In the first article in this series I shared my story about confession to so-called “priesthood leaders” and other topics.
Today, let’s turn to speaking about sexual values directly.
The need for a moral framework
It’s impossible to properly reason about sexual values without a foundational, broad moral framework to refer back to. Without this framework, how do we cross-check any particular sexual activity or arrangement? How do we argue that this is “good” or that is “bad” — on what basis?
Take for example: oral sex. Are you OK with oral sex? Are you not OK with it? Why? Against what background assumptions or framework have you checked your value regarding oral sex? What lies underneath your value? How did you determine whether you were OK with it?
In the past, the answer was obvious: “God” told us what sexual values we should have (“Thou shalt not have oral sex” or “thou canst have oral sex”, in one form or another), through “revelations” through “prophets” and “scriptures”, as well as the “Holy Ghost”. Our sexual values were merely delivered to us through our own religion. No need to think, no need to question – just accept and obey.
But as many post-Mormons have starkly discovered, the idea that God is leading the LDS Church (or any religion for that matter) is highly vulnerable to intellectual criticism, and falls over completely under sustained analysis.
Thus we have a problem: we don’t all agree on whether some kind of God exists, and even if some kind of God does exist, we don’t all agree on whether he/she/it even cares about the sexuality of humans. So waiting on some kind of divine answer to the questions of sexual values is bound to, at best lead to a non-universal standard (accepted only be some who believe certain things about God), and at worst fail completely.
So is there a secular alternative version of a moral framework that we can use as a foundation for analysis regarding sexual values? Is there a version of morality that can be accepted more or less universally without tying in assumptions about a supernatural Deity? It turns out there is.
The Moral Landscape
Author Sam Harris presents in his book The Moral Landscape a secular framework for morality — “how science can determine human values”. I have found this framework both compelling and profoundly simple. I will summarise it in a few brief paragraphs.
What is the most real thing in the universe? Well, we could question everything, we could question whether we live in a Matrix type situation (simulation), we could question whether other people actually have consciousness. But there’s one thing that’s most salient and real to us: Suffering
Suffering is the most real thing in the universe. When you are suffering, you don’t doubt the reality of that feeling.
If anything could be called “bad”, suffering can. In fact, what does “bad” even mean?
We keep complaining about global warming on earth and how “bad” it is — but what about our neighbour planet Venus? Venus has a runaway global warming effect that has engulfed the entire planet, rendering it inhabitable to our type of life. Why don’t we say that’s “bad”? – well, because there’s no conscious being on Venus to experience any “badness” from the environment there.
It’s that simple. “Bad” is something only conscious beings experience – and suffering is “bad”.
Imagine a universe where all of the beings capable of experiencing suffering are experiencing the most excruciating suffering for eternity – with no silver lining. If this is anything, it is “bad”. Harris uses this to illustrate what is the deepest trough in the “moral landscape”. Anything is better than everyone suffering endlessly for no good reason.
The opposite of suffering is “well-being”. Well-being relates to states of consciousness that are positive.
Talking about consequential suffering and well-being are the most compelling ways to make moral arguments. In a simple scenario, why is it morally wrong to hit someone in the face but not morally wrong to hit a punching bag? — Because a being capable of experiencing suffering will suffer as a result of your hitting them, while no-one suffers from hitting the punching bag.
This is the essence of the moral landscape: Morality revolves around the consequences of our actions – do they promote well-being or create suffering?
Applying the Moral Landscape to Sexuality
Using the moral landscape framework, we can begin to argue about sexuality in depth. This understanding of morality should shift or clarify our intuitions about sexual values.
For example: we can state definitively that it is wrong to rape someone. Why? Because rape creates great suffering in the victim – that’s why it is wrong. Not because some God said we shouldn’t, but because it creates suffering – that alone is good enough to ban rape from our list of potential moral actions and make it clearly morally contemptible.
However, not all questions are as simple as the case of rape. The moral framework is simple but the application of the framework is complex and requires clear thinking.
Let’s apply the moral landscape to reason about various sexual activities and discuss their consequences in depth.
Is sex itself wrong?
The most basic question one could ask is: “Is sex wrong?”
Without any additional context, just discussing sexual intercourse itself — on the whole, it seems reasonable to argue that sex leads to greater well being in humans than suffering overall.
