Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Flogging a Dead Horse

A shy young farmer is showing his girlfriend around the farm. He shows her the haystacks and the milking machine, and then they come to a field where a cow and a bull are doing what cows and bulls do when farmers put them in fields together. The farmer and his girlfriend watch for a few minutes and then the farmer ventures: 'Er...do you know, one day, I'd like to do that.'

'Well, it's your cow,' she replies.


We are all much less screwed up about sex than we used to be. Everyone is glad to be gay. We don't tell children that if they play with themselves they'll go blind. Sado-masochism is openly discussed in the pages of Woman's Realm. But it is still relatively rare to come across an 'out' necrophiliac. Dead people don't put up postcards in phone boxes. If I were to walk in on a friend having sex with his ex-girlfriend, I would probably say something slightly stronger than, 'Well, it's your corpse.'

Why is sex with a dead body necessarily more depraved than, say, sex with a manikin? You or I may think that both pastimes are a bit yucky, but 'yuck!' is not really an argument. Norman Tebbit thinks it is yucky for two men to have sex together, even if both of them are still alive, to which the only answer is 'That's all right, no-one asked you to watch.' Norman would probably reply that it's the whole idea of a man having sex with another man which he finds yucky, to which I would reply: 'Well, I think the idea of John Major having sex with Edwina Curry is pretty yucky. Or indeed, the idea of anyone having sex with Edwina Curry. Or, in fact, John Major. Do you want to ban that as well?' Aesthetic judgements are a very bad guide to morality.

We think that desecrating a corpse is an offense against the family of the corpse's original owner: but we no longer think that desecrating corpses in general is an offense against humanity in general. There was a time when we tried to prosecute artists for doing challengingly post-modern things with the dear departed. But now we permit 'Body Worlds', even though it is an exhibition of high-tech human taxidermy, because all of the exhibits signed legal documents agreeing to be filleted and put on display when they die. So what would be the moral difference if someone willed their mortal remains to be used for some much less educational, but possibly more enjoyable, artistic venture?

The only rational objection to necrophilia is the practical one. It's rather difficult to pursue the hobby without a dead body; and it's rather difficult to get hold of a dead body without killing someone or digging someone up. (There are also questions about hygiene and public health, even if you wear a condom and don't share shrouds.) We object to necrophilia because we don't think that you should interfere with human remains. The fact that some people find interfering with human remains a sexual turn-on is is beside the point.

I mention this because necrophilia is one of the categories covered by Tony Blair's proposed law against 'extreme' pornography. The others are sexual violence and bestiality. At present, it is illegal to produce or distribute certain kinds of dirty book. But what the world has been crying out for is a law against even having such material in your house, in a cardboard box under your bed, or, and especially, in a file on your hard-drive marked 'Very boring bank statements, do not read.' I have never been entirely sure what a rubicon is but I am pretty sure that we have just crossed one.

Prime Ministers have always regretted the fact that they can't legislate about what goes on in our minds and in our trousers. But with the advent of the World Wide Wank it is theoretically possible for Tony Blair to spy on all of our wet dreams. In the past, we drifted off to sleep turning dodgy little paraphilias over in our heads, hardly remembering them the next morning. Nowadays, we type 'Doctor, Rose, Dalek, tentacle, slash, threesome' into Google and see our most secretest fantasies dance before our eyes in living colour. Or so I have heard.

Tony can't stop you thinking about naughty things; but it is now fairly easy for him to discover what naughty things you have been thinking about and if he doesn't like them, to send three big uniformed police officers to your house to confiscate your computer, handcuff you, conduct an intimate body search and then take out their big, manly truncheons, and

I don't think that looking at images of necrophilia, sexual violence or bestiality is one of my more fundamental human rights. It's a right I'm perfectly willing to give up, along with my right to shout 'fire' in a crowded theater, my right to drive on the right hand side of the road and my right to put potato peelings in my wheelie bin, so long as it does some good. But I would quite like to know what kind of good the new law is supposed to do.

Are cemeteries being vandalized in order to provide models for a booming necro-porn industry? Is the RSPCA worried about an epidemic of cows with sore bottoms? Then by all means, let's take action. Let's impose a criminal penalty on people who look at pictures of non-consenting bovine sex, in the hope that by cutting off demand, you will put the suppliers out of business, as has worked so successfully in the case of hard drugs.

But no plague of pornography-fueled sheep-buggering corpse-shaggers has so far been detected. Instead, we're told we need a new law because extreme pornography is 'repugnant', 'abhorrent', 'disturbing', 'repellent' and 'unacceptable to the vast majority of people' which is as much as to say, being interpreted, yucky. Those of us who point out that maybe some people find the stuff you look at quite yucky; and that in any case we doubt whether everyone who looks at yucky stuff ought to go to jail, are told that some of this stuff is very yucky indeed. Feminists in particular are inclined to say that they once saw, or heard about, a movie in which a woman was tortured, or appeared to be tortured, and that this was so yucky that if you had seen it, you would have been sick. They think this settles the question. If you persist, and say that, even assuming genuine 'snuff' movies exist, you don't see how sending a few Internet masturbators to prison is going to help, they seem not to understand the question. The representative from the Home Office explained to the BBC that:

By banning the possession of such material the government is sending out a strong message - that it is totally unacceptable and those who access it will be held to account.

It has to be banned because it is unacceptable. We are are going to ban it because it's the kind of thing which should be banned.

