Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Has Technology Changed the Moral Rules Regarding Sex and Marriage?

Did the invention of the pill change the social moral rules about premarital sex?

We all face decision problems in our daily lives. We have preferences and we have options. These options come with different ratios of costs and benefits, measured relative to our preferences. If we are broadly rational, we will tend to pick the options in which the benefits outweigh the costs — if not in the short term then at least in the long-term. These preferred options will become our personal norms.

But we don’t make decisions in a vacuum. Our choices affect others and others face similar problems to us. If we all face similar decision problems, and we all pick the same options in those problems (or put in place mechanisms to enforce the same options) then those options may end up forming the basis for our social moral norms. This is, in fact, a popular theory for understanding how humans developed social moral norms.

Technologies alter our decision problems. When a new technology comes along, it can change our options and the ratio of benefits to costs associated with those options. This can give rise to new preferred choices and hence to new social moral norms.

Is it possible to think about the relationship between decision dynamics and social moral change in a more systematic way? That’s the question I try to answer in the remainder of this article. I do so by examining some economic models of human decision problems associated with sex and marriage and some claims made by economists concerning the effect of technology on those decision problems. To be more precise, I will look at how changes to the technology of contraception (allegedly) increased the social permissibility of premarital sex. I will also look at how the development of labour-saving household machines (washing machines) may have changed the moral purpose of marriage.

(Full disclosure: I originally encountered these two examples in Marina Adshade's work on the economics of sex and marriage. I looked at the original research papers after reading her account).

1. Social Norms and Decision Problems

Before I get into the specific examples I want to consider the impact of technology on decision problems at a more abstract level. This will provide a general model for how technology might induce social moral change. This model will be made more concrete with the two specific case studies.

As noted in the introduction, we all face different decision problems. Some are more profound than others. Should I call my partner after I get off the plane? Should I have another cup of coffee? Should I respond to that email now or later? In each of these decision problems, three variables are key: (i) the available options; (ii) the outcomes associated with these options and (iii) our preferences/values over these outcomes (which one gives us more of what we want/value?). Another important variable is the probability attaching to each outcome. Since not everything in life is a dead cert, we often need to factor probabilities into how we weigh up the options. If I knew I was going to win the lottery, then I would definitely buy a ticket, but since my chance of winning the lottery is infinitesimally small, I’d be a fool to do so.

Although many people are sceptical of rational choice theory these days, this is largely because we conflate an ideal form of rationality (what people ought to prefer if they thought like economists and had a perfect grasp of probability theory) with the actual form of rationality adhered to by most people. With modifications in place to account for how people actually decide, I think rational choice theory can be a reasonably good first approximation for understanding how people can and do make decisions. In particular, if you factor in the fact that people’s preferences over outcomes can differ wildly from what classical economic theorists might suppose (e.g. people can value long-term friendship over making money), and that people act on their own perceptions of what is likely to occur and not on what will really happen, then you have a rough-and-ready model for understanding human decision-making.

That model looks something like this. The decision maker is represented by a node marked with D (for decision-maker). They face branching choices represented by lines emanating out from D. These are their options. For illustrative purposes, two options are displayed in the diagram below but, in principle, a decision-maker could face a large number of options. Each of these options leads to some outcomes. These outcomes contain a mixture of benefits and costs (from the perspective of D). If D is broadly rational, they will tend to choose the options with the best ratio of benefits to costs, i.e. the most beneficial or the least costly.

One point worth noting about this model is that the decision-maker need not be an individual human being. It’s natural to think about them this way since we often use models like this to understand our own choices, but in principle D could be a collection of individuals or, perhaps, an entire society. This becomes important when we look at the example of marriage, below.

