Pornography is an absolute perversion of sexuality.  By this I mean that pornography promotes a state of distortion and corruption with regard to humans’ capacity for sexual feelings, sexual activity, sexual arousal and the state of romantic love from which sexuality is frequently derived.  To further articulate my assumptions, “sexual” refers to the instinctual, physiological, evolutionary processes by which humans are physically attracted to one another and act on these feelings through physical contact.  In this essay I will outline the opposing arguments given by Susan J. Brison and Andrew Altman with respect to what is morally required of humans in our views toward the production and consumption of pornography.  Next, I will assess both arguments and argue for why Brison draws an acceptable conclusion and likewise think that pornography is harmful, but that both arguments are fundamentally flawed.  I will argue that pornography is harmful but that both authors misunderstand how it is harmful and the very nature of harm on the basis of a utilitarian perspective.  Lastly, I will respond to the two most important objections to my position.

Andrew Altman defines pornography as “sexually explicit material” created and consumed willingly for the purpose of sexual excitement (Altman 224).  His primary argument rests on the assumption that “persons who view pornography are exercising their sexual autonomy” (Altman 223).  He begins by throwing away the free speech argument:  “While there are certain respects in which freedom of speech is at stake in the matter of pornography, such freedom is not the central liberty relevant to the issue, [sexual autonomy is the primary liberty]” (Altman 223).  He then contrasts views of sexuality before and after the 1960’s to conclude that “any individual has the liberty to do whatever she or he chooses” so long as this liberty is limited by the “duties that she has toward others” (Altman 225).

It is at this point that Altman makes a secondary argument: he explains that from his liberal standpoint, it is possible to separate a person’s rights from his or her morality (Altman 226).  Individuals “have a broad right to define their own sexual identity, [although] some of the activities individuals engage in are, nonetheless, morally deficient” (Altman 226).  From this platform, Altman asserts that creating and consuming violent pornography is inherently protected by ones right to be sexually autonomous, and that violent pornography neither promotes a culture of violence, sexual or otherwise, and “does not require that one ignore or exhibit indifference to the level of sexual violence in society and its harmful impact on women” (Altman 229).

Finally, Altman uses his arguments to prove that neither creating nor consuming pornography promotes sexual inequality or erodes sexual identity (Altman 229). To conclude, Altman reiterates the importance of placing liberal sexual autonomy at the center of the debate and encourages readers to separate the moral human right from the moral rightness.

In direct response to Altman, Susan J. Brison provides the feminist perspective in attempt to prove the moral harm done by pornography in society.  She says “there is no moral right to such pornography” and goes on to define pornography differently than Altman saying it is “violent degrading misogynistic hate speech” that unjustly harms women and “there is no moral right to produce, sell or consume it” (Brison 237).  Brison opposes Altman’s assertion that participants in the manufacture of pornography are willing participants, detailing a “not uncommon” scenario in which a girl is trapped in the industry after a life dictated by coercion, fear and unwanted sex (Brison 238).

Brison also offers an analogy, explaining that porn is akin to an imaginary club in which blacks consent to play the part of slaves who are beaten, whipped and humiliated by “masters” who get off on the activity. Mistreatment and even “dehumanizing” of blacks and women for sport or pornographic consumption, according to Brison, causes “indirect or diffuse harms” which downplay the seriousness of harm to women surrounding the creation and consumption of pornography (Brison 240).  

Brison’s piece climaxes as she confronts Altman and argues that even if pornography was a moral and legal right, those affected by it any any way still have the right to prevent the consumption of pornography, such as a “girlfriend (or boyfriend) who became convinced it was ruining their relationship” ripping it from his or her partners hands (Brison 245).  She disassembles Altman’s argument on the basis that the “right to be turned on” is not inherent but instead shaped by the production of pornography and that in some studies men have even been conditioned to be aroused by a boot (Brison 246).  With this being said, she works to conclude that consumption and production of pornography through the lens of liberal sexual autonomy makes sense only if one considers the entire population affected by a consumer and producer sharing porn.  She claims that as we adjust our scope to include all that are harmed, “we should no longer accept pornography’s harms as the price we pay for sexual autonomy” (Brison 248).

