Can we frame the debate objectively?

In response to this Will Wilkinson entry and this Kerry Howley entry on the liberty arguments for (economics) and against (morality) legalized prostitution, Ross Douthat goes off the rails with a strange question of how prostitution as sex work differs from molestation and incest. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds. Read Mr. Wilkinson’s response, with all the obvious goodness such a question demands.

Instead, I want to focus on this one sentence from Mr. Douthat’s entry:

If you think that sex, by virtue of being bound up not only culturally but biologically with emotional attachment on the one hand and reproduction on the other, is a unique kind of physical act, one that’s intimate by its very nature in a way that, say, preparing dinner isn’t, then it makes sense to assign a hierarchy of moral value (and moral stigma) to different kinds of sexual activity – most likely with monogamy at the top, serial monogamy somewhat lower, promiscuity lower still, and activities that treat sex as a commodity to be bought and sold somewhere near the bottom.

Of course it makes sense to assign that hierarchy if that’s what you think. But not everyone thinks that. Perpetuating individual liberty demands more than caving to a squishy notion of universal disdain for an activity. Even, and perhaps especially, when one finds activities at the bottom of that hierarchy morally repugnant.

The validity of arguing for the legalization of prostitution does not hinge on the moral argument with regard to selling sex. It is acceptable to believe that an activity is morally unacceptable, yet to acknowledge that two consenting adults may engage in that activity because they are not harming others. Or more precisely, if they are harming anyone, it is only themselves, voluntarily. That question of liberty is at the core of this debate, not the moral defensibility of prostitution.

Free to engage and should engage are different concepts. Ms. Howley and Mr. Wilkinson argue only the former. This (implicitly) injects into the debate the truth that all tastes and preferences are subjective. It sets such subjectivity aside and leaves the legal question only to evidence of objective harm.

For fairness, Mr. Douthat posits in an earlier entry that sex work is by definition self-abuse, justifying a legal prohibition. The posts he responds to in the above links address that argument.


Of course, since it’s apparently okay to ask questions unrelated to the topic, let me ask a question: Why is it automatically self-harm worthy of prohibition for an individual to sell sex, even when it’s voluntarily sold, yet it’s reasonable to permit parents to surgically alter the genitals of their healthy sons – who may or may not approve of such permanent, physical alteration – as Mr. Douthat suggested last year in defense of infant circumcision?

The answer to how one person can hold two incongruent opinions rather obviously rests in a willingness to use personal, subjective tastes and preferences to inform the legal code of a diverse, secular, civil society. It’s the same central planner impulse that resides in every individual who seeks to dictate which freedoms are abhorrent.

Since I’m off on the tangent, in that entry, Mr. Douthat states:

Proponents, like myself, point out that even saying the word smegma is really disgusting. Again, I think we pretty much win the debate right there, without even getting into the whole HIV question.

I get the tongue-in-cheek nature of the comment, whether he meant it or not. I think he did because I think he views circumcision as inconsequential. (Remember subjective tastes and preferences?) But any understanding of human biology demonstrates the stupidity of such an argument. Female genitals produce smegma, as well. We do not cut female minors for that reason. Or, more to the point, we do not permit parents to cut their daughters just because they, the parents, are disgusted by the mere mention of the word. We manage to find the correct reasoning to prohibit that. But for males, parents can use only the mere mention of smegma as an excuse to cut. Or they can reject even that reason and order it because it’s fun to check “yes” on the consent form. The law is based on our conditioned beliefs rather than facts.

Just as it is with prostitution.