Thursday, May 17, 2007

Pornography II

Yesterday and today I have been trying to illustrate how desire utilitarianism works by applying it to a real-world concern of pornography.

In our Previous Episode

What we are looking at reasons for action that exist for and against a prohibition on pornography. Yesterday, I ruled out reasons for action that do not exist. Intrinsic value and divine rights are reasons for action that some people bring into this debate. However, these reasons for action do not exist. Desires are the only reason for action that exist.

I also ruled out desires that cannot be fulfilled. A “desire that P” (for some proposition P) is a reason for action for bringing about a state of affairs in which P is true. If P can never be true, then the desire that P cannot be fulfilled in any state of affairs, and does not serve as a reason for any action. Even if P can be true in some states of affairs, but action A will not help bring about that state of affairs, the desire that P is not a reason for action A.

I used this to throw out desires to do God’s will and desires to realize something of intrinsic value (since these desires cannot be fulfilled under any real-world states of affairs).

I then started to look at some of the reasons for action that do exist both for viewing and for banning pornography. For example, given that everybody acts to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires, given their beliefs, that many people use pornography, and that there is no evidence that those viewing pornography suffer a defect of belief, we have reason to conclude that the viewing of pornography fulfills desires. A prohibition on pornography would, then, thwart those desires. That would be bad.

However, on the other side, we have a potential for an aversion to pornography that is like an aversion to certain smells. To prevent thwarting those desires, one might argue for confining pornography to certain regions were those who would be offended by the ‘stink’ of pornography would not have to experience it, and to warn people of its presence.

Finally, I looked at desires that certain states of affairs exist and not exist, and argued that these desires are as legitimate as any other. The desire that a state in which a person is viewing pornography not exist (even where the agent will not experience it) is at some level the same that the desire that a certain wilderness state does exist (even though the agent will not experience it).

The next relevant question to answer is to look at the quality of the reasons for action relevant to the viewing or banning of pornography. Are these ‘reasons for action that exist’ good reasons or bad reasons? A good reason is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. A bad reason is a desire that tends to thwart other desires.

At first glance, the desire that a state in which a person is viewing pornography not exist looks like a bad desire. It is a desire that tends to thwart other desires. However, the desire that a state in which a wilderness exists would also count as a bad desire at first look, because it thwarts the desires that would be fulfilled by the use of those resources.

We need to look at bit deeper than this.

Love of Liberty

One desire that we have reason to strengthen and promote is a love of freedom. As John Stuart Mill argued in ‘on Liberty’, if we wish to bring about the most desire fulfillment, then we want to trust the fulfillment of desires to the person who has the best information on what those desires are, and are least corruptible. The agent who is best informed and least corruptible when it comes to fulfilling a particular person’s desires is that person himself or herself. So, we have reason to promote a love of liberty – an aversion to interfering with a person’s ability to fulfill his own desires.

However, that love of liberty is not an absolute. It is not the case that a person who loves liberty can love nothing else – that he cannot, for example, have an aversion to pain or be indifferent to the health of his child. The love of liberty offers for a presumption in favor of liberty – a desire that can be thwarted in extreme circumstances when other desires are at play; just as a desire for chocolate can be overruled by a desire for health and long life.

In this way, a concern for the well-being of others can outweigh a love of liberty, denying liberty to those who wish to act in ways harmful to others. We have reason not to grant liberty to those whose actions would spring from desires that tend to thwart other desires – desires to rape, desires to take from others. It also applies to actions that evidence a lack of good desires – an indifference to the well-being of others that would cause a person to knowingly, negligently, or recklessly do harm to others. The love of liberty does not argue for absolute freedom. It argues for a presumption in favor of freedom – a presumption that can be outweighed.

This presumption of liberty works like the presumption of innocence in a criminal case. In a criminal case, the presumption is that an individual is not to be harmed unless the prosecution can show, beyond a reasonable doubt, in a fair hearing, that the accused is one who deserves to be harmed. This is how a person with an aversion to doing harm – though an aversion that can be overridden by other concerns – would act. “I don’t want to harm you. We need to work something out here,” he would plead. But, backed into a corner by sound reason, he will do harm.

