On what grounds can a democratic state interfere to prohibit or limit its citizens from producing, distributing and consuming pornography? Does the state have any right to prohibit pornography or would it rather be violation of basic liberties of individuals? Under what circumstances prohibiting pornography can be justified?

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    Based on the answers, I would suggest this is a two part question - What grounds does a (democratic) state have to legislate on anything? What are the arguments for and against a prohibition on pornography?
    – CCarter
    Nov 26, 2015 at 14:10
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    I think phrasing this in the context of a "democratic state" is misleading. The only grounds a democratic state needs is (1) a majority and (2) being within existing legislation. Neither of those are technically bound by morals or ethics or anything. Nov 26, 2015 at 18:08
  • The scientific consensus surrounding the effects of pornography can have philosophical implications. (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effects_of_pornography) [This is not medical and/or legal advice.] Jul 6, 2019 at 19:47
  • I argue since that we know non-extreme pornography does not have a strong effect either in either positive or negative sense, I would argue that it is up to the individual to decide their comfort zone. However, it is still largely an inconclusive matter. It is also very hard to suppress pornography. The answer to pornography is science: sex education and making educated choices. [This is not medical and/or legal advice.] Jul 8, 2019 at 12:07
  • "I argue since that we know non-extreme pornography does not have a strong effect either in either positive or negative sense ... " I admit that this statement is probably controversial, but it is still generally accepted. I'm leaving this as a comment since it is not good enough to be answer. Jul 8, 2019 at 12:08

5 Answers 5


Some of the answers to these set of questions you raised reside on Mill's principle of harm presented in his influential essay On Liberty (1859). According to this principle, the state can rightfully exercise its power over any citizen in order to prevent harm to others. So, if pornography causes harm to others, it follows, such principle could be justly activated. Another principle sometimes made use of is what may be called legal moralism, and yet another is what may be called legal paternalism. According to the latter, the state can rightfully exercise its power over any citizen in order to prevent him/her from harming themselves; and according to the former, the state can rightfully exercise its power over any citizen in order to protect what is plausibly assumed to be standards of community morality.

There seem to have been consensus that pornography involving children - either as acts or as consumers - should justly be prohibited. But the question of whether censorship of pornography may be justified in the case of consenting adults has portrayed disagreements. Moral Conservatives, for instance, contend that the state should prohibit pornography as part of its responsibility for its citizens. They advocate legal moralism and legal paternalism. Liberals on the other hand perceive pornography as a manifestation of freedom of speech and advocate the principle of harm - the only grounds that may be legitimate for state limitation on individual's freedom is in order to prevent harm to others. Feminists too voice their position. Some feminists, e.g. Catharine MacKinnon, argue that pornography should be justly prohibited as it violates women’s civil right (of equality); it is a political practice defining the treatment and status of all women, establishing them as inferior to men. Yet other feminists contend that pornography rather liberates women and assists in establishing gender equality.


Though user @JordanS has delivered an excellent, well-informed synoptic answer, more can be said.

First, the question is appallingly American, by which I mean historically provincial. The state can prohibit pornography or anything else because it is "the state." The "state" is not to be confused as an entity with the government, the people, the nation, the economy, the history... or all the other systems that fall vaguely under the false identity "america."

The "state" is not necessarily responsive internally to its citizens. It is responsive externally to other "states." To perserve itself it must continually adjust its internal relations. This includes, above all, the distribution of information. For example, the "financial" information on your computer enjoys different, and usually stricter, legal protections than the "sexual" information on your computer.

This is quite reasonable. As a "financial" or "sexual" being you are never an isolated individual. You exist only in relation to others. The state, for better or worse, will configure these relations, and they will evolve. Unless you are a confirmed solipsist, you have no absolute "right" to privacy... or to anything else. Your "rights" will evolve in relation to your dependence upon the state, which is typically absolute.

However, I must add that a small minority of your fellow citizens do not depend on the state. The extremely wealthy live under an international regime and can select the legal or moral "rights" they enjoy in ways that wage-earners inside states cannot. This seems like a long way from your question about "pornography." But it is not. It concerns "rights" within "states." What is pornographic is the financial violation, or "rape," of the implicit social consensus manifested in the state.

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    Nelson Alexander, if got you right what you're saying is that the question could be tackled also through international realm via reference to the extremely wealthy?
    – user18079
    Nov 26, 2015 at 6:38
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    My initial thought on the question was to somehow tie pornography to capitalism and free markets, and your suggestion might be doing that job.
    – user18079
    Nov 26, 2015 at 6:47
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    Certainly. State boundaries are "limits" defining "rights" and much else, especially the freedom of labor to relocate. The term "human rights" is valuable but ideal, diversionary, and utopian. Even at their most humane, such rights are conditional, never absolute. To shout about "our rights" can be good politics. But never mistake it for reality. To think rationally, one must be aware of, but also abstract away, artificialities like "state" boundaries. Nov 26, 2015 at 6:50
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    “First, the question is appallingly American, by which I mean historically provincial” I don’t follow this. Both today and historically, many other states have banned or restricted pornography, and have considered concepts of individual liberty as part of the ethical and legal framework for their powers. Nov 27, 2015 at 14:19
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    @PeterLeFanu. Yes, this may be unclear. I was not at all referring to "pornography," I was referring to a somewhat naive view of "the state" and human rights, such as the "right" to free speech or property "rights." Certainly, I have nothing against the Kantian ideal of human rights and the Kingdom of Ends. But, in my view, Americans tend to be very historically naive about such matters. The "natural rights" of the "independent" individual appear prior to the reality of the social structure,and we are shocked, shocked by their infringement. Especially so for "property rights." Nov 27, 2015 at 16:00

