Monday, July 11, 2011

The Ethics of Pornography (Part 1)

In the event that the title to this post draws in some new visitors — and if I know anything about the internet, I think it might — I feel a warning is in order: There will be no titillation in these posts; just dry philosophical analysis of the arguments for and against pornography. Well, maybe not “dry” — I like to think my writing has some fluidity to it — but definitely analytical. If that’s not your cup of tea, you should probably go elsewhere.

Still here? Good, let’s get down to business.

Continuing with my reading through Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics, in this next series of posts I’m going to take a look at the pair of essays on the ethics of pornography. First up is Andrew Altman’s pro-pornography essay “The Right to Get Turned On: Pornography, Autonomy and Equality”. In it, Altman defends the right to pornography on the grounds of the more general right to sexual autonomy. Altman’s essay wins a prize for being the only academic piece I’ve ever read that features the phrase: “Multiple penetration also seems inherently innocuous.” Whether that’s a good or bad thing, I leave to you to decide.

1. Sexual Autonomy and Pornography
Traditionally (in the US, at any rate), the debate over pornography has been couched in terms of freedom of speech: pornography is viewed as a form of expression, and as a form of expression it is entitled to legal protection. This way of framing the debate has been criticised over the years — perhaps most dramatically by Catharine MacKinnon in her work Only Words — and it perhaps is to Altman’s credit that he rejects this framing device. He argues, instead, that the right to produce and access pornography is part and parcel of a more general liberal right to sexual autonomy.

We can summarise his basic argument as follows:

  • (1) People have a right to sexual autonomy, i.e. to develop and explore their sexual identities as they see fit.
  • (2) If people have a right to sexual autonomy, then they have a right to produce and access pornographic materials.
  • (3) Therefore, people have a right to produce and access pornographic materials.

I think it’s safe to say that the basic idea of a right to sexual autonomy is safe enough, and so premise (1) is secure. What’s really at issue here is the justification of premise (2). Why assume that the right to sexual autonomy entails a right to produce and access pornographic materials?

Altman uses analogical reasoning in support of (2). He says that the right to produce and access pornography is much like the right to produce and access contraceptives, and so if the latter is part of the right to sexual autonomy, then so too is the former. Similar analogies are drawn between the right to engage is premarital sex and homosexual activity.

I’m not sure that this is the most persuasive way to make the case for (2). I feel like the following two reasons, when combined, might make a better case for (2):

  • (2.1) Pornography is an important part of the development and exploration of sexual identity; and
  • (2.2) There is a general presumption against restriction of activity in a liberal society.

A couple of things should be noted about these premises. First, note how (2.1) does not say that pornography is an essential part of sexual identity. If it said that, and if that was true, then (2) would be fully supported without the need for (2.2). The reason it doesn’t say that is that it might not be true. In other words, there might be plenty of reasons to think that sexual identity could be developed and explored in a sufficiently robust way in a world without ready access to pornography. Still, the weaker version seems sound: pornography probably does help a significant number of people to develop their sexual identities.

How about (2.2)? Well, the idea is that when combined with (2.1) it should make a pretty good case for the right to pornography. There are, however, two problems with it. For one thing, it speaks only of a “presumption” against restrictions. That presumption can be rebutted. We will talk about this in more detail below. For another thing, it presumes that we want to live in a liberal society. That’s something that many traditional critics of sexual autonomy reject. Such critics tend to worry about the social disintegration and degradation that results from overly liberal attitudes. Fortunately, this traditionalist critique has much in common with standard liberal and feminist critiques of pornography and so we can consider them jointly. We turn to that task below.

2. The Basic Argument Against Pornography
Altman’s basic argument in favour of pornography has an obvious flaw: rights are never absolute. As mentioned above, people’s activities can be restricted under certain circumstances. The key is to know which circumstances. The general rule, made famous by JS Mill, is that people’s activities can be restricted whenever they cause harm to others. Now, although there is always some dispute over what is covered by the word “harm”, in the present context we will assume that harm arises when someone is physically abused or suffers a set back to important life interests.

That allows us to craft the following argument against pornography:

  • (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.

I won’t write in the proper conclusion here. It’s relatively obvious that when combined these premises lead to the rejection of (3) and that’s what’s illustrated in the argument map below.

When it comes to the evaluation of this argument, I think we can safely set premise (4) to one side: even if there are conceptual problems with the harm principle, I suspect that very few people would argue that harm to others is not a legitimate reason to restrict individual autonomy. Consequently, I think premise (5) is where the controversy may be expected to lie. Critics of pornography have identified a number of ways in which pornography causes harm (primarily to women). Altman considers three of them. We will look at them the next day.


  1. Isn't 2.1 + 2.2 -> 2 ? It's put convergent in the diagram but I get from what you write that's a linked argument: "I feel like the following two reasons, when COMBINED" (I capitalized for emphasis not to yell)

    "(2.1) does not say that pornography is an essential part of sexual identity. If it said that, and if that was true, then (2) would be fully supported without the need for (2.2)"

    But in the diagram it does not say "essential " so the support each other to conclude at 2; hence it's linked argument, I think.


    By the way this is an interest topic do you have something more on feminism, like sexism and objectivifaction?

  2. Oh, and on 'male vs female privilege' thing. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for that. I've changed the diagram.

    As for the other stuff, I don't have any immediate plans to write more stuff on feminism or sexism, but who knows how I might feel in a couple of weeks.