Applying the presumption of liberty to the current case, we get a presumption against a prohibition on pornography. The individual who seeks to ban pornography is saying that the harm to others is justified. It is not the duty of those he would harm to prove that it they should be left alone. A good person would begin with the assumption that others are to be left alone. It is the duty of those who would do harm to assemble the evidence and show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a person with good desires (that tend to fulfill other desires) would have other, compelling reasons to act against liberty.

Desires that Thwart Other Desires

Clearly, it is a good working hypothesis that some of the desires that are fulfilled in using certain types of pornography are desires that we have reason to inhibit. These are desires that clearly could be fulfilled only in a state that thwarts the desires of others. These include desires for rape and other forms of sexual violence.

If it can be shown that exposure to (certain types of) pornography will strengthen desires that we have reason to inhibit – will cause people to acquire desires that make them a threat to the well-being of others – then our reasons for action for inhibiting those desires translates into reasons for preventing those exposures to (certain types of) pornography.

Arguments Against Harmfulness

I want to give some space to the moral character of those who use poor arguments when it comes to making this type of case. On one side, we have people who will make claims like, “I have used pornography and I have not suffered any ill effects,” or “I know of people exposed to pornography and they are all decent human beings.”

This is not the only place we see this type of argument used. On the question of violent video games or rock lyrics, we can expect to hear people proclaim, “I played those games and I turned out okay,” or “My friends and I played those games all the time and we did not get the urge to walk down the hallways killing our classmates.”

However, imagine somebody trying to protest laws against drunk driving by saying, “I drove last night while I was drunk and I made it home without killing anybody,” or “I know lots of people who have driven while drunk without getting into an accident.” These arguments are pathetically poor. The question is not whether this person or those people happen to have undergone the experience without harming others. The question is whether the experience tends to promote harm to others.

If you remove all of the hearts out of a deck of cards, it is foolish to argue that every diamond you draw is proof that the odds of drawing a black card has not been changed.

Arguments For Harmfulness

I also want to address the moral character of those who too willingly accept evidence that a limitation on liberty is good. These are people who ‘cherry pick’ the data on an issue such as pornography. They wish to see the ban, so they eagerly embrace any and every claim of harm as proof that their position is correct. At the same time, any evidence against your position is immediately branded ‘bad science’ or attributed to some conspiracy among ‘liberals’.

These people have the same moral character as somebody who is so intent on seeing his neighbor suffer that he frames his neighbor for a crime, doing whatever is in its power to rig his neighbor’s conviction. A person who truly loves liberty and justice will be adverse to doing unjustified harm. This aversion to doing unjustified harm means drawing conclusions based on the evidence, not using a desired outcome to cherry-pick the evidence.

It is one thing to proclaim an accused person guilty on the basis of little evidence when one is reading about a trial in a newspaper or on television – when one is not a part of the jury. However, once one becomes a part of the jury that those responsibilities change. Making a snap judgment based on partial evidence is no longer permissible. One has a duty – to justice, to the accused, to society – to listen to the evidence and to base one’s judgment on a sound consideration of that evidence.

When it comes to matters of public policy, we are all members of the jury, because we all get to vote. Some of us may decide to abstain. The decision to abstain gives us permission to remain ignorant. However, the permission to remain ignorant does not imply a permission to pretend to knowledge we do not have. Everybody else – those who choose to take a position on the issue – has an obligation to cast an informed and responsible vote. It is not a vote cast by a person who shouts, “Guilty! Now, let’s take a look at the evidence. Remember, if the evidence supports guilt, it is good evidence. If it does not support guilt, then it is obviously flawed.”


There is a second way in which pornography may promote bad desires. Above, I talked about promoting desires that tend to thwart the desires of other people – desires for rape and sexual violence. Another type of desire-thwarting desire is an addiction.

A person acts so as to fulfill his current desires, given his beliefs. Future desires have no power of backwards causation. Present actions fulfill future desires either through a present desire that future desires be fulfilled, or present desires that fulfill future desires as a side effect. A fondness for exercise would be an example of a present desire that has a side effect of fulfilling future desires.

