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Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Damian Peterson on Sexual Morality

In a recent post I took a swipe at an argument often used to justify current sex education policies. In the comments section Damian Peterson advanced the debate further than this specific argument. I think he raises some issues worth clarifying so I will respond to them here. Damian’s comments in full are,

OK, I see. So you were referring to the politician who replied that he thought that it would be 'unrealistic' when asked about teaching abstinence in schools because a study showed that abstinence wasn't really being observed elsewhere?Did he say why it wasn't realistic? I would tend to agree that saying something isn't realistic because it's just too popular is a silly argument. And you'd be right to highlight it with the exaggeration of other, more emotive, examples.But if he was saying that it wasn't realistic because there is no rational reason to teach abstinence for other reasons (like studies of teen pregnancies where abstinence is taught or that there is no rational moral issue with consensual casual sex) then I'd have to side with the politician. But first I'd want to know his reason.I've read your second link and perused the first.

You seem to trying to find extremes to justify your stance on casual sex. I don't use the Bible as my reference point for my morals and I believe that most of life is filled with non-absolutes where we have to draw sometimes awkward lines that occasionally need adjusting. You didn't really address what would actually be wrong if (assuming I wasn't married) I went out on the town, hooked up with someone else who had the same expectations of a casual fling, and had consensual casual sex. What do you see is wrong with this? And why do you feel you have a right to try to stop it from happening?

1. Damien argues that abstinence education should not be taught in schools, because (a) there are studies which show it’s less effective at lowering teen pregnancies and (b) there is no rational moral basis for the normative principle prohibiting sex outside of a monogamous life long union.

Now I agree that abstinence education should not be taught in public schools that’s because I don’t think anything should be taught in public schools. I think public schools are problematic and unjust. Despite this I think, the reasons Damien’s suggests for opposing abstinence teaching are flawed.

Re b. Damien’s simply asserts that this principle has no rational basis. However asserting a religious teaching is irrational provides no one with any reason for thinking it is.

Re a. assuming the studies in correct are accurate, the conclusions each are beside the point. The issue is not what method achieves the desired results more efficiently, but whether it achieves these results by morally licit means. Sterilising teenagers as soon as they reach puberty would undoubtedly be extremely effective at reducing teenage pregnancy, yet that does not mean we should do this, because the results are brought about by unlawful means.

2. In several places I have critiqued the “liberal” position that an Damian responds to this critique by stating that “seem to trying to find extremes to justify your stance on casual sex. "
This, misunderstands my argument. I am not arguing that causal sex is wrong by appealing to extremes. Rather I am rebutting a common argument for numerous permissive policies (including causal sex) by pointing out that the core premise is false. It’s false because if it were true it would entail that actions which are self evidentially abhorrent are in fact merely permissive life style choices. The fact that these abhorrent practises can be classified as “extreme” is nether here nor there. The point is that they are entailed by the premise in question.

In fact by recognising them as extreme Damien reiterates my point, if what he professes were true they would not be extreme cases at all, merely the lifestyle preferences of one minority group.

3. Damian’s main line of argument however is to spell out his own position and then ask me to answer the question “why is causal sex wrong?”

I think my answer to this question is clear. I am a Voluntarist (or divine command theorist) hence I believe that what makes things right or wrong is their conformity with or divergence with the commands of God. Hence what makes causal sex wrong is ultimately the fact that it is contrary to Gods commands. Damian asserts he does not believe in the existence of a divine law but this has no bearing on whether the answer I have provided is correct. The fact that someone does not believe something is true does not mean it is not true.

