Thursday, December 21, 2006

marriage, sex and morality

Currently, in the blogosphere:

Aaron (at Singapore Angle), wrote about premarital sex and argued that Singaporean parents and teachers are likely to be too conservative to teach sex education effectively and hence perhaps sex education should be "outsourced" to professionals.

Ben writes that the "real problem" is not pre-marital sex, but unprotected sex with non-regular sex partners. He also seems to hint that people discussing this issue might confuse between "conceptions of sin" and "real harm".

Kitana writes that marriage, sex and having children are personal and private decisions and issues, and it is not the business of the rest of society (or the government) to indicate what one ought or ought not to do.

I apologized if I have misread or misrepresented any of the three positions above (do correct me if I am wrong). The purpose of this post is not a response to any of the above-mentioned articles, but to explore a theme which all three have in common: what is the role of morality when it comes to issues of marriage and sex? Is such a role desirable? I note that a complete and extensive discussion on this topic would require the length of a book (or more), hence this post is but a brief cursory discussion.

The Institution of Marriage

"Pre-martial sex" means sex before marriage. If we are to talk about the morality of pre-marital sex, we need to talk about what marriage is, and perhaps doing so will reveal some clues about how morality fits into all of this. According to the wikipedia article on marriage, the definition of marriage differed throughout history and across cultures. That should not surprise us. The article also says that the modern definition of marriage would be "a union that is formally recognized by the state", although the article also mentions some might disagree with that definition.

There are two quick lessons we can draw from this. Firstly, marriage is culture-dependent. This will provide some difficulty for views about marriage which are morally absolute (i.e. have no subjectivity at all). Secondly, "being recognized" by the state (or religion, or some authority) appears to be a necessary requirement for a marriage. This provides some difficulty for views which will want to argue that marriage is the business of only the two individuals involved, and no one else.

Consider briefly the issue of gay marriage as an example. There is nothing preventing homosexuals from cohabiting with each other, and nothing effectively preventing them from having consensual homosexual sex with each other. So what difference does it make whether or not they are legally married or not? Perhaps marriage is not just about two individuals living together, but also about the recognition by the government of their union. The government is a third involved party in a marriage, and by extrapolation, it is "society as a whole" that is the third involved party (since the government supposedly represents the interests of society as a whole). This is why I personally believe Singapore will not allow gay marriages at least for the next 50 years or so. Singapore society currently, as a whole, is probably not tolerant to gay unions. Hence the government will not be willing to legalize it, since it (supposedly) represents Singapore society as a whole. If it is indeed so, then gay marriage is not legalized not due to any objective argument that homosexual marriage is immoral (in the absolute sense), but because society as a whole does not accept it (due to whatsoever reasons). [Note that I have refrained from using the word "majority" to describe society as a whole, because it is possible that certain voices within society might be more influential than other voices.]

Religion and Marriage

What perhaps makes talking about marriage messy is the fact that to many, marriage is not just a civil affair, but also a religious one. This becomes messy because religion is loaded with morality, and different religions support a different version of morality. For example, for most people, polygamy is considered to be immoral. Yet, it is something which Islam allows. So, if I ask the question: "So is polygamy immoral or not" is your answer "depends on your religion" or "It is, but the Muslims will disagree with me"? What if one day your son converts to Islam and takes multiple wives. Would you consider him to have done something immoral?

Morality and Pre-marital sex

There is no doubt that there are individuals in Singapore who believe that pre-marital sex is morally permissible. There is also no doubt that individuals who believe that is not morally permissible also exist. The first question is, why is this so? It appears to me that the answer lies in values, beliefs and ideologies. The first group of individuals share certain values and ideologies (liberalism, for e.g.) which the members of the second group does not share, and vice versa. And like all values and ideologies, they are influenced by (but not limited to) religion and culture.

The second question: so is pre-marital sex morally permissible or not? Is your answer to the question "depends on your values or ideologies" or "yes/no, but people with differing values would disagree with me"? If you are (say, a Christian) and you firmly believe pre-marital sex is immoral. What if one day your child (who does your share your beliefs) goes out and has pre-marital sex, would you consider him/her to have done something immoral?

Putting it all together

Pre-marital sex is but one area where there is moral controversy and disagreement due to differing worldviews (abortion, homosexuality are examples of others). It is empirically well known that differing worldviews are not easily resolved by mere argumentation. And hence, as long as there is substantial representation in the relevant differing worldviews, such moral controversies can be expected to remain. This does not make the job easy for the relevant authorities who has to decide what laws and public policies to adopt based on "society as a whole".

Consider a policy such as sex education. The relevant authorities will have to decide if they want to have sex education, and how to carry it out. Aside from (pertinent and important) factors such as social problems and STDs, another factor they will need to consider is societal receptiveness to the policy. If, for example, sex education focused more on abstinence, liberal-minded individuals
might be unhappy because abstinence is nowhere as effective as safe sex in preventing STDs or unwanted pregnancies. Yet, if they focused more on safe sex, conservative-minded individuals might be unhappy because they will feel that such education will promote pre-marital sex, which to them is something immoral. You cannot please everybody. Governance (or so it appears to me) is about balancing all the factors, making a decision, and then you spin the press in an attempt to persuade and pacify those individuals who will be unhappy.

I have a suggestion on how we can best deal with such situations of moral disagreement. We can try to appreciate and understand worldviews different from our own, instead of just arguing for our own views all the time. One vehicle which might be useful for this mutual learning is rational and civil discourse. Perhaps after better understanding what each other's worldviews are, we will be able to say "I disagree with what you are saying, but I respect and appreciate the reasoning behind your views, and that you follow a different set of rules than I" This doesn't make the disagreement go away of course (it probably never will go away), but perhaps this is the right first step to allow us to come together and talk about what laws and which policies will be truly in the best interests of all of us.

That said, I'm not optimistic about my suggestion actually taking place. Empirically, I think it can be shown that generally people have very little interest in appreciating the views of their opponents, and my judgement is that for Singaporeans, this is even less so.


Aaron said...

Wah, your entry is very in-depth! :)

Nah, you did not misrepresent my position. I must say that your entry did a good job of bring together the various dimensions and contexts involved in the discussion about sex, which I did not really address in-depth because my focus was on something else.

As for your final suggestion, it's something that I think applies to any topic, not just on marriage, sex and morality. It might be tougher to follow your final suggestion on such a topic though, considering that there are such divisive views.

Given your analysis, how about sharing what is your personal take on the issue of marriage and sex? It will be most interesting to find out your personal stand.

Fearfully Opinionated said...


naturally I have my own worldview, and hence my own personal views of this issue. that said, i'm not particularly interested in expressing those views, at least not at this point. the purpose of this post was to talk more about disagreement, and the kind of attitude we can adopt towards views which disagree with our own, and not really my personal take on the issue at hand.