Some people are prepared to give actual reasons why yucky things should be banned. The most common argument is that we have to ban the possession of extreme porn because extreme porn harms the people who possess it. There are three versions of this argument. On one view, extreme porn is cleverly put together by pornographers who understand how your sexuality works. If you look at pornographic images of sexual violence, you will start to be turned on by those images. This will make you a bad person. This seems to me to be a circular argument, roughly equivalent to saying: 'It is bad to look at yucky pictures, because they will make you the sort of person who looks at yucky pictures, which is bad.'

The second, and more common form of the argument is that looking at extreme pornography is likely to turn you into a criminal. If you look at yucky pictures, and become the sort of person who likes to look at yucky pictures, then sooner or later, looking at yucky pictures is not going to be sufficient: you are bound to actually go and dig up a corpse. This is every censor's argument: people are too weak and stupid to distinguish fiction from reality. Fredric Wertham said that any comic book which depicted a crime (in any context) was a 'crime comic', and that 'crime comics' by definition turned the youth of America into criminals. Christianist extremists have said that the depiction of 'magic' by J.K Rowling is likely to turn children into disciples of Aleister Crowley. When the BBC put the question to the man from the ministry, he went completely to pieces:

There is no conclusive proof that in every case certain types of images will have a certain impact on every individual but we know that in that particular case....that these images do have an impact, do feed certain fantasies in certain individuals and we believe that it is our responsibility to prevent that from happening.

Does anyone know what it means to 'feed' a fantasy? And has it been proved that if you did feed one, it would get bigger and stronger and eventually burst out of its cage and bite someone's head off? Isn't it just as possible that it's lean, mean, starving fantasies which do the harm, and the best thing that anyone can do with one is to keep it well fed and docile?

If there were concrete evidence that people who looked at pictures of people having sex with kittens went out and had sex with kittens, then it wouldn't necessarily follow that the best way of protecting kittens would be jailing anyone who owned a sexually explicit kitten picture. As it stands, the argument is circular.

'We must ban yucky pictures.'
'Why?'
'Because they harm the people who look at them.'
'What is your evidence for that?'
'It is intuitively obvious.'
'Why?'
'Because they are so yucky.'

The third form of the argument, and the only one which I think has any credibility, is that looking at pictures of people doing weird sexual stuff is inclined to 'normalize' the weird stuff that you might want to do, and make you more inclined to do it. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this can be the case. You spend thirty self-loathing years thinking that your are the only person on earth who is sexually excited by teddy bears - and then one day you discover www.arctophilia.com, spend a happy hour downloading teddy-porn, and post a message to the teddy-porn forum saying 'I never knew anyone else was interested in this...I thought I was the only one...' With the encouragement of other arctophiles, you might even come out of the toy-cupboard and admit your fetish in public.

But this pre-supposes that your interest is eccentric but basically harmless. If what you are interested in is obviously criminal, then it's another matter. Your parents, your teachers and your community leaders have taught you that murder, rape and child-abuse are morally wrong. Your conscience tells you that you shouldn't kill people or have sex with them without their consent. Your sense of empathy tells you how horrible it would be to be murdered or sexually molested. And your common sense tells you that if you do these things, you will be shunned by your community, sent to jail, or, in primitive countries, executed. Yet the tendency of certain images to 'normalize' or 'legitimize' deviant behaviour is so powerful that it over-rides your upbringing, your conscience, your morality, your empathy and even your fear of punishment, causing you to go out and do something which you know is wrong. This is an extra-ordinary claim; extra-ordinary claims require extra-ordinary evidence. The burden of proof is on those who believe that these images possess this power. But the only proofs cited are circumstancial evidence that many people convicted of violent sex offences have violent pornography in their posession; vague metaphors about 'feeding fantasies' and 'mental furniture'; and general assertions that some images are so nasty that they probably have some kind of effect. This is insufficient to establish that some images have can turn normal individuals into ammoral psychopaths.

There are a certain number of people whose moral conscience and sense of empathy was flawed or non-existant even before they plugged their computer in. These are certainly dangerous and scary individuals. But it isn't smutty website that have made them so. (*)

I have been assuming that the reasons for introducing the new law are rational ones. But, of course, they aren't. Laws are no longer about spotting crimes and working out realistic ways of preventing them. They are about 'sending signals'; they are about creating newspaper headlines; they are the government's attempt to create a popular 'narrative.'

In 2003 a young woman had unspeakable things done to her by a not-at-all well man who got off on doing unspeakable things to young women. Not surprisingly, he also spent some of his spare time looking at pictures on the internet of young women having unspeakable things done to them. The relatives of the victim believed that these pictures had in some sense caused the murder. They organised a campaign to get 'violent porn' prohibited. The new law is a response to this campaign. 'Victory for mother in war on violent porn' explained the Daily Mail. Even our own dear Guardian found the narrative – 'out of this great evil must come something good' – too appealing to resist, and referred to it in three separate headlines. 'Violent Porn Ban 'a memorial to my daughter'; 'Legacy of Jane Longhurst'; 'Jane's Legacy'. Without even noticing it, we have replaced jurisprudence with soap opera. Last month, the Home Secretary was referring to his pro-lynching initiative as 'Sarah's Law'. Right at the beginning of his reign of terror, Tony Blair said that he had made it illegal for grown-ups with licences to fire guns at paper targets, not because it was a good idea but because 'We owed a debt to the people of Dunblane.' I find this tendency very disturbing. Laws should be made because they will serve a clear and tangible purpose: not because they provide an uplifting ending to grotesque murder stories.

