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It is believed that pornography "violates" the humanity of those involved; that sexually explicit materials reduce people to objects or bodies used primarily for the sexual gratification of others

Sexualized or objectified people aren't perceived as fully human. They are more closely associated with objects as compared to their non-sexualized or non-objectified counterparts

If objectification were immoral, pornography, the purpose of which is to objectify, would be immoral

What do philosophers have to say about pornography? Are there any arguments for pornography or sexual objectification? Or is it always immoral to objectify?

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    Good question, I think, but do note that objectification is only part of the complex problems with pornography. If you search for "pornography as public healt crisis", you will find arguments for or against pornography being a public health crisis, but you will find the harm has more sides to it than simply objectification: addiction, lower self-esteem, increased loneliness, and others, that aren't directly related to objectification.
    – kutschkem
    Mar 20, 2023 at 9:11
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    The traditional opposition focused not on objectification but rather on obscenity of pornography (moral corruption of its consumers and society at large). Objectification is a more recent concern brought to the front by the feminist movement. See SEP, Pornography and Censorship for a review of both debates, including both liberal and feminist arguments for keeping pornography legal that defend it as protected speech or even as a legitimate form of sexual expression, harms, if any, notwithstanding.
    – Conifold
    Mar 20, 2023 at 9:12
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    There was an important legal judgement rendered last summer in my country regarding pornography. It was made pretty clear that there was one argument in favour of pornography that trumped all arguments against it: money.
    – Stef
    Mar 20, 2023 at 9:46
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    Not sure what Kant thought of pornography, but he violently disapproved of masturbation. He was so grossed out he couldn't even write the word in his text about it. His argument revolving around the fact that sex is meant by Nature for reproduction, therefore any sexual pleasure meant solely for pleasure is against Nature (definitely not the strongest argument of his career, and the fact he had no romantic relationship that we know of probably influenced his judgment).
    – armand
    Mar 20, 2023 at 10:22
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    i remember this came (no pun intended) up on some yuppy forum i was using decades ago. someone said they didn't use pornography and were single so liked to stare at women in the street. most agreed that was worse
    – user65174
    Mar 20, 2023 at 10:31

2 Answers 2

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Sex and sexuality are areas where our animal natures and our genes, are of more import than our reasoning. It is governed by Humean 'Is' rather than 'Ought'. The first issue to raise is, would banning porn end the industry, or make it less harmful? Demand is huge, there are estimates that porn accounts for as much as 37% of all downloads. Law can't simply accept whatever large numbers of people do, but clearly a lot of people do find porn acceptable, even if they are less vocal than those who condemn it. The issue of whether prostitution should be legal, parallels this area of questions, and different countries have settled on very different answers, eg on appeals to virtue ethics vs harm minimisation.

Gender inequality and exploitation are clearly key issues, brought into sharp focus by the recent activity of online influencer Andrew Tate. There are huge benefits for society in supporting equality and solidarity between genders, discussed here: Studies exploring the rationale of gender equality But that doesn't require directly it must be banned, OnlyFans for instance has created a lot more scope for porn creators to make money without ever having to deal with the problematic legacy porn industry. In the same way some women have always chosen to engage in types of sex work, and their right to that must be balanced against protecting those who didn't choose, from harms. There can be options for cultural change and reform that support autonomy, which may help more than a ban.

Education, can be a partial defence. A lot of focus is ut on people learning bad behaviours, but learning of good behaviours, and clarification about sex and bodies, can also happen. I think of the story about the case that led to the founding of the Samaritans, where a girl raised without her mother had never had anyone willinv to discuss what was hoing to happen to her at puberty, and committed suicide after her period began because she thought she had a hortifying shameful ailment.

Art and being exposed to experiences unlike our own, can be a partial defence. Look at the trial for obscenity of Lady Chatterly's Lover, considered pornographic when it was written. One of the things people found shocking, was the representation if female desire, widely culturally ignired in 1928 when Lawrence wrote it.

