Wednesday, July 3, 2024

The Inherent Subjectivity in Theistic Sexual Ethics


(Note: What follows is a transcript of the above video)

I believe I’ve discovered a conflict between the moral argument for the existence of god and both the contingency argument and the design argument that results in a tangible way to demonstrate how parts of theistic ethical systems are inherently and inescapably subjective.

I’ve made videos countering the moral argument in the past pointing out that theistic grounding of moral values in god’s nature is inherently subjective by definition. This is because philosophers and apologists define objectivity as being “mind independent”, and if god’s nature grounds moral values, and god is understood to be a disembodied mind – then the nature of a mind is by definition dependent on a mind.

I still think that objection works and is useful, but it’s still semantic in nature. Atheists can do better to show how a number of moral obligations that theists want to impose on society are inherently and inescapably subjective, not objective in nature.

First let's define objective when talking about objective moral values and duties. Instead of being “mind independence” lets say that objectivity is “stance independence” – meaning that a moral duty is objective only if it is not dependent on what an individual subjectively thinks about what should be the case on any given moral question. I believe this definition is a steelman for the theistic moral argument since it stands a better chance of avoiding the semantic argument I described previously. I think the reason theists don’t use this definition from the start is that on this kind of objectivity it is much easier to achieve a non-theistic objective moral system.

Next, let’s take a look at how theists ground moral values - in god’s nature. For the sake of argument we can accept this, but there is a particular problem for the theist. While god’s nature can arguably ground the goodness of being, say loving or truthful, there are quite a few moral questions that quite literally can’t be grounded in god’s nature. For instance, god is a disembodied mind, not an embodied physical agent. This means god’s necessary nature has no biological sex, nor any kind of sexual function or drive - in fact as apologists like to tell us when giving the design argument, god had to quite literally design the concept of biological sex along with all the other intricate factors that go into making up not just human biology, but the entire physical universe.

This actually has some important consequences - namely that god’s nature necessarily can’t ground quite a few values or obligations as it relates to sexual conduct. There may be other areas of morality where we can apply this problem, but I think sexual ethics is the paradigmatic example of this problem.

Let’s consider a few examples of how this problem applies.

Consider the widely held theistic view that the whole variety of homosexual sex acts are immoral, to the point where we have a moral obligation to not engage in any of them.

Why, exactly, is this wrong? Different theistic moral systems may answer the question differently, but we know it can’t be because of anything inherent in god’s necessary nature as we’ve covered.

A Modified Divine Command Theorist can only go with two options:

  1. God just doesn’t want humans to engage in that kind of sexual activity, and so commands us not to.
  2. God designed sexual activity to be only between a man and a woman for the purposes of creating children, and homosexual acts go against god’s design - so god commands us not to engage in those acts.

Both options have problems because either case entails god having a stance on how sexual activity is to be conducted. The first option is the most obviously subjective, simply because god doesn’t like that kind of act even though he made it possible.

The second option is just as problematic because in order for god to have a design for sexual activity, god has to have a stance on how sexual activity is to work in the first place! There is no design or purpose without intent, which entails god having a stance on how sexual activity is supposed to work.

This problem applies equally to theists who will appeal to Natural Law Theory to ground their ethics, because in order for there to be a purpose or natural end to sexual activity, god necessarily had to have a stance on what that purpose was for when he created it.

In fact this means that natural law theory has a problem for just about anything it wants to do, because god determined the purposes and proper function of everything about us. According to Natural Law Theory the penis is supposed to climax in the vagina, not the mouth, a hand, between the breasts, or in an asshole. That’s necessarily a stance god had to take on how sexual function is to work, meaning any prohibitions against those actions are necessarily stance-dependent.

To better highlight how these prohibitions are dependent on gods stances, god not only has to have a stance on how sexuality is supposed to work, he also has to specifically intend that performing these non intended actions is wrong and not merely permissible.

Consider a parallel for consuming alcohol: god determined how our biology would work and how alcohol specifically would affect us. There’s an old joke I liked when I was a theist: “Beer is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy.”

Given that alcohol consumption as a celebratory activity is endorsed as permissible in the bible, with the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding party being very informative here. Having moderate amounts of alcohol is permitted, but drunkenness is condemned. The line on what is permitted and what is immoral with respect to drinking is dependent on gods stance, because it is not as if god can get a buzz or become drunk, and there is not a blanket prohibition on alcohol consumption.

