Why is it wrong to watch pornography? Even if a person is not religious, they will still feel guilt and shame about a porn-watching habit. Where does this come from? Even the most free-thinking and atheistic person will have reservations about watching pornography with their family, even if everyone in the family is an adult. They are consenting adults, and no one is harmed in the film (it can be a computer-generated film). So where does the wrongness come from?
This was one of the most difficult questions I have had to answer for myself. My diaries contain many entries over the years where I argued why watching pornography is wrong only to defeat my own arguments. Being religious, I did not need to justify the wrongness of pornography to myself in order to avoid it. I already knew it was wrong; I just wanted a good intellectual argument for why it is so.
The key that opened this mystery to me and many other mysteries about sexuality was Roger Scruton’s 1986 book Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation. Finally I found arguments that could satisfy my skeptical self.
A popular argument against pornography is that people are harmed in its creation. This is true, but it does not cut to the root of the problem. Imagine if thousands of yours in the future a person discovers a computer hard drive filled with pornography. All of the people in the films or pictures are dead. Surely whatever harm was associated with the creation of those films or pictures would no longer be relevant. Enjoying them would be similar to enjoying visiting the pyramids in Egypt. We know thousands greatly suffered in those projects. But that does not prevent us from enjoying the sights of the pyramids; their magnificence and beauty.
Or imagine an artificial intelligence system that can generate pornography that is better and more realistic than the real thing. No one is harmed in the creation of such pornography. So what is the right moral approach to it?
Evolutionary psychology and the uniqueness of humans
The root problem with pornography is not the way it is created. It is also not the erotic enjoyment it creates in its consumer. It is also not exactly the way it is supposed to cause a person not to enjoy real sexual intimacy or to become lazy and disinterested in seeking out real-life partners.
The problem goes deeper.
The basic problem is that humans are not animals. Enjoying pornography means breaking a moral rule that is tied to our basic humanity; it is our humanity that is damaged in the process.
A main attraction of the evolutionary study of human psychology since Nietzsche and his Darwinian influencers has been the sense of perspective and knowledge that we gain over fellow humans when we view them as mere bags of matter controlled by built-in biological instincts; our relationships become so simple if we look at them solely through Darwinian eyes. My mother loves me because she has genetic instincts that make her love me. If she is just a mere collection of matter who is configured to be nice to me then that takes away all of my duties and responsibilities toward her. I may still be nice and dutiful toward her because I have genetic instincts to be this way toward her, but I will not pretend that there is anything to this relationship between selfish genes using us for their own ends. Looking at humans this way, we feel like our eyes have been opened. We see the cold, harsh reality of existence and have at least taken a first step toward dealing with it, a step that (we think) most of those around us cannot even conceive of taking.
And yet, our actual, lived human experience proves the utter falseness of the above way of seeing the world. My mother is not just a mere collection of matter; she is also a person. Persons possess self-consciousness, inviolable dignity and infinite worth. A single uninteresting and “average” person is worth more than any amount of money you can imagine; all great moral philosophers would agree that even if a country could gain trillions of dollars by killing a single innocent person, it would be evil and morally unjustified for it to do so. Somehow a single person is worth more money than the entire world can offer.
We live between two completely opposed views of humans. One of them is only too happy to reduce humans to mere collections of atoms. The other one accepts nothing less than infinity as the worth and dignity of each and every human.
If we were to commit genocide by eradicating an ant colony, most people would not think the worse of us. Yet genocide against humans is widely agreed to be a terrible crime. There is something unique about humans that makes it inappropriate to treat them like insects or animals. There is no agreement on where this uniqueness comes from. Science can only view humans as clever bags of matter, so it cannot enlighten us about why humans are special. According to some religions humans possess a soul, breathed into them by God, that makes them unique and unlike other living creatures.
Whatever the source of the uniqueness, what concerns us here is that most thinkers agree on the fact that such uniqueness exists.
Knowing the uniqueness of our humanity, we are pushed to ask how this relates to our conduct toward others. How do you treat something that has infinite worth?
The German philosopher Kant proposed the famous principle (or categorical imperative) that humans must be treated as ends rather than means. This idea nicely encapsulates the basis for all of our modern thinking about human rights and dignity.
To treat a human as an “end” means to not treat them as a means, instrument or tool for one’s own benefit. The word “end” here is being used in the sense of “final aim” or “goal”. A human is an end when you view them as an inviolable entity that cannot be used, dominated, sold, raped or killed for another’s benefit. While we can pick up a rock, lump of wood or some other object and use it as a tool, humans, by the mere virtue of being humans, are excluded from this category of “objects”. Humans are subjects, inviolable entities that look out into the universe while somehow being independent of it. Humans can use anything they want as a tool, except other humans.
Humans possess what I call personhood; personhood refers to our uniqueness. Persons are not objects. Treating persons morally has its own universe of rules that have nothing to do with the world of objects. Yes, we have a natural or evolutionary genetic inheritance; we are animals, and a study of our genes and hormones can easily show our closeness to other animals. But we are not just animals. We are also persons. We have a dual nature: both the animal and the person.
The problem with pornography is that it is only concerned with the animal in us.
