This may be a delicate question and maybe not really appropiate in a philosophy forum. I was thinking about what do we find disgusting and aberrant in pedophilia, mainly two questions:

  1. In what senses are pedophilia and similar practices wrong?
  2. How do we "grow" to find it disgusting?

Let me explain: I remember reading (long ago) about incestuous relations in an anthropology book. The author said something in the lines of

  1. Incest is wrong biologically in that a child of close relatives may have more genetic diseases. Also it is wrong ____lly because (some reasons I can't quite remember)
  2. It is suggested that two people raised together feel no sexual drive towards each other even if they are not related

Are there similar arguments against pedophilia? I understand that you may not be sexually attracted to your own offspring but what about someone else's? Are there examples of pedophilia in the animal kingdom? Also, someone could make the argument that some kind of "sexual play" could be beneficial for educational purposes in such a taboo subject. In the last sentence I mean "sexual" in that it would involve sexual organs, not really sexual/erotic attraction to a child, but that may not be considered pedophilia per se

Please let me know if this question belongs better in any stack exchange other than philosophy. Also understand that it is a purely scientific/philosophical question which looks for a scientific/philosophical answer. I'm not looking for an answer in the lines of "well, the universe doesn't say it is wrong, so technically it is not", but rather a reasonable and rational explanation.



2 Answers 2


The question why we do condemn paedophilia morally is one that socoiology and psychology between them are able to settle. I take the issue to be the morality of paedophilia in the context of ethics. Why should we, or should we, condemn paedophilia?

To fix ideas, I take paedophilia to refer (1) to sexual attraction of adults to pre-pubescent and pubescent children. In the cases that raise the greatest moral concern, this attraction goes along with (2) the desire or intention of adults to have sex with such children.

As a psychological state, the attraction is not obviously voluntary and to that extent does not fall within the compass of moral censure. The trouble comes not from (1) but from (2) and more specifically from the fulfilment of the intention in (2).

The standard moral criticisms of paedophilia in this sense rest on two considerations: (a) the sex involved is non-consensual and (b) the children are harmed by the experience.

The sex involved may vary from kissing, cuddling, caressing, or genital fondling to at the limit full penetrative intercourse. In public debate, it is I think genital fondling and full penetrative intercourse that are the central focus; and it is the non-consent and harm which attach to these activities that fuel moral condemnation and even outrage.


Pro-paedophiles have argued that no trauma is necessarily caused to the child by genital fondling or full penetrative intercourse. But this seems to me a weak defence. If a practice or activity is more likely to cause more harm than good in the standard case or in the majority of cases, this is a good and sufficient reason for preventing it or trying to do so and for passing adverse moral judgement on it. Probability is the guide; and there is a sufficient body of legal and medical evidence of harm resulting to the child, either at the time or in later life, by paedophiliac inteference to support a prediction of probable harm outweighing (in my moral calculus) any 'benefit' to the paedophile.


Children are not capable of giving valid consent to sex with adults. While consent is of crucial importance in sex between adults, I am not inclined to give the key weight to this consideration as regards children. What seems to me mainly wrong with non-consensual sex with children is the not the non-consent, though this is wrong, but rather what we have been discussing above - the high probability of harm.


For an analytical discussion to which I'm indebted see:

Igor Primoratz, 'Pedophilia', Public Affairs Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Jan., 1999), pp. 99-110.

The pro-paedophile case is made in:

Tom O'Carroll, Paedophilia: The Radical Case, London: Peter Owen, 1980.

Robert Ehman, 'Adult-Child Sex', in R. Baker and F. Elliston, eds., Philosophy and Sex, 2nd ed., Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1984.

  • The emergence & ending of PIE also saw pro arguments made - and prove in practice really full of hypocrisy bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-26352378 It's an interesting example of social change that this group did what it did, like how marital rape was only made illegal in 1992 in the UK.
    – CriglCragl
    Jun 8, 2020 at 23:17
  • @CriglCragl. I remember the ending of PIE and was surprised it had ever received official recognition. Wasn't it allowed representation on some govt cttee or inquiry as a focus group at some stage?
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jun 9, 2020 at 8:10

The philosophical part of the question is in essence the same as for other matters involving children as well, such as child labour, arranged marriages, forced school education, juvenile criminal law, gun law, sex change, foster homes, organ donation, vaccination, religious indoctrination... to name a few.

For all of them, the question is whether a young person is able to give consent. By that we mean that 10 years later, the same person is unlikely to say: "At the time I was not mentally capable to foresee the consequences, so my consent is void."

Following the categorical imperative, in any society in which a given action is considered likely to reasonably trigger such an adult reaction by most members (and parenting principles do not apply), such given actions are immoral.

As with all relative morals, this can allow theoretically for societies to exist in which certain behaviors are not immoral (unless negative effects are guaranteed). Similarly some things that are considered moral in most current societies (such as feeding meat from killed animals to children) might be considered immoral in future societies.

Note that the existence of any society in history in which certain actions are considered moral does not imply they are actually moral, such societies might not be following the categorical imperative (so e.g. female circumcision does not become moral just because it's an accepted ongoing custom in certain countries).

  • 1
    "For all of them, the question is whether a young person is able to give consent." - that seems to me to ignore the historical reality of instances such as child labour. It wasn't banned because children couldn't consent to work (many parents encouraged children to earn their keep as soon as possible, and children are forced to labour in classrooms instead). It was banned for a number of reasons, including to force children into a longer period of education, to control the misuse of children and preserve their physical health for military purposes, and to preserve work for able adults.
    – Steve
    Jun 6, 2020 at 13:04
  • Sure, child labour was not banned for philosophical reasons. I am only saying it may be considered immoral following the same moral principles (or even considered moral after applying the principle and judging viable consent is possible at a given age).
    – tkruse
    Jun 6, 2020 at 15:43
  • but as I say, consent is a red herring. We don't ask children to consent to being forced to labour at schoolwork. The legal principle that children cannot give consent is not equivalent to saying children do not consent - it's another way of saying their consent is immaterial to the question of whether an offence is committed by adults.
    – Steve
    Jun 6, 2020 at 22:46
  • I put parental principles in my answer. It's a complex additional topic, but parents do have deciding power in lieu of children giving consent for some things, because somebody needs to make decisions until children can give consent. Parental consent can morally justify all actions which rational adults would agree fall under parental rights and duties. As long as pedophile actions do not call under that category, they cannot become moral even with parental consent. Children do not give moral consent to forced school, their parents do. It not immaterial that the parents do.
    – tkruse
    Jun 7, 2020 at 23:29
  • Giving consent in the name or another is complex legally and politically as it is philosophically. It also is an issue for people with mental issues or people in koma. But it's not so relevant to the original question here I think. While legally, parents and the state share responsibility for children, the philosophical aspect likely is that the adult society of rational agents gives consent in place of those not assumed capable of consent. Morally, individual adults can then not give consent in place of a child when they may have a conflict of interests.
    – tkruse
    Jun 7, 2020 at 23:53

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .