Introductory Class on Sexual Ethics and (John) Rawls' Method of Reflective Equilibrium
Keshen, Richard, The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality
Applied ethics has been an intense and fruitful pursuit of moral philosophers over the past twenty-five years. (1) As well as dealing with issues such as abortion, animal rights and euthanasia, philosophers have had enlightening things to say about sexual ethics. Most contemporary ethics anthologies contain articles with titles such as "What's Wrong with Rape", "Is Adultery Immoral?", "Plain Sex", and "Homosexuality and the `Unnaturalness Argument"' (Arthur, 1981; Grcic 1989). As a prelude to analyzing such articles in my first-year philosophy course, I have developed a strategy for limbering up my students' minds regarding sexual ethics. This strategy does its job successfully, and I believe is worth sharing. In Part A of this article, I describe the strategy. In Part B, I show how my strategy can be understood, and further extended, by seeing it in the light of John Rawls' moral methodology of reflective equilibrium.
I should say at the outset that this topic extends over at least two 50 minute periods.
Before the actual discussion on sexual ethics, I go over with my students the differences between verbal, factual, and category disputes. The reader will find it useful if I briefly summarize these notions. (These distinctions are often discussed in texts on Critical Thinking or Informal Logic. I have found the chapter on language in Engel 1986 particularly helpful).
A verbal dispute arises when a key word in an argument is used ambiguously; the dispute is resolved, or at any rate progresses to the next stage, through the disputants' agreeing on which meaning to use. A factual dispute is settled through the disputants' agreeing on what empirical evidence would resolve their dispute, and then seeking out the relevant evidence. Many real life differences, of course, involve elements of both the verbal and the factual. An example will help clarify the distinction.
Say John and Jane are disputing the extent of male homosexuality in Canada. If Jane uses the word homosexual to mean "someone who selfidentifies as a homosexual", she will come up with one set of empirical data. If, on the other hand, John uses homosexual to mean "someone who regularly engages in homosexual acts", he is likely to come up with a different set of data. There is clearly a sense in which Jane and John are not locking horns. They are talking past each other because they are attaching different meanings to homosexual. Their dispute would be resolved if they could agree to a shared meaning for the sake of the argument. Perhaps they could even collect two sets of data, one reflecting Jane's definition and the other John's. Verbal disputes, then, are relatively easy to resolve, once the disputants recognize they are attaching different meanings to the same word, and at the same time agree that there is no right or wrong, no better or worse, way to define the word in the given context.
But sometimes disputes over definitions go much deeper, and reflect differences over how best to categorize something. In category disputes, as I am calling them, the disputants find it impossible to adopt a shared meaning for the sake of the argument. Say, for example, Jane believes it is actually a serious mistake to categorize someone as a homosexual if he doesn't self-identify as a homosexual. Jane then is defending one use of homosexual over other uses. Here one could imagine Jane's bringing to bear sociological, psychological, as well as moral and political considerations to defend her use of homosexual over John's use. Indeed, there is just this kind of controversy over the use of homosexual in the literature (see, for example, Ian Hacking, 1990).
A category dispute often involves a dispute over how best to classify something which has no relevant clear-cut classification. Such category disputes can be clarified through a consideration of paradigm cases. We know that the Mona Lisa is a work of art, and that my pencil is not. …