Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A Truly Shocking Product: Debating The Controversy

In a week in which Google and Microsoft have consented to crack down on child porn searches, I've been getting involved in my own little 'paedophilia' debate, after I was shocked the other day to see a petition page linked through Facebook which was calling for the banning of child-size sex dolls. I wasn't shocked that people were petitioning for the discontinuation of these revolting things - I was shocked that such things exist in the first place.

We all know that adult-sized sex dolls exist, presumably to satisfy adults who can't get sex with real people, but I was horrified to learn that child versions of these dolls had been manufactured, particularly given our fairly widespread abhorrence towards paedophilia. Now, despite an interesting debate about them that emerged on a philosophy forum to which I contribute, I think it's fairly obvious that these dolls (and any form of CGI child simulations that could be produced) should be discontinued as quickly as possible. I'm fully seized of the problems with banning things, and between often tenuously attributed causal factors related to simulation and the real thing - but if the human goal is to see the relationship between sex and children terminated as soon as possible, then things like this shouldn't even be entertained, and there should be severe punitive strategies in place for those manufactures, wholesalers and dealers caught in contravention.

For some, though, this issue wasn't quite so clear cut. There has in the past been interesting debates about whether legally designed CGI child sex simulations would help make real children safer from paedophiles - and this was posited on the philosophy board as a potential thorn in my side. But my response was that even if it turned out that CGI child sex simulations did diminish the desire for real sex with children, I think there are better ways to address the issue, and it's the wrong way to tackle the problem. After all, it might be the case that watching porn reduces rape more than reading literature does, but that's not an argument that watching porn is better for you than reading literature. It might be the case that playing violent video games does more to decrease violent crime than giving to charity does, but that's not an argument that playing violent video games is better for you than giving to charity.  What's better is if we try to help people to get away from pornography and violent video games and into things more edifying and fulfilling.

Similarly, even if CGI child sex simulations do diminish the desire for real sex with children, it's much better if we help diminish paedophiles' desire for real sex with children by more edifying and fulfilling means (or punitive means when required), which involves confronting the problem. To me, this issue boils down to two things; the world in which we wish to live, and our realistic ability to make changes to bring about that world. Just about everyone wishes to live in a world in which the association between sex and children is terminated as soon as possible, and it is potentially easily in our power to do something about the demise of these products, so I think we should.

Here is a summary of the rest of my contributions to the debate.
Two things cause our moral views to alter - one is a change in emotional response (what one might call a 'moral shift'), and the other is a change in knowledge. Both are naturally bootstrapped by rational consideration, but they are different things. Sometimes we develop our emotional responses without much emphasis in changes in knowledge, such as when we start to see that we need to treat women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities better, and other times a change in knowledge is the driving force rather than a change of emotional response, such as when we stop witch-hunting*.

To see why the latter is a change in knowledge, not an emotional response - consider that King James and his religious cohorts used to think witches should be put to death. We don't believe in witches anymore - but if we still did I'm sure our emotional responses wouldn't be much different now to what they were then - I can't imagine we'd want to keep alive people we thought could be in league with the dark forces and cast evil supernatural spells on us. If we thought such people existed, I'm sure we'd want them put to death for our own safety.

Given the foregoing, it's clear that the reason we in the Western world don't look to kill witches anymore is not that we've become more lenient or temperate towards the concept of a witch dabbling in dark forces to our detriment - it's because we now don’t think that there are such things as witches who can cast supernatural spells on us. Our differences of opinion are mostly to do with different knowledge, making us more informed, not primarily improved morality regarding witch-killing. 

The corollary of what I've said is, I think, quite sobering, because it suggests that if you or I were envoys of King James, we too might well be fully behind the decision to put to death women we thought were witches colluding with the dark forces.  I think that is a very interesting thought to bring to the table in a modern age. How often we modern commentators sit from behind our computer screen reproaching the 'barbaric' folk of yesteryear. Yes it's true in many cases they were barbaric, at least compared to modern standards - but it does call for increased humility, I think - for what we have is the fortuity of circumstance in being opportunely born in an age in which we 'can' look back with admonition.

A similar case can be made for human attitudes to homosexuality and skin colour, which have changed drastically, even in my lifetime. Shifts in views on homosexuality and racial prejudices are a combination of changes in emotional response and changes in knowledge - inasmuch as genomic studies have shown us that homosexual inclination is not 'unnatural' as was once thought, and race is a humanly-constructed concept that bears no relation to similarity or diversity in the genetic populations (generally speaking, there is more genetic diversity between a man in Nigeria and a man in Kenya than there is between a man in Nigeria and a man in Belgium, Holland or Spain.  This alone shows the absurdity and man-made wickedness of racism). With this change in knowledge we've seen different emotional responses operating conterminously alongside, with each mutually complementing the other.