How does technology change our decision problems? Technology changes our decision problems by doing two things: (i) it gives us new options and/or (ii) it changes the ratio of costs to benefits associated with our options. Most commonly, technology will lower the costs and raise the benefits associated with an option. This is because most technologies are invented with the aim of making it cheaper, easier and more convenient for people to do something. Consider the example I introduced earlier on involving the decision to call your partner when you get off a plane. Before the days of the cell phone, this would have been a costly and inconvenient. You would probably need to go to a payphone, get some money to put into the payphone, remember your partner’s number and the international dial code. This would interrupt your journey and possibly make you late in getting to your destination. For some people, I am sure that these inconveniences would not deter them from making the phone call; but for many others I am pretty sure they would. The cell phone changed that. It added a new option (call your partner using a cell phone instead of a payphone) and thereby changed the ratio of costs to benefits associated with making the call. Indeed, so convenient and easy did it become to do this that I’m sure that some people within some relationships shifted to a new norm as a result: instead of seeing the phone call as a nice surprise they began to see it as a moral necessity. If you didn’t call, it might indicate that something was wrong.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Technologies don’t always make things cheaper and more convenient. Sometimes there are learning curves associated with new technologies. This can make people reluctant to adopt them in the short term because the subjective cost of becoming competent in the use of the technology is initially too high. Sometimes technologies are prohibitively expensive when they first come on the scene meaning that only the privileged few can truly benefit from them. The cell phone was like that. When it was originally invented it was expensive and relatively few people had one. It is only in more recent times that it has become cheap enough and ubiquitous enough for post-landing phone calls to become the norm. Finally, there are also potential hidden costs associated with technologies. These can come in the form of downstream costs that are not properly felt by the original decision-maker (an economist would call these externalities) and/or collective costs that are only felt when everyone starts to make use of the new technology. More on these later on.

With this abstract model in place, we can move on to consider some actual real-world examples relating to sex and marriage. Before I begin to discuss those examples, however, I want to issue a warning: there are many criticisms you could make of these examples. Some will probably occur to you as you read through them. I would ask you to hold off on those criticisms until the examples have been fully explained. I will try to address some of them towards the end of this article.

2. Contraceptive Technology and Premarital Sex

Premarital sex has long been a taboo in many cultures, particularly for women. There are a variety of reasons for this: obsession with female ‘purity’ and chastity, religiously-inspired sexual morality, property rules and marriage norms. The precise reasons for this taboo are not that important. What is important is that it was a very real phenomenon. Here is just one illustration of this: according to data collected by Greenwood and Guner, in 1900 only 6% of unwed women in the US engaged in premarital sex.

Although the taboo lingers in some cultures, the practical reality has changed. Nowadays many women engage in premarital sex. According to the same data collected by Greenwood and Guner, by the year 2002 approximately 75% of unwed women in the US engaged in premarital sex. This is not surprising. Many people now delay marriage into their late 20s and 30s but still maintain active sex lives in their late teens and early 20s. Furthermore, many people don’t get married. Premarital and extramarital sex has been normalised and tolerated. Some people celebrate it as part of a healthy and flourishing lifestyle; some people, who might otherwise consider it sinful or shameful, have become more accepting, viewing it as a matter of personal choice and consent.

Why has this happened? Greenwood and Guner use a simple decision model to understand the cultural shift. This decision model focuses on the role that contraceptive technology has played in changing how people, particularly young women, think about the decision to engage in extramarital sex. In the year 1900 there were several available methods of contraception: withdrawal, rhythm method, condoms, cervical barriers and some IUDs (technically invented in the first decade of the 20th century, I believe). Many of these were either ineffective, expensive or awkward to use. Extrapolating from existing data sources, Greenwood and Guner estimate that the failure rate of these contraceptive methods ranged from about 45% (for condoms) to about 60% for withdrawal. And this overlooks the fact that most people (about 60%) that engaged in extramarital sex in the year 1900 did not use any contraceptive method. For them, the likelihood of getting pregnant in a given year was about 85%.

In other words, in the year 1900, women facing the decision to engage in extramarital sex faced some stark choices. If they had sex, they might reap some short term benefit from this (pleasing their partner and, perhaps, themselves) but this would come with a significant cost. If they had contracepted sex, they had about a 50-50 chance of getting pregnant in any given year. If they had unprotected sex, they had about an 85% chance of getting pregnant. If they got pregnant they probably would not have access to abortion and if they did it would be illegal and dangerous to their health and well-being. If they carried the child to term they would probably suffer from significant social stigma and financial hardship, unless they married their sexual partners (which was common but not always guaranteed). Furthermore, all this ignores the risks of sexually transmitted diseases, which although perhaps not as salient in people's minds at the time, were another important factor affecting the decision problem.