The relationship between current action and future desires is the same as the relationship between current action and the desires of other persons. An individual will not act so as to fulfill the desires of other persons unless he has a current desire that the desires of other people be fulfilled, or current desires that fulfill other desires as a side effect. Someone who dances because of a love of dance may also have a desire that fulfills the desires of those who may become a member of his audience.

An addiction is a particularly strong present desire that tends to thwart future desires. It serves to diminish a person’s ability to fulfill other desires by taking away his health, and distracts him away from activities that would secure those future desires. For the sake of fulfilling future desires, it is advisable that one avoids addiction.

If a certain experience tends to cause addiction, we have reasons for action (in terms of those desires that would then be thwarted) to make sure that the experience does not take place. Our ‘reasons for action’ for reducing the incidents of addiction are ‘reasons for action’ for prohibiting experiences that tend to bring about addiction.

A person might want to remark that, “Other people’s problems with the possibility of addiction are not my concern.” However, this would be a cold and callous individual who clearly does not have desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others. We have reason for action to condemn such attitudes, so as to make them weaker and less common than they would otherwise be.

Final Verdict

As I approach the end of this posting, a reader may be expecting me to pass judgment on the moral legitimacy of a prohibition on pornography. That is not going to happen. In the argument above, I have presented two instances where empirical data is needed – in determining whether experiencing pornography promotes desires that tend to cause harm to others, and whether pornography can become addictive.

It is no more possible to determine the morality of a prohibition on pornography by sitting back and contemplating the idea of pornography, than it is to understand nuclear fusion by contemplating the idea of the sun. Real research must be done – and it must be enough research to be able to comprehend, if not contribute, to the peer-reviewed literature on the subject at hand. I have not done that research, so I cannot render a verdict. Anybody who does pretend to be able to render a verdict without doing the research is arrogant, presumptuous, and irresponsible.

My next step, if I were to pursue this further, is to look for some appropriately trained body of professional scientists who have investigated the issue and accept their educated opinion on these matters. If they are confident beyond a reasonable doubt that pornography contributes to harmful desires and addiction, then I would support a prohibition (though I would also have to consider the costs of prohibition in creating a criminal black market). If they are uncertain, or they believe there is no evidence of harm, then the presumption in favor of liberty shall stand.

If I had a position of political authority, I would convene a panel of experts to look into the issue and produce a report. These experts would be psychiatrists and economists. Religion is no expertise in these matters. Nobody would be appointed merely because he thinks he has a direct line to God. We are dealing with a real-world issue, and we need real-world answers.

However, though the moral quality of pornography itself is hard to determine, the moral quality of the vast majority of things written about pornography is extremely easy to determine. The author displays a level of intellectual recklessness that is absolutely shameful. They show in what they write that they have no real concern over who may be unjustly harmed or helped. They accept arguments, in defense of actions harmful to others, on the weakest and most unreasonable evidence they can find, as long as that evidence supports the harm they wish to see done.

A person who uses weak arguments in favor of a prohibition has proved that he has no love of liberty, and is at best apathetic about the harm he may potentially do to others. Those who use weak arguments against a prohibition show that they lack a proper measure of concern for harms that might be prevented.

There is also the arrogance of the person who has not studied the scientific literature thinking that he can nonetheless give an informed opinion as to which option would fulfill the most desires and prevent the least suffering.

Those who produce this demagoguery are the true producers of 'pornography' (in the derogatory sense). We would be much better off if they could learn to take responsibility for the moral quality of what they produce and release to the public.


Daniel said...

At first I want to say your post is very good, I remember one friend on told me that people have many desires,but not all the desire willcome true and some of the desires donot need to come true. your description in the post is very important. it worth reading.

olvlzl said...

Intrinsic value and divine rights are reasons for action that some people bring into this debate. However, these reasons for action do not exist. Desires are the only reason for action that exist.

I'd like to see an objective proof that desires exist, apart from the fact that everyone SEEMS to have them. And if that is the last resort I'd remind you about that disagreement we had a couple of weeks back about who the best person to know anything about their personal experience is.

