Ethics: No Harm No Foul?

I recently wrote criticising the Democratic Christian Alliance for being over-sensitive in the matter of the slightly-sexually-suggestive DASO poster. In the same post, I also hinted that, according to my moral outlook, sex belongs only within a marriage relationship. A reader complained that, in implying that certain sexual acts are immoral, I was demonstrating that I actually agree with the CDA position that I claimed to oppose. This is my attempt at explaining how the CDA and I differ.

The difference between my approach and that of the CDA is the difference between public and private ethics. In a pluralistic society, there is likely to be (or ought to be) a difference between what one personally considers to be morally right, and what one considers to be morally binding on everybody else. The CDA response to the ‘immoral’ poster was out of line because as a political organisation they need to demonstrate why their moral opinions should be binding on all; they ought not to be making accusations without evidence and on the basis of their preferences.

The harm principle

Public morality—at least in the hands of liberal politicians—tends to be governed by the harm principle. It says that one is permitted to do nearly anything, so long as no one gets hurt (against their will). It is not too different from that common moral teaching, ‘Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you’. It is a good principle in the sense that it gives wide and satisfying scope for individual freedom, and it is also a reasonably simple and practical guideline for public behaviour.

I am in favour of the harm principle as the criterion to which members of society should be held. While it makes it highly unlikely that the wider public will ever live in a way that I consider moral, it also means that no one will force their ideas about morality on me. Furthermore, the same principle gives me the freedom to practice Christianity even under the rule of non-Christian governments, it allows me to tell people what I believe, and it allows us all to change our beliefs if we wish. Even if I wanted a government that forced Christian standards upon all citizens (I don’t), I would undoubtedly be at war with a government that attempted to force me to live according to another religion. If I would find this government interference to be evil when it goes against me, how could I consider it good and loving to others to support such interference just because the moral preferences suit me?

So I find the principle of harms to be the best way of accommodating the variety of belief present in pluralistic society, but I don’t think therefore that it is an ideal moral system.

The problem with harms

The harm principle is something of a lowest common denominator. I strongly believe that there are moral criteria that extend beyond merely inflicting pain on others.

For example, when conservative religious parties complain about sexual immorality (such as with the DASO poster), the usual response from further left is that the act involves consenting adults acting within a relationship of love, they are harming no one, and so who has the right to tell them that their behaviour is immoral? It seems to me, however, that this line of reasoning is abandoned by nearly everyone when one of the lovers also falls in love with a third consenting adult. There remains a relationship of love between both pairs of consenting adults, and yet the first lover experiences it as betrayal.

As far as I’m aware, infidelity (or is this just premarital polygamy?) doesn’t violate the harm principle. There is no compelling reason why you have to feel hurt when someone loves  you and someone else, and certainly there is no intention to inflict pain. Either way, it is the absence of the positive virtue (fidelity) that defines this sort of action as immoral, rather than the presence of a negative (harm). Sleeping with someone else remains immoral, even if your spouse could not possibly find out and never does.

So, as a public-policy-defining moral basis, the harm principle is good. But as an actual standard of moral ideals, it leaves out too much. Morality, for example, ought to include positive virtues.

The love principle

Rather than ‘harm’ as the main idea, I prefer ‘love’ as the basis for morality, even though that may sound vague or hackneyed. Instead of ‘not doing to others what you’d not want done to you’, the moral ideal should be ‘do as you would have done to you’. It’s an active principle of doing good, rather than merely avoiding evil. Furthermore, the love principle incorporates the principle of harms; as St Paul says,

Whatever commandments there may be are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfilment of the law. [Romans 13:9-10]

Love allows people of different beliefs to coexist in freedom, but it also demands more, both in responsibility to others, and in the limiting of one’s own freedoms for the sake of higher goods, such as fidelity.

Qualities such as ‘love’ and ‘the good’ are difficult to define and harder to legislate, but nevertheless, an individual’s moral judgements should be informed by avoiding immediate harm, positive application of virtue, positive action for the good of others, consideration of function and purpose, and willingness to intervene to prevent present or future harm to the individual or to society. Love, as they say, must sometimes be tough, and so this principle may prove more restrictive (in some ways) than harms does, but nevertheless, morality is always a higher calling than what we do by nature.