The dynamics of this decision problem changed over the course of the 20th century. Greenwood and Guner argue this was due to two major technological breakthroughs: (i) the invention of cheaper and more effective contraceptive methods and (ii) access to safe, legal abortion. The changes in contraception are quite startling. With the invention of latex condoms, contraceptive pills and more effective IUDs, the failure rates of contraceptive methods declined quite precipitously. The failure rate of condoms went from 45% to around 15%. And the failure rate of the pill was around 5%. Furthermore, these failure rates include people that misuse these contraceptive methods. For many people, the actual failure rates are now much lower. The risks associated with extramarital sex have, consequently, declined. Furthermore, if a woman did get pregnant, access to safe and legal abortion could further mitigate the risk of doing so. This is to say nothing of the benefits of certain contraceptive methods for mitigating the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. Over time, and thanks to these technological changes, the short term benefits of extramarital sex started to outweigh the potential costs.

The claim made by Greenwood and Guner is that this can explain, at least in part, the shift in behaviour regarding extramarital sex, from taboo to norm, in the couse of 100 years. It is not a full explanation, of course. Other factors, including the incorporation of women into the workforce and the delay in marriage and starting a family also impacted on extramarital sex. But the impact of technology is surprisingly robust. In another paper, Fernandez-Villaverde, Greenwood and Guner, highlight how many institutions (families and churches) continue to stigmatise both extramarital sex and the use of contraception, but that their efforts have largely been in vain. As a matter of practice and belief, many young people both tolerate and willingly engage in both. The Catholic Church, for example, continues to condemn premarital sex and contraception, but young Catholic couples routinely ignore them. Fernandez-Villaverde, Greenwood and Guner provide additional empirical data to support this idea, looking at attitude surveys among young people which confirm their acceptance of extramarital sex. In day-to-day life extramarital sex has gone from being stigmatised to being normalised.

What we have here, then, is a neat example of the decisional model in practice. New technologies changed the decisional calculus when it came to engaging in extramarital sex. By massively reducing the risk of having a child out of wedlock, it made people perceive that the benefits of extramarital sex outweighed the potential costs. More people started to engage in this behaviour as a result. As this behaviour became routine, it filtered down into norms and attitudes.

3. Labour Saving Technologies and Marriage

Another example of the interplay between technology and social morality comes with the invention of labour-saving technologies in the home and women’s working norms. This example also comes from the work of Jeremy Greenwood, this time in collaboration with Ananth Seshadri and Mehmet Yorukoglu.

Under traditional conceptions of marriage, a woman’s place was said to be ‘in the home’. In the country in which I live — Ireland — this norm was actual inscribed into the constitution in 1937. Article 41.2 of Bunreacht na hEireann states that a woman, by her ‘life within the home’ gives the state a support for the common good that could not otherwise be achieved. The same article goes on to state that the government should try to endeavour to ensure that women do not face the economic necessity of working outside the home. This article is still part of the law today, though it is largely ignored and seen as something of a national embarrassment.*

Why did this norm regarding a woman’s place become established? There are, again, many potential reasons. In his book Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels, Iain Morris suggests that a gendered division of labour has been a feature of all human societies to some extent but that it became particularly pronounced when humans made the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. When we made the shift to agriculture, men worked in the field and women worked in the homestead. Furthermore, control over female sexuality became more important in agricultural societies due to the emphasis on property ownership being passed down through family lines. In addition to this, women had more children in agricultural societies and so had more care responsibilities as a result.

Why did this gendered division of labour persist through to the post-industrial era? Why did women only start to work outside the home, en masse, in the latter part of the 20th century?** Greenwood et al argue that it had to do with the perceived costs and benefits of working outside the home. Running a household, managing food preparation, cleaning, clothes-washing and childcare take an enormous amount of time and effort. This is true to this day. But before the invention of labour-saving domestic technologies — such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and microwave ovens — these tasks took even more time than they do today. Indeed, the labour involved was almost back-breaking.

