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Has Technology Changed the Moral Rules Regarding Sex and Marriage?

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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. . .

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News source: Philosophical Disquisitions

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