Me, the CDA, and sex outside of marriage

So, like the CDA, I believe that promiscuity is immoral, yet unlike the CDA, I don’t believe that it is the responsibility of officials and organisations to agree with me or to insist that the wider public must. This is especially true of issues that we consider immoral because they are against God’s commands. If something is to be binding upon everyone, then there needs to be strong support for it beyond ‘It’s against my beliefs’. After all, I wouldn’t want to be punished for having a birthday party or refused a blood transfusion for my child just because a Jehovah’s Witness happened to be in power.

While I believe that adults should be free to engage in sex outside of marriage if they wish, I consider it immoral for reasons in addition to divine command. To be moral, sex needs to conform to the principle of love, and therefore be suitably other-person-centred, yet sex can easily be selfish behaviour that can be extremely unloving.

Because the sex act involves unparalleled levels of intimacy and trust between participants, and because participating in it (generally speaking) includes the possibility of bearing children, there is a level of commitment implicit in the act. If one is truly acting in a loving way towards one’s partner, then one should be able to precede sex with an act of commitment that matches the level of trust implicit in sex. If you’ll commit in word to be faithful, but not in deed (by actual contract), then what good is your word? You may well argue that the commitment of marriage is disproportionate to the one implied by having sex, but that’s a matter of opinion. Sex is a powerful emotional force that can do damage if abused, and especially if one adds a pregnancy to the equation, then the willingness to commit to a relational environment built to cope with such consequences (i.e. marriage) no longer seems that extreme. Again, if you can’t take responsibility for those kinds of consequences before sex, are you sure that you will after? So I’d agree with the Biblical judgement that premarital sex has a tendency towards self-gratification rather than the other-person-centeredness of love, and is as such immoral.

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3 thoughts on “Ethics: No Harm No Foul?

  1. Lesang says:

    Thanks Jordan, I suppose there are two extremes (both of which I have belonged to in my idealist youth). One is to say ‘morality is oppressive’, and therefore any form of conviction about what is publically wrong or right is by its very nature oppressive (I think this is what you were being charged with).

    The other extreme is to say that public morality should be judged by a certain religious standard that everyone must abide to, regardless of belief. Both extremes have tragic consequnces.

    It is indeed sad that there is no credible global example of a nation/political party that exemplifies the ‘love principle’ (most dwell either on ”law’ or on ‘freedoms’). The liberal/Christian alliance divide seems to dominate most of global politics.

  2. Hephaestion says:

    The issue of pregnancy is irrelevant. Women don’t suddenly quit having sex once they hit menopause. Infertile men and women can also enjoy having sex. There are sexually active couples who, for whatever reason, choose not to have children. Gay couples can also have sex without the intent to have children.

    The issue of promiscuity is also irrelevant. Sex before marriage has nothing to do with promiscuity. A person can be married and promiscuous, just as they can be in a committed and monogamous yet unmarried relationship.

    The issue of commitment vis-à-vis marriage is specious. In America about 50% of first marriages fail (and it only gets worse with each subsequent marriage).

    It would appear that the only reason you object to sex before marriage is because the Bible says it’s bad – all your other reasons just seem to be post facto rationalisations of this biblical injunction.

    You claim these reasons are in addition to “divine law,” but then you imply having no moral issue with sex between consenting adults as long as they are in love, “other-person-centered,” in a committed relationship and suitably responsible. Supercilious tone apart, there is nothing here that could not be met by unmarried couples. And yet they would still be in sin because of the biblical injunction.

    A loving couple, then, faithful and together (and unmarried) until death would have had a sinful relationship. How to turn something beautiful into something ugly.

  3. Lesang says:

    Hello Mr. Hephaestion (not sure if that is really your name?)

    I would like to ask, do you like or agree with any of the writings of Emmanuel Kant? Was he also rejecting sex before marriage (oh yah, masturbation as well for that matter) because of the Bible in his Ethical thought?

    On pregnancy, are you arguing that sex exists solely for enjoyment? Is there no natural and indeed rational connection between sex and procreation? Can’t we at least take a look at dogs as a rough guide for sexual morality?

    On promiscuity, you seem to like the idea of ‘committed and monogamous’ … ‘yet unmarried’? It is not clear to me how public vows necessarily lessen the aspects of commitment and monogamy.

    Evidence for Bible punting on Kant’s side will suffice for whether all rejection of sex before marriage comes only out of the Bible. Many cultures have historically rejected the idea of sex before marriage without quoting (or knowing any) verses.

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