The moral neutrality of extramarital sex

In my most recent post, I compared “revealed truth” (ostensibly divinely imposed) morals with those developed without feigned divine commands, the latter being based on minimizing the damage each of us might do to the “survival and flourishing of sentient beings” (credit to Michael Shermer for the term; see my previous post).

Religious concepts of morality—based on ancient texts of minimal provenance—have so permeated society, that the supposed immorality of many acts is ingrained in us. Consequently, in developing a rational, anthropogenic moral code, the humanist task is to extricate religio-genic elements to which we have become accustomed. If we cannot do that, any would-be humanist morality will remain contaminated by components based on folklore, not on reason. So consider this:

Apart from any opinion inherited from religion, is eating broccoli morally neutral? How about drinking a liter of whiskey? Speaking for myself, it is unlikely that I would consider eating broccoli to be morally bad; in like manner, it’s unlikely that I would decide drinking a liter of whiskey is morally bad. Reasons of health, taste, decorum, or expense, however, might cause me to decide either would be bad for me to do. But the point here is whether the act is morally bad. The moral judgment is based on whether an act impedes the survival and flourishing of other sentient beings—arguably the purpose of all secular morality. That comparison convinces me that ingesting either broccoli or whiskey is therefore morally neutral.

But how about eating broccoli (not sharing) in the presence of a starving child? How about drinking the whiskey while piloting a plane with passengers? My guess is that everyone—Christians and humanists alike—would decide that both are morally bad even though they were morally neutral just one paragraph ago. Have the new conditions converted broccoli and whiskey into that which is morally bad? Of course not. It isn’t the broccoli or the whiskey, but the other conditions I’ve added that introduce a moral issue.

But that was easy. Unless you are George H. W. Bush about the former or Carrie Nation about the latter you likely agree with me. But let’s press the point further. Even in cases wherein we have greater emotional involvement, we must use the same dispassionate logic. For that, what could be a more familiar and emotive subject for demonstration than extramarital sex?

Most if not all Christians (and religious people of many persuasions) consider extramarital sex morally wrong, wrong even if the married parties agree and even if no one is damaged. That view is so sternly held as to warrant the judgment of moral turpitude for a person who is kind, honest, considerate, and truthful—even the very embodiment of goodness otherwise—but is “guilty” of extramarital sex. I find no moral issue in the sexual behavior, but clearly one in the judging. In other words, as with broccoli and whiskey, I contend that extramarital sex is morally neutral.

Humanist morality turns solely on our obligation to others, real others, while Christian moral prohibitions additionally—even primarily—concern disobedience to and insult to a supposed supernatural authority. If extramarital sex has a moral component, that can only occur because of additional association with morality-relevant matters, not unlike my modifying conditions for broccoli and whiskey. For example, extramarital sex that involves force or lying becomes a moral matter only because of the force or lying, not the sex itself.

Consequently, this moral neutrality means a person who refrains from extramarital sex is not, ipso facto, a better, more valuable, or more loving person. He or she is not thereby more moral. It means a person who engages in extramarital sex is not a worse life partner, untrustworthy, or in any way morally blemished. These are implications of what I mean by morally neutral.

I am not making a case here for extramarital sex, nor against it, hence the adjective “neutral.” The analysis I’ve used has the option—lest this point be missed—for married persons to agree to monogamy, after which extramarital sex that violates that promise is not morally neutral at all. (This is the only condition wherein the word cheat is accurate; for extramarital sex by itself it would not be.) Extramarital sex that abuses, misuses, or deceives the parties involved is not morally neutral. It is the extramarital sex per se that is morally neutral. Monogamy is a legitimate choice, but not a requirement of morality.

Christian morality has little built-in flexibility; it judges extramarital sex to be a sin whether or not it is accompanied by inconsistency with others’ survival and flourishing. In other words, it is immoral in itself, quite apart from cheating, lying, hitting, breaking promises, or failing to fulfill commitments. Constructed for simple and uneducated people, Christianity is filled with such rigid and unexamined morals (consider “lust in [your] heart”), while it has shamefully allowed, even promoted, actual damage to human beings for centuries. From a behavioral perspective, it is and has long been an immoral religion.

The reason for this post is not extramarital sex itself, but to provide an example of secular humanists’—well, this secular humanist’s—approach to morality and the vital freeing of morality from foolish, hurtful, and often inexplicable rules conceived in credulous times.

Meanwhile Christianity demands that Christians impose their arcane, often juvenile religious morals on others as well as on themselves, morals with a bizarre emphasis on sexual matters. Secular humanism, in my interpretation, looks only to unleash the human spirit and intellect, charging us seriously but minimally to restrain ourselves with respect to the survival and flourishing of the world’s sentient beings. It arises not from ancient attempts to gratify a jealous and vengeful phantasm, but from our obligations to each other.


About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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