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Virtue Ethics, Casual Sex, and Objectification
Little has been written philosophically about casual sex. In any case, casual sex is not usually considered morally good, even if there is agreement that its practitioners tend to find it pleasurable. I shall discuss the ethics of casual sex, arguing that from the point of view of virtue whether casual sex is immoral depends on the case, but that in general it is not morally wrong in itself. I also discuss objectification, a phenomenon that is thought to find a natural home in casual sex, concluding that it does not deserve a sweeping negative moral judgment; it, too, requires case-sensitive judgments.
I. WHAT IS CASUAL SEX?
It is difficult to define “casual sex” if we understand it to mean providing necessary and sufficient conditions (Halwani 2006).
Casual sex is sexual activity that occurs outside the context of a love relationship. Usually, but not invariably, the parties who engage in it do so solely intend to derive sexual pleasure from the act.
Typical examples include two people picking each other up in a bar for the purpose of sex, people meeting through the Internet for sex, and anonymous encounters in gay bath houses and straight swingers’ clubs (“Plato’s Retreat” in New York City). Note some departures.
First, the parties to a casual sexual encounter may not be motivated solely by sexual pleasure. Some do it for the money, as in sex between a prostitute and client and sex between pornography actors.
Second, people sometimes engage in casual sex without intending to do so. Two people might pick each other up in a bar, proceed to have sex, yet they intended (or hoped) that it would lead to a relationship As it happens, the sex does not lead to a relationship, so they end up having casual sex despite their intentions.
Note also that casual sex is not promiscuity.’ Promiscuity has a built-in temporal and quantitative requirement lacking in the former, namely, that a person engages in sex (which might not be casual in the usual sense) multiple times over a particular period of time. (Specifying the number and the duration of the period is difficult.) Casual sex is not like that; one can do it even only once in one’s life (or a lot). Second, some sexual practices fit the above characterization of casual sex, but calling them “casual’ seems bizarre: rape, bestiality, and necrophilia. If it is incorrect to label these “casual sex,” then more needs to be done to fix the definition. I leave these issues open, focusing on paradigmatic instances of casual sex.
II. VIRTUE ETHICS
Virtue ethics is often construed as a moral theory independent of, and perhaps rivaling, other theories, such as consequentialism and Kantian ethics. Most virtue ethicists mine the writings of the ancient Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, to develop a plausible version.
Virtues and vices are character traits that dispose their possessor, the agent, to act according to their dictates (so to speak). On an Aristotelian view, the virtues are infused with wisdom, a form of practical intelligence that allows the agent to differentiate between what is right or proper to do, and what is wrong or improper to do.
The virtues incline their agents not only to behave rightly, thereby judging rightly how to proceed in a particular situation, but also to exhibit, when applicable, the proper emotions.
Consider courage. According to Aristotle, this virtue allows its agent to handle fear and dangerous situations properly.* He claims that the courageous agent feels the right amount of fear when in danger; otherwise he would be either rash or cowardly (NE 1115b17-
20). The goods for the sake of which the agent faces fear must be worthwhile (NE 1115a10-15). Overcoming one’s fear and stepping into the bathroom despite the presence of a cockroach does not count as being courageous the good at stake is trivial. By contrast, overcoming fear of retribution and reprisals and speaking up in a crowded and hostile room in defense of an innocent victim would count as being courageous. Aristotle also requires (NE 1105a30-1105b1) that the agent must act for the right reason or out of the right motive (Kant also requires this). To be virtuous, the agent must speak up because an innocent victim must be defended and an injustice stopped, hot because he is motivated by anticipated rewards for doing so.
Thus the virtuous agent is one who makes the right decision about what to do in a particular situation, makes this decision for the right reason, and feels the right kind and amount of any associated emotion. Not all virtuous actions require the display of emotion, however. Some virtues have no connection to emotions, such as magnanimity and magnificence (Hursthouse 1980-1981, 58). And some virtues deal with desires, rather than emotions, as is the case with temperance. (This does not mean that emotions are never experienced along with temperate action: realizing that my hunky neighbor lusts after me as I lust after him, I strip for the ensuing sexual activity, feeling both desire and joy and gratitude.)
