Five Principles of the New Sexual and Relational Morality

Regnerus-GraphToday, I guest posted over on The Gospel Coalition website. My post begins:

The sociologist Mark Regnerus recently published a piece for the Witherington Institute’s Public Discourse, suggesting that support for same-sex marriage in some Christian circles correlates to broader shifts in morality surrounding sexuality and relations. Survey respondents were asked to declare their level of agreement with seven statements relating to the issues of pornography, cohabitation, no-strings-attached sex, the duty of staying in a marriage, extramarital sex, polyamorous relationships, and abortion. The results illustrated pronounced fault lines between those committed to historic Christian stances on sexual morality and supporters of same-sex marriage.

As conservative Christians, we often see such data and reach for one or both of two related narratives: the narrative of the rejection of morality and the narrative of the slippery slope. I’m convinced both approaches typically oversimplify matters and obscure the reality.

Read the rest here.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Culture, Ethics, Guest Post, On the web, Sex and Sexuality, Society, Theological, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Five Principles of the New Sexual and Relational Morality

  1. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    Liberals have used genuine nihilism (Nietzsche, rock and roll, Foucault, many other examples) to disrupt traditional morality, so a lot of traditional people have taken them at their word. But you are right, liberals are not nihilists, and in fact have a definite moral position to advance.

  2. Alastair,
    I think you are a bit unfair to the slippery slope position. I am not familiar with anyone putting forth the belief that whatever horrible things I can imagine is what I say support of X leads to. I am familiar with the position that once one makes consent king, then everything that can be consented to is within easy reach (polygamy, adult incest etc). Then after that age of consent laws (and the like) also start to come under pressure.

    • I tackle the polygamy suggestion in question 8 here.

      • When I mention polygamy, I simply mean more than 2 of whatever not simply one guy with many wives. If you would like to propose a different word besides polygamy, then I am game.

        Next, even if it is opposed to same sex marriage in many ways, how is that relevant if the issue is whatever can be consented to in within bounds? That many people wish to go to the left does not imply that there is no one wanting to go right or that the majority have a right to tell the minority what to do when the only question is consent.

      • Polygamy/polygyny/polyandry are sorts of relationships that are more commonly found in older societies. You seem to be thinking of polyamory, which is a rather different sort of thing.

        The point is that consent isn’t all that matters within the new morality. Even were polygamous relationships tolerated, they wouldn’t be ‘celebrated’ in the way that polyamorous ones could be.

      • Whether they would be celebrated as much is not the point of the slippery slope arguments that are given. That one is powerless to resist such when consent is king, is the point. But as you said before, polygamy arguments are not a true slippery slope because it is not as bad as a same sex relationship.

        Next, if there is something beyond consent which makes a relationship acceptable/tolerable, then I would like to know what it is?

      • The duty of self-realization as an autonomous sexual agent is important to recognize here. Think of the way in which celibacy is subtly pathologized, save in those cases when it is the outworking of an asexual identity.

      • That the duty of self-realization is important is undisputed. But accepting such, consent is still king as one journeys down the path of self-realization. If you can get consent, who can say that your path is wrong in reaching your goals (whatever they may be)?

        Next, is celibacy pathologized or only the push that someone needs to be celibate outside of marriage etc, is what is pathologized? As far as I know, some may look at others in a weird fashion for not having sex, but there is no desire to say that someone has to have sex with someone else at some point.

      • The difficulty with celibacy and things such as polygamy is not just the idea that there may not be consent involved, but the conviction that even willingness or consent to such things is somehow a failure in one’s responsibility to oneself. Not every choice is celebrated, especially choices that gesture towards personal commitments that trump those of liberal ethics.

      • If such a framework works against celibacy, then wouldnt it also work against marriage in general. Would it be better for self-realization that one simply sleep with whomever, live with whomever, and then walk away when one feels like it and is ready for another adventure?

        Again, that not every choice is equally celebrated is not a refutation of the slippery slope position but instead consistent with it. The core of the argument is that action X cannot be coherently opposed. If something beyond consent is necessary, then we move into metaphysical territory where those accepting same sex marriage are then on the defensive.

      • If you read my argument carefully, you will see that I don’t completely reject slippery slope arguments at all. In fact, I offer a form of them myself. What I reject are the fairly widespread forms of them that operate with little appreciation of the underlying principles of liberal sexual ethics.

        And it does often work against marriage and in favour of open marriages, ‘monogamish’ relationships, and divorce for the cause of dissatisfaction. Liberals aren’t consistent among themselves on how to treat ‘wrong’ choices. Also, it is quite possible to ‘oppose’ actions in various ways, even while ‘tolerating’ them, and without making them completely illegal.

