Monday, March 17, 2014

Is Contraception Ever Just a Little Bit Weird?

“My aim, I hasten to add, is not to argue for policing people’s procreative motives or for creating disapproval (or approval, for that matter) of particular procreative decisions. I’m not interested in being a moral disciplinarian. Nor am I interested in telling people what they ought to do or what I think is right for them to do. My aim is simply to explore some ways in which we might think systematically and deeply about a fundamental aspect of human life.” --Christine Overall, Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate, The MIT Press 2012, page 8.

My aim in this short post is the same as Christine Overall’s aim in her excellent book (which I’ve been reading recently thanks to the recommendation of my colleague Christina Bellon).

But here I hope to “test the waters” for an idea I might weave into my talk next month at our department’s Nammour Symposium (which I’m doing thanks to the invitation of my colleague Randy Mayes—and that’s the last collegial shout-out of this post, I promise).

Imagine a land where all think sex has two main purposes—pleasure and reproduction—but most think it is always permissible and usually wise to deliberately thwart exactly one of these purposes—namely, pleasure.

This land is just like ours in every single way, with only one inversion: they treat sexual pleasure and reproduction the way we treat sexual reproduction and pleasure.

The result is that most people in this land use some methods at least some time in their life to intentionally avoid having pleasure while still having sex.

In this land such methods are called “contrahedons.”

(The term comes from Greek hedone, “pleasure”; at least since Bentham, a hedon is a unit of pleasure to supposedly measure your happiness.)

Some contrahedons are known as “barrier methods” and involve wearing or inserting artificial devices during sex whose sole point is the prevention of unwanted sexual pleasure. Other contrahedons chemically alter the bodies of men and women to prevent pleasure from occurring during sex more reliably than barrier methods. Still other contrahedons are surgical procedures whose only goal is to prevent a person from having any sexual pleasure for the rest of his or her life.

One somewhat disputed method of “contrahedon” (there is debate whether it even counts as that) is popularly known as “natural pleasure planning,” and works by a couple being careful only to have sex during those periods of time least likely result in pleasure, like after reading Bertrand Russell. (Sorry, inside philosophy joke.)

Some people in this land point out that the easiest and least invasive way of not having sexual pleasure is to just not have sex, but they are widely dismissed as the lunatic fringe.

The philosophical thinking the people in this land engage in about contrahedons might surprise you.

They say they do not think that sexual pleasure is inherently bad. Indeed, most people in this land would agree that each of the two main purposes of sex—pleasure and reproduction—are “good” things. But one of these good things—reproduction, of course—is the sort of good thing that no sane person would ever want to have less of; whereas the other good thing—pleasure, of course—is the sort of good thing that only some people want at all, and which every sane person realizes must be had in moderation.

The people in this land debate whether the main “purposes” of sex are evolutionary or divine (or both). But this debate makes little difference to the actual practices of this land. (While a few thinkers in this land, typically of one particular religion, argue that deliberately thwarting the pleasure of sex is bad in itself and will lead to other bad things, these thinkers are usually just ignored, even by their co-religionists.)

As a result, the dominant public culture of this land—its education, its entertainment, its governmental and religious institutions—all take on the character that would be expected by this cluster of ideas. Advertisements for contrahedons boast of “taking the joy of sex away”; access to and state funding of contrahedons is a platitude of progressives; and so on. Of course, people still allow themselves some sexual pleasure; but usually only after having sex for a few years, and then just once or twice, and after that, never again.

Now, then. Most of the people still reading at this point are surely struck by something. It’s the weirdness of this land, and the weirdness of contrahedons. Of course, this weirdness does not automatically translate into the badness of contrahedons or the wrongness of using them. Still, contrahedons strike us as weird.

But what, precisely, is weird about them?

My initial explanation is this: the people are taking something that is so evidently good—sexual pleasure—and they are deliberately trying to prevent it from happening, while still saying that they think it is good.