One of the most evocative descriptions that I have ever read of what life was like back then comes from Robert Caro’s biographies of Lyndon B Johnson. In the first volume of this series of biographies, Caro describes what life was like in the Texas Hill Country pre-electrification (Johnson played a crucial role in the electrification of this region). In one chapter — ’The Sad Irons’ — he describes in detail the working day of the women in the Hill Country. In a more recent book reflecting back on his research, Caro explains the genesis of this chapter:

[In my interviews with these women] I realized I was hearing, just in the general course of long conversations, about something else: what the lives of the women of the Hill Country had been like before…Johnson brought electricity to that impoverished, remote, isolated part of America — how the lives of these women had, before “the lights” came, been lives of unending toil. Lives of bringing up water, bucket by bucket, from deep wells, since there were no electric pumps; of carrying it on wooden yokes — yokes like those that cattle wore — that these women wore so they could carry two buckets at a time; of doing the wash by hand, since without electricity there were no washing machines, of lifting heavy bundle after heavy bundle of wet clothes from washing vat to rinsing vat to starching vat and then to rinsing vat again; of spending an entire day doing loads of wash, and the next day, since there were no electric irons, doing the ironing with heavy wedges of iron that had to be continually reheated on a hot blazing wood stove, so that they ironing was also a day-long job. 
(Caro 2019, p xxii)


The women of the Hill Country may have had it particularly bad, but quantitative estimates of the average time spent on domestic chores during the early part of the 20th century tell a similar story. Reviewing some studies done by the Rural Electrification Authority in the 1940s, Greenwood et al estimate that it took about 4-5 hours to do a load of laundry (by hand) and about 4-5 hours to iron it. On average, in the year 1900, households spent about 58 hours per week on domestic chores (food preparation, cooking, cleaning etc).

What did this mean in practice? Well, one thing it meant is that when households were deciding on how to distribute their labour, they didn’t have the luxury of allowing both partners to work outside the home. One of them had to stay at home to do the domestic chores. The costs (in terms of lost time for domestic chores) outweighed the benefits (in terms of additional income). Only the very wealthy — who could afford extensive domestic staff — would have the option to do otherwise.

That all changed with the invention of labour-saving technologies. Greenwood et al estimate that even in the 1940s the amount of time taken for laundry with an electrical washer reduced from approximately 5 hrs to under 1hr. Furthermore, by 1975 households were spending 18 hours on domestic chores per week. This helped to change the cost-benefit ratios for work outside the home. The opportunity cost in terms of lost time was significantly reduced

However, it wasn’t just technology within the home that made the difference. As Marina Adshade points out in her work on female labour-force participation, the use of technologies within the workforce also played a vital role. The incorporation of typewriters, telephones and computers into offices created a skills gap that could be occupied by women taking clerical training courses. Women not only had more time for work outside the home, they also had a technology-related skill that proved attractive to the labour market. The combination of both technological forces thus changed how households perceived the decision problem: work outside the home became an attractive option.

This, in turn, had an effect on behaviours and norms. Instead of work outside the home being viewed as a corruption of women’s social role, it became normalised and legally sanctioned. According to Adshade, this even had an effect on how people understood the value of marriage. Instead of being viewed as an economically convenient division of labour, people started to see marriage more as an affair of the heart. Marriage for love, not for money or security, became the dominant social norm (at least in Western countries).

Of course, technology cannot provide the full explanation for this moral shift, but it might provide part of the explanation.

4. Criticisms and Reflections

These decisional models are interesting but not without their flaws. In the original presentation neither Greenwood nor his colleagues claims that their models actually explain the history of premarital sex and work outside the home. Rather, they present them as formal models that can explain at least some of the data with respect to these phenomena.

The obvious criticism of decisional models like this is that people don’t reason about their options in the way that the models assume. This is the classic critique of all rational choice models. In the preceding sections, I went through some estimated figures with respect to the amount of time it took to do the laundry and the actual risk of pregnancy from premarital sex (with and without contraception). Very few people have those figures to hand or would care to acquire them. They might have some very rough estimate of the time taken or risks involved. But for the most part they will rely on intuition and general perception. This might be very misleading. For example, some people routinely underestimate risk; others routinely overestimate it. Some people have a poor internal timeclock; some people are more precise.

Still, this criticism is probably less significant than it first appears, at least when it comes to these two examples. Although it is true that most people don’t reason about things in a precise, quantitative way, they often have a rough sense of the costs and benefits associated with their choices. If the impact of technology on those costs and benefits is as dramatic as Greenwood et al claim, then it seems reasonable to suppose that this will impact on people’s perceptions of cost and benefit. For example, if modern contraceptive methods really do reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancy from 50% to less than 10%, it’s hard to imagine that this wouldn’t be generally known and wouldn’t have an impact on choices. If it only reduced the risk from, say, 50% to 45% then it would be more plausible to suppose that people would not factor this into their decision-making. Most people are not that finely calibrated when it comes to perceptions of risk.

