christianity ethics philosophy

sexual identity remixed

I’m well aware of this topics’ controversial nature. In fact, that’s part of the reason I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while. What I do not want to do is quote verses or provide what I think ‘the Bible says’ about this issue. Of course, I do have a view on that, but that specific pathway into this topic has been almost ruined for all kinds of reasons, not least simplistic applications of various texts. As with any other discussion, the use of words is key. At one extreme, the sheer number of terms being created (‘pangender’, ‘omnisexuality’ and ‘heteronormativity’ to name but a few) does not seem to help fruitful discussion, but at the other extreme, many can fail to appreciate the complexity of the issues being discussed. Because of this complexity, it would be easy to spend huge amounts of time trying to address everything that has ever been said about human sexuality. But, of course, that’s the job of a lengthy dissertation or something. My hope is to fruitfully contribute to the conversation. Quite simply, I want to raise two concerns I have relating to human sexuality.

Just one thing before I get going. Much harm has been done in this area. For all variety of reasons, people have said things in ways that are careless, abusive, condescending and just plain hurtful. To say that only religious people have done this would of course be inaccurate. The issue is far more complex than that. It’s not simply a matter of Christians ‘versus’ homosexuals, or whatever. It’s fathers against daughters, communities splitting, families and relationships crumbling and various cultures defining and redefining themselves. Many people of all persuasions simply need to apologise for what they’ve said and done. That is a bigger concern than any that follow… But, alas, the issue is important and simple answers to complex questions will not do. Now, finally, here are two concerns to consider…

Concern #1 – Sexuality needs guidance like all other human activity.

I still remember hearing her say it. The younger (20-ish) of two women was sharing her inner pondering as to her own ‘sexuality’, and the older (50-ish) woman assured her, ‘...whatever decision you come to will be the right one.‘ One would struggle to imagine a more relativistic statement.

Also, I read a brochure from an organisation seeking to support youth dealing with these issues. It shared the same assurance: “…whatever you are, it’s a perfectly natural part of being you.” I talked with a representative from this organisation, and politely asked if there were any sexual activities that they did not approve of. What advice, I asked, would they give to youth feeling that they most identified with things such as incest, pedophilia or sex with animals? The reply was that these were not supported, and that youth wishing to identify with these things would be ‘referred to a counselor.’ This, of course, means that this organisation is not as all-approving as their brochure would suggest.

Guidance, leadership and direction happens in all areas of life, but when it comes to sexuality (especially in rich, western affluent areas, for some reason…), for some reason the only tolerated thing to do is to throw up your hands and say, ‘whatever you think…‘ Why is this?

Now, I’ve not mentioned any specific sexual behaviour(s) so far – I’m just raising the concern that this is an area which I think needs guidance. For example, while I’ve never heard anyone suggest that heterosexuality in and of itself is ‘wrong’, there are indeed examples of heterosexual actions which most would say was indeed wrong; incest, pornography, pedophilia, etc. While the basis against such things may vary (which is a key question), most would agree, I suspect, that we need some kind of ‘guidance’ here. Three examples may be helpful here.

1. Infidelity
Men who are in a marriage (or committed partnership) with a woman will admit that women other than their wife or partner are still sexually attractive. But most (especially the wives or partners of these men!) would say this is one attraction which would be ‘wrong’ to follow through on!

2. Rape
If one objects that the first example is a result of ‘the socially constructed idea of commitment’, then consider this example. A man attracted to a woman who doesn’t desire intercourse with him must also answer his desires with a firm ‘No’.

3. Pedophilia
If one should still object on grounds that all sex between consenting parties is valid, then consider the next example. A man attracted to a consenting 13 year old girl must also control himself.All three above examples, by the way, are between men and women, who have what I like to call ‘genital compatibility’, yet they show a need for personal restraint and self control – even in view of such ‘compatibility’. Indeed, the bodily organs would function quite aptly; but the answer to these desires is still a firm ‘No.’

Further, very few people would deny that at least some desired sexual actions could be – at least in principle – harmful, dangerous or wrong. Nobody would suggest that desire alone ensures that a given action is a good one. If we made the rest of our life decisions that way… well… we’d buy, eat, use and do whatever we wanted. We understand the need for restraint and self-control in other areas of life – why do we so often neglect this need with sexuality?

Concern #2 – Personal identity based on sexual desire/attraction is problematic.

When people identify themselves as a “_____”-sexual person, they are identifying with a sexual attraction, and that attraction obviously implies a desire to follow-through on that attraction. That’s the thing about desire; it’s not desire just to have a desire – it’s desire to actually do something. When we don’t follow through on our desires – we don’t like it; we’re not getting what we desire. It’s quite simple, really.

The reason, I suggest, why basing personal identity on such desires or attractions is problematic is this: because we don’t always get what we want. For example, imagine someone who’s personal identity was based on a specific sexual desire (whatever that might be). Now, if that person is not able to have the specific sexual experience they desire, then they are not able to fully express themselves according to what their personal identity has been based on. A person who identifies their whole self based upon their sexual desires, who is not sexually active, is not actualised in their person-hood. They are only a “_____”-sexual person in theory, and not in reality (like a firefighter who never fights fires, or a seamstress who never sews). Again, I’ve said nothing about any specific kind of sexual activity being ‘wrong’; this concern is specifically about basing one’s personal identity on desire or attraction.

A helpful chapter called ‘Angels and Animals’ in Rob Bell’s book ‘Sex God‘ highlights two extremes for understanding ones’ sexual self or identity. For one extreme (‘animals’), he cites the example of two movie stars who ‘hooked up’ (in spite of a marriage), who later said, ‘We just couldn’t help ourselves.’ This is a case of seeing yourself as an animal – with sexual ‘animal instincts’ which cannot be harnessed. The other extreme (‘angels’) is to reject one’s sexuality altogether, perhaps even viewing it as bad or evil. The healthy middle between the two is when sex is protected, valued and respected.

Western culture inundates us with messages via advertising (billboards, magazines, commercials), movies and television programmes which all too often present sexuality as a ‘no holds barred’ arena. The more active you are, the better. Go out and have a good time, enjoy yourself; oh, and by the way, don’t get caught – whether that means the sexual partner’s spouse catching the two of you, the sexual partner getting pregnant or either of you getting ‘caught’ by a sexually transmitted infection/disease.

We need help. The human race, obviously, is kept going because of sex. It’s a good thing. But used poorly, it can make families, communities (even nations?) unstable – and harm individuals along the way. There are big questions here, and simple answers just won’t do any longer.

33 replies on “sexual identity remixed”

Well aren’t you clever? Why don’t you just say what you really think? It’s obvious that you’re just another homophobe.

Hi there,

I’d love to say ‘Thanks for the comment’, but unfortunately I can’t. With all due respect, comments like that are precisely the kind which don’t contribute to people even beginning to understand one another.

That’s what I’m on about. I’m not trying to ‘change people’s minds’ about anything by sheer logical force or anything. I’m out for respect, mutual understanding and peace. Yes, I have views about human sexuality – who doesn’t?

I’m normally very quick to apologise, but I can’t see anywhere in my post that would warrant anyone being offended.

If you’re able to discuss the matter respectfully and patiently, then please do comment again – it would be great to dialogue with you. But, if you can’t do this, I won’t bother responding to comments that are simply reactionary and flagrant.