While I think your heart is in the right place, I am afraid your method is impractical. I know it is in the world of politics. Democratic politics, at least. I suspect you desire for a level of certainty that simply hasn't ever proven to be available, rejecting assumptions, such as the existence of inherent rights, which can't be proven but whose utility and desireablity is demonstrated by what happens when people are assumed not to have them. It is one of my greatest misgivings about this cult of certainty that it leads people to give up lessons derived from history and other peoples experience in pursuit of some pot of gold that you might think you see but will melt away like most of those seen by the kinds of phiosophers who have sought something absolutely firm and reliable. I. F. Stone pointed out that while the sandal maker Socrates could make the product of his trade, a pair of sandals, that Socrates (and I'd add his entire line of successors) couldn't even demonstrate one Universal. I can't see any good reason for people to give up the idea of rights, which has had enormous utility in improving their lives for what you are doing. While some of it is very impressive, I think that this is the point we really differ on.

You know, if we insist on knowing the foundations of every single idea we use and operate under we will be left with, quite literally, nothing. I am certain you know that's true.

olvlzl said...

It's early that should be "the sandal maker who Socrates baited could produce a pair of sandals...."

I think you know what I meant

Atheist Observer said...


I don’t yet see practical value. If you found clear scientific evidence that pornography increased the likelihood of rape by 1% in 1% of the population, would desire utilitarianism give you any help in deciding if that is sufficient reason to ban pornography? I find no fault in your “get all the data you can approach” but it would seem you are still forced into an arbitrary decision, whether it’s based on fulfilling or thwarting the most desires or helping or harming the most people.

Chris said...

While it's true that "how much harm can be caused by pornography?" is an empirical question, I think we can make some statements about it without needing a lot of research.

If the potential harm and addictiveness of pornography were as large as for, say, alcohol, we wouldn't need detailed research to uncover them, for the same reason that the harmful effects of alcohol were well known before the scientific method was developed. An effect of that size is nearly impossible to miss.

On the other hand, if there is some potential harmful effect that is significantly smaller than that of alcohol, the case for banning pornography which some people enjoy on the grounds that it might cause some harm will necessarily be weaker than the case for banning alcohol which some people enjoy on the grounds that it causes some harm.

Therefore, if you already accept the conclusion that banning alcohol is a bad idea, then banning pornography is necessarily a worse one. If the harm caused by alcohol doesn't overcome the presumption of liberty, then the harm caused by pornography (if there is any at all) can't either.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

Actually, the answer is not 'arbitrary'. The absence of a certain degree of precision does not justify an arbitrary conclusion. For example, astronomers have estimated the number of stars in the Milky Was as between 200 and 400 billion. This uncertainty does not justify anybody in saying, "The number of stars in the Milky Way is 3,406,439,258.6." Any implications simply must come from the fact that we have this level of certainty.

In addition, percentages simply mean ignorance on our part. If X brings about Y 1% of the time, then X brings about (Y + Z) 100% of the time - we simply (simply?) need to find out what Z is - what is responsible for the different consequences.

Finally, we are not talking about a choice between either executing those who possess pornography or rewarding them with a key to the city. A whole range of options exist between these extremes that can reflect the risk of promoting bad desires and our degree of certainty over those facts.

Ultimately, the conclusions reached are no more or less arbitrary than proclaiming a person guilty or innocent of a crime. In some cases there will clearly be evidence supporting a guilty verdict, and other times where evidence is clearly lacking. Yet, there will be times where reasonable people will disagree whether evidence beyond a reasonable doubt has been provided.

One of the things this argues for is a certain degree of experimentation. Let each community 'experiment' with different options, then look at the results - collect the data - and use that to make better theories over time. We experimented with alcohol prohibition, and the experiment failed.

It will be great to have all of the perfect right answers at our fingertips. However, we don't. We don't have all of the right answers at our fingertips in science, there is no reason to expect it in ethics. However, we do have a way of getting closer to those truths over time.

Ultimately, if you know of a system that provide more precise answers, I recommend using it. I would suggest that, however fuzzy and uncertain the answers are by this system, no other system can do better. And I would deny that the answers are 'arbitrary'; they are simply (as I said in the first part) not always easy to know.

Jim Lippard said...

