Ethics: April 2008 Archives

Sex and Duty

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This is over a month old now, but I'm way behind on a number of things, and it won't get better until the semester is over in a couple weeks. Hugo Schwyzer wrote a while back about a bad policy at what seems to be an emergent-type church involving having married couples promise to have sex every day for a month in an effort to build sexual intimacy. He's probably right in a lot of his criticisms, and I can think of some he doesn't mention. But I disagree with one of his points, and I think it's one he's particularly emphatic about.

He thinks the bad guy here is duty, as if a duty to have sex with one's spouse is bad. His argument is that good things lose their goodness when they become a mere duty. In one sense of what someone might mean by a duty, I think he's right. However, in a pretty common sense of the term, I think he's very wrong, and I think his view is strongly at odds with the moral perspective Paul expresses in I Corinthians 7 and Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount implies.

It's worth distinguishing between (1) duty in the sense of merely following rules without any further reason and (2) duty in the sense of going the extra mile for another person or doing what you'd want them to do for you if you were the one who strongly desired sexual connection. The first kind of duty is worthy of the Schwyzer's criticism. The second is not.

Suppose one member of a married couple has a strong desire for sexual intimacy, while the other doesn't. I'm not talking about cases of serious illness or complete exhaustion. I simply mean one wants to and the other doesn't. The one who doesn't is completely capable of engaging in sexual activity and enjoying it but simply isn't interested. Now it may be the loving thing to do for the interested party to back down. I don't want to suggest that forcing sex even in marriage is remotely excusable. Nevertheless, the question I'm interested in here is not the moral obligation of the interested party. What Schwyzer was addressing is whether there can be a duty to have sex, not whether there can be a duty to refrain. I'm sure he'd agree with me that there are plenty of instances of that.

The Pauline view is clear on this. In I Corinthians 7, Paul commands husbands and wives to seek to be available to each other sexually except in times of special devotion to intense prayer. That suggests a duty to have sex. It doesn't mean a duty to have sex every night, as the proposal in question suggested. But it does imply a duty to have sex. This Pauline view can be easily motivated by Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, particularly by the Golden Rule (do to others what you'd want them to do for you) and the extra mile (if someone asks you to carry something a mile, do it for two miles, and if someone asks for your coat offer up your shirt too). Jesus speaks as if this sort of thing is a typical characteristic of his followers, and those who don't do this are failing to be like citizens of the kingdom of God out to be. I can see how someone would apply such statements to the case at hand by arguing for a duty to have sex even when one isn't interested for the sake of the sex.

But this is not duty for the mere sake of duty. It's duty for the sake of the other person. If a person motivated by love for another person has a duty to do what's loving for the other person, there may well be times when that involves having sex when one otherwise wouldn't have been interested, and Jesus' teaching does seem to include cases like that. I'm not sure why cases of voluntarily being willing to have sex when one isn't interested should be exceptions to the kinds of loving acts he commands in those passages. This doesn't mean setting an arbitrary rule to ensure that couples have sex more often, but it does suggest that the motivation Jesus commands in the Sermon on the Mount involves a duty to show the kind of love that might include things like this. So I would defend Paul against Schwyzer's argument by pointing out that a duty to sex in the Pauline sense seems to follow fairly easily from the kinds of teachings in the Sermon on the Mount that I'm sure Schwyzer has no problem with.

David Bernstein raises some good questions about how the FLDS case has been handled. But he quotes an op-ed that seems to me to be dead wrong:

You've ruled the existence of five girls between 16 and 19 who were pregnant or had children was evidence of systematic abuse, even though in Texas 16-year-olds can marry with parental consent. You've ruled young toddlers are in "immediate" danger because of their parents' beliefs or what might happen 15 years from now, not because anyone abuses them.

Excuse me, but unless these girls were the first wife of the father of their children, they weren't married. Texas allows parents to consent to marriages of their children when they're 16. They don't allow parents to consent to non-marital sex with a dude who's already married to someone else but wants to have a pretend wife in addition. That's not marital sex, since they're not married. Since the men are already married, there's no marriage the parents could have consented to, and that makes it rape. Automatically. The girl can't consent, and the parents can't consent to an illegal marriage. The legal question ends right there. This is child abuse.

Someone might try to argue that the law doesn't track with the right answers to such questions when you're talking about what counts as abuse morally speaking. But that's not the issue here. What matters is whether it's legally abuse, and it's legally rape if the man in question is already married to someone else and thus can't have gotten genuine consent to a legal marriage from the girl's parents.

It's hard to resist commenting on what GatoRat says in the comments:

Several of those old girls already have children. If a fifteen-year-old is pregnant with her third child, were the first two immaculate conceptions?"

It is correct to point out that there were clearly pre-16 cases. It is not correct to confuse immaculate conception with virginal conception. I don't see how the idea of a child being conceived without original sin is relevant at all to this discussion.

Rights to Ourselves?

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I've discussed the relation between rights and obligations before. One thing that a lot of people seem to think is that you can have responsibilities or obligations toward someone who doesn't have any right to you doing what you do. On the other hand, others thing that any obligation you have toward someone implies that they have some right to you doing it.

One thing that affects how you think of this is whether rights are explanatorily prior to obligations or the other way around. I'm not at all attracted to the view that rights are fundamental and that obligations are derivative from them, but that's a view that a lot of people have. I'm much more inclined to think my rights arise because someone has an obligation toward me.

If rights are prior to obligations, then here's a funny result. If an obligation requires that there already have been a right, then what about my responsibilities to myself? I think Immanuel Kant was right in taking us to have such obligations. If I seek a bad life for myself, that's immoral even if I don't harm anyone else in the process. If I do things that harm myself but don't affect anyone else negatively or positively, I have still done something wrong. I have violated my obligations to myself. But how can this be if every responsibility is based on a right? What right do such obligations rely on? Do I have a right to myself doing this? That's an extremely odd way of talking. Do I have a right to certain behavior on my own part?

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