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Magazine • Thinking it Through

Is Sex Okay As Long As Nobody Gets Hurt?

In my article “The Moral Limits of Consent” I argued that the appeal to consent alone as a necessary condition for appropriate sexual behavior is not sufficient. The recent events involving accusations of sexual assault, harassment, and rape among Hollywood’s elite provide context for this.

A variant of the consent principle is what we might call the “do no harm” principle: an act is morally permissible so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. Richard Dawkins applies it to sexual behavior in his book The God Delusion:

Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else) and leave others to enjoy theirs in private whatever their inclinations, which are none of your business [emphasis added].

Is this principle sufficient for evaluating human sexual behavior? Let’s think it through.

It’s important to note that the principle is not entirely bad. There is a kernel of truth in it. Inasmuch as human beings are naturally directed to live in society, we must allow others to exercise their freedom to achieve the goods to which nature directs them (self-preservation, propagation of the species, knowledge, friendship, education, etc.).

Any attempt to unjustly impede someone from pursuing his natural goods would be an offense against the dignity of that person. It also would be an offense against the common good—because every innocent person is a part of the common good.

So it’s partly true. What’s false about it?

We get a sense of its flaws when we apply it to non-sexual cases. Consider lying, for example. Suppose The Truman Show (a 1998 film starring Jim Carrey, whose character’s entire life is a stage production that is broadcast on live television without him knowing it) was not just a movie but was real life. Truman’s entire world is a façade: his wife, neighborhood, and friends; even the sea, sun, stars, and sky. All staged for TV viewers around the world.

Why would this be wrong? After all, no one would be harmed. The character doesn’t know he’s being lied to. Everyone watching the show would be experiencing pleasure and enjoyment. According to the do no harm principle, we would have to say nothing is wrong with this scenario.

But we do recognize it’s wrong. It might be fun to watch this plot play out on the big screen as a movie, but we wouldn’t stand for such deception if it were a reality.

The intent to murder is another example where we don’t abide by the do no harm principle. Suppose my neighbor plots to murder me but for some unforeseen circumstance he is unable to carry out his plan. Suppose that I never find out. No harm done, right? And if no harm done, then no wrong done.

But all people will agree that it’s wrong to plot someone’s murder, even if circumstances later prevent it from happening.

We also don’t always follow this principle when it comes to sexual matters. For example, we don’t justify an adulterous man by saying, “What your wife doesn’t know won’t hurt her.” Most of us will say that adultery is morally wrong even if the spouse never finds out.  Likewise, a man who fantasizes about another woman during sexual intercourse with his wife doesn’t harm anyone. If he never tells his wife, she’ll never know. No harm, no wrong?

Consider one last example. If a man drugged a girl to make her unconscious and then raped her without her ever finding out, every person of good will would say that’s wrong, even if the creep didn’t do any physical harm to the girl and the girl had no knowledge or memory of the act. The “no harm, no wrong” ethic would have no ground to stand on here.

Someone might rebut that the perpetrator harmed the girl by engaging in sex without her consent. The defender of traditional natural law and its relation to sexual ethics couldn’t be happier with such a rebuttal, for it extends “harm” to something more than observable physical, emotional, or psychological damage. It sees harm in thwarting an end of a person’s natural powers—in this case, a person’s powers of self-determination. But if the natural end of our self-determining powers has moral significance for us, then so too the natural ends of our sexual powers.

This leads to my final point.

Dawkins’s principle of sexual ethics begs the question against the defender of traditional natural law. It assumes that the sexual acts that contemporary culture permits (contraception, same-sex sexual activity, masturbation, fornication, etc.) are morally permissible.

But if such behaviors are contrary to our human good, as traditional natural law states they are, then they would damage the persons that engage in them—they would harm their moral character.

Furthermore, by celebrating such behaviors and publicly enshrining them as morally good, it would cause intellectual harm by leading others to think they were moral human behaviors when in reality they’re not. 

That Dawkins and others like him adhere to the do no harm principle when it comes to sexual ethics gives reason to hope that our sex-crazed culture has not entirely lost its mind. There’s still some glimmer of sexual sanity.

But when you think it through, there is more to the story that just avoiding physical, emotional, or psychological harm. The art of being human with regard to our sexuality also involves avoiding moral harm and ordering our sexual powers in a way that is truly perfective of our nature as human beings.

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