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.
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.