Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Ethics of Pornography (Part 2)

(Part One)

This post is the second in my brief series on the ethics of pornography. The series works off the pair of essays on this topic in the book Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics . We are currently going through Andrew Altman’s “pro”-pornography essay. As we saw the last day, Altman argues that the more general right to sexual autonomy entails (perhaps only weakly) the right to produce and access pornography. Although, he makes the case by way of analogy with the right to access and produce contraceptives, or the right to engage in premarital sex.

We closed the last post by briefly considering the counterargument to Altman’s view. This counterargument can be briefly stated as follows (numbering builds upon what was established in the previous post):

  • (4) People have a right to do X if and only if X does not cause harm to others.
  • (5) Pornography causes harm to others.
  • (3*) Therefore, people do not have a right to produce and access pornography.

The key to this, of course, is premise (5). What reason do we have to think that pornography causes harm to others? That’s what we’re going to focus on today.

1. Does Pornography cause Sexual Violence against Women?
A common rejoinder to the proponent of a right to pornography is the following. Pornography can often depict situations involving sexual violence against women. And even if no one is actually harmed during the filming or photographing of such scenes (a topic to which we shall return), it could still be the case that viewing such material increases the likelihood of certain viewers carrying out similar acts of violence against women. To put it more pithily: there could be an indirect causal link between pornography and sexual violence. And since sexual violence is indubitably a kind of harm, it would follow that pornography would cause harm to others.

Now you’ll note the liberal use of “woulds” and “coulds” in the previous paragraph. So far, this argument is strictly hypothetical because we don’t know whether the indirect causal link actually exists. At this point, some empirical evidence is required. Unfortunately, when this happens — and when the topic is beyond my area of expertise — I begin to despair. The fact is, I have no real idea of where the evidence points on this one. All I can do is tell you what Altman says.

So what does he say? He says that the available evidence does not support the existence of any robust causal link between viewing pornography and sexual violence. In reaching this conclusion, he is particularly influenced by the work of Joseph Slade in his 2001 book Pornography and Sexual Representation . Slade says that some existing studies show weak links, while others show no links, and still others suggest an inverse relationship between pornography and sexual violence. This seems like an area where good meta-analyses are needed. Does anyone reading this know of any?

Altman makes a couple of other supporting observations. One is that if this is the kind of argument you’re going to make, then there is no reason to single out pornography for special treatment: other types of violent media probably have similar effects, why not ban them too? Of course, this kind of rhetorical ploy could easily backfire: someone could go ahead and bite the bullet and argue that we need to ban all violent media. But let’s assume the ploy works as Altman wants it to, does it follow that we should not restrict pornography? Not necessarily; it could be that sexual violence is particularly problematic and particularly worthy of precautionary treatment. I’d be willing to pursue that line of argument, but fortunately Altman touches upon it by discussing the potential concerns about pornography and the subordination of women. We’ll talk about that next. Before we do though, let’s summarise the argument so far as a pair of premises:

  • (5.1) Men who view violent pornography are more likely to engage in sexual violence.
  • (6) Evidence of a connection between pornography and violence is not robust.

We’ll be plugging these into the argument map at the end.

2. Does Pornography Contribute to Sexual Inequality
Here’s a second line of reasoning in support of premise (5): Pornography often displays women in humiliating and degrading positions. As a result, it influences the attitudes of those who use pornography towards women. It encourages them to see women as sexual objects, sources of gratification, things to played with then disregarded; it does not encourage them to treat women as moral equals. This is probably bad in itself, but it is certainly exacerbated when it takes place within a society that is already struggling to shake off the shackles of sexism. So:

  • (5.2) Pornography degrades and subordinates women, and thereby contributes to a society that degrades and subordinates women.

Altman is even less impressed by this claim than he is by the claimed link between violence and pornography. First off, he thinks there is little reason to conclude that the sexual acts depicted in pornography are inherently degrading. And second, he says there is very little evidence to suggest that open access to pornography is correlated with subordination and sexism in society at large, let alone causally-linked to it. It seems like Altman is on reasonably strong grounds here: correlational evidence suggests that the most sexually inhibited societies, the one’s with the least liberal policies on pornography (Saudi Arabia is mentioned) are the ones where women suffer the most.

  • (7) Evidence suggests that societies with open access to pornography are better places for women to live.