Human sexuality is a complex issue, especially with the more we learn about the combination of genetic and environmental factors. You do a great job of pointing out that simple answers won;t work.

Sexuality between consenting adults (no rape, no pedophilia) has been treated as an “issue” for far too long by far too many people. When we meet people and engage with real live humans, our thinking on this may become clearer.

Have you read Brian McLaren’s “The Story We find Ourselves In”?


Hey Kevin!

(Been a while, aye? Hope you and yours are well)

In spite of the complexity and controversiality of human sexuality, I still think it’s an important topic to discuss – and discuss well; no shouting matches, etc.

You mention that consentual sex between adults has been an ‘issue’ for too long. Surely there are times, however, that such behaviour is a concern, no? I think incest (even adult consenting) is a concern. Also, many people have a rather large problem with how ‘casual sex’ can cheapen it. I too, feel that promiscuity is a concern. The over-arching link between all these, I am quasi-suggesting, is that restraint seems absent. We know what restraint looks like in other areas of life (should I say this or keep my mouth shut, etc.)… What about sexual restraint? When, where, with who, why? These are some of the questions.

Why restraint here (incest) but not somewhere else?

This is why I framed my article around those two particular statements. What do you think of them?

No, I haven’t read that one, but enjoyed much of ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’.



Hi Dale,
It’s been way too long.

This is an important conversation to have. It usually brings a lot of passion and heated feelings from all sides. So to talk openly and cooly is a tall order. I’m glad you raised the subject.

And for the record, I don’t think you are homophobic. I think it is natural for people to disagree on such a personal subject. Odd how an intimate act such as sex becomes a center of public debate.

Not to suggest people should sleep with their sisters or brothers, but didn’t Abraham commit incest with Sarah?

Here in the US polygamy is becoming a greater topic of conversation. Don’t know about NZ.

Restraint. That’s interesting. I think most folks do restrain their sexual urges to some degree. But that’s different from repression or denial of one’s attractions.

All I’m saying is that sex is a complex question. And that it affects real people — it is more than a theoretical debate.

I know you know this, and that’s why I’m thankful you offer a place for conversation.


Thanks Kevin,

Indeed, this conversation is not usually had in (to use the Mclaren term) ‘ungenerous’ ways…

But the idea of restraint seems obviously a necessity to me. As you say, most people will restrain themselves at various times and to various degrees. It’s this variance that I’m seeking to understand and explore.

For example, people who have affairs often justify it because they are not ‘in love’ with their marriage partners, but rather with their new ‘lover’.

For me, a key tension is the tension between repressing desire on one hand, and letting desire go un-checked on the other.

Or, you might say the tension between freedom and self-control (both good things)…


“When people identify themselves as a “_____”-sexual person, they are identifying with a sexual attraction, and that attraction obviously implies a desire to follow-through on that attraction. That’s the thing about desire; it’s not desire just to have a desire – it’s desire to actually do something. When we don’t follow through on our desires – we don’t like it; we’re not getting what we’re desiring.” Sexual orientation is a characteristic of people (their biology) and it’s not a surprise that people identify with the names. Even more so if they have had to fight against prejudice. But I don’t think it’s warranted to draw the conclusions you do. Of course we may have desires (these are specific to situations not to implicit orientation) and we may not always be able to (or be in a situation enabling us to) fulfill these. But so what? We all confront these situations and that in itself is not a problem. I think the problems you identify have nothing to do with sexual orientation, or sex itself, but normal human interaction. And we should confront those problems (such as violence, exploitation, manipulation, etc.). They have huge consequences for humanity – sex related problems are very much a minor aspect of these.
We seem to be obsessed with sex. Clinton was attacked for a private incident between him and a consenting women (and for lying about it). But people in his position commit huge moral transgressions (wars, poverty, etc., and lying about these). And where is the moral criticism? There seems to be an unhealthy preoccupation with sex by these self-appointed moral spokespeople.

” Sexuality needs guidance”.
I find this discussion a bit like those advanced by the “intelligent design” proponents. Publicly they refuse to talk about the nature of their “intelligent designer” – but of course everyone knows. Similarly here you are not saying who gives guidance (although you obviously disapprove of some people who already do give it). There is an elephant in the room which we aren’t talking about (perhaps its impolite to do so) but I aren’t privy to the code – I don’t know who you see as acceptable for giving “guidance.”

It’s an important question because many of our so-called “moral leaders” have in fact discredited themselves in this, and many other, areas.

Thanks for the feedback, Ken,

I can see why you think I’m avoiding the ‘elephant’… :)

Part of the reason is the inflammatory nature of certain words. I’m interested in fruitful dialogue, not ranting and yelling (or quoting bible verses for that matter!)…

Another reason is that part of my suggest is precisely that this area (human sexuality) is much the same as the rest of life! It actually seems that you see this based on some of your comment, no?

Yes, the example of Clinton you gave does show a tendency to elevate so-called ‘sexual problems’ above other problems. (We must, however, remember that the reason we heard so much about this man’s experiences, is beause of his visible role.) But that doesn’t mean that sexuality is still a very real and important issue. One that affects families, communities, individuals.

Yes, I have personal views about ‘the elephant’, but I feel that these views are better when allowed to be sharpened and critiqued by others.

Yes, as we’ve be saying on your blog, guidance is tricky. Who gives it, and how much? This is the question behind all attempts at what we call ‘government’.

I think an answer that we can all agree on is that we are all accountable to each other. So we ALL are potentially acceptable for giving guidance.

A question on your last point:
There is an implicit moral judgment in your last sentence (and a judgment I would agree with). This judgment (if I’ve understood correctly) is that if a person does not act consistent with his/her moral convictions, then they are ‘discredited’ of the right to give such moral leadership. I agree, but would add that this is on a person-by-person basis. The ‘failures’ of certain individuals should not necessarily call into question any certain role or position.

There are two questions underlying:
1) HOW should guidance be given? (How do we ‘work out’ ethics?)

2) WHO should give guidance?
(Who can we trust to guide us?)

History gives us a very checkered record of our attempt to guide each other (in various areas)… But we still do need guidance. But how?

I think that maybe you were too “light” on this topic, Dale.

There is a lot of debate over whether sexual desire is “learned” or “genetic” — and the jury is out. As I understand it, an identical twin has a higher chance of being gay if his twin is, but is not in all cases. In other words, there are genetic tendancies involved which lead to predilections to a thing (alcoholism, cancer, obesity, etc) but that are not 100% deterministic (like inheriting a gene for Downs syndrome).

But this is rather beside the point, I think. If one beleives that the Bible is the revealed world of God, and that the revealed world of God says that something is “sinful”, then one should try to avoid that sin. It doesn’t matter if the sin is related to personal property (stealing), hurting others (murder), or sexual behavior (lust and sexual activity outside of marriage), or anything else that can be found in His word.

For argument’s sake let’s say that homosexuality is an inherited gentic trait (and, as I say the evidence for this is very mixed). Then people with this trait have a desire to do something (an activity) that (I and many others) believe that God has condemned in His word (the Bible). They have been given a bigger “cross to bear” than they have given those of us who are attracted to the opposite sex.

Of course, those of us who are NOT attracted to our own sex also bear crosses, including lust/desire for the opposite sex outside of marraige. None of us are perfect, and all of us fight these sexual urges (unless, like Paul, you have been priveleged to receive the spiritual goift of chastity).

