Sexual ethics A* grade summary notes


Full notes      This page: A* summary notes      C/B summary notes

Christian teachings (Bible & Augustine) on homosexuality, pre-marital sex & extra-marital sex

  • The Bible is against all three.
  • ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ – adultery is sex outside marriage, whether pre or extra. Homosexuals can’t get married, so all homosexual sex is adultery and thus not allowed.


  • “Man shall not lie with man as he does with woman, that is an abomination, they shall both surely be put to death, their blood is upon them.” – Leviticus 20:13

St Augustine on sexual desire and original sin

  • Augustine references Genesis, where after disobeying God Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness and covered up out of shame. 
  • Augustine claims it is ‘just’ that we feel shame about our naked bodies, since it is just that we feel shame over having lust because it being beyond our control is the result of our fallen state. 
  • Augustine argues this is universal – people of all cultures cover up their genitals, and sex is done in private, which Augustine suggests is due to the shame associated with it. 
  • This all shows the connection between sex, sex organs and the shame of original sin which caused Adam and Eve to feel shame and wear clothes. 
  • Augustine concludes that sex must be confined to marriage for the purpose of having children.
  • This means that homosexual sex is not allowed.
  • Anything else is just giving in to original sin in a depraved and disordered way.


  • Liberal Christianity as a response – reject the view that the Bible is the perfect word of God
  • Liberal Christians do not view the Bible as the perfect word of God.
  • They point out that it is full of errors and contradictions.
  • This means it is merely the product of the human mind – it is not the perfect word of God,
  • The Bible is a human record of divine events – humans who met Jesus wrote down what they learned and took from him.
  • This means that the Bible was affected by the cultural attitudes of ancient society. 
  • It is full of moral views that would now be considered outdated and even barbaric.
  • So, liberal Christians could be accepting of homosexuality and pre/extra marital sex.
  • The Bible is clearly against those things, but liberal Christians think the Bible is just the product of the human mind and it needs to be updated to be made relevant to modern times.


  • Pick a side

Secular views on sexual ethics

  • Freud’s rejection of Christian approaches to sex as overly repressive. 
  • Freud himself was quite conservative regarding sex in many ways, but nonetheless he was very influential on secular liberal views on sex. 
  • He thought that traditional Christian attitudes towards sex resulted in a feeling of shame about sexual desire which led to unhealthy repression and mental illness.
  • The liberal secular attitude towards sex is influenced by Freud. 
  • It claims that sex is a natural biological desire which shouldn’t be a source of shame but of well-being. 
  • Augustine’s insistence that there is something shameful about lust is absurd and pointless once you understand it is the result of evolution, not original sin. 
  • Conservative religious attitudes towards sex are therefore unnecessarily repressive and puritanical. They become an unhealthy and pointless obsession with self-control borne from insecurity over a mythical fall from grace.
  • Arguably Christianity’s repression of sexual desire made more sense in ancient times when humans were more animalistic, less socialised, less domesticated. 
  • Strict laws and harsh penalties might have been needed then, because humans were less self-controlled and thus needed greater external pressures to keep them behaving adequately. 
  • However today, arguably humans have developed to the point where they can be trusted with more freedom. This suggests that our nature is not cursed with original sin such that we need draconian sexual norms and legislation. 
  • Traditionalists always fought against the sexual liberalisation of society, concerned it would harm social order, and yet society seems fine if not better.

Evaluation – oversexualization

  • Secular soceity seems oversexualised to a concerning degree.
  • Sexual imagery is used as advertising everywhere.
  • People have an unhealthy superficial fixation on their appearance.
  • Bishop Barron agrees with this point – arguing that the superficial secular attitude towards sex has turned it into a meaningless act.
  • He argues this can be psychologically damaging for people. 
  • God designed sex to be within a loving marriage.
  • Having sex outside marriage, engaging in what is meant to be a meaningful and personal act in such a superficial way is actually psychologically harmful.

Natural law (religious) on sexual ethics

Application to homosexuality, pre-marital sex & extra-marital sex

  • Children are best raised within marriage.
  • Education can only be fulfilled so long as children are born in wedlock
  • Children born outside of marriage tend to be less educated
  • So, sex must be confined to marriage to fulfil the primary precept of education.