You may wish to say that I am being flippant. You may think that murder, corpse mutilation and cruelty to animals are crimes; and that it is self-evident that there shouldn't be a trade in pictures of people committing crimes. We could have a terribly interesting debate about medieval child brides, the age of consent in Sweden, Shirley Temple movies, and what the hell's going on in those night clubs where people dress up in school uniforms and listen to old Boney M records. But as soon as we start to talk about actual pictures of actual people actually doing things to actual children, then we would all be in agreement: it's illegal, it's always been illegal, and it ought to be illegal. You may think that images of women actually being tortured and graves actually being vandalized should be treated in the same way. I would probably agree with you. But Tony Blair's new law goes much, much further than this.

The governments consultation document states very clearly what kind of pictures they want to lock you up for looking at:

15: In summary, material would need to be:

a: Pornographic

b: Explicit

c: Real or appears to be a real act...


16: It would cover

i: serious violence *

ii: intercourse or oral sex with an animal

iii: sexual interference with a human corpse

* by serious violence we mean appears to be life threatening or likely to result in serious, disabling injury (my italics)

In case you missed this, the paper goes on to define it's terms.

'The second threshold would be an objective test for the jury in respect of actual scenes or depictions which appear to be real acts...By actual scenes or depictions which appear to be real acts we intend to catch material which either is genuinely violent or conveys a realistic impression of fear, violence and harm.' (my italics)

So. New Labour's legacy will be to re-define 'real' as 'fictitious' and 'actual' as 'simulated'. For years, people have argued about whether or not 'snuff' movies really exist. Tony has brilliantly circumvented the question: looking at a clever special effect in which someone appears to be killed will be defined, under English law, as just as bad as watching a film in which someone is actually killed.

Owning a movie in which someone is killed or appears to be killed in a horrible way will not, in itself, be a crime, which is a relief for those of us who bought the DVD of The Passion of the Christ. We can only go to prison if the violent film is also pornographic. In case we don't know, pornography is defined as:

material that has been solely or primarily produced for the purpose of sexual arousal...We believe that this first test should eliminate, for example, photographs of works of art, news and documentary programmes by mainstream broadcasters which are of public interest and works classified by the BBFC

So; everything depends on the intention of the person who created the film. If someone makes a film of someone digging up a corpse, with the intention of making me violently sick, traumatizing me, and giving me nightmares for a month, then I am not committing any crime by owning a copy. But if someone makes a film of someone digging up a corpse with the intention of giving me an erection, then if I have a copy of the film I can go to prison for three years. (If I do get a hard-on while watching it, then we're in the clear provided no-one intended me to; if they intended me to get a stiffy but I actually find it a complete turn off, then I can still move directly to jail.) If what I'm watching is only a very impressive special effect, it makes no difference: a sexy special effect is against the law, a merely disgusting or horrifying one isn't.

Lawyers will be able to have endless fun with this. If I get excited by looking at pictures of – say – a group of teenaged squaddies mud wrestling in the nude, then that's perfectly okay, provided I'm looking at a real film of real recruits being really abused in the sort of perfectly normal, heterosexual horse-play that made the British army what it is today. But if exactly the same scene is staged by a gay porn website for the benefit of the kind of people who like that kind of thing, then a crime is committed by anyone who looks at it. Mary Whitehouse famously tried to argue that since it would be criminally obscene to perform anal sex on the London stage, it must logically also be obscene to convincingly simulate the same act. But in Blair's Britain there are cases when looking at the real thing might be okay, but looking at a simulation is against the law.

A crime will only be committed if the pictures you are looking at are 'explicit', helpfully defined as

activity which can be clearly seen, leaves little to the imagination, and is not hidden or disguised, (e.g by pixilation.)

So; any notion that this law is needed to prevent unspeakable things being done to real animals, real cadavers and real, live women can be put aside. This law is not to protect them: it is to protect you. A picture of someone buggering a cow in which the naughty bits are pixilated out might be less likely to corrupt and deprave the person looking at it; and it might be less yucky for the rest of us. But it presumably doesn't make any difference to the cow.

Jemima Lewis, writing in the Independent provides a clue to what is really going on.

It hardly matters whether footage of a rape victim having her throat slit or limbs sawn off is real or fake: its message is one of savage hatred of women... We always reserve the right to protect ourselves, however imperfectly, from things that are bad for our bodies or souls. Like drug abuse or racism, misogyny is a social cancer which we should be unashamed to fight.

So. What we are legislating against is not the images themselves; not the real people hurt in the production of those images; not even the criminals who some people believe are created by these images. What we are making laws about is their subtext; their ideology; their message.

Joan Bakewell, writing in the Guardian, concurs

But the truth is that many people can watch films of cruelty and degradation without harmful effect. That said, extreme pornography degrades women and brutalises men, which is why I think that removing it from the Internet would be the best way forward.

(Isn't it cute that she thinks that making a law and locking up a few people, is the same thing as 'removing it from the internet'.)

But if what we're worried about is the sub-text, why stop at snuff movies and necrophilia? Half the top shelf of your average sub-urban news-agent could be said to be misogynistic and to degrade women. So, why not jail the consumers of that, as well? Jeremy Coutinho, also in the Guardian agrees. The new law does not go far enough. It does 'not in itself address society's attitudes towards women'. (It is not clear who said that it was supposed to.)

While I welcome this bill, the mainstream objectification of women has to be tackled too if the government is really serious about women's human rights.

He gives a number of examples of certainly yucky but presumably consensual and not life-threatening 'mainstream' images that he would like to 'tackle', such as novelty gentleman's toilets and pictures of men ejaculating in women's faces.

