Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Morals of Porn: Altman vs. Brison

The following paper is my final paper submitted at GSU. It had formatting requirements and a page limit of 7 pages, so it's woefully short.


          In this paper, it is my intention to defend Andrew Altman’s position supporting the moral right to sexual autonomy via the production and/or consumption of pornography. To do this I will present a brief synopsis of Altman’s position found in the article “The Right to Get Turned On: Pornography, Autonomy, Equality”. Following this, I will present a brief synopsis of Susan J. Brison’s opposing view found in the article ““The Price We Pay”? Pornography and Harm”. I will then compare the two positions. Following this I will defend the right to consume or produce pornography while answering some of the issues raised in Brison’s paper. I will then critique these stances and re-defend them, after which I will conclude the paper.
            Before the examination of the two positions outlined above, it would be helpful to start with the principle of harm that both authors seem to refer to when considering the moral implications of pornography. Written by John Stuart Mill[1] in “On Liberty” it is as follows:
“That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” [Mills 9th paragraph[2]]
            Andrew Altman defines pornography as “sexually explicit material, in words or images, which is intended by its creators to excite sexually those who are willing viewers of the material” [Altman 224]. In Altman’s view, the purpose of pornography is to express or explore one’s own sexuality and is thus tied to sexual autonomy and any debate regarding pornography should be starting from ones sexual autonomy [Altman 223].
            Altman points out that due to the nature of individuality, different individuals are aroused by very different things and this should be viewed as an acceptable thing [Altman 224]. With this in mind, however, as Altman holds to the Mills harm principle, this moral right to varying sexual autonomy, and thus pornography, does not mean that a person has a moral right to ‘pornographic’ materials of children or of individuals actually being sexually assaulted [Altman 223-224].     
This standard works in the opposite direction as well. Altman stands by the concept that, assuming that the ‘pornography’ in question does not involve children or any non-consenting adults, then the adults in question, either producing or consuming said ‘pornography’, have a moral right to what they are doing [Altman 226]. Altman also notes that such a view is also consistent to the concept of finding a person whom consumes such materials as morally deficient [Altman 226]. It is not necessary to personally accept another’s sexuality, but rather to allow them to explore it in regards to the harm principle as stated above [Altman 226].    
            In Brison’s paper, she defines pornography as “violent degrading misogynistic hate speech (where "speech" includes words, pictures, films, etc.)” [Brison 238]. Brison holds that there are many direct harms as well as indirect harms. Examples, in Brison’s own words, of said harms are as follows:
“…(1) harms to those who have pornography forced on them, (2) increased or reinforced discrimination against - and sexual abuse of - girls and women, (3) harms to boys and men whose attitudes toward women and whose sexual desires are influenced by pornography, and (4) harms to those who have already been victimized by sexual violence” [Brison 240]
            To further strengthen her case, Brison also uses two examples of harm. The first being a direct harm to a woman named Evelina Giobbe and the second an example of indirect harm in the form of an ‘intuition pump[3]’. In the case of Giobbe, after running away at 13 she was raped, had nude photos taken to ensure her acquiescence and then was forced to watch pornography to learn how to act while being forced into prostitution [Brison 239].
            In the case of the ‘intuition pump’ Brison suggests a scenario in which there is a club where African Americans go and ‘pretend’ to be slaves for Caucasian patrons [Brison 240]. Assuming that such ‘entertainment’ became popular, Brison suggests that such a club or industry would destroy any progress to social equality that our society has made since there would supposedly be a carryover of views from the club to everyday life [Brison 240].  Brison uses this scenario to draw an allegory to pornography and the views that men have toward women and women’s social standing within society [Brison 240].
            There is a significant difference between Altman’s definition and understanding of the term ‘pornography’ and the definition and understanding that Brison has. Altman’s usage seems to be closer in line with the popular definition and usage of the term [Altman 223] whereas Brison’s definition cites a certain type of hate speech [Brison 238]. As such, it could be construed that the two of them are speaking of completely different things.
To understand the two positions more fully one must relate their positions to Mill’s harm principle as stated earlier. Altman seems to feel that there is little to no harm in production of pornography by willing adults and little to no harm by other willing adults consuming this pornography [Altman 226]. Brison holds that there is harm in the production of pornography [or at least the violent, brutal type] and implied harm by the consumption [Brison 240].
            For the sake of defending Altman’s position in contrast to Brison’s position, I will use the same definition of ‘pornography’ that Altman uses. This is not to simply throw support behind Altman. In the case of Brison’s definition, although we had stated that it could be construed that Brison is speaking of hate speech and labeling it ‘pornography’ and as such is not reporting on the same kind of thing that Altman is referring to, it is difficult to keep this conclusion while reading her paper.
Take the Giobbe case, for example. Giobbe reported that when she was initially being forced into prostitution she was shown pornography and instructed or forced to emulate what she saw [Brison 239]. It would seem that the implied harm of the pornography in this case was in what manner it was used, not in what it depicted. It is quite possible that Brison uses the definition “violent degrading misogynistic hate speech (where "speech" includes words, pictures, films, etc.)” [Brison 238] to influence the reader to be more inclined toward her position [appeal to emotion] as upon close inspection, the definition itself is fairly vague.
            Brison also makes a general claim that women in pornography do not or cannot consent to leading a life that goes into such a profession [Brison 239 – 240]. Her apparent view here is that any woman who willingly goes into said profession either didn’t have much of a choice or seem to be unable to critically evaluate their situation [Brison 239-240].  To such a claim I would point to women such as Joanna Angel. Ms. Angel owns her own pornography studio and ‘stars’ in a number of her own films. She claims to have a degree in English and is involved in porn because she likes it[4] [Angel ‘More about me’ and ‘Turn On’s’].
            There is a lot of assumption on Brison’s part regarding the supposed effects on men and their attitudes by viewing pornography. I would argue that it is the same type of reasoning used by certain conservatives in their denouncing of homosexual parents: ‘if a child is raised by homosexuals, then the child will become homosexual’. Such an assumption that ingrained and fairly personal views on sexuality can be so easily affected is insulting and appears to be a slippery slope.
            I agree with Altman in his view that pornography is an expression of a person’s sexuality [Altman 223]. Furthermore, pornography is fiction, a fantasy, and is held as so. Let us assume, however that a young person may have their sexuality influenced by such a fantasy.
Much like a young person watching a movie in which Superman flies away, there is the possibility that they might try to jump off of their roof one afternoon in emulation. This is due to a young person’s inability to separate fact from fiction. It is also these concerns that make it a criminal offence to allow a child to consume pornography. Granted, the actual motivation is more likely an attempt to keep young, sexually curious children from having sex [something that is dubious in effect at best], it should still be noted that by the time a person is legally allowed to consume such products, they will have hopefully grown old enough to know better.
            A critique that could potentially be brought against the position that Altman and I are holding as true is one that Brison has already brought forth. Holding that pornography is an expression of an agent’s sexuality, is it still morally acceptable to allow pornography if there is potential harm to those who produce pornography or if pornography somehow affects an agent’s behavior toward a segment of the population? [Brison 240]
            To support this critique, Brison uses the example of a club which caters to those who wish to propagate slave scenarios for some type of personal pleasures [Brison 240]. Brison claims that such a club would harm all blacks just by its existence and the attitudes that people who pay to participate take away from the clubs [Brison 240].
            The first response to Brison should be that there are clubs that do this very thing[5]. These clubs cater to segments of the population that wish to indulge in various ‘deviant[6]’ behaviors that, although not particularly illegal, are still morally repugnant to many others.  Brison may look at such clubs and claim that it is clear evidence that such things need to be shut down as they are morally insulting to some based upon a moral standard that has no actual philosophical basis.  
            Bluntly speaking, one cannot claim harm because their sense of propriety is insulted. If I find that anything that the KKK or a neo-nazi group do or say to be repugnant, as I usually do, and others hold my position, shouldn’t we claim they have no moral right to their speech? Moreover, shouldn’t we then say that only certain types of speech or images or artwork should be morally allowed because without those tight controls, there may be someone that is in some way upset or harmed in an intangible way by those free words?
            A likely rebuttal to such a claim is that ‘that is either a slippery slope claim or perhaps a Reductio ad absurdum’. I would disagree with such a rebuttal. It does not seem to be much of a leap from prohibiting pornography because of some type of implied harm done to someone’s psyche due to living in a world where pornography is consumed [Brison 240] and claiming that all medias of any kind should be censored for much of the same reasons.
            Overall, I do not wish to say that Brison is completely incorrect with her assertions, as many of the given examples [a 13 year old girl being forced to participate in pornography (Brison 239)] fail Mill’s harm principle and are in line with Altman’s views as well [Altman 226].
However, given the nature of sexuality and the role that pornography plays in expression or exploration of said sexuality, Altman’s claim of moral right to the production and consumption seems to be correct. In this paper, I feel that I showed that some of the claims that Brison makes are either false or at the very least, suspect.