Obscenity is anything that treats or depicts humans as if they were merely animals. A picture of one’s parents naked is obscene because it stresses upon us their animal nature to the exclusion of their personhood. We are forced to see them as animals; their personhood is not in the picture.
A picture of a dead loved one who has suffered a terrible accident that mutilated their faces and bodies is also obscene. It shows them as a mere collection of atoms that has been turned into chaos by the physical world. The world has turned them into an object. We never want to see our loved ones as objects. So we turn away from such a picture with disgust, try to forget it, and continue to imagine them as they were when they still lived.
Pornography is obscene because it depicts humans as reduced to mere bodies. It does not capture the personhood of the humans; they might as well be corpses that are animated to perform the sex act. Enjoying pornography makes us feel guilt and shame because we join this partying of corpses. In a small way we become like the great tyrants of history, happy to watch humans reduced to animals that can be used for our pleasure.
In this world that we join during the watching of pornography these humans become mere objects. If during the pornographic scene we watch an explosion tear these humans apart, it is merely an interesting data point. The corpses are rearranged in a new way and nothing fundamental is lost, because they were already corpses when we were enjoying their flesh to the exclusion of their personhood.
Hentai and erotica
If online forums are to be believed, many young men progress from viewing erotic pictures to “hardcore” pornography, to watching the genre known as hentai (Japanese-inspired cartoon pornography). Hentai has no rules and is famous for its depiction of extreme violence during sex acts. It depicts beautiful females torn apart by tentacled monstrosities. The viewer is surprised to find that they actually enjoy seeing this. It is because the tearing apart of humans in cartoon pornography does not break any moral rules of pornography. When humans are reduced to mere objects, as if they were corpses, it is only the next logical step to explore what can be done to corpses.
The same applies to erotic novels like Fifty Shades of Grey. Erotic novels are merely pornography intended (mostly) for female use. The intense violence does not feel wrong because it is not being done to human persons but to depersonalized humans, virtual corpses.
Since pornography breaks the first rule of morality toward other humans and objectifies them and takes away their personhood, in the moral universe of pornography violence and death are merely the logical extension of taking pleasure in the objectification of humans.
I think it was Christopher Hitchens who said that he cannot see an American woman without imagining her lips around his own penis. This is a good illustration of what pornography does to our psychology.
Moral self-creation refers to the fact that every time we treat a fellow human in a certain way, this reflects back on us and changes who we are. Every time you treat some cruelly, this feeds back into your own internal universe and changes you. You create yourself morally by the way you treat others.
We cannot treat other humans in a moral vacuum. Every choice we make toward others is always associated with a moral cost or benefit. You can justify to yourself that a particular person deserves cruelty; they have done you harm and they have no sympathy or mercy toward you. Yet the moment you perform an act of cruelty toward them, you feel yourself lessened and damaged by this. The Islamic theologian Ibn Taymiyya took note of this when he said:
No one has ever taken revenge for himself except that it created in him a degradation and humiliation in his psyche, because revenge looks like strength and power on the outside but on the inside it is degradation and humiliation, while forgiveness creates strength and power both on the inside and out.
By harming us, a person damages their own internal universe. Taking revenge on them only causes damage in the other direction; in our own internal universe. Revenge can taste sweet to the animal in us, but to the person in us, it is always a degradation.
I call this moral self-creation. You create yourself morally by the way you treat others. Every one of your actions feeds back into yourself and changes you. And if the action is immoral; if you break Kant’s categorical imperative and treat other humans the way you do not like to be treated yourself, you degrade yourself. No reasoning or pretense can undo this damage. The person in you only knows and recognizes itself according to the way it treats other persons. You cannot say to yourself, “I utterly damaged this person but I cut off myself from the consequences.” The very knowledge that you damaged a person makes you recognize yourself, see yourself and feel yourself as the person who did that damage.
This is why our guilt follows us around and does not leave us. The guilt is the recognition of the damage you have done to yourself. You mutilate your spirit by every damage you do to another person. The mutilation remains and cannot be erased except by treating other persons in a better way. Every treatment of others creates you morally. You are the architect of your spirit by the way you treat others. Your guilt is the recognition that you damaged this architecture. And the only way to undo it is by doing what is necessary to rebuild it and improve it. Reasoning to yourself and justifying things to yourself does absolutely nothing to your spirit’s architecture. It will lay in tatters and ruins until you learn that you have no access to this architecture. You have no key to it; it is closed to you. It is only open to others: only others can take away your guilt by the way you treat them. Other persons are the only key to our spirit; the way we treat them feeds back into it and changes it.
Pornography involves treating other humans as if they were merely animals. It is the worst degradation of a human’s personhood that can be imagined. We tear apart their dual nature, the animal and the person, throw away the person, and enjoy the animal. Since pornography generally involves pictures and videos created by others, we can delude ourselves into thinking that there is no harm in it; the wrong was done by others, not us. Pornography can even be computer-generated, so where is the harm in that?