III. CASUAL SEX AND VIRTUE
A virtue ethics approach is neither inherently hostile to nor inherently in favor of sexual behavior. Aristotle’s views on sex are found mostly in his treatment of temperance–the virtue that best expresses the proper attitudes and actions towards bodily desires (Halwani 2003 [chap. 3], 2007a; Young 1988). Whether a sexual action or desire is permissible or worthwhile depends on the object of the action or desire, much like whether fear is appropriate depends on its object (NE 1118625). One question is: Are people’s desires for casual sex permissible or worthwhile? Is there anything wrong with desiring to have casual sex?
Further, assuming that desires for casual sex are morally permissible, ought they be acted on? The type of desire, say, a desire for heterosexual, Vanilla sex, might be morally impeccable, yet acting on it in a particular case (having sex with my best friend’s spouse) might not be. There might be types of casual sex such that desiring them is wrong and indicative of a lack of virtue. For example, rape is wrong; if it is casual sex, then it is wrong casual sex, and both desiring it and acting on the desire would be wrong. Similar reasoning applies to sex with children. Moreover, if sex with animals or with corpses is wrong, and it is casual sex, then it would be wrong casual sex, and so desiring it would be wrong. But these cases are not exhaustive. Indeed, they are not even the types of casual sex that first come to mind, which include one-night stands, anonymous sexual encounters, and swinger sex. What seems to be wrong about rape, pedophilia, and so forth, is something other than the fact that they are casual. They involve coercion, manipulation, deception, and harm, to name a few moral faults. In these cases, desire indicates a defective character. If we focus on the usual cases of casual sex, they seem not to include these faults. If two adults pick each other up in a bar with the intention and the knowledge that they are to have casual sex, what might be wrong? Setting objectification aside for a moment, and assuming-contra Kant”-that sexual desire is not inherently morally suspicious, it would seem that nothing is wrong with desiring casual sex or acting on the desire as long as, from a virtue-centered perspective, two conditions are satisfied (beyond that the type of casual sex desired must avoid the standard wrong-making features).
The first condition is one on which the advocates of virtue ethics must insist, given virtue theory’s inclusion of character and motives under the moral umbrella: the agent’s desire for casual sex should not consume his or her life. That is, desires should not be so strong or numerous that they overshadow other important aspects of life.
Further, there might be something especially pernicious about letting sexual desire take control of one’s life. The first condition is bound to be controversial. Why should no single activity take over one’s life, if that activity is worthwhile? And if there is nothing morally wrong or vicious in general with a worthwhile activity taking control of one’s life, why be suspicious of sex? Perhaps when it comes to casual sex the idea is that an agent’s life being consumed by it is hard to defend, because sex is not sufficiently worthwhile to justify sacrificing other things. But casual sex is not special here, for life-consuming sex between a loving couple would perhaps not redeem such lives.
There is a tradition in philosophy and theology, which includes Plato, Augustine, and even John Stuart Mill, that doesn’t view sexual pleasure as valuable. The pleasures and goods of sex, though intense, are brief and tend to vanish (as opposed to, say, the pleasures and goods of reading a book). One can fondly remember sexual encounters, and can even dwell on these memories, but this is not worthwhile, if the activities that one dwells on are not worthwhile to begin with. One can manifest excellence when it comes to sex, but this, too, amounts to little if the activity at which one excels is not worthwhile.
I think this view is largely correct. Although sex is pleasurable, it is not the sort of activity to which devoting one’s life would be good.
It is not an activity that ordinarily enriches the agent or leaves its mark on humanity. Here casual sex might be especially vulnerable, since one cannot redeem it even on the grounds that one meets interesting people and thereby enriches one’s life (as is often said about taxi drivers). The meetings tend to be fleeting; they involve superficial conversations (if any) between strangers; one’s partner (and oneself) may well be dull and shallow. Casual sex seems not to merit letting one’s life revolve around it, let alone letting it consume one’s life. However, the argument has limits: if casual sex and the desire for it are not all-consuming, they could satisfy the first condition.
