Book Review

Ethical Sex

by Anthony McCarthy
Fidelity Press

This is a really important work to read in the light of the recent Synod on the Family. For the purposes of this review, I will focus on what the author has to say on the ethics of sexual choices and their effects but there is much more than that to this book.

The author quotes notorious utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer as saying: "Decisions about sex may involve considerations of honesty, concern for others, prudence, and so on, but there is nothing special about sex in this respect, for the same could be said on decisions about driving a car." Singer then goes on to say that the moral issues raised by driving a car are much more serious from an environmental and safety point of view!

Your average psychiatrist or mental health worker spends a considerable amount of time assessing people after the break-up of a sexual relationship. Few such assessments take place after a break-up with a car. The author is surely right to note that there is indeed something special about a sexual relationship. And yet, perhaps Singer has a point after all,when we reflect on the number of people who trade in their spouses and cars for younger, fresher models. The author notes that many contemporary virtue ethicists and Kantian ethicists have endorsed Singer's reductionist (and frankly inhumane) views about sex. I am reminded of a young man who when interviewed on Radio 4 said that he would meet young women in clubs and go home with them. There would be no exchanges of names or bodily fluids as he rather proudly told listeners that he always used a condom. They would then depart with no desire to meet again. In essence, they have taken part in a session of mutual masturbation in order to avoid the vulnerability and emotional attachments that are natural to human sexual relationships.

Why is sex so special? Because, says the author, human beings are made for love and commitment: "For ethical sex ultimately is not about a series of hurled-down laws external to a fluid subject matter, but is rather about something called marriage, something written on our hearts, hearts made for love."

Herbert McCabe, that most interesting and infuriating of Thomists, is quoted as saying : "Love is not added to sex. Sex without love, or sex with bogus or imitation love, is distorted in itself, one of its essential elements is missing."

The author quotes dissident Catholic theologian Gareth Moore as stating that: "to try to ground the meaning of sexual activity in the creative activity of God is to make a fundamental mistake." But by this logic, as the author notes, it is difficult to see why Moore believes that sex has any biological meaning at all. Indeed, Moore adds: "Just as the meanings of words change over time in the same society, as people come to use words in changing ways, so the meanings of human acts can change with changing institutions and habits." Surely,Nominalism's final self-destructive end?

For Moore, the physical structure of the sexual act is irrelevant in helping to determine its goodness. One cannot help but feel that Moore's philosophical bent, so to speak, aims at undermining the nature of the marriage act as understood in history.

For Aquinas, and equally for the author, it is marriage which is "that standard with respect to which sexual activity is judged to be good or not, a standard that applies to all human beings by virtue of their rational nature."

The author notes that the Catholic Church holds that marriage as an arrangement of nature is of Divine origin. The essential properties of sacramental marriage are unity, monogamy and indissolubility.

What about polygamy, surely the next step down the inexorable road of marriage re-definition? The author notes that the upbringing of children will be impaired unless the parents, joined in stable marriage, are the ultimate authorities in charge of them.It is in accordance with nature that a child does best with one mother and one father.

The author's fine critique of the new natural law theory fits in well with the rest of the book because the new natural law theory repudiates the view that there is such a thing as human nature and that from human nature one can argue philosophically for a system of ethics. The metaphysics of human nature is cast aside and the metaphysics of human nature in relation to sexual activity is what I think this book is all about. But as the author concludes with a certain humility: "Philosophical speculation on sex does almost nothing to improve people's behaviour: other sources are needed for that."

In the light of the recent Synod on the Family and all its surrounding confusions, I cannot praise this book too highly.