Sample Research Paper On An Analysis Of Pornography From Different Ethical Perspectives

Type of paper: Research Paper

Topic: Ethics, Utilitarianism, Morality, Pleasure, Actions, Society, Deontology, Relationships

Pages: 8

Words: 2200

Published: 2020/12/22

Pornography is a widespread global phenomenon and is produced and consumed worldwide. The exact definition and purview of pornography is difficult to ascertain as the activities at its core are basic human functions and needs. The sexual activities that are the integral part of pornography are amongst the basic need of adult humans and form a vital part of a healthy married or romantic relationship. But it is when these activities are performed for commercial purposes that the phenomenon of pornography comes in to being. The problem of definition of pornography is a historical one and is highlighted in a legal case that took place in 1964. Judge Stewart made a statement in the case Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 US 184 that he couldn’t define pornography but he knows it when he sees it. This also highlight the visual quality of pornography where in modern understanding, pornography is depiction of sexual activities or organs in printed or published form intended for the pleasure and sexual gratification of the viewer or reader. Porn industry has evolved and matured over time but its exact size and extent is also a matter of uncertainty. It is widely consumed through the internet and by unregistered means hence obtaining data on it and compiling it is a difficult undertaking. The estimates available suggest that pornography industry is a sizable entity and according to surveys of 2007 the size of this industry could be valued at 20 Billion US dollars. The internet porn industry was estimated at 3 Billion US dollars in 2007. In 2010 more than forty thousand websites distributed pornography and since then online pornography has been described as “the first consistently successful e-commerce product”. All these facts establish the importance of pornography in the human societies worldwide and this issue warrants to be analyzed on ethical ground. The ethical quality of pornography has been long debated and this debate still goes on with feminists contributing significantly to this conversation. It is interesting to note that despite the longstanding debate there are strong and highly valid arguments for both opposing and promoting pornography and no side has been able to completely overwhelm the other. The contrasting nature of these arguments is adequately highlighted by considering the utilitarian, deontological and relativistic perspectives commonly employed in moral philosophy.
Utilitarianism is one of the most popular and widely followed ethical theories. It gives an ethical view that a moral action is the one that maximizes a person’s or group’s utility. A good or moral action is identified as something that brings pleasure and happiness. Therefore, out of all the possible alternatives, an action that brings most pleasure or utility is seen as a moral action. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are considered as the primary contributors to this theory. Utilitarianism is also sometimes called consequentialist theory because of its inherent idea of focusing on consequences and trivializing the actions or means employed for reaching those consequences. For example, Mill said that “Actions are right to the degree that they tend to promote the greatest good for the greatest number” (Kay 1997). Therefore, an action’s inherent nature becomes irrelevant if the outcome that it brings is desirable in a sense that it has the maximum possible pleasure for the majority of the people in a society.
Based on utilitarianism, if one applies the principles and analyzes the ethical nature of pornography, the prospects of pornography as an activity and industry seem bright. Pornography has pleasure not only for the individuals involved in making it, but also for the large section of society involved in watching it. Since the outcome is full of pleasure and utility maximization, therefore, whatever the action is, it has to be right and ethical.
However, the problem with such a hasty conclusion is that it is a short term orientation and myopic view. Taking long term consequences into account is also very important. For example, if a student avoids parties for studying harder and scores well in the exams, utilitarianism supports his decision as he is giving precedence to long term pleasure and utility which outweighs short term pleasure.
The long term psychological and sociological disadvantages of pornography are also widely researched and observed and an informed conclusion could not be reached without taking them into consideration. Therefore, if the long term negative consequences of pornography outweigh its positive consequences, Bentham, Mill and all other utilitarian’s would agree that pornography is not a moral act. However, the problem here is about judging the positivity of consequences. Utilitarianism also considers humans to be rational individuals. Therefore, it puts the responsibility to consider the costs and benefits of activities and reach their own conclusions. If a person comes to the conclusion that pornography offers more benefit to him and he or she would prefer to be engaged in it (Williams, 1973). At such point, pornography would again be moral and ethical to get involved in. But once again, there is huge debate and evidence that humans are not entirely rational beings and absolute freedom will lead to their own demise. If pleasure was made the goal then many activities like rape, torture and subjugation will become justified according to the utilitarian perspective. Similarly utilitarianism will also justify the use of coercion and exploitation through pornography because at the cost of a few individual’s discomfort a huge market will be satisfied and derive pleasure. The overall pleasure will be maximized and hence the activity is ethically correct. This approach of utilitarianism is criticized as it justifies many improper acts that provide more utility. This flaw is attributed to the neglect of actions in utilitarianism approach. If actions are given importance and their effects are judged before reaching a conclusion it will be more beneficial for humanity than just focusing on the consequences.
