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What is wrong with watching child pornography? Let's be clear that child abuse is wrong, and anything that makes more of it likely in the future is also wrong. Even if we agree that watching child pornography which encourages further harm to children is wrong, it seems less clear where the wrong is in doing so when there is no chance of causing harm. There are many pictures of adults and children who have been harmed to an extent at least on a par with the victims of such child abuse from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we do not normally think that viewing those images is wrong or makes us complicit.

The most obvious candidate is the motive of sexual gratification on the part of the viewer. What makes that different from the motives of readers of bombs in the Middle-East? Is it the fact that the viewer must have a deviant sexual orientation or because they are benefiting from the harm in a way that the reader isn't? The first reason seems off the mark since it seems that the act of viewing is wrong and the sexual orientation it reveals. The second looks more plausible, but a reader might have a strong preference for articles about bombs, and benefit inasmuch as they satisfy their preference.

In most domains in our society, the prevailing idea is that censorship is wrong unless it directly harms others. Usually, we say that media - text, images and videos - are free to consume (in the sense of legal freedom, not cost) and the traditional liberal reason seems to be that however appalling we may find the content of such media, it simply contains more information about the world. Various exceptions have been raised, like inciting racist violence, but there's a clear harm consequence which doesn't feature here. Also, if we wanted to ban material that harmed people by exposing their suffering to others (even though they're not aware of their exposure) then photos of bomb victims should not be acceptable.

I'm being tendentious on purpose because there's very little critical discussion of this topic, even in broadsheets. It seems to be that if the suffering and long-term trauma of children is what makes it so bad then we should be clear about that and focus our anger on that. Is there anything to be gained from demonizing people for merely looking at something that almost all of us agree is wrong?

September 22, 2009

Response from Richard Heck on October 3, 2009

Let me ask a view questions.

Is it clear that viewing child pornography is always wrong? Consider a detective who is viewing it in an attempt to establish the identities of the participants.

Is it clear that any photograph of children being sexually exploited by adults is ipso facto wrong? Consider a reporter who takes pictures of some politician in bed with a pre-pubescent boy.

What is distinctive of the case in which we would intuitively regard the viewing as wrong? What attitude towards the participants does such viewing involve? In particular, what attitude towards the children does it involve? Does viewing child pornography as a way of achieving sexual gratification seem compatible with a compassionate attitude towards children and a proper respect for their interests and their autonomy? Does it seem compatible with a proper appreciation of their suffering? The wrong might lie less in the viewing than it what one's viewing such things as a means of sexual gratification says about the person doing the viewing.

That said, these are questions about morals, and some of the questions raised strike me more as questions about law. And it's a different question whether possession of child pornography should have the sorts of legal consequences it does. Here, it seems to me that the legal justification has to be that possession of such material involves supporting the market for such material and thereby contributing to the exploitation of children. But one could agree with that and yet wonder whether some of the laws concerning child pornography are not overly broad. Not many years ago, a woman was arrested in Cambridge Massachusetts when she went to pick up some photographs that showed her husband playing with their naked toddler on the beach. The person who developed the photographs had notified the Cambridge Police Department and called them when she arrived.


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