Sunday, December 13, 2009

Is sex a basic human need?

Start with these premises:

  1. A (human) community is obligated to supply those of the basic needs of its members that can be met, unless perhaps these members have freely consented to not having these needs met.
  2. It is not permitted to require anybody to have sex, absent a free promise from the requiree.
  3. If a community is obligated to provide A to x, then it is permitted for the community to require one or more of its members to provide A to x.
  4. There is at least one community where there is at least one individual who (a) is capable of sex; (b) does not have sex with anyone; (c) has not consented to the state of affairs in (b); and (d) nobody has promised anything that entails having sex with this individual.
  5. Basic needs are the same for all members of all (human) communities.
Conclusion:
  1. Therefore, sex is not a basic need.

Note 1: What if we replace "sex" with "companionship" or "friendship" or "the provision of food"? Then I think we should deny the analogue of (2).

Note 2: Plausibly, someone who sees sex as a basic need is thereby likely to see it as a right and entitlement, and hence to have a resentment towards the persons who do not fulfill that basic need when they "so easily could", as he or she might say. There is, thus, very good reason for society to attack the idea that sex is a basic need.

Note 3: In the above, I was thinking of basic individual needs. Might not sex be a basic need for the species as a whole? Yes, it is. But as the species is larger than the community, just as not every member of a community is individually obligated to provide for every basic need of the community, so too not every community is obligated to provide for every basic need of the species. Moreover, apart from God (see Note 4), there is no authority that coordinates what basic needs of the species each community needs to meet.

Note 4: The quantifiers in (2) are restricted to fellow human beings or at least to fellow creatures. God has the authority to command a particular couple to marry, and to consummate the marriage.

20 comments:

Ψ said...

A need is simply that which is deeply or strongly desired. Even if one takes needs to objectively inhere, it would be accompanied by a desire for the same, lest human nature not be coherent.

Replacing "sex" with intimate friendship does not do your argument any good. Since for some people, sex may be integral to their means of gaining intimate friendship.

In addition even assuming that sex is not in itself ever a human need, it may be for some the most efficient or even necessary means to achieve more basic human needs and desires. Stress is not just psychological; it affects human physiology. Suppose a human who is broke and has only two vocational options in the economy: stripper or office manager. Suppose the pecuniary benefits are about the same. Ceteris paribus such a human may choose to become a stripper if she thought it would better relieve her overly stressed body and psyche. Or she may altruistically enter that line of work to assist her patrons who are in turn in a similar circumstance where they have only so much income for stress relief.

Now replace the strip club with a brothel. For some working or visiting a brothel may given the resources available to them, both social and economic, be an efficient stress reducer.

Ethical theory is just that, a free floating theory. To have relevance to the world it must face the cold reality of the economics of human life.

Marc said...

Ψ:

A need is simply that which is deeply or strongly desired.

In this context, I'm inclined to regard a human need, not as the object of desire, but as something required in some sense. For example, take oxygen or nutritional sustenance or a hospitable living environment, things without which a human won't survive. (I acknowledge that this strictly pertains to one's physical constitution. We may need--ahem--to furnish a background or end relative to which "basic human need" is defined, perhaps to accommodate certain religious convictions.) What might be problematic about your understanding is that, plausibly, one can need A even while detesting A. The Christian theist would probably insist that a relationship with God constitutes a basic human need, even if one detests theism. Furthermore, as is common, one can certainly desire A without needing it.

Dr. Pruss:

Here some brief remarks concerning your argument's premises and notes.

Premise (1): One of the qualifications is "can be met," which appears to leave open the possibility that sex is one of those needs society can't properly meet.

Premise (4): Letting A be an everlasting relationship with God (or something relevantly similar), couldn't it be the case that A is a human need for x even if x doesn't somehow participate in A?

Note 3: What about saying that, given our current technological capacities, our species requires mere procreation, not sex? I, however, don't think this consideration significantly affects your argument, if at all. Probably just irrelevant caviling . . . =)

Peace,

-- Marc

Alexander R Pruss said...

Psi:

Plants have needs but no desires. Hence, needs are not desires.

It's quite possible for humans to need food but have no desire to eat. Hence, needs are not desires.

Marc:

But a need for sex could be met, say by a national service requirement akin to military service. That we think this is not appropriate is, I think, interesting.

I am afraid I don't follow your everlasting friendship with God example. I guess the argument as it stands does show that the community has a duty to promote our everlasting friendship with God if we have a need for it. We may, however, distinguish natural from non-natural (e.g., supernatural) needs, and limit the first premise to the natural needs.

Marc said...

Dr. Pruss:

But a need for sex could be met, say by a national service requirement akin to military service. That we think this is not appropriate is, I think, interesting.