There’s no reason to believe that sex of itself is morally wrong. However, the contexts with which humans engage in sexual activity are multitudinous and varied. Hence the question “is sex wrong?” is a little too simple – the context of the sexual activity dictates much of the moral argument around the activity.
But, in simple terms, there’s no reason to believe sex is wrong, and, on the whole, it seems obvious that sex creates more well-being than suffering in the world, and thus is “right” and “good”.
Is sex before marriage wrong?
Well – does sex before marriage create suffering or promote well being? And does waiting for marriage before trying sexuality create suffering or promote well being?
My conviction is that not allowing sex before marriage creates more suffering than it prevents. There are a multitude of scenarios that emerge as a result of no sex before marriage: people getting married too early due to sexual pressure (to release sexual pressure) and then being stuck in the wrong marriage, or married too young, etc. or people getting married and discovering sexual issues or incompatibility etc.
I think much more important than marriage per se is whether people are emotionally mature enough to engage in sexual activity.
There are people who get married, have sex, but aren’t emotionally ready for either, as a result, those people experience suffering. Conversely, there are people who are unmarried who are fully emotionally ready for sex and could suffer without it — because they’re mature and ready for it.
Hence I believe sex before marriage is morally acceptable, and what’s more important than marriage per se is emotional preparedness for sex.
What is the role of consent?
Consent is probably the most obviously important variable in the moral discussion about sexuality.
Just like most things, forcing someone to do something they don’t want to do creates suffering, and this effect is amplified for sexual intercourse.
Hence any form of coercion involved in sexual activity is morally wrong. This includes many obvious things: rape, sex trafficking, threats of people losing their salvation if they don’t have sex with you, etc.
Is masturbation wrong?
To answer that, we need to analyse whether masturbation creates suffering or promotes well-being.
My understanding of the research in this area is that masturbation is at worst completely harmless, and at best helps people to relieve sexual pressure which, if not done, can lead to other kinds of emotional, psychological or physical problems.
Is pornography wrong?
The ethics of pornography are much more complex than the question of masturbation. It’s a multivariate subject where many arguments can be made. Here are a few. These are more about asking questions than providing answers; we should ask questions to the science and research and request good-quality answers from it.
- Consent: it’s important that all people involved in both the production of and consumption of pornography consent to what they’re doing. In short, it’s morally wrong to force anyone to either produce or consume pornography against their will.
- Working Conditions & Harmfulness: How are porn actors and actresses treated? Are they compensated fairly? Are they treated with respect both at the workplace and online? It strikes me as incredibly important for pornography consumers to understand and care about the treatment of the actors / actresses / other production people.
- Potential for addiction: What is the real potential for addiction to pornography? When addicted, what kinds of harm does that addiction do?
- Effect on relationships: How does pornography consumption affect relationships: both on the producing and consuming side? What harm does it do to them?
My understanding of the science of pornography is that the hatred from a religious side is largely unjustified. However, again, I turn to the science to inform my values, based on “The Moral Landscape” framework (suffering / well-being).
Psychological Schemas: how you think about something
The Greek philosopher Epictetus once said:
“Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things”
Or in his other words:
“What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.”
” It is not external events themselves that cause us distress, but they way in which we think about them, our interpretation of their significance. It is our attitudes and reactions that give us trouble.”
This notion carries across significantly to sexual values and morality.
For instance, as one is reasoning and figuring out where one stands on a variety of sexual topics, one might run across a subject like Monogamy and Polyamory. Is polyamory wrong? — (that’s a different question from asking “is polyamory for me?” — which relates more to sexual templates and preferences (next article)) — Once the science has weighed in about the harmfulness / well-being of the two (which includes discussions about the structure of our modern society), the remaining aversion of or attraction to polyamory or monogamy is mostly just a psychological schema: “how we think of the thing” or “personal preference”.
Indeed there are societies in which monogamy is viewed as unreasonably jealous and possessive, again more about “how people think” about an idea, and that has bearing on the harmfulness of the practice.
We could go on about other topics all day, we could talk about oral sex, anal sex, homosexuality, cheating, etc. Butt he point of this article is not to answer all possible questions concerning sexual values or morality, but to present a framework about how to think about these subjects, not what to think about them.
This is one of the differences between secularism and religion generally: we teach people how to think, not what to think.