While this looks like a strong point, I wonder if we are yet to see the full social impact of the widespread availability of pornography in modern liberal societies. The internet has only really begun to dominate how we access information in the past ten years. And it has resulted in the near-universal access to pornography. This allows people of all ages to access pornography on an unprecedented scale. So I’d be on the lookout for more data on this in the future.

3. Does the Porn-Industry Harm Women?
A third, and for now final, way in which to support premise (5) is to say something like the following: Some (many?) women who participate in the production of pornographic material are harmed in the process of making it. This harm can range from straightforward criminal coercion, to more subtle forms of psychological harm. Thus, even if it is true that some (or many) women who do participate in the production of pornographic material are not harmed, there is still reason to restrict it.

  • (5.3) Women who participate in the pornographic industry are harmed.

Altman responds to this by pointing out the obvious fact that women (or rather, people in general) are harmed by the practices within all sorts of industries. And once again this kind of harm ranges from the straightforwardly criminal to the subtle and psychological. Thus, there is no particular reason to single out pornography for special treatment in this regard: if there are laws or regulations being violated, then prosecutions should ensue; if there is psychological harm, counseling or more information should be provided so as to allow for informed choice; if financial necessity is forcing people to work in the industry when they would rather not, assistance should be given. In other words:

  • (8) There are rights violations in all industries; there are ways of dealing with these problems other than through the banning of pornography.

This allows us to provide the following argument map:

4. Concluding Thoughts
That brings us to the end of the discussion of Altman’s essay. I close with a couple of thoughts of my own. As I read through Altman’s piece, one question continued to gnaw at me: granting that there is some kind of right to pornography, does it follow that there should be open access to pornographic material?

The answer would appear to be an obvious “no”. And I certainly don’t think Altman thought any differently. The basic impression I got from him was that the current legal position is probably fine and that pornography should only be available to sexually mature adults. But I was struck by the possibility of more creative (and restrictive) forms of access. For instance, I toyed with the idea of a “pornography licence” which, much like how a gun licence operates in my own country, would only allow people who meet certain criteria to access pornography. I thought that, if there was a provable link between pornography and certain kinds of harm, this might be a reasonable compromise position.

But then another thought struck me: the internet has so revolutionised how we access information, and has made all kinds of information so easily available, that this would probably be impossible. And yet the fact that it is impossible to prevent a certain class of behaviours can't really be a good reason to stop trying to do so. The internet has also probably made it impossible to eliminate child pornography and terrorist conspiratorialising, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying to eliminate those things.


  1. Interesting posts. I have a few thoughts on it:

    1) It seems that the arguments against pornography could largely apply to "sexual autonomy" as a whole. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I've seen such arguments at conservative sites such as Public Discourse....even if the author wasn't explicitly calling for legal prohibition of any sexual acts.

    I think that the vague cultural arguments are especially applicable.

    2)"At this point, some empirical evidence is required. ... Does anyone reading this know of any?"

    I think that the collection of evidence is beside the point here; this problem can be handled largely as philosophy.

    Basically, the conclusions of social sciences are always very weak (due to the lack of proper controls, complexity of the system, etc). I think we can say that no social science evidence will ever be strong enough to restrict any rights on the basis that a person's actions cause harm in some round-about manner.

    3) Finally, you touch on an interesting point when you mention the un-enforceability of any prohibition of porn. If we are going to use consequentialist arguments to justify the prohibition of porn, then we need to apply those same criteria to prohibition itself. Where the rubber hits the road, the question is not about "rights", it's about what to do in a given situation. Is it good for me to snitch on my neighbor's porn collection (or underground studio)? Is it good for a cop to drag the guy away in handcuffs? Is there really any hope that such actions will have the desired outcomes described above? I doubt it. The catch is that we won't have any good data on the effectiveness of prohibition until someone attempts it...which cannot be justified until we have data.

  2. I would like to tackle premise 7 briefly, because the evidence for that is extremely spotty. It is not that I'm against access to pornography, but rather that I'd prefer to use the right arguments.

    For example, when one says that Saudi Arabia is an exemplar of the fact that "societies with open access to pornography are better places for women to live", I think the causal arrow might be going in the wrong direction. Remember: we are asking if pornography itself, given all other things roughly constant, is harmful in some way.