Deontological ethical perspective gives a rather strict, black and white view of morality. Deontology dictates a strict moral code devised by reasoning and one’s life should be lead in firm accordance with that code. Kantian ethics are seen as central to deontology. At the heart of Kantian approach are the categorical imperatives that Kant laid down in the Groundwork for the Metaphysics. These necessary tenets are: 1) “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, 2002), and 2) “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means” (Kant 2002). These are two deontological principles that Kant prescribes.
Based on these principles, if one analyzes the ethical nature of pornography, it would certainly in contrast to the deontological approach. Pornography can neither be universalized nor does it carry the factor of respect and treating humans as ends not as means. When one applies Kant’s first principle, which is also known as Golden rule, it requires that only those actions can be taken as moral that can be universalized, i.e., applied to everyone in the world. Theoretically, one can argue that there is no harm in it if anyone and everyone gets involved in pornography. Since sex brings pleasure to the parties involved in it and even to the parties watching it, then when utility is being maximized, there is no harm it is acceptable and provides no room for objection. Sex is a part of an adult’s healthy life and is encouraged by scientific research. Pornography provides an opportunity for individuals to vicariously feel the pleasure and effects of sex with very little responsibility attached with the actual sexual relationship. This makes porn a highly sought after commodity and it is viewed all over the world. In the recent times it has even made inroads in third world and backward countries and its huge demand is alarming. This situation would lead one to believe that pornography is ethically justified because it is a universal phenomenon and it provides pleasure which is a basic pursuit of all human beings. However, the situation becomes a little less straight forward if we extend our analysis and incorporate the second imperative as well. In other words, treating humans as ends in themselves and not as means to other ends is an essential component of ethics and morality. Pornography in many instances leads to the use and exploitation of humans as a means for personal pleasure, recreation and satisfaction. Human beings become a tool in the hands of pornographers and are made to sell their most private possession i.e. their body. The second imperative is not satisfied as human beings are becoming a means to attain pleasure and this makes the whole activity unethical.
At this point one may raise an objection that if the problem is regarding the sexual activity, which brings pleasure as a means, not as ends, even marriage and other romantic relations should also be categorized as immoral because they too involve sex. However, the problem with such an objection is that marriage and other relations involve an aspect of duty and love. A person takes care of another and the sexual part of relationship is also about fulfilling that duty of love, which is not a means at all, but rather a pure end in itself. This mutual respect and care is lacking in the sexual activity performed under pornography. Very rarely would it be the case that pornstars relate to each other or the person viewing porn feels love or respect for the individuals on screen. The respect and love make sexual activity in marriage and romantic relationships an end in itself while in pornography the sexual act and it’s viewing is just a means to attain pleasure and human beings are being used as instruments in this process.
Finally, there is a perspective of relativism. It propagates that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Everything is relative and carries subjective worth. This is in contrast to both deontology and utilitarianism which propose that through different means one can arrive at an absolute moral sense and ethics. The relativist approach instead puts forward subjective values. These subjective values come from the social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds that lead to the formation of different perceptions and beliefs. These perceptions and beliefs then translate into a sense of right and wrong which govern actions. Therefore, the idea of universal principles that deontology puts is not deemed plausible in relativistic school of thought. Similarly, if we compare it with utilitarianism, it again would reject that theory based on the idea that not everyone has similar perceptions of utility or good, therefore, one consequence that a person may perceive to be utility maximizing for the society, may actually not be a utility maximizer in the perceptions of the people of another society.
