A Philosopher's Blog

The Ethics of STDs

Posted in Ethics, Medicine/Health, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on March 14, 2008

A recent study revealed a rather troubling fact: 25% of teenage girls (14-19) have a sexually transmitted disease. Among African Americans the amount is 50%. Among whites the amount is 20%.

As with any study, there is a margin of error (how much the sample is likely to differ from the entire population) and there is also the possibility that sample is somehow significantly different from the general population. Even with those factors taken into account, the results still indicate a serious problem.

One aspect of the problem is medical. While most STDs are not fatal (though some can be such as HIV infections and syphilis), they are all harmful to a person’s health. Many of them can have serious consequences such as an increased risk for cancer or sterility. Given that these diseases are widespread among teenage women (and potentially among young men-these girls obviously did not get the STDs from some form of immaculate infection), this is a serious general health issue for America.

While abstinence is obviously the surest way to avoid STDs, this is hardly a realistic option for most. Ethical sense and good judgment are also an excellent defense against STDs as well. While it can be very tempting to argue for personal responsibility, good judgment and ethics, the reality is that most teenagers (and most adults) will not be affected by calls for rational and ethical behavior. Aristotle makes an excellent case for this in his Nichomachean ethics and the empirical data supports this.

We should not abandon attempts to instill proper ethical values and to teach teenagers to be rational decision makers. But, to rely solely on calls for abstinence or to tell kids to just “say no” will not protect the teens. As such, a better option is needed that takes into account the fact that many teens will have sex even if they are told not to do so.

From a physical standpoint, the best defense against STDs is a condom. As such, kids who are in the sexually active age range should be educated about the reality of STDs and how to protect themselves. Ideally, the kids would not be having sex until they were mature enough to understand the consequences and risks of the activity as well as the ethics of the matter. Realistically, kids are obviously having sex at age 14 or younger. That in itself is a problem-kids that young are almost certainly incapable of having good judgment in this matter and are obviously not ready to deal with the serious consequences of their actions. Parents and guardians should, therefore, also be taking steps to protect their children from becoming sexually active at such a young age. Failing that, they would need to take steps to increase the likelihood that their children will be protected from pregnancy (being pregnant or impregnating another) and STDs.

Thus, from a health standpoint it seems clear that teens need to be educated about and protected from these diseases.

The moral standpoint is, as always, a bit fuzzier. While some people would accept that the health argument also shows that sex education and allowing teens to have access to condoms is morally acceptable, other people would disagree.

From the standpoint of consequences, the health argument seems fairly decisive. If the current approach to teen sex is followed, the problem will most likely simply continue. This is because if nothing is changed, then nothing will (obviously enough) change. Since having teenagers infected with STDs is a clear harm, then it follows that we should (morally) take the needed steps to prevent this harm. Since calls for abstinence seem to be largely ineffective, then other steps would need to be taken to address this matter. As argued above, education and providing means of protection seem to be the most effective option. Naturally, attempts to educate children in ethics and decision making should continue and should even be enhanced.

Of course, not everyone is swayed by consequences. Some people take the view that it is simply wrong for teenagers to have sex and hence they should not be educated about sex and should most certainly not be provided with condoms. Some people do add that sex education and the providing of condoms merely encourages teens to have sex.

While sex education and providing condoms might increase the chances of teens having sex, the effect is probably relatively minor. Other factors, such as biology and general cultural influences, probably have much strong roles.

The claim that it is wrong for teenagers to have sex has a certain plausibility. Teenagers tend to have poor judgment (this seems to be grounded in biology-the teenage brain is different than the adult brain in terms of the development of the centers relating to what we call judgment) and they are generally ill prepared to deal with the possible consequences of sex (most notably pregnancy). Intuitively, if a person who has poor judgment and lacks the capability to properly handle the consequences engages in a risky act, s/he is doing something that is at best morally questionable. The person will probably make a bad decision and end up hurting himself/herself or others. In this case, the person can get an STD, get pregnant, give someone else and STD or get someone else pregnant.

In reply, the fact that sex has such serious consequences merely serves to support the claim that action should be taken to protect teens from these harms. If we cannot rely on judgment or ethics, then the most effective option would be education and condoms. To use an analogy, if we cannot prevent teens from driving, then we should do what we can to make sure they use seat belts.

Obviously, some people think that teen sex (and sex in generally) is wrong on religious grounds. To give a facetious reply, if God didn’t want teens to have sex, He could have simply made the relevant parts so they did not function until a person became an adult (or got married) or He could have had use reproduce by cellular division.

To give a non-facetious reply, that is a reasonable concern. There are excellent arguments for religious based ethics and they are worth considering. As noted above, I believe that children should be trained in ethics and good reasoning. I also think that teens should not be having sex-for the reasons given above (poor judgment plus consequences). As such, I have sympathy for the view that teen sex is wrong. But, the view that sex is wrong and hence we should simply try to prevent kids from having sex will not solve the problem we now face. Should people who hold this view stick to their moral principle and simply accept the consequences or should they reluctantly allow their principles to be bent or broken in order to help protect th children? This is tough call-a person who lightly sets aside his or her moral principles even in the face of serious consequences cannot be well regarded as a good person. That said, a person who sticks to his principles and thus would allow harm to come to others might not be doing the right thing.

In any case, this is a serious problem and action must be taken to rectify the situation.

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7 Responses

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  1. Lulu Malone said, on March 16, 2008 at 6:50 pm

    Well, I would like to postulate that since the dominant monotheistic religions view sex as intrinsically “bad”, that much of our societal issues concerning sex are caused by this religious morality. Sex is a natural drive, and as such, is not “bad.” Repressing such powerful drives under notions that it is a bad thing leads to a multitude of aberrant and destructive behaviors.

