The pill, moral relativism, and economics

“Raquel Welch has blamed the contraceptive pill for the breakdown of sexual morality.”

That is the first sentence from this newspaper article.  Now I have no doubt that the introduction of the pill led to a higher steady state level of promiscuity.  Yet, there is an undercurrent of negativity in the article – suggesting that this is a bad thing.   However, this is not necessarily the case.

This illustrates to me one of the issues that often makes explaining economics, or even trying to do analysis, difficult – moral relativism.  In the current case, the existence of the institution of marriage and the idea of low numbers of sexual partners is seen – in of itself – as a good thing.  People have followed a rule of thumb that the given set of outcomes in the social situation they are the best outcomes.  Anything that in turn undermines those institutions is “bad”.

I use the term moral relativism because that sort of behaviour is indicative of it – what people view as the appropriate set of institutions is based on the set of institutions that are in place at the time.  When we look back at what people believe is “morally right” we will often see rules based on the society they are in not some underlying true prior morality (although I believe that does exist to some degree as well).  As a result, if we try to say that the underlying situation has changed (the pill has turned up) and these old institutions that were optimal are now suboptimal, people get annoyed.

Economics is a great social discipline, because it tries to side-step the issue of moral judgments (and thereby the issues associated with moral relativism) for as long as it can in the process of analysis.  So following a “shock” an economist will try to describe the social elements, the trade-offs involved, the change in choices, how the corresponding change in institutions and choices impacts on future choices, and eventually where the social situation will settle.  Once we understand how the “distribution/allocation” of things changes, we can mix in some value judgments and come to a conclusion.

In the case of the pill, it seems highly believable that the introduction of something that made sex with a lot of partners much less costly lead to a lot more sex – that is fine.  However, we can’t conclude whether this is a good or a bad thing until we introduce value judgments to our analysis.

Those that are anti the pill will say that the introduction of the pill lead to greater promiscuity, but also made it more costly for people who didn’t want promiscuity to not be promiscuous – as a result, people who would have preferred a low sex but married social equilibrium may be worse off.  This analysis is fine, but it does rely on a set of value judgments.

Personally, I think the final steady state from the introduction of the pill will end up with more mature and responsible discussion around sex and relationship.  We can hardly say that the institutions of marriage and religion led to “magically optimal” outcomes in these matters – and people that bemoan the loss of such institutions are often looking through very rose tinted glasses.  Social interactions between people are supposed to be difficult, and I am sure individuals and the institutions that surround them will evolve in interesting ways given the pill.  However, my belief that the ultimate outcome will be better is again based on my set of value judgments.

7 replies
  1. steve
    steve says:

    I don’t think its based on any specific set of value judgements but on every set of value judgements where these are inputs into every persons’ individual utility function, and this is a broad (probably normal) distribution accross society. There is a factual and a counterfactual. Under each scenario every member of society has a different level of total utility. for some it will be lower with the pill because they prefer that the sexually related social interactions be limited to marriage and they would prefer to avoid the discussion untill mariage is on the table. For others utility will be higher with the pill because they are getting more sex. Then we need to include any externalities (under both scenarios), such as the cost of unplanned pregnancy, the cost of any undesired social interactions that are due to the scenario (eg being pressured into sex or wanting sex but it not happening because of society and the risk of pregnancy), and the cost of “knowing” the world is permiscious when this is against a specific person’s values (while I would be tempted to ignore it, think of this the same as donating to help an endangered species makes you feel good even though you never see the animal). the sum of these utilities and externalities shows us under which scenario we are better off.

    Perhaps the value judgement you refer to is more your expectation of the spectrum of utility functions – but surely, if we wanted to research this, we could avoid a value judgement by surveying people on their views of sex, and come up with some sort of model to represent and rank utility?

    I agree the article is making a value judgement and these people don’t really know if it is good or bad. but i disagree that an economic approach also has to make a set of value judgements.

  2. steve
    steve says:

    wow didn’t realise I could write so much for such a non-serious topic.

  3. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    “but i disagree that an economic approach also has to make a set of value judgements”

    We can’t weight welfare functions, and reach a conclusion, until we make value judgments.

    Effectively, I see the pill as a state variable – and deciding whether the eqm with the pill available or the eqm without the pill available is preferable relies on two steps:

    1) The economic analysis step where we look at how choices and the allocation of resources change – we attempt to do this in a value free way.
    2) Introducing value judgments. Given how the allocation of outcomes has changed, we can introduce a welfare function and compare the two eqm, deciding which one is preferable.

    It is that division that is so very important.

  4. steve
    steve says:

    Matt Nolan :
    “We can’t weight welfare functions, and reach a conclusion, until we make value judgments.”

    Basically I was saying those weights can be based on a survey result. Ok fair enough you can call it a value judgement, but it is an imformed value judgement because you are able to see the spectrum of utility functions and can make that judgement based on evidence. i.e. a scientific approach, rather than a judgement.

  5. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    Fair call for sure. It is always better to use information to come up with comparisons where possible.

    However, in the case of the pill I don’t know if we can use revealed preferences – let alone weaker mechanisms like surveys – to come up with a true measure to compare outcomes.

    This is always the problem when we have multiple pareto ranked eqm – we can’t even use market mechanisms to figure out value 🙁

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matt Nolan. Matt Nolan said: The pill, moral relativism, and economics: […]

Comments are closed.