Indifferents and Sexual Ethics

So, recently I picked up Gunther Laird’s commentary on Edward Feser and Scholastism/Natural Law called “The Unnecessary Science”.  I also engaged him in some comment replies at A Tippling Philosopher.  But before I start reading Laird’s critique, I wanted to make sure that I had read the important Feser references because I wanted to make sure that I had an idea of what I thought Feser was saying before I read Laird.  Why?  Because experience has taught me that there are often a number of what I, at least, would call misinterpretations in a lot of such commentaries, and so wanted to be able to catch them while reading Laird.  And even if Laird was being scrupulous in his interpretations, there was still a good chance that he’d interpret things in a way that I disagreed with.  So it isn’t really that I don’t trust Laird, but just that I don’t trust anyone anymore, and wanted to make sure that I had a good idea myself of what was going on rather than having to rely on anyone else’s interpretation.

Of course, while reading Feser I’ve come to disagree with him on a number of points, which isn’t a surprise considering that I wasn’t really on board with what he’d argued when I read it before.  Here, with a more in-depth analysis, I’ve come up with more organized objections.  I’m right now reading his “Five Proofs of the Existence of God”, which is the last of the three main references — Scholastic Metaphysics, Five Proofs and The Last Superstition — that I need to get out of the way before taking up Laird.  But while I’ll definitely be reading and probably will have finished Laird’s book before the posts come out, I want to make a number of posts criticizing Feser before I start reading Laird, if for no other reason than to avoid there being doubt over whether I got the argument from Laird if we came up with the same one.  So I’m going to do that over the next few weeks, but as noted will be writing them ahead.

However, before I dive into the first one — a commentary on sexual ethics as driven by natural law — I need to outline my own position on sexual ethics a bit.  As noted in a discussion on homosexuality some years ago, I basically consider all sexual activity and sexual contact to be an indifferent when it comes to morality.  Thus, I consider the typical religious/Catholic view of sex to be an error as it seems to take sex far too seriously, and often seems to treat it as something immoral and strongly so, which to me gives it far too much importance.  Anyone who has read Feser will note that this clearly isn’t how he views it.  I’ll turn to Feser in the next post, but here I’ll outline in some detail what my position is and why it entails what it entails.

So let’s start by talking about an indifferent.  What does it mean for something to be an indifferent, and how do we identify indifferents?  Well, basically, an indifferent is something that is neither inherently virtuous or inherently vicious (ie a vice) and so to translate that into more common terminology it is something that is neither inherently moral nor immoral.  I align with Seneca in considering them to be pretty much morally neutral, even though some Stoics seemed to consider them to be things to avoid.  As Seneca noted about his wealth, as long as he achieved his wealth virtuously, what does it matter that he has wealth or has luxury?  If wealth is really an indifferent, then it is morally indifferent whether one is wealthy or one is not, so it’s not an inconsistency for a Stoic to be rich.  I’ve also commented that we can even decide that some indifferents are rationally desirable and are even more rationally desirable than others, as long as we understand that the only things that have inherent value are the virtues.  To deny that we can rationally want indifferents is to treat them as vices, and the whole point of the category is to point to those things that are not virtues but are also not vices.

So how, then, do we identify indifferents?  The easiest way to do it is to ask one question:  is it something that can be achieved both virtuously and viciously (morally and immorally)?  It’s obvious, then, that wealth counts as an indifferent, because we can achieve wealth in moral or immoral ways.  But this doesn’t seem to apply to a virtue like Honour.  While it would not be odd to say that someone was a rich man but wasn’t virtuous, it would be odd to suggest that someone was an honourable man but wasn’t virtuous.  We would be willing to appeal to the person’s wealth or how they became wealthy to explain why they’re not virtuous, but we’d be more inclined to claim that either they were vicious in other ways or that they were mistaken as to what honour was and so weren’t honourable at all to explain that claim.  As an example, they might be following the formal and general rules of honour and so could claim to be honourable, but they wouldn’t really understand what honour was and so would be vicious by not being honourable.  As an example, in Star Trek:  Deep Space 9 the Ferenghi Quark ends up challenged to a duel with a Klingon warrior, and instead of facing the warrior Quark throws his weapon away, insisting that this was really an execution and so that it should be treated as such.  The warrior attempts to kill him anyway, which is proof of his dishonourable nature.  The thing is, killing Quark in those circumstances was probably part of the normal rules.  After all, a Klingon who would do that should be killed for his cowardice.  But Quark was not a Klingon and so not bound by all of those rules.  If he had engaged in the fight, he would have accepted the rules and so his death would have been honourable.  But when he rejected it, all that was happening was a warrior attempting to kill a helpless opponent.  While the warrior understood the rules of the honourable duel, he didn’t understand the virtue behind it, making him dishonourable.  And it’s this sort of analysis that we’d almost always engage in when faced with an honourable but vicious in his honour man.

