Moral Duties within Sexual Relationships

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  • 0:00 Intimacy
  • 1:46 Fidelity
  • 2:57 Respect
  • 4:19 Pleasure
  • 5:18 Procreation
  • 6:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Every relationship comes with its own unique set of moral duties and obligations. This is especially true of sexual relationships. In this lesson we are going to explore the moral duties that are unique to sexual relationships and see how they define the goals and outcome of the relationship.


Sometimes the study of ethics feels impersonal. We talk about lofty moral ideas without any real application. Other times, philosophy can get pretty intimate.

There's no point in hiding it, sexuality is one of the defining aspects of human existence, generally ranked in importance somewhere around breathing. So, naturally, philosophers have put substantial time and effort into examining the importance of sexuality, as well as identifying its moral dimensions. What makes sex moral, or immoral?

Across various philosophies, including diverse sets of religious ideologies, there have been many different assumptions about the morality of sexuality. However, they all tend to agree that sexuality is not only important, but it's a fundamental part of certain moral relationships.

A sexual relationship, one in which two partners are engaged in sexual activity, is quite different than the other relationships in life, so it has different moral parameters. And, what defines it? Intimacy. At its most basic, intimacy is an extreme closeness.

Now, human beings are genetically social creatures. We thrive on social interactions, and so intimacy is something we need. Sexual relationships are built upon, and provide, extremely deep levels of emotional, spiritual, and physical intimacy that we need to function. So, for many philosophers, intimacy is the primary moral duty within a sexual relationship.


So, if intimacy is the primary ethical purpose of a sexual relationship, then sexual partners have a moral obligation towards providing intimacy. An action that promotes intimacy is moral; one which damages intimacy is immoral. So which actions are which? Well, let's look at a few ethical ideas that support intimacy.

First is fidelity. Fidelity is defined as faithfulness, generally expected to be shown through active loyalty and support. This should not be news to anyone. Sexual partners are expected to be faithful. Physical and emotional intimacy are built upon trust, and trust largely comes from faithfulness. So, fidelity is considered to be a major moral obligation.

Now, I should clarify that I'm not just talking about physical fidelity. No, you can't go sleeping around, but fidelity also implies emotional faithfulness - keeping promises, being honest and open, not lying. All of these actions demonstrate fidelity and promote intimacy.


Along with fidelity comes another important set of moral duties - those that demonstrate respect. Specifically, in this case, we are talking about respecting the continued autonomy of a sexual partner.

Intimacy is all about closeness and faithfulness, but part of maintaining an intimate and moral sexual relationship is continuing to recognize that both people are still functioning individuals with individual wants and needs. Intimacy must be a choice, and neglecting this moral duty is one of the reasons that many relationships dissolve due to feelings of being suffocated or smothered.

Now, we when we are talking about sexual relationships specifically, the idea of respecting the autonomy of a partner is embodied in the concept of consent - conscious permission. Even within an established sexual relationship, engaging in sex without the full consent of each partner is unethical and highly immoral.

Sex without consent ignores the autonomy of the sexual partner, which in turn prevents or damages true intimacy. It is always important to remember that being in a relationship does not establish consent, in and of itself.

Consent is a major moral obligation within all sexual relationships, regardless of how well established they are.

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