    To cite Saudi Arabia is to completely miss the point. Saudi Arabia is not a bad society for women because it does not have open access to pornography.

    Similarly, the fact that, say, Canada is a more tolerant society in general does not demonstrate that pornography is relatively harmless. It could be the case that a more liberal society, absent pornography, would be an even greater society for women to thrive in.

    If there is any argument to be made on that front, it is a much weaker argument: societies with open access to pornography are not so corrupted that there is a collapse of sexual identity and morality. It is a great argument against the prohibition of pornography, though it doesn't make much of a positive case for it.

  3. Neil,

    On reflection, I think (7) is pretty poorly formulated. It was my gloss on the argument, not part of what Altman said. I think his point was that if (5.2) is to support (5) then there must be some kind of evidence for it. And since (5.2) is a causal claim, it must be the case that there is some correlation between access to pornography and the oppression and subordination of women. (Presumably this is because although not every correlation is evidence of a causal link, every causal link must involve a correlation - at least, that's what I take the underlying principle to be).

    This suggests that (7) should be reformulated as:

    (7) There is no evidence of link between the oppression of women and open access to pornography.

    Now, that's still problematic for the reasons you stated, but I think it's a better reflection of Altman's original argument.


    While I agree that social scientific evidence is weak, I'm not sure that that supports the claim you make that such evidence could never justify the restriction of a recognised right due to some indirect infliction of harm.

    My natural inclination is to search for a counterexample to that claim, i.e. a situation in which relatively weak social scientific evidence is used to support such a restriction, in a way that seems justified to us. One possible example is that epidemiological studies often produce evidence of weak causal links between certain exposures and certain diseases and yet still this evidence is used in crafting public health measures (e.g. banning of indoor smoking) that restrict people's rights. Now, such restrictions are rarely absolute, but they definitely make it more difficult for people to exercise their rights. Maybe that's all that's being demanded in the case of pornography too.

  4. Re: pornography and women's rights...

    There are so many parameters that affect the degree of sexual oppression, that one parameter (such as access to pornography) could have a demonstrable effect once other parameters are controlled for, even if the raw correlation is the opposite of what theory predicts.

    If interested, here's a description:

    I think that the Saudi Arabia example shows that relative to other factors, pornography is not a big contributor to society-wide sexual oppression, which at least suggests that we shouldn't let the argument distract us from more pressing issues.

    Re: Social science...

    I spoke too broadly... I should have said that some fields of social sciences will never have sufficient explanatory power to justify a restriction on rights.

    I agree that the "second-hand smoke" theory could have sufficiently strong support to allow us to treat it as a harmful act. However, the science is only "social" in the slightest sense -- it is largely physiology (not social) with a complement of epidemiology (borderline social).

    But anyway, I should have been more clear. It is specifically the social theories that try to explain the development of culture that I distrust. A major problem with these theories was actually hinted at in the original post:

    "I wonder if we are yet to see the full social impact of the widespread availability of pornography in modern liberal societies."

    These cultural theories often appeal to mechanisms that take place over the course of decades... such a the development of a person's attitudes and a culture's norms. As a result, it will take decades for us to see any effects. However, many diverse aspects of society will change over those decades, so the observations of the past 50 years may not be applicable today. Many factors are likely to influence how pornography influences attitudes towards the opposite sex, including family structure, courtship practices, ideologies of domination/liberation, political/economic/educational equality among sexes, the prominence of homosexual expressions in society, xenophobia/nationalism, and the hierarchical structure of society in general.

    Of course I'm speculating, but my point is that they have no way to control for these variables (and no, fancy statistical test do not do it, especially since many social science researchers use the statistical tests incorrectly). If they claim to understand these things, they are speculating just as much as I am.

  5. Did Altman discuss the broader "pornographication of culture" (i.e. public expressions of sexuality, both in personal behavior and in commercial media)?

    It seems that his discussion was limited to the sort of pornography that is viewed in private by adults, rather than considering what sorts of images are appropriate for public presentation.

  6. He focused on private viewing and the implications of that for culture as a whole, but not on what was appropriate for public presentation.

  7. AFAIK, about 20% of people are desperate and poor/dumb enough to hurt others.

    So are you putting images of naked kids (like daresay most parents own) on par with actual rape by explosively powered shrapnel?