I think that misogyny is a Bad Thing. I also think that racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, islamaphobia and whatever-the-word-is-for-someone-who-hates-Christians are Bad Things. I am very doubtful whether people who own literature which express an racist or anti-semitic message should go to prison. You may not agree with me; you may think that some ideas are so offensive that even to possess a book or tape or disc which contains them should incur a term of imprisonment. In a way, that's not the point. The point is that this looked like a law against a particularly nasty kind of porn. But it is really ideas which are being censored. It always is.






* These two paragraphs have been edited following criticism. The original version read: "This pre-supposes that your interest is eccentric but basically harmless. Whether we are talking about kinky sex or trainspotting the Internet makes it much easier to contact fellow enthusiasts. If you find other people who like the same thing you do, it's much more likely that you'll go and do it together. If what you are interested in is obviously dangerous and criminal, then it's another matter. Everything in your up-bringing and your conscience tells you that murder, rape and child abuse are morally wrong: the only actual objection to teddy-sex is that it is slightly unusual. I simply don't believe that a web-site and a peer-group who say 'Digging up corpses is perfectly okay' is going to over-ride every piece of socialization you have experienced since you were born – unless, of course, you were a psychopath to begin with. In which case, it's not the the website's fault."

50 comments:

Tom R said...

> "whatever-the-word-is-for-someone-who-hates-Christians..."

"Guardian columnist" (noun, pron. GAH-dee-en COL-umm-ist).

Sylvia said...

Andrew, you are quite simply my favorite. (Perhaps even my favourite.) I think I will have to write a longer comment on this eventually, but for now I'm far too dead from tech rehearsal. (I shall try not to appear to make love to anyone whilst in my deceased state.)

Mike Taylor said...

"I simply don't believe that a web-site and a peer-group who say 'Digging up corpses is perfectly okay' is going to over-ride every piece of socialization you have experienced since you were born."

"What is your evidence for that?"

"It is intuitively obvious."

Ah. Well, that settles that, then.

Louise H said...

Of course if it is the ideas that are so unpleasant that they cannot be tolerated in our society, there is no reason to restrict this law to images.

As a youngish teenager I read a rather interesting book about a woman and a bear which has rather coloured my views towards ursines ever since. I don't think that an image would have had a qualitatively different effect (although I'm pretty sure that the library wouldn't have let me book it out on a child's ticket).

Slash fiction can be extremely yucky, though since it tends to be written about men by women it hardly counts as misogynistic. It doesn't tend to be illustrated so presumably it can corrupt us all it likes. (Which gives me an idea for a Dr Who/Robin of Sherwood crossover story involving a dead body and at least two bears, one of which is below the age of consent. Fortunately I will probably never write it)

And what about paintings? Soundtracks? The loopholes are endless. If this law was actually going to make any difference to the content of the Internet then it would be rather deficient from conception.

Andrew Rilstone said...

"I simply don't believe that a web-site and a peer-group who say 'Digging up corpses is perfectly okay' is going to over-ride every piece of socialization you have experienced since you were born."

"What is your evidence for that?"

"It is intuitively obvious."

Ah. Well, that settles that, then.


Er...good point, well made.

steveyb said...

I would say that the evidence is that people aren't going around digging up corpses and having sex with them, but some lads in America just tried to.

Oddly enough they got the idea from the woman's obituary photo and not from any devious website. Perhaps we should ban tabloids from printing photos of women involved in any fatal tragedy instead, as we have direct evidence that this encourages necrophilia.

Tom R said...

>>>> What is your evidence for that?"

>>> "It is intuitively obvious."

>> Ah. Well, that settles that, then.

>> Er...good point, well made.


Except that Tebbit was appealing to intuition to validate a moral value judgment, as opposed to an estimation of fact or likelihood.

"It seems intuitively obvious to me that the world is flat and the sun moves in an arc above it" is testable and refutable in a way that "It seems intuitively obvious to me that strawberry tastes nicer than chocolate" isn't.

Will Allen said...

I sometimes dream that you will get a column in the Sun.

People will read it, and think: "Wait a moment. That new law is bollocks. What were they thinking?"

There will be a massive popular uprising against ill-thought out, pointless laws designed to give the impression of doing something rather than actually do anything. The government will be overthrown. People will stop having opinions until they have at least tried to consider the consequences. News International will go out of business...


I guess on the bright side this new law will have absolutely no impact whatsoever on anyone or anything.

Anonymous said...

"It seems intuitively obvious to me that the world is flat and the sun moves in an arc above it" is testable and refutable in a way that "It seems intuitively obvious to me that strawberry tastes nicer than chocolate" isn't.

Coudn't we blindfold you and give you samples of strawberry and chocolate and see which you say tastes nicer? That'd be something of a test at least.

Ah, you say, I meant the statement to be more broadly applicable than that. Fine: we'll blindfold lots of people and repeat the test many times over.

And it strikes me that these experiments are a lot more convincing, less technical, cheaper, and faster than the ones you'd have to do to test the first theory. So in many senses the second theory is a lot more testable and refutable.

Phil Masters said...

Except that Tebbit was appealing to intuition to validate a moral value judgment, as opposed to an estimation of fact or likelihood.

However, Andrew's choice of phrasing was a blatant attempt at Disproof by Personal Incredulity. Which is invalid and bullying, whether it comes from Norman Tebbit or Andrew Rilstone.

NickPheas said...

The problem is that the Justice for Mum business does demonstrate the point. There are people out there for whom images start the obsession but they then need to act out. Rare, obviously, but all it takes is one extreme of the bell curve to really mess up your day.

Actually the idea that producing and distrubuting yucky pictures is full on illegal but owning a hard drive full of said yucky pictures is legit has never made that much sense, especially in this day and age when we know how easy it is to take said hard drive full of yucky pictures and distribute them via the interweb.

