Sunday, 6 January 2013

A2 Religious Studies: Sexual Ethics

This is a revision thing - if you don't study Religious Studies at A2 Level then this won't apply to you. I'm sorry if you were expecting a lengthy post debating various sexual issues. That is kind of what you're getting, just with more quotes and noxious opinions...



The Bible is quite straightforward and you can sum up the main Biblical views with a few quotes:

"Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable."
"[homosexuals are] sexually immoral"
"they will not inherit the kingdom of God"
"a perversion"
They don't hold much back, bless them. Christians who take the Bible literally and use it as a pocket-sized moral handbook will often cite events such as the destruction of Sodom in Genesis as punishment for homosexuality.

However, it would of course be narrow-minded and simply wrong to argue that all Christians think this way, even if they take the Bible more literally than many of us would like. A Christian homosexual group have actually responded to several of the above quotes with reasons why the Bible doesn't condone homosexuality - this is thanks, they say, to the multitude of interpretations one can take from the Bible. So for instance,

"Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable"

could be interpreted to attack the culture at the time, whereby male prostitutes were used frequently. The group argues that homosexual relationships must be loving, and that the Bible is only knocking the use of male prostitutes, not homosexuality in its own right.

Furthermore, in several passages often quoted to show the hateful views of the Bible, the group responds by saying that every homosexual relationship condemned is abusive. No loving homosexual relationships are attacked; therefore the Bible arguably has no outright problem with homosexuality, only the way it is expressed: abusively or without love/commitment.

A good name to mention when discussing Christian homosexuals is the Canadian homosexual Bishop Spong, who emphasises the loving v. abusive interpretations of the Bible.

The problems with the Biblical view on homosexuality are quite easy:

  • not applicable to atheists
  • no empirical evidence to suggest a homophobic God in the first place
  • the Bible is an outdated document written in an outdated time - humanity has moved on
  • different interpretations of the Bible
  • subjectivity/conflicting ideas of what love is

Sex and marriage

The main Christian views on sex and marriage can be split into three periods of time:

1) Early Christian views:

Philo referred to women as "instruments of evil" who corrupt men. Without women, he said, men would be rational creatures. We'd be dead before the whole rational thing, but he doesn't seem to expand on that much.

Augustine said that the purpose of marriage is to procreate, not to be friends. Just whip your clothes off and get it done, Augustine suggests. He actually suggests that, if it were possible, two males would have made a better partnership in terms of procreation.

Sex outside marriage = evil.

2) Middle Ages

Sex and prayers are a bad mix, so sex on holy days was strictly forbidden.

Aquinas stated that the purpose of marriage is to procreate whilst allowing lust (but just a little bit). He also kindly referred to women as defective males because they are subservient to men and they are passive in the sexual act. Great guy.

3) Modern Christian views

Marriage is about love, honour and (optional) obedience. Remain faithful and your fine.

It does no harm to quote the age-old line "til death us do part".

As ever, sex outside marriage is wrong. Sex should also stay part of the emotional and personal commitment that marriage entails - the two shouldn't be separate.

When choosing a partner, Christianity often highlights the importance of permanence (the idea of a permanent companion for life). Permanence is followed by making a covenant (consensual contract). Marriage is a gift from God, and nothing less.

Marx called marriage slavery, and Engels went one further and called it

"concealed domestic slavery"
Engels even called it prostitution. He really hated it.

In terms of Biblical views, Florenza explores the conflicting attitudes of Jesus and Paul in the New Testament. Jesus teaches of equality and aims to free women from oppression. The introduction of the Church, Florenza says, sees Paul institutionalising women at a lower status than men, which criticises the hypocrisy and conflicting morals of the Bible.

Anthony Harvey says that in terms of Biblical teaching we should remove the absolute and look at the important things Jesus taught, such as love and compassion (this can also be used for a situation ethics-based argument).

Divorce and remarriage

A vow cannot be broken, and so many Christians would object to divorce. Because marriage is an eternal bond, remarriage may be viewed as spiritual adultery.

Certain Christians, however, argue that it is not adultery if the reasons for the original divorce were due to the adulterous activities of somebody.

Nowadays though, the usual CoE and situation ethics approach is that if remarriage is a loving option, it's acceptable.



Unbelievably, Aquinas doesn't like homosexuals (which I'm sure they'll be gutted to hear). He outright states that any sexual act that couldn't result in pregnancy is wrong. After all, God created sexual organs in order to fulfil one of the primary precepts (reproduction).

So, following on from this, contraception, rape, homosexuality, prostitution and masturbation are all wrong.

One of Aquinas's biggest problems, not just with sexual ethics but with most ethical issues, is the topic of conflicting precepts. It's a major knock to his theory. If you use the example of homosexual adoption you are pitting two precepts against one another: rejection of reproduction but upholding an ordered society. So which is right? What do you do? If an exam question asks how useful/relevant/helpful/other-buzz-word religious ethics is as an approach to sexual ethics, you can bring this up and make Aquinas look stupid, which is a great feeling.

The other problem surrounding Aquinas's view is that Dean Haemer argues that there may be over five million separate genes that come together in the human body to influence sexuality which may be a potential biological explanation of homosexuality. This severely knocks Aquinas's argument that homosexuality isn't natural - what if it is to some people? However if you're ever supporting Aquinas in an exam (God help you (pun unintended)) you can argue back at Haemer saying that a) there is no empirical evidence set in stone and b) Aquinas's argument was made hundreds of years ago, and to attack it with modern science is unfair.


