Friday, January 11, 2008

Some thoughts on a Friday afternoon...

Patrick's most recent post at Driving Out the Snakes opines about the depravity pervasive in society's moral fabric in the context of reality television, from the Czech Republic, where subscribers to a program can watch prostitutes have sex with johns.

He is certainly well within his right to find such a thing morally depraved. I may have different views on the subject but my primary disagreement is with this passage:

A liberal-minded person might argue that it's all voluntary and no one is harmed. I beg to differ.

Consider poor Nick, who is quoted above (something tells me that Nick isn't exactly a Don Juan back home in France.) This 36-year-old, unmarried "bank security technician" isn't doing himself any favors with this activity, especially if he has any visions of ever settling down with a woman. And there is probably a woman in France who would like to settle down with a guy like Nick - but she won't get to do so because he has taught himself that women are nothing but sex objects. She's a victim, too.

Then there are the prostitutes. They may be well-paid, but at what cost to their dignity, their health, and their self-image? Finally there are the thousands of people, mainly men, who view this material and become addicted. Many marriages are destroyed in this way, leaving wives and children shattered into pieces. From there the trail of destruction expands geometrically.

I don't disagree that the consequences from making wrong decisions can devastate families. I can relate to that specificially, being a child of parents who divorced after 35 years because of the decision of one of them to violate the marital vows. There was harm and I experienced a great deal of pain from it firsthand.

However, should my outrage at my own situation and the harm I suffered be sufficient justification to try to do everything I possibly can to prevent people who have not been harmed from acting in this manner? Should Patrick's outrage towards sleazy reality television and the widespread availability of pornography and the harm he believes to happen as a result sufficient justification for a democratic majority of like-minded individuals to use legislation as a weapon to cure evil social ills?

The problem here is with the use of the word harm. I do not believe it truly represents the classically-liberal/libertarian view on the role of government because the word "harm" can be construed so broadly that governance based on a harm principle can be plausibly argued to justify just about any sort of encroachment into the private affairs of individuals.

This specific liberal (or (l)ibertarian if you will) would argue that not only is the action between two individuals voluntary and consensual, but it does not violate the rights of others. In this context, while we can argue that each of the parties above could conceivably suffer harm, in no case is the rights of anyone violated.

While the woman who could have settled down with Nick may "be a victim" of Nick's poor decisionmaking, she had no right to settle down with him. As far as the prostitute, as she has control over her decisions. Nick is not coercing her into sacrificing her self image, health and dignity. It is a consensual sex act, not an act of rape.

As callous as it sounds, while people who cheat on their spouses or view pornography may be violating a multitude of morally (and perhaps legally) binding oblgiations, looking at rights from the perspective I have been (i.e. natural rights to life, liberty and property), again it is clear to me that no rights have been violated.

To reiterate, I do not mean to suggest that these actions may not be immoral, reckless, irresponsible and/or exercised with the worst judgment possible (if I did this, it would be - that's for sure).

There's more that can be said about this, but Patrick did not explicitly state whether or not government should enforce prohibitions on this sort of activity. Anything else I would add on this involves that discussion, but since we haven't had it, there's little use starting one at this point.

3 comments:

KipEsquire said...

These non-libertarians who would ban prostitution to save a hooker's or john's dignity are the same non-libertarians who would rather see a renal patient die than be able to buy a kidney from a poor but competent adult.

Same false logic, same category of outcome, same deserving of unequivocal scorn and contempt.

Terrence C. Watson said...

"The problem here is with the use of the word harm. I do not believe it truly represents the classically-liberal/libertarian view on the role of government because the word "harm" can be construed so broadly that governance based on a harm principle can be plausibly argued to justify just about any sort of encroachment into the private affairs of individuals."

AMEN! I've long thought that the word "harm" is, ahem, harmful to the rhetoric of limited government.

I understand the appeal of the word is that it _seems_ to allow one to define a category of prohibited without presupposing some comprehensive (and hence controversial) moral theory.

The problem is that without the backing of a deeper moral theory, the meaning of "harm" is left vague, and hence easily stretched in whatever direction the theorist wants to take it in.

We'd all be better served if such theorists just admitted you can't really get substantive moral content from morality-free premises, and then went about telling us about the comprehensive moral theory they prefer.

Joel Feinberg's work is probably one of the most comprehensive explorations of the meaning of the word since J.S. Mill, and it still comes up short.

Patrick said...

Hi there, thanks for the link. Thanks also for acknowledging that I didn't call for these immoral activities to be criminalized. That's an issue I haven't completely thought through. I take no position either way on it.

The main point I wished to make is that prostitution and pornography have negative effects on people other than those who are immediately involved. Whether they are crimes or not, I don't accept the argument that they are "victimless."