Now, having said all these things, I do not believe that homosexuals are evil, and I do not believe they should be thrown in jail or have their rights taken away — they are sinners like all the rest of us. Anyone who claims to condemn a “sinner” needs to realize that the “law” condemns us all — the only person who is “saved” under the law is God himself (this is a paraphrase of Paul). We are saved not by the law, but by the covering Grace of Jesus Christ. His Grace is so great that it covers all of our sins if only we ask for it. However, when we ask Him to cover us in his Grace we also have a responsibility to do our best to become more like Him, and to make an effort to leave our sinful habits behind. That isn’t to say we stop sinning, but it is to say that we change over time and effort. Continuing to willfully and constantly sin calls into question whether one has truely accepted Christ into one’s life.

The New Testament talks in a number of places about how to live with sinners. Jesus says that we should worry about our own sins before concerning ourselves with other’s sins. Paul has expanded upon this — he says that we should correct our brothers and sisters in Christ who sin in a public fashion, and exclude them from our midst if the continue to sin — out of love in the hope that they will correct their behavior and return to the fold.

So whether or not “sexual desire” — homosexuality or otherwise — is “learned”, “chosen”, or “genetically determined” doesn’t matter from the point of view — does it violate God’s law?

I’m afraid this may be “gas on the fire”, but it is what I believe.

take care all,


Hi Dale, figured I’d take up the invite :)

These are top-of-my-head comments, apologies if someone else picked up on some of these points.

Concern 1: In my opinion the most important guidance anyone can receive for any moral judgment is to understand the consequences of ones actions. The action itself is rarely (if ever?) intrinsically wrong. For that reason I would argue singling out particular types of activities as “wrong” is entirely the wrong approach. It seems much more sensible to understand the implications. I’ll use your three examples:

Infidelity: I don’t see infidelity as intrinsically wrong. Betraying trust and lying are generally a good thing to avoid, but the act of sex with someone while being attached to someone else is not really any different to buying a car without telling your partner or whatever. The fact that sex is involved should only matter insofar as the sex itself is a problem. Conflating the betrayal of trust with some sort of sexuality issue I think is missing the point. It is not hard to see examples where infidelity causes no harm at all (and even some benefit).

Rape: In my view many rape victims actually aren’t victims at all. Sex without direct consent is very difficult to define as rape. How many one night stands are initiated by “do you want to?” – I’d suggest most are impulsive and just happen. Is this rape? I genuinely wonder how many so-called rape victims enjoyed the sex at the time and then later were overcome by entirely unnecessary guilt and start misremembering things to the point where they see it as an almost violent rape. This is almost entirely caused by pigeon holing sexual activity (and I think links closely to your second concern).

Violent rape is certainly assault and should be treated as such, but I don’t buy the “I didn’t want to but did anyway” argument. Sex takes two people unless there is violence (or drugs which amounts to the same thing).

Pedophilia: A tough question: Why should the man and the 13 year old girl who both consent restrain from sex? I can think of several reasons in several circumstances, but keep in mind most 13 year old girls are sexually mature (if not emotionally ready, a societal problem not a physical one) and that in the past this was a common age for marriage and childbearing. We should not let modern prejudice interfere with common sense. Some 13 year olds genuinely understand what sex is and what it means, while some 20 year olds don’t. Sex with young people is not the problem, sex with people who aren’t ready or don’t understand it is, because it can cause emotional problems later in life and because it usually amounts to exploitation. I think we need to target the problem not the pigeon hole that partially coincides with the problem.


It seems to me concern 2 actually applies to the examples you use in concern one – but also applies to much broader issues than just sexuality. How many Christians (for example) do things entirely because they fit into that label? How many right wing politicians do the same?

To out and out dismiss any particular sexual activity is to entirely miss the point. Common sense applied to understood consequences, not arbitrary rules applied to pigeon holes, is the answer to this and almost any other moral question in my opinion.

Ahhh it feels good to get back to real discussions :)


Thanks Joe and Ian,

Thanks for the comment, but (as I say in my first paragraph) I wasn’t wanting to have this conversation in terms of ‘what the Bible says’. I’m trying instead to ask questions that relate to all people and all areas of life. My 2 concerns were an attempt to address the topic from other angles – that of ‘guidance’/morality and that of identity/self-understanding… I think these are great ways to discuss the issue, and not nearly as inflammatory as quoting verses…

Thanks for taking the time.

I agree about consequences & implications being what makes something ‘wrong’. For example, the act of forcefully taking a hand-bag from a human being could be theft if you’re taking it from the bag’s owner, but it could be justice is you’re taking it from the thief! Same act – very different consequences. Good stuff.

On infidelity, we may need to define things better, but I would always see infidelity as a betrayal of trust AND lying (and I can’t see how betrayal and lying could ever be beneficial).

On rape, I agree that the line is sometimes fuzzy when hesitant (or drug-induced) consent later becomes regret or resent. But my point is about obvious violent rape. I think this is always wrong, and so does most everyone else (perhaps even many rapists themselves… belief by someone that something is wrong is not a guarantee that they won’t do it…)

On pedophilia, I am aware of the large difference in modern, western culture (where one is not an ‘adult’ until 18 or so), and other cultures from other times/places where a 13 yr old could be more ‘ready’ for sex than some ‘adults’ that we know. No problem there. But, as you say, this leaves the problem of ’emotional readiness’, which is said to be different for each person, culture, etc.

My main point:
A person’s desire to do something does not in and of itself make that thing ‘right’.

A tough question:
How do we distinguish between what is right and wrong? Right desires (eating, companionship) and ‘wrong’ ones (rape, murder)? Why is it OK for an animal to violently rape another animal, but humans cannot? Why is it OK when animals ‘murder’ one another, and ‘wrong’ when we do it?

Yes, my intent was specifically to have my concerns apply to many areas other than only sexuality. Great to see that my concern does seem to do that!

You say To out and out dismiss any particular sexual activity is to entirely miss the point.
Even though I disagree here (I do think some -many?- sexual actions can be –for want of a better word– ‘dismissed’), the point of my article is to raise these important questions of morality and self-Identity. Morality and self-Identity are relevant to ALL of life, and what I’m simply trying to say is that ALL of life most certainly includes sexuality, no?

More questions:
-Why is anything wrong? Even doing things which counter the will of others (murder, violent rape, stealing, etc.)?

-On what basis do we say that certain things are wrong?

I’ll leave it there – it would be quite easy to ramble on for ages… :)


I do think some -many?- sexual actions can be –for want of a better word– ‘dismissed’

Dismissed in terms of always having a particular set of consequences, or dismissed irrelevant of consequences? (yup its pedantic, but important too :))

Morality and self-Identity are relevant to ALL of life

The problem we are left with is defining morality. If it ends up defined as something we deem relevant (as I think it kind of has to) then yes. This is really the old relative vs absolute morality discussion in disguise :) (but then all of these discussions eventually end up there, and its worth exploring).

Why is anything wrong? Even doing things which counter the will of others (murder, violent rape, stealing, etc.)?

-On what basis do we say that certain things are wrong?

I would argue the only reason something is ultimately wrong is if it can be shown to be a worse option than another action. Now the definition of “worse” is terribly awkward, but I think we sort of agree that a kind of cost-benefit analysis covering as much as we can know is the basis of it. In other words if the consequences of an action can be shown to be more detrimental to society as a whole than another action (or the absence of the action) then I would argue it is morally inferior.