If this perspective is applied to pornography, it would be a straightforward question of an individual’s perceptions or subjective views. If the individual perceives it to be immoral, for whatever reason, it is immoral. However, if an individual finds pleasure in it and believes it to be healthy and good for him or her, relativism would make it moral for that individual. So every individual is likely to form his or her own opinion and they can give importance to actions or consequences. The individual just has to form his or her own opinion and there would be no need for a societal or shared moral code. It is likely that various individuals in the society will have the same or similar perspective but this commonality is not as important as the view of the individual and morals and ethics are considered a personal matter. Pornography will not need to be discussed as an ethical concern at the societal level and as long as individuals are engaging in its production and viewing there is no need for it to be evaluated. The individuals involved will have a subjective opinion of the acceptability and value of pornography and hence they are justified in their activities.
However, a question that could be raised here is that if this paradigm of relativism is adopted by the members of a society, then there would remain no cohesion as each individual will abide by a unique moral code. This lack of cohesion will lead to disagreements and conflicts and ultimately cause the breakdown of the society. However, pessimistic view is disregarded by the relativists. As a counter to the argument that individual ethical codes will lead to society’s breakdown, it could be said that there are many countries in the world and many groups in each country that differ with each other and have their own subjective views. This diversity adds to the richness of the world and allows unique experiences rather than causing the breakdown of society. Compromises are made and tolerance is exercised and the diversity becomes acceptable and normal. Therefore, the relativistic approach is a feasible school of thought and subjective opinions on ethics should be considered legitimate. Tolerance is considered a key quality for the exercise of relativism and it keeps the societies unified. This view disregards the importance of social institutions like government and judiciary that play an important part in maintaining the equilibrium and discipline in society. Laws are considered an important part of any society and legal and judicial systems have existed since the earliest of times. According to the relativistic view laws are unnecessary and ought to be abolished because they are objective and do not consider the subjective mindset of individuals in judging their actions.
In a nutshell, different philosophical approaches lead us to different conclusion regarding pornography. Utilitarianism will let the individuals decide whether or not pornography provides them with maximum utility in the form of pleasure. If it does then it will be considered ethically acceptable. According to this approach it is likely that pornography will pass the ethical test because of its primary objective of providing pleasure and sexual stimulation. If a deontological approach is undertaken then there are two important considerations. First is whether pornography can be universalized and second is that whether the activity is a means or an end. According to the first principles pornography will be considered ethical but it will become unethical if the two imperatives are considered jointly. Pornography uses individuals as a tool to create pleasure for the viewer and hence it does not satisfy the second criterion. Pornography is a means to attain pleasure and not an end in itself hence it is unethical. Relativism in contrast removes the need for having a societal ethical code and opinion on morality. This approach proposes that each individual is shaped by his subjective social and personal experiences and hence his understanding of an issue is likely to be unique. This unique understanding should be used in forming an opinion and this opinion should guide the actions. If an individual personally thinks that pornography is ethically acceptable or unacceptable he should act accordingly and there is no need for a societal consensus on this issue. There are shortcomings in all of these approaches and hence no conclusion has been reached. This diversity of opinions is reflected in national policies worldwide where in one country prostitution is a crime like in Sweden and in another it is an acceptable profession as in Netherland.

Works Cited

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Driver, J., & Zalta (ed.), E. N. (2014). The History of Utilitarianism. Retrieved 03 17, 2015, from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Gowans, C., & Zalta (ed.), E. N. (2012). Moral Relativism. Retrieved 03 17, 2015, from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Kant, I. 2002. Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Yale University Press.
Kay, C. 1997. Notes on Utilitarianism. Dr. Charles Kay » Utilitarianism. Retrieved April 28, 2014, from
Rea, M. C. (2001). What is Pornography? Retrieved 03 17, 2015, from Wiley Online Library:
Swoyer, C., & Zalta (ed.), E. N. (2014). Relativism. Retrieved 03 17, 2015, from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Verloo, M., & Lombardo, E. (2007). Contested gender equality and policy variety in Europe: Introducing a critical frame analysis approach. . Multiple meaning of gender equality: A critical frame analysis of gender policies in Europe.
Williams, B. 1973. A critique of utilitarianism. Cambridge/UK.
Zillman, D., & Bryant, J. (1988). Effects of Prolonged Consumption of Pornography. Journal of Family Issues, 518-544.

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