The Expected Utility of Sex

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Darklight
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The Expected Utility of Sex

Post by Darklight » Tue Dec 02, 2014 3:02 am

Long time no post. XD I've been busy with various distractions in life, and so haven't been as prolific with my silly moral theorizing lately. Nevertheless, I recently had some thoughts about the applications of Utilitarian ethics to everyday life. One particular area that I think is oft overlooked is the question of sex. Historically, notions of sexual morality have a bad rap because we in the more liberal parts of the world tend to think of religiously influenced social conservative views on sex as being matters of disgust and purity, rather than logical, rational considerations. However, I think that Utilitarianism actually does have something to say about sexual choices, and that what it actually entails may surprise you. I should disclaim at this point because of the potential sensitivity of the topic that I am in no way attempting to judge people who might disagree with this particular application of theory. I simply wish to highlight some thoughts that I have had recently on the subject.

So without further adieu, in the tradition of Darklight posting yet another unconventional and possibly controversial application of Utilitarianism, I give you...

The Expected Utility of Sex – A Utilitarian Argument For Conservatism In Sexual Choices

A common naïve view of Utilitarianism is that is exceedingly permissive of consensual sexual relations among adults. After all, sex is pleasurable to both parties, which should make it okay for a hedonistic morality like Utilitarianism right?

A more deep analysis of the potential consequences of sexual relations however shows that it isn’t that simple. Sexual intercourse as an act between male-female partners comes with a non-zero risk of conception of a child. This risk, however small, needs to be factored into the Utilitarian moral calculus.

Assume that a hypothetical pair of consenting adults is responsible and uses contraception. The most commonly used contraception is the male condom, and it has a perfect use 2% failure rate, and a typical use failure rate of 18%. This means that, if we assume the Many-Worlds Interpretation of Physics, that in 18% of universes where you had sex, even with a condom, this caused the consequence of a pregnancy.

This means that the negative utility of unwanted pregnancy needs to be factored into evaluating the merits of every sexual encounter. A brief pleasurable experience in 82% of all worlds must be weighed against all the possible scenarios in which an unwanted pregnancy could occur, including ones that lead to the mother deciding to have the child and the consequences of this. There is a potentially vast amount of negative utility that can occur by introducing a child into this world who is unwanted or unloved. We’re talking about an entire lifetime that is statistically more likely to be below the average in happiness.

This can be mitigated if the unexpected child still ends up in a loving family.

Thus, when calculating the expected utility of sex, one should consider the likelihood that you will eventually marry your sex partner. A simple heuristic is that if you cannot imagine being happily married with this person, you shouldn’t have sex with them. In practice this suggests a policy against one night stands, and recommends that sex should only occur within monogamous relationships, as these are more likely to lead to stable and healthy families.

Stated in the positive, the heuristic is that you should only have sex with someone you would consider marrying in the future, or at least rearing a child together with.

If this is too stringent, a relaxed heuristic is that you should only consider having sex with someone who you would be willing to make child support payments to. Though bear in mind that such a heuristic generates a lower expected utility than the previous heuristic, as children born and raised outside of wedlock tend to lead less pleasant lives.

Now, an argument can be made that certain kinds of sexual relations other than full on intercourse are still acceptable because they have no risk of pregnancy. What should be factored into the considerations of those actions is that they have the potential to create emotional bonds and behaviour that are more likely to lead to full sexual intercourse. It is easy to get carried away in the heat of the moment, so to speak.

Thus, a more nuanced analysis of the consequences suggests that a proper Utilitarian should actually be relatively conservative when it comes to sex.

Basically, whenever you consider having sex with a member of the opposite sex, ask yourself if you want to be responsible for a child with this partner, and decide accordingly, because in some perhaps small percentage of parallel worlds, a child will come into existence.
"The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life." - Albert Einstein

DanielLC
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Re: The Expected Utility of Sex

Post by DanielLC » Tue Dec 02, 2014 5:22 pm

Can't you just use redundant birth control? If you have sex regularly with just a condom, there is a 2% chance of pregnancy in a given year. This means the actual failure rate is much lower. Using another kind of birth control seems like it could easily bring the failure rate down below 0.001% per year. And there's no reason you have to stop at two. Also, all of this only seems to apply to heterosexual relationships.
Consequentialism: The belief that doing the right thing makes the world a better place.

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Darklight
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Re: The Expected Utility of Sex

Post by Darklight » Wed Dec 03, 2014 4:40 pm

Good catch that the failure rate is in a given year, that was an oversight on my part.

While you could probably bring the risk to an arbitrarily low amount, it will still remain non-zero, meaning that in some parallel universe the pregnancy still occurs. The heuristic moral question is really, do you want to be responsible for this? The proper moral calculus is, does the expected utility, that is to say, the average utility or expected value across all possible worlds end up a net positive or negative? Even if the percentage of worlds is very, very small, the cost of an unwanted pregnancy is arguably so high that it tends to dominate, IMHO.

