Sexual immorality?

If I had to place my finger on the most contentious issue the secular world takes with Christian ethics is its stance on sexuality. Without a doubt, the Old and New Testaments condemn certain sexual relations in the strongest terms available. Be it adultery, sex out of wedlock, beastiality, or homosexual sex. The bible makes moral judgements regarding sexuality.  Whether one chooses to debate this point is not really at issue in this post. What I would like to discuss is how, on secular ethics, or even atheistic naturalism is sexual immorality determined or discovered, if in fact it exists.

Strictly speaking, I’m not looking for specific examples. What I would like to see is by what measure within the secular or atheistic worldview is sexual immorality graded, what is the standard used? Of course there will be some who will assert no sexual act can be judged as moral or immoral, but I don’t think they truly believe it in practice and are merely defending philosophical turf.

So to my secular and naturalistic atheist readers, how would you judge a sex act moral or immoral? When answering, keep in mind I will not offer a rebuttal of moral grounding proper (I.e., “how can you say anything is moral or immoral without a transcendent standard…”), and would urge  my fellow Christian readers to not go down that path. I would like the discussion to carry out under the moral framework of the secularist or naturalistic atheist. A coherent standard will not allow for special pleading or contradictions and this should be bourne out in the answers.


  1. The responses I usually get is sexual practices which are between consenting adults. Of course that begs the question of why we then have organizations such as NAMBLA advocating sex with pre-pubescent children. And there are nations in the world which allow consent as young as 12 years old.

    Supposedly that rules out bestiality, but then we have to ask why an animal has to consent when we use them as pets, for eating, as beasts of burden, etc without their consent.

    Then my next question becomes, if there is no objective moral standard, why do you need consent? If evolution is true, and it’s just survival of the fittest, why can’t a man grab any woman he wants to mate with as the animals do? After all, they keep pointing out the various sexual practices in the animal world to justify homosexuality. They are never consistent with their own worldview claims.

  2. “What I would like to see is by what measure within the secular or atheistic worldview is sexual immorality graded, what is the standard used”


    If two (or more) consenting adults are involved in an activity, and it causes no harm, then why should it be outlawed?

    • Nas

      What is harm?
      What if two consenting adults consent to bodily harm, is it still moral?
      What if the two consenting adults are siblings or parent/child?
      How does your standard “no harm/consenting adults” flow from the fabric of your worldview? What part of secularism or naturalism dictates harm=immoral and non consenting adults=immoral.

      There’s a lot you left out. I’m asking for an answer AND a justification of the answer.

  3. “What is harm?”

    Injury; hurt; damage; detriment; misfortune.

    “What if two consenting adults consent to bodily harm, is it still moral?”

    Depends. Would need specifics.

    “What if the two consenting adults are siblings or parent/child?”

    That’s fine.

    I’d find it gross, but not necessarily immoral.

    “How does your standard “no harm/consenting adults” flow from the fabric of your worldview? ”

    My worldview includes ‘harm bad, benefit good’.

    “What part of secularism or naturalism dictates harm=immoral and non consenting adults=immoral.”

    The evidence that harm is harmful (which is why we call it harm), and that the lack of consent leads most often to harm.

    • So why is sexual activity which causes harm immoral? Just because you might find it not in ones best interests doesn’t make it immoral. Your view seems to be one of pragmatism and not morality. Your description is using the terms good and bad like moves in a chess game, a good move achieves a more desirable end than a bad move. But making bad moves and bad decisions isn’t necessarily immoral.

      Also, you are merely asserting that your worldview says… I’m asking for justification, not assertions.

      Rather than me giving you a list of hypothetical sexual acts which harm might be intentionally and consensually inflicted, why don’t you provide a few examples of consensual harm during sex which you believe to be immoral, and explain why, which is the point of the exercise.

    • What you’re also failing to consider is that in most cases harm during sex even if inflicted against the will, still achieves a positive outcome, from an evolutionary and Darwinian sense. The species propagates.

  4. “Just because you might find it not in ones best interests doesn’t make it immoral.”

    And that’s not the definition of harm.

    “Also, you are merely asserting that your worldview says… I’m asking for justification, not assertions.”

    Strange, coming from someone who doesn’t have justification, just assertions from a supposed deity.

