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September 17, 2018 | by  | in Philosoraptor |
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Historically, philosophers have defended a wide variety of views about sex and sexual activity; some of these have been traditionally liberal, others traditionally conservative, and some truly bizarre. In this column, I will briefly describe the views on sex expressed by three famous philosophers: beginning in the 18th century with Immanuel Kant, fast-forwarding to the first half of the 20th century with Bertrand Russell, and ending near the present day with Martha Nussbaum.
Kant famously argued that our status as rational beings commits us to following a moral law he called the “Categorical Imperative”. According to one formulation of the Categorical Imperative, it is always morally wrong to use humans merely as a means to an end. This principle produces an array of counterintuitive results, but one of the weirder ones is that Kant claimed that it made masturbation immoral. According to Kant, masturbation involves using ourselves as a means to “satisfy an animal impulse”, which is contrary to our rationality.
The reasoning that Kant uses to arrive at this conclusion is pretty tenuous, so it is likely that he was just trying to use his moral theory to confirm his pre-existing prejudices. Many of his other views reflected an extreme (by our standards) social conservatism: he condemned homosexuality, argued that women shouldn’t have the right to vote, and claimed that wives could not legitimately leave abusive husbands.

Bertrand Russell, on the other hand, was a stark contrast to Kant’s social conservatism. A committed liberal, he was ahead of his time (the early 20th century) on many social issues. Among other things, he argued that traditional social views of sex were irrational, and that sex was a pleasurable and morally unproblematic activity. He was an advocate of open marriages, and argued that sex outside of marriage was not intrinsically wrong. Russell defended these views at a time where very few individuals were willing to publicly express them. This advocacy cost him personally: in 1940 he was dismissed from his professorship at the City College of New York for his liberal views on sex. This was very much on brand for Russell; he had already been dismissed from a position at Cambridge in 1916 for engaging in pacifist activities during WWI.
Several decades after Russell, Martha Nussbaum discussed the concept of sexual objectification in a famous paper. She argued that “objectification” is a morally complex phenomenon: although it is mostly treated as problematic, it is possible to imagine situations in which the defining characteristics of objectification (treating someone as a tool, for example) are morally permissible. She writes, for example, that “instrumentalization does not seem to be problematic in all contexts… if I am lying around with my lover… and use his stomach as a pillow, there seems to be nothing at all baneful about this…”.

Nussbaum expresses a sophisticated modern perspective on the ethics of sexuality. Although the general opinions of philosophers on sex seem to broadly track wider social norms (with some notable exceptions, like Russell), Nussbaum’s writings are a reminder that we can always rely on philosophers to provide nuance and analytical precision, even when they defend common social beliefs.

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