Bibliography:
1)      van Mill, David, "Freedom of Speech", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2009/entries/freedom-speech/
2)      Mill, John Stuart, “On Liberty”, 1859  URL = http://www.utilitarianism.com/ol/one.html
3)      Brown, James Robert and Fehige, Yiftach, "Thought Experiments", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/thought-experiment/
4)      Angel, Joanna http://www.joannaangel.com/about/
5)      Altman, Andrew: “The Right to Get Turned On: Pornography, Autonomy, Equality”; Andrew I. Cohen;Christopher Heath Wellman. Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics (Contemporary Debates in Philosophy) Kindle Edition.
6)      Brison, Susan J.:“The Price We Pay”? Pornography and Harm”; Andrew I. Cohen;Christopher Heath Wellman. Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics (Contemporary Debates in Philosophy) Kindle Edition.


[1] To assure myself of the quote, I cross referenced this article: van Mill, David, "Freedom of Speech", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2009/entries/freedom-speech/ 
[2] If you look up the link provided in the Bibliography, you will find what appears to be the text reprinted online. The quote here is taken from the 9th paragraph.
[3] Or a ‘thought experiment’ not to suggest that the reader isn’t aware of the term, I feel it to be better to link a reference, just in case: Brown, James Robert and Fehige, Yiftach, "Thought Experiments", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/thought-experiment/>
[4] I realize how suspect such a bio is. The only reason I feel that it is truthful is from her appearances on Cracked.com [a comedy site which is where I was introduced to her]. I only use her as an example of a contradictory position to Brison’s. If you check this source, please be advised that it is pornographic in nature.
[5] Because of the nature of this type of club, it is hard to give a source that can be verified.
[6] I use the term deviant here to mean ‘unusual’ or ‘not of the norm’. It is not my place or intention to make any kind of claim about someone’s sexuality. 

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