    “still achieves a positive outcome, from an evolutionary and Darwinian sense. ”


    My morality is not determined, necessarily, on what is a positive outcome in an evolutionary sense.

  5. “So you deny that harm is not in ones best interest?”

    No. I deny that something being not in ones best interest is necessarily harmful. Morality, like most things, is not black and white. Some things can be immoral, moral or amoral.

  6. Notascientist brings up harm. That’s a good standard. But it doesn’t address beastiality, or for that matter, a consenting minor. That is not to say that a minor can legally consent, but that’s a legal matter, not a moral one (except that breaking the law can be considered immoral). Truly, there is nothing objectively moral about setting an age of consent. Parents can allow a minor to get married, for example. So, then that minor would be legally consenting. The age of the person doesn’t make the act either moral or immoral. It is, because we say it is, sometimes (apparently).

    Certainly, among humans, actual consent matters morally, whether or not a law forbids it. But, interspecies relations are different. In fact, we are obligated by law to do things to animals without their consent. There are leash laws, for example. Whether a dog consents to being put on a leash doesn’t matter. So, are leash laws immoral?

    I don’t know. It seems like harm and consent don’t really serve as indicators of morality. At least not completely.

    I think the only way to act morally is to adhere to a moral code of some sort. Decent atheists adhere to certain codes. They stop at stop signs. They agree with and adhere to certain biblical principles: Thou shalt not murder. Thou shalt not steal.

    I’m rambling. Forgive me.

  7. “I don’t know. It seems like harm and consent don’t really serve as indicators of morality. At least not completely.”

    Sure they do. All you’ve done is demonstrate that it takes thought and discussion and reason to understand.

    Morality is hard to figure out. It should be. Figuring out what a moral framework is is difficult work.

    It’s easy to just listen to somebody else tell you what is right and wrong. But that isn’t morality. That’s obedience, and not necessarily for a good reason.

  8. Abiding an external code of reality (God) is not obedience alone, as one can deduce the benefits in this world for abiding that code. That is, though the code is based on God’s will, it stands as a practical and beneficial code even if invented by ancient and (thus by our standards) ignorant goat herders. This can be seen easily by observing those benefits when followed. The initial benefit is that it does not require “figuring out” to follow external codes, and understanding the benefits can come later.

    Internal codes (self) is naturally hard to figure out because it is based on selfish desires. By that I mean the self is the primary determiner based on how the self is affected by following the chosen code. This code is always ultimately a matter of measuring harm or benefit to the self primarily, and then perhaps others, depending on the effect consideration of others has on the self. It is “hard to figure out” due the fact that it is a “here and now” exercise at all times. This is where “gray areas” arise. What was clear ten minutes ago is now “hard to figure out” when circumstances change and the harm/benefit analysis has new data.

  9. TerranceH says:

    Of Legality:

    I would never support the criminalization of any sex act between two consenting adults. Never. Just as we bitch about liberals trying to control what people eat and drink, we have no right to tell two people how to behave in the privacy of their own bedroom.

    Of Morality:

    Surely there are some sex acts that are, quite simply, immoral. People are free to be immoral and deal with the consequences, some of which are very real in this life. Homosexual sex has been shown, time and again, to carry many risks.

  10. Legality aside, how does one decide that an act is wrong? Can an act only be bad if it harms someone, even oneself? Don’t many moral codes condemn certain types of thought? I’d suggest that fantasizing about becoming a mass murderer is immoral, even though the act of merely fantasizing doesn’t harm anyone. It’s just not a good thing for someone to do.

    If that’s true, then why can’t two consenting adults engage in an immoral act? If there’s no moral code, then one can’t know.

    That is not to say that all immoral acts should be a matter for the criminal justice system. But for the individual trying to live morally, one’s own desires simply can’t be the sole determinant.

  11. TerranceH says:

    The whole of Western society owes its moral framework to Judeo-Christian value. Christians know this, and honest atheists will admit it.I have argued before on this blog that morality cannot exist independent of God. Without God, there is no moral accountability, and therefore no morality.

    Since society is moving away from God, its replacing our moral framework with a system of ethics that, upon closer examination, is neither moral or ethical. For instance, it is not ethical to encourage confused people to cut off their privates and put on a dress, yet we do it. Transgender students are demanding their own bathrooms in public schools, and the school seems to be giving in.