This explanation does not rely on any special sense of “natural.” The weirdness of preventing the natural good of sexual pleasure is not from it being naturally good but from it being naturally good; put differently, the weirdness of stopping it comes from its goodness, not from its naturalness.

But if that is why contrahedons are weird in their land, is contraception weird in our land?

Most of us think of our own lives as so evidently good as to not need mentioning.

Most of us with children think that their own lives are so evidently good as to not need discussing it.

But those are precisely the sorts of things that we are deliberately trying to prevent from happening, while still saying that we think they are good.

Isn’t that just a little bit weird?

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State University


  1. Russell, thanks, this is fun and interesting. I don't find it too difficult to imagine a situation in which assiduous use of contrahedons would make a great deal of sense. For example, it could be that the pleasure of sex is very real, but that it is invariably followed by strong feelings of guilt which is the result of cultural or religious inculcation that sex is a lower animal pleasure, and too much of it is unworthy of the higher beings they aspire to be. (This seems to me to be a more or less adequate description of an ascetic.) Alternatively, it could be that the pleasure is so intense, that it is always followed by a hangover that makes it difficult to function at work the next day. (Here we might have a decent analogy with a preference for non alcoholic beer.)

    But, more generally, I would say that it is not really possible to answer your question why using contrahedons seems weird, because the story lacks an explanatory background. It can't just be that they don't want pleasure. There has to be a reason for it, and until we know it, we can't say whether the behavior is weird or not.

    1. Randy, thanks for the comment--I think I agree with the general point (that we can't say with confidence whether the behavior is weird or not unless we know the reason for it), although I had hoped that my original comment (at the start of paragraph five) that "This land is just like ours in every single way" would be enough context. In other words, this land has no laws of nature that seem alien to us, like getting a sexual "hangover" the day after making love. In this sense, the thought-experiment really is an imaginary "land" rather than a more philosophically traditional "possible world" (a comprehensive state of affairs; a complete way things could have been). I wanted us to think about our world, our planet, with (say) an interestingly different island that developed rather differently than the lands we know about (so far!).

      Looked at this way, the rhetorical and perhaps philosophical point at issue may still be salvaged: a land that we discovered with the practices of contrahedons would at least be "apparently weird" in the following sense: we would be struck by it, strongly enough to want to ask "what is going on here? What is it that explains this radical departure from the way we do things?" And the first place we would want to look for an explanation of the behavior is the beliefs of the natives. But what is the first place we would want to look for an explanation of the (apparent) weirdness? That was the question I posed towards the end. Why is it that this land even strikes us as apparently weird? My explanation about the odd juxtaposition of their practices versus their professed belief in the goodness of sexual pleasure was my stab at an answer.

      Still, your comment really points out to me that my comment above ("This land is just like ours in every single way") is not quite enough. For although it blocks the science-fiction what-ifs, it leaves open what on earth these people might be thinking (for example, your comment about 'cultural or religious inculcation'). What is the greater good that they are seeking to obtain by using contrahedons (at least, what do they THINK is the greater good)? Or what is the (perceived) bad that they are trying to avoid? I need to give that some more careful thought, in order to see which kinds of beliefs in the contrahedon-land might help illuminate our own land's beliefs and practices with contraception.

      For what it's worth, my initial hunch here is that, while the beliefs in contrahedon-land might remove much of the apparent weirdness of contrahedons themselves ("oh, you guys believe THAT? Well, that explains contrahedons quite neatly…"), some of those beliefs would merely shift the weirdness ("…but why on earth do you guys believe THAT?").

      Perhaps the next question is whether these explanatory beliefs in contrahedon-land would bear the same sort of relation to their practices as the beliefs in our land bear to our practices.