Thanks for that Ian,

Dismissed in terms of always having a particular set of consequences, or dismissed irrelevant of consequences?
Could be interesting to un-pack further… Are you suggesting that there are some actions that don’t have any consequences? I’m not sure what you mean… We don’t live in a vacuum or detached from the ‘rest’ of reality, we are a part of it, so all actions have consequences, so I guess I’m not sure how something could be ‘dismissed irrelevant of consequences’… Make sense?

Defining morality:
Yes, morality should always be relevant. Ken and I have been talking along the same lines of discourse regarding morality. He referred to the idea (from Dennett?) of an ‘objective morality’ or something that could – in principle – be worked out, like mathematics… I think this is a good start.
Full-on ‘relativism’ is not only philosophically silly, but gives no help to anyone (I also would suggest that few – if any – actually hold to it, but rather use it to resist the cold absolutist moralities of others). And yes, a staunch ‘absolute’ moralitiy seems arrogant and elitist.
I do think that there IS an ‘objective’ morality, though we can’t fully or ‘objectively’ know it.

The idea of ‘defining’ morality is that to most people this means carving it in stone or absolutising it. A once-for-all definition, you might say. I think that kind of ‘defining’ would make it irrelevant too quickly. Morality needs to be adaptable to various contexts. This is close to how I see ‘truth’. It was the Greeks who saw ‘truth’ (and we’re not talking about test-tubes here) as static, un-moving and un-changing; while a more eastern/jewish mindset would see truth as ‘unfolding’, developing and alive…

I see morality like this. And I do think that the human being itself is a great model for this. It’s about making wise, just, good and right judgments. Not about regurgitating some inflexible ancient codes, but about working it out, seeing what morality looks like here and now. Now, there are patterns, however, and this is where morality seems to always say the same thing about ‘this’ or ‘that’ thing, and this is where laws and guidelines or such things come in.

And the discussion about ‘law’ is precisely the same discussion about morality. I get really frustrated by Christians (commonly from america) who talk of the ‘key moral issues’ in a given politcal scenario… IT’S ALL MORAL! The environment, The economy, Foreign policy, the Family, marriage, sexuality, whatever… IT’S ALL MORAL. [the all-caps was directed at my fellow Christians, not you! :) ]


Could be interesting to un-pack further… Are you suggesting that there are some actions that don’t have any consequences? I’m not sure what you mean…

Not quite, I’m suggesting blanket rules (like rape = bad) ignore the specific consequences of each instance, and therefore defines it as amoral irrelevant of the consequences.

We don’t live in a vacuum or detached from the ‘rest’ of reality, we are a part of it, so all actions have consequences, so I guess I’m not sure how something could be ‘dismissed irrelevant of consequences’… Make sense?

Precisely my point :) Saying (such as in the ten commandments) that a particular action is bad regardless of its consequences is to miss this point isn’t it?

Re definition: Very well said Dale – I agree entirely! And I think it follows from your comments (to drag the OP back into this) that sexual activity should not get special treatment (for or against) in any moral judgement. One needs only consider its consequences.

Rape = bad…
Rape is a good test case for this, I think. I would say that rape (real rape, not hesitant consent that later turns into regret!) always is bad, precisely because it always has destructive consequences. Rape is a violent form of a sexual act. Now, to say sexual acts = bad; that would be silly. But I think it’s totally justified to say that rape (one person forcing another to have sex with them against their will) is always wrong/bad/etc. There is never a time when rape does not have consequences, and its consequences are always bad – therefore rape is always bad. That’s how I see it…

I’m not sure we agree… (though I hope so!) What I’m saying is that there are no actions which are performed in a vacuum. In other words, all actions have consequences, not just some. And some actions could well have a mixture of ‘bad’ and ‘good’ consequences. These are basic prinicples of ethics.

So, what I’m saying is that I don’t understand how a law could be dismissive of an action ‘regardless of its consequences’… Action and consequence are (to me) inseperable. Again, we don’t live or act in a vacuum. We live and act in relation to our environment, other people, other things, and even ourselves. There is always a consequence, so implicit (or explicit?) in every law, I would say, is the attempt to make a judgment about the consequences of an action. Now, we might say that that judgment about the consequences is mistaken, however. That’s good and needed.

Re ten commandments: It’s a longer conversation, of course, but I think these (at least ‘back then’ when they were made) also were making judgments about consequences. The same could go for the 613 mitzvot (commands) in the rest of the Torah (first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible). All these ‘commands’/laws/etc. (like those of the cultures around them – and like the various laws of various peoples today) were attempts to guide humans as to prevent ‘bad’ consequences… Many of the 613 seem really strange to us (a wife can’t grab a man’s ‘bits’ while he’s fighting her husband???), but make more sense as we understand their culture.

Interestingly, the teachings of the New Testament (esp. in Jesus and Paul’s teachings) are corrective of a tendency in some to view ‘The Law’ (of Moses) as a ‘time-less’, detatched thing. Their emphasis is on keeping what they call the Spirit of the Law, not the ‘Letter’. Jesus – ‘All the Law and Prophets hang on these two – Love the Lord, (etc.) and Love your neighbour (etc.)… Paul – ‘All the Law is fulilled in a word – Love.’

But that’s a rather long conversation, and it specifically has to do with the Bible, history and interpretation (and history of interpretation!), and theology…

But (back to the issue at hand), I do think we need laws, and I do think that certain actions are always wrong – because all actions (good/bad) are inseperable from their consequences. Same goes (as you say) for sexuality. No ‘special treatment’ for or against any type of sexual action.

Another question: How do we rightly judge a good consequence from a bad one?

Re: Rape – Bad:

If you define rape as something which can only have bad consequences then of course it is always amoral. However that is much harder to do than you might think, and it only takes one possible good instance of rape to discredit the entire blanket dismissal as an automatic moral judgement. The generalisation “all rape is bad” is a good summary of the most likely consequences of rape and therefore a useful guideline, but in and of itself it does not make a good moral basis.

It is possible to conduct thought experiments where rape could have a net positive benefit to society (heavily dependent on values). We are used to a society where gender equality is seen as valuable. It is not hard to imagine another society where say a woman’s ability to reproduce is seen as more important than gender equality, and that she should do so regardless of whether she wants to. In that case, it would seem moral for a dissenting women to be raped for the good of society. Fortunately (said from a contemporary point of view) we don’t value things that way but in terms of an absolute moral basis, one cannot automatically blanket rule out rape. (And in case anyone misses this obvious point, I am not advocating such a society, nor condoning it, because I live in this one where it seems like a horrible idea based on contemporary values!).

Re vacuum:

I think you are slightly missing my point. I absolutely agree that every action has its consequences. I am in fact going even further than that to say it is only the consequences that matter. We cannot say the act of rape (for example) is intrinsically bad, we can only say the likely net consequences of rape are not desirable according to our current set of values. Laws as generalisations of this principal work fine, and you’ll notice most laws do include exceptions where if something otherwise illegal happens in such a way as to be judged the “right” choice then the person is deemed to either have not broken the law at all, or to get reduced punishment. Manslaughter vs murder is a classic example.

Laws/blanket rules are a matter of administrative convenience in my view, not direct moral guidance. In most circumstances they will agree for obvious reasons, but not always. (ditto 10 commandments)

Another question: How do we rightly judge a good consequence from a bad one?