So it is with sexual functions - it’s not as if theists believe these other sexual acts are inherently permitted or morally neutral acts that are possible as side effects of gods intended design. No what theists want to tell us is that these acts are specifically prohibited - and they only can be grounded as wrong because god has a stance on the matter of how we engage in sexual activity!

As I’ve alluded to, these problems don’t apply only to homosexual acts - it applies to the rules and obligations put on straight sexual relations just as well. In fact the problem gets worse and even more stance dependent the further we go in looking at common theistic sexual ethics.

Even under natural law ethics the most it can demonstrate is that only penis in vagina sex is the only kind of permissible sex (at least as it relates to completion for the male), however most religions prohibit sexual relations unless the people involved are married.

But what exactly grounds the wrongness of sex outside of marriage? It can’t be because of something grounded in god’s nature - because god is not a sexual being, nor does god necessarily have a spouse. It also cannot be because marriage between one man and one woman is best to rear children for two reasons:

  1. Polygamy (1 man, many women, either all wives or some concubines) was very common in early human history and is specifically permitted and regulated in many religions, including Christianity.  
  2. There are many examples throughout history of couples cohabiting and rearing children outside of marriage.

The only thing theists can appeal to here is that god commands that we not engage in sex outside of marriage because he intended that we only perform the sexual acts he designed in that social construct. That is necessarily a stance dependent view.

To highlight this even further notice how relativism sneaks into Christian and Jewish ethics we can look no further than polygamy. Not only was it permitted and regulated in the Old Testament, but we have a case where Yahweh endorses the practice in 2 Samuel 12:8 where it is revealed that god gave king David his masters wives, where the verse continues to list other things given to David, it is said that if that was not enough for David then god would have given him more. With the implication being that god would have given David more than the 8 wives he had.

So I can make a point here about the subjectivity and relativism of Christian ethics between the old and new testaments as it relates to marriage and divorce laws, but really what I want to point out an overlooked fact: in the old testament, polygamy was permitted but polyandry - where a wife has more than one husband - was not.

Again this is a completely subjective call by god in that it was just his stance on the matter of what kind of multi-person relationship was permitted and which was not. A theist might object that due to the nature of sexual reproduction it makes sense for a man to have multiple wives to create as many children as possible, where a singular wife with multiple husbands cannot do the same. The problem with that response is who designed the sexual system to work that way in the first place? We have what is undeniably a stance dependent design choice by god.

I can make similar arguments about a variety of other old testament laws regarding sexuality. Notice how a wife is to be stoned to death if the husband finds she is not a virgin on their wedding night, but not the man? Or why a woman is considered “unclean” after birth for twice as long if she has a female child instead of a male? Or how a man is to be forced to marry a woman he has raped, but not the other way around? Ironically how is it that the rapist couldn’t stone his wife, knowing as he does she is not a virgin after they’re married?

It’s not as if it is logically impossible for created beings to have a single gender or none where either person or both could be involved in gestating a child, the possibilities are quite vast here. In fact we could have been an asexual species instead, which ironically would have been more in line with being made in god’s image as god certainly has no sexual identity or organs as a part of his necessary nature.

Dealing with Objections

Before closing off I do want to address some potential objections. One particularly entertaining objection came from Twitter when I was developing this argument where a Christian tried to escape the conclusion by claiming that human nature is a necessary fact. They claimed that humans are necessarily sexual beings that just so happen to work in a specific way and that when god created the universe he merely chose to make us humans instead of whatever potentially infinite amount of possible created beings he could have made us. This view then saves the theist from having to admit that god took a variety of stances on how our sexual organs were to be used.

As an aside I do wonder if these same theists would have to admit that say Ferengi nature is also a possible necessary truth and in some other possible world this video would have been about the nature of the permissibility of oomox. If you don’t get that reference, go look up Star Trek.

Now this objection runs into the problem of what exactly grounds the necessary truth of the facts of human nature? It strikes me as another case of theists drawing neat little circles around some set of facts and calling it necessary when it’s convenient for their theology. Still, being wildly implausible doesn’t mean it’s inherently wrong, though it does reduce the prior probability of any specific brand of theism that needs to take such an esoteric view on.