Sam Dodsworth said...

There are people out there for whom images start the obsession but they then need to act out. Rare, obviously, but all it takes is one extreme of the bell curve to really mess up your day.

On the other hand, no-one ever suggested that John W. Hinckley was a reason to ban films with Jodie Foster in.

The Great Tartovski said...

I guess on the bright side this new law will have absolutely no impact whatsoever on anyone or anything.

Unless, you know, You actually have a hard disk full of those images/movies and happen to need your PC repaired...

The main thing that annoys me about all this is the claim that "The vast majority of people find these forms of violent and extreme pornography deeply abhorrent" (vernon croaker). This, using evidence of the consultantion document, is simply not true. Oddly, that is being ignored by those involved and they are pushing the law through anyway. Isn't it great to live in a democracy?

Sam Dodsworth said...

This, using evidence of the consultantion document, is simply not true.

I once read a book on pornography and censorship in Britain which, while not a good book, did contain some interesting bits. In particular, I remember reading that the police were (circa 2000/2001) finding that the rise of internet pornography had made it virtually impossible to get a successful prosecution for obscenity.

I think what we're seeing here is an attempt by the various pro-censorship lobbies to re-take some of the ground they've lost. Everyone disapproves of "violent pornography", so why not stretch the definition as far as it will go? Something similar is already happening with the definition of what the police call "pseudo-photographs" (i.e. photoshop montages) as "child pornography".

The Great Tartovski said...

Everyone disapproves of "violent pornography", so why not stretch the definition as far as it will go?

The point is that according to the government's own paper found here: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/cons-extreme-porn-3008051/Gvt-response-extreme-porn2.pdf?view=Binary

The majority of people are against the legislation. Out 313 individual responses, only 90 agree with the legislation. Yeh for statistics!

I just hope you are right about it not affecting things. Banning of porn/bdsm etc should all be about consent and not about arbitary definations of what is good, and what is bad.

Sam Dodsworth said...

The point is that according to the government's own paper... [t]he majority of people are against the legislation.

Up to a point, minister. That's the majority of people who answered their call for responses. How the public at large will respond is probably a matter of how it's presented in the media... but can you imagine any mainstream news outlet risking the accusation that they approve of "violent pornography"?

Tom Zunder said...

I am very tired of the Thatcher-Blair school of thought that we need to centrally legislate on everything. The sooner Tony goes the better but my fear is that the culture is in government not just the politicians.

As for porn, look at that cesspit of depravity that is Germany to see what years of liberality and tolerance have led to.. oh, they're actually perfectly sound, maybe more than we are..

Charles Filson said...

Wow, did Andrew just make the jump into Libertarianism?
I could almost cheer.

I wonder though; is the line really to be drawn at the point at which physical harm is done to a person? What about the mental harm caused to women just knowing that misogynist porn is out there? Or the harm to those who fear guns, just knowing that people might have them?

If you simply want to know that good is being done to give up your rights to own pictures of people having sex with dead people, then doesn't knowing that many women feel safer just knowing that those pictures are illegal cover it for you?

I don't favor banning any form of pornography simply becuase it offends people. If a strange branch of porn that involved dismembering males at the height of a sex act became popular I would certainly not give it more than a passing thought. I would, of course, try to avoid sexual encounters with women who enjoy such porn, but I would not try to avoid it by making the porn itself illegal.

I guess what I am asking is: where does your line, for knowing some good is being done, reside? Certainly you want it to be illegal for people to own guns...not that owning a gun hurts anybody, but it makes you feel less safe. It makes it easier for a gun owner to shoot you if they decide to. That is more or less what is being argued here. Necro or Misogynist porn makes women feel less safe. Watching the porn shows guys how to perform those sorts of acts. Owning an S&M kit could make it easier for a guy to torture a woman sexually. So why is this differnt from gun ownership, or a web site or radio program full of hate speech?

As a libertarian at heart I don't favor any laws against print or speech or even gun ownership, but I am not trying to bait you here, I am really curious to know where that line is and why it's where it is for you.

On the other hand, I actaully do sort of war with myself over the concept of faux child-porn. I am of two minds. While I think that making child-porn should, of course, be completely illegal, I don't think a person really does much harm by watching it, except by creating a market for it. But, it seems really creepy anyway, and something is deeply disturbing to me, on a limbic level I am sure, about child porn, even if it is just really life-like animation. Of course I feel limbically revolted at the thought of two guys having sex too, but I don't favor legislation against that...so I guess I am, in reality, pretty conflicted over this issue.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit, you lost me half way through, but I think this post was necessary.

Other than the taboo, the big problem with necrophilia is that most people are probably very uncomfortable with having their bodies used to pleasure someone after they die, but if necrophilia was accepted there is absolutely nothing they could do to prevent this. But I don't see anything wrong with someone looking at (faked) pictures of the act. I do see a lot wrong with the government having enough reach that it can start dictating what picutres you are allowed to look at, by yourself, in the privacy of your own home.

Less longwindedly, the outrage can be dealt with by enacting very stiff penalties against body snatching. People could still look at any pictures they wanted. There is also the practical problem that its not to difficult to see dodgy material on the internet without really trying to (my firewall at my job, which has something to do with researching economic trends, seems to block every economists' blog out there, for some reason).

Andrew Rilstone said...

The offending passage has been edited... Don't say I never do anything for you.

steveyb said...

I'm found Charles Filson's comments particularly interesting.

