Friday, 16 November 2012

Is Casual Sex Morally Wrong?

A while ago I was invited by the Exeter Debating Society to argue against the claim that casual sex is morally wrong. Although I thought that was a strange question to ask, I had never been to a debating society event and was curious to see how it was. So I accepted. Somewhat naively, I thought that it would be very easy to defeat the claim, not the least because I imagined that most students would not feel that there was anything wrong with it. However, I was in for a surprise. As it turned out, the majority of the house voted with yes: casual sex was indeed morally wrong. I was a bit taken aback, but then did my best to argue persuasively that even though having lots of casual sex might not be as desirable as it may seem, it is certainly not morally wrong.

Meanwhile my opponents, one of which was a colleague of mine, said a lot about the good life, true intimacy, and commitment, and how casual sex destroyed all that, none of which, I thought, was in any way relevant to the question. Yes to my shock and dismay, when the debate was over and the house was asked once again to cast their vote, nothing had changed: the majority still thought that casual sex was morally wrong. For me that was an almost traumatic experience. It certainly ruined my day (and night). Not that I'm a big fan of casual sex; it's just that I didn't expect British students to be so morally conservative and so immune to reason.

 Casual sex is when two people decide to have sex with each other without having any intention to enter into a long-lasting relationship with their sexual partner. They just want to have sex with the other person, nothing more and nothing less. Now how can that be morally wrong? Of course we can imagine situations in which it is. When you're in a relationship, then having sex with someone else might be a breach of trust, or a breach of the implicit promise to share a certain degree of intimacy only with your partner. But then it is these circumstances that make the act morally wrong, or at least morally dubious, and not the casualness of it. Casual sex may certainly be unwise (though it doesn't have to be), or it may turn out that for one of the participants it was less casual than for the other. If there are different expectations, then this may well result in tears and hurt. But that still doesn't make it morally wrong, unless one is deliberately misleading the other. The fact that someone is hurt by something I do, is not sufficient to declare my action morally wrong. There are all sorts of things that we do that hurt other people without being morally wrong. I might, for instance, hurt a student by giving them a bad mark. Yet as long as the mark is fair and reflects their actual achievement, they may hurt all they want and I still haven't done anything that would qualify as morally wrong. Conversely, however, it seems to me that if nobody is hurt by something we do, then it cannot possibly be morally wrong. So clearly, if two people give each other pleasure, sexual or otherwise, and then part and each go their own way, there is nothing whatsoever morally wrong with that.

21 comments:

  1. As I was reading this, Michael, I was thinking of one of your earlier blog entries: Unfit for the Future? Persson and Savulescu on Moral Enhancement.

    Persson and Savulescu didn't cover the subject of sex in Unfit for the Future. But did the sexual revolution of the 1960s make us more fit for the future or not, when casual sex came into its own? I would think that if you asked a conservative the answer would be no.

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    1. Yes, obviously Persson and Savulescu are not very interested in sexual morality. Yet the way we think about, and practice, sex may well be an issue that an enhancement enthusiast will want to add to the list of things that ought to be enhanced. You're certainly right that a conservative would think differently than a liberal about what is best and how, if at all, we should change in this area. But that is because they have different conceptions of the good life, which in my view has nothing or little to do with morality proper (though it is an ethical question in the wider sense).

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  2. I think casual sex in itself is not morally wrong but is probably correlated with more casual attitude with sex/commitment in general. These people probably have a narrower boundary with the members of the opposite sex. I feel that girls who are open to casual sex generally take relationships less seriously. Of course, this is a correlation not a causation I think. Although one can argue that casual sex can slowly erode one's view on the exclusiveness of sexual intimacy.

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  3. Yes, John, I'm sure one can argue that. There are all sorts of behaviours that are connected to and even encourage attitudes that are neither very good for yourself nor for others, and casual sex may well be one of them. Playing too many computer games or watching day time television may too. My point is simply that this doesn't make it morally wrong.

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  4. People who have more sexual partners outside marriage are statistically more likely to get a divorce. I don't think just the act of casual sex is morally wrong per se, just like smoking, but statistically, having casual sex is similar to smoking or having unprotected sex since you're more likely to have negative effects down the line which would affect somebody (you and your future partner). So, in that sense casual sex is morally wrong. If someone chooses to live a single life of uncommitted relationships forever, casual sex ceases to be morally wrong.

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    1. That's an interesting approach, Arvind, and yes, I guess one can make that argument. However, you would have to assume that 1) the statistics are reliable, 2) that divorce is necessarily "bad" for the ones getting divorced, and 3) that any act that has a statistical probability of leading to "bad" consequences, i.e., that increases the likelihood of bad consequences, is morally wrong. I think all three assumptions are open for debate.

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  5. >When you're in a relationship, then having sex with someone else might be a breach of trust, or a breach of the implicit promise to share a certain degree of intimacy only with your partner.
    If intimacy is to be exclusive between parties to committed relationships, then casual sex can be retroactively considered a breach of this expectation. If I have casual sex with a person, and subsequently enter in to a committed relationship with a different person, then the intimacy between myself and my partner can never be exclusive, because the first person has already shared in intimacy with me. This means that the "implicit promise" is not a personal covenant but rather a common social standard that applies to everyone, on the assumption that they will at some stage enter in to a committed relationship.
    I am not sure that this makes the act "morally wrong", but it certainly explains widespread disapproval and revulsion, as well as principles that are now largely disregarded, like the taboo against premarital sex.