    So we’re kowtowing to these perverts instead of getting them the psychological help they need. And why? Because our ethical framework revolves around equality-at-all-costs and political correctness.

    Welcome to the New America.

    • I agree. Atheists act morally when their actions are in accordance with God’s law. However one comes to the idea that murder is wrong, for example, we already know that it’s moral, having been given that commandment.

      There’s morality, and there’s deviance. So much of deviants’ insistence on acceptance is borne of a desire not to feel guilty. Then, they have to go to extremes to rationalize their deviance. Notascientist just said “That’s fine” when asked about consensual adult incest. “That’s fine”. And why wouldn’t he say that? If he doesn’t, his “moral framework” wouldn’t work all of the time.

      New America indeed. A nation in which fewer and fewer expectations being placed will lead to our collapse.

  12. It’s a good question. Sexual morality is just a subset of morality, so the answers are similar whether the subject is sex or some other behavior.

    Morality is about harm and suffering caused, and about promoting well-being.
    Any sexual act that causes harm is “wrong” – that is, immoral. So, pedophilia is very immoral because it is very harmful to children. Loving sex between any consenting adults is fine, unless some kind of abusive, harmful behavior is introduced. Bestiality is wrong, primarily because of the harm it causes the animal. Polygamy is fine, I guess, although I can think of ways it might be harmful to others – for example, leaving many young men without any marital prospects. Morality isn’t always obvious, and sometimes learning more about the facts of the world leads us to realise that certain behaviors are/aren’t causing harm.

    The short version: if you aren’t hurting anyone, I don’t care what you do with your jubbly bits.

  13. @conservative2cents:
    Bestiality and pedophilia can indeed be judged by how much harm they cause.
    When children are growing up, their minds are developing psychologically. There are a whole bunch of issues around duty of care, coercion, children being uninformed about how the world works, children being sexually immature. There’s plenty of literature and studies on this – the point being, pedophilia is very likely to psychologically harm children. Therefore it’s immoral.

    As for bestiality, the main argument is that it’s immoral because it hurts the animal. There is also potential for causing harmful disease, I guess. But I think the biggest thing is a disgust reaction – a normal, healthy human being is not going to be doing bestiality, so that person is a weirdo.

    But yeah, morality is about preventing suffering and promoting well-being (firstly of people, and to a lesser degree other conscious beings). This applies to sex and other areas.

    • Monkeytree, you’re absolutely right about pedophilia. I was attempting to play devil’s advocate.

      But, I’m not quite sure how many forms of beastality harm the animal. But, if it commonly does, and disease is spread, and a lot of people think it’s gross or abnormal, then it would seem that homosexuality is immoral.

      I don’t know you. You may well have assigned the label “immoral” to homosexuality on one basis or another. I just think it’s funny that most homosexuals would find beastiality immoral based on the same criteria.

  14. Without the Bible you have no path. Anything goes in your world.

  15. Really this comes down to a debate of what it means for something to be right or wrong… and whether these terms are relative or whether they have an absolute value on some level for persons. You are saying moral is right and and Immoral is wrong…. a framework for right and wrong is also a difficult venture and must encapsulate not only reason but intuition …. there is not formula for intuition (common sense) which is in my opinion of a slightly greater percentage value than actual logical reason. plus this isnt’ a one size fits all question. What is sexually immoral for a society may not be so on an individual level. i believe if we isolate the thing about us as humans that causes us to decided what is right and wrong we will be closer to finding a semi-standard for answering the sexual question. We are born with an inherent sense that things should be “fair for Me”…. well if we extend that to our brother then things should be “fair for him” too…. if something violates that equality of fairness then we would say there’s something wrong about it. Something un acceptable. Personal morals really don’t have much meaning. morals are not really a thing with in a person. They only come into play when your morals bump into mine. then that’s where the issues arise…. so the answer to a moral framework has to conform to some interdependent standards of relating (hence consent when such a thing is possible ) Stronger taking advantage of weaker seems to be widely held “wrong”…. indicating again an “unfair” advantage…. I guess my point is that the standard is closer to the golden rule, the love your neighbor as yourself, or do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

    • What it really comes down to is that there IS an ultimate moral standard, and it comes from God. Otherwise it’s just your opinion vs someone else’s, meaning that no one has the right to judge another’s morality.

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