This is really getting down to the guts of it now :) I believe we do so based on a benefit-cost analysis built up of our current set of values. As those values shift, the moral judgement shifts.

Hi dale,

Just a couple of thoughts that spring to mind…

You talk of a need for guidance in human sexuality but where is this guidance to come from? Is it to come from mainstream education or from parent to child or from organisations such as the one you mentioned? Should there be a blanket style education in the matter of sexuality, where every child is taught the same set of ideals regarding their choice (or not) of sexual orientation? And just as a side thought, at what age should children begin to get this guidance. Ian made a good point about the different ages at which people are ready (or think they are) to develop their sexual personality/identity. I overheard a group of women one day discussing how their kids were going through a sex education program in year 7 at school. The general consensus from them was that 11 was too young to be talking to kids about sex. The comment was made about ‘it’s just encouraging them to try it’. What are your views on this? How young is too young to start the sex education/guidance process?

It seems to me that we are always going to come to a “what is right and what is wrong’ situation when talking about sexual preference/identity/behaviour. While I agree with Ian about the shifting of morals in relation to values, it has to be said that with the current mix of cultures in our society, there are probably many differing views on what values (and therefore their moral standing) are important. For example (and being extremely general), a child is being taught a set of values within his family environment. He then learns something that is in conflict with those teachings either in a formal education setting or from a friend etc. How is that child to know what is right and what is wrong? Each group is going to say that their view on the issue is right and everyone else is wrong. Is there any way to counter that? Would making the consequences of the action more important than the moral/value issue really make that much difference? Surely even projected consequences of an action will differ between those with differing value/moral sets?


Thanks Ian/Suzy,


rape = bad
You mean ‘immoral’, right (not ‘amoral’ meaning non-moral)?

You’ve correctly identified the inseperable link between morality and values. Your thought experiment is, unfortunately, not necessary, because we can see such societies in human history – possibly even existing now?

It’s really good thinking about all this… I have another new suggestion as well that has come from thinking about this…

The idea of ‘contemporary values’ is, I’m suggesting, mistaken. Yes, there are beliefs/values that are shared by many contemporary people, but –as we’ve seen– there are also many contemporary people don’t hold these values. It may be frustrating for moral/ethical discussions, but the reality seems to be that trying to draw a circle around certain egalitarian values and call them ‘contemporary values’ can can only be done by ignoring the values of many. I would even say it’s likely that what we imagine to be ‘contemporary values’ are simply those values that ‘make the most sense’ to us… This, pre-assumes that we are ‘right’…

Again, I’m all for equality, justice, rights, freedom and the rest of it, but I’m suggesting that many of us who hold these values may not know why we do so…

Ian, would it be incorrect of me to say, based on what you say here, that your view is that violent rape could be a good thing if we had different values? I think that’s what you’ve said.

I really do find that troubling. It essentially makes morality relative – totally. It might not be much of a surprise, but –as a Theist– I think there are universally true values, which provide a foundation for morality to be worked-out. For me, morality is a living, breathing thing – as I said in a previous comment. It is not relative, in that there is a pattern and consistency to it, but I think it is still fluid and adaptive to reach into all areas of life…

This values thing is at the heart of the matter…


GREAT comments/questions! Thanks for commenting!

Like I said to Ian just above, it’s wonderful how you learn from discussing things like this and getting feedback from others! One realisation I had while reading your comment was this:
It’s not so much that nobody is geting any sexual guidance, and that we need to ‘begin’ guiding people regarding sexuality; no, what I realised is that we are constantly being guided in this an many other areas of life! From the moment we first draw a breath, we are being ‘shown’ what is good, bad, normal, un-normal, etc. from parents, role-models, siblings, culture, friends, etc. This is guidance. It may not always be in the form of a lecture, video, DVD, brochure or seminar, but it is real and it is guidance. (I happen to think that this kind of guidance is actually more powerful than books, brochures, tapes, etc.)

So, the ‘how old’ question is maybe further complicated, because we are already being ‘educated’ by our surroundings.

(in auckland right now, there is –in my view– a shocking billboard advertising some sex-pill supplements or something. It portrays a man sandwiched between two women in a ‘dripping with sex’ fashion… the implicit –or explicit?– message is ‘you can have this with our product – doesn’t it look great?’ This is not the kind of guidance our culture needs!)

In your second paragraph, you make an excellent observation that “there are probably many differing views on what values are important.”

In short, the values question precedes the morals question.

So – what values should we have?

You mean ‘immoral’, right (not ‘amoral’ meaning non-moral)?

Apologies, I always get those two mixed up :) You are of course right.

Re: Contemporary values.

I loosely see the “contemporary value set” as a sort of aggregate generalisation of the individual values held by a particular group (e.g. family, community, society etc). The more people adopt a set of values, the more relevant they become in a moral judgement. For example as the idea (meme if you will) of gender equality spread it gradually became part of the value set of a lot of people and now is considered important. I think values are entirely individualistic and are generally derived from a mixture of upbringing, natural tendencies, and societal influences.

Ian, would it be incorrect of me to say, based on what you say here, that your view is that violent rape could be a good thing if we had different values? I think that’s what you’ve said.

Yep that’s right, although keep in mind that the pathway for values to change from where they are now to what would be required for that may be incredibly difficult and essentially not feasible.

Re relative values versus universal values

I knew we’d get to this part of the debate :) My problem with universal values is that we simply don’t know what they are, do we? They certainly are not contained in the bible, nor any other religious document, nor any secular document. Ask any 10 people what they think are the universal values and you’ll get 23 different answers, which somewhat shoots the universal nature of them in the foot.

I kind of wish there were universal values so we could live more structured lives but I can’t think where they could come from, and moreover, I can’t really see such an idea as more than an extension of the societal convenience of laws and rules – or perhaps a form of wishful thinking. The world makes perfect sense as it is without universal values but doesn’t make much sense at all with them.

Out of curiosity, do you think that values can be simultaneously “universal” and “a living, breathing thing” that is “fluid and adaptive”? Aren’t those essentially mutually exclusive properties?

So – what values should we have?

Whatever ones we want. Note that this isn’t as anarchistic as it sounds – we obviously want what is ultimately best for us and almost always the best solution seems to come from cooperation rather than working against each other – not because working together is intrinsically good, but because the individual benefits of doing so most likely outweigh the benefits of not doing so.


Hi Ian

(I posted a comment but lost it – stink.)

‘contemporary values’
I’m OK with this idea as long as we understand it as a generalisation (your own admission)… Of course, generalisations are not always helpful (sometimes quite unhelpful). What you seem to be saying is that morality is not in any way based on any kind of foundational principles or values, right?
Your example was of the idea of gender-equality becoming popular enough (a value shared by a lot of people) to be important. This is essentially a democratic view of morality. The majority rules, so to speak. The authoritative moral view is the majority moral view – at least until it becomes something other than the majority – or at least if that coincides with opportunity to vote, etc. Is this your picture of morality? I’m elaborating, sure, but what do you think? Surely morality can’t be this relative, can it?

