Two first principles of sexual ethics

In both the Summa and De Malo Thomas starts his sexual ethics with the thesis whether every sexual act is evil. The opening move is best read not as expressing any doubt over whether coitus is good but as a search for why exactly it is. The point of the thesis is to articulate the principle by which coitus is linked to good human acts. His answer is that just as eating is intrinsic to the preservation of the individual sexual activity is intrinsic to the preservation of the species, giving sexual activity an intrinsic connection to the common good of human persons.

This is not a principle of contemporary sexual ethics. For Singer and Boghossian, for example, sexual acts have no moral character at all but are matters of taste comparable to love of a sports franchise. You can have intense feelings about them, and you might even think some acts are “wrong”, but on this ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have no moral character. On this account, sexual activity is a sort of hobby or amusement. But even though hobbies and amusements have an intrinsic connection to the human good (it’s doubtful that human life would flourish without any of them) it doesn’t follow that sexual acts are connected to the good, even qua amusements. More importantly, even if sexual acts were matters of taste it would not rule out their being evil, except qua amusements. If you had a taste for one way of torturing cats and I had another, we would still both be depraved and condemned even if this did not happen qua our difference in taste. So the question recurs – how exactly is sexual activity connected to the good of human life?

Our answer seems to appeal to sexual activity as the exercise of a sexual identity as either straight or LGBT. So taken, identity is a potential that is actualized and brought to perfection by whatever sexual act suits it, and so in the name of self-perfection we are called upon to be sexually active as quickly and as frequently as possible. Any naysaying of this stifles not just free expression but personal identity. This undeniably gives a connection to the human good, but what answer might Thomas make to it?

It’s not clear how this notion of identity would map onto any moral ontology more than 50 years old, and the notion itself is taken as axiomatic even if theoretically opaque. Here’s an attempt to articulate what is going on: In a pre-industrial world, sexual activity gave identity by giving rise to the family and so establishing someone in a line of descent from such-and-such a father in a place and of a tribe. Because human sexualty gives rise to families it is not just procreative and unitive (since families exist by ties of generation and affection) but also a source of identity since it gives rise to a person with a fixed identity and relation to others. Viewed from this angle, our contemporary sexual ethic wants sexual activity to continue to give personal identity, but apart from the procreative power that generates actual persons with concrete relations, social and cultural structures, language communities, etc. Sexual activity can now fulfil or actualize one’s identity simply by having an orgasm, as though the genitals magically summon up identity like a genie from a lamp. At times there seems to be more than this – early trans activists in the 90’s spoke of wanting to re-establish hereditary lines and family structures to produce new sorts of families, but one gets the sense that if we sobered up and started taking the connection between sexual activity and family seriously it would be hard to avoid heteronormative – perhaps even Augustinian conclusions. It’s not as if anyone is in doubt over what kind of human sexual activity creates families as lines of descent from a common ancestor.





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