Sexual Ethics


Premarital Sex

  • Premarital sex refers to sex before marriage. It has become much more common since the introduction of reliable contraception.
  • Traditional Christian teaching in that sex before marriage is a sin. Sex should be for a couple who are commited to each other in a marriage partnership. Premarital sex is seen as demonstrating a lack of discipline.

Genesis 2:24 - 'That is why a man leaves his father and mother to be united to his wife and they become one flesh.'

  • The Catechism of the Catholic Church argues that premarital sex does not support ideas about fidelity, exclusivity and commitment.

Adrian Thatcher (book- 'Marriage after Modernity:Christian Marriage in Postmodern Times') - points out the long tradition of 'betrothal' as the key point of commitment rather than the marriage ceremony. Traditionally sexual relationships were permitted after betrothal- but betrothal was considered seriously binding, unlike modern cohabitation. 

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Extramarital Sex

  • This refers to sexual relationships where one or both of the sexual partners is married to someone else.
  • Christian teaching is firmly against adultery, it is forbidden in the Ten Commandments.
  • The Catholic Church teaches that sex is exclusively for married couples. Because the Catholic Church does not recognise divorce, it considers anyone entering a new sexual relationship after separation or divorce as having extramarital sex.
  • Consent is seen as a key issue in sexual relationships in the modern world.
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Natural Law

  • Takes an absolutist view in ethics.
  • In natural law, reproduction is one of the primary precepts. This is interpreted to mean that reproduction should be considered the main aim of sexual activity.
  • Premarital and extramarital sex are wrong according to natural law becausde they are not consistent with the flourishing of human society in bringin up children in stable families.
  • The use of artificial methods of contraception is prohibited by the Catholic Church but not by most denominations.
  • Natural Law could be seen as a good approach to issues on premarital and extramarital sex as it can give clear rules rather than leaving people to make decisions in the heat of the moment.
  • It emphasises the importance and sanctity of marriage and of reproduction, which could be seen as beneficial for the stability of society and in line with Christian principles.
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Situation Ethics

  • Followers of Situation Ethics do not think that there should be rules guiding premarital or extramarital sex.
  • Each situation should be considered in the context of its own circumstances, and the most loving course of action should be determined and followed. 
  • Situation ethics presents a relativist view of morality.
  • Fletcher uses issues of sexual ethics to illustrate his view that there should not be absolute rules, with examples of a woman having sex with a prison guard in order to secure her freedom (Mrs Burgmeier), or a spy having sex with an enemy in order to end war.
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Kantian Ethics

  • Followers of Kant take an absolutist view of ethics based around ideas of duty and the categorical imperative.
  • People should not treat each other as a means to an end, which rules out exploitative and non-consensual sexual relations.
  • In the kingdom of ends the commitment of marriage would be respected.
  • Universalisability would prevent so much sexual freedom that society was undermined.
  • Kant emphasises the importance of promise-keeping and truth-telling, which suggests secret extramarital sex would be unethical.
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  • John Stuart Mill argued that people should be protected from unnecessary legislation and should be free to behave how they wish unless it causes harm to others (harm principle). This principle could be used by utilitarians to justify premarital sex, extramarital sex and homosexuality- although opponents would argue that these practices do cause harm because they undermine the seriousness of heterosexual marriage commitment.
  • In his book, 'The Subjugation of Women', Mill argued that marriage can sometimes reduce women to the status of slaves. He was not against marriage but he was in favour of gender equality.
  • Mill tried to make contraception available to the poor at a time when the Christian Church opposed artificial contraception.
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  • Homosexuality is a term used to describe sexual attraction between people of the same sex.
  • Homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967. The first same-sex marriages took place in England,Wales and Scotland in 2014.
  • Christianity has traditionally opposed homosexuality as sinful.

Leviticus 18:22 - 'Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, that is detestable.'

  • There is a disagreement about what these texts mean and whether they should be considered applicable and enforceable in the present day, especially as many Old Testament rules are disregarded as Christians as no longer relevant.
  • The Anglican Communion struggles to reach agreements on same-sex marriages in church and about the appointment of openly gay clergy. Churches such as the Methodists and the URC seek to welcome homosexual partners into Church life.
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Natural Law

  • Sees homosexual acts as wrong, because they cannot bring forth new life and reproduction is seen as the telos of human sexuality.
  • The Catholic Church has traditionally seen homosexuality as a sin, but in modern times some Catholics take a more liberal view.
  • Pope Francis stated in 2016 that there is no grounds for considering same-sex partnership to be similar to God's plan for marriage and family life.
  • Some people criticise natural law approaches to homosexuality because plenty of sexual relationships do not and cannot bring forth new life, such as sex between an older married couple, between people with fertility issues and between a husband and wife during pregnancy.
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Situation Ethics

  • Concentrates on finding the most loving outcome.
  •  It does not give rules about homosexuality in general, but would consider a homosexual relationship to be morally acceptable if it brought about agapeic love.
  • It might be difficult to apply issues of homosexuality if the needs of other people as well as the needs of the couple are considered, but most would agree it is unloving to forbid homosexual relationships and loving to support them.
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Kantian Ethics

  • Is deontological, placing duty and autonomy at the heart of moral decision-making, and is used to formulate rules governing sexual behaviour.
  • Applying Kantian principles to issues of homosexuality does not lead to one clear answer, but could be used to justify a range of attitudes.
  • Kantians could argue that treating everyone with dignity must mean that homosexual relationships should be regarded as equal to heterosexual relationships.
  • They could also argue that the principle of universalisability means that everyone should have the right to express their sexuality in a relationship.
  • Kantian ethics emphasises mutual consent and avoiding exploitation, and these principles should underpin relationships regardless of the sexuality of the partners.
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  • Utilitarians look for moral actions that will bring about the greatest happiness and cause the least harm.
  • Many utilitarians would argue that homosexual relationships cause happiness to those in them and do not harm anyone else.
  • Some argue that homosexual relationships do not harm the rest of society because they undermine marriage as a stable social institution.
  • Most utilitarians reject the need for rules about private behaviour between consenting adults, if they cause no harm to others.
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