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AIDS and Sexual Morality : What is the Connection?

by Piers Benn

It has become common, in these days of the deadly HIV virus, to draw connections between the supposed immorality of promiscuous ‘lifestyles’, of homosexual acts and of certain kinds of ‘unsafe’ sex, and the prevalence of the virus which threatens to decimate whole groups of individuals. But if there is a message in AIDS, it has been differently interpreted by a range of different interest groups and lobbyists. On the one hand, the initial discovery of the HIV virus was associated with the sexual activities of promiscuous Californian homosexual males, and the moral message drawn in the early 1980s by the then ‘moral majority’ was that the virus was either a punishment for such behaviour or at least an indication of its intrinsic wrongness. Now that the risk to heterosexuals is being publicised, the moral condemnation has been extended, partially at least, to heterosexuals who have a predilection for casual encounters. But on the other hand, elements of the gay liberationist pressure groups have seized upon the spread of the virus to highlight the discrimination suffered by gay people and to point out that governments began taking the disease seriously only when ‘normal’ people began to be affected by it. If there is a moral judgement embodied in AIDS, it is that it brings out the prejudice suffered by homosexuals as well as the courage of those who fall victim to the disease. We see, in other words, the spectacle of two entirely different groups claiming to occupy the moral high ground as a result of AIDS. And, as would be expected, each accuses the other of distorting the facts about AIDS for its own propagandist ends. One lobby accuses gay interest groups of falsely downplaying the fact that AIDS is still a much greater risk for male homosexuals than for heterosexuals and of exerting pressure on the media to portray the risk as one mainly affecting heterosexuals. The other lobby says that AIDS has been skillfully employed to whip up hatred of homosexuals and encourage repressive legislation. What is needed, according to this ‘lobby’, is a recognition that AIDS is not a punishment but a catastrophe – a platitude that prompts the response that the ‘gay lobby’ has begun an orgy of sentimentality and selfrighteous bitterness that their ‘lifestyle’, to which they have a ‘right’, has so cruelly been curtailed.

So much, I assume, is familiar. My question is: can we reach an understanding of AIDS which can be shared by all rational people, whatever their views on sexual morality (or, for that matter, the morality of intravenous drug use)? Such ought to be the hope of all of us. Yet it seems far away. There is often a kernel of truth in what each lobby says about the other, but unless all of us can recognise that those we disagree with could – just possibly – be saying what they say because they have reached their conclusions rationally, and are not merely rationalising prejudice, there is little hope for civilised discussion.

In what ways – if any – could the existence of AIDS yield any moral prescriptions? One way is obvious. If a practice is dangerous, it should not be engaged in unless there are effective measures to be taken against the danger. It makes sense, for example, not to strike matches in a petrol station. Such advice has nothing to do with the intrinsic wrongness of striking matches. Yet someone who strikes a match in a petrol station, knowing that this may endanger life, is doing something morally wrong. Similarly, to engage in some sexual practice which carries a great danger with it must be, prima facie, immoral. There is a clear way, then, in which the risk of contracting the HIV virus can make a difference to the morality of certain sexual acts, under certain conditions. But this, of course, is not what the ‘moral’ lobby have in mind when they talk about the moral relevance of AIDS. What I now wish to distinguish is the variety of other ways in which the spread of this disease is supposed to yield moral conclusions.

The view that certain diseases are a punishment for immoral lifestyles has certainly been canvassed – as it once was concerning syphilis and still is, to a certain extent, concerning smoking-related disease. The possible problems besetting such a view are numerous. First, we may want to know what is here meant by ‘punishment’. When, for instance, we say that a person ‘is served right’ or ‘gets his just deserts’, we often mean that he should not be surprised, or complain, about his fate. If his fate is fully foreseeable and avoidable, yet its victim takes no precautionary measures, we are tempted to say that it is his own fault. Saying this does not, in itself, preclude sympathy, or efforts to extricate him from his misfortune – or, at least, it should not. But there is no doubt that sympathy is usually diminished for such a person. If he insists, in spite of warnings, on lighting a cigarette in the presence of a petrol pump, and if the result is a huge explosion that maims both him and some other uninvolved individual, we are inclined to sympathize more with the latter. The analogy with AIDS sufferers is obvious. Many people are more inclined to sympathize with those sufferers who contracted the disease from blood transfusions than with those who got AIDS as a result of drug use or sodomy. The latter are thought – to some degree – to have got their just deserts, even if few people would claim that natural justice requires that such people be thus punished, and that we ought to seek out those who engage in these things and have not contracted AIDS, and infect them with the virus.

