Notes on Ethics and Sex, Igor Primoratz
Between semesters it becomes important to field readings that I do not have the chance to read while in the thick of staying abreast of the readings for classes (notwithstanding the rigors of grading classwork & homework which demand a level of commitment. Additional readings are often a reach for the obvious possibility of adding extraneous philosophy above and beyond the requisite workload). I have yet to decide whether or not what I have read in the opening chapters of the 1999 book Ethics and Sex by Igor Primoratz are assignable as reading for upcoming classes.
In Primoratz’s “Introduction” to Ethics and Sex, he immediately sets the stage for a discussion of the philosophy of sex that is indeed quite rare in the ascetic and arid confines of traditional philosophic discourse. This sexual occlusion is noted by Schopenhauer in his influential book of 1819, The World as Will and Representation. The dearth of sexual content in the antecedent work of Classical and Enlightenment philosophy should have a clear connection to this type of intellectualized sexual constraint. Philosophy is usually understood as helping us attain an understanding of the life of the mind, the intellect, our reason. The life of philosophy is to know and have control over the passions. To be dominated by the passions, namely: sexual passion, is typically thought of as antithetical to an exploration of a quest for philosophical truth and a life of contemplation.
Primoratz quotes the legendary Roman slave turned Stoic, Epictetus, whereby he demonstrates Stoical virtue as a refusal in the face of sexual hunger. Epictetus reminds us that it is best to not be controlled and dominated by such passions, as inspired by Socrates’ libidinal restraint. Even Nietzsche weighs in on the “rancor” of sexual interest on the part of the world’s philosophers with the example that Heraclitus, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer were all single, unmarried. In short, philosophy and sexual discourse are historically strange-bedfellows.
Then of course, there is the undeniable influence of Christianity on our attitude of the body, of which is strongly reliant on an ascetic-denying of the sexualized body, while at the same time advocating the institution of marriage. Christian marriage, a concept whereby human sexuality can be relegated and managed within natural-law—a.k.a. sex is to procreate and it needs to be within the context of a monogamous relationship with the opposite sex.
Primoratz’s foregoing carefully indicates that the turning point in the philosophical interest with sexuality is marked by Schopenhauer in the early 19th century (ironically we cannot ignore his own glaring misogyny, including the not-so-well-known radical advocacy of polygamy). Along with Nietzsche’s “naturalism” and his championing of the body, away from the strictures of Christianity and tradition, Primoratz reminds us that the importance Nietzsche places on the body as the locus of will is directly attributable to Nietzsche’s early reading of Schopenhauer. Also, nevermind the now dubious legend that Nietzsche’s downfall into dementia was allegedly caused by syphilis contracted from a prostitute in Leipzig.
We could challenge Primoratz’s idea that Schopenhauer demarcates a discussion of sex and philosophy, to do so is to evoke D.A.F. de Sade, the Marquis de Sade’s 1795 work Philosophy in the Bedroom, less a work of philosophy and more a scathing critique of social convention in the name of sexual libertinage. The 18th century sexual libertine feeds his hunger by way of reading de Sade (‘single-handed’), fueling a fantasy quest with an aggressive search for libidinal freedom from sexual convention. Perhaps this reference distracts from the fact that de Sade has been largely considered a pornographer and not taken seriously as a ‘philosopher of sex.’
Historically, Primoratz nods to the once cutting-edge philosophy of phenomenological existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness from 1943, Simon de Beauvoir in her oft-cited feminist work The Second Sex from 1949, and then to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s eloquent placement of the experiential immanence of sexuality in his landmark Phenomenology of Perception from 1945. In the Anglo-analytic tradition we also have contribution of Bertrand Russell’s work from 1929 Marriage and Morals.
As we know, the 20th Century witnessed great advances in demystifying the stigma of sexual conduct. We don’t have to reach far to recall the psycho-sexual ‘pleasure principle of Sigmund Freud in his 1930 work Civilization and its Discontents, while also acknowledging the culturally destabilizing effects of Alfred Kinsey’s Kinsey Reports from 1948. The previously mentioned French phenomenologists were also becoming translated into English in the 1950s. The 1960s and 1970s as cultural decades were emblematic of realizing newfound sexual freedom and expression largely affected by Second-Wave feminism and other concomitant social issues, Gay rights et al.
Primoratz does narrow down the work form the 1960s and 1970s with three works: Thomas Nagel’s “Sexual Perversion” from 1968, Robert Solomon’s “Sexual Paradigms” from 1974, on to Alan Goldman’s “Plain Sex” from 1977. Now in the 21st Century, apart from Primoratz, we look to the plurality of gender issues philosophically anticipated with Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble from the 1990s (among countless others).
“Sex and Procreation”
This is usually where the conversation gets going in terms of a so-called conservative position concerning sexual conduct as captured within the sphere of accepted heterosexual marriage. St. Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine easily represent the two Christian Medieval views on the institution of marriage and religious life. Basically sexual intercourse is strictly aimed at bringing children into the world, and subsequently to raise and care for the children as a part of committing to the family.
We cannot forget the Biblical implications stemming from the so-called ‘Fall from Grace,’ known more simply as ‘The Fall.’ To account for sex in a Christian context is to do so negatively, it is a carnal compromise away from God’s perfection. Sexual pleasure outside of a procreative context is considered sinful, base, and selfish. As Primoratz notes for St. Augustine, perhaps the connection with human sexuality is bound to the irrational nature of sexual desire and impulse. The poignantly irrational nature of sexual desire could be an interesting point of departure for another study, given that the irrational aspects of sexual activity continue to cause problems even for those of us not immersed in a Medieval Christian view of traditional sex. Add this restrictive view on sex to the traditionally philosophic view that sex represents a preoccupation with the body, and it should go without saying that sexual activity outside of marriage and outside of the context of procreation is essentially thought of as baneful, immoral, and/or evil.
The effort is to envision all the other reasons people have sex that are not procreative—at least to call into question the notion that sex is wrong unless it is procreative. We can see that a restriction of pleasure in the name of religion is to follow an ascetic tradition that is no longer entirely practicable or sensibly realistic. Away from a few of Primoratz’s conclusions at the end of this chapter, people have sex for countless other reasons, and not all those reasons are nefarious, unethical or depraved.
I think where we struggle these days is finding a middle ground between total sexual lust (characterized and fueled by the omnipresence of online pornography) and a not-so-sexy life of moderation and restraint. It is naive to imagine that simply because one lets go of the praise and blame of religious law, does not automatically set up a life of sexual freedom and libidinal satisfaction. Nevermind Henry Sidgwick’s ‘hedonist’s paradox,’ or the ‘pleasure paradox.’ That is to say, pleasure as a goal is often (but not always) elusive. Simply seeking sexual pleasure does little to promise consistent pleasure. And the question is open as to what is experienced if the result is not pleasure—I’m tempted to surmise such sexualized pursuits can result in an increase of suffering and pain.
Meanwhile, Primortz’s books remain open.
 Igor Primoratz, Ethics and Sex (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999).
 This book appears to be the result of the work responding to a much larger volume of essays on sexuality edited by Igor Primoratz from 1997, titled: Human Sexuality (Dartmouth Publishing Co., Ltd., 1997). His work Ethics and Sex seems to serve as an ethical reader’s guide to the two dozen or so essays included in Human Sexuality.