There appears to me a conflict with what I personally find disturbing; wanting to be completely protected from what I don't like and at the same time not wanting my personal views to be society's decider of decency.

It's the old argument that though I have the right to think someone is an idiot I don't have the right to beat them up till they see sense.

That's probably why, unless a real need is identified for this type of legislation the government should leave well alone.

Louise H said...

What about the mental harm caused to women just knowing that misogynist porn is out there? Or the harm to those who fear guns, just knowing that people might have them?


I can't quite get my head around this idea of "mental harm". We seem to be agreed that revulsion is not a good basis for a ban. What else might these women be experiencing that would require them to be protected in this way?

Fear I suppose. But it can't be a rational fear. The chances of someone who has experienced violent pornography attacking me must be considerably less than the chances of me being knocked over by a car. But if I told my psychiatrist that I felt afraid because there were cars around then she would consider this my problem not a problem with the transport system.

The answer to phobias is not to try to rid the world of whatever stimulates the fearfulness. It seems to be reminiscent of those Reclaim the Night marches that I never quite got round to going on when I was at university, when it was considered that the answer to women's fear of being out after dark was to impose a curfew on the men.

If this ban was actually going to stop women being attacked then it would have some justification. (Just as the justification for a ban on guns is that it stops people being shot.) But I don't think it can be justified as an attempt to stop women worrying about being attacked. Having suffered severe anxiety in the past myself it isn't with a lack of empathy that I say that such a worry is essentially their problem.

Otherwise we might as well go the hog and impose that curfew.

Sam Dodsworth said...

I thought it was called "Take Back The Night" because it was about not feeling intimidated, not because it was a call for curfews? Did your Womens' Group have their own interpetation, or am I just wrong?

The Great Tartovski said...

I always find it interesting (and quite sad) that these porn conversations alway boil down to the "Horrible evil men" doing things to "sweet innocent women".
How about the fact that some women LIKE this sort of porn, and consent to watch it/perform similar acts? Or how about all the porn out there with Men as the submissive partner, or gay and lesbian porn, why does that never get a mention?

I think the fact that people complaining about porn always pick a heterosexual male dominant/female submissive paradigm shows alot more about their attitude to sex and sexual gender roles than it does about how wicked porn is. i.e. in their minds, women can never consent to such "evil" acts, as they are good little girls. How is that for sexism?

As I've said before, surely the ONLY thing we should be concerned with is consent. Men and women should be free to enjoy any form of sex they like. Then what would people be afraid of: that other people enjoy different types of sex to them?

Lirazel said...

We had a case in a nearby town where a young man sexually assaulted a neighbor's dog--a rather small dog--and thereby killed it.

But we have laws against cruelty to animals, and it is under these (and under another law against lewd conduct in public, since this event was outdoors) that he is being prosecuted. As far as I know, the internet was not involved, though a really stupid movie may have been, along with a certain quantity of beer. (Hey, there's an idea! Let's ban bee-- waitamintue...)

We've also had a successful prosecution of a man who had and was distributing child pornography, even though some of the images he distributed were from anime. That one's getting appealed.

But yes, the thing that's most disturbing is the purpose behind these laws. I see no point a law that's not meant to right a wrong or secure a right--"sending a message" is not a valid reason for making a law, or for doing much of anything. (I could go on about how the people who "send messages" never seem to get anything done, but that's another rant for my own blog.)

Louise H said...

I thought it was called "Take Back The Night" because it was about not feeling intimidated, not because it was a call for curfews? Did your Womens' Group have their own interpetation, or am I just wrong?

I think we probably had a few extremists in our midst! Certainly a curfew was talked about as the ideal, though unlikely, solution at the time. I'm sure, given the size and disparity of the movement, that it wasn't one of the "official" aims of the campaign as a whole.

Charles Filson said...

Annonymous said:

the outrage can be dealt with by enacting very stiff penalties against body snatching

And that is sort of where I was going.

It just seems to me that all rights should belong to individuals and that groups or collectives should have no more claims on personal freedoms than any individual.

Translated that would suggest that a government/society/collective should not be legislating on how they think that other people should live based on what they find distasteful.

So if I want to look at creepy porn or own a gun or go for walks at 3:00am, it should be none of your business just because these behavior might go along with rape, murder or burglary. It is the rape murder and burglary that should be legislated against, becuase these acts infringe upon the rights of another.

That is the ideal anyway: It's not up to me to justify why I should own a gun, look at porn, or walk at 3:00am. It's up to the one who feels I should not have these rights to justify the adoption of a law to those ends.

Branko Collin said...

"Andrew's choice of phrasing was a blatant attempt at Disproof by Personal Incredulity. Which is invalid and bullying"

Is "blatant" your way of saying "intuitively obvious"? Is "bullying" your way of saying "yucky"? If so, how is your argument "valid" in any way?

Phil Masters said...

Is "blatant" your way of saying "intuitively obvious"?

"Blatant" meant "clear to me" - the fact that this was personal opinion was, I thought, clear from context. Okay, attach comments about cheap irony to taste.

Is "bullying" your way of saying "yucky"?

No, it's a statement about the argumentative technique of Disproof By Personal Incredulity.

To expand, as you appear to be interested; that technique uses constructions such as "it is obvious that X is untrue", or, at its most flagrant, "Obviously, only a fool would believe X". The former implies that anyone who believes X is either stupid or blind; the latter simply says outright that anyone who believes X is a fool.

Hence, the tetchnique attempts to preclude opposition by making it a sign of stupidity. And that's bullying, in my opinion.