A reasonable reaction to such a justification of diminished sympathy for many AIDS victims is that it could be plausible only if those infected could have known, at the time they contracted it, that they were indulging in unsafe practices. This, of course, was not the case in the 1970s, when many people began to be infected. I suspect, nevertheless, that those inclined to be censorious will respond that such people should have known that they were up to no good and that ‘nature’ was bound to get its own back in the end. I shall discuss this response a little later.

A more forthright understanding of the nature of the ‘punishment’ is that it is not only unsurprising, but actually fitting, that drug users, sodomites, etc, should be visited with this illness. The claim here is not just a grim reminder of the consequences of these acts, but an endorsement of those consequences (assuming that is what they are). This attitude highlights a major consideration relevant to whether AIDS can be a punishment in any proper sense of the word. For punishment is essentially intentional activity; and if AIDS is a punishment, we face the question of who is carrying it out. ‘Nature’ will not do, unless we suppose that nature acts intentionally. We might suppose that God is the agent of the punishment, given enough background revelation. I do not wish to attack this position (although I do not believe it), except to point out that some of those who regard AIDS as a punishment are less than clear on whether they actually think God literally exists. This strange combination of strict, religiously based moral opinions and equivocation on the truth of the relevant religious claims is found concerning other matters too. When, in July 1984, York Minster was struck by lightning after the enthronement there of the controversial ‘sceptical’ bishop of Durham, the tabloids were quick to welcome this unequivocal indication of divine wrath, albeit that some of their commentators did not show unequivocal belief in God’s existence.

Such are the different ways in which punishment may be understood. But it is probably unfair to attribute to most of those who think that AIDS tells us something about sexual morality, the view that AIDS is a punishment. Closer to most of their opinions, it seems, is that AIDS carries with it a judgement, even if not a punishment. The spread of this virus is an indicator of the immorality of the practices that carry the risk of its transmission. But can even this more moderate view hold any water? Or is the only plausible moral message in AIDS similar to the requirement not to cause explosions in petrol stations by striking matches? In other words, can the spread of the AIDS virus indicate the intrinsic, rather than the contingent, immorality of the ‘unsafe’ practices?

My eventual answer will be that it cannot carry a message of this kind. But it is important first of all to make a few empirical remarks. Much of the advice being publicly offered about the avoidance of the virus is, in fact, misleading. It is easy to infer from much public information available, that certain sexual practices, in and of themselves, carry the risk of AIDS transmission. This is false. Anal intercourse, for example – a ‘high risk’ practice, cannot spread the virus if those who engage in it are not already infected. A lifetime of monogamous buggery cannot invite the deadly virus in, provided that the participants have not already got it. Another point worth making is that monogamy is, in itself, no guarantee against infection. Frequent sexual activity with one infected person is far more likely to cause the virus to be passed on than is a period of shortlived casual encounters – even if a few of those one is casually involved with actually have the virus. Of course, none of this reduces the need to take the kind of precautions, or perhaps exercise the kind of restraint, urged upon us by the publicity of the last few years. Even if – as I have claimed – unprotected casual sex with a large number of partners is less likely to pass on the virus than frequent monogamous (and unprotected) sex with one infected partner, it does not follow that the former carries no risk. But the very need to make points like these highlights the extent to which AIDS is associated, in many people’s minds, with fundamental issues of sexual morality.