Between the two authors’ presentations, it is clear that Brison’s conclusion is far more intelligent and convincing.  Brison at least touches on the fact that pornography’s presence resonates far past a computer screen in a dark basement.  Her conclusion is convincing in that it recognizes the “right” to pornography tramples the rights of the many people it harms and that the “if you don’t like it, don’t look at it” response is absurd in this situation, as in most.  She also provides a compelling case for the specific moral wrongness of pornography production as she discusses the ability of pornographers to “turn the world into a place where people get turned on by such images” (Brison 246).  She recognizes that morality does not exist in a vacuum, and for this reason her argument has merit.  Despite the conclusions Brison draws, hers and Altman’s arguments are equally worthless for the following reasons:  a misunderstanding of sexuality, a misunderstanding of the degradation caused and the juxtaposition of actions and morality.  These shortcomings will be explained from a utilitarian standpoint.

As defined in the first sentences, things of the sexual nature are the instinctual, physiological, psychological and evolutionary processes by which humans are physically attracted to one another.  Sexuality peaks at intercourse but is critical in all physical and emotional encounters between humans.  When a person consumes pornography, Brison and Altman insist that he or she is expressing sexuality, and both offer hints of recognition that this may spill over into situations of violence or the suppression of females, but neither addresses what is really at stake:  a person’s entire sexuality and, thus, the sexuality of others–a far more important value for utilitarians.  When pornography is consumed, a person’s psychological view of other people is altered.  This is expressed physiologically through conscious or unconscious physical manifestations.  Through pornography, experiences of real sexuality are distorted and marred in a psychological mess of abstract sexual organs in various poses.  Instances of attraction and lust are not contained in a vacuum when viewing pornography; they are expressed outwardly and become part of a person’s sexuality permanently.  Sexuality is an interaction:  it is impossible without another party involved.  To offer an analogy, assume a man watches videos daily of another man offering yelling lessons.  The video insists its viewers yell everything they say, and assume this man gradually has his conversational volume affected, in the same way pornography affects sexuality.  Slowly, the man will begin speaking louder and louder until he too is yelling in a public place.  His yelling causes the elderly to turn down their hearing aids and children everywhere to cover their ears.  He is causing the people around him to experience the opposite of happiness.  It is immoral to decrease the happiness of others by yelling at them every day.  This is because conversation, like sexuality, is an interaction.  Volume is far easier to comprehend than complex sexuality, so the example is clearer.  Neither Altman nor Brison attempt to show the effects of an altered sexuality.  

“If some women voluntarily choose to make pornography in which they are engaged in humiliating or degrading conduct, then their actions affect all women in a detrimental way (Altman 232).  “With regard to pornographic depictions, it would be difficult to argue that the degradation and subordination of women they involve are merely incidental to their ability to arouse.  The arousal is dependent on the depiction of degradation” (Brison 241).  These two quotes demonstrate the same flaw: the immoral assumption that only the females are degraded.  This disregards both equality and fairness, pivotal aspects of morality.  The nature of man is to share love with his sexuality through giving, or offering.  The nature of woman is to share love with her sexuality through  receiving, taking, or accepting.  The opposing natures of men and women are not a dichotomy but a symbiosis:  neither is bad or good, they simply are.  When combined in the true spirit of sexuality, they achieve great pleasure and happiness.  Therefore when they are perverted in the spirit of pornography, it is not the female who is degraded, it is the symbiosis–the team.  No one gender can take the blame for the creation of porn because no one person was degraded.  It is immoral of both Brison and Altman to push readers to the common erroneous conclusion that only women are degraded through pornography simply because of an abstraction of woman’s inherent sexual nature.

The final misunderstanding Altman presents, and Brison agrees to, is perhaps the most erroneous and immoral of all:  a man’s actions and his morality can be separated.  “Some of the activities which individuals have a right to engage in are, nonetheless, morally deficient” (Altman 226).