Most of Aquinas's views in the 'Christianity' section on marriage are applicable here. The purpose of marriage is to procreate (primary precept of reproduction), and sex outside marriage is wrong.

Then all the usual stuff with Aquinas being sexist, which is all old news.

You can also bring up the following problems:

  • Natural Law gives no flexibility
  • there isn't necessarily one single human nature
  • no use to atheists
  • outdated theory and values



Kant hates it too! Among other things, he says this about homosexuals:

"a slave to their passions"
"beneath the beasts"
"no longer deserves to be a person"

If Kant takes the 'end' to be the continuation of humanity, homosexuality blatantly disregards such a purpose.

Such a statement can be rebutted in two ways:

  • Surrogacy and adoption are alternatives - surely this erases the problem? 
    • Kant would say no - surrogacy and adoption aren't universalisable
  • Who says reproduction is the 'end'? Can't love be the end?
If the end purpose of humanity is to love, homosexuality is acceptable and should be treated just like heterosexuality. Who is Kant to decide what our purpose is? There isn't even any empirical evidence to suggest a purpose. 

'It is always right to love someone in a consenting relationship' seems like a fair maxim which is universalisable. Unluckily for Kant, this allows homosexuality. Kantian ethics seems a bit conflicted here, and virtue ethicist MacIntyre argues that anybody can universalise anything for their own situation.


Kant states that in marriage there is a sense of ownership. Kant really seems to hate sex, but refers to it as

"a necessary evil"
in the case of marriage, which is decent of him. He allows it in marriage because marriage is the

"unity of the will"
A big problem with Kant's view on marriage - aside from the others which are concurrent throughout application of Kantian ethics - is the sense of whether we really are all equal. Kantian ethics is supposed to be egalitarian, but in the case of domestic violence, for example, are both man and woman still equal? Modern society may argue that they are not.



Utilitarianism appears to take a slightly different approach - in general, if homosexuality makes more people happy, it is acceptable.

However, there is an immediate problem. Most people in the United Kingdom have no problem with homosexuality. That's fine for us. But in, say, Iran, that isn't the case. Two completely different countries have different views on homosexuality. So who do we include in 'the greatest number'? Do we waltz around asking everyone what they think of homosexuality to conduct a huge poll? It certainly doesn't seem practical...

Bentham (act util) would argue that homosexuality is acceptable because it presents little or no harm - of course if pain outweighs pleasure, it's not okay. 

Mill (rule util) said in On Liberty that

"[we should not] attempt to deprive others of theirs or impede their efforts to obtain it."

He's talking about freedom of choice, and respects that sexuality is quite a personal thing and highlights the importance of  choice.

However, with Mill there's always the line between higher and lower pleasures. While love is included as a higher pleasure, sexual acts - pleasures of the body - would be seen as low pleasures. So homosexuality could be acceptable in Mill's eyes - so long as higher pleasures such as genuine love are upheld.


Utilitarianism says what you'd expect - greatest happiness for the greatest number.

In terms of divorce, util would argue it is acceptable because it usually brings about more happiness. Following on from that, bigamy and polygamy are also acceptable because they make more people (in some cases many more people) happy.


This mostly deals with Philippa Taylor's view on cohabitation from the perspective of a Christian utilitarian. It is VERY easy to criticise in an exam and does not account for the general utilitarian view on cohabitation even though it can be argued as a utilitarian point.

Taylor says the following on cohabitation:

  • you are six times more likely to break up if you cohabit before marriage - it inflicts more pain than pleasure
  • cohabitation leads to a greater fear of rejection
  • there is a higher rate of alcoholism and pregnant women smoking in cohabiting relationships
  • a higher rate of suicide among men
  • a higher rate of abortions
  • a higher rate of STDs
  • a higher rate of cancer
Yes, the last one is genuine. You can attack these Daily-Mail-esque points very easily.


Is prostitution acceptable? It provides pleasure for the person paying the prostitute but the pleasure is brief. The prostitute may be in such a position because he/she is trying to make a living as best they can in order to feed their children etc. - happiness is therefore possibly not achieved through prostitution, yet visiting a prostitute may lead to money being used to make more people happy. It's tricky, and you can argue that because of dilemmas like this util is a bad approach to sexual ethics.



As an agent-centred ethic, virtue ethics asks how we should be virtuous when it comes to sexual issues. There isn't necessarily a right or wrong with virtue ethics (or is there? That's another debate) because it's all about becoming virtuous and following those who display virtuous characteristics.

The virtue of commitment can apply to homosexuality just as it can to heterosexuality; so long as you're in a committed relationship, you're being virtuous.

However, do we all work towards the same goal? Is homosexuality technically virtuous? Some would say not. Some may say it's a vice of excess or deficiency; the problem, as usual, with virtue ethics here is that these things are subjective. In one country it may be virtuous, in another, less so.


In terms of marriage, Michael Slote emphasises the importance of care. Caring committed relationships appear best manifested in marriage. Slote says we should care for ourselves, for those near us and for people in general.

Aristotle, however, said that virtues are only accessible to men, which draws a risky line down the whole equal caring relationship thing. It can be argued, though, that modern VE approaches are better suited considering Aristotle's long gone.


Pornography and prostitution are wrong because they do not entail the virtues of care or commitment.


  1. I really enjoy (and second) your blatant hatred for Aquinas, he was an asshole. Your notes are the absolute best and they also serve as being genuinely amusing. Thanks so much for posting all of this! It has saved me during exam season, and also led me to follow your new blog too. I really like your writing style!

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