A Utilitarian Argument for Catholic Sexual Ethics

Mary Catelli writes in response to my last post,

One would also need omniscience to be a true utilitarian. How can you know what the results of your actions are?

I have heard of people who justify sexual escapades on the grounds that no one got hurt — and when asked how they knew that, got belligerent — well, if someone did get hurt they should just get over it. But to be a utilitarian, you would not only have to know who got hurt, but to know who would get hurt in advance.

She’s right, and her critique is devestating. That’s one of the things that we talked about in my jurisprudence class this semester. Utilitarianism pretends that there’s an objective, knowable scale by which to measure comparative quantities of good and bad produced by actions in the world. But in real life, of course, we’re limited in our knowledge of the situation, limited in our ability to predict the future, and blinded by both intentional and unintentional ignorance.

Our culture’s attitude towards sex is the prime example of this. Sex involves, at least potentially, participation in the act of creating a new human life. It is, without question, one of the most important things any of us will ever do (quite literally, a life-or-death issue). The survival of our species depends upon it. Yet it’s treated like a recreation. It’s just madness. And our culture just closes its eyes to the millions of people killed by AIDS, STDs, and abortion because of this irresponsible sexual ethic we’ve promoted — to say nothing of the marriages destroyed, and the lives shattered (both the abandoned spouse and the child raised in the broken home).

Interestingly, even a utilitarian perspective produces a verdict in favor of Catholic sexual ethics, and quite easily. Catholic sexual ethics argue that sex should be heterosexual, monogamous, within the bounds of marriage, and open to new life. All four of these arguments make sense from a utilitarian perspective. Let’s contrast sex done right (that is, as Catholicism promotes) v. sex done wrong (as the culture practices it).

The Costs and Benefits of Sex Done Right

Catholicism’s vision of heterosexual, monogamous sex which is both within the bounds of marriage and open to new life is one which easily survives scrutiny under a cost-benefit analysis.

  • Benefits: The benefits of this form of sex are pleasure, bonding between the spouses, and potentially the creation of children. The odds that the spouses will be a good interpersonal match are comparatively high (since people are more choosy with their future husband or wife than they are with a one-night stand), and the emotional bonding of sex serves as a catalyst to help them connect all the more. The children born into this environment will encounter two parents who are devoted to one another and emotionally connected. The children will, from a young age, have both male and female role models, as well as models of the appropriate conduct of men towards women, and vice versa. The child will quickly benefit socially and developmentally, is dramatically more likely to be a healthy and functioning member of society later on, and so forth.
  • Costs: If neither spouse has any prior sexual partners, the risks of transmission of deadly disease are obviously quite low. Because of the legally-binding pledge (before God and the state) of marriage, the odds of the father abandoning the mother are lower than any alternative set-up.

Certainly, real-life doesn’t always live up to this ideal, but the Catholic social ethic creates all the conditions which are most likely to bring about this result, and in any case, any alternative setup has higher costs and fewer benefits.

The Costs and Benefits of Sex Done Wrong

The real world of sex in 21st century America is a much different picture than that provided by Catholicism. Let’s take an obvious case: casual sex (or even sex within the “confines” of dating), with contraception, between two heterosexuals who have multiple previous sexual partners.

  • Benefits: Sex still is pleasurable, and still produces emotional bonding. But here, instead of being a benefit, that bonding is at least a potential cost (see below). Both partners have the ability to pursue more sexual pleasure, by going after new partners who are more appealing. Even this comparative benefit is likely neglible, since the married couple are becoming good at sex-with-each other, instead of just sex. Finally, there’s always the possibility of children being born. From a social standpoint, this is a positive (see, e.g., Julian Simon’s The Ultimate Resource II, for a protracted discussion of the environmental and economic benefits of a larger young population), although this benefit is smaller than the benefit of that same child being born into a traditional family (see below).
  • Costs: As I mentioned, the bonding is a potential cost here. Within marriage, the bonding is good for kids, and keeps the couple together. But in a casual dating relationship, “keeping the couple together” may be a disaster. Again, remember that one is less choosy in casual sexual partners and even boy/girlfriends than with future spouses. Second, there’s still that pursuit of more pleasure bit. That disproportionately hurts women, since men tend to prefer young, fertile women, while women are comparatively more likely to prefer an emotionally and financially stable man, even if he’s a few years older. There are exceptions to these trends, but they’re strongly the trends. And since it’s easier for a man to become more stable than it is for a woman to grow younger, women suffer much more in a laissez faire sexual market. Third, there’s the cost of unplanned pregnancy. While children are a benefit in marriage, the unmarried, contracepting couple treats them as a cost, and there’s a strong incentive to kill the baby. Even if the baby isn’t killed, the man has no incentive other than honor to stick around and raise the kid. The children born into this environment grow up with a skewed image of what “fatherhood” is, and often very little postive portrayals of what romantic interactions should look like. Studies suggest that children born into broken homes (including those in which both biological parents are cohabitating but not married) engage “in higher levels of anti-social behavior (ranging from running away from home, being suspended from school, and substance abuse to committing minor property crime, engaging in violent behavior, and becoming arrested). This was true taking into consideration youths’ gender, race, age, and their residential and family environment.” And, of course, the risk of STDs and AIDS is dramatically higher than for the celibate and monogamous. So the risk of one of the two contracting a deadly or debilitating disease from the other is very real, and there’s an accompanying risk of passing that disease on to their baby.