    2. Russell, thanks, that's a solid reply, I think. It's interesting to think about this in terms of when we need an explanatory background and when we don't. The basic set-up "World X is just like ours in every other way except ___" seems to me to require an explanatory background, and a stronger and stronger one, the more we are messing with facts that are at the core of our worldview. For example, if we said that World X is just like ours except that everybody avoids pleasure at all costs, that would strike us as incoherent, and needing a really powerful explanation. We could give one: e.g., all pleasurable experiences are immediately followed by even more pain, but I think we'd still have to say why that is before we'd be close to something worth discussing. Similarly with there is no gravity or fire is cold or people are all nice. On the other hand, a thought experiment that asks us to imagine that everything is he same except there are no cats, doesn't seem to require much explanation at all. Whatever error brought cats into existence could easily be changed without tampering with our basic understanding of the world (well, mine anyway.) Similarly with WWI never happened or the Beatles were a flop or philosophers are widely admired. Right now I'm inclined to think your example is a lot closer to the former group than the latter.

    3. What am I thinking. A world in which philosophers are widely admired would require a great deal of explanation.

    4. Yes, that would require some 'splainin'!

  2. Russell, nice little thought experiment. I agree with Randy, the weirdness of it strikes me more a matter of trying to make sense of why contrahedons would forsake this particular source of pleasure. Is there something they find particularly worthy of not pursuing with respect to the pleasure of sex compared to other sources of pleasure?

    On a different tack... are you proposing that the good of pleasure and the good of reproduction are morally equal goods? I'm trying to get my head around the weirdness of this world, not for the contrahedon's rejection of a good worth pursuing, but for the seeming equivalence they give to these two goods of sex.

    1. Chris, thanks. While my reply above to Randy might address your first comment, let me add that I realize that the same facts about us that make us initially "jarred" by the thought-experiment could well be the same facts about us that make us unlikely to ever try out contrahedons as one of those "experiments in living" that John Stuart Mill talked about. It may well turn out that no such land has ever arisen, or has ever been able to pass on its memes to its descendants, because the peculiar features of our psychology make that simply not a thing to be tried.

      In response to your second point, I was not meaning to suggest that the people in contrahedon-land viewed pleasure and reproduction as "morally equal goods" (or that we in our land do, or should, view pleasure and reproduction as morally equal goods). I think it's enough for the example to have the folks in contrahedon-land view these two main "purposes" (in the neutral sense I mentioned) of sex as the two most prominent or noteworthy effects of sex, both of which they see as good. Or so they say.

      Could they view pleasure and reproduction as 50-50 moral equals? Sure. But I think they could also say just about any other balance (60-40; 90-10; whatever).

      An inclusive way forward might be this: the thought experiment invites a reader to take whatever balance of comparative goodness he or she thinks the pleasure-reproduction pair has in the actual world, and to just import this balance directly into contrahedon-land). If you think it's 80-20 pleasure, so do they.

      Another inclusive way forward would be to take the same number and invert it. If you think it's 80-20, they think it's 20-80.

      Perhaps more hangs on this than I am alert to. But the two inclusive ways forward I just sketched seem to me to be two different ways of emphasizing one of the clauses in that fifth paragraph of the original post: "This land is just like ours in every single way, with only one inversion: they treat sexual pleasure and reproduction the way we treat sexual reproduction and pleasure."

      By the way, I am not sure we need the idea of a "moral" good to get the thought experiment up and running. It may be enough that the people view pleasure as "good for" those who experience it, and reproduction as "good for" those who get to reproduce (and/or "good for" the individuals reproduced, and/or "good for" still others who are affected). Put differently, it may be that the people in contrahedon-land only recognize as "good" those things that are "good for" particular individuals. I'm not sure how important that point is.

    2. Russell, thanks for the reply. I didn't intend anything overly onerous by referencing these as moral goods, merely that you imply that as goods these are worth pursuing, and that if they are not pursued then that warrants some explanation. If it's a good worth pursuing, then in that sense I would consider it a moral good in that it offers guidance for action. My concern about these goods being presented as equivalent goes to your thought experiment's presentation of these -- reproduction and pleasure -- as symmetrical such that if we are willing to prevent one we shouldn't be surprised to see other people willing to prevent the other, but if we find the latter odd, perhaps we ought to find the former odd too. I'm hinting that perhaps they are not equivalent pursuits such that a symmetrical reversal might not tell us much about our own behaviour.