‘universal’ AND ‘living’ values
We may have to agree to disagree here, but after all, I am a Theist; and one of the most basic expressions of Theism is what is commonly called ‘ethical monotheism’, which posits that the Creator of the cosmos is also the Orderer of it. This order includes moral order. Too often, this has been thought of with Greek dualist imagery – perhaps of an invisible ‘cloud’ of ‘truth’ which is ‘up there’ somewhere, and we just have to pray, meditate, or ‘tap in’ just right to access it… I think the Jewish understanding of things is more that truth is much like wisdom. Wisdom recognises patterns in life. You might say it works from the ground up (rather than trying to bring the clouds down to earth, so to speak)…

And here would be a great place for me to say that I do NOT think that we ‘ethical monotheists’ have some kind of market corner on truth OR morality.

In my ‘ethical monotheistic’ view, morals and ethics are the task of ALL humans, not just some…

The key place of difference, I sense, between us is reflected in your last paragraph. I can appreciate that this ‘choose your own values’ approach (‘whatever ones (values) we want.’) may not be full-on anarchy to you, but surely you can imagine the resulting chaos from everyone choosing their own values! The following words/phrases in your last sentence reflect the value/judgments that would still need to be made: ‘ultimately best’ (which one is? who says?), ‘best solution’ (same), ‘intrinsically good’ (what? how? why?), ‘benefits’ (another value-based word)…

I know it’s frustrating, but this kind of relativism just won’t work – even if we only tried it in Western countries with ‘contemporary values’… :)


Hey Dale,

I just got back from a week-long business trip.

I have a problem with this idea of “morality” outside the framework of a (universal) religious morality.

It seems to me that morality is completely dependent upon the society you are in, and what your reference point is:

Rape, for instance, might be acceptible in a society that includes slavery. Slaves aren’t “people”, so raping them is OK. I’m thinking of ancient Rome, but the early United States (where black/white “mulattos” were commonly found) might also be included. I suppose this is from where many of the South American “mestizos” came from.

Incest, for instance, in a world with birth control and genetic testing, and the ability to abort fetuses with genetic abnormalities, would not seem to be “dangerous” in the reproductive sense. Between two consenting adults (or consenting youths), what “moral” argument can there be to stop it?

Pedophilia for instance, in many cultures has existed in the past and even the present. In some cultures, it was a way for boys to “work” their way out of poverty. In many cultures very young girls were married to much older men — marrying an older man made sense because he would have the resources to support a household. In some countries in Africa, girls as young as 9 are STILL given in marriage to adult men.

Polygamy, for instance, has existed in many cultures, and is still accepted by some in the Islamic world, and by some Mormon splinter groups in the US.

Bestiality, for instance, well, presumably sheep start looking good to shepherds after they’ve been away from human contact for many months. How does this hurt the sheep? This apparently was a common practice in the Old Testament days (or else why forbid it); I suppose it still goes on today.

Unmarried sex, for instance, was considered to be immoral not long ago in the past. Now it is accepted as normal behavior. From the on-line “adult friend” services available around the world, I can imagine any number of groups that could form, monitoring sexual health of their members and enforcing birth control, allowing members to participate sexually with each other however they want. They are consenting adults, so what is wrong with that?

Homosexuality, for instance, has gone in and out of acceptability over many cultures over many years.

When sexual behavior becomes wrong is when it is compared to a reference — either a societal reference, or a religious reference. The problem with societal references is that they can be very fluid and not at all universal. Look how “morality” in the USA has changed over the last 100 years.

The problem with religious references is that they claim to be exclusive — Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Christians all have different (sometimes agreeing sometimes conflicting) moralities based on their own beliefs.

Some people (including some Christians!) believe that all religions are “equal” and that the UberGod judges us based on the moral framework of the religion/society we live in. In other words they believe that Jews will be judged under Jewish law, Muslims under Islamic law, Chrisitans under Christian law and Hindus under Hinduistic law. I spent last weekend with my Aunt, a practising Catholic, believes this.

More conservative members of religious groups believe that everyone will be judged under the framework that they believe God revealed to them. As a fairly conservative Christian, I believe that God has revealed His moral code to us through the Old and New Testaments, and that He judges everyone based on His moral code.

Paul says that even if you have not heard the Good News of Christ that God still reveals himself to us through nature and our consciences, and that we are still bound for his judgement.

take care,


Thanks Joe,

That’s a thoughtful post, which is representative of what society-based morality or relativist morality will produce (and it represents well what is happening in many places).

I don’t subscribe to that kind of morality. Yes, I’m a Theist (A Christian more specifically!), so I do see God as the personality behind (and the orderer of) all morality. In this sense, all morality is God’s morality. What I’m trying to say here is that God is not only the God of the Christians – or only the Jews. Heard this before? Good. God is a universal God, not just God of a few.

My view (I hope biblically informed) is that just because morality is worked-at by ALL humans (not some some), it does NOT mean that this morality is all of the sudden ‘relative’ or ‘outside’ of a universal morality.

Perhaps these following comments will help explain…

Near the end of your comment, you used the phrase ‘moral code’. For many (not necessarily you), this conjures up imagery of a floating ‘code-book’ in the sky. What follows is that we mortals try to ‘access’ this ‘code’; we try to bring these ‘heavenly truths’ down here to earth… In this view, the Bible is seen by some to be the authoritative ‘access report’ or ‘access record’ of this process of ‘tapping in’ to the ‘heavenly, floating code in the sky’… (I’m using extreme language to make my point!)

This view, unfortunately, fits much better with a Greek dualist mindset. Truth (and ‘spirit’) is un-changing, static and ‘pure’, while ‘things down here’ are changing, un-reliable and corrupt. I could go on, but I’m trying to be brief… :)

The Jewish mindset, however, sees it differently. Yes, Truth is centered and solid, but it also is personal, unfolding and developing. We default to the Greek framework, so we struggle to understand how Truth could be both ‘solid’ AND ‘developing’; we struggle to imagine how morality could be both universal and foundational AND still something that everyone works out…

But, once again, I started this conversation (see first paragraph of original post) as one which didn’t necessarily want to survey ‘what the bible says’ about morality. However, I do think that the idea of a universal discussion about morality is consistent with the biblical view of a universal God who has given a moral conscience to all.


Well, now we seem to be moving a bit farther afield.

I had several very nice theological discussions last week with my Aunt (a “liberal” US-style Catholic). We were on the subject of the devil (I don’t remember how we got to that point. I mentioned how I never put much weight to the idea of a “personified” devil. But that the more I saw how he led people astray with other religions, it became more believable to me. She immediately lept to the conclusion that I was “condeming” non-Christians. I said, no, I wasn’t, and I hope I was wrong in my interpretation of the New Testament — God condemns, not us. We discussed John 14:6, where Jesus states (to paraphrase) “the only way to the Father is through me.” There are numerous other places in the New Testament where this point is made. She stated her belief that God (an “Over God”) does not only reveal himself through his “Christian” persona, but also through “Muslim”, “Hindu”, etc personas. And that they will be judged under what God has revealed to them. This is highly relativistic! This seems shakey theology to me. Is this what you are saying about “God’s Morality” being revealed differently to different people?

I’m not strictly speaking a Calvanist, but I do feel they express a lot of truth. There is a lot of “Calvanistic” leaning in Paul’s letters. How do you feel about the idea that mankind is fallen, and so uses its own free will to choose not-God? And that being chosen by God (as well as us choosing him) is required before we are able to reject our natural tendancies away from God? This would suggest that “human morality” is the opposite of “Godly morality” EXCEPT where is is to our benefit to go against our natural tendancies.

i.e. while we (the unsaved) “naturally” want to have sex with every partner we have an opportunity to, we restrict this urge because of the human consequences (divorce, etc) that follow if we get caught NOT because we are following God’s moral code. It is not until we are saved by grace that we begin chosing God’s way over man’s.