  • Natural law is outdated – it was created in a mediaeval socio-economic time and its rules reflect that. In Aquinas’ time, having sex outside marriage was often a death sentence because sex led to children, and single mothers struggled to survive. There was a great need for reproduction, because so many children died – which was part of why it was against homosexuality, because of the intense need for reproduction. Homosexuality was also seen as against the nuclear family dynamic, which was also needed for reproduction and education.
  • Today, these socio-economic conditions are no longer present. We now have effective contraception and support for single parents. We have overpopulation, and it’s no longer the case that children outside marriage are doomed to lack education. The reasoning behind Aquinas’ views on sexual ethics no longer apply. It is outdated. In Aquinas’ time, his reasoning made sense – but that was because of the dire situation society was in.


  • outdated doesn’t mean wrong – it just means popular opinion has shifted. 
  • If Hitler had won WW2, democracy would have come to be seen as ‘outdated’. 

(Optional) Counter-counter:

  • However – the Critique is not just that Aquinas is outdated in that popular opinion has changed – the best version of the ‘outdated’ critique is to argue that Aquinas’ theory was actually a reaction to his socio-economic context and since that has changed, Natural law is no longer relevant.
  • Aquinas thought that he discovered the primary precepts through human reason, as God designed. However, arguably it’s a simpler explanation that Aquinas was simply figuring out what would have been good for people in his socio-economic condition. That the resulting principles actually came from God was only in his imagination.

Further evaluation of natural law

  • Fletcher’s critique of natural law that there is no natural law, or our minds are unable to know it, as shown by cross-cultural moral disagreement. 
  • There are clear cases of different moral views on sexual ethics between different societies. 
  • Some societies are more accepting of homosexuality and pre/extra marital sex.
  • This suggests it’s not true that we are born with the ability to discover the primary precepts.
  • So, Natural law ethics, and what it says about sexual ethics, is wrong, according to Fletcher

Defence of Aquinas

  • However, there are cross-cultural similarities, such as the idea of marriage and the importance of confining sex to marriage.
  • More generally, all cultures have restrictions on stealing and killing – the primary precepts seem quite universal.

(optional): counter-defence

  • However, again, those could be explained by the universality of practical requirements for the raising of children, especially since for most of history people have been economically deprived.

Situation ethics (religious) on sexual ethics

  • Application to homosexuality, pre-marital sex & extra-marital sex
  • As long as homosexuality or pre/extra-marital sex has a loving outcome, Fletcher thinks it is good.
  • Homosexuality: if someone is in a very homophobic society which could threaten their life if discovered, Fletcher might be in favour of not acting on homosexual impulses in that situation – for their own protection.
  • However, if someone would not face violent homophobia, then it seems more loving to allow them to live like they want to.
  • Pre-marital sex: Fletcher would be against it if someone was pressured into it, either by others or by society in general.
  • However, if all people involved are happy and it’s a genuine choice, then Fletcher would say it had a loving outcome and there’s no ethical issue with it.
  • Extra-marital sex: Fletcher would be against it in most cases, because cheating on someone is not exercising agape love.
  • However, in rare cases, Fletcher would accept it. He gave the example of a wife in a prison who had sex with a guard to become pregnant so she could be released and go back to her family. That adultery had a loving outcome.


  • Fletcher ignores most of the commands in the Bible
  • The Bible is clearly against homosexuality and pre/extra-marital sex, so Fletcher’s theory is not being true to Christian ethics.

Defence of Fletcher: 

  • Fletcher doesn’t think the Bible is the perfect word of God that we can follow literally. The most we can get from it is general themes and Fletcher thinks that Agape is an important theme in the Bible.

Further evaluation of situation ethics

  • Barclay: situation ethics grants people a dangerous amount of freedom
  • People are not perfectly loving so if given the power to judge what is good or bad, people will do selfish or even cruel things. People’s loving nature can be corrupted by power. E.g. a homophobic parent might genuinely think it loving to kick their gay kid out the house.

Defence of Fletcher:

  • Fletcher & Robinson argue that mankind has ‘come of age’, meaning become more civilised and educated and capable of making autonomous ethical choices.