Another criticism is that these decisional models assume that key actors have a free choice when the practical reality is that they do not. This strikes me as being a plausible critique in this instance. Both of the examples above relate to changes in behaviour and norms associated with women, but in neither case is it necessarily fair to suppose that women had some free choice between the options. Women were (and still are) often pressured or forced into sex (and shamed into thinking they are sinful and promiscuous if they succumb). And women within traditional family units often didn’t think they had a meaningful choice to work outside the home: the weight of cultural expectation was against this. To suppose that they could choose certain options based on perceived costs and benefits might stretch credulity too far.

But this criticism might also be misplaced. There are two reasons for this. First, as noted above, these decisional models are agnostic with respect to the actor making the decision. It might be the woman but it could also be her male partner or the pair of them as a unit. For instance, in the marriage case you could imagine that it is the pair of them making the choice as to whether it makes sense to work outside the home. Second, even though cultural norms and attitudes might have affected whether women had a choice in these matters, one of the claims underlying these models is that these attitudes and norms could change over time. I imagine that this could happen in line with something like a Granovetter-type threshold model. In other words, once a critical mass of women (or ‘actors’) made the choices in favour of more extramarital sex and/or work outside the home, others followed suit and there was an associated change in cultural attitudes that created a positive feedback loop. Eventually options that were once taboo or unavailable to women, became available.

Finally, and this is not a criticism but a reflection, it is important to think about the second-order effects of decisional models such as the ones outlined above. Technological changes to the costs and benefits associated with one type of decision might also affect other related decisions. In her analysis of the economics of sex and marriage, Marina Adshade argues that we should pay particular attention to these second-order effects. The impact of changing attitudes toward work outside the home on the perceived purpose of marriage (love versus financial convenience) is one example of a second-order effect. Another example is the impact of changing attitudes toward extramarital sex toward children born out of wedlock. Adshade claims that as the cultural taboo around extramarital sex was slowly relaxed, more women were inclined to have it. Some of these women experienced contraceptive failure, while others were more erratic in their use of contraception. As a result, more children were born out of wedlock. This eventually led to the de-stigmatisation of childbirth outside of marriage. As she puts it:

Increased access to contraceptive technology changed society’s views of sex outside of marriage. This had the unanticipated effect of contributing to the increase in births to unmarried women. It also contributed to the de-stigmatization of childbirth outside of marriage. 
(Adshade 2017, 291)


In his book The Structure of Moral Revolutions, Robert Baker makes a similar claim about changing attitudes to ‘illegitimate’ children in the US. But he makes the claim as a specific contrast with what happened in the UK. In the UK there was a formal campaign to end the stigma associated with children born outside of marriage (spearheaded by the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child). In the US, social attitudes appear to have naturally evolved to become more tolerant in the wake of changes in social behaviour:

In America destigmatization was carried on the tides of moral drift: an unintended consequence of factors such as the increase of single-parent war widows after WWII, the availability of effective female-controlled contraception after 1957, the more generous welfare systems created in the 1960s, and the liberalization of divorce laws (which led to the doubling of the American divorce rate from 1965 to 1975). These changes eroded the stigma attaching to single mothers, since, to cite one factor, it would have been unconscionable to stigmatize war widows as “loose” or to call their children “bastards”. 
(Baker 2019, 28)


As you can see, Baker’s explanation for the change is a richer one. It is not just contraception and premarital sex but, rather, a confluence of technological and sociological factors. Nevertheless, the point holds: none of these factors by itself was primarily responsible for (nor intended to effect) attitudes toward children born outside of marriage; rather, this was an indirect consequence of these factors working together.

This particular example doesn’t matter too much. The important point is to be on the lookout for these second-order effects.

5. Conclusion

In conclusion, these decisional models of social moral change strike me as being useful and somewhat plausible. They don’t provide a complete explanation for how our moral attitudes and norms change over time, but they do provide some insight into how technology, in particular, might affect choices that in turn affect norms. As we think about all the new technologies emerging into human life at the moment, it is useful to reflect on how they change the decision problems we all face.

* This isn’t quite true. The constitutional provision has been routinely referred to in divorce proceedings to justify the allocation of assets to women who worked in the home but did not otherwise contribute financially to their families.

* To be clear, we are speaking in generalities here. Many women did work outside the home before that, particularly women from more deprived socio-economic backgrounds.

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