Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, June 06, 2015

A Necessary Nutrient

In the United States, I believe it is illegal to sell salt unless (A) it contains added iodide, or (B) the package bears a label indicating that it does not supply iodide, "a necessary nutrient."  This policy strikes me as clever, because almost everyone consumes salt.  It would have been far less effective to impose similar requirements on, say, pickled beets.  People crave salt and seek it out—it is one of the most fundamental ingredients in just about all food, probably more common than any other ingredient aside from water.  It is so fundamental that when the British tried to tax it, Gandhi led a march to the sea in protest.  So if you want to make sure people get iodine in their diet, salt is a pretty well-chosen medium.  And indeed I believe iodine deficiency is almost unknown in this country.  (Iodine deficiency can cause goiters and developmental deficits.  Iodine deficiency is common in societies that don't eat much seafood and that don't have pro-iodine policies like ours.)

Now, I suspect that few people would have any patience for the following arguments.

"The government's policy shows an anti-salt bias."

"Society simply has no legitimate interest in preventing goiters or developmental deficits."

"Society has no right to interfere, however mildly, with individual choice when it comes to iodine consumption."

"If people are left to their own devices, decentralized decision-making will lead to the optimal amount of iodine deficiency.  Government intervention is distortionary."

Now consider social norms that link companionship to sex.  The human drive to have sex is incredibly strong and basically drives large sectors of the economy.  (If wealth had zero effect on sexual success, I think our society would look very different and might not exist at all.)  I would guess that a high percentage of marriages and other long-term relationships are formed largely due to sexual considerations.  In other words, in our society sex is a powerful force that contributes tremendously to the elimination of loneliness and social isolation, just as the desire for salt contributes tremendously to the elimination of iodine deficiency.  But this effect is contingent on some linkage between sex and companionship, and this linkage is disappearing as sex becomes more and more orthogonal to companionship.  Meanwhile the complete liberalization of sex is seen as not just inevitable but desirable, something to be celebrated.  The norms that traditionally linked sex to companionship are seen as misogynistic, sex-negative, or simply outdated.  And so we are steadily removing the iodine from the salt, as it were, and the two will increasingly have to stand on their own.

I recognize that our society long had a pathological and bigoted approach to sex-regulation, so it is appropriate to have reservations about society sticking its nose in.  To cite a well-known example, the Catholic Church basically made all forms of sexual gratification, including masturbation, sinful unless they were conducted within Church-sanctioned and -controlled institutions, which were limited to heterosexual people having procreative sex (so, still no masturbation or blow jobs, even inside of marriage).  The Church forced its adherents to confess all illicit sex to Church officials, imposing a kind of police state that would rapidly detect any deviation from the Church-enforced norms.  Celibacy (including abstinence from masturbation) was imposed on anyone who was gay, single, or divorced (and remarriage after divorce was forbidden).  Sex was incredibly dangerous for any woman who couldn't safely give birth.

No one is suggesting a return to that Stasi-like social organization.  In fact, I wouldn't even suggest a particularly tight link between sex and companionship.  People should be free to have casual sex, just as people should be free to use iodine-free salt.  But if the question is whether social norms should be deployed at all to link sex with companionship, then I think the answer has to be yes.  Sex is simply too powerful a human urge for us to declare it to be immune from "taxes," so to speak.  It would be like refusing to tax income.  Or refusing to link salt with iodine consumption.

You might say that if people are left entirely free to choose their sexual activities, with no pressure one way or another, they will achieve whatever level of sex and companionship they like.  I'm skeptical.  There is no straightforward market for companionship, and a lot of people report loneliness and social isolation, an odd result if there is a well-functioning "market."  In any case, we don't accept the argument that a laissez-faire approach will lead to the "right" amount of iodine deficiency.  And it seems likely to me that we will achieve significantly higher levels of companionship if we allow it to piggy-back on sex than if we don't.

I don't really know what this implies, specifically, for social norms.  I am very skeptical, though, of arguments that society will get better and better as sexual norms fade away.  The old institutions of monogamy, pair-bonding, and family seem tremendously valuable, and I would rather purge them of their old bigotry than abandon them entirely.

3 Comments:

Blogger Sarang said...

You seem to be arguing that an appropriately purged version of these norms exists even as a possibility. I am not sure this is true. Certainly instituting strong norms in favor of not leaving relationships is likely to hurt abused spouses more than any other demographic. If you want to argue that the rate of spousal abuse wasn't massively higher pre-1970 I would ask for evidence.

7:56 PM  
Blogger Sarang said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don’t know that we need strong social norms for a sex companionship link toe exist. I think if we didn’t have those norm there would be more non companionship linked sex. But much like people want to have Breyers Natural Vanilla with their root beer even in the absence of any regulation requiring such a link, people will want an emotional bond with the people they have intimate relationships with. The two are complimentary even without regulation or social norms.

9:10 AM  

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