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Ethics and Pornography

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Today I am taking notes on the last topic under Individual Rights. Specifically, the argument over regulation of pornography is an argument about freedom of speech and whether it covers “consumption” and/or production of pornography. The two views covered at the end will be utilitarianism (greatest good for the greatest number) and emotivism (my gut tells me it is right/wrong, and I don’t need facts to back it up).

My words will be in green text, and under the “My Thoughts” header. The rest are notes from the following textbook:

Mosser, K. (2010). Ethics and Social Responsibility. (E. Evans, Ed.) Retrieved from https://content.ashford.edu/books/

The argument against extensive regulation:

Adults can do many things that are not good for them- overeat, drink, smoke, etc., but as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else, they are free to do so. I can’t pour the old oil from an oil change down a drain because that is a threat to the environment, and everyone else, but I can eat Pepsi and pizza every day until I have a heart attack because it doesn’t hurt anyone else (until nationalized healthcare, anyway).

Adults are also allowed to read or watch whatever they want. You can read the Anarchist’s Cookbook about how to build a bomb. You can read about government overthrow. You can read or watch film about hate crimes and genocide, or conspiracy theories. Unless something poses an actual threat, all of these things are covered by the First Amendment right to free speech.

Some people find pornography very offensive, but cannot tell others not to view it. The only way it can be restricted is if the state determines there is a legitimate reason to do so.  One restriction is in child pornography. Child pornography harms children, so producing it is illegal, and since possessing it supports that illegal activity, possession is also illegal. Just like alcohol and tobacco, sale of pornography is restricted to adults, so bookstores and TV networks are restricted in what they can display or show. This is to provide access to adults who wish to view pornography, and to prevent exposure to those who do not.

Some say pornography is the exploitation and mistreatment of women (wonder what Jenna Jameson thinks about that…), so customers support exploiting women. However, this doesn’t matter when it comes to restricting adult access- it would be like shutting down the whole coal industry because of the cave-in in West Virginia, or shutting down all restaurants because some had health code violations.

Then there is the “slippery slope” argument, that if we restrict pornography, eventually the government will control all literature and art. When someone starts to restrict what others can read or watch based on their own personal bias, where will it end? Whose standards should be used, and who should do the regulation? When in doubt, free speech is held up.

Argument for extensive regulation

Love, “including its sexual expression,” is a cherished value. (Cherish is the word I use to remind me of… your love…)

Pornography cheapens and demeans this relationship, reducing it, and the people in it, to nothing more than objects to satisfy a crude desire. This also weakens the personal dignity every human deserves. People who produce, act in, or watch pornography may be less likely to be treated with respect, so it should be regulated, perhaps even censored or banned.

The traditional argument against pornography is that it is explicit material designed to generate a specific response, that it is obscene, degrading, and damaging to societal values. If most people see pornography as a violation of society’s values, they are within their rights to restrict or even ban it. Otherwise, societal values are being attacked and demeaned by a minority who has no right to force their views on the majority. It corrupts society, as well as the individual who “consumes” it. People are allowed to make unhealthy choices, but they are still heavily regulated, like alcohol and tobacco, seat belts, motorcycle helmets, etc. Harmful products can be regulated to minimize the harm.

More recently, the argument has introduced “erotica” to be distinguished from pornography. Erotica is artistic. Pornography is degrading, particularly to women, and often employs violence, such as rape, in their depiction. Other dehumanizing acts are women who are presented as “submissive victims who enjoy being mistreated.” This reduces the way women are treated in all society. Since this degradation of women is harmful to all women, the state’s restriction is legitimate. Women involved in production are “coerced, threatened, humiliated, and exploited,” so the state not only has the right, but the obligation to protect them from harm.

Recap: Pornography is an assault to the moral values of society. Pornography is harmful to women by exploiting those involved in production and by negatively affecting the way women are treated in society. Due to the potential for harm, the state should regulate pornography.

Applying the theories

“The only purpose for which power may be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant,” John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. 

The state can not prevent an individual from harming himself. The state can only prevent someone from harming others. Some say the harms of pornography on others are obvious, some say they are exaggerated.

Utilitarianism- greatest good for the greatest number

Society is better off when its members are freer, as long as one person’s freedom doesn’t interfere with another person’s freedom. Therefore, the fewer restrictions, the greater freedom, the happier the people. The “harm principle,” stated above by Mill, is the best way to determine restrictions on freedom.

One may argue that if a majority are offended by pornography, the greatest good for the greatest number would be to ban it altogether, but this may be “short-sighted” because the greatest happiness would come from the freedoms and fewer restrictions.

Emotivism- I know in my gut it is wrong

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said he could not define obscenity, but “I know it when I see it.” Emotivists do not give reason for their evaluation, but just go by how they feel. Emotivists may also be known as non-cognitivists. They deny that there are moral facts or properties, and that morals cannot be true or false. There is only approval or disapproval, thumbs up or thumbs down. If a sufficient number of people in a community give a thumbs down for an activity, those preferences should be respected, and pornography should be restricted, censored, or banned.

Some Conclusions

Some will argue against restriction of pornography as a libertarian view- more freedom is always better. Some will argue that the societal harm done by pornography is enough to warrant regulation.

Some say that pornography has a causal effect- that people will be degrading towards women, perhaps violent, because they will act out what they see. A standard situation in pornography is a woman who is forced to do something demeaning, harmful, etc., only to find out they enjoy it. What kind of message does this send? “No means yes”? It’s ok to force a woman to have sex with you because she’ll end up liking it? Will repeated exposure to such images make it more likely to act upon them? If repeated exposure does cause people to act in a violent way towards women, doesn’t the state have a right, or even obligation, to restrict it?