(Of course, it's a very weak technique, as it frequently lets the opponent mark the user down as a fool. For example, it's often used against Darwinian evolution - and whenever I see that, I'm reminded that creationists are either incredibly ignorant or total idiots.)

Site Owner said...

Surely there is a perfectly sound moral argument, the same one against sex with animals, underage children, or imbeciles, corpses can not give informed consent.

Simon Bucher-Jones

Charles Filson said...

Sylvia,

I'm not sure if you can really use that argument against necro-porn. In the first case, as I understand it, most necro-porn is created without using actual corpses. Just as most of the 'underage' and 'teen' porn uses 19 and 20 year old girls in pig-tails. (er...or so I am told.)

The reason is that using corpses is actually illegal (At least in the US, and since most of our early laws came from GB, I would guess there as well.) and photographing 15 year old girls in sexual situations is also illegal. So the photographer uses legal imagery to simulate illegal, in order to protect themselves, while still catering to their target audiance.

So although I find your informed consent idea very probably a good guide for the use of a corpse, it doesn't really prevent necro-porn...unless a real corpse is used. So it's probably better to stick to the laws about stealing or digging up corpses, and let people enjoy looking at people having sex with women pretending to be dead if that's what they want to do.

Just saves trouble.

And Phil...I don't see any difference between your word 'blatent' and Andrew's 'Obvious'. The rest of what you say seems blatently and intuitively obvious.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Surely there is a perfectly sound moral argument, the same one against sex with animals, underage children, or imbeciles, corpses can not give informed consent.

Works for children and animals, but why is consent an issue for corpses and not sex toys?

Site Owner said...

I'll expand: a corpse 'had' when alive a capacity to consent, having sex with it postmortem is to take advantage of that capacity being downgraded - like daterape with chemicals or having sex with a coma victim. Clearly wrong.
A sex toy was never alive, hence no diminution of its 'consentual' self is involved. Now if someone built an AI sex-toy, possibly you should get it in the mood....

Simon BJ

Andrew Rilstone said...

I believe that under English law, a corpse has no rights, but is the property of the next of kin. The dead person's instructions about their property are more or less absolute: if I leave instructions that my comic book collection should be donated to the Society for Assassinating Tony Blair, then the law says that that has to be done. But if I "leave my body for scientific research", I am only expressing a wish that that is what should be done with it: my next of kin are free to honour my wishes or not. Some of Tony's friends are trying to enact a new law that would give organ donor cards legal force: at present, the next of kin can, and do, refuse to give permission even though the deceased was carrying a card. There was a grotesque case a while back about hopsitals keeping body parts of dead children without their parents permission, and if I recall correctly, while they had violated every code of medical ethics in the book, they hadn't actually broken the law.

Andrew Rilstone said...

The "argument from personal incredulity" is generally used by someone who is so sure that his position is correct that he thinks that examining the evidence is superfluous. It's a little like the man who says "I know that what I saw was a flying saucer because it couldn't possibly have been anything else", as if his own ignorance of astronomy and light aircraft somehow proved the point. Mr. Richard Dawkins is a past master of this approach: he is comically, ludicrously ignorant about Christian theology, and admits that he is, but sees no point in becoming informed about it because he knows in advance that it is all rubbish and without value. (C.S Lewis quoted with glee a BBC science programme in the 50s in which some boffin found himself saying "The real reason for accepting the theory of evolution is not because of the evidence, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.")Problematically, there are some beliefs that are sufficiently silly as to deserve this approach. I just read a book on New Testament textual criticism that said, in passing words to the effect of "There are some people who persist in using the Turin shroud as evidence for Christian origins, and this is so silly that not only am I not going to bother to refute it, but I am not going to dignify it with a citation."

I think that what I did was rather simpler: I attempted to ellide several stages of an argument, saying "You have asked me to believe something unbelievable and I don't believe it" without attempting to state why I found the position unbelievable.

In any argument about ethics, you will in fact find yourself up against the "intuitively obvious" or the "axiomatic" -- something which can't be proved but has to assumed. e.g All discussions about gun ownership rather assume that "murder is a bad thing"; if someone were to say "but why is murder a bad thing?" it would be legitimate to say "it's axiomatic" or "it's intuitively obvious." If you come up against a disagreement about what is obvious or axiomatic, then the discussion pretty much as to be abandonned. "For you, it is an object of faith that oysters are sentient life forms with the same rights as all other sentient life forms. For me, it is an object of faith that human beings, by virtue of their intelligence and rationality, have more rights than oysters. Therefore, the discussion about extending the human rights act to crustacea can't go any further." At such a point "I simply don't believe that it is just as important to save the lives of oysters as it is to save the lives of children" might be a legitimate device.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Hm. Sometimes it's impossible to debate matters of ethics because of different axioms - debates about abortion are a good example - but more often than not, one or both sides turn to the question of consequences in an attempt to find common ground.

Look at the issue of same-sex marriage in the USA. The axioms were "homosexuality is wrong" vs "no it isn't", but the most common arguments were "change will destroy the institution of marriage" vs "how can we deny people the right to express their love". People have many ethical axioms, and identifying conflicts between them is the best way to change their minds.

Sam Dodsworth said...

I'll expand: a corpse 'had' when alive a capacity to consent, having sex with it postmortem is to take advantage of that capacity being downgraded - like daterape with chemicals or having sex with a coma victim.

That's a better argument, but I think it's something of an edge case. First, coma patients and victims of daterape drugs can both (potentially) recover from their downgraded state and grant or withold consent retroactively. Second... if informed consent is an issue with a live animal, is it also an issue for sex toys made from ivory or leather? For that matter, is it actually morally wrong to have sex with an oven-ready chicken, or just icky?