The second condition is another one on which advocates of virtue ethics would insist: what motivates the parties is subject to moral assessment, and casual sex must be engaged in for the right reason. Sometimes those who are motivated by desire for sexual pleasure have other motives that actually account for their behavior.
(Similarly, one might desire casual sex yet for some virtuous reason not engage in it.) One’s motives or reasons must be morally permissible or commendable. Having casual sex with X in order to spite Y, to make Y jealous, or to exact revenge on Y are morally pernicious motives. Morally permissible motives might include making money, engaging in leisurely activity, and wanting sexual pleasure. Morally commendable motives go beyond what is expected of people, for example, having casual sex with X out of compassion for X, or having sex with X so that X knows what to do on X’s wedding night.
An Aristotelian virtue ethicist would also consider the role of casual sex in a flourishing-well-lived, eudaimon-life. The concept of a flourishing life is central to Aristotle’s ethics since it explains why people should be virtuous (NE 1097a15-1098a20). Casual sex might not consume one’s life, be done for the right reasons, and not involve the usual wrong-making features. Still, could it contribute to a flourishing life?
Sexual activity is often experienced as an urge that, if not satisfied, leaves the agent agitated; it is generally pleasurable; in this and other ways it is an important source of leisure; and it often functions as a release, whereby the agent is able, afterward, to attend more freely and less anxiously to other matters. Consider, in this light, an agent who has a healthy sexual drive but who either has no room for a romantic commitment in her life or who, for some good reason, does not desire such a commitment. She prefers to pursue activities and projects central to her life. She might then opt to conduct her sexual life by engaging in casual sex, meeting sexual partners in bars, online, or having one or two “fuck buddies.” Such a sex life helps the agent flourish in the ways described above, i.e., casual sex allows her to avoid the agitation of unsatisfied desire, it refreshes her for a return to her work, and so forth.
Now consider a couple, X and Y, who decide to jettison sexual fidelity. They might do so because their sex has become boring or because they desire sexual variety. Extramarital sexual behavior should be conducted cautiously, because it can lead to jealousy and insecurity that endangers the relationship X and Y desire to continue to have. Still, if conducted wisely, it might lead to enriching their sexual lives without detracting from their lives and pursuits. It might even strengthen their love, allowing them to see how valuable they are to each other and how much they want to be with each other.?
And their casual sex may make their lives more pleasant. If properly and wisely engaged in, casual sex can enrich an otherwise eudaimon life by making it more pleasant and allowing the agents to pursue their life-projects more comfortably.
Finally, consider people who are not especially virtuous, but are not vicious, either. Because the virtues are necessary for flourishing, according to Aristotle, these people are not living their lives well.
Furthermore, they might have very little going for them under a philosophical (perhaps elitist) notion of what it is to live a worthwhile life: they are not astronauts, Proust scholars, or Piet Mondrians. They might be slow-witted or otherwise have bland personalities. Yet if they are physically attractive, the availability of casual sex might be something that makes their lives better. Casual sex would help them lead enjoyable, even if not flourishing, lives.
To objectify a person is to treat him or her only as an object. For example, a person treats another as an object if the first uses the second as a chair while reading the paper. If objectification is always morally wrong and is an essential feature of casual sex, casual sex is always wrong. It would not avoid one of the standard wrong-making characteristics of acts. Further, it would be tainted to the extent that the desire for casual sex included the vicious motive of objectifying one’s partner. Objectification poses a problem for anyone who thinks that casual sex is morally permissible.
