Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Weirdness of Thinking Contraception Weird

This musing is intended as a playful, though serious, response to Russell DiSilvestro’s recent blog post, which I view as playfully inviting us to think about contraception in a new light… perhaps as weird. Reading broadly, I take Russell to be inviting us to consider weird any determination that something is good but which we opt not to pursue, some of us, for the entirety of our lives. No, he wasn’t speaking of broccoli or abdominal crunches. He offers that we’d view it weird for a community in some possible world, exactly like ours, to take sexual pleasure worthy of preventing, much like many of us view preventing sexual reproduction. Not that we or they would not engage in sex; just when we and they do, some of them prevent the pleasure it ordinarily brings just as some of us prevent the reproduction it ordinarily (heterosexually-speaking) brings.

So, here’s my suggestion – this, better than most, shows the limitations of thought experiments. Don’t get me wrong, I have a soft spot for thought experiments. They are among the few truly creative and inventive opportunities in a discipline ordinarily bound by the rigors of logic. Thought experiments, at best, get our intuitive juices flowing, and offer insight into our conceptual frameworks, ideological commitments, and sundry biases. It was in this spirit that Russell offered his thought experiment about contraception. At worst, though, they distract, distort, allowing biases or ideology to creep into our analysis.

One problem with Russell’s thought experiment has already been pointed out in the subsequent comments from Randy Mayes– that this community’s wanting to prevent sexual pleasures requires some explanation, as it seems too far from what we understand about pleasure as to stretch the credulity of the claim that theirs is a world exactly like our own except for this one difference. But, let’s put that aside. I’ll grant that their world is exactly like ours, with this one difference.

What my concern hinges on is the apparent equivalence of the goods of sexual pleasure and sexual reproduction in a world exactly like our own. We need an account of what makes each good good, since in this world, they are not self-evidently equivalent. One way to do so is to consider their likely effects. On closer examination:

The Good of Sexual Pleasure

1.       Entails nothing beyond the reciprocal, consensual, experience of the pleasure itself.
2.       Lasts the duration of the experience, and can be enjoyed in memory thereafter.
3.       No risks normally arise from pleasure (laughing ‘till you cry excepted).

The Good of Sexual Reproduction

1.       Entails the creation of a child, which is a being with moral worth.
2.       Entails the creation of a being with material needs of care, which someone will have the obligation to meet.
3.       Brings into the community another member, toward whom others, otherwise uninvolved in the act of reproduction, will have some moral and other practical obligations.
4.       Economic responsibility lasts, at least, for the duration of the child’s dependency. Moral responsibility lasts, typically, for the child’s entire life.
5.       Risks reproductively related illness, including the possibility of death. These risks are born entirely by the woman, and the fetus.
6.       Risks economic repercussions for lost time at work for birthing and related medical care, which may extend for the duration of the child’s dependency. These may be extensive as the birth/rearing parent loses work-related experience and the economic benefit that normally accrues thereto. These risks are born in large part by the woman, child, and any other dependents she has.

Even granting the belief that both pleasure and reproduction are good – both in the practical sense of being “good for you” for those who participate, and in the moral sense of being “worthy of pursuit” universally – it seems clear why one might be interested in limiting the frequency and the timing of the good of sexual reproduction. It’s also pretty clear why a community would be interested in everyone being able to do so. The implications of pursuing this good are born not just by those pursuing that good. The morally and practically significant responsibilities of bringing a child into the community affect everyone in the community, directly or indirectly. It’s also clearer what is so weird about preventing the good of sexual pleasure, since doing so seems to have no down-side for anyone (except, maybe, for an ex).

Clearly, sexual pleasure and sexual reproduction play fundamentally different roles in people's lives, and have dramatically different effects.  These two goods are incongruous in important ways, such that concluding their practice is weird for its prevention of the good of sexual pleasure tells us absolutely nothing about our own practice of preventing the good of sexual reproduction. The thought experiment at best misses this significant difference. At worst, it obfuscates it. What’s weird here is the thought experiment.

Reproduction is serious business. Pleasure is decidedly not.  In a world exactly like our own, reproduction is not to be undertaken lightly, at least not without planning, without attention to one’s own and others’ willingness to assume the responsibility it creates. The downside of failing to do so is significant and grave not merely for those who reproduce, but for the product of that reproduction – the child – and the community into which that child comes as a new member. Perhaps this is why women, and men, have been so concerned to try to find reliable contraceptives… for millennia… no, that’s too short a time… for ever-since-we-figured-out-that’s-not-a-stork-bringing-those-bundles-to-the-cabbage-patch.

“Hey, cutie, how about a little reproduction?”
“Maybe in a few years, when we’re economically stable.”
“Right, when I’ve finished my degree?”
“Sure, when we’re not living in my parents’ basement.”
“Oh, when my life is in order?”
“Yeah, let’s enjoy the pleasure of sex… at least for now.”
“OK, pass the condom…”

Christina Bellon
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Chris, thanks for this "playful, though serious" response. It's much appreciated, and I hope others will jump in soon now that it's even clearer (or should be by now) that we can philosophize in a collegial way about this stuff without recapitulating some culture war.

    There's much of your post I want to agree with and/or comment on, but let me start just by responding to one of your opening comments (in the first paragraph):

    "Reading broadly, I take Russell to be inviting us to consider weird any determination that something is good but which we opt not to pursue, some of us, for the entirety of our lives."

