Utilitarian reasons for engaging in sexual activity are that it leads to pleasure. Utilitarianism does not hold to the specified context of marriage for sexual activity, as long as the majority is benefiting from the actions then any form of pleasure is seen as morally acceptable. Private and consensual sexual activity creates substantial pleasure and, if harm to any third party is avoided, provides the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
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John Stuart Mill developed Utilitarianism, taking into account the well being of the individual was of greatest importance. He accepted the principle of greatest good for the greatest number but was concerned with pleasures being purely quantitative. To address this difficulty, Mill focused on the quality of pleasure. He developed a hierarchy of pleasures with intellectual pleasures being ranked above pleasures of the body. Mill believed that pleasures like sex were not valued as much as pleasures of the mind.
Utilitarian arguments also centre on issues around adultery and marriage. Often, debate focuses not on the actual sexual desire of one person for another, nor their choice of partner, but on the potential harm to emotional welfare as a result of infidelity, economic security and the effects on a community. In recent years a liberal approach to contraception has been influenced by utilitarian principles. The proliferation of sexually transmitted diseases including HIV and AIDS would be damaging to the majority and so prevention is promoted in order to prevent pain. Also there is a shift in less promiscuous activity brought about by the harmful consequences such behaviour can have.
Fletcher’s Situation ethics is another relative ethical theory which can be seen from a liberal stance as it does not promote absolute rules. Situation Ethics is an alternative Christian ethical theory formulated by Joseph Fletcher in the 1960’s. Unconditional love, or agape, is the main focus of this theory, and our behaviour should reflect this. The morally right thing to do is what is the most loving approach to an individual situation based on our previous experiences. He defines “love” as being interchangeable with “justice,” as the latter is the distribution of the former in society. A large problem with situation ethics that it has the potential to justify acts such as adultery where a man could easily argue that extra-marital sex is ok with a married woman, because he “loves” her and her husband does not. Yet Situation Ethics has been beneficial to society as it has brought the focus of love into relationships and everyday actions. Also it has lifted some of the unnecessary taboos in society.
Ethical theories can seem very muddled on directing matters of sex and relationships. This may give the impression that ethics are of no help as it is difficult to find one definitive direction. Sex is a powerful and diverse, and without direction is able to corrupt society and even our own personal morality. This entwinement of sexuality and morality is recognised by psychologist Sigmund Freud. He suggested that sexual personality resides at the core of moral personality: how we perceive and behave towards sexual partners both influences and is a mirror image of how we perceive and act with people in general.
Our sexuality provides a foundation, or pattern, for acting – morally or immorally – in the world. For many the failure to learn to control the pursuit of sexual pleasure undermines the achievement of a virtuous character. Some people argue that fostering bad sexual habits or bad patterns of sexual behaviour can destroy the capacity for love. Freud’s theory shows the direct link between sex and morality, it seems therefore necessary to have ethical guidelines in this area.
Sexual ethics have always been changing under cultural influence, but in the present century the rate of change in our sex ethics has been so accelerated that a new approach is needed. Carl Jung is aware of this dilemma recognising the importance of human instinct and its underestimated power.
The conflict between ethics and sex today is not just a collision between instinctuality and morality, but a struggle to give an instinct its rightful place in our lives, and to recognize in this instinct a power which seeks expression and evidently may not be trifled with, and cannot be made to fit in with our well-meaning moral laws. Sexuality is not a mere instinctuality, it is an indisputably creative power that is not only the basic cause of our individual lives, but a very serious factor in our psychic life as well … our civilization enormously understates the importance of sexuality.3
Jung recognises sexuality as a human instinct but also recognises that it is more than that; it has a power, which needs careful direction. He suggests that sex cannot fit in with our “well meaning moral laws, we require moral laws which reflect the importance of sexuality and guide its power in a productive and fulfilling manner. We would need to incorporate the aspects of both conservative and liberal theories to achieve this. If we follow Natural Law with the consideration that sexuality is an aspect of human nature and the telos of sex is not just for procreation but also for pleasure, then we can begin to build with a more liberal viewpoint on the diverse sexual issues that today’s society as uncovered.
This is not an invitation for promiscuity but a view that sees sexual relations as being morally acceptable if love, trust, loyalty and intimacy are present. Terminating this paper examination of whether “Ethical theories are of no help when discussing matters of sex and relationships”, I conclude that ethical theories are necessary when discussing any matter of sex and relationships. Yet we need to strive for higher ideals in sexual ethics which are easily understandable, acceptable and which suit human sexual morality and instinct.
Bowie, R. Ethical Studies Nelson Thornes, 2001 Michael Wilcockson. SEX and RELATIONSHIPS, Hodder & Stoughton 2001 David Cook, The Moral Maze, SPCK 1999