I should've indicated that my remark concerned premises (1) and (2). Since (2) stipulates that requiring people to engage in sex is prohibited, I took that, in conjunction with (1), to mean something like the following: sex might be a basic human need but be such that society can't (help) fulfill this need without violating whatever motivates (2). Society could meet this need, yes, but not "properly," where we construe what's proper in accordance with (2). (Perhaps, in some cases, improperly meeting a need entails the failure to meet the need.)

I am afraid I don't follow your everlasting friendship with God example.

I was suggesting that A could still be a need for x even if x never has A met. So, with respect to (4), suppose (a) - (d) are perfectly satisfied. This doesn't seem to disqualify sex as a basic meet, although one which has gone unfulfilled.

I suspect, however, that I may be misapprehending your purpose with (4).

We may, however, distinguish natural from non-natural (e.g., supernatural) needs, and limit the first premise to the natural needs.

This coheres with the manner in which I initially read the argument - as pertaining to natural needs. How would you define what constitutes a basic, human, natural need? As noted, I'm tempted to delineate such a need in a minimalistic fashion, restricting the account to those things without which a human can't survive. A delineation along these lines, I think, would be less disputable, but it (like my cooking some days) may need something.

Peace,

-- Marc

Alexander R Pruss said...

I agree that a basic need can go unmet. But when it goes unmet that is because the community has failed at its task in some important way. (And, yes, all our communities do fail at their task. Sometimes culpably and sometimes not.)

I suppose the best objection along your lines is to say that (1) is false as it stands, but needs to be qualified: "A community is obligated to supply those of the basic needs of its members that can be met without violating anybody else's rights, unless perhaps these members have freely consented to not having these needs met."

larryniven said...

"What if we replace 'sex' with 'companionship' or 'friendship' or 'the provision of food'? Then I think we should deny the analogue of (2)."

Sorry, could you clarify this? It seems like you're saying something like:

"It is permitted to require somebody to be friends with somebody else, even absent a free promise from the requiree."

Am I understanding that right?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yes. In fact, parents do sometimes command children to try to become friends with someone, and they have the right so to command. (It is also believed in some cultures that parents also have the right to command a child to marry--either to marry someone-or-other or to marry a particular person. That belief is false.)

larryniven said...

Well, okay - I have a quibble about try vs. do, because in this case there's a motivational difference between the two, but I see where you're coming from. Anyway, I guess I just have to repeat the earlier objection that "can" in (1) needs to include both the pragmatic and the moral sense.

Aaron Boyden said...

Hmmm. You know, I think I am prepared to say that the community has failed at its task in some important way if some members are sex-deprived. Perhaps all of the likely ways of accomplishing this task would be worse than accepting failure (though I think that would also require further examination), but that isn't the same as saying this isn't a failure.

Marc said...

Aaron:

. . . I think I am prepared to say that the community has failed at its task in some important way if some members are sex-deprived.

Would you mind elaborating on what you mean by "sex-deprived?"

-- Marc

Alexander R Pruss said...

larryniven on his own blog has found a decisive counterexample to my (3). So I need to modify my argument.

I definitely want to qualify (3). I am not sure "in principle" is the right way to go, because I don't know that I can make the rest of the argument go through with that qualification.

I think I can make the argument go through if I replace (3) with:

(3') If every community is obligated to provide A to those of its members who have not consented to not receiving A, then it is possible for a community to legitimately require its members to provide a member x with A even when none of the members of the community have consented to provide x with A (say, by promising something that entails such provision).

There is also this variant:

(3'') If a community is obligated to provide A to x, then it is permitted for the community to require one or more of its members to provide A to x when they can provide A to x without anybody losing anything of moral significance. (The last phrase is basically lifted from Singer's Famine Relief piece.)

If we use (3''), we need a scenario where, as a matter of fact, nobody consents to having sex with x, but nobody would lose anything of moral significance by having sex with x. (If marriage is morally required for x, we have to imagine that it's a scenario where x is not so bad that marrying x would be a loss of something of moral significance.)

Or we might go for this:

(3''') If a community is obligated to provide A to x, then it is permitted for the community to require one or more of its members to provide A to x when they are unreasonable in failing to provide A to x.

For this, imagine a scenario where x is eminently marriageable and has all sorts of attractive qualities such that y is unreasonable in failing to marry and make love to x--maybe y refuses on racist grounds. Nonetheless, even when y is unreasonable in refusing, it is wrong to require y.

Aaron Boyden said...

