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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Virtuous Sexual Ethics

Event Recap

James P. Keenan, Gasson Professor of Theology, spoke at the Boisi Center on April 6 at a lunch seminar in which he addressed the question of what a study of the virtues can bring to our understanding of sexual ethics. He critiqued the current discourse on sexual ethics as focusing too narrowly on specific issues such as abortion, gene therapy, or abuse. Chastity is often raised in this discussion as a chief virtue, but the problem with this is that its message is often simply to “slow down” and “set boundaries,” which is not enough. It applies to the function or nature of sexuality, rather than providing guidance that helps us understand how to handle people and relationships in sexual situations in an ethical fashion.

Keenan argued for a broader virtue-based ethics, suggesting as its basis four cardinal virtues including justice, fidelity, self-care and prudence along with a number of auxiliary virtues which would include chastity. These virtues would be used to orient us to the questions of “Who are we?” “Who are we to become?” and “How are we to get there?”

Thus in relation to a sexual ethic, an application of the virtue of justice, for example, would lead us to ask “What is due each person in the relationship?” and to appreciate what sexuality means in each person’s life. Keenan acknowledged that culture should also play a role in defining these virtues. In the United States, justice is defined in terms of autonomy and rights, whereas in the Philippines, it might have a more communal definition.

The advantage of a broader virtue-based ethics, Keenan argued, is also to provide a way to name the ways that these virtues are related and to ask how the virtues make claims on one another. For example, this approach to sexual ethics allows us to bring justice to bear on issues of fidelity and to create a virtues language that is more accessible and flexible to a range of issues. Such a language takes us away from talking about specific actions, such as abortion, or pedophilia, or homosexuality, and gives us a framework for reaching greater moral honesty.