To avoid caricatures however, let me articulate a little how I understand this. In a recent discussion of sexual morality Mark Murphy notes that appeals to divine law are “not a stop gap where a theory of normative ethics has failed” any more than “an appeal to the existence of a civil law prohibiting driving at over 65 miles per hour is a desperate turn to the civil law where normative ethical theories ‘fail’ to describe why people are bound to not drive more than 65 miles an hour” Murphy goes on to note that “ Just as human legislators can give reasons, rooted in the human good, for such a human law, even if the law does not dictate a particular speed limit” So “we as human beings can give some account, grounded in the good of rational creatures, as to why God would lay down this type of command”

I think Murphy’s understanding of the relation of divine law to human good in this context has some promise. We can see good reasons, such as the protection of life, property etc to have a speed limit. We can also recognise that because of the substantial benefits of travelling in cars some speed limits are unreasonable (i.e. one requiring people to only travel at 5 Klm). But none of these reasons dictates that the speed limit must be 100klm over say 95 klm or 110. This however does not lead us to question the law. Because there are good reasons for having one, and this rule is, in light of the dangers of driving not irrational, even if the dangers do not require a rational, virtuous person to endorse this particular speed limit as opposed to another. Because the state chooses this particular rule we are legally bound to follow it.

Similarly we can see good reasons, such the risk of STD’s, the economic and emotional burden of raising children, the danger of exploitation, emotional harm, the temptation to have an abortion etc, to have some rules regulating sexual conduct. We can also recognise that because of the substantial benefits of sex, (such as the creation of new life, pleasure, expression of intimacy and love) some rules (such as requiring celibacy of all people) would be unreasonable. None of these reasons dictates that the traditional rules be adopted over all possible alternatives. However this should not lead people to question the rule. Because there good reasons for having one , and the traditional rule is, in light of the dangers of involved in sex, not irrational, even if the dangers do not require a rational person to endorse this rule. Because God promulgated this particular rule we are morally bound to follow it.

I am also sceptical that anyone has ever come up with a reason why a rational person should reject this rule, or that “liberal alternatives” are any more defensible, plausible, or coherent or viable in light of the risks. At best the rule is unfashionable and (like the speed limit) widely flouted. For reasons I expounded in the aforementioned post, principles should not be based on fashion or popularity. We should not conduct ethical and theological discussions as glorified teenagers doing and believing X because all the other cool people do.

4. Finally Damian asks me “why do you feel you have a right to try to stop it [casual sex] from happening? Here I think Damian fails to note that being opposed to something happening is simply an implication of thinking it is wrong. To state an action is wrong is to express opposition to it to express a volition that it not be performed. Of course this does not mean one should use coercion or force to prevent the action occurring. Sometimes this is justified (like when a person shoots a rapist about to attack his daughter) but sometimes it is not. But the idea that one can simultaneously think an action is wrong and also not oppose the performance of the action is, I think, incoherent.

If Damian’s concern is that I am not incoherent then I make no apologies, the fact that some liberals think contradicting themselves is trendy or cool only underscores the foolishness of their position.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Dude! You just completely quoted me out of context!

    I said: "But if he was saying that it wasn't realistic because there is no
    rational reason to teach abstinence for other reasons (like studies of teen
    pregnancies where abstinence is taught or that there is no rational moral issue
    with consensual casual sex) then I'd have to side with the politician"

    And you said: "Damien argues that abstinence education should not be taught in schools, because (a) there are studies which show it’s less effective at lowering teen pregnancies and (b) there is no rational moral basis for the normative principle prohibiting sex outside of a monogamous life long union."

    My point was that I would agree with the politician if he could see no rational reason to teach it.

    You will also notice that nowhere did I put forth any argument. I merely stated that I don't rely on the Bible for my morals (as don't the many other New Zealanders) and asked you to justify why you thought casual sex was wrong.

    Nowhere did I advocate teaching the use of condoms. Nowhere did I advocate the teaching of anything to do with sex. Nowhere did I suggest that there even were studies out there (I really don't know) about teenage pregnancies.

    I did however, state that if the politician was arguing from popularity then it would be a silly argument but that if it was rational then I would side with him. I then asked you if he gave his reasons - to which you still haven't replied.

    In fact, you've done a pretty good job of demonstrating the very definition of a strawman argument - by imbuing me with a set of false arguments and trying to knock them down. Bad form. Bad form indeed!

    I look forward to finishing this conversation but will await your apology first.

