This article is part of the column series, Thus Spoke the Undergrads. Submit your moral quandaries through this google form, and three student ethicists will guide you. Today, they tackle the following question:
Q: I live in a Spelman dorm. You may or may not know, the walls of a Spelman dorm are quite thin. My roommate and his girlfriend have been spending most nights engaging in some kind of intercourse, and I know this because I hear the moaning very clearly.
Many have told me I should just politely confront my roommate and ask him to be a bit more respectful during the evening hours, but after taking PHI202: Introduction to Moral Philosophy, I started to worry a bit. The most I have to gain from their restraint is about half an hour of sleep each night (my log has the shortest bout at four minutes and the longest at 97 minutes).
I fear that the utility I might gain from the small amount of extra sleep might not outweigh the utility that both my roommate and his girlfriend derive from their sexual satisfaction. Would it be wrong of me to ask them to enjoy themselves less? I’m only writing in now because my dreams are now being populated with the sounds of their intercourse. What should I do?
- A Concerned Tiger
The very first time we get a submitted question, it’s about sex. No one here is surprised.
There are a few things to consider before we dive into this question: Is there a moral issue here? Can sex and sleep be weighed using a utilitarian metric? And what obligation does a roommate have to fulfill the requests of their neighbor?
To answer any of these questions, you, our dear questioner, will first have to confront your roommate. Although asking your roommate to enjoy intercourse less audibly seems like an atomic bomb of awkwardness, it’s more like a water balloon than a warhead. It will be an uncomfortable conversation, but your roommate can only consider acting differently if they know they are bothering you. Otherwise, why change? Considering you came and asked us for advice, it seems like the current situation is not ideal for you anyway.
To ensure we do not become a sex advice column — although often ethics and sexpertise do go hand in hand — we must identify the moral issues at play. One possibility is that your roommate derives pleasure from intercourse only if it is loud. If this unlikely scenario is true, then perhaps your roommate is gaining more utility (or happiness, to keep it simple and not have to say “sexual gratification”) from their nightly activities than you would from your half hour of forsaken sleep. Naturally, this logic only holds up if you know how much happiness your roommate gains from sex noises. If it does turn out that they’re some sort of utility monster, meaning they gain an incommensurate amount of happiness from an act that negatively affects you, basic utilitarianism would dictate that it is moral for them to continue that act even if you are worse off for it.
In all likelihood, though, your roommate is not a utility monster, and will still find sex at least somewhat pleasurable even if quieter. This presents an uneven consequence of confrontation in favor of the roommate: if the roommate sacrifices some of their noise-making, sex itself will not be rendered impossible, and they will still gain some happiness from it. On the other hand, if you let the noisy sex continue, your thirty minutes of extra sleep will be impossible. The signs point to confrontation once more.
But if you really want to stick with utility, it is worth considering that your roommate’s lovemaking might be populating other people’s dreams, too. Perhaps the person next door also has the honor of hearing him copulate and would rather not fall asleep to that most nights. If other people are bothered by your roommate, then maybe it would be beneficial for more people if the moaning stopped, even if your roommate loses some pleasure from stopping. This means that, if you bite the bullet and confront your roommate, the potential benefits of the noise complaint would outweigh the epic sex your roommate enjoys because you will not be the only recipient of said benefits (extra beauty sleep for all).
Let’s move on to what might happen when you sit your sex fiend roommate down and have “the talk.” There are a few possible outcomes of a conversation with your roommate. The first, and most likely outcome, is that your roommate will say something like, “I didn’t even know! Sorry broski, we can be quieter,” and everything will be solved.
The second outcome sees your roommate agreeing to be quieter but failing to follow through. If this happens, they would be morally blameworthy for breaching a social contract — they made a verbal agreement to limit the moaning but subsequently violated their promise. Once they know you want them to be quieter and have agreed to be quieter, they should keep the noise down. This is similar to what we talked about last week; you’re never obligated to walk to Forbes for lunch, but if your friend asks you to come and you accept, you are liable for moral blame if you flake on them.
The third outcome could be that your roommate flat out refuses to reduce the noise. Are they doing anything morally wrong by doing this? It is an undeniably rude thing to do, but it is difficult to argue that they are morally obligated to stop, especially because no serious harm is being enacted. Still, your roommate may not be the kind of person you’d want to be friends with if they knowingly allow their noises of fornication to disturb your comfort.
Although your roommate did not sign a contract pledging quiet sex before arriving on campus, there does exist between roommates a sort of neighborly code, particularly because, in a dorm, roommates share walls. In the before times, the roommate contract would put that code into writing. The existence of this shared space entitles both parties in question to an open dialogue in which compromise is a possibility. Whether or not this compromise is reached is beyond our control, but you undoubtedly maintain the right to at least ask your roommate to pipe down a little.
There is nothing wrong with talking to your roommate about being quieter when they verb the adjective noun. We urge our questioner to overcome the embarrassment of confrontation. After all, if we are to live together, we have to respect each other enough to be in conversation with one another. That is a lesson that applies within and outside of the confines of the bedroom.
The ethicists are Opinion columnists Ethan Magistro, Claudia Frykberg, and Andi Grene. Do you have juicy ethical dilemmas you want us to opine on? Send it in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or fill out this anonymous google form!