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NATURE, SIN, AND COVENANT: THREE BASES FOR SEXUAL ETHICS JAMES M. GUSTAFSON* Sexual behavior is undergoing rapid changes in Western societies, and with changes in behavior come revisions of prescriptive sexual ethics. Behavior that wasjudged immoral by many persons several decades ago is not widely considered so today. Prescriptive moralists have revised traditional rules of behavior; this is most notable in religious circles that explicitly or implicitly judged masturbation, homosexual activity, and pre- or extramarital intercourse wrong and now have found reasons to remove prohibitions or mitigate the sanctions against them. The impression that revisions of sexual ethics have followed changes in behavior cannot be avoided [1-3].' Not only have standards changed; historical studies have also been undertaken which show that pluralism ofjudgment has occurred throughout history on several issues, and thus historical relativity weakens the fibers of traditional absolute prohibitions [4, 5]. Persons who have not subscribed to "anything goes" are searching fora few solid out-croppings on a slippery slope on which to take a stand. This article does not develop any prescriptive sexual ethics, but rather argues that there are fundamental bases in human nature and experience which necessarily must be taken into account in any more precise reformulation of sexual morality. These are our "nature" as humans, both biological and "personal"; the phenomenon that Western religions have traditionally called sin; and the social character of human experience . It is the further argument of this article that these three bases were the experiential foundations of traditional Christian ethics of marriage, as I shall demonstrate from an early Anglican service, "The Form of Solemnization of Matrimony." Such a service, it is argued, states comAn earlier version of this paper was delivered at Stanford University in February 1980 as a Jake Gimbel Sex Psychology Lecture. ?University professor, Divinity School and Committee on Social Thought, University of Chicago. 'Nelson could not argue against the propriety of incest (the only topic he omits) in certain circumstances; his grounds for justifying other forms of sexual conduct can also justify incest.©1981 by The University of Chicago. 0031-5982/81/2403-0238$01.00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine · Spring 1981 | 483 prehensive vindicating reasons for prescriptions; it states the necessary conditions for human well-being and moral accountability in the conduct of sexual life. While the language of the service might seem archaic and the specific Christian references sectarian, its perceptions continue to be sound. My procedure is to state five basic theses, each of which is elaborated and which cumulatively make and sustain the argument as a whole. Morality is an aspect of our human nature and experience; it expresses in personal conduct, in society, and in culture ways to order our natural impulses and to guide and govern our actions and relations for the sakes of individual and collective well-being. Moral questions are of two types: What actions and relationships are right and which are wrong? And what intended ends and what consequences of our actions are good and which are bad? This thesis is simply descriptive; its stress on nature and experience will have continuing importance as the argument develops. Sexual morality, then, arises out of our nature and experience as sexual beings, and indeed, as human sexual beings. Different sexual moralities are the accepted and approved modes of sexual behavior among different social and cultural groups. Their basic purposes, however , are similar if not the same; that is, to avoid various harmful consequences and to achieve various beneficial ones and to make clear which actions are morally wrong, morally excusable, morally permissible, and morally right. We become aware of moral issues when dissonance occurs between actual conduct and customary morality or well-known prescriptions of conduct. Doubts are raised about traditional codes of conduct as a result ofdifferent events: a minority that has "closeted" its behavior comes into the open and demands the end of moral and other sanctions; a new technology, such as contraceptive drugs, reduces the possibility of harmful consequences that have supported traditional restrictions. Through various means, persons become acquainted with modes of conduct alternative to those they have internalized through family, religious communities, and other formative institutions. In relatively intact moral cultures...


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