The SEP article 'Pornography and Censorship' has sections The Traditional Liberal Defense of a Right to Pornography, and Feminist Arguments against Legal Regulation.

As an area with wide implications for gender and social and cultural change and reform, a philosophical stance on pornography requires taking stances on those wider issues. Even now this is often considered an issue for students of gender studies and social sciences, rather than a proper topic for philosophy. I think that should change.

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Not remotely versed in arguments about this topic, however, there is an emerging philosophy-of called the philosophy of sexuality. There are books on the topic like this one Philosophy of Sexuality (GB). The SEP has an article called Sex and Sexuality. Skimming the article, there is a term 'sexual perversion':

“Natural” sexual desire involves a multi-leveled mutual awareness by two people of each other: X perceives sexual excitement in Y, Y perceives excitement in X, X perceives that Y is excited by X, and so on (1969: 10–12). Sexual desire is complex in that it includes X’s sexual arousal by Y and X’s feeling sexual because of Y’s arousal by X, and so on with higher levels. Sexual perversions are then standing preferences for sexual activity that does not involve such multi-levels of sexual arousal.

Thomas Nagel it seems might form the basis of a moral objection on the account that pornography is not multi-level, that is it "objectifies" one of the parties. Of course, some people like to indulge in pretending to be engaged in voyeurism, so this notion of multi-level participation probably comes down to hair-splitting propositions like anything that has to do with intention and intentionality (or perhaps philosophy in general).

If you don't get an answer here (or your question gets shut down by prudes), then PhilPapers has a section "Philosophy of Sexuality" where you can probably find primary sources on the topic. Unlike Socrates, Kant, the philosophy of mind, or free will, this domain of philosophy isn't as mainstream, though at Northwestern university, I know from articles in the Chicago Tribune, this topic is taught and even demonstrated at the highest reaches of universities.

Or is it always immoral to objectify?

The only part of your specific question I'm going to respond to is that prima facie, it seems that if a person informedly consents (SEP) to being objectified, then an activity that is conducted between two consenting adults should be respected as an exercise of free will. Coercion by the state, such as China's former one-child policy, for instance, is seen by many to be an immoral act. Many countries have legalized pornography on that basis, and some even legalize prostitution along similar lines. There are numerous arguments from political philosophy in libertarianism that emphasize that religions and governments have no business telling consenting adults what to do in the privacy of their own homes and communities. In other words, it's a dangerous and inappropriate activity to legislate morality for all but the most heinous behaviors.

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  • Did you really address the question of morality? Not everything immoral is forbidden by law.
    – kutschkem
    Mar 20, 2023 at 15:54
  • @kutschkem Yes, by implication. Libertarianism is a very clear stance that morality is for consenting adults to decide, and thus it's poor form to legislate morality. I'll put the phrase in to make it explicit.
    – J D
    Mar 20, 2023 at 17:35
  • @kutschkem Also added how state abuse of the monopoly of power is fundamentally an immoral act. But honestly, the lead question 'What are the arguments for pornography?' is FAR broader than mere morality so I'm not sure why you're fixating on that.
    – J D
    Mar 20, 2023 at 17:40
  • I am fixating on that, because outside of legislation, morality is about what is right. I am interested in what is right, and what is wrong, to guide my personal behavior. It's important to also talk about what needs to be legislated, but the question doesn't seem to mention that in any way(?). Libertarianism says there should be freedom of choice, but doesn't address, I think(?), how one ought to use that freedom, which is what I am interested in (and is how I interpret the question).
    – kutschkem
    Mar 21, 2023 at 7:05
  • @kutschkem Well, I would say that while libertarianism advocates personal freedom, one of the most pressing concerns of personal freedom is the exercising of moral conscience. Libertarianism (as classical Liberalism) supports two important ideas: conscientious objection which is the right to opt out of socially orchestrated activity on the basis of moral dissent and civil disobedience which is the right to comply with laws based on moral or ethical grounds. I find it odd to claim that libertarianism-as-classical-Liberalism has no relation to either...
    – J D
    Mar 21, 2023 at 15:54

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