  3. Daiman

    I am sorry but I am having some trouble understanding your position. You state that “nowhere did [you] put forth any argument” However in the quote you provided you state that if the politician offered a particular argument “you’d side with the politician” you also, in clarifying your stance state that “you would agree with the politician”. Now, normally if you state that you agree with a particular argument and side with those who offer it that implies you actually do endorse or accept the argument. I don’t see how you could say that you agree with a particular argument and also believe that either the premises of the argument are false or the argument is invalid. To do any of the latter would entail you disagree with the argument.
    The same is true of your disclaimers you state that “Nowhere did [you] suggest that there even were studies out there (I really don't know) about teenage pregnancies.” But yet you also said that
    “if he was saying that it wasn't realistic because there is no rational reason to teach abstinence for other reasons (like studies of teen pregnancies where abstinence is taught or that there is no rational moral issue with consensual casual sex) then I'd have to side with the politician. if
    Here you mention studies of teen pregnancies, and suggest that if a person appealed to these studies as a reason to oppose abstinence education you would side with them. So it’s a little hard to understand your position here. How can you state that you don’t know if any studies exist, but you would agree with those who appeal to them? I don’t mean to misrepresent others views, but yours seem on the face of it to be incoherent.

  4. You're just not getting it are you? Go back and read it again. And again if need be.

    We were discussing the potential logical fallacy of how the politician came up with his decision to not teach abstinence. I agreed that his logic would be silly if, indeed, he had used the argument from popularity. I then said that I would back him if he had a rational reason for doing so. And here some the brackets: like if there had been studies or if there was no rational moral issue.

    In no way was I suggesting that there actually had been a particular study. Only that I would be find an argument based on reason more compelling than an argument from popularity.

    I was showing you the courtesy of allowing you to put forward your case against casual sex before even putting forth my own arguments.

    Now, if you still fail to grasp the difference here I'm afraid we're a million miles away from a rational discussion.

  5. Damian

    I am happy to accept that you did not intend to be offering any arguments for your position. I am also happy to accept that I misunderstood your intentions However, your original post goes well beyond this, and you insinuate that I did so deliberately. In fact my interpretation of what you said is quite reasonable for the reasons I affirm above. But I am happy to accept the clarification.

    Now to the issue at hand. I am not sure I understand your question. It's ambiguous You could be asking why I believe causal sex is wrong and that’s already answered I do so on theological grounds. However, you could be asking if I can provide a person who does not accept my theological presuppositions with an argument for the conclusion that causal sex is wrong. In response two this a lot could be said.

    First, even if I can’t so what? If theological beliefs are true, then I have a sound reason for what I believe, the fact I can’t offer an argument from a false philosophical perspective is hardly proof of anything.

    Second, I can think of a couple of arguments I could attempt and I'd be interested in your feedback.

    1. One immediate issue I see with causal sex is that it treats sex as a causal encounter, simply an enjoyable recreation activity that two people share with each other. What I would ask is whether this view is consistent with what you believe about sex in general. For example, if sex is simply a recreational activity why is it wrong for a brother to have sex with his sister, or even for a parent to have sex with a child? After all parents play recreational games with their kids all the time.?

    The usual answer is that minors are are incapable of autonomous decisions and hence all sex with them is non consensual . That’s true, but it also means that minors cannot make autonomous decisions about whether to play sport, or recreational games either. So, if you hold that sex is merely a recreational activity it seems that having sex with a child is no more problematic than forcing your child to take up a sport like rugby or soccer.

    Similarly why is rape treated as a serious crime? If sex is merely a form of recreation or a pleasurable fluid exchange. Isn’t rape really just like spitting on someone without their consent or perhaps making them play touch rugby when they don’t want to. This is of course wrong and a form of assault. But normally we view rape as much more serious than this? I drugged you rendering you unconcious so I could play a game with your arms and legs, we would think that odd and wrong but not anywhere near the seriousness and horror with which we view rape.

    Now I take it as given that parent child sex is gravely wrong and that rape is a serious crime. However, I suspect these conclusions only make sense if sex is seen being much more than a pleasurable recreational activity.

