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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% per year failure rate, and a typical use per year failure rate of 18%. This means that, if we assume the Many-Worlds Interpretation of Physics, that in 18% of universes where you had condom-protected sex regularly over a year, 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. Regular brief pleasurable experiences 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.

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Page last modified on February 04, 2018, at 08:21 PM