The problem is that the process of moral self-creation is always in force in us. Even if you reason to yourself that no one is harmed in that picture or video, you are harmed. You recognize yourself as a user and degrader of other humans. You are willing to treat other humans as animals and this knowledge feeds back into you. Your spirit does not understand your reasoning that no one is harmed and has no use for it. It only recognizes that you are a human who uses other humans. You are willing to enjoy the tearing apart of humans from their personhood, you are willing to objectify and use them. The treatment of other persons in pornography, even if computer-generated, makes the architecture of your internal universe open up and take in the damage.
Afterwards you feel guilt. You recognize that you have been lessened and degraded. Your guilt is the pain you feel at the damage you have done to yourself. You have gone from a person existing in the warmth and dignity of human society to something less. You recognize the infinite worth and dignity of other humans, and by transgressing against this recognition, you feel that you are unworthy of human society. You feel that the persons around you, your mother and father for example, are giants, whole universes, but you yourself, by partaking in a dehumanizing, dirty and furtive pleasure, are something less. You are a damaged and polluted universe that cries out to become whole again.
Sinking into obscenity
A pornography addict will one day discover that they live in a new world. They may have a memory of the warmth and innocence of the world of their childhood. But everything is now harsh and cold. They feel alienated from their fellow humans and from their societies. Family life, love, the beauty and solemnity of classical literature, all these things seem to them to exist in a different reality that is closed to them.
By making it a habit to depersonalize other humans, the pornography addict can no longer relate to other humans with solemnity and seriousness. They feel that we are all animals pretending to be something more. The daily experience of pornography constantly reinforces this animal view of humanity. Morality starts to feel like a pretense. They become cynical and in social situations such as family gatherings they feel that they are only playing a part assigned to them by “society”.
This cynical view also pervades their relationships. The male pornography addict cannot enjoy the innocence of love; of treating a woman as if she is the most important person in their world. She is just a body and personality with various failings and annoying habits. Opening his heart to her and treating her as if she is more than an animal feels strange and unusual.
Pornography equalizes all humans into a new world order of bodies. One body can be as good as another for satisfying one’s needs. But love and romance require treating a person as if they are infinitely worthy and irreplaceable. The “morality” that pornography teaches is entirely opposed to the morality of love. The two cannot coexist.
Lust and erotic love
Lust is obscene while erotic love is beautiful–even though they both involve sexual desire. Lust is depersonalized sexual desire; lust directed at someone does not care for their uniqueness and personhood. A man who lusts after Elizabeth can be be satisfied with an equally attractive Jane. But erotic love is directed at a specific person; a man who is in love with Elizabeth and desires her will not be satisfied by any other woman of equal attractiveness.
Erotic love allows us to engage in sexuality while remaining fully human. We continue to see the other human as a person even during sexual intimacy.
But lust is inhuman and bestial. It is the fact of one animal desiring another. Obviously pornography can only stimulate and celebrate lust. It is impossible to connect with the depicted person on human terms, person-to-person. And by training us to relate lustfully to fellow humans, this becomes the rule in our minds. Like Christopher Hitchens, we see every attractive person as a potential actor or actress in a pornographic scene.
Masturbation is one of the obscene pleasures that is very often associated with pornography. I consider masturbation obscene for two reasons. First, it nearly always involves the fantasy of using another human for one’s own pleasure–a human that cannot answer back. It lacks the aspect of the union of two conscious and willing first-person perspectives that is the gold-standard of non-obscene sexuality.
Second, it involves the aspect of a first-person perspective turning to itself; using its own body as if the human is merely a body. There is no respect for personhood involved; the human and its personhood turns to its own body, treating themselves as if they are something to be used. It is a form of self-use that is quite similar to, if not the same as, using another’s body for pleasure without respect for their personhood. It is in a way self-rape.
This then brings us into the strange reality that a person’s own body is forbidden territory to themselves. This is strange, but even if you reject the above argument, you can still feel the reality of it: masturbation is always associated with a sense of shame, loss and degradation once the pleasure is over. It is a form of lusting after one’s own body: a body with no humanity, a body that cannot answer back; a corpse.
Masturbation is therefore an attack on a human’s personhood. It makes no difference that in this case the attack is against oneself.
Note that I don’t believe masturbation is forbidden in Islam. It seems to be a personal choice to me. Read more here: Masturbation is not clearly forbidden or allowed in Islam
Recovering from obscenity
I have heard Western men say that they see themselves as mere children in comparison with their grandfathers and ancestors. Looking at pictures of these solemn ancient men, they cannot help but feel their own inadequacy.
I believe that it is our pornographic culture that has filled the West with men who feel degraded in comparison to their ancestors. There can be no sense of solemnity and greatness in a person who has habituated themselves to obscenity.
It is only by following the iron rule of Kant’s categorical imperative in our lives that we can maintain a sense of our infinite worth and dignity as humans. And this means turning away from the obscene in all things. By treating fellow humans as infinitely worthy, this treatment feeds back into our own internal universe and rebuilds its architecture into something solemn and beautiful.
A man who follows this rule in his life will feel no inadequacy in comparison to his ancestors. He will in fact feel in a position to critique them as his equals. Through moral self-creation, a man has the chance to enlarge himself until he towers over all of his ancestors.