Sago Boulevard

Friday, May 20, 2005

Ethics of Self-Regarding Actions and Prostitution in Nevada

I thought I'd share with you this exchange that's been transpiring on Kevin's Grinberg's blog. Responding to a comment on Kevin's post about Nevada brothels, I wrote the following:
I can’t believe you actually compared prostitution to nose picking, firstly. Secondly, don’t blame “fucking theocrats” for wanting to ban prostitution. Yes, generally when you believe something is wrong you try to ban it. Of course there are other concerns, like whether or not such a ban is practical. But it’s quite practical to ban prostitution. Don’t we ban race discrimination because we think it’s wrong? Your get-morality-out-of-politics position sounds a lot like the right wing anti-civil rights rhetoric of the 60s and 70s.

Kevin responded:
Former Batcaver David Fryman writes in a comment to my post about Nevada brothels: “Yes, generally when you believe something is wrong you try to ban it.” Since the post is over a week old, and David’s comment opens a whole new can of worms, let me address it here: no, David, just because I believe something is wrong does not mean that I immediately want to ban it. There are really two questions here: 1) Is prostitution “wrong”? 2) If so, shouldn’t we ban it?

To answer #1: I simply don’t see a non-theological argument for why a purely self-regarding action is “wrong” (if you want to go the public health route, as Chuck seemed to be going, that’s fine - but it’s a whole other argument altogether, and not really the point here). In short, “I don’t like it” (or “God told me it’s wrong”) isn’t a particularly compelling reason to regulate everyone else’s behavior.

To answer #2: There are plenty of things that I consider morally indefensible that I have no interest in banning. For instance:

- Infidelity

- Unreturned phone calls

- Fox News

So - to address the obvious retort - if I don’t believe in banning things simply because they are “wrong”, how do I justify laws against murder and such? Or, to answer the question David asks later in his comment, “Don’t we ban race discrimination because we think it’s wrong?” Well, no. At least, not entirely. We ban racial discrimination (and murder, and a whole host of other actions) because it’s significantly and unjustly harmful to others. Notice that, as objectionable as racism is, we don’t ban self-contained racist thoughts, or even non-threatening racist speech - the law steps in when you harm (or threaten to harm) another person. So, while I think that racism is unequivocally wrong, and I’m all for social ostracism of racists (and homophobes, sexists, etc), I don’t think the law should punish people for thinking bad thoughts, no matter how objectionable I might find them. I’m always amazed that so many religious folks (and others too, actually) take the wrong=>ban connection at face value - why? Of course, if memory serves me right, David doesn’t believe in morality without God, so it’s possible that he doesn’t consider my morals, well, “moral” (or non-God-related rights to be real rights) - but that’s a topic for another post (or, actually, finding an old one).

Here's my response:

I’m impressed that you remember are conversations about God and morality. For the record, I abandoned that view a while ago. (I actually devoted a chapter of my thesis to arguing for what I dubbed “morality independent of God”). With that said, let’s get theology out of this discussion because it doesn’t belong.

We disagree about the ethics of self-regarding actions. Following Aristotle, I believe that one has an ethical obligation to himself to be virtuous. I DO NOT mean this with any particular religious connotation. I simply think that you ought to take actions to better yourself and your surroundings.

Regarding “the wrong => ban connection” you misrepresented me. As I wrote in my comment, “Of course there are other concerns, like whether or not such a ban is practical.” Banning Fox News, to use your example, would have the positive effect of eliminating bad journalism. But that would be greatly outweighed by the negative effects censorship. Punishing people for unreturned phone calls is similarly impractical. I think the same is true of “self-contained racist thoughts”. There’s simply no good way to regulate it and a “thought police” is far worse that racist thoughts. But prostitution seems relatively easy to ban. In fact, most of the country has.