Please understand I am way over simplifying what I think the truth is (I believe Arminianism and Calvanism are NOT in fact mutually exclusive — in a similar sense to the statement that matter and energy are at the same time “particles” and “waves”.). But I am trying to use this as a jump-off point.

If John 14:6 is literally true then it does not look “good” to me for non-Christians who choose another path to God — it does not appear to lead there. Paul says that not knowing God’s word isn’t an excuse, that nature reveals it (Romans 1:20). It suggests that God’s moral code IS available to everyone but that everyone does not choose to follow it.

I guess I’ll summarize my thoughts:

1) The most clear way God has communicated His moral code to us is through the Bible.

2) God also reveals His morality through nature (and our consciences, perhaps).

3) Unless you are saved (i.e know Christ), you generally tend to choose against God’s morality except where you are forced to by other circumstances.

4) Morality for the unsaved, therefore is mutable and changing, and has little if anything to do with God’s morality.

take care,


OK, Joe,

Again, these areas weren’t the ones I wanted to explore under this article, but I’ll engage with you briefly…

No, I’m not saying that God changes His morality depending on what ‘persona’ they’ve encountered…

Let me try again.

What I’m saying is that I don’t think God’s intent is for only some humans to ‘do’ morality. Morality is for everyone. Further, I don’t think humans have to read the Bible to do morally good things.

I’ll skip to your summary points:
1) Again, you’ve used the phrase ‘moral code’. Did you read my comments about this?

2) Yes. Creation and Conscience. Definitely. This is how non-Christians of all kinds are able to fruitfully discuss morality and ethics… This is key for me. I don’t think many Christians appreciate this. We all to quickly claim high moral ground, as though we have been given more of a conscience than others…

3) This is reflective of a low view of humanity, I think. When Psalm 8 says that we’re ‘crowned with glory and honour’, that’s something we’ve got to take seriously. Does humanity bear the marks of rebellion? Certainly. But humans are made in God’s image, and this is not (at least not completely) erased by sin. I’ll stop there…

4) Again – a low view of humanity here. The real difference (as has been said) is not between non-christians and christians, but between God and humans. In my view it’s not that ‘christians are involved with God’s morality and non-christians aren’t.’ Rather God’s morality is available and revealed to ALL, so we ALL are involved (knowingly or not) with God’s morality.

Joe, if you’d like to chat through other issues relating to biblical things, please email me at dale(at)nbc(dot)org(dot)nz… Under this post, I wanted to chat in other terms…



This is essentially a democratic view of morality. …snip… Is this your picture of morality? I’m elaborating, sure, but what do you think? Surely morality can’t be this relative, can it?

I don’t see why not? I will add I don’t think people consciously “vote” for what they think is important, it is just permeated through the culture much like any other cultural trait.

I know it’s frustrating, but this kind of relativism just won’t work – even if we only tried it in Western countries with ‘contemporary values’… :)

But that’s kind of my point – in my view it does work fine, and is even doing so right now, in every culture on the planet. It isn’t really too complex an idea, and it doesn’t need anything unproven or unusual to work – it just needs people to be people.

If I suspend that theory for a second, just what would you claim are the universal or absolute morals/values for which we could base our moral judgements on? I can’t for the life of me think of any, nor where we could find them. Certainly not the bible?

My point is that if nobody knows what they are, surely they would end up acting as if they didn’t exist and we are straight back to relative values?


‘democratic morality’
So, Ian, morals = cultural traits?

relative morality
Sorry, Ian, but that is a logical nightmare – and a practical one. You think it works ‘fine’, but what about others who don’t? I’m sure there are plenty of voices out there who would say that relativism isn’t working ‘fine’.
The odd thing, however, is that I’m not even sure anyone really IS a full-on relativist! Everyone has at least some values that they believe others should have…

universal/absolute morals
Yeah, trying to put a label or name on this is always problematic. If I were forced to do so, I would say that all true morality proceeds from the universal principle/value/ethic we commonly refer to as ‘Love’. And, of course, I’m not talking about romantic urges or warm, fuzzy feelings. I’m talking about an ethic which transcends the self/other divide, where (for example) a person protects and preserves (or at least attempts to!) their relationship to ‘another’, even when they are positioned ‘against’ them, etc.

I know that Bernard Lonergan has developed this view. And I could ramble, but won’t – I need to go to bed… :)

The funny think about Love, as I close, is that it is at once the most un-known, foreign, subjective thing AND also the most obvious, known, familiar and objective thing in the world. It is as though two contradictory statements are at once true – we’ve never seen perfect Love, but we just plain know what It looks like…

How’s that for wishy, washy subjective mish-mash? Can’t put any of that in a test-tube can you? But we sense, somehow, intuitively that Love just ‘is’…


So, Ian, morals = cultural traits?

I don’t think that is an unreasonable claim? I have no idea what else they could be short of inventing ideas for which we have no evidence whatsoever?

Sorry, Ian, but that is a logical nightmare – and a practical one.

I don’t see the gap in the logic?

You think it works ‘fine’, but what about others who don’t? I’m sure there are plenty of voices out there who would say that relativism isn’t working ‘fine’.

Apologies, I wasn’t clear on what I meant by “working”. I am quite sure the world doesn’t precisely adhere to my (or anyone else’s) moral values, but thats a function of everyone having different values, and is quite irrelevant to the point I was aiming at.

My point was the system appears to function effectively as I described it. This has absolutely nothing to do with good or bad outcomes, but more to do with the process for which they get there.

The odd thing, however, is that I’m not even sure anyone really IS a full-on relativist! Everyone has at least some values that they believe others should have…

From any individual’s perspective it would be logical that those values would seem like the only ones that fit, and that everyone else should agree for that reason. This is fairly easy to explain – values that don’t have this property are quickly changed or discarded (a Darwinian model of values if you like). I think you are attributing too much conscious decision making to these values – there rarely is any if I have it figured right.

Re Love/etc

Could you give me some links or material to read? Or failing that a synopsis of the idea? (no rush :) Because while I can see how love could encompass a variety of values many of us hold, I am less sure we could treat it as absolute/universal?

we’ve never seen perfect Love, but we just plain know what It looks like…

Do we?

How’s that for wishy, washy subjective mish-mash? Can’t put any of that in a test-tube can you? But we sense, somehow, intuitively that Love just ‘is’…

I know what you mean here, but I can’t help but think an undefinable thing is really no basis for a universal value – because if it can’t be universally defined it will immediately be interpreted in 6 billion different ways, and universality sails out the door :)

As a kind of thought experiment what would be necessary conditions for an absolute moral value? I think if we could nail it down and define in it such a way as there were no exceptions, and everyone on the planet intrinsically recognised your claim to be true, and there were no biological explanations for it, then (and only then) could we start to get the sense it might have some other source. We are a long way from that I suspect? It seems to me relative morals on the other hand don’t need any such test because the machinery is right there in the open.

(this is a great discussion by the way, yet again!)


I think I’m following your thread now, Dale…. It looks like you are discussing the idea of “relative” (that is, depending upon culture and time) vs “absolute” (that is, universal to all humans in all times)sexual morality. I did a little reading about it.

