Oral sex: a moral philosopher's guide

7th March 2003 at 00:00
Rock and roll may have lost its power to shock. But it seems sex and drugs can still be counted on to raise the blood pressure.

A new sex education programme, A Pause, has caused a furore because it prepares teachers to answer potentially embarrassing questions such as "what does semen taste like?"

Defenders of the programme say it has cut sexual activity among young people and that the "just say no" message doesn't work. Detractors claim it presents a mechanistic view of sex that ignores values and emotions.

Expect to see similar reactions the next time any new drugs education programme is launched. Some will argue for a dispassionate presentation of the facts as the only way to cut drug usage and make sure those who are going to take them anyway do so more responsibly. Others will want a strong message that drugs are wrong.

And it's not just sex and drugs that present problems. In religious education, is it enough to say that people believe different things, even if some beliefs such as those involving the status of women, raise serious moral questions?

The heat all these questions generate suggests we have a problem when it comes to education and morality. When we are forced to consider how we should teach values to our children, our reaction is a kind of moral panic.

And a major reason for this panic is that, as a society, we have not yet adopted a mature, secular means of deliberating ethical issues.

The problem is that most of us lack a route map to guide us between the extremes of traditional religious moral absolution and laissez-faire relativism.

Strict religious rules are no longer a credible source of moral authority.

This is partly because a multi-faith society cannot submit to the moral dictates of one. But it is also because even the religious want to know why certain things are right or wrong, not just be told that they are.

However, many people fear that if you throw out religion as a source of moral values, you are left with a kind of relativist free market where it is all just a matter of opinion and no one's values are superior.

People in the middle of this argument look at both sides, don't like what they see in either, and turn into a kind of quivering moral jelly. But there is another way, a sophisticated and effective way, of conducting moral debate in a secular society. It is called moral philosophy and has been going for hundreds of years.

It is secular not because its practitioners are all atheists, but because it appeals to arguments and principles that anyone can understand and debate using only their powers of reason and the evidence of everyday life.

It never grounds its arguments in principles that must be accepted on the basis of religious authority, for such principles can never command widespread assent.

But it also avoids laissez-faire relativism because it is just not true that anything goes. Moral philosophy demands reasons and arguments, which are subject to scrutiny and critique. It is no good just expressing your opinion and expecting everyone to accept it as "valid". Positions need to be defensible.

Educators responsible for devising the personal, social and health education and citizenship curricula are well aware of moral philosophy.

However, as a society we are neither comfortable nor familiar with its methods.

This has to change. If we do not introduce another way of thinking about moral problems, we can expect values education in schools to continue to provoke much discomfort.

But if we teach today's pupils to consider the rights and wrongs of sex or drugs in an intellectually rigorous way, the next generation of parents will be much more at ease with the idea that you can have meaningful discussions about ethics that are neither absolutist nor a mere exchange of equally valid views.

Meanwhile, it is adults, as much as children, who need a crash-course in moral thought.

Letters, 29

Julian Baggini is editor of "The Philosophers' Magazine"

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