Friday, June 23, 2006

Ethics: Does love always justify sexual consummation?

Earlier we looked at how not all things called "love" are really something that Christianity can recognize as the kind of love that Christ had for his people, the kind he enjoined us to have for each other. That is no longer the question here.

The next question on the table is whether a genuine love -- one that truly cares for the other person -- always justifies sexual consummation. Pre-marital sex? Adultery? Betraying a mate, revoking promises of faithfulness, abandonment of children? These things are tragic but not inherently wrong in most secular sexual ethics. The answer often given to whether love always justifies sexual consummation is "yes, so long as there is consent". As we have already seen, some questions at stake are these: Am I an isolated individual, or do my actions matter to other people? Does relationship damage count as harming myself or others? When we are talking specifically about the ethics of sexual consummation there is another root question to consider: What is its purpose?

On one view, sexuality is about human survival. Sexuality is the procreative act: it makes children. Pleasure and desire are means towards this one end: creating another human being.

From a Christian view, the pleasure and desire are God-given benefits that aim for an even greater end: another person, intrinsically worthy of the type of love that Christ enjoined, the type that loves other people not based on their usefulness but based solely on shared humanity. The creation of another person in the image of God is considered an inherently good thing, a child considered an occasion for gladness. From a Christian view also, the pleasure and desire are rightly part of a family bond, which is the stable basis on which a person can know he or she will always have love in this life.

In popular culture, the purpose of sexuality is considered to be pleasure, the satisfaction of desire, the relief of a hormonal pressure, or even (though not necessarily) an expression of genuine love. The purpose of reproduction is often denied or frustrated at all costs. While doing the one act that naturally produces children, some camps seem continually annoyed or surprised when a child results. Great pains are taken to ensure the sterility or chemical-induced infertility of one or the other persons involved, and as a fallback, if a child does result, the new life is not typically welcomed or valued but often quietly ended. Obviously this approach to sexuality is not a great advantage in the survival of humanity; cultures which have adopted this "ethics" have seen their populations on the decrease. As has also been much discussed, this approach necessarily degrades the value of humanity when the shared humanity of a new life is no longer considered sufficient basis to welcome that life, and its very right to exist is denied on such a profound level that no questions are asked before the life is ended. Love for the partner may or may not be removed from sexuality, but it is removed from reproduction, and from humanity at large. Sexual union is degraded from an act with life-long consequences and the power to create life to nothing more than an intense pleasure. Neither is there any way to devalue the meaning of sexuality like this without devaluing ourselves along the way, since our sexuality is an important part of who we are as persons. Sexuality is such a basic and important part of our lives that removing love from sexuality often threatens to remove love from a person's life, and removing long-term stability from sexual partners removes long-term stability from a person's life. Neither is there any way to ignore the reproductive angle of sexuality without devaluing families, since sexuality and procreation are the basis of families.

A view of sexuality which takes no account of family bonds necessarily devalues family bonds and leaves large numbers of people lonely and adrift. A view of sexuality which takes no account of procreation -- other than avoiding it -- necessarily leads to devaluing the family, impoverishing many lives of meaningful and lasting relationships, and depriving many people of a personal stake in the future of mankind. Sexuality has a large and important role in our life: family, children, and a stable life-long bond. This means that love -- even genuine love -- does not automatically justify consummation. It also means that the ones who suffer the greatest losses from sexual irresponsibility are the person deciding to go for it, and his or her beloved. A genuine love, realizing this, might reconsider.

5 comments:

P.S. (an after-thought) said...

Ok, I came late to this discussion, but can't the word LOVE be used in the genuine sense where/when there is no basis for sexual attraction?

Weekend Fisher said...

Definitely. So to catch you up to the conversation without the ever-so-dismissive "read the archives", love can definitely be the real deal without basis for sexual attraction, and can even be the real deal with basis for sexual attraction, and can even be the real deal when sexuality is involved -- as if that was really in dispute, but some people will dispute anything. So next question up is just whether saying "it's love" really justifies that anything goes.

Gloria said...

But, and I really mean no disrespect to the overall question on the table here, can it really be said that, at a world population of 7.5 billion and growing, we need to worry about the preservation of humanity through procreation? I am much, much more worried about the preservation of the humanity we've already got.

The ethics of sexual love _is_ a complicated question, and of course I disagree with your straw man position that "love always justifies sexual consummation." But I believe God created pleasure and desire in what you could call a superfluous economy (like strawberries and butterflies--we don't need them, but they're nice)and we need to figure out what to do with that superfluity now that we have (thank you very much) enough people. This involves, imho, more than simply counseling celibacy for everyone who has already spawned the requisite 1.8 children.

Weekend Fisher said...

Do you see humans as territorial? I do, and don't see that it can really be rationally disputed that we're territorial. If humans are territorial, then the different sexual ethics of different cultures in different territories comes into play. I can't support an argument that acquiesces to one set of cultures or ethnicities dying down below the replacement levels for their (quite manageable) population levels for their territories, even if we suppose that it's theoretically beneficial (temporarily) for other ethnic groups or cultures in other territories. In order for territories to be productive, they have to be inhabited; for them to be productive at optimum levels, they have to be inhabited at optimum levels.

All of which leads to the question: What's the ideal population of the world? And how many times has the answer to that question changed because of technological or agricultural advances? I can't buy the premise that any culture group falling below replacement levels is good when the resources in that group's territory are not overtaxed.

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