Why assume that objectification is always morally wrong? Its moral wrongness cannot simply be read off from the definition; it is not obvious why treating an entity that is not an object (in particular, a person) only as an object constitutes conclusive grounds for moral condemnation. Something else must be added, to the effect that the person does not merit object-like treatment in virtue of some characteristic he has that morally blocks object-like treatment. So, in treating the person only as an object, one is trespassing this moral boundary. For persons, it might be their rationality, sophisticated desires and mental structures, hopes, wishes, happiness, capacity for flourishing or eudaimonia, or their affinity to God that morally elevates them above objects. Note that any of these features-not only rationality -could be the basis on which persons can legitimately demand nonobjectifying treatment. Objectification, though it has its natural home and origin in Kantian ethics, is a concept that fits well with other moral frameworks, including virtue ethics. If the feature specified cannot morally elevate us above objects (or animals), those who think objectification is always morally wrong will have to find other arguments (Sole 2002, chap. 2). I shall not pursue this approach.
Why assume that objectification is an essential feature of casual sex? In typical cases of casual sex, two people engage in sex only for sexual pleasure. In doing so, we might argue, they use each other-treating each other as objects, as sophisticated dildos or plastic vaginas–for the purpose of pleasure. Even when one party has other reasons or motives (money), there is still objectification, for X uses Y to fulfill that purpose. This argument need not rely on the implausible assumption that in typical cases of casual sex the parties intend to objectify each other. Even if X does not intend to objectify
X still does so in and by using Y for sexual pleasure.
The defender of casual sex can adopt two strategies. First, it can be argued that although objectification is an essential feature of casual sex, objectification is not always wrong. Second, it can be argued that objectification is not an essential feature of casual sex, and that whether casual sex objectifies depends on the particular case. I adopt the second strategy.
How can a particular casual sex act not be objectifying? If objectification is to treat someone who is not an object merely as an object, attending to the phenomenology involved in casual sex helps us see how. I Casual sex partners do not usually consider each other mere objects. A woman who picks up a man in a bar does so precisely because she thinks him a man, not a cleverly constructed robot or a penis with some body attached. A gay man who sucks another’s penis through a glory hole does so precisely because he thinks the penis is attached to a man, a man whom he likely saw earlier and was attracted to. Thus, the parties to casual sex usually desire interaction with other persons, not objects. On its own, this fact means little, for even as we know that our casual sexual partner is a person, we can nonetheless proceed to objectify him or her. But the fact is still important in reminding us that casual sexual interaction is close to many other types of human interaction, sexual and nonsexual. In casual sex, as elsewhere, we are aware of the humanity of others, and we usually attempt to respect their wishes, desires, and wants. Paying the grocer for the chewing gum, in a civil fashion, is a form of respect: I respect his wishes to be treated as a seller and kindly, not merely someone to be abused and robbed. This is no less true in casual sex; in typical cases, the partners attend to each other’s sexual needs, desires, and wishes. Indeed, even when X complies with Y’s demand, “Yes! Use me like a lemon sucked dry,” X would not be objectifying Y, for in treating Y as nothing but a body part, X is doing Y’s bidding. The operative phrase is “doing Y’s bidding,” and it is hard to see how abiding by Y’s wishes and desires one is objectifying Y, that is, treating Y merely as an object.
Note that this argument does not deny that objectification occurs in some cases of casual sex, in which, say, one partner treats the other as a piece of meat. Such cases are unlikely to be frequent, since the used person, realizing that he or she is being used in selfish ways, opts out of the activity (unless he or she is unable or afraid to), and since such behavior is largely confined to deranged individuals. Note also that this argument does not deny that in casual sex the focus is on sex itself and the body of one’s partner, rather than on some purportedly more substantial feature. Indeed, few things can disrupt the mood of casual sex act as well as intellectual conversation. But it does not follow that objectification is occurring, unless it also follows (which I cannot see that it does) from my focusing on a dancer’s body that I am objectifying her, or focusing on a chefs hands as he swiftly dices an onion is objectification. If so, objectification is not an essential feature of casual sex, and casual sex cannot be sweepingly faulted on this score.
