The Gamer’s Dilemma is the title of an article by Morgan Luck. We covered that article in part one. In brief, the article argues that there is something puzzling about attitudes toward virtual acts which, if they took place in the real world, would be immoral.
To be precise, there is something puzzling about attitudes toward virtual murder and virtual paedophilia. Acts of virtual murder are common in many videogames, and often deemed morally permissible. Acts of virtual paedophilia are not common (at least not in mainstream games sold on the open market), and are generally deemed impermissible. But why should this be? In neither case is an actual human being harmed, so if one is permissible/impermissible, so too should the other. This is the Gamer’s Dilemma.
In this post, we are going to look at an attempted resolution of the dilemma. The resolution comes from the pen of Christopher Bartel. He argues that the dilemma may fail (he’s a little bit weasel-worded in how he states his thesis, hence the use of the word “may”) because virtual paedophilia is an instance of child pornography, whereas virtual murder is not. This means that there is a relevant moral distinction between the two; and this moral distinction can explain why one is permissible and the other is not.
We’ll break the discussion up into three parts. First, let’s see how the argument works as a response to Luck; then, let’s consider Bartel’s defence of the argument; and, finally, let’s cover some objections to Bartel from Luck and his colleague Nathan Ellerby (yes: they wrote a response).
1. What’s pornography got to do with it?
Luck’s original presentation of the Gamer’s dilemma can be interpreted as a simple formal argument, as follows:
- (1) If there is no morally relevant distinction between virtual murder and virtual paedophilia, then they should have the same moral status attached to them.
- (2) There is no morally relevant distinction between virtual murder and virtual paedophilia.
- (3) Therefore, they should have the same moral status attached to them.
Where the argument goes after that, of course, depends on what we think about virtual murder and virtual paedophilia. If we are committed to the permissibility of virtual murder, then we should permit virtual paedophilia. If we are committed to the impermissibility of virtual paedophilia, then we should forbid virtual murder. Since people seem to be committed to both of these things we get a dilemma.
Bartel’s resolution is a rebuttal of premise (2). He claims that there is a morally relevant distinction between virtual paedophilia and virtual murder. Virtual paedophilia is, he claims, an instance of child pornography, and that makes a moral difference. This is because child pornography is morally wrong. and so, by extension, virtual paedophilia is morally wrong. Furthermore, he argues that this moral wrongness stems from a property that virtual murder lacks: child pornography is wrong because it reinforces sexual inequality, something that virtual murder does not do.
In essence then, Bartel’s rebuttal works like this:
- (4) Virtual paedophilia is an instance of child pornography.
- (5) Child pornography is morally wrong because it reinforces sexual inequality.
- (6) Therefore, virtual paedophilia is morally wrong because it reinforces sexual inequality.
- (7) Virtual murder does not reinforce sexual inequality.
- (8) Therefore, premise (2) is false: there is a morally relevant distinction between virtual murder and virtual paedophilia.
The connection to Luck’s original argument is illustrated in the argument map below. (Note: Luck and Ellerby adopt a slightly different reconstruction of the dialectic in their response to Bartel. Nevertheless, I’ve followed the major points in their reconstruction so that, when we get to it, their critique of Bartel will make sense in light of this argument map.)
What we need to do now is to consider Bartel’s defence the key premises of this rebuttal. These being (4), (5) and, to a lesser extent, (7).
2. Defending the rebuttal
Premise (4) claims that virtual paedophilia is an instance of child pornography. But how can we be sure? Clearly, pornography involves some sort of sexually provocative representation. But that alone is not enough. Something more is needed. What is it? To answer that we need to look at the distinguishing features of pornographic imagery. Unfortunately, neat categorical definitions of “pornography” are notoriously difficult to find. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous line “I’ll know it, when I see it”, for all its obvious flaws, seems to capture much of the debate.
We won’t delve too far into the definitional complexities right now. This is for a couple of reasons: one is that Bartel doesn’t go too far into them himself, and the other is that this lack of depth is something taken up by another participant in the Gamer’s Dilemma debate, Stephanie Partridge, whose contribution we’ll be covering in part three. Nevertheless, some basic definitional approaches to what counts as pornography should be distinguished:
The Intention Approach: A sexual representation is pornographic if it is intended to sexually arouse in the interest of sexual release.
