On the Ethics and Philosophy of Sex

Francesco Orsi is a senior researcher at the UT Department of Philosophy. His research interests include meta-ethics, value theory, and the history of ethics. In January, Orsi’s book on Value Theory came out in print.

Sex in art

A naked man and woman in sexual congress on a bed. Coloured process print. Wikimedia Commons.

This year I taught the course on Ethics and the Philosophy of Sex for the third time in Tartu. While this is not my particular area of research, I had long been curious to read what philosophers had written on the topic. Sexuality had been a constant but peripheral concern of philosophers at least until Freud’s theories became popular. But an explosion of interest occurred from the late 1960s on, possibly as an academic output of the so-called sexual revolution occurring in Western Europe and North America.

Philosophers, at least in the Anglo-American academic world, began bringing the tools of rational argumentation and careful analysis of concepts to work in an area where many of their predecessors had let themselves loose (intellectually speaking), probably swayed by personal biases or simply lack of sufficient first-hand experience.

While studying the literature, it became clear to me that launching a course would be a good idea. The topic would attract interest, students would be able to relate to it, and, perhaps most importantly, it could be used as a channel to ease students into learning and practicing philosophical modes of thinking and arguing.

The course contains a bit of everything that is central to doing philosophy. Three aspects seem crucial to me. First, in the course we learn to ask and answer a classical philosophical question since Socrates: “what is the essence of X”? The X in our case is, naturally, sex. Philosophers have offered a dazzling variety of theories of sexuality, often under the influence of dominant religious, biological, or psychological trends.

At the same time we learn about the difficulties of finding a definition that can settle once and for all the nature of an experience that is both biologically grounded and culturally, even individually, greatly variable.

For instance, suppose one says: “sexual experiences are those that involve a certain kind of pleasure”. Is this a good definition? Probably not. Sex without pleasure is unfortunately all around us. And even not all cases of orgasm are classifiable as sexual experiences: doctors in the late 19th century routinely administered manual and then electric stimulation to women diagnosed as ‘hysterical’ (as the 2011 movie Hysteria shows). The ‘patients’ got their orgasms, or they wouldn’t have kept coming back. But we would not say those doctors were sex workers, or that those women were cheating on their husbands.

A second aspect is the critical analysis of concepts. Two significant examples here are perversion and objectification. The idea that certain forms of sexuality are against nature and therefore wrong is a common thought in most cultures. But the concept of ‘unnatural’ and the passage from ‘unnatural’ to ‘therefore wrong’ raise numerous problems. For many, the idea of perversion should rather have its place in the museum of concepts than in our ethical thinking.

The concept of objectification (treating a person in ways that are appropriate to an object) instead seems alive and kicking, and for many, especially but not only in the feminist tradition, useful for understanding forms of sexual oppression in our society. But doubts can be raised about this one too: isn’t loosening the grip on what makes us persons (rationality, self-control), and wanting our partner to do so as well, part of what sexuality is all about?

Third, in the course we practice ethical argument. Sexuality has always been an area filled with moral puzzles. Many philosophical traditions (from Catholicism to Immanuel Kant) would even claim that sexual desire itself is a moral puzzle. And some thinkers nowadays (e.g. Roger Scruton) believe that we need a list of clear ‘dos and don’ts’ to guide us through our sexual lives.

In the course I propose to my students broader and newer ethical questions, such as whether pornography harms (and whom it may harm) and what should be done about it, or whether severely disabled people should be granted a right to sexual experiences that would otherwise be nearly impossible for them to enjoy.

The course is based on solid philosophical material: the aim is to rise above a polemical, journalistic, or magazine-like level of discussion. At the same time the effort is to select from current and past events, cultural phenomena, movies, or literature, either as illustrations of certain philosophical ideas, or as test cases for a given theory. This is what I invite students to do in our weekly seminars, short assignments, and a longer piece of writing at the end of the course.

What is noteworthy is the variety of students joining the course: alongside philosophy students, there have in the past been many students from law, psychology, medicine, literature, and elsewhere. What they contribute is naturally the richness of different points of view and different backgrounds—both in academic and cultural terms, since typically a good number of them are exchange students. Being sensitive to such differences and making the most out of them is the main challenge for me as a lecturer.

What I aim to give them is an occasion not only to study some texts but to do philosophy, of course within the limits of the subjects and methods that I choose. Hopefully it has been and will continue to be a successful learning experience for my students. It certainly has been for me.

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