“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.