The Usage Approach: A sexual representation is pornographic if it used in a pornographic way or if it can reasonably be believed that it is going to be put to use in such a way.
The first approach, which Bartel locates in the work of Jerrold Levinson, makes the pornographic quality of the representation contingent upon the intentions of its creator. The second approach, which Bartel locates in the work of Michael Rea, makes it contingent upon the user or consumer.
It seems to me that neither definition is particularly helpful. The former because it is often difficult to determine the intention of the creator, and to see why their intention should be dispositive. The latter because the concept of “pornographic use” is vague, and, perhaps more importantly, because it seems to me like human beings can sexually fetishise pretty much anything. Nevertheless, the usage approach is the one that Bartel adopts.
As he sees it, no matter how the usage approach might slice the pie between the pornographic and non-pornographic, virtual paedophilia will count as an instance of child pornography. This is because it will involve the graphic depiction of sexual acts with (virtual) children, and also because people who play games which allow them to commit acts of virtual paedophilia must derive some sort of intrinsic (sexual?) pleasure from so doing. That gives us the following argument in support of premise (4) (note: this argument tracks more closely Luck and Ellerby’s reconstruction of the dialectic):
- (9) If something depicts sexual acts involving children, and if people derive some sort of intrinsic pleasure from these depictions, then it counts as child pornography.
- (10) Virtual paedophilia depicts of sexual acts involving children.
- (11) People who commit acts of virtual paedophilia will derive some sort of intrinsic pleasure from doing so.
- (4) Therefore, virtual paedophilia is an instance of child pornography.
So much for that. Let’s turn now to the defence of premise (5): the claim that child pornography is wrong. As Bartel sees it, pretty much everybody agrees that child pornography is wrong, even if philosophers haven’t spent a great deal of time explaining exactly why it is wrong. Still, it would seem that at least one of the reasons why it is deemed wrong — perhaps the chief reason — is that it is harmful to the children involved in the depictions. The problem is that this reason doesn’t apply in the virtual case: no real children are involved. So something else must be said.
It is here that Bartel’s turns to an argument originally proffered by Neil Levy in response to the US Supreme Court decision in Ashcroft vs. Free Speech Coalition (allowing virtual child pornography under the 1st Amendment). Levy argued that virtual child pornography was wrong for one of the same reasons that mainstream pornography is wrong: because it reinforces sexual inequality. This is a common argument, one that I’ve looked at several times before on the blog. The idea being that the representations of women in mainstream pornography dehumanise, degrade, and objectify. This sexual imagery then reinforces general socio-sexual inequality against women.
But how can this apply to child pornography? It is relatively easy to understand the argument against mainstream pornography: it actually depicts (adult) women in an (often) submissive and objectified state. It clearly could (though this is contentious) be harmful to women as a result. But virtual child pornography is slightly different. Isn’t it? Not according to Levy’s argument. Levy argues that virtual child pornography could, in a less direct fashion, also reinforce sexual inequality against women. How so? Well, children are necessarily treated as submissive, lesser beings: there is a generally and socially acceptable power differential between adults and children. That is okay, but when that differential is eroticised, as it must be in the case of child pornography (even of the virtual kind), it will in turn reinforce the general sexual inequality.
Bartel doesn’t flesh the argument out in any more detail. This is unfortunate, as I do not have access to Levy’s original article. Still, I think the basic idea is clear, even if it isn’t developed to the level of detail one might like.
Since it isn’t developed to that level of detail, I’m somewhat reluctant to critique it. Nevertheless, one thing I would be concerned about — and I want to preface this by saying that this isn’t a topic I like to ponder in any depth — is the linking of the wrongness of virtual child pornography to the wrongness of mainstream pornography. From what I’ve read, it seems like the wrongness of mainstream pornography is contentious in a way that the wrongness of child pornography should not be. If there is something wrong with strictly virtual child pornography, I suspect it should be unique, in some way, to that case (i.e. not dependent on the more general wrongness of sexually explicit imagery). Anything else would, I suspect, diminish the gravity of the wrong people attach to child pornography (this, then, gets back to points Luck made in his original defence)
Anyway, to wrap up on this point, the following would seem to be a fair reconstruction of Bartel’s argument in favour of (5):
- (13) Anything that reinforces sexual inequality is morally wrong.
- (14) Child pornography reinforces sexual inequality (because it depicts children as sexually dominated beings with a lesser moral status).