As far as homosexuality is concerned, a striking fact about many of those who think that AIDS carries a moral judgement with it, is their almost complete silence on lesbianism. Yet if the original association of male homosexual activities with AIDS is a ground for condemning these practices, one would think that the absence of any connection whatsoever between lesbianism and AIDS would be a ground for witholding condemnation; indeed, for thinking it preferable to heterosexual intercourse. There might be other reasons for condemning lesbian behaviour, but they would have nothing to do with AIDS. Likewise, similar reasons – whatever they may be – may be adduced against male homosexual practice. But AIDS would have entirely disappeared from the picture.

We get a clue as to why the occurrence of AIDS is so easily associated with negative judgements of homosexual acts, if we examine why such acts have traditionally been condemned, long before the reign of the HIV virus. Most of those who condemn homosexual activity think that it is ‘unnatural’ – and that is why it is wrong. If we ask (as we should) exactly what such people mean by calling it unnatural, we shall usually meet with the assertion that ‘this is not what sex is for’. The natural liberal response to this, of course, is to claim that sex has no intrinsic purpose; it has only those purposes that we actually give it. This is not to deny that sex performs a causal role (in a few cases) in pregnancy or in human bonding: but it is misleading to think that such causal involvement somehow defines its purpose.

I think this liberal response is on the right lines. But it should be consistent with an acknowledgement of other conceptions of the proper role of sex, such as that embodied in the natural law tradition of Catholicism. Central to this is that nature, being providentially governed, is fundamentally harmonious; or at least, that disharmony is the product of the fallen nature of the world. If this is true, one would expect the dangers associated with ‘unnatural’ sexual activity to be a reasonable indication that such practices do indeed frustrate the intrinsic purpose of sexual activity. God would not command us to engage in activities that carried this kind of risk; what he commands are activities that, of their nature, tend towards human well-being. Activities which tend to detract from such well-being (conceived not just as a state of pleasure or happiness) are forbidden.

This, at any rate, is how the case may proceed. Note that there is nothing inherently vindictive or punitive in it: adherence to this kind of natural law tradition has no logical connection with contempt for homosexuals, or special emphasis on the badness of sexual misdemeanour, or any pleasure in the fate that so many male homosexuals have suffered. That there are psychological, or ideological, connections between such moral convictions and hatred and contempt, seems clear; but our justified rejection of this hatred does not in itself imply that there is no sound moral case against homosexual practices.

However, when we come to examine the arguments, I think we see that those who appeal to AIDS to back up a conservative sexual morality face something of an uphill struggle. To take the natural law tradition: although the Church holds the moral precepts derived from natural law to be evidently reasonable to all who reflect clearly and honestly, in fact the role of special revelation is difficult to dispense with. For it is far from clear that the teachings in question are reasonable upon reflection. Of course, if we have reason to believe that there is a God who condemns some activity or other, then that may be a good enough reason for refraining from it. If we lack a good ground for believing this, then we are thrown back on our own resources in framing a good moral system.

Can such a natural law doctrine (broadly conceived) reveal a connection between AIDS and morality? As far as the harmony of nature is concerned, this is not very plausible. If we are to make something of the dangers inherent in some activity or lifestyle, e.g. promiscuity, then we cannot forget the dangers involved in a whole range of activities said to be ‘normal’. Sex may ‘naturally’ lead to childbirth; yet childbirth has not always been safe. Ectopic pregnancies and miscarriages are natural results of sexual acts, yet nobody has suggested that they are the punishment or the natural corollary of deviant behaviour. It would be pointless to multiply examples. Few deny that evils abound in nature, that they strike without rhyme or reason, that the ‘guilty’ are often let off and the ‘innocent’ often suffer. It would, then, seem arbitrary to single out the evil of AIDS (or other sexually transmitted diseases) as a special revelation of the immorality of any practice.

