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Free Society, or Artificial Restriction?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 13, 2012

In a letter in the June/July 2012 issue of First Things, James Stoner argues that “the legal case for the suppression of obscene pornography in a free society cannot rest on spiritual crisis and the need for confraternal prayer, but on the social costs of the use of pornography, its observable damage to marriages, to families, to women, to children, and to the users themselves who are caught in its web.” Storer was one of the editors of The Social Costs of Pornography, published by the Witherspoon Institute.

Whether or not the suppression of pornography can rest on allegations of a spiritual crisis (or the need for prayer), the arguments for suppression certainly do not need to be limited to an assessment of social costs. Such costs are powerful arguments, but they are not the only arguments open to politics in a pluralist society which acknowledges a proper separation between Church and State. (The use of the term “free society” in this context is tendentious and irrelevant.)

An understanding of the proper scope of government does not restrict government to acting only on empirical measurements. Rather, the proper context for the morality of government action is the natural law. Although our own culture happens to be fairly blind on the point, it is obvious from the natural law that pornography is wrong. This is an understanding that does not depend on Revelation, even when Christian bodies teach the evil of pornography as part of their moral doctrines. The vast majority of human cultures, as far as we can tell, have recognized the immorality of pornography, making participation in it, at the very least, an occasion for shame.

It is not wrong to restrict pornography and punish pornographers even if those who govern cannot tally up the "social costs" through formal sociological studies. They can still know that pornography is evil, and therefore it must have deleterious effects both personally and socially, whether these effects are currently measurable or not. Moreover, the wrongness of pornography is not dependent on its measurable consequences. Nor are factors such as sexual self-control and what we might call general spiritual health, or its analogues in psychological health and social maturity, of no interest in the socio-political order.

One might as well say that theft may be prohibited in a free society only if there is broad sociological evidence that it does more harm than good. This is very sloppy thinking, and I am sorry to see it in a letter written by a prominent ally in the fight against sexual license.

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