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The moral, secular case against pornography

A photographer takes a photo.
A photographer takes a photo.

Based on a growing reservoir of research, the Republican party recently dubbed pornography a “public health crisis.”

Last week, columnist Daniel Engber — a proud recipient of the 2008 Sex-Positive Journalism Award — deconstructed the GOP’s declaration in a thoroughly researched piece for the online publication Slate.

Engber outlines a new study he says suggests that viewing sexually explicit material may not be a central culprit in causing men to fall “out of love with their wives and girlfriends.”

While Engber’s analysis is ostensibly about science, at the heart of his article seems to be the latent query: Is pornography morally justifiable?

Let me begin with a hypothetical.

Suppose two consenting adults engage in a business transaction. For the sake of creativity, let's call them person A and person B.

In this hypothetical, person A pays person B to pose nude.

Person A receives a dose of dopamine from viewing the nude images of person B, and person B, in turn, receives money.

The transaction is legal — but is it moral?

No. But a growing segment of society says yes, as long as no one is "harmed." According to a study by the Public Religion Research Institute, the "religiously unaffiliated" now approve of porn by 53 percent. Millennials are not far behind at 45 percent.

Of course if one defines moral behavior simply as legal conduct between consenting adults, then pornography falls squarely within the definition.

Yet the more one learns about both the fallibility of human cognitive processes — i.e., the reality that humans are prone to act irrationally — and the power of modern marketers to manipulate conduct (often at our expense), the more it seems that a “morality-as-consent” model is at best intellectually lazy and at worst a mere philosophical façade to justify laissez-faire mores.

A more responsible secular definition for "moral conduct" might read something like: behaviors that tend to increase an individual’s level of long-term overall happiness.

Under such a definition, pornography is not moral.

That's not to say that people who view pornography are wholly immoral or somehow beyond moral reform (anecdotes and evidence show otherwise); however, the act of viewing sexually explicit images for pleasure seems unjustifiable on personal moral grounds.

Research into well-being suggests that a sizable portion of long-term happiness is tied to feelings of “earned success.” According to Arthur Brooks, earned success is “the belief you are creating value with your life and value in the lives of other people.”

Regularly staring at nude images is not exactly a textbook case of “earned success.”

In fact, poaching dopamine with pornography is the antithesis of "earned" anything. After all, the very appeal of pornography is that it circumvents organic processes of achieving human intimacy. With pornography, one need not toil toward sexual satisfaction through, say, romance, courtship, marriage or even basic human interactions. Instead, nude images simply deliver dopamine sans pesky prerequisites.

Yet, sustained wellbeing and "earned success" come not through shortcuts. Most frequently, aside from a healthy gene pool, consistent happiness derives from a steady stream of positive personal choices.

As one candid college student recently wrote for his campus newspaper: “I have never watched porn … and then said to myself, ‘Boy, I’m sure glad I did that!’”

Meanwhile, on the production side of pornography, those who merely flash various body parts in front of a camera are also unlikely to experience robust levels of accomplishment — posing nude is hardly on par with, say, graduating with post-secondary training or constructively contributing to a charitable cause.

But, hey, Mr. Engber is here to placate America's conscience by reminding readers that nude images may not necessarily be the primary cause of a ruined relationship.

"It could also be," Engber writes, "that erotic centerfolds were never making men fall out of love with their wives and girlfriends to begin with."

Indeed, the real culprit was probably immorality.