But perhaps this is not entirely fair to the view under discussion. The critic of homosexual practice may want to distinguish between acts that happen, on occasion, to cause ills and those that tend, of their very nature, to cause ills. The first merely illustrates the problem of evil (as the theologian might call it) and carries no moral implications. But some acts, it may be said, are intrinsically or essentially perverse, and it is part of their nature to cause evils. In similar vein, Catholic critics of contraception have said that heterosexual intercourse is reproductive by nature, meaning not just that it causes pregnancy but that this is its essential function. To illustrate the idea, we can take the nature of desire: desire does not merely cause us to try to get what we desire; it is a conceptual truth that if I desire a thing then I am disposed to try to get that thing – in other words, ‘trying to get’ is part of the nature of desire. Applied to sexuality, the idea is that a deliberately non-reproductive act of intercourse is an essentially different kind of act from one that is ‘open to life’. It is, I think, with this sort of thing in mind that relatively sophisticated critics of male homosexuality, promiscuity and so on, try to associate AIDS with sexual ethics.

I am not sure whether any ultimate sense can be made of the alleged distinction between the essential nature of a sexual act and its accidental properties or consequences. What seems clear is that if there is any case for the connection between AIDS and morality, there must be some prior ground for thinking that AIDS is noncontingently, rather than merely contingently, related to certain sexual acts or lifestyles. There must be, in other words, some good argument for thinking that such practices are wrong, independent of the fact of AIDS.

I would not pretend that questions of sexual ethics admit of obvious answers. (Some people think it obvious that if an act occurs between consenting adults then there can be nothing wrong with it; but they usually draw the line at incest; and would not very happy with necrophilia, even on being assured that the dead person had ‘consented’ to such activity before s/he died). However, defenders of restrictive ethical views need to offer some justification for their position: it is plausible that an act should be regarded as permitted until there is reason to think it is not. Some justifications are indeed offered for restrictive views, but they are often of doubtful cogency. Casual sex, for example, is sometimes attacked because it ‘treats people as objects’, but it isn’t clear what this means, or how it is meant to be an objection. Homosexuality is said to be ‘unnatural’, but the grounds for thinking that all sexual activity is ‘meant for’ reproduction are obscure. To go into detail on this, interesting though it would be, would take me from my point. I will readily concede that liberal dogmatism on matters of sex can be as annoying as illiberal dogmatism. My main point is that the connection between AIDS and ethics must be backed up by arguments that the practices in question are wrong, independently of their causal connection with the virus. If there are none, then to conclude that the virus is an indication of their wrongness is irrational. That is to say, if AIDS is a possible result of some sexual act, then it clearly makes a moral difference to the act: but to think that AIDS shows the act be wrong independently of the risk of AIDS, is unwarranted.

We should conclude on a less philosophical note. I began by noticing how many different interest groups have leapt onto the moral high ground in the wake of this disease. How should we react to their claims? Certain people still think of AIDS as a timely warning that we should all return to a less permissive sexual ethic; others, dubbed the ‘Aids establishment’ or the ‘gay lobby’ sometimes accord an almost heroic status to its victims. But it seems to me that a certain hardheadedness is called for. The instinct to draw some political conclusion from the disease, and to see its victims as equally the victims of a conspiracy, is motivated by a kind of sentimentality which is not conducive to clear thinking – especially on the hotly disputed issue of who is most at risk. A letter to the Sunday Times (8th March 1992) complains that lectures on AIDS sponsored by university student societies are mainly devoted to the attitude we should have towards sufferers (or however they should be called in ‘politically correct’ terminology) rather than to clear advice on how to avoid catching the virus. Other critics complain that the risk to heterosexuals has been systematically exaggerated at the behest of the ‘gay lobby’, and that the message that everyone is at risk – which has been promoted at huge public expense – obscures real differences between ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ practices and partners. I do not wish to assess this claim (though I suspect there is truth in it); the point is that honest investigation of the relevant facts, and willingness to publicise them whatever they are, should not be hampered by any fear of offending some interest group. What we confront in AIDS is the tragedy of our mortality and fragility, shown in a particularly gruesome form. We draw no important moral or political message from it, ‘conservative’ or otherwise.

© P. Benn 1992

Piers Benn is a lecturer in the Department of Moral Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews.

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