Are Love and Sexual Desire Moral?

“Give me chastity and continence—but not yet.” Saint Augustine

Posted Apr 16, 2010

"Give me chastity and continence-but not yet." Saint Augustine
"Fidelity is possible-anything is possible, if you're stubborn and strong. But it's not that important." Michelle Pfeiffer

Love is valuable morally because it increases attachment between people, and this is of the utmost importance in maintaining social and personal relationships. The great importance of care and attachment in human affairs makes it understandable that we consider those who are unable to love as morally delinquent. The position of sexual desire is less clear in this regard. Nevertheless, we do not consider that those who love more people or those who have less sex are less virtuous.

As in other emotions, romantic love lacks a broad perspective. For example, romantic love involves impatience, namely, a narrow temporal perspective. In light of its discriminative nature, it has been argued that it is impossible to love and be wise and that love's true opposite is justice. Hence, the saying, "all in love is fair." This is not to say that love is always compatible with moral norms, but that everything done in love is fair within that context; in this sense, considerations of fairness are irrelevant to love.

It seems that the above claim pushes a basically sound insight a bit too far. If we wish to emphasize our active involvement in love, then we should argue that love's true opposite is indifference rather than fairness or justice. Although both claims reflect important aspects of love, being indifferent is less compatible with love than being just.

Moral criticism of love is often directed at some particular instances of it, mainly when love is excessive or causes damage to us and other people. This may occur, for instance, when love leads someone to concentrate exclusively on the interests of the beloved. Such criticism, however, is not directed at the emotion itself; all types of excess are harmful. It is interesting to note that moral criticism of negative emotions is mainly directed at the emotions themselves. Moral defense of these emotions is usually based on the social and personal context in which they appear. The case of positive emotions is the opposite. In and of themselves, these emotions are morally recommended. Their moral criticism concerns the particular social and personal context in which they appear.

In contrast to love, sexuality itself is widely held to be morally negative unless it is expressed within an accepted social framework, such as marriage, or is part of romantic love. Sexuality for its own sake as, for instance, in commercial sex or in casual, uncommitted relations, is often perceived to be morally wrong. The difficulty with such a critical attitude is that, like most other emotions, sexual desire is a transient state typical of short-term relationships; restricting it to long-term relationships is often an artificial demand which is incompatible with the major variables responsible for its generation. In the same way that anger is not restricted to hatred, sexuality should not be restricted to romantic love. In many cases, the short-term states of anger and sexual desire are not compatible with the long-term attitudes of hate and love.

Although sexual desire increases attachment between people, it is often condemned because of the moral restrictions many societies impose upon sexual relations. Because of the crucial place of sexuality in romantic love, this type of love is also sometimes criticized as being sinful. It is interesting to notice the gulf between a psychological evaluation of sexual activity and a moral evaluation. From a psychological viewpoint, sexual activities are one of the most enjoyable and hence valuable of our activities; from a moral viewpoint, this activity is often criticized.

The issue of sexual experience is one illustration of this difference. From a psychological viewpoint, an extensive sexual experience is highly valuable as it usually increases sexual satisfaction; from a moral viewpoint, such an experience is usually a negative mark-especially when referring to women. Women are often valued not for their sexual experience but for their sexual innocence. Accordingly, a woman who has intercourse with multiple sexual partners might be called a "loose woman," "slut," or "whore," rather than "a liberated woman," or "a person who offers great pleasure."

A major moral dilemma with regard to positive emotions toward other people is whether the great attachment to the object does not imply neglecting the needs of other people or being uncritical toward the object. Because of the discriminative nature of love, an intense positive attitude toward someone may be in conflict with positive attitudes toward other people. The more intense the love is, the more discriminative it is, and hence the more acute is the problem of our attitude toward those who are not included in this particular relationship.

The moral problem of loyalty is similar: does our loyalty to someone imply immoral behavior toward someone else? The problem of loyalty is also part of the complex relationship between romantic love and sexual desire. Can one be in love with someone, but still be sexually attracted to someone else? This is a psychological question whose answer is obviously positive. The moral question in this regard is different: should one, while in love, have sexual relations with someone else? In other words, does romantic love require full-time loyalty?

Whereas the moral ideals in most societies state that romantic love does in fact demand such loyalty, the moral practices of many people do not abide by this ideal. Loving someone does not necessarily preclude a sexual desire for someone else. The nature of love is exclusive, even though there is no convincing evidence for total exclusivity. This explains the above mentioned gap between moral norms and moral practices. Since changing the psychological nature of love and sexual desire is hard to achieve, reducing the gap between moral norms and actual practices in the future is more likely to be in the direction of relaxing the norms rather than changing our psychological nature.

To sum up, romantic love is intrinsically a moral emotion, as it expresses a profound positive attitude toward another person. However, some of its occurrences, especially when it relates to extreme cases or to other people who can be hurt by such love, may have a negative moral value (see here and here). Sexual desire, although pleasant, is less relevant from a moral point of view. Sexuality is morally positive when considered merely in terms of the pleasure it gives, but as this pleasure can sometimes hurt other people and go against prevailing moral norms and social constructs, it is more likely to be evaluated as morally negative.

It seems that the negative moral value of sexuality stems more from the danger it poses to our social constructs which are carefully organized and leave little room to celebrate passion, lack of control, total absorption, etc-all aspects of sexuality. That is presumably why earlier, less inhibited societies allowed a specific time - a festival or carnival - when orgies would be permitted. Of course, unbridled sexuality also carries with its own dangers, but the taboos around sexuality have less to do with hurting others. After all, love hurts others, war hurts others, but we have very little taboos against those.

The above considerations can be encapsulated in the following statement that a lover might express: "Darling, loving me is morally good, and although the moral value of having sex is not clear, I believe that if we love each other very much, the value of our love may minimize any moral criticism about our sexual activities."