So that’s the quick and dirty way to determine what counts as an indifferent:  see if it can be done in virtuous and vicious ways.  Let’s look at sexual ethics in general and see how that applies.

The standard liberal view of what the main purpose or goal or reason to have sex is that it gives pleasure.  But we can clearly see that people can seek pleasure in virtuous and vicious ways.  So right off the bat we’d be inclined to consider sex for pleasure an indifferent.  But specifically, we know that we can have sex for pleasure and moral and immoral ways.  Rape is the best example here (so much so that it isn’t surprising that liberals tend to think of any immoral sex as rape, even that by extreme coercion that nevertheless should still leave them able to give reasonable consent).  So we can have sex that is consistent with virtue and sex that is spawned from vice.  So sex for pleasure is clearly an indifferent.

Now, this is not how Feser views sex.  He views it as primarily for reproduction, and so might be able to make a case that reproduction is always virtuous and thus that the liberal conception of it being for pleasure is vicious except where it aligns with reproduction.  However, we can see that someone can reproduce in vicious ways.  If someone rapes others in order to either get the pregnant or to get pregnant themselves in order to reproduce, even if that reproduction is successful that doesn’t change the fact that they reproduced immorally.  So we can clearly reproduce in vicious ways.  Again, that means that reproduction itself is an indifferent, not a clear virtue.  And so even sex for reproduction is an indifferent.

This, then, ties back to my view on sexual matters, as noted above in my post on homosexuality.  Because all such sexual matters are indifferents, I’m completely open to the idea that these things may be vicious.  Maybe having sex in that way is indeed immoral.  But I also need a really good argument to say that it is, because I don’t need it to be clearly virtuous to be something that people can engage in.  I place sex in the same category as wealth or eating or pretty much anything else that we are supposed to suborn to virtue but that as Seneca noted we can enjoy or even seek out as long as we do so virtuously.  So I won’t agree with the liberals who think it in general an unvarnished good as long as it is consensual and won’t agree with people like Feser who consider sex for pleasure as a vice.  I will consider both sides to be making sex far, far too important.

Feser, however, through natural law makes a case for at least some of those things being immoral.  That’s what I’m going to examine in the next post.

3 Responses to “Indifferents and Sexual Ethics”

  1. Tom Says:

    “He views it as primarily for reproduction, and so might be able to make a case that reproduction is always virtuous and thus that the liberal conception of it being for pleasure is vicious except where it aligns with reproduction. However, we can see that someone can reproduce in vicious ways. If someone rapes others in order to either get the pregnant or to get pregnant themselves in order to reproduce, even if that reproduction is successful that doesn’t change the fact that they reproduced immorally. So we can clearly reproduce in vicious ways. Again, that means that reproduction itself is an indifferent, not a clear virtue. And so even sex for reproduction is an indifferent.”

    I think Feser would say here that this ignores the natural law account of the good: that it involves the flourishing of the thing in question. So sex is for reproduction, but it is also meant to be had in the context of a committed relationship because the offspring is helpless and has to be looked after: fed, clothed, sheltered and taught. The natural law view is holistic. I believe that’s the gist.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t some of the stoics also conceive of sex as being for procreation and not for pleasure? I haven’t read them that much; I’ve only got my copy of Epictetus’ Discourses.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Feser clearly would, but I’ll get into the specifics of natural law in the next post. Here this is just shaking out my view that whether you claim that sex is for pleasure or for reproduction that in and of itself would make it an indifferent, so Feser would need to pull off his natural law argument to make me think any specific case otherwise.

      I haven’t delved deeply into the specific Stoic view on that. I lean towards it being primarily about procreation than pleasure, but the point here was to consider both options and show that they remain indifferents.

  2. Natural Law and Sexual Ethics | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] noted last time, I’m reading a number of works by Edward Feser in preparation for reading Gunther […]

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