Utilitarianism (secular) on sexual ethics

  • Application to homosexuality, pre-marital sex & extra-marital sex


  • Homosexuality: generally good, except if in a homophobic society 
  • Pre-marital sex: good if people are ready for it and not pressured, bad if otherwise
  • Extra-marital sex: good if it helps people leave abusive/unhappy relationships, bad otherwise


  • As a Rule Utilitarian, Mill has a more blanket view – rather than saying things are something right and sometimes wrong, he would think following a social rule which maximises happiness is correct.
  • Mill’s favourite rule was the ‘harm principle’ – that people should be free to do what they want so long as they are not harming others.
  • Homosexuality: should be accepted – consenting adults should be free in their private life to do whatever they want. If society is homophobic, it should try to change so that everyone can be happy – this will maximise happiness long-term.
  • Pre-marital sex: consenting adults should be free to do what they want
  • Extra-marital sec:  consenting adults should be free to do what they want


  • The issue of calculation: it’s hard to predict the future, to measure subjective mental states, to calculate these things in time-sensitive situations. 
  • For example, we can’t predict the future regarding allowing homosexuality or pre/extra-marital sex.


  • Mill’s Rule utilitarianism does not have this issue – people simply need to know the social rules that our society has calculated to maximise happiness.

Further evaluation of Utilitarianism

  • The issue of liberty and rights. 
  • Act utilitarianism seems to justify bad actions. 
  • So long as a majority gain happiness, it seems to justify infliction of harm on a minority. 
  • E.g., if most people found homosexuality disgusting, Utilitarianism seems to judge it right for homosexuals to stay in the closet – to avoid offending and upsetting the majority of people and thus lessening happiness. 
  • Same goes for pre and extra marital sex – if most people find these behaviours so offensive and disgusting that they would be made unhappy by their presence in society. 
  • Act seems to have to go along with whatever are the prejudices of the majority of people. People genuinely do seem to get that worked up by homosexuality and pre/extra marital sex. 


  • Mill gets around this issue – the harm principle has a more long-term view of maximising happiness. 
  • In Mill’s time, most people genuinely found homosexuality and pre/extra marital sex to be disgusting to the point of causing unhappiness if it was happening in society. However, Mill thought this meant we needed to change society and culture – to encourage people to accept that what others do in their private life is no business of theirs.
  • So, Mill would not allow repression of a minority merely for the happiness of a prejudiced majority.


counter to rule Utilitarianism that it either collapses back into Act (weak Rule Util) or ceases being Utilitarianism (Strong Rule Util).

Kantian ethics on sexual ethics

  • Application to homosexuality, pre-marital sex & extra-marital sex
  • Homosexuality is not universalizable, since if everyone were gay there would be no more children and then no one could be gay since no one would exist.
  • Furthermore, the 2nd formulation claims that we must treat people as an end, never merely as a means.
  • Kant thinks that only sex inside marriage for the purpose of having children allows for the treatment of people as ends.
  • In all other cases, having sex for pleasure etc, involves both people using each other as mere means, which is therefore wrong for Kant.
  • Marriage involves a kind of contractual arrangement, where both people have the goal of having children.
  • In that context, it’s possible to have sex while respecting the other person’s end (of having children).


  • The issue of Kant ignoring consequences. 
  • Outlawing homosexuality and pre/extra marital sex causes necessary unhappiness and prevents potential happiness. 
  • Kant seems wrong to ignore the moral relevance of the consequences.

Further evaluation of Kant

  • The liberal interpretation of Kant.
  • Kant’s own views on sex were rigidly conservative. He called homosexuality an ‘unmentionable vice’ and even said that sex outside marriage was so bad that children born outside marriage could justifiably be left to die.
  • It looks like Kant’s personal views on sexual ethics are extreme and arguably just a reflection of his culture.
  • Especially since the logic of his theory doesn’t actually justify his own views.
  • Firstly, homosexuality might not be universalizable, but everyone following their own orientation is universalizable.
  • Furthermore, Kant’s general rejection of all sex outside marriage (including homosexual sex) is that sex outside marriage always involves each person treating the other as a mere means.
  • However, while that certainly can happen, arguably when people have a genuine romantic connection they aren’t merely seeing each other as objects that they are using as a mere means.
  • Kant’s view seems to be influenced by the Christian culture of his time which viewed sex as impure and negative. Modern secular views would regard that as irrational.
  • So, a liberal application of Kant would not be against sex outside of marriage, including homosexuality. 
  • It would require that people are treated as ends in themselves, but show that Kant was wrong to think that conflicted with sex outside of marriage.