiality, etc.

Homosexual sex is unnatural

What does that even mean? Many things people think are good (modern medicine) are unnatural, and many things people think are bad (disease, suffering, death) are natural.


Maybe it means abnormal?

Heterosexual sex is statistically more common but we don’t normally things that are statistically uncommon (reading Sanskrit, playing the mandolin, breeding goats, etc) are morally wrong.

Maybe it means that what is natural is what other species do?

This is wrong because other species do have homosexual sex and it’s wrong because we do lots of things animals don’t do.

What violates the purpose of an organ is unnatural

i.e. sex should be used for procreation. But we don’t hold heterosexual couples to that standard.

What is disgusting or offensive is unnatural

People find lots of morally neutral activities like cleaning toilets disgusting. Also, for centuries people found interracial marriage disgusting.


What does not proceed from innate desires is wrong?

The entire debate about whether homosexuality is genetic or produced by the environment or chosen by the individual is entirely confused. Natural desires and predispositions are not necessarily good. People have natural desires to harm others but that doesn’t mean those desires are good or should be acted upon.


Homosexual sex is harmful

Homosexuality undermines family/family values and leads to the breakdown of society. The proof is higher rates of sexual promiscuity, depression, suicide, and aids among gay people.

What should we make of these statistics? A few problems:

  • Not all gay people are “out of the closet”
  • Statistics can be interpreted in different ways by experts with agendas
  • Correlation doesn’t equal causation i.e. maybe they have higher suicide and depression rates because they can’t get married and are discriminated against, etc

Maybe a homosexual relationship deprives those in them of the better form of relationship which is a heterosexual relationship. But that simply isn’t true for people that ARE gay! What critics would need to show is that avoiding a relationship is better than being in a homosexual relationship.

Homosexuality threatens Children


  • the vast majority of child abuse is perpetrated against women by their fathers, stepfathers and relatives
  • Even if there is a higher percentage of pedophiles among the gay population (good statistics are hard to come by) that doesn’t reflect on the gay people that are not child abusers just like child abuse done by heterosexual males doesn’t reflect on all heterosexuals

Homosexuality threatens Society

Corvino understands this to mean that if everyone were gay society couldn’t continue. I suspect that’s not the strongest version of the argument based on harm to society.


Homosexual sex violates biblical teaching

It does but it also forbids eating or touching dead pigs. And condones slavery and genocide. So believers must interpret the biblical teachings in their historical context.

Homosexual sex will lead to polygamy, incest, bestiality, etc.

This is a slippery slope argument. Slippery slope arguments are logical fallacies. You can’t just claim something will lead to something else without evidence. And just because there are no good reasons to oppose homosexuality it doesn’t mean there are no good reasons to oppose these other things.

Homosexual sex goes against the traditional conception of marriage and sex

This line of thinking is a dangerous one as any cursory look at history will show. Many things that have traditionally been done throughout history are moral atrocities.

“I conclude that Tommy and Jim’s relationship, far from being a moral abomination is exactly what it appears to be to those who them: a morally positive influence on their lives and on others. Accepting this conclusion takes courage since it entails that our moral traditions are fallible. But when these traditions interfere with people’s happiness for no sound reason, they defeat what is arguably the very point of morality: promoting individual and communal well-being. To put the argument simply, Tommy and Jim’s relationship makes them better people. And that’s not just good for Tommy and Jim: that’s good for everyone.”

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