Almost everyone has a strong opinion about sexual morality. Generally speaking, people can eat together, play chess together, and exchange cash for personal services without evoking any significant debates over their moral character but, if people have sex together, then suddenly the whole world feels compelled to have an opinion on the matter. A host of questions arise: “Are they married?” “How well do they know each other?” “Was there just the two of them?” “How old were they?” “Were any kinky sex toys used?” “Was any money exchanged?” And so on. Why do so many people feel a need to pass moral judgment on the sexual activities of other people?
In certain cases the answer is relatively easy to find. If one person is forcing another to do something against his or her will, then it seems the public has an interest in protecting the victim and punishing the perpetrator. But such easy cases are just a drop in the ocean of moral concerns over sex. A great deal of moral condemnation is heaped upon people who do not seem to be doing any significant harm to each other. Virtually anyone who is not constructing their lives around the pursuit or maintenance of heterosexual monogamy finds themselves, at one time or another, serving as the target of someone’s moral outrage.
Where sex is concerned, moral outrage generally takes on strong legal and political significance. A great deal of law-enforcement time and government money is spent, for example, enforcing laws against prostitution. But even where there are no laws, one can find intense public pressure to keep us on the straight and narrow, sexually speaking. Recently a woman lost her job because her employer discovered she was a sex blogger. This sort of social pressure causes most people in alternative lifestyles stay “in the closet.”
Make no mistake: when it comes to sex, your personal business is very definitely perceived to be the public’s business and there are countless ways to make you conform to the public’s notion of proper sexual conduct. So the question needs to be asked: Why do we make such a big deal about sex?
Moral percepts are essential to the survival of human societies. Morality transforms mere aesthetics (judgments of taste) into the tools (and in many cases the weapons) of social control. It has been argued that the foundation of all morality is an idea that most of us know as the “Golden Rule,” which is to say: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The Golden Rule is found, in one form or another, in every human culture, and is also widespread in non-human primate societies. In fact it is claimed that variations of Golden-Rule-like behavior, such as “reciprocal altruism,” can be found throughout the animal kingdom.
Remarkable advances in neuroscience have provided insights into possible neurological bases for reciprocal altruism, as well as for the Golden Rule. These insights have fascinating implications for our understanding of morality. Donald Pfaff, head of the Laboratory of Neurobiology and Behavior at Rockefeller University, has proposed a neurobiological theory of moral behavior based on the idea that a certain type of loss of information in our brains may temporarily interfere with our brain’s ability to sustain clear boundaries of identity between self and others. It takes a great deal of precisely-timed neurological work to maintain the self/other distinction, so it is perfectly plausible to suppose that any disruptions of these processes might lead to blurring of the self/other distinctions in our minds.
In his theory of moral behavior, Pfaff does not conceive of these moments of identity-blurring as rare mystical experiences of “oneness,” but rather as our ordinary emotional experiences of empathy. Most of this identity-blurring activity is unconscious, so it is not as if we suddenly find ourselves confronted by a problem – “Gee, now I’m not sure…is this my pain I’m feeling, or is it yours?” No, what we consciously experience is just the very tip of this neurological iceberg, which takes the form of an intuitive sense of what it must be like to be another creature, given what we see happening to that creature, and given how we interpret the creature’s behaviors. In a very real, albeit mostly unconscious way, our neurological wetware emotionally embodies an idea that we would express cognitively as “What I do to you, I do to myself.” Given the heavy neurological work needed in order to maintain self/other distinctions, and the relative ease with which these distinction-enforcing mechanisms can be disrupted, it appears that our default mode of being is nothing other than an on-going embodiment of the Golden Rule. These facts, along with the functionality of mirror neurons, imply that we are, in effect, hard-wired for compassion.
Of course our neurological predisposition for compassion is not the end of the story. Aggression is an equally basic requirement for survival throughout the animal kingdom. We defend territory; we defend our mates; and, as humans, we sometimes find ourselves fighting for our principles. All things considered, judgments of morality can be highly complex.
Given the universality of compassion in the form of the Golden Rule, and given the foundational nature of sexual, parental, and aggressive behavioral expressions, it is plausible that we might be able to engage in a rational (Sam Harris would even suggest scientific) exploration of the nature of human moral reasoning.
In a recent book, “Primates and Philosophers,” primatologist Frans de Waal argues that all social animals have to constrain their behavior in order to be the kinds of social animals that they are. These types of behavioral constraints are part of our human biological inheritance, and serve as the basis for human morality.
According to Dr. de Waal, human morality may have evolved as social primates banded together against threats from outsiders. This suggests that moral restraints are mostly exercised toward the members of one’s own community, not toward individuals who are perceived as outsiders. I would suggest that this may be the bases for the many different forms of xenophobia at work in the world today. Human morality may have grown out of primate sociality, but modern humans incorporate high levels of cognitive sophistication, which is to say, we think about things far more abstractly. We devise religions, create governments, discuss fundamental rights, and cheer for our favorite football teams. In other words, our sense of who is an “outsider” can become highly abstract in various contexts. This, finally, brings us to the morality of sex.
We have biologically inherited tendencies to exercise compassion, or aggression, depending on a variety of social circumstances, and thanks to our predilection for abstract thought, we tend to categorize “us” verses “them” in accordance with a wide variety of historically entrenched criteria. Many of these criteria are essentially accidental, arbitrary, and irrational. This, I would suggest, is what has happened in the realm of sexuality. For a variety of historical reasons, a large percentage of people today take an “us versus them” attitude toward a variety of sexual lifestyles. If you are not a monogamous heterosexual, then you are “not one of us,” but rather, you are “one of them,” and a great deal of one’s natural capacity for compassion gets replaced by one’s equally natural capacity for xenophobia and aggression. Add to this the historical links between sexuality and spirituality (the notion that sex is sinful), and we have a great deal of potential for various forms of sexual oppression.
We enjoy sexual freedom, and in accordance with both logic and the Golden Rule we ought to grant sexual freedom to others, but due to certain arbitrary historical accidents most of us are raised to perceive people in alternative lifestyles as “outsiders” and thus our compassion has been replaced by fear, disgust, and hatred. Sexual/erotic oppression is not part of any biological destiny. It is well within our capacity to break down the arbitrary barriers that separate the erotic us from the erotic them.