      • I dont believe that Liberals are inconsistent among themselves on how to treat ‘wrong’ choices. Every system/framework has legal wrong choices and illegal wrong choices. For example, as a Presbyterian, I believe that Christian parents should baptize their children. However I am not going to take action against anyone who does not do such. Such would be a wrong legal choice. The only question is where to place the line between the two options. If one gets consent, the action will at least be tolerated but may even be praised/encouraged (based on various other factors). When one does not get consent, then such is an example of an illegal wrong choice.

        I suppose our difference on how to look at slippery slope arguments turns on how complex liberal sexual ethics are. I continue to see it as basically a consent game while you see it as quite a bit more complex.

      • Legal action isn’t the only sort of action that one can take, nor are laws the only limits or constraints placed upon choices.

      • I agree to an extent, however, one will only have a very narrow space to deliver non governmental sanctions against someone who you believe the government should not punish/or simply force them to act in more enlightened way, especially in a liberal framework.

      • It is also important to remember that the governmental action can strongly push against certain choices, while formally tolerating them. For instance, while recognizing and tolerating women who choose to forgo full time employment outside of the home and raise their kids themselves, governments can price this option out of the reach of most women and push them in the other direction through incentives and other means.

      • I suppose the next question would be: “Why is such considered toleration?” This would be akin to Muslims in the Middle East saying that they tolerate Christians because they dont have laws that simply ban Christianity, but instead say that one must pay a tax if one rejects Islam.

      • In the particular example of high taxation making working motherhood necessary, unlike your Islam example, it isn’t a penalty directly targeted at that choice. However, it is an approach that explicitly favours other choices and makes that choice onerous or costly.

        This is the sort of thing that we encounter in the case of liberal sexual and relational ethics. Our society and its institutions are being developed around such ethics in many, many ways, most of them very subtle. These developments make Christian sexual and relational ethics increasingly difficult and costly in many respects, even when they aren’t directly stigmatized.

  3. Philipp says:

    A good essay, Alastair, and one with which I find myself largely in agreement. Christians and others of more or less ‘traditional’ morality can indeed be very naive in their arguments (though no less naive, I think, than many of their opponents). Just one point regarding consent: I agree that it is (for now, at least) unlikely for sexual acts with young children to be normalized, and, so long as the principle of consent remains strong, they will not be normalized (it is worth noting, incidentally, that they were clearly not viewed as so greatly evil in antiquity; the modern focus on consent has done us some good). I do wonder, however, just how strong age-of-consent laws will prove to be. There is much popular moral outrage against sexual acts involving both adults and minors, with one glaring exception: pretty young women and teenage boys. Nearly every time such an incident is reported, one finds numerous online commenters expressing their approval of the act; this tendency, which is not paralleled in the case of older men seducing teenage girls or (for now) boys, is an expression, perhaps, of a macho sexuality that perceives males, once past puberty, as the primary agents of any sexual encounter, and such acts thus not as crimes perpetrated by an adult against a defenceless child, but as especially daring conquests by a young rake-in-the-making. Now, the legal barriers to such relationships are as yet robust, and there is still a sizeable proportion of the populace that staunchly opposes their normalization, but we have seen how quickly an established moral framework can be eroded. All that would be necessary, I think, is for active political pressure-groups to be formed, and the path to full legal and social normalization of youth-adult sexual acts would be underway. After all, if a teenager can consent to have sex with another teenager, why can he (or she) not with an adult? The Christian answer, that neither should be doing so unless have freely entered into marriage for the purpose of procreation and mutual consolation, must seem entirely too prudish to many modern people.

    All this says nothing, of course, regarding the likelihood of such a development. However, when the makers of morality have made such an effort to eliminate the ‘ick-factor’ (a vital line of defence, it seems to me, on this issue) as a criterion of moral reasoning, a definite window of opportunity has been opened for others whose morality is outside the traditional mainstream–or even contrary to what most modern secularist libertines would accept. Polyamory is a case in point–how often have you seen supporters of homosexual marriage insist that acceptance of bisexuality cannot possibly lead to condoning three-party marriages, because of an arbitrary restriction of bisexuality solely to two-partner sexual relationships? There is a stunning example of this in the discussion session that followed Douglas Wilson’s lecture on sexuality at U. of Indiana-Bloomington. Wilson may err in insisting that acceptance of bisexuality must necessarily lead to acceptance of triple marriages; nevertheless, the blitheness with which his interlocutors insist solely on marriages patterned after traditional ones is astonishingly naive (or else simply dishonest), as there is clear evidence that others do not ‘construct’ their bisexuality in so quaint an old fashion (e.g.

    What I am saying boils down to this: once the social and theoretical barriers that used to fence around sexual behaviour have disappeared, we are indeed on a slippery slope, not just because the new morality can be extended and modified to embrace more and more deviant behaviour (now defined not as deviant but as a valid–nay, even a commendable–choice, or, if the rhetorical situation demands it, as the outworking of an individual person’s fated personality), but because that morality is itself inherently unstable. New-found individual ‘rights’ can clearly be extended (indeed, have, in the case of government mandate of contraception in the United States, already been extended, either actually in law or in the desire of many) so as to infringe rights long-held to be inalienable. Why should not something of the same kind happen to the notion of ‘consent,’ or that notion itself be extended so broadly as to become meaningless? I do not know if such a thing will happen, and I hope and pray that it does not, but I cannot be certain that it will not be–too much has already been done to destroy a long-established moral consensus for me to have any confidence in the new one that is now trying to establish itself.