I’m not sure how the concept of “love” plays in this. I’m thinking of Eastern cultures which arrange marriages, sometimes for children as young as babies, where the relationship is purely business — “love” may enter the relationship at some time, but it isn’t a prequisite for the relationship and it isn’t necessarily a result of the relationship.

If there is anything “universal” about human sexual morality, it might be the idea that “healthy” relationships do not result in hurt for “persons”.

I put “persons” in quotes because it isn’t neceessarily the well being of one of the participants that matter. It might be the personal property of someone (i.e. a slave or a wife/daughter).

In the past, and in some Muslim cultures today (and maybe in Hindu culture?), women are seen as property of men. Their idea of moral sexual relations fell out of this perceived property value of women.

Likewise in the past, slaves were not “people” but were owned. How they were used by the owners, how other people affected their “value” to their owners, defined sexual morality in this case. Otherwise frowned upon acts can be made “good” by compensation to the owner or by the owner’s acquiesence.

(I’m thinking about Lot offering his virgin daughters to the crowd to keep them from disturbing his sleep and his visitors’. The daughter’s were Lot’s property, so it was his right to offer them to the crowd.)

(I’m also thinking about that young girl in Pakistan or Afghanistam a year or so ago that was stoned to death by her older relatives because she dishonored her family by walking in public with a boy of a lower caste family.)

(I’m also thinking about the gang-rape victim in Saudi Arabia who is receiving a significantly greater punishment than the rapists, because she was culpable due to the fact that she put herself in position to be raped by not having permission from her husband to be where she was.)

Today, at least in Western culture, we believe women and men have equal rights, so “sexual morality” is defined as evil when a non-willing participant is hurt. Rape, pedophillia, bestiality etc fall into this type of “bad” behavior. This hurt can also be mental or economic (as when a spouse “breaks contract” by cheating on a partner).

There are other forms of sexuality that have been sometimes banned and sometimes accepted in different cultures, for other reasons — mostly religious. Homosexuality jumps to mind. olygamy, premarital and extramarital sex, pornography, prostitution, are other possibilities. These don’t seem to be covered in a “universal” sense.


So much to think about… :)

“So – what values should we have?”

Not an easy question to answer. If you asked me this question 10 years ago, I can bet that my answer would be different to what it would be now. Same as if you were to ask me in another 10 years. I just cant see how we as individuals can escape the influences of our environment. As our individual circumstances change, and as we move between different ‘groups’ of people our ideas and what we value most tends to alter to fit in somewhat with whatever current society we are living in.

“I happen to think that this kind of guidance is actually more powerful than books, brochures, tapes, etc”

I completely agree with this statement. I mean how can we avoid this kind of guidance? Every day we are influenced by other people and their ideas. Someone mentioned earlier that society is obsessed with sex. We only need to walk out the door or turn on the tv to be confronted with sexual imagery. And not all of it is as obvious as that billboard you mentioned. Like it or not, young people are learning an awful lot more about sex than even I ever did as a kid. My friend and I used to sit in wonder at the things my younger sister was doing – and getting away with. My sister is only 3 years younger than me. A conversation about what she was up to would often include the statement ‘we didn’t even know what that was when we were that age!’

What is viewed as acceptable in society seems to dictate whatever our current value sets are. Currently, sex sells. That makes it ok. Teachers can stand in front of their classrooms and teach their students about sex and its consequences (for want of a better word) and think they are guiding them. But it’s the magazines they are reading, their friends, what they are watching that they are going to be paying more attention to. More kids will be thinking ‘that wont happen to me’ than thinking ‘I shouldn’t do that because this will happen and therefore… etc’. Ultimately human beings are selfish. If we want to do something, we will usually find a way to do it and stuff the consequences (usually called being a teenager but as adults we still do this).

universal/absolute morals

The idea of a universal morality is wonderful. Hand in hand with that should come world peace and all those other nice ideas that we often wish we could have if only…



Thanks for the continued discussion!


The logical/practical nightmare is this: To suggest that fuily-relative morality and values is ‘functioning effectively’ is very much (I think) like saying a house burning down is a success.

Further, I can’t see the logical justification for any kind of moral assertions being made from a moral relativist. It’s kind of like someone who doesn’t vote complaining about the election results. If ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are only purely mental processes, then things are only ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in our minds. How can a moral relativist have the audacity to push for their own mental version of morality, if it’s just one of the many possible versions? Of course, the other extreme –absolutism– can be just as problematic, but to subscribe to full on relativism is –I suggest– to lose your right to debate morality altogether…

Love/universal morality/etc.:
What I might do is do another post on this… Should be fun…


Thanks. Yeah, in my original post, I simply wanted to suggest that sexuality is no different to the rest of life – in that it too needs moral guidance; and also the idea (which has not seen as much attention) that basing one’s personal identity on desires is not exactly the best ground to stand on.

What has ensued has been great – a consideration of the foundations (or lack thereof!) of ethics and morality: values, principles, etc. It’s been good to focus on this.

As for various things being addressed by a ‘universal morality’, you and I are Theists, so I think there is a way for us to understand how (for example) the universality of an idea (I like to say Reality) like ‘Love’ can give guidance to even the most specific of situations… I want to explore this in my next post…


Thanks for the very ‘true-to-life’ account of the discomfort or at least ‘surprise’ at how quickly things can change! :)

I’d like to continue exploring the idea of Universal or Absolute morality in a next post. I know it seems like a pipe dream, but I think it is both the most hidden thing from us AND the most obvious thing. Must run now, but I might find time to post at least a conversation-starting post tomorrow…


To suggest that fully-relative morality and values is ‘functioning effectively’ is very much (I think) like saying a house burning down is a success.

It is success if you are looking for evidence that fire burns things. I am talking about the mechanism of morality (i.e. the fire), rather than a judgement of the outcomes of the mechanism running its course, which incidentally are true irrelevant of the actual mechanism – if they are indeed absolute then the house is still burning.

My point was not that the house burning was a “good” thing, but that the house burning down is because the fire was functioning precisely how it would be expected to. The same can be said of relative morality – the world seems to me to be functioning precisely as you would expect if that were true.

Further, I can’t see the logical justification for any kind of moral assertions being made from a moral relativist. It’s kind of like someone who doesn’t vote complaining about the election results.

I don’t follow the analogy, but that aside, should any individual be able to make moral assertions? I would argue the only assertions one can make is on how valuable different things are relative to each other. This direct discussion of weighting consequences is the only way I can see to have a meaningful moral discussion, and in fact is exactly what we do on a day to day basis.

If ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are only purely mental processes, then things are only ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in our minds.

Precisely. After all rightness/wrongness are judgements aren’t they and where else but in the mind can we judge?

How can a moral relativist have the audacity to push for their own mental version of morality, if it’s just one of the many possible versions? Of course, the other extreme –absolutism– can be just as problematic, but to subscribe to full on relativism is –I suggest– to lose your right to debate morality altogether…

The problem is that if we subscribe to absolute morals and claim to know what they are, there is nothing to debate! And if we don’t know what those absolute values are, they might as well be relative because they can’t influence our decisions or moral judgements, and we will revert to the ready made machinery for valuing that I have already described.

In other words, short of actually demonstrating we actually know what the absolute moral values are, it is surely irrelevant whether they exist or not?

I look forward to your next post :)


Thanks Ian,

It wasn’t the best metaphor, was it? :) But I think you know what I meant.

Hope to have post up soon…



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