Here’s another one of those things, besides the word “violence,” that gets confusing in ethical delineations of harm — assigning evaluation criteria based on who an act “involves.”
[There’s bound to be existing names/explanations/discussion for these things, but I’m not a philosophy of ethics nerd, just a general nerd — so if you know alternate names and writings on these things, cool, let me know. That said, I’d have to explain what I was looking for in the first place anyway… so here we go.]
At the first split in the branches, the simplest set is probably the “nobody’s business but their own” situation. This is your “What do you think about holding hands?” “That’s a great idea, let’s hold hands” type of exchange. When it comes to physical intimacy and other things that generally require permission, you’ve got, at minimum, two participants, and those involved participants are the only ones relevant to an ethical evaluation — that’s a closed-circuit system.
Personally, I’m disinclined to think in individualist terms like “it doesn’t affect anyone else,” because I think that’s relatively rare thing compared to how often it’s invoked, and ehhh butterfly effect and all that… But even I would grant there are plenty of simple hypotheticals that fall into this ethical category and tend toward evaluative simplicity.
What specific criteria to use for those, and how many subcategories and branches there are, is an open question, which I’m not going to get into, because this post is just about sketching broad categories to use later. But to give you an example — a lot of people, for instance, would say that everything in this category is morally ok as long as it’s all consensual… a metric I don’t adhere to, by the way, because I think it’s too clumsy at handling CSA. But you get the idea.
Anyway, so that’s one main branch.
In contrast to closed-circuit systems, there’s also what I’m calling third-party systems, which involve more than just the people participating in the nominal act itself. Note that I’m using “third party” not to imply strictly two participants, but in the conventional sense of “another person or group besides the main ones,” whether physically present or symbolically invoked.
For example, if two people decide to make out, without providing any additional details, that might seem pretty neutral. It does to me, at least. However, if I invited two visitors over to my house, and then they randomly started making out in front of me, I’d consider that pretty rude and would ask them to stop. That’s an example of me being an annoyed third party — not a participant, but in that case, physically present, and therefore potentially relevant to an evaluation.
Another simple example of a third-party system is one in which a member of a monoamorous/closed-relationship couple cheats on their partner with someone else. The cheated-on partner is, by definition, not a “participant” in that, but they’re ethically relevant to an evaluation in so far as the agreed-upon terms of the relationship are relevant.
Then there’s situations where, for example, a man tells another man a misogynist joke or uses words like b****, c**t, or wh***. There are people who might argue to me that those aren’t words aren’t gendered (it’s a hard sell, but I’m just acknowledging, you could try) — and that’s a little bit besides the point, as long as you see what I’m getting at. In this scenario, both the initiator and the recipient of the act may have “consented,” and an ethical evaluation could eliminate the possibility of either one of them being violated, but there’s still the invoked third-party to be concerned with. Regardless of your specific opinions on all the demographics in the world, I think you can still see the outlines of this category — the ethics of how we invoke other groups (and their histories) besides our own, which is relevant on an individual level as well. It’s the “talking about them behind their back” dynamic. The fact that someone may not be a direct participant doesn’t mean that they’re irrelevant to an evaluation.
Something that I’ve noticed in arguments over the ethics of sex, kinks, etc. is that sometimes, when a practice is in question, folks will diverge over whether to consider that practice a closed-circuit system or a third-party system — with the “it’s fine” camp favoring the former and the “it’s bad” camp favoring the latter.
….which is actually quite peculiar to me, come to think of it. So one group will explain their evaluation metric for the classification they’re advocating should be applied (ex. the “two consenting adults” refrain), and the other group will explain their evaluation metric for the classification they’re advocating should be applied, and nobody gets anywhere because they’re just stating what their tools are instead of making a case for why one or the other is more fit for the job.