Perhaps the defense of casual sex has gone through so easily because we have been employing a superficial definition of objectification. As Martha Nussbaum (1995) argued, objectification may be more complex, and treating someone as an obiect can take many forms and have different meanings. If so, a defense of casual sex should consider this complexity. Of the seven senses of “objectification” Nussbaum lists, however, only two pose difficulties; the other five-denial of autonomy, inertness, violability, ownership, and denial of subjectivity- do not. On the contrary, what typically occurs during casual sex is the opposite. In taking into account my partner’s sexual desires, I consider him to have autonomy, self-determination, and agency. Furthermore, I do not consider him to be violable, for I attribute to him boundaries and integrity in two ways: first, by not treating him contrary to his desires and, second, precisely by treating him in accordance with his desires. I also, for the same reasons, do not treat him as an owned object. Finally, in taking his sexual desires into account, I certainly do not treat him “as something whose experience and feelings… need not be taken into account” (257).
This leaves us with two objectifications, instrumentality and fungibility. Instrumentality is a problem only if the person is treated merely as a tool (which Nussbaum acknowledges, 265). But people frequently use each other as tools (students use teachers for educational purposes; teachers use students for career purposes). In interactions with each other, if we use each other as tools but also, in doing so, act in accordance with each other’s wishes and desires, it seems that objectification disappears. Since in casual sex the partners typically do this, instrumentalization, understood as the mere use of another as a tool, is not a problem.
Fungibility-the treatment of something or someone “as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type, and/or (b) with objects of other types” (Nussbaum 1995, 257)-is an interesting type of objectification. When we objectify someone, he would make perfect sense were he to say, “I demand that I not be treated this way,” given that we ought not to objectify people. However, fungibility does not license such reactions. Suppose I enter a coffee shop, do not like the selection, and go somewhere else. In doing so, I treat the store owner as fungible with other coffee shop owners. Yet for him to protest that I have wronged him in this treatment would be silly. Similarly, if I go to a bar in search of casual sex, no one can demand that I pick him or her up. In considering people as “interchangeable with other objects of the same type” I do nothing wrong. When objectification is wrong, others can demand of objectifiers that they, the objectified, not be objectified. This seems out of place regarding fungibility. Unless I have preexisting obligations, no one can demand that I purchase coffee from his shop rather than another or that I have sex with him instead of someone else.
Does this argument show that fungibility is morally innocuous objectification, or that fungibility is not objectification, period? As I have presumed, if objectification is always morally wrong, then fungibility cannot be objectification, because not all cases of treating people as fungible are morally wrong. We can add that in permissible fungibility-buying and selling merchandise, selecting hotels for vacationing, picking up people in bars, hiring people for jobs-those making the choices treat others in a fungible way, but they do not treat them as objects, because both the selected and rejected people have made the choice to compete with others for special attention, whether this attention be economic, sexual, academic, etc. The respectful treatment of others that occurs here nullifies objectification.
Fungibility seems wrong because it is like treating people like pens or paper cups, discarding one and using another for our own purposes. But this indicates that fungibility is wrong when it occurs with otherwise wrong actions, in which case fungibility itself is not the problem, or when it occurs in special relationships. For example, were I to own five slaves whom I treated like pens, consigning each to the trash bin when they ceased to be useful, I would be treating them fungibly. The wrongness here, however, stems from my treating them as objects to begin with, not the resulting fungibility. If I kidnap my neighbor’s child and bring them a child from the local shelter, declaring “Have this one. He’ll do,” the wrongness is fungibility, but only because I acted, wrongly, as if no special relationship had existed between parent and child, that is, as if any child of a certain age would for them be an adequate substitute. Now, if I were in a bar cruising for a one-night stand, eyeing potential sexual partners, I would be treating them as fungible; I view them, individually, as interchangeable with other men in general or with other men of a particular sort, say, thirty-something Indian or Pakistani men (“of the same type”). But since none of them can rightly demand of me that I sleep with him, and since I cannot sexually impose myself on any one of them or demand of any one of them that he sleep with me, in treating them as fungible I not only do not do them wrong, I do not objectify them.
So fungibility, when it comes to casual sex, should be stricken from the list of possible ways to objectify others.
I have argued that virtue ethics morally permits casual sex in some cases but not in others. Virtue ethics also allows an otherwise flourishing life to be enriched by casual sex. Moreover, objectification in casual sex is much less frequent than thought; it requires morally nasty behavior in which casual sexual partners do not usually engage.