In other words, the societal risks of this sort of sex are massive and potentially deadly, while the benefits are individualized and fleeting. Every good, and particularly, every social good, which can be provided in “sex done wrong” can be provided better, and with fewer costs by following Catholic sexual ethics.

Policy Considerations

Here are conclusions which utilitarians ought to draw, even relying solely upon cost-benefit analysis, given the above:

  1. The benefits of sex are greater with the presence of children. The phenomenon of emotional bonding, as I discussed above, is a great benefit in creating stable family units for children with the existence of marriage; in those cases in which there is no possibility of children, this emotional bonding is of no societal benefit, and poses a very real danger to those being bound to one another.
  2. Monogamy ought to be preferred over polygamy. If person A and person B only ever sleep with one another for the duration of their lives, there’s virtually no chance of either acquiring an STD. There’s also far fewer opportunities to create broken homes.
  3. Adultery is deadly. If Mr. A is secretly sleeping with both Ms. X and Ms. Y, he’s endangering the very life, health, and well-being of X and Y without their consent (either X or Y could have AIDS or some other communicable STD). The risk to X and Y is far greater than the risk of all sorts of activities which the government regulates (like seat-belt laws, which have virtually no impact on third-parties). So there seem to be legitimate state grounds in promoting monogamy, and penalizing polygamy and adultery.
  4. Sex without a willingness to produce a child costs more than it benefits. Sex which is either by nature closed off to new life (that is, homosexual sex, and non-intercourse) or by human design closed off to new life (that is, sex with contraception or the intention to abort) is of little social benefit, and poses massive social costs. Namely, it comes with the costs of emotional bonding and enhanced risk of STD without providing anything for society. Even the benefits for the sexual partners are fleeting.
  5. Heterosexual sex calls for the stable framework of marriage. Because heterosexual sex is at least potentially reproductive, the state has a real interest in ensuring that the sexual activity occurs within some sort of structured legal bounds, to limit the creation of broken homes (which have been shown to have numerous dire consequences). If Mr. A impregnates Ms. X and disappears, she’s put at an extreme disadvantage, and A&X’s child, baby Ax, is at an incredible disadvantage (in terms of social development, proclivity towards crime, etc.). Mr. A then impregnating Ms. Y (and so on) compounds the problem. Creating a mechanism for Mr. A to assist Ms. X (etc.) financially is good, but radically imperfect. Far better would be Mr. A being actively involved in the care and upbringing of baby Ax. The state’s interest in this is to (a) protect Ms. Y from being left as a single mother; (b) ensure baby Ax has a comparatively-healthy environment in which to grow; (c) deter Mr. A from creating more broken homes; and (d) limiting the spread of communicable disease, including fatal ones and ones which can be passed congenitally to children.
  6. Heterosexual sex must be open to new life. You don’t need to be a Catholic (or even religious) to recognize that abortion is murder, nor do you need to be a Catholic (or even religious) to recognize that contraceptives fail. There are millions of dead children who are the casualties of this refusal to be open to new life. Beyond that, since unplanned pregnancies will occur, sex shouldn’t occur unless both partners are at least willing to responsibly raise a child should they create one. The alternative, of course, is broken families.

So even a sane utilitarian perspective, given this, should promote a vision of sex which is heterosexual (see #4), monogamous (see #2-3), and both within the bounds of marriage (see # 5), and open to new life (see #1 and #6). That’s exactly what the Church teaches, and for good reason. God doesn’t just arbitrarily declare things sins: He declares them sins because they’re bad for us. The dark experiences of the last half-century just reaffirms what He warned us of millenia ago.


  1. There are several ridiculous arguments here, but Policy consideration #4 is a real clinker: homosexual sex and non-intercourse “come with the costs of emotional bonding and enhanced risk of STD… [and] the benefits for the sexual partners are fleeting.” Wrong. You point out yourself, “if person A and person B only ever sleep with one another for the duration of their lives, there’s virtually no chance of either acquiring an STD.” Regardless of whether persons A and B are both men, both women, or one of each. (In fact, even nonadulterous polygamy also carries no risk of STD: if virgin A marries virgins B and C, and none of the three ever commits adultery, there is no risk of STDs.) Nor are the sexual benefits any more fleeting for a married homosexual couple than for a married heterosexual couple (fertile or not).

    I suggest you justify yourself honesty. Catholic sexual ethics follows directly from the assumption that the church is infallible. It’s a simple argument: it’s right because the church teaches it and the church is infallible. The only reason to fabricate a non-religious justification for Catholic sexual morality (as you try to do) is to justify it without assuming an infallible church. But that’s impossible. Catholic sexual morality is logically flawed without assuming an infallible church. So why bother (unless you don’t believe in your heart that the church is infallible)?

    On one point I’m sincerely curious: you state that when “there is no possibility of children,” the phenomenon of emotional bonding poses “a very real danger to those being bound to one another.” What danger are you talking about? What danger is there for, say, a woman who has undergone a hysterectomy and a man who is infertile due to cancer treatment, if they become “emotionally bound” to one another.

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