The Internet has greatly increased the availability of pornography to the U.S. public. This has been accompanied by a decrease in rapes.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Jim Lippard

Of course, you know that correlation does not imply causation.

The same period has also been associated with an increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere - neither caused by nor causing an increase in the availability of pornography.


I did not write that this desire that a wilderness exist was the only desire fulfilled by wilderness. I also did not write that a desire that a state where a person is watching pornography not exist is the only desire fulfilled by a ban on pornography.

Instead, I compared one possible desire fulfilled by an absence of pornography with one possible desire fulfilled by a presence of wilderness.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Please note that you can also say something about the shape and position of the Earth just by standing outside. Namely, that it is flat and that it is at the center of the universe with everything else moving around it.

We certainly do not need to do a lot of research to discover these truths.

Actually, I would still have a question for my professional researchers. "It appears to make sense to say that we can apply the lessons of alcohol prohibition to pornography prohibition. Have you found any reason to believe that this would be a mistake?"

I cannot - by sitting at my desk and giving myself a clear and distinct idea of the two types of prohibition, deduce from this alone that no evidence disputing the similarities has not been found.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

In light of my comments above, I should add that I am not a universal skeptic. I do not believe that nothing can be known. When I speak about the need to seriously study a subject before delivering an opinion on it, I do so in the belief that one can acquire knowledge through serious study. I simply distrust the practice of rendering an opinion on something merely by sitting at one's desk and thinking about that subject.

When I write about the nature of value, I do have that 12 years of college and subsequent study to draw upon. I did not merely sit at my desk and try to form a clear and distinct idea of the concept of good.

On the issue of pornography, I do hold to a presumption in favor of liberty unless proof beyond a reasonable doubt has been provided for a need to restrict liberty. I have not heard experts in the field speak about proof beyond a reasonable doubt - I suspect it does not exist.

We do have reason to promote a general aversion to certain types of actions - sex without consent.

Consent - when supplied by a competent adult - is useful because it allows us to determine if our actions will thwart or fulfill the desires of others, according to the best informed, least corruptible source of information on the matter. So, an aversion to sex without consent is an aversion we have reason to promote.

Depictions, as if to endorse, sex without consent, or that would promote a desire for sex without consent, are a threat to our well-being to the degree that they can be successful.

Please note that the thesis that depictions as if to endorse a desire can affect the desire itself is central to desire utilitarianism. Desires are molded through praise and condemnation. So, a depiction that praises sex without consent can strengthen (or weaken counter-weights) to such a desire.

There are many and strong 'reasons for action' for condemning such depictions. There are also 'many and strong' reasons for condemning censorship. It is reasonable to expect to find some difficulty striking a balance between these legitimate concerns.

Then, to repeat, 'difficulty striking a blaance' does not entail any type of abitraryness. Inferring from, "We do not know whether A or B is correct" that "Both A and B are correct" is simply invalid. Where we do not know, we must act in the face of uncertainty. Yet, it does not follow that both options are equally good.

olvlzl said...

Alonzo, I assume you believe I haven't seriously studied the subjects I'm talking about. Do I seem as if I haven't? By your picture I would guess I might be twice your age if not even older. Please don't condescend to me, I believe I have shown you respect, not attacking the unfounded underpinnings of your philosophy. I wouldn't attack anyone for holding unfouded beliefs as it is my firm belief, as one who struggled through quite a bit more of the foundations of math than most music majors did, that no one's ideas are not based on beliefs. I know this is an unwelcom truth to materialists and positivists, I am surprised to find a utilitarian doesn't acknowledge the fact of that. I wonder what James would have made of that.

I do respect you, Alonzo, yours is one of the atheist blogs which isn't just a locus of bigotry and whining. But I would like you to return the favor by respecting me.

Jim Lippard said...

"Of course, you know that correlation does not imply causation.

The same period has also been associated with an increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere - neither caused by nor causing an increase in the availability of pornography."

Of course--but if someone claimed that the availability of pornography caused a decrease in CO2 levels in the atmosphere, it would be quite relevant to observe that pornography has become more widespread while CO2 levels have also increased. That was the point of observing that pornography has become more available than ever, while rape has declined.