    • Thanks for the comment, Philipp. A few thoughts in response:

      1. The difference in the treatment of relationships between young women and teenage boys has a complicated relationship to the principles that I outlined in my article, in large part because it arises less from the new form of liberal sexual and relational morality as it does from cultural notions about sexuality and gender that precede it. Liberal sexual morality is instinctively opposed to relationships with parties with imbalanced agency. Men have typically been perceived to enjoy much more capacity for agency than women, which is one reason why age imbalanced relationships can be treated differently in their case. Liberalism, as it depends upon the notion of consensual transactions between autonomous individuals, relies heavily upon equality between parties. Sex between teenagers is perceived to be unproblematic (provided contraception is used), because they have largely equal agency. The same does not hold for adults and teenagers.

      2. The removal of the ick-factor is one thing. The deeper issue is the reliance upon principles that would seem to imply polyamory. In other words, polyamory—and arrangements such as consensual open marriages—isn’t just something that we will be defenceless to resist, but is something that we are directly moving towards. People will often ridicule this suggestion, but the cutting edge is strongly advocating for this and the issue has been gaining more prominence over time.

      3. We don’t currently see the full outworking of the new morality. Most people hold it inconsistently or without thinking through its consequences, whether wilfully or not. The current situation has much of the character of a slippery slope to it. However, it is a slippery slope that is headed in a particular direction. Also, while false morality will never be fully coherent or stable—not least because reality is God’s—there are forms of it that can be maintained in a much more consistent and stable fashion than most. While the resistance to polyamory will prove weak, the new sexual morality is much more firmly opposed to paedophilia than the non-Christian sexual moralities that preceded it. This ‘slippery slope’ has moved wider society away from acceptance of paedophilia, rather than towards it.

      This isn’t to say that there are inconsistencies and problems in liberal sexual morality’s approach to paedophilia that might cause problems in the future. For instance, as I point out in my post, the status of children has always posed problems for the liberal tradition. Lowering the age of consent, through an emphasis upon young persons’ right to greater sexual agency and autonomy is one possible route for dealing with this, especially as young people today are increasingly presented as autonomous sexual agents. This wouldn’t be an easy move for liberal sexual morality to make: it is conflicted in this area. Also, liberal sexual morality has problems processing the fact that paedophilia seems to be deeply pre-wired in some people’s sexuality. The notion that some people’s sexuality is pathological and ‘monstrous’ is deeply unsettling for liberalism and it remains to see how it will square this with its emphasis upon our sexuality’s relationship with our self-identity.

  4. One thing which disturbs me about the above survey is how many Christians who oppose SSM do so for largely ignorant reasons (I’m thinking of the 10-11% who support cohabitation). Judgement must always begin with the house of God.

  5. Hi Alastair,
    Thank you for this.
    I’ve been thinking of the saying ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ and I realise that I’m finding it difficult to ‘see the trees for the wood’. Thank you for defining some of the ‘trees’ and ‘branches’, so to speak, in the New Sexual and Relational Morality.
    I’ve just been looking at Matthew 7:13,14 and reflecting on which elements of the New Morality might belong to ‘the narrow way’ and which to ‘the broad way.’
    Thank you again.
    My thanks also to those who have responded to your blog.

  6. I wonder if you are ecstatic that your article has appeared on Illinois Family Institute’s web site;
    A notoriously anti-gay web site with vehement vitriolic demonisation of people who are LGBT.

    That’s where I first read it, and I thought it odd that it wasn’t rabidly anti-gay – most of their article are. When I traced it all the back to you here I noted that in comparison to some of your other articles you have .. calmed down .. a bit. A more rational less war-like response to the fact that the world moves on, accepts new realities, from enhanced understanding and critical thinking. Interpretation of the Bible has already changed over time – despite some fallacy that the word is timeless morality – slavery isn’t. When the first parts of the OT were being written the standard marriage practice was polygamy – a man could have as many wives as he could afford – women were property. Belief was also polytheist until 600 BC when monotheism was unilaterally imposed and those professing otherwise were put to death. Any Biblical scholar should know this. Same-sex unions did occur, including in Rome until 342AD when Constantine outlawed them and had those couples murdered. Elsewhere in Europe same-sex unions were accepted and even solomised by some religions – say what you like about Boswell but he was an excellent scholar and amassed the evidence. There is one single excellent video of a lecture he gave on Youtube which is worth viewing.

    I guess when you put articles out there others can re-produce them on their web sites without permission, but having your name associated with the IFI wouldn’t be something I’d put on you CV.

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