    Though it seems counter-intuitive to many, age appropriate sexual education that is started at a young age and continued throughout a child’s development is the best way to fight irresponsible sexual behavior in youth. The more educated a child is, the more likely s/he will make better choices. This includes explaining sex drive to adolescents as a natural thing and encouraging self-exploration and masturbation to help channel this sexual energy. The result is less-teen pregnancy and STDs, and sexually healthier and better adapted adults.

    Religious morals cause harm. It is statistically proven that abstinence pledges that were pushed on teens by the religious fundamentalists has resulted in an increase in oral and anal sex among teens. It does not stop sexual activity. People have a right to follow their own beliefs, but not dictate the beliefs of others. Religious sexual morals pervert the natural drives, and limit the healthy sexual development of children by keeping them ignorant and therefore exposing them to disease and unwanted pregnancy.

    Sexual education also helps prevent molestation by teaching a child about all their body parts (not just their knees and elbows), and by teaching them that they have a right to control who does what to them.

  2. Michael LaBossiere said, on March 17, 2008 at 3:07 pm

    You make many reasonable points.

    I am always wary of inferences from “x is natural” to “x is not bad”-just as I am wary of inferences from “x is not natural” to “x is bad.” This is because making such inferences requires a proper account of nature and ethics. If such an account can be made, then the move can be justified.

    Natural drives can lead people to do things that are evil. But, as you say, the natural impulses are not themselves good or bad-they just are. It is what we, as rational beings, do with them that leads to matters of good and bad.

    Some religious ethics are quite beneficial. For example, the religious injunctions against murder, theft, false witness and such seem to be good things.

    But, there are numerous arguments against religious based ethics. One common one is the one you make-these ethical views, ironically, lead to harm. Of course, this criticism rests on the view that ethics is concerned with consequences. Duns Scotus argued that what is right might require us to do what makes us unhappy and hence thinkers like him would not buy this argument. Other thinkers, such as Kant, hold that some actions are intrinsically bad and the consequences are not morally relevant. So, someone could argue that sex ed is morally unacceptable even if it would protect more children from harm. But, expecting other people to suffer harm in order to stick to such a principle seems unreasonable.

  3. Lulu Malone said, on March 17, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    As for “nature and ethics”: Nature is Natural Law–it exists, and is. Our interpretation of it is limited by being confined in the material. Some of us benefit from connection beyond the material, but that, too, has to be interpreted, so is always imperfect. Nature is provable, because we exist. I realize there has been philosophical debate regarding the truth and validity of existence. Nevertheless, if we are discussing it, there is a plausible chance that existence is, in fact, true. If we don’t actually exist, then there is no point in discussing it.

    Ethics are an agreed upon set of values and behaviors. They are not “real” in that they do not exist outside of humans, and pertain only to humans. They are a contrived set of social codes. As such, they are exceedingly imperfect because they are based on emotions and individual perceptions, attitudes, and fallible belief systems. Nature and Ethics are two separate entities not related to one another.

    Humans are made up of their animal, which is the majority of their nature, and which include instincts and driven behaviors. We are able to over-ride these natures with our fascinating frontal lobes. The most initiated and educated of us can over-ride all animal drives and instincts. Ethics is a societal attempt to over-ride the animal, but is fallible because not all humans are on the same level of self-control, and not all humans agree with a particular set of ethical interpretation.

    I disagree that religious injunctions seem to be good things. When religion, which is the interpretation of a deity strained through the dogma and bias of men is responsible for social code, it is always biased towards certain individuals. One can prohibit murder, theft, and “false witnessing” without religion. In addition, one may consider an act of killing murder, and another self-defense. Some killing is justified. One may condemn theft, or condone it if the circumstances justify the act (for example–people after Katrina “stealing” food in order to live after the government failed to help.)

    Since when does being “unhappy” equate to harm? Unhappiness has benefits, and can lead one to make necessary changes in one’s life. Kant is Christian, and therefore biased in his arguments.

    Sometimes argument and discussions lead people away from solutions and forever entrapped in cyclical mental masturbation. I love philosophy, but see too many who prefer to live in the blissful world of thought while real people suffer needlessly. At what point, then, is philosophy, itself, harmful? Useful, yes. Expansive for the mind, yes. Pragmatic? Isn’t it, in the end, the respect of one another’s autonomy and right to exist within one’s own true Will the simplest solution?

  4. Lulu Malone said, on March 17, 2008 at 7:46 pm

    Fun discussion!

  5. Michael LaBossiere said, on March 19, 2008 at 7:14 pm

    If ethics is a matter of convention and agreement, then if people agree that sex is bad, then sex would be (by hypothesis bad). If people agree that religion is good then it would, by hypothesis, be good.

    Even if Kant was Christian, it certainly seems to be an ad hominem to assert that he must be biased. His ethical theory is based on his concept of rationality and, in fact, he argues against the sort of ethics that would be considered divine command theory. While he does attempt to apply his theory in ways consistent with Christianity in his famous 4 examples, he does not seem biased towards Christianity in his actual moral theory.

    Philosophy can, like almost anything, be misused. But philosophy is actually quite useful. I’ve got a post on that (is philosophy useless). And, of course, to argue about the potential harms in philosophy is itself philosophical.

  6. joe moma said, on May 23, 2008 at 9:39 am

    yoyou guys dnt spell good

  7. Totally Adult said, on June 19, 2009 at 1:05 am

    You guys are awesome :) keep up the good work.


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