- (5) Therefore, child pornography is morally wrong because it reinforces sexual inequality.
That leaves us with premise (7). I won’t say too much about this here. In one sense, it is obvious that virtual murder is very different from pornography (in general) and child pornography (in particular). It is difficult to see how virtual murder could reinforce sexual inequality (unless, perhaps, if the game only allowed you to virtually murder women).
Still, there is one criticism, briefly raised by Bartel, that is worth mentioning here. Is it possible that virtual murder involves a kind of pornographic depiction of its own? And could it be that pornographic depictions of this kind are themselves wrong? It could be, but Bartel for one is sceptical. Although one does hear talk of “torture-porn” and “murder-porn”, he argues that this stretches the conceptual boundary in a manner that may trivialise the core concept of pornography.
3. Challenging Bartel’s Argument
Luck and Ellerby wrote a response to Bartel. Interestingly, their response didn’t focus on the definition or wrongness of child pornography. Instead, it focused on the tenacity of the original dilemma. They submit that even if Bartel is right in his account of child pornography, it does not follow that the dilemma is resolved. This is because there are different versions of the dilemma, broad and narrow, and Bartel’s argument, at best, only covers the narrow versions.
Their response centres around premises (10) and (11) of Bartel’s defence. As you’ll recall, these two premises claimed, respectively, that virtual paedophilia depicted sexual acts with children, and that people would derive intrinsic pleasure from such depictions. Luck and Ellerby argue that both claims are flawed. While some instances of virtual paedophilia may satisfy those conditions, not all will do so, and those that don’t will still seem troubling enough to motivate the Gamer’s Dilemma.
Consider first the claim that virtual paedophilia depicts sexual acts with children. Luck and Ellerby argue that this isn’t so:
[S]uppose a game allows players to approach virtual children, and after progressing through various bits of suggestive dialogue, they have the chance to initiate an instance of child molestation, upon which the game screen would fade to black and the game would recommence in such a way as to make it clear that the act had occurred.
Such a game would allow a player to clearly commit an act of virtual paedophilia, without actually depicting it. But would that make it any more morally acceptable? Luck and Ellerby suggest not. To be fair, Bartel did seem to be aware of this problem since he mentioned the possibility of off-screen acts of paedophilia and murder. He just didn’t think they were part of the dilemma. In this, he was wrong: the dilemma is broad enough to cover off-screen acts.
Consider now the second claim: that virtual paedophilia would involve players who derive some kind of enjoyment from their virtual acts. Again, Luck and Ellerby, argue that the dilemma is broad enough to cover virtual acts from which no pleasure is derived. Luck points back to an example he used in his original article: the game where, in order to progress, you had to perform an act of virtual paedophilia. He says it is perfectly possible to imagine people not enjoying this process. But would that mean that a game like this would avoid the dilemma? Surely not.
In addition to these two critiques, Luck and Ellerby make a more general point: Bartel’s whole argumentative strategy is flawed. As you’ll note from the argument map I presented above, Bartel’s aim is to locate some reason for thinking that virtual paedophilia is wrong that does not apply to virtual murder. But this alone is not enough to resolve the dilemma. Even if virtual paedophilia should be prohibited because it reinforces sexual inequality, it does not follow that virtual murder should not be prohibited. An additional argument would be needed for that conclusion.
Consider an example: If I claimed that shoplifting was wrong because it involved the appropriation of property from another; and if I said (correctly) that this reason does not apply to murder; I could not then say that murder is not wrong. There could be another moral reason for thinking that murder is wrong. Bartel’s attempted resolution of the dilemma makes a move like this, which is clearly illegitimate.
To sum up, Bartel argued that the Gamer’s Dilemma could be resolved. He did so on the grounds that there is a moral distinction between virtual murder and virtual paedophilia: the latter is an instance of child pornography while the former is not.
As we have seen, Bartel’s definition of child pornography and his argument in favour of the wrongness of such pornography (even when entirely virtual) are, at best, incomplete. Furthermore, even if those arguments could be successfully completed, it would not follow that the dilemma is resolved. This is because the wrongness of child pornography does not explain away all instances of the dilemma.
That brings us to the end of this post. I’ll do one final post on this topic, looking at Stephanie Partridge’s analysis of both Bartel’s account of child pornography and the dilemma itself.