The second problem with this is that any theist who takes this view must now abandon just about any argument from design. After all, if human nature is a necessary fact, then so too could the laws of nature be a necessary fact. I don’t see a way for the theist to draw a distinction on what seemingly contingent facts now get to be considered necessary ones.

The third problem is that any theist who takes this view now has to give up any facet of the design argument - because the entire point of the objection is to avoid god having to take any stances on how human sexuality is to function, which means that he couldn’t have designed our biology. I’m pretty confident that this ends up contradicting Christian and Jewish scriptures, but I don’t want to go dig that deep to develop an argument.

The fourth and most fatal problem with this objection is that even if we grant such an esoteric and implausible view, it doesn’t save the theist from my argument! This is because while it would arguably save them from god having to take stances on how our sexual organs were to be used it doesn’t account for why straight sexual relations are only permitted inside the social construct of marriage, or why polygamy was permitted instead of polyandry.

As an Argument for Atheism

Another interesting facet of this is that because all these supposed moral rules about sexuality, if they are real, are inherently subjective moral facts and duties - we can turn it into an argument for atheism.

Consider what is more likely - that a creator god decided to create a number of subjective moral values and duties as it relates to sexual functions of humans, or that these rules were simply formulated as a biological adaptation. A part of our evolutionary development to help ensure the proliferation of our species. In fact many of the sexual rules we’ve looked at aren’t even based on creating more children, but instead are related to enforcing a kind of male dominated patriarchal society.

To my eyes it is abundantly clear that some of the most heinous parts of the old testament sexual ethics are just trying to encode a patriarchal society into supposedly moral laws. We would expect such a system under atheism where sexuality emerged as part of evolution and natural selection, but it is particularly odd under theism where this was all part of the designs of a perfectly good and all loving god.


This argument illustrates how the most controversial parts of theistic moral systems are inherently and inescapably subjective. It’s a particularly entertaining conclusion because many theists in our contemporary discourse about sexuality and LGBTQ rights will insist that we cannot permit any of these kinds of sexual acts because of a particular chain of logic:

  1. Morality is objective and binds us all
  2. Morality can only be objective if god exists
  3. Their specific religion is true
  4. In that religion god commands that these sexual acts be forbidden

To see that if there is a moral prohibition on a variety of sexual acts described in this argument, then if it is based on theism then those prohibitions are inherently arbitrary and subjective. This entails a contradiction in the chain of logic that they appeal to in order to enforce their moral system on society.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not convinced natural law proponents ground morality in God's nature or at least not solely in God's nature. It seems to me natural law proponents ground morality in teleology. I suppose you would counter that the teleology in nature is created by God and is therefore in some sense subjective but this seems like an uninteresting kind of subjectivity. A tree is created by God but I don't think we would call the tree (including its teleology) subjective because it exists in its own right outside of any minds. Likewise, humans and their teleology are objective in the same way.

    You write "a moral duty is objective only if it is not dependent on what an individual subjectively thinks about what should be the case on any given moral question." I would modify this to "a moral duty is objective only if it is not dependent **solely** on what an individual subjectively thinks about what should be the case on any given moral question." This makes room for the natural law position and avoids potential objections to your definition around issues where consent is relevant to morality (e.g., is my duty not to rape someone dependent on what she thinks should the case?).

    At the end of your post you say theistic sexual ethics are arbitrary. I don't think this is the case because the ethics are tightly coupled to teleology. If they were arbitrary they would not have a logical connection to creation at all (e.g., a command that we should only have sex with inanimate objects).

    We can also do a thought experiment where God doesn't exist but human nature and teleology are the same as we observe. I have even come across atheist natural law proponents who appear to be living my thought experiment. The same traditional sexual ethics could be defended and it would appear to be objective according to your definition. This highlights why your definition of subjectivity is uninteresting. The mere act of God creating the world makes ethics subjective when the very same world, if not divinely created, has objective ethics!

    With respect to humans necessarily being sexual beings, I obviously don't have access to the original exchange, but I wonder if he's saying something like water is necessarily H2O or a bachelor is necessarily unmarried. The existence of humans, water, or bachelors is still contingent. Nor do I see how this affects the design argument. Tetris is necessarily Tetris but it still a designed game.