That leads to a question - it's a disconcerting one that most won't want to consider, but faithfulness to open enquiry tells us we have to ask it; if the past has taught us that in the case of witch-hunts or homosexual prejudice we are always open to the possibility of a change from the consensual opinion, how can we confidently trust in the morals we currently hold as near-sacrosanct? In other words, in the case of the above, just because most of us thinks paedophilia is wrong, how can we be sure we always will - after all, our ancestors probably never would have imagined that one day their descendents would have stopped killing witches and been so tolerant towards homosexuals, so who's to say or future descendents might not have a more relaxed attitude towards paedophilia?  That is to say, when it comes to paedophiles, sex dolls, and the future - who knows how things will change? - because we don't only have to consider the emotional responses we may not yet have conceived, we have to consider what we might know in the future that we don't know at present.

It's true that the above considerations do prove the point that majority opinion isn't always a good metric, and that widely held beliefs can turn out to need serious revision. But if what were once thought to be justifiable views could turn out to be seen by modern humans as having been so misjudged and unkind in their extremity, by what metric can we defend our presently held consensus views against forthcoming revision or future supersession?

Here's a suggested answer. I think we humans do have something beyond mere consensus-value - we have the ability to assess a wide range of variable precepts; past precepts (through a retrospective analysis), current precepts (through present-tense analysis), and future precepts (through our creative intellect and our ability to forecast what moral precepts our future descendants might adopt). One thing human beings are doing as a whole is gradually progressing - in fact, the human brain is primed to favour good over bad, and as such, our natural tendency is to continually try to improve things. Hence, through a lens of retrospection, a lens of present-tense analysis, and a lens of forecasting we are able to discern whether a consensus is pervasive because we have yet to develop our thinking or whether a consensus is pervasive because it justifiably yields to reason and evidence-based rationality.

Take the cases of homosexuality and child sex dolls as a good example for juxtaposition. When humans were against homosexuality, their prejudices superseded their ability to realise that sexual orientation is natural and no grounds for prejudice (same as gender or skin colour). Hence, arguments for homosexual rights and equal treatment yield to reason and evidence-based rationality. Humans are against paedophillic acts not just because they don't want paedophiles to satisfy their desires but because they know that a child hasn't the physiological development to be sexually active, and because we know it damages them in later life as well as infringes on their volition - so arguments for paedophiles' sexual rights and ability to satisfy those desires does not yield to reason and evidence-based rationality.

Given the foregoing examples, I think it's justifiable to argue that our ability to deal with the three variable precepts (past, present and future) demonstrates our ability to have confidence in many of widely established views about morality. That is why I think we in the developed world have justifiably culturally evolved to associate the act of sex as being inextricable from age of volition, mature consent and accountability - and it is on those grounds that we can demand the discontinuation of the link between children and sex.

Lastly, and this is essential - it is important that we don't get caught out with demands for objectivity - we just don't have it. Our desire for the discontinuation of the link between children and sex is a strong desire based on what we feel is right - it cannot stand up on its own separate from evidential justification and rational enquiry.

I, like most people, *do* want these child sex dolls banned. But the trouble I have is that I'm not sure I can justify the desire for a ban above my own intersubjectivity - because I can see no reason why one could justifiably call for the banning of sex dolls (because we don’t like real child sex) and not a banning of those video games in which the participants beat up and kill as many people as they can (because I don't like real violence).  Somehow I feel stronger about banning the dolls than I do the video games - when in both cases I'm really objecting to the same thing - I don't want to allow a simulated reality on the basis that I don't like what that reality represents in real life. This does indicate that morality is in some part a matter of taste, as well as being an evidence-based conclusion, and a personal feeling about how I want the world to be.

It's trickier than many will have you believe - for I can think of a good reason to ban the dolls based on how I want the world to be, but I can't justify it without justifying the banning of video games in which players get to play out their fantasy of becoming mindless thugs, as both are really an objection to a similar thing - my feeling of revulsion. But if I go that far - where next? Do I have to call for a ban on anything that is contrary to how I want the world to be? Surely not, because that might stretch to ultra-violent films, or tasteless art, or infidelity. So the indication is it's not very easy to proficiently justify banning these dolls without banning all the things I find to be undesirable, unless we admit that it's a matter of perceived scale and severity, and that the scale and severity in question are perceptions based on my subjective viewpoints, my tastes, and my convictions about how I want the world to be.

* There is a third factor - the material ability to act on our desires to be morally charitable (like developing the technology, capital and politics to be able to help people from developing nations out of poverty), but that's not central to our aims here.