    I can see why someone might take me to be inviting that. But it's a bit broader of a point than I meant to invite. As you seem to recognize in the rest of your post (even in the first paragraph), there is a difference between not opting to pursue something, and "deliberately trying to prevent it from happening" (that's how I chose to word it in the original post). The latter is arguably inclusive of the former, but not the reverse.

    To illustrate. Consider three friends considering going to Paris; One says "seeing the Eiffel tower would be good; I want to see it; let's plan to see it"; Two says "Ah, seeing the Eiffel is good and all, but I do not care to see it"; Three says, "Ah, seeing the Eiffel is good and all, but like Two, I do not care to see it; in fact, I care to NOT see it, and I am not going to agree to this Paris trip unless you guarantee that I WON'T see it." Now, then; Two and Three, quite apart from whether either of them is being weird, are at least being different from each other in their approach to seeing the Eiffel Tower.

    Again, Chris, it seems to me that the rest of your response post here is still (just as?) relevant to the thought I meant to invite. And the rest of your post even speaks (as I did) of "preventing the good" etc. But I wanted to re-flag the sort of thought that I meant to invite. It is a tricky thing to motivate the general thought that there is something weird about me deliberately preventing a thing I say is good. It is considerably trickier to motivate the general thought that there is something weird about me opting not to pursue a thing I say is good.

    One more point about your quoted comment. The invited thought is meant to be relevant to all points along what might be called the personal reproductive spectrum of our own land. While it relates to those who personally aim for zero offspring, it also relates to those who personally aim for a specific number of offspring (greater than zero) but no more (or, for that matter, less), those who aim for whatever their reproductive maximum is, and those who aim for no reproductive number in particular.

  2. Russell,
    Thanks for the response. Indeed, you and I might be the best partners to discuss this very issue, since we occupy two extremes on the reproductive spectrum, you with 7 children and I with none. Let's leave those wafflers with a mere one or two on the sidelines!

    See, my broader reading of your weirdness concern wasn’t so far off, since now your example is about travel and tourist destinations, in addition to the original about sexual pleasure and reproduction.

    If I understand correctly, your Paris example suffers from the same limitation as your original thought experiment – some sense for what makes some goods good? Going on a trip to Paris (having sex), enjoying all that Paris has to offer (sexual pleasure), yet wanting to prevent oneself from experiencing the Eiffel (reproduction) seems weird, but again something is missing in your story. What would make it not weird is some sense of what such a person values and how a trip to Paris, its abundant pleasures and the Eiffel fit or don't fit it. I can understand someone thinking that it might indeed be very good to visit the Eiffel (reproduce), but wanting to prevent her/his own experience of it, perhaps because they fear heights, or they have a political or moral objection to some aspect of its history or role in French imperialism, or some other such concern which they see as limiting the value of their own experience of it. It’s also plausible to hold such a view of the Eiffel for themselves all the while recognizing that others might indeed see the world differently, not fear heights or have some other balance of political or moral values, such that a visit to the Eiffel would be good for them, even good for everyone one else.

    Against such an account of good-making, it is no longer weird why they would be very happy to go to Paris (have sex), believe that the pleasure Paris promises the engaged tourist (sexual pleasure) is good and that experiencing the Eiffel (reproducing) is good, yet wish to prevent the latter for themselves. They might even be happy that their travel companions went to the Eiffel (joy for others at their having children), so long as that’s not all they can talk about and don’t keep showing their photos. Further, it’s quite plausible to me that someone would want to go to Paris (have sex), experience all the pleasures that Paris has to offer (sexual pleasure), including experiencing the Eiffel (having a child), maybe even twice or three times (two or three kids), but not want to spend all their time at the Eiffel. At least, not on every trip to Paris.

    Isn't sex exactly like that? In the world you sketch, sex has two functions -- pleasure and reproduction (I think there are many more). I tried to give an account of what makes each good good, rendering it sensible why someone might believe reproduction good (perhaps good for others, or they can see that it would be a good-making aspect of someone's life) but not themselves seeking it out, or even actively preventing it from happening on their own forays into (heterosexual) sex. Why? Because they understand the implications of this one particular good (reproduction) and, perhaps, because they also value the many other goods of sex. These latter goods might be valued by an individual and make sex worthy of engaging in, all the while actively preventing that one good (reproduction), which they also see as good, just not good right now or not good for them to pursue or allow… ever. Contraception, for that individual, makes all those other goods available. What’s not good about that?

    In the absence of some account of what makes goods good, and in particular the good of sexual pleasure and sexual reproduction, it is weird. But that’s a problem with your account, not with contraception.

  3. Thanks, Russell and Christina, for the discussion!
    It's a subject I've long been interested in, and debated in my lifetime, though not quite in those terms. I come from a conservative Catholic background, and have a very large extended family. But there's also significant health risks associated with pregnancy and motherhood, revealed in the lives of some more closely related members of my family, that I take very seriously, as many women must. But more than that, I simply lack the interest in the day to day lifestyle of motherhood, and revel instead in being an auntie, when it comes to having children in my life.
    It's interesting how different the modern debate is from those of an earlier era, over the benefits/downsides of both contraception and child-rearing. The difference reflects the modern luxury of today's excellent health care and low mortality rates of both mothers and children, while earlier eras placed little or no stigma on ordinary women who attempted contraception (which didn't work well), and the mortality rates associated with childbirth and early childhood were staggering. In those days, applying the blanket term 'good' to reproduction would itself seem weird, since only a little more than half the time it brought joy and life rather than suffering and early death. Sometimes it was good, and sometimes not.
    I wrote a little piece on issues surrounding the choice to have children, just in case you find it interesting!