Of course, you could argue that any kind of risky activity has a non-zero probability of something catastrophic happening. Even just driving a car to go grocery shopping carries a non-zero probability that you might accidentally hit and kill a pedestrian. But saying that we shouldn't ever take the car to go grocery shopping because of this risk seems quite silly. But when you think about it, the utility of grocery shopping is actually much higher because if you don't go grocery shopping, you die of starvation. The better counterexample then is something like taking an airplane to have a pleasant vacation. You can live without the vacation, so the utility is not as high, while the potential loss of the extremely unlikely event of an airplane crash is significant. In non-zero worlds, you die.

So in effect, the expect utility argument can be applied to make one highly conservative and functionally paranoid with regards to every little risk of something catastrophic. At the very least, it suggests that we shouldn't take unnecessary risks. I don't know whether or not such a model is a good way to make decisions, as it seems rather counterintuitive at first glance. It also might suggest such strange notions as lottery tickets being a worthwhile investment, since in a tiny percentage of possible worlds you win...

And yes, the argument as stated only really applies to heterosexual relationships, though I could rework the argument to be about the risk of Sexually Transmitted Diseases like AIDS, and then it would apply to non-heterosexual relationships.
"The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life." - Albert Einstein

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Brian Tomasik
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Re: The Expected Utility of Sex

Post by Brian Tomasik » Sun Dec 07, 2014 12:35 am

You may have read "The Cost of Kids".
Darklight wrote: The most commonly used contraception is the male condom, and it has a perfect use 2% failure rate, and a typical use failure rate of 18%. This means that, if we assume the Many-Worlds Interpretation of Physics, that in 18% of universes where you had sex, even with a condom, this caused the consequence of a pregnancy.
MWI quantum probabilities for any given couple are very unlikely to track average pregnancy probabilities. If you don't observe a pregnancy to have happened, there is some tiny measure of worlds where totally random stuff caused a pregnancy, but the fraction is 0.0000...0001%, not 18%.

But if you care about expected values, then you don't need fractions of worlds. 18% a priori is still very significant.
Darklight wrote: Thus, a more nuanced analysis of the consequences suggests that a proper Utilitarian should actually be relatively conservative when it comes to sex.
I generally agree, depending how robust your birth control is. STIs are a nontrivial consideration as well, and testing is a lot of work to do properly.

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Re: The Expected Utility of Sex

Post by Ubuntu » Mon Mar 27, 2017 8:33 pm

A common naïve view of Utilitarianism is that is exceedingly permissive of consensual sexual relations among adults. After all, sex is pleasurable to both parties, which should make it okay for a hedonistic morality like Utilitarianism right?
I agree that hedonistic consequentialism doesn't necessarily justify any degree of sexual permissiveness in practice (and not just because of STI's and unwanted pregnancies. There are other long-term issues to consider) but it would be the ideal and I don't think you can justify promoting monogamy (although some degree of sexual 'conservatism' is very compatible with non-monogamy) to the extent that you're interested in promoting hedonistic consequentialism (in other words I think you can only justify promoting monogamy to the extent that you believe hedonistic consequentialism justifies promoting views that fundamentally contradict H.C and it might be off topic but I don't think that, in practice, anyone can regard X as intrinsically good or bad and not criticize people for not sharing the same values or attempting to promote or prevent them. If you think the act of killing is intrinsically immoral you have to criticize people who are willing to kill for any reason in any circumstance, if you think life has intrinsic value you have to criticize people who don't value life and act in whatever ways they believe will maximize the most of it, if you think violating someone's autonomy for non-defensive reasons is intrinsically unjust you have criticize people who initiate force for non-defensive reasons etc. There's no way X society could come into existence or moral agents who don't already hold a certain value will coincidentally make choices that produce or protect X value as often as they would if their choices were rooted in that value without contradicting values being critiqued and discouraged but that's off topic and I don't want to go as in-depth into that as I could.
This risk, however small, needs to be factored into the Utilitarian moral calculus.
I agree. You acknowledge later that there are many things people do that come with improbable but very serious risks (like driving) but completely downplay this. The value and dis-value of both sexual happiness and sexual frustration have to be factored into consideration as well.

