2002 Sexual ethics answer

Question 5

(a) Examine at least two religious perspectives on sexual ethics. (14)

(b) To what extent if any is it reasonable to claim that sexual ethics should be separated from religious beliefs? (6)

(blue asterisks are points)


a) What are sexual ethics?

They are the codes by which we govern what we do with our sexuality, how we treat our bodies and other people’s.*

One religious perspective is that of the RC church which believes that as God created us male and female in his own image and gave us the command to go forth and multiply then our obedience to that must take the form of marriage and the having of children.*

By its very nature that marriage must be heterosexual and sexual relations outside that relationship are wrong because they would not be intended to produce offspring.*

This view of the RC church has a two-fold basis: firstly it is based upon Biblical texts like the command not to commit adultery in Exodus, the duty to procreate and the forbidden lying of man with man (Leviticus 20 v 13).* Though this has been much criticised by for example by john Boswell and Gareth Moore who argue that the use of the old Testament to support this latter view is hypocritical in view of how many other ordinances are not now followed for being out of date and that these teachings are being used inconsistently to reinforce prejudices.*

Secondly it is based upon Aquinas‘ natural law theory. This was the idea that everything in God’s creation has but one true purpose and the purpose of sexual organs is to reproduce therefore any other use for them for example, sex for sex’s sake, homosexual relations etc. being outside that specific purpose are sinful and wrong.*

This is quite a legalistic view in that it sees sex as only having one purpose, reproduction, whereas in the twentieth century there has finally been a shift away from the purely reproductive aspects to an understanding that sex can be seen as an expression of love.* It has been accepted that it can also serve other mutually beneficial purposes e.g. it can be an act of healing, of joy and of forgiveness.*

This view has also been the cause of much prejudice and debate particularly in the arena of homosexuality and its causes and acceptance but also on the issue of contraception. The RC church has always taught that this is wrong, it interferes with God’s purpose for human life and since every sperm and egg is a potential life it is effectively not allowing that life to be born. *Of course on the African continent with the huge problem with HIV and AIDS this teaching of the church is in direct conflict with the best interests of the largely black population for whom the use of the condom could actively reduce the spread and impact of this scourge. * The majority of Christians do now regard contraception as the more responsible option and far better than abortions and unwanted pregnancies.

A more modern and liberal perspective is that of the Methodist Church. They for example accept the idea that homosexuality is a condition and inclination one is born with and that those who practice it are ‘persons of sacred worth’ like any other.*

Also since it is now accepted that sex can be simply a means of expressing love between two persons the natural law theory loses ground and can no longer be used as a reason to object to homosexuality.*

Another reason this theory loses ground is because if the sexual organs are looked at only in terms of their ultimate function, people who remain single for life, women beyond the menopause, couples where one or other is infertile etc. would theoretically have to remain celibate.*

Others would argue that God gave man and woman pleasure in sex and therefore many would be unable to use that particular gift.*

Many modern churches now accept same sex relationships as preferable to promiscuous ones (1998 C of E Lambeth Conference) while still advocating celibacy, while it is no longer regarded as ‘living in sin’ to live with a partner before, or even instead of, marrying.*

On the subject of divorce the RC church is equally traditionalist in its approach. Jesus spoke out against divorce, Matthew said Jesus allowed it on the grounds of a woman’s unfaithfulness to her husband* and in this church tradition it is still very difficult to obtain. However the majority of Christian churches allow that while the ideal is for a lifelong relationship they now back away from outright condemnation and regard the breakdown of a relationship as a matter for the individual’s conscience* although most do not allow the remarriage in church yet.


b) To what extent should sexual ethics be separated from religious beliefs?

This rather depends on whether you think morality comes from God or not. (but don’t forget the question actually asks ‘should’)

Some people behave in ways dictated by their religion and some in ways governed by their own sense of morality i.e. of what is right and wrong and yet others purely by what the law dictates.*

So where does morality come from if not from God?

The Euthyphro dilemma was posited by Plato: ‘are things good because God commands them or does God command that which is good?’ Kant believed with Aquinas that the existence of morality proved the existence of God – why else would we need a conscience? Humanity has a duty to seek the summum bonum the highest good and does so by pursuing moral perfection.*

John Wesley argued that our conscience is our link to God and that we feel guilt after disobeying a moral law and that we know God’s law through our conscience. Aquinas said that when God made the world he saw that it was good and that it reflected his nature. Even our legal system is based on both the Jewish and Christian laws given in the Ten Commandments and The Sermon on the Mount.* All this implies that there is no morality separate from religion. If that were the case anyone who did not actively follow a religion would be assumed to be without morality and that patently isn’t true.*

So why do those people choose to do the right thing? Because we have a conscience. But what is a conscience?

Conscience is the dictate of reason‘, It is the reasoned voice within us that tells us how we should and should not act. It is the sense a person has of the moral aspects of his / her behaviour, motives and character. It produces in the subject a feeling of obligation: to do what is right, what is good and to avoid what is wrong or bad. It gives intuitive guidance on morally correct behaviour and, some suggest, it sets us apart from the rest of the animals because we can choose our behaviour.* Non-believers would claim that there is no need for this faculty to be God-given, nor need it refer to a code of conduct advocated by a deity.*

There are two views of what conscience is:

  • Intuitionism – which claims that it is an innate and intuitive faculty (which could come from God


  • Empiricism – which believes that it is entirely a learned response from life experiences and social conditioning. (psychological)*

And again neither of these psychological explanations needs a deity as an explanation.


So long as the ‘harm principle’ is adhered to by everybody, which is a general attitude of respect for other people, then perhaps in this modern era sexual ethics should be separated from religious beliefs. After all we no longer live in the repressive society so dominated by Patriarchal Judeo-Christian attitudes. Women are no longer subservient physically, legally or sexually to males and are able to take responsibility for their own sexuality. Women’s emancipation has freed both male and female to have more fulfilling lives where gender roles are no longer so restricting.*

Religion has for centuries dictated a woman’s worth and what she can and cannot do with her body perhaps it is time to ‘re-imagine’ sexuality along modern lines in order for everyone to participate fully in society.