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On sexual morality and marriage. Dr. Ching-wa Wong Department of Applied Social Sciences Hong Kong Polytechnic University sscwwong@polyu.edu.hk. Outline. Philosophical approaches to sexual morality The naturalness argument against homosexuality Utilitarian views on homosexuality

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on sexual morality and marriage

On sexual morality and marriage

Dr. Ching-wa Wong

Department of Applied Social Sciences

Hong Kong Polytechnic University


  • Philosophical approaches to sexual morality
  • The naturalness argument against homosexuality
  • Utilitarian views on homosexuality
  • The liberal and communitarian views on marriage, family, and reproduction
  • Arguments for and against same-sex marriage
sexual liberation backgrounds
Sexual liberation: Backgrounds

Utilitarianism / Liberalism


John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)


Frankfurt School

Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979)

MischelFaucault (1926-1984)


The case against Homosexuality:

The naturalness arguments

austere naturalism
Austere naturalism

What is unnatural is also immoral. Homosexuality and sexual perversion are unnatural. Therefore, they are immoral.

unhappiness a naturalistic argument against homosexuality
Unhappiness: A naturalistic argument against homosexuality

Michael Levin, ‘Why Homosexuality is Abnormal?’ (1984)

Homosexuality necessarily results in pain.

The pain is caused by the abuse of bodily parts.

The right use of the male genital depends on its evolutionary functions.

The right use of bodily parts is rewarding, and their misuse is painful.

Therefore, male homosexual acts are ‘abnormal’ in the sense that ‘it leaves unfulfilled an innate and innately rewarding desire [to have intercourse].’

(http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/27902859?uid=47656&uid=3738176&uid=2&uid=3&uid=67&uid=5910200&uid=32458&uid=62&sid=21103487023343 )

elements of the naturalness arguments
Elements of the naturalness arguments
  • Aristotelian functionalism
  • Objectivist conception of happiness
harm the utilitarian liberal approach
Harm: the utilitarian/liberal approach

John Stuart Mill’s ‘principle of harm’ in On Liberty (1869):

‘the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’

‘The only part of conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others.’

‘In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute.’

why the harm principle
Why the harm principle?

Everyone wants happiness.

But different people have different conceptions of happiness.

It is only by engaging in ‘the experiment of living’ that one knows what is truly happy for oneself.

Thus, we have no right to interfere with an individual’s decision or action unless it harms others.

But children and women are not fully rational, and should be protected.

the case of homosexuality
Homosexuality as a private conduct.

Policy issues: non-interference, neutrality, and tolerance.

Limitation: Moral paternalism is required if people intentionally harm themselves out of ignorance.

Alternative defense of homosexuality :

Peter Singer’s non-liberal version of utilitarianism


The case of homosexuality
marriage two political views
Marriage: Two political views
  • Liberalism (John Rawls):

Marriage is a social institution regulated by the conception of justice as fairness; the form that marriage takes is grounded on our social contract, not on human nature.

  • Communitarianism (Michael Sandel):

The meaning of marriage is connected up with our common belief in the good life; it is a matter of communal ties and not of individual choice.

a version of the communitarian view the natural law theory
A version of the communitarian view: the natural law theory

John Finnis, ‘Marriage: A basic and exigent good’ (2008):

  • Human nature plays an important role in shaping a society’s conception of good.
  • Marriage’s good is bound up with the social values of procreation and friendship.
  • Excessive individualism is a violation of the natural law.
  • (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1392288)
some communitarian questions about family life
Some communitarian questions about family life
  • Are there any limits of our sexual freedom as conceived by our society?
  • What forms of sexual partnership are congenial to our common conception of the good life?
  • Are sex and marriage instrumental to reproduction according to this conception? Or do they form an organic whole?
  • What if society no longer have consensus over the issue of the good life?

Same-sex marriage:

Arguments for and against

theories and criteria summing up
Theories and criteria: summing up
  • Libertarianism:
    • Individual freedom
  • Liberalism:
    • Contractual relationship; mutual respect; tolerance; individual freedom.
  • Utilitarianism:
    • Overall happiness.
  • Communitarianism:
    • Common conception of good; social meanings of human activities; human nature.
arguments for and against same sex marriage
Arguments for and against same-sex marriage




Maximization of Happiness


Public reason

  • The value of tradition
  • Naturalness
  • Harmful effects on homosexuals and other people
  • Human rationality
suggestions for further reading
Suggestions for further reading
  • General ethics textbooks:
    • Jeffrey Olen and Vincent Barry (2002), Applying Ethics, Wadsworth.
    • Mackinnon, Barbara (2001), Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues, Wadsworth.
  • Political theories and ethics:
    • Michel J. Sandel (2007), ed., Justice: A Reader, Oxford University Press.
    • Michael J. Sandel (2009), Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Philosophy of sex:
    • Robert B. Baker & Kathleen J. Wininger (2009), Philosophy and Sex, New York: Prometheus Books.