“In the mind [of]every individual [is] an indissoluble association between his own happiness and the good of the whole; especially between his own happiness and the practice of such modes of conduct, negative and positive, as regard the universal happiness prescribes: so that only he may be unable to conceive the possibility of to himself, consistently with conduct opposed the general good but also that a direct impulse to the general good may be in every individual of the habitual motives of action.”

(Mill 25)


In this quote, Mill explains that in order for a person to be moral, he or she must direct all actions with a regard to universal happiness.  Utilitarian morality is directed toward this greatest happiness principle at all times.  One cannot separate his actions and his rights from his morality.  All action and intention must be directed toward the greatest happiness.  Therefore a man cannot possibly have a right to commit an immoral action, as Altman argues.  Violating the rights of another man is an immoral action, man has no rights which violate the rights of others, therefore man cannot have a right which leads to a morally deficient character as both Altman and Brison hold.

Objections to the utilitarian morality are numerous.  In this specific case study, two objections immediately appear clear to me and must be addressed.  The first was already briefly discussed, but the defense must be fortified:  this is the argument for positive moral intentions.  The second objection is that porn creates much happiness, and therefore must be moral for utilitarians.

An informal poll of college males will reveal a significant population of pornography consumers.  Many of these offer the “intention argument” as a defense saying, “I don’t purposely allow pornography to degrade my sexuality and I don’t think it does.  Furthermore, I don’t intend to hurt others with my actions nor do I intend to do anything immoral.”  Some might offer, “it’s just porn, dude.  I didn’t consider any of that.”  Mill addresses this specific pitfall in defense of utilitarianism:  “persons, even of considerable mental endowments, often give themselves so little trouble to understand the bearings of any opinion against which they entertain a prejudice, and men are in general so little conscious of this voluntary ignorance as a defect, that the vulgarest misunderstandings of ethical doctrines are continually met [by persons of ‘high principle and philosophy’]” (31).  Morality has no room for ignorance; intentions based on ignorance are no excuse for decreasing happiness, or for acting immorally.

The second most common objection comes from those who misunderstand utilitarianism entirely, those who give utilitarians a bad name.  These objectors insist that pornography generates pleasure, and utilitarians seek pleasure to be moral.  This objection is a shell of the truth.  Mill’s “greatest happiness principle” contends that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Mill 10).  He further asserts that happiness and pleasure are relative terms:  a satisfied pig or “rascal” is much different than a satisfied intellectual (Mill 13).  Greater happinesses exist and humans who have achieved happiness at this level.  Those who experience“the sense of dignity,” for example, are more moral in that their lives seek more happiness and they seek to increase the happiness of those around them.  What critics of utilitarianism do not understand is that this scale of happiness is not absolute. “[Objectors] look on the morality of actions, as measured by the utilitarian standard, with too exclusive a regard, and do not lay sufficient stress upon the other beauties of character” (Mill 30).  This is why the classic anti-utilitarian argument of Ursula K. Le Guin, in which a child is essentially tortured beneath a city in order to allow the city’s citizens to live in ultimate happiness, is a preposterous description of utilitarian morality.  John Stuart Mill extends the values of happiness to include the derivatives and foundations of that happiness, in other words, happiness in any amount at the direct expense of suffering was never happiness in the first place.  Pornography clearly makes producers happy, as demonstrated by the ever increasing volume of pornography available.  It also makes the consumer happy, as hours of pornography viewership rise as well.  These values of happiness, however, come only at an expense that a utilitarian would deem too great to be considered moral.


Works Cited

Altman, Andrew.  “The Right to Get Turned On:  Pornography, Autonomy, Equality.” Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics. Ed. Andrew I. Cohen and Christopher Heath Wellman.  Hoboken, New Jersey:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2005.  First Edition.  223-235.  Print.

Brison, Susan J.  “‘The Price We Pay?’  Pornography and Harm.” Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics. Ed. Andrew I. Cohen and Christopher Heath Wellman.  Hoboken, New Jersey:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2005.  First Edition. 236-250.  Print.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1879.  Electronic, digitized by Google.

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