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    1. Interesting argument, though it seems to me that this kind of reasoning would rule out not only casual sex, but also any sex (however committed and non-casual) with someone unless you are absolutely certain that you will never have another sexual relationship in your life with anyone else. Because if you do, then that person might feel cheated and betrayed. This means that I could only ever seriously consider a virgin for a (non-casual) partner, which I find rather bizarre.

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  6. A person not interested in marriage will not have to think about how his casual affairs can affect his future family. One who is, though, has to.

    The wife of tomorrow would be in love with her husband of tomorrow, not the philanderer of yesterday. But what if the past showed up at his doorstep and said hi. A part of her would hurt, but her right side might subdue it with reason and trust in her husband. She, herself, might have indulged in flings before, so it makes it even.

    A child over 18 or 21 might have the maturity to take it. How about a child growing up at a vulnerable age? If you fear his reaction to a second marriage, how can you ignore how he'd feel about his dad sleeping (or loving. if he hasn't yet realized what is sex) with other women?

    Obviously, he won't just tell his kids. And the chances of talking to, let alone meeting someone whom he had a fling with, are low. But why create a potentially problematic situation? Why even have a secret? Why have a weakness to hide, which can be exploited?

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    1. All this is based on the assumption that there is something wrong or shameful about having sex. Sex has a procreative function, a social function (where it is important for pair bonding), and a recreational function (it is healthy fun). I can see no reason whatsoever why somebody should be worried about the fact that their parents had other partners before they found each other and conceived a child together. Why should anyone want to hide that fact? It's the most natural thing in the world.

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    2. If protected sex is just about socializing and recreation, why should a wife or her kids feel hurt if her husband/dad is in the present, sleeping with other women behind the scenes? He can justify that it is only his wife that he Loves while with others, he is merely Socializing.

      The feeling I'm touching upon is not 'Shame' but 'Exclusivity'. Good or bad, there exists a possessiveness not only between two lovers but also between the kids and their mom and dad, which is natural.

      Witnessing an interaction with either's Ex- brings a certain insecurity which gets stronger with more interaction, creating room for misunderstanding. Alright, mature adults deal with it with reason and see nothing wrong as there is no breach of trust, but they certainly cannot deny they felt awkward about it.

      So the conclusion drawn would be- Fuck around today. Fine. But fuck and forget. Don't even interact if you have a wife and little kids.

      Alright, it's not 'hiding' but my point is- Why leave room for an awkward situation to arise if it can the probability of that can be made 0.

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    1. Generally I would say, yes, that it is morally wrong to use another person as a mere object, that is merely as a means to an end, rather than also as an end. In fact, I think that this is the essence of morality (even though I'm not a Kantian). And we can imagine a scenario where somebody gives consent to be used as a mere means, in which case, depending on the exact circumstances, it may still be thought wrong.
      Regarding your second question, I'm not entirely sure I have understood it properly. But what I can say is that whether something we do is morally wrong and whether it makes somebody not "feel good" or even feel used are two different issues. If you happen to love somebody and they don't love you back, this can be a devastating experience, but it is not morally wrong for the other not to love you back, because you are not entitled to their love. However, it would be wrong to use somebody for sex who you know or have reason to suspect has deeper feelings for you. So as I said, casual sex certainly can be morally wrong, but not because it is casual. If it is wrong, then for other (circumstantial) reasons. I don't think that casual sex is best described as two people using each other or treating each other as mere objects or means. I can have casual sex with someone because of the fun of it but at the same time still be treating the other as an end. That we give each other pleasure doesn't necessarily mean that we treat each other as mere means. If we played tennis with each other for fun, that wouldn't mean we're treating each other as mere means either, would it? You can have casual sex with somebody and still treat them with respect and decency. And that is what matters, not the intention to enter into a long-lasting relationship each time you have sex with someone. Again, I am not recommending casual sex as an essential ingredient of a good life or something like that. I just think we have no reason to morally condemn anyone who engages in it.

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    3. Yes, I agree: sex is a very intimate business. You open yourself up, make yourself vulnerable. It's powerful. And yes, you usually make some implicit or explicit pact of faithfulness when you're with someone. However, when the relationship ends, that pact ends, too. So your ex-girlfriend doesn't do anything wrong. I can still understand why it saddens or maddens you. It's tough. But would it be easier for you if she had lots of sex with one person (who is not you) rather than many? I don't know: real-life relationships are always complex, as are our feelings. But just because we find some behaviour hard to accept, doesn't mean it's immoral.

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    5. You obviously have a personal issue here that I cannot resolve. So I'd rather not continue this discussion, which does not seem appropriate in a public forum. Sorry.

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    7. Look, I'm a philosopher, not a relationship advisor. But yes, I do think love can be real even if that love ends and one of the partners then has casual sex with other partners. And just for the record, I didn't say love was like tennis. I simply made a point about fun and treating people as means.

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