Yes, Marc, I do mind elaborating on what I mean by "sex-deprived." The discussion has been vague enough that I think I can reasonably gesture at a whole range of possibilities of what might constitute a community failing because some of its members aren't getting sex under some circumstances. Whether one thinks it would be a community failure if those who happen to want it aren't getting sex at least three times a day, or whether one would only consider it a failure if someone out of a much narrower class than the whole population (someone in some way "worthy") didn't get sex even once in their life, it seems that one will be disagreeing with Pruss. Since the point at issue is whether Pruss is right, it should be enough to say that I think there is such a point; I don't see any reason to commit to exactly where that point would be, especially when the formula given, namely "the community has failed at its task in some important way," is so vague. But I suppose I will go out far enough on a limb to say that I think it is somewhere between the two extreme examples I offered.

Marc said...

Dr. Pruss:

If we use (3''), we need a scenario where, as a matter of fact, nobody consents to having sex with x , but nobody would lose anything of moral significance by having sex with x.

Suppose one's spouse x were infected with an unusual virus. This virus isn't dangerous to the host, but it's communicable through (and, let's say, only through) sexual intercourse and becomes absolutely lethal after being thusly communicated. The couple--both of them virgins--was recently married and, with full knowledge of the situation, has understandably chosen not to consummate their marriage. x's spouse hasn't consented to having sex with x and seemingly wouldn't sacrifice anything of moral significance were they to have sex, assuming it wasn't with the intent of committing suicide.

Perhaps it would be profitable to have something more realistic, such as constructing a relevantly similar scenario in which an elderly couple chooses never to engage in sex for health reasons.

I think I favor (3'') over the other variants because of the explicit moral qualification/condition.

Aaron:

Thanks for the elaboration.

Since the point at issue is whether Pruss is right, it should be enough to say that I think there is such a point; I don't see any reason to commit to exactly where that point would be . . .

But couldn't one rejoin, with just as much legitimacy, by claiming that the community is under no obligation to prevent some of its members from being sex-deprived? It's difficult for me to imagine a circumstance in which a community's success or failure can be (at least partly) sensibly judged on the basis of how effectively it eradicated sex-deprivation. And since an objective definition of "sex-deprived" is likely to be unavailable, it doesn't appear possible to determine whether anyone actually is sex-deprived. If someone declared that she was, how could we affirm or deny her declaration?

-- Marc

Aaron Boyden said...

You think we have an objective definition of what it is for a community to be successful? Perhaps for it to survive? In that case, I suppose it would not make sense to call a community unsuccessful merely because some members were sex-deprived. But I would not be inclined to consider a community successful if hardly any of its members led fulfilling lives, no matter how long it endured. "Fulfilling" is also not something that can be objectively defined, of course. Should we give up on including that in our standards for successful communities?

Marc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marc said...

[Removed and reposted to correct a bothersome spelling error.]

Aaron:

You think we have an objective definition of what it is for a community to be successful? Perhaps for it to survive?

I was suggesting that an objective definition of "sex-deprived" is likely to be unavailable, not one of "a successful community." If there's no objective account of what constitutes the state of affairs being sex-deprived, how would we determine whether it ever obtains, especially when one claims it has? Consider what (if anything) consists in, say, being heroin-deprived or being Dostoevsky-deprived and, to my mind, the complications we'd encounter trying to furnish objective accounts of these states of affairs. (And we've yet to address the issue of judging a community's successfulness on the extent to which it is or isn't sex-deprived.)

I wonder if being n-deprived depends on whether one (in some sense) needs n, like oxygen . . . or maybe Dostoevsky. =)

To respond to your question, since the notion of a community's being successful is rather equivocal, I assume that an objective definition is proportionally elusive. I'm unsure I know what it means for a community to be a success or a failure. Were I pressed to commit, however, I might regard some degree of survival as a necessary condition for community-success, but definitely not sufficient.

But I would not be inclined to consider a community successful if hardly any of its members led fulfilling lives, no matter how long it endured. "Fulfilling" is also not something that can be objectively defined, of course. Should we give up on including that in our standards for successful communities?

I take your point--maybe the whole issue is inescapably subjective--but I still discern some problems. I think I'd be more comfortable using (or experimenting with) language like "thriving" or "flourishing" instead of "succeeding," attempting thereafter to delineate these characterizations as objectively as possible. Then again, that might prove just as intractable.

-- Marc

CatskillMike said...

Masturbation is not "sex". There has to be two people to have sex.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I agree, but I don't see anything that denies your claim in the earlier comments or in the post. I might have missed something, though.

cat harvester said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alexander R Pruss said...

I've had to remove the last comment as it used unparliamentary language about another commenter. I would be grateful if the commenter submitted a revised version of the comment (which did make a number of relevant and helpful points) that omitted the personal invective.