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14. Natural Law vs. Liberal Ethics.
We have already encountered one debate: the dispute between a Thomistic Natural Law approach to sexual morality and a more liberal, secular outlook that denies that there is a tight connection between what is unnatural in human sexuality and what is immoral. The secular liberal philosopher emphasizes the values of autonomous choice, self-determination, and pleasure in arriving at moral judgments about sexual behavior, in contrast to the Thomistic tradition that justifies a more restrictive sexual ethics by invoking a divinely imposed scheme to which human action must conform. For a secular liberal philosopher of sexuality, the paradigmatically morally wrong sexual act is rape, in which one person forces himself or herself upon another or uses threats to coerce the other to engage in sexual activity. By contrast, for the liberal, anything done voluntarily between two or more people is generally morally permissible. For the secular liberal, then, a sexual act would be morally wrong if it were dishonest, coercive, or manipulative, and Natural Law theory would agree, except to add that the act’s merely being unnatural is another, independent reason for condemning it morally. Kant, for example, held that “Onanism . . . is abuse of the sexual faculty. . . . By it man sets aside his person and degrades himself below the level of animals. . . . Intercourse between sexus homogenii . . . too is contrary to the ends of humanity”( Lectures , p. 170). The sexual liberal, however, usually finds nothing morally wrong or nonmorally bad about either masturbation or homosexual sexual activity. These activities might be unnatural, and perhaps in some ways prudentially unwise, but in many if not most cases they can be carried out without harm being done either to the participants or to anyone else.
Natural Law is alive and well today among philosophers of sex, even if the details do not match Aquinas’s original version. For example, the contemporary philosopher John Finnis argues that there are morally worthless sexual acts in which “one’s body is treated as instrumental for the securing of the experiential satisfaction of the conscious self” (see “Is Homosexual Conduct Wrong?”). For example, in masturbating or in being anally sodomized, the body is just a tool of sexual satisfaction and, as a result, the person undergoes “disintegration.” “One’s choosing self [becomes] the quasi-slave of the experiencing self which is demanding gratification.” The worthlessness and disintegration attaching to masturbation and sodomy actually attach, for Finnis, to “all extramarital sexual gratification.” This is because only in married, heterosexual coitus do the persons’ “reproductive organs . . . make them a biological . . . unit.” Finnis begins his argument with the metaphysically pessimistic intuition that sexual activity involves treating human bodies and persons instrumentally, and he concludes with the thought that sexual activity in marriage—in particular, genital intercourse—avoids disintegrity because only in this case, as intended by God’s plan, does the couple attain a state of genuine unity: “the orgasmic union of the reproductive organs of husband and wife really unites them biologically.” (See also Finnis’s essay “Law, Morality, and ‘Sexual Orientation’.”)
15. Consent Is Not Sufficient.
Another debate is about whether, when there is no harm done to third parties to be concerned about, the fact that two people engage in a sexual act voluntarily, with their own free and informed consent, is sufficient for satisfying the demands of sexual morality. Of course, those in the Natural Law tradition deny that consent is sufficient, since on their view willingly engaging in unnatural sexual acts is morally wrong, but they are not alone in reducing the moral significance of consent. Sexual activity between two persons might be harmful to one or both participants, and a moral paternalist or perfectionist would claim that it is wrong for one person to harm another person, or for the latter to allow the former to engage in this harmful behavior, even when both persons provide free and informed consent to their joint activity. Consent in this case is not sufficient, and as a result some forms of sadomasochistic sexuality turn out to be morally wrong. The denial of the sufficiency of consent is also frequently presupposed by those philosophers who claim that only in a committed relationship is sexual activity between two people morally permissible. The free and informed consent of both parties may be a necessary condition for the morality of their sexual activity, but without the presence of some other ingredient (love, marriage, devotion, and the like) their sexual activity remains mere mutual use or objectification and hence morally objectionable.
In casual sex, for example, two persons are merely using each other for their own sexual pleasure; even when genuinely consensual, these mutual sexual uses do not yield a virtuous sexual act. Kant and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) take this position: willingly allowing oneself to be used sexually by another makes an object of oneself. For Kant, sexual activity avoids treating a person merely as a means only in marriage, since here both persons have surrendered their bodies and souls to each other and have achieved a subtle metaphysical unity ( Lectures , p. 167). For Wojtyla, “only love can preclude the use of one person by another” ( Love and Responsibility , p. 30), since love is a unification of persons resulting from a mutual gift of their selves. Note, however, that the thought that a unifying love is the ingredient that justifies sexual activity (beyond consent) has an interesting and ironic implication: gay and lesbian sexual relations would seem to be permissible if they occur within loving, monogamous homosexual marriages (a position defended by the theologians Patricia Jung and Ralph Smith, in Heterosexism ). At this point in the argument, defenders of the view that sexual activity is justifiable only in marriage commonly appeal to Natural Law to rule out homosexual marriage.

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