Ideally speaking, a democratic government exists to enforce the will of the people, or at least a majority thereof. (This ideal is not very well fulfilled, but that is another discussion.)

If a majority of the people wants pornography to be illegal, the government can and should legislate and enforce this.

Of course, in most democracies the majority also wants freedom of speech. And these two popular wishes are in conflict.

To make the situation livable, the government should make clear laws defining what is and is not legal in the borderline cases. These laws should preferably be in accordance with what the majority thinks on the matter.

Some people will disagree with these laws. Some will think that they are too strict, and some will think they are too lenient. This is in the nature of democracy.

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    This raises the issue of the tyranny of the majority.
    – Pål GD
    Nov 26, 2015 at 10:48
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    Yes it does. And it is a thorny issue. Especially when it comes to limitations on freedom of speech. Nov 27, 2015 at 8:09
  • @PålGD The issue of tyranny of majority raises the issue of democracy. Is it ethic enough to serve as a cover for the American Imperialism? Apr 6, 2016 at 17:42
  • Many people wrongfully conflate the ideas of democracy and political liberalism. A country where a majority of people desire, and enforce by law, the ban of pornography or state ownership of factories, is no less democratic than a country where a majority of people desire, and enforce by law, the right to product porn or total economic freedom. Outside of freedom of speech and political involvement, no liberty is intrinsic to democracy. It is only contingent that we expect people to maximize their freedom.
    – armand
    Jul 8, 2019 at 9:06
  • It’s also quite possible that a huge majority thinks pornography is bad, while at the same time a huge majority thinks the state restricting the freedoms of its citizens is bad. And that in this particular case, allowing citizens to watch adult pornography is the lesser evil (while allowing citizens to watch child pornography would be a bigger evil).
    – gnasher729
    Jul 14, 2019 at 8:16

In some European jurisdictions democratic states can in fact send you to prison if you so much as draw pornography depicting children out of your imagination (no models) or even write such stories in the basement of your house and only for the "benefit" of your own (debased) "pleasure" in that basement, without said "works" ever leaving said basement or be "appreciated" by other persons. The laws do not specifically describe the above scenario but are so broadly worded such as the above scenario perfectly falls within the definition of the "child pornography" crime. Poses interesting "thought crime" philosophical questions as much as any of us would abhor such a person and find his "works" extremely offensive, sick and repugnant.

So I guess the way even the most democratic society can enact laws that from a philosophical, or perhaps even legal, point of view may appear technically problematic is to not enact them explicitly but allow these border cases to emanate out of the "penumbras" of not very precisely worded but obviously well-intended laws.


Your question is appallingly uninformed about the kinds of harms that pornography can do. Have you considered the amount of child pornography circulating on the internet and easily downloadable by just about anyone? And of which the tech companies have deliberately claimed no responsibility by pretending that they aren't publishing companies whilst eviscerating traditional journalism and publishing?

Democracies need to take into account the health - both moral, sexual, intellectual and physical - of all their citizens and not just those few oligarchs that stand to make billions from pornography (and their lackeys who brown-nose up to them). Thats why they're democracies and not tyrannies.

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    As much as i share your concerns about children (though i am afraid they are out of scope here), this is just a political rant without philosophical content
    – armand
    Jul 11, 2019 at 2:59
  • @armand: It’s demonstrating the harms that pornographers can do and that understanding ought to be part of an informed question on pornography. The philosophical question here is whether intent matters - and it does - and that is worth a ‘rant’ - whether you think so or not. Jul 17, 2019 at 3:10
  • @Armand: Can you explain exactly why ‘concerns about children ... are out of scope here’. I’d like to hear how you justify this. Jul 17, 2019 at 3:11
  • Because the OP did not speak about child porn, just porn. Child molestation is the vilest crime there is. Don't put words in my mouth.
    – armand
    Jul 17, 2019 at 4:40
  • @Armand: If you do not speak out there will be people who will put words in your mouth. Like you did to me - as I’m still puzzled exactly why you think I was ‘ranting’ where I was merely making my concerns about the lack of understanding about the issues the OP displays by his question. I am concerned about harms that porn entails, particularly in today’s world where online child porn gangs are active. It’s not merely my concern, I read a recent article in the Daily Mail which reported a site dealing with such harms had 40,000 worried parents enquiring. Jul 17, 2019 at 4:47

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