Assume that a hypothetical pair of consenting adults is responsible and uses contraception. The most commonly used contraception is the male condom, and it has a perfect use 2% failure rate, and a typical use failure rate of 18%. This means that, if we assume the Many-Worlds Interpretation of Physics, that in 18% of universes where you had sex, even with a condom, this caused the consequence of a pregnancy.
If people are educated on how to use condoms (and we assume unprotected sex guarantees an unwanted pregnancy) then the 2% chance of having an unwanted pregnancy is even lower for people who have access to the morning after pill and abortion or even a vasectomy, if they're that serious. There's also the same risk of an unwanted pregnancy for a long-term monogamous couple who can't afford a child or another child so you could make a similar argument against having sex at all for many people who aren't open to sex outside of a long-term monogamous relationship.
This means that the negative utility of unwanted pregnancy needs to be factored into evaluating the merits of every sexual encounter. A brief pleasurable experience in 82% of all worlds must be weighed against all the possible scenarios in which an unwanted pregnancy could occur, including ones that lead to the mother deciding to have the child and the consequences of this. There is a potentially vast amount of negative utility that can occur by introducing a child into this world who is unwanted or unloved. We’re talking about an entire lifetime that is statistically more likely to be below the average in happiness.
It seems to me like it would make more sense to discourage people who wouldn't love and care for unplanned for children they ended up with or people who don't consider early pregnancy abortions (that take place when I assume the fetus isn't incapable of pain) as just another form of birth control to abstain from sex with people they couldn't see themselves raising children with although, again, some monogamous couples aren't financially or psychologically prepared for children either.
..sex should only occur within monogamous relationships, as these are more likely to lead to stable and healthy families.
It isn't monogamy that leads to stability, it's commitment. Many people are raised in stable, loving and "healthy" non-monogamous families. I don't think it makes sense to argue that we shouldn't do X because it's more *likely* to have this negative effect if we can pinpoint what is actually harmful and why X might simply correlate with it. Many of the advantages you might associate with monogamous families are really the advantages of having multiple parents (even, maybe to a lesser extent, two or more parents who don't live in the same household).
What should be factored into the considerations of those actions is that they have the potential to create emotional bonds and behaviour that are more likely to lead to full sexual intercourse. It is easy to get carried away in the heat of the moment, so to speak.
I think this is a weak argument. You expect people to have the self-discipline to avoid acting-to any degree- on their attraction to multiple people but not to have the discipline to avoid sexual contact with people they have some kind of a physically intimate or romantic relationship that doesn't involve sexual contact with. You're claiming that people aren't capable of the same self-discipline they have to show in establishing a long-term monogamous relationship (ie. in getting to know someone, figuring out whether or not they could see themselves happily married and raising children with them). At first, for some reason, I took it as you claiming that the frustration of having to hold back would be too strong so it would be easier to avoid any kind of physically intimate or romantic relationship at all but I think the same reasoning would apply, it would be no more frustrating then not expressing or acting on those feelings to any degree would be.
Thus, a more nuanced analysis of the consequences suggests that a proper Utilitarian should actually be relatively conservative when it comes to sex.
I agree that some degree of sexual conservatism is necessary in the real world but there are at least two reasons to promote non-monogamy and being indiscriminately 'open' to the possibility of an intimate relationship or encounter with everyone you're relatively attracted to (if I'm not mistaken a sexually 'promiscuous' person is someone who is not discriminating when it comes to potential sex partners - I'm assuming that's after you control for physical attraction- so someone saying they won't sleep with John in specific circumstances for specific reasons is fundamentally different then being closed to the possibility of sleeping with John or having unlimited partners for it's own sake. I'm not explaining myself well but I'm tired of writing. A 'monogamous' person is committed to having only one partner - it's not situation by situation) = 1) Monogamy promotes competition for mates and the nature of competition contradicts valuing everyone's happiness equally. A hedonistic consequentialist can't ask their partner to not have pleasurable sex, physical intimacy or some kind of romantic relationship with other people when they're not around them and aren't directly or indirectly affected by their doing so. You can reasonably ask someone not to finish the rest of the pie if they've already had some and you haven't because there's a limited amount of pie and assuming that they don't have an unusually high appetite, you would benefit more because of diminishing marginal utility, your interest in having the rest of the pie directly conflicts with theirs but there is no conflict of interests in your partner spending time with other people that they wouldn't have spent with you anyways. I'm leaving aside unwanted pregnancies and STI concerns but I've addressed that (or maybe not STIs but even non-monogamous people could limit actual sexual contact with people who can demonstrate being STI free). Non-monogamy maximizes happiness for a greater number of people. 2) Monogamy is inherently inhibiting. No one is monogamous in terms of their 'orientation' or desire because the same characteristics that attract you to one person have to attract you to other people who share the same characteristics. Most humans have a psychological need for sexual intimacy and sexual frustration is a form of distress. It might sound crude but multiple partners has to be more stimulating because increasing the number of objects of an emotion increases the intensity of it (for as long as you have a desire or fear/aversion for or toward that thing, which is why speaking in front of millions of people would probably be harder than speaking in front of 10 or 20 strangers). I had more to say and I forgot at least one thing but I'm surprised at how much time I wasted on this post. There are people I would otherwise feel attracted to who I wouldn't want to sleep with and I can't say I value everyone's happiness but I think H.C implies non-monogamy and being sexual 'promiscuous' as I defined it.

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