Tuesday, September 18, 2007

An obligation to have sex?

There's an interesting exchange going on at Ask Philosophers about whether one can be morally obliged to have sex with one's partner. (Ignoring outlandish cases where aliens will otherwise blow up the world, etc.) Sally Haslanger argues not, appealing to one's inalienable right to one's own body. Alan Soble responds that we may also want to take into account the virtue of benevolence, considerations of "orgasmic (distributive) justice", and prudence / maintaining the relationship. Interesting stuff. It reminds me of some of the old comments here. (My initial intuitions are more in line with Haslanger's, but I don't know how justifiable they are at the end of the day. I mean, the idea of reluctant sexual relations seems simply awful. But if one is tossing up various possible options - all enjoyable - and it just happens that one would prefer reading even more than sex from a purely self-interested viewpoint, then in that case I can see that love of one's partner might reasonably motivate a good person to have sex instead. A less favoured option may still be viewed favourably, after all. But if the act were engaged in reluctantly, that would seem to change its very nature -- much for the worse!) Any thoughts?

Aside: one curious implication of utilitarianism seems to be that women ought to be a lot more promiscuous. Could this ground an especially strong 'demandingness objection' to the theory?

10 comments:

  1. I tend to lean towards the view that 'rights to ones own body' are fairly concrete, and that marriage does not remove such rights or create special duties towards the sexual satisfaction of ones partners (although, as a simple matter of reality, I would think the marriage is not likely to succeed in most cases without some commitment or concern in one another sexually).

    Some of Soble's answer struck me as besides the point. He drew attention to a number of reasons outside of a desire to have sex as being candidate reasons to have sex, but the initial question was whether we are morally duty-bound to have sex with partners. The fact that we might independently find several reasons to do so - beyond our lack of desire for sex - doesn't tell us anything about whether there is such a duty or not. Agreeing to have sex when you can't really be bothered doesn't mean that the right to not have sex no longer exists.

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  2. Several thoughts....

    If you're in a marriage when the language of "rights" and "duties" rears its head (rather than squishier things like "love" and "respect"), I think the marriage is in trouble.

    It's worth noting, though, that there's a matter of degrees of reluctance to be considered. Marginal reluctance to several activities, including sex, can be overcome by engaging in the activity. This probably isn't universal, but, AFAIK, it's generally true. So, at least one reason for going along with the other partner's interests is that they may become yours once you go along with them.

    Finally, if one partner's sexual interests aren't generally being satisfied by the other, doesn't this raise some questions about whether the one should (morally) remain sexually faithful to the other? If we're retreating to rights and duties, then doesn't each partner's giving up the right to seek out other sexual partners create a duty in the other to (at least past some threshold) satisfy the first's sexual desires?

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  3. I note this is a scale. its ridiculous to argue you dont have some sort of marginal obligation because it is too demanding because it is not demanding at all to be very marginally more sex oriented. If that is to demanding then everything is and you have demolished moral theory entirely. I'm inclined to say yes you can have such a moral obligation, weighted against your own welfare and more "rule utilitarian" sorts of objections

    GNZ

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  4. You point out that "the idea of reluctant sexual relations seems simply awful."

    This is true, but so likewise are the ideas of a mother reluctantly taking care of her child, a fire fighter reluctantly saving a life, or a friend reluctantly refraining from stealing from a friend.

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  5. Do some philosophers really approach their spouses and say, "marriage does not remove such rights or create special duties towards sexual satisfaction". Such a "marriage" is most certainly doomed and its partners are likely having sex with others who are interested in semen rather than semantics.

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  6. No. Many things philosophers say in the classroom would sound weird or inappropriate in other contexts (where things besides truth matter). That doesn't show anything.

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  7. (Unless, of course, one's spouse was insisting that you do have such a "special duty" to satisfy them, in which case one might feel the need to explain one's disagreement before filing for divorce!)

    As ADHR noted above, internal appeals to "rights" and "duties" indicates a marriage that's already in trouble. But it's interesting to think about the issue from an external perspective. It's important to note the difference.

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  8. > create special duties towards sexual satisfaction

    would such a person also beleive in no special obligation not to have sex with others with or without consent etc?

    presumably they want to reject all implied contracts of marriage related to ones body and the use thereof.

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  9. "Aside: one curious implication of utilitarianism seems to be that women ought to be a lot more promiscuous. Could this ground an especially strong 'demandingness objection' to the theory?"

    I don't think so, because human sexuality just works in certain very specific ways, and obliging people to have sex with others is unlikely to increase overall utility.

    That's not all there is to say, though. I think that utilitarianism has done us a real favor by highlighting how inherently suffering-based human sexuality is. This is of interest to me because I subscribe to Transhuman ideas, and like to think about how one might change things like sexuality.

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  10. "would such a person also believe in no special obligation not to have sex with others with or without consent etc?

    presumably they want to reject all implied contracts of marriage related to ones body and the use thereof."

    I wouldn't say so. The very grounds upon which marriage seems staked appears to be, among other things, a sexual exclusivity between the two people. Of course some people have open marriages (Will Smith? I heard somewhere), in which case it is understood that there is no such duties to monogomy.

    That there might not be duties to have sex with your partner does not imply that there are no duties to not have sex with anyone you please.

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