"Fidelity to the Marriage Bed," an Inquiry into the Foundations of Sexual Ethics

By Holbrook, Daniel | Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

"Fidelity to the Marriage Bed," an Inquiry into the Foundations of Sexual Ethics


Holbrook, Daniel, Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality


1. Outline

2. Humean Chastity: (The utility of heterosexual bonds)

3. Humean Sexual Ethics:(= Emotivism + Utilitarianism + Patriarchy)

4. The Evolution of Sexual Ethics: (Jared Diamond on concealed ovulation)

5. The Naturalistic Fallacy:(G.E. Moore's critique of naturalistic ethics)

6. Sexual Conservatism and Sexual Libertarianism

7. Controversial Issues in Sexual Ethics

7.1. Autoerotic Sex

7.2. Homoerotic Sex

7.3. Heteroerotic Sex

8. The Future of Sexual Ethics

9. Postscript

2. Humean Chastity

I begin with a passage from David Hume's An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751): (All book references are on fair use, except as noted.)

"The long and helpless infancy of man requires the combination of parents for the subsistence of their young; and that combination requires the virtue of chastity or fidelity to the marriage bed. Without such utility...such a virtue would never have been thought of."

There are seven concepts at play here:

1. Childhood frailty (CF),

2. The requirement of heterosexual bonds (HB),

3. Co-parental duties to children (PD),

4. The legitimacy of sexual ethics (SE),

5. Empirical bifurcation (EB),

6. Sexual ethics is a matter of conceptual analysis (SE-1), and

7. Sexual ethics is a matter of empirical contingency (SE-2).

I am assuming that Hume is using the extramarital sex taboo as an example representing sexual ethics in general. Childhood frailty is a biological fact about human beings. Empirical bifurcation is an underlying assumption here, and is an important tenet of Hume's philosophy, that being that all judgments are either what he calls "relations of ideas" (conceptual analysis) or "relations of facts" (empirical contingency).

The argument then goes as follows:

1. CF

2. CF > PD

2. PD > HB

3. HB > SE

4. SE (as a subconclusion)

5. SE > (SE-1 or SE-2) (empirical bifurcation)

6. SE-1 or SE-2 (from 4. and 5.)

7. CF > ~SE-1 (to be explained)

8. ~SE-1 (from 1. and 7.)

9. SE-2 (from 6. and 8.)

What Hume is saying here, first, is that childhood frailty is a contingent biological fact that, with the assumption of the value of the continuance of human civilization, implies co-parental duties (i.e., both parents care for the child), the basis for co-parental duties are the sexual bonds between mother and father, and these bonds are secured by an ethic of sexual exclusivity. Second, there is an underlying assumption of empirical bifurcation. Since the legitimacy of sexual ethics is, in part, based the contingent biological fact of childhood frailty, then sexual ethics must be of the second category--matters of fact. Being, at least in part, a matter of fact, sexual ethics as we know it cannot be purely a matter of deduction based on self-evident principles (conceptual analysis), and, therefore, "such a virtue would never have been thought of" (i.e., the ethic of sexual exclusivity in marriage would have never occurred to us, and so would never have been thought of as a virtue, if it weren't for the biological fact of human frailty.)

Another way of looking at it is to consider the reverse course of reasoning. If we were a species that did not have childhood frailty--if human children were well-prepared for life without the long and continued care and protection of their parents--then the heterosexual bonds fostered by sexual exclusivity would not be needed. And thus, the taboo of extramarital sex will have lost its legitimacy.

The crucial point here is that sexual ethics cannot be understood or justified independent of the biological facts and/or even the circumstances of human existence. That is, to understand human sexual ethics, we must first understand who we are and what are the principles that govern human society. …

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