Some will say that it is not causal, and that even if it was, there are a lot more explicit and numerous depictions of violence throughout our culture and media. It is already illegal to rape women, the act, so why does it need to be illegal to make/watch a depiction of rape, covered by free speech?

Another argument emphasizes producers of pornography. Women (sometimes men) are coerced, threatened, and exploited into producing films. They do not choose the industry, but wind up there due to financial troubles and the promise of financial opportunity. Pornography takes advantage of women who are vulnerable financially or psychologically, so the choice is not really free. Women in pornography are often depicted in a manner that reinforces negative opinions of women, harming the image of women throughout society.

My Thoughts

I spent several years of my life in a heavily male-dominated world. In this world, that of a male-dominated portion of the military, there are many “cultural” specifics that are not understood by the mainstream population. In this world, pornography was regarded as normal. My male counterparts would have a video playing in their berthing, and refer to it as “training videos” as a code word. They used USB drives to copy their personal collections from one laptop to another.

In this world, women are underrepresented. This is partially because our field only opened to women relatively recently, but also because the job itself is very much in the “masculine” realm of wrenches, grease, schematics, and valves as opposed to the more “feminine” military jobs like nursing, or the “secretarial” work of personnelmen.

There was more misogyny in this world than I have found in any other time in my life. When I was there, I rationalized it as being like a men-only club-house. Even with the few women we had, we were thought of more like one of the guys, so it was a “safe” place for these men to rant about their wives and girlfriends, pass gas indiscriminately, wear nothing but a jock strap in their work place, or otherwise be repulsive, where they may not be able to otherwise because of “political correctness.”

This world was interesting, in a way, because one man would treat you like dirt just because of what you didn’t have between your legs, but if you called him out on it, others thought you were playing the “girl card.” You had to put aside all the emotion and femininity of your personal side, or be teased mercilessly about it. We had one woman on our crew who cried over something the men thought was trivial, and from then on, a small portion of the group would try to make her cry as often as possible. At the same time, if you try to be a strong woman, as opposed to one of the guys, then people would call you “slut,” “whore,” or “bitch.” Every girl was accused of sleeping with, or trying to sleep with, any guy she talked to.

Not all sailors were like that, but one of the generalizations about this group was that everybody teased everybody else about something, and if you gave them something easy, they’d focus on you until you broke.

I was required to spend a large portion of time in our workplace, by myself, in the middle of the night, but I never feared for my safety. In fact, the only time I was even nervous about staying in the plant alone was when we had shipyard workers onboard that we didn’t know. I was never sexually attacked, and I don’t know of anyone who was, though harassment was a fairly regular issue. I don’t mean people making comments towards any one person in particular, but just a general attitude of telling offensive jokes or accusing someone of sleeping with another.  You had to have thick skin to work in such an environment.

A specific instance of misogyny I encountered involved two guys I worked with. One, we’ll call him “Arnold,” was effectively an amateur body builder. He prided himself on the size of his arms and chest, and once broke a valve trying to turn it. The other, “Ryan Seacrest,” was a small guy, shorter and thinner than I ever was. “Ryan” was arguing with me about whether women should be allowed in the military. I prided myself on being a competent operator, and very knowledgeable about how all the equipment worked together. When I was qualifying, one of my superiors in particular forced me to open all the valves myself, without help, even though one valve in particular usually had two or three men open it together for speed and efficiency. “Ryan” made the mistake of asking me if I could do the same job “Arnold” did. I asked him if he could.

In this case, the men I worked with were somewhat misogynistic and watched pornography regularly, but I don’t believe it was causal. I think pornography was more the way men who are separated from their sexual relationships at home cope with being surrounded by other men constantly. While some men were misogynistic and others just didn’t like having to “clean up” because there were “ladies present,” it never ended in actual physical assault, though there was quite a bit of emotional or mental abuse. Those abuses were perpetrated against the “weaker” of both sexes, though, not just women. However, nearly all of the few women were considered “weak,” while only the males who exhibited a tendency to be “different,” whether by being more feminine or otherwise not like those in the majority, were targeted specifically.

Another way in which my viewpoint is unique is that I grew up in Sin City itself. Growing up in Las Vegas, I was raised in a place where I saw girls’ butts in thongs on billboards on the way to Grandma’s house. I can’t say if that has affected me in some way that would have been different if I had grown up in Iowa. People in the Navy told me I was a “sheltered child.” I left home and joined the Navy at 18, never having been drunk, high, or had sex. Maybe the early introduction of these topics in my life left a “good” impression on me. These things were not new or exotic to me in my teens, so I felt no need to experiment with them. My parents taught me that such things were bad, bad for you, or bad for kids, so I never did them.

This is all a round-about way to say that I think adult stores should not be an eye-sore to the business around them, and should be restricted to adults. Just like anything else in this world though, if people want it, they are going to get it, and pornography is no different. I don’t think it shows itself as big a danger to others as to be extremely regulated, and as always I am for less restriction, less regulation, more freedom, more personal responsibility.


05/31/2011 - Posted by | College Papers, Learning, Thinking

1 Comment »

  1. *I’d have to check with you here. Which is not something I usually do! I enjoy reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!

    Comment by eyeshadow palette | 02/14/2012 | Reply

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