    2. A second, argument I can think of would be a kind of rule utilitarian one. Take two rules the traditional rule that sex should occur only within a monogamous union and the liberal one that it can occur provided all parties consent. Which rule is such that, if followed and accepted by all would lead to greater general happiness. I suspect that the traditional one would, in such a society there would be no STD’s, no AIDS, few children born in single parent homes with parents unable to provide for them and hence less poverty. Higher sexual satisfaction ( studies show that people in monogamous relationships have higher sexual satisfaction) less domestic violence ( studies again suggest that violence etc occurs less frequently in monogamous relationships). Probably less break ups associated depression and mental conditions etc. Of course to document this completely would require a more detailed analysis and it’s only a suggestive line of argument. But I think it’s far from obviously false.

  6. Ah much better. Now we're having a discussion. You put across some very good points. Especially the contrasts between sex and recreational sports.

    Before I start giving my views I want to throw in a disclaimer of sorts: Like many other people in New Zealand, I don't rely on the Bible as a moral compass (I used to though, so it's not like I've dismissed it casually). I bumble through life trying to weigh issues on their own merits and so far, touch wood, I've done a pretty good job of it. I'm happy, healthy and would like to think that I've giving back as much as I'm taking from society. I don't claim to have all the answers. I do claim to have a pretty good system of coming to good conclusions by using rational thinking rather than dogma. I have no problem with people's beliefs as long as their beliefs don't harm others.

    My reason for showing interest in this topic was that it hinted at pushing beliefs based on divine revelation onto school children of many different backgrounds and beliefs. If I've misinterpreted your intentions please correct me.

    Personally, I don't have a problem with telling children that sex can be complicated and that they shouldn't bow to peer pressure to have it before they are really ready.

    I do have a problem with telling children not to do so because of what is written in a book. You obviously believe in a God who objects to sex outside of marriage. I have no problem with that. The problem is that there are many different types of people with many different types of belief and it's my opinion that unless there is rational argument for teaching a child something then it's probably best to keep it for your own family. I'm sure there are many aspects of other religions that you would not want your children taught in your state-funded school.

    If you have rational reasons that don't need to invoke the authority of the Bible then by all means, bring it up for discussion, but be prepared to listen to other people's rational objections.

    As far as some of the complications with the subject of sex goes, it's hard to differentiate between an issue that has become an issue because of a long history of putting sex on a pedestal and matters of genuine importance. Many of the perversions of sex would appear to come from abuse or severe sexual repression.

    I reason that from an evolutionary point of view sex (or more specifically, reproduction) is probably at the top of the list of things we are supposed to do. In fact there are many creatures who place reproduction above living itself. We're made to do it.

    I think, therefore, that sex is important. More important than playing rugby (I liked your turn of phrase about "play a game with your arms and legs") and more potentially harmful than spitting in someone's face.

    To me though, the importance is because of the potential ramifications of reproducing rather than the fact that the Bible has issues with it. It's also important to the individual depending on how the issue of sex has been constructed in their mind. For example, a Nun who has been indoctrinated to believe that sex is wrong will probably have far larger issues if she were to have an 'indiscretion'. Also, living in a long-term monogamous relationship proves to be an ideal way to raise a family in our current society.

    As far as STDs go, they are not a sign of God's displeasure any more than the common cold is. They are a by-product of being a biological organism. The fact that we can catch the flu by travelling on a plane doesn't make air travel wrong. It just means that you'd be better off not breathing the same air as 400 other people for 12 hours.

    The allusion to rape is unjustified - we were talking about consensual sex.

    Regarding incest, we have some very strong inbuilt aversions to having sex within our close gene pool for very good reasons. Our ancestors who didn't probably didn't survive well enough to pass on the tendency. That raises a good point though - would it be ok if you used protection? I have to say that from an abstract point of view I really don't know but everything in me recoils at the thought. It's hard to separate logic from instinct and I'm happy to go with instinct on this issue. It would be interesting to fully delve into it though.

    There are a some very simple reasons why there is less violence and more sexual satisfaction within a monogamous relationship. You can observe it in other life-partnering animals. I know that males become much less aggressive when they are guaranteed a breeding partner and the advent of children completely changes the behaviour of most men and women. This is another fantastic adaptation of nature and you can see it in many different species.

    When it comes to casual sex though, I can testify that it doesn't take away from future pleasure with a life-partner. In fact I would actually recommend that everyone have at least one sexual partner before settling down. Of course this is only an observation from my own life and I can understand that you may find the whole idea abhorrent. Which is perfectly fine.

    I hope you are able to relate to some of the things I've put forward and that this will lead to a discussion that we can both learn from. I'm not trying to change you to my way of thinking (well, other than the whole issue of having a rational reason for pushing beliefs on other people!).

  7. Also, I'm still interested to know whether the politician gave a reason for not wanting to teach abstinence in schools?

  8. Damian

    No the politician in question gave no other reason.

    1. Regarding your own stance, you seem to equate your own position with “reason” and mine with “dogma” and suggest (If I read you correctly) that this is because I rely on the teachings of a “book” and you do not. I think this framing of the situation is mistaken, First the “book” is simply a written version of a tradition ( a body of teaching handed down by previous generations) and the suggestion that non Christians ( or non religious people) do not rely on tradition in their reasoning is simply naïve. Ever wondered why women in NZ don’t wear Burkas and say teenage boys don’t fellate their uncles till a certain age ( as occurs in Papua New Guinea). This is because, westerners in their thinking presuppose certain moral traditions (built up over hundreds of years by western theologians and philosophers). Liberal appeals to the existence of rights, autonomy, reason etc all reflect peculiarly western traditions. At best you simply don’t have a written tradition. But I would contend that their exists unwritten one that guides you at an unconscious level.Second, it really begs the question to state that me appealing to my traditions are dogma whereas when you appeal to yours its “rational argument”.

    2. I by an large agree with your stance on public schools. In a pluralistic society with a diversity of comprehensive perspectives its wrong to force all people to pay for and attend ( unless they have special exemption) schools that teach the bible. However, I think the same is true in reverse, its equally wrong to force all people to pay for and attend course which teach the use of contraception. Just as many NZers doen’t believe in the bible many ( i.e roman Catholics) do not believe in contraception Similarly it would be wrong to teach that evolution is a fact ( as opposed to the best scientific theory, given certain a priori constraints on the scientific reasoning which are themselves disputed by Philosophers and Theologians) as many people (quite a lot) do not believe in evolution. I don’t necessarily agree with fundamentalist or Catholics, however they have the same rights that I have and so what I demand from them I should also reciprocate.

    2. Turning to your responses I gave two arguments (a) that if causal sex is true then its hard to justify our current stances on rape and incest. And (b) that the traditional rule restricting sex to monogamous relationships would, if followed by all people or most people, increase the general welfare more than the following of the liberal rule restricting sex merely to consensual encounters.

    As far as I can tell you provide no real response to either.
    Re (a) you state that “The allusion to rape is unjustified - we were talking about consensual sex.” But, that misses my point, what I asked is why sex is something we limit to consenting adults? If sex is something which is only appropriate in a long term committed monogamous union, or in a procreative context this rule makes sense, children cannot reproduce and they lack the social skills to be able to form mature relationships. But if sex is a recreational activity which people can engage in purely for pleasure this limitation to consenting adults does not make sense. Most pleasurable enjoyable activities we do not restrict to consenting adults. If an activity is enjoyable and pleasurable we allow children to engage in it with parental consent, and we allow adults to engage in the activity with children. By endorsing the rule you do you show that in reality you do not view sex is not a recreational activity why then does it suddenly become this when you hook up at a bar?

    Re (b) you write “As far as STDs go, they are not a sign of God's displeasure any more than the common cold is” I agree but I did not say that STD’s were a sign of Gods displeasure. What I noted was that various sources of human misery, and suffering, (STD being just one) would be greatly reduced if people followed the traditional rule. But they would not be reduced (and would probably increase) if people simply limited there sexual encounters to sexual ones. That’s the point.

    Your plane analogy does not address this; true a rule prohibiting flying on a plane would lower the risk of a cold. But it would also severely inhibit social mobility and all the positives associated with this. Hence a small plus is offset by a big negative. On the other hand, as I noted, the evidence does not suggest that there will be a big negative if people abstained from sex unless in a monogamous union. What would it be? Most people will not get the odd night of pleasure with a stranger, but the same people will get regular pleasure with someone committed to them. The evidence suggests that sexual frustration occurs in fact less in monogamous unions than outside of them. Hence there would be big gains in the general welfare and little loss.



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