I personally think it's more productive to look at the issue of harm. In that case, having sex with a corpse is only ethically wrong to the extent that it causes distress to the corpse's living friends and relatives. Although that, of course, leads us onto difficult questions of potential harm, and whether it's wrong to have sex with a corpse if nobody knows what you've done.

(Meanwhile, the question of who owns the corpse is a matter of law, not ethics, as far as I can see.)

Phil Masters said...

Mr. Richard Dawkins is a past master of this approach: he is comically, ludicrously ignorant about Christian theology, and admits that he is, but sees no point in becoming informed about it because he knows in advance that it is all rubbish and without value.

I suspect that Dawkins would say that this was a matter of refusing to engage with a massive argument built on airy foundations. The whole concept of "theology" rather presupposes the existance of a theo- to get -logical about, and using theological arguments to "prove" anything about God is really begging the question. (One could build a fascinating set of cosmological theories based on the fact that the Moon is made of green cheese. However, they wouldn't actually be worth much.)

Which may be a little unfair to Christian theology. But is it theology if it doesn't assume the existence of the divine, or philosophy?

(C.S Lewis quoted with glee a BBC science programme in the 50s in which some boffin found himself saying "The real reason for accepting the theory of evolution is not because of the evidence, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.")

Almost certainly a case of eliding several steps in the discussion, I imagine. The interesting thing about Darwinian evolution is the sheer coherent power of the basic principle, which verges on tautology in the most useful way possible. (In a system of self-replicators, that which is best able to self-replicate will do so most.) Stuff like the question of which level evolution primarily occurs at in any given system are pretty peripheral by comparison. And once someone has grasped that, it's extremely easy to see those who don't (or apparently won't) see the point as laughable or just annoying. (And when they acquire political power, as quite dangerous.)

Problematically, there are some beliefs that are sufficiently silly as to deserve this approach.

Indeed. See, for example, the exchange of letters between Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould ("Unfinished Correspondence with a Darwinian Heavyweight" in A Devil's Chaplain), clarifying why neither would share a platform with a creationist.

I just read a book on New Testament textual criticism that said, in passing words to the effect of "There are some people who persist in using the Turin shroud as evidence for Christian origins, and this is so silly that not only am I not going to bother to refute it, but I am not going to dignify it with a citation."

And yet, I seem to recall members of the Cambridge theology department getting all excited about one of their number who was about to trot off to Turin for a closer look at the darned thing. A good few years ago now, to be sure.

Phil Masters said...

People have many ethical axioms, and identifying conflicts between them is the best way to change their minds.

I really wish I could believe that works very often. The ability to hold two contradictory opinions simultaneously is the most common human intellectual accomplishment, so far as I can see.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I suspect that Dawkins would say that this was a matter of refusing to engage with a massive argument built on airy foundations. The whole concept of "theology" rather presupposes the existance of a theo- to get -logical about, and using theological arguments to "prove" anything about God is really begging the question.

This is a very good approach when you are writing learned or popular books about Darwinism. ("Apparently, there are people who think that world was sneezed out of the nose of the great green arkleseizure, but I don't know anything about them and am going to completely ignore them.") It's less good when you are trying to engage in debate with religious people about subjects outside of your specific area of expertise.

You can certainly discuss theology without believing in God: the question "did the Chalcedean formulation solve the logical problems implicit in the Nicean creed"? is pefectly meaningful even if you don't actually believe that the person whose dual nature you are discussing really existed. And it can still be an interesting question; it is certainly an important one in the history of ideas. (People have been known to have logical arguments about the metaphysiscs of fantasy worlds like Middle-earth or Glorantha, haven't they?)

And yet, I seem to recall members of the Cambridge theology department getting all excited about one of their number who was about to trot off to Turin for a closer look at the darned thing. A good few years ago now, to be sure.

I think the book I was reading came out after the shroud had been proven to be medieval forgery. I believe the theory he was refusing to discuss was the one which says that the Evil Catholics had bribed the Templars to use their agents in the Mafia to force the Scientists to fake the carbon dating to make the shroud appear to be medieval, because if its authenticity were discovered then we'd be able to analyze samples of Jesus DNA and prove that he was only mostly dead when they took him down from the cross, that he was married to Mary Magdela, took magic mushrooms and was smaller than the Beatles. Or something.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Oh, apparently I'm wrong: no-one owns a corpse. If you steal a dead person, there are a number of laws which you can be prosecuted under, but "theft" isn't one of them.

Sylvia said...

Charles, what "Sylvia" are you talking to? I don't think I expressed any opinion whatever on the subject in the sole comment I made on this thread . . .

Phil Masters said...

You can certainly discuss theology without believing in God: the question "did the Chalcedean formulation solve the logical problems implicit in the Nicean creed"? is pefectly meaningful even if you don't actually believe that the person whose dual nature you are discussing really existed.

I don't imagine that Dawkins would accept many invitations to discuss the intellectual of the Chalcedean formulation. Though you're welcome to tell me of an instance where he did...

And it can still be an interesting question; it is certainly an important one in the history of ideas. (People have been known to have logical arguments about the metaphysiscs of fantasy worlds like Middle-earth or Glorantha, haven't they?)

...and likewise, nobody takes the histories of Middle-Earth or Glorantha as authoritative guides to personal morality or public policy. (Okay, trans.: Nobody I could be arsed to take seriously for a second, anyway.) One might be able to derive some kind of moral or ethical system from the theory that the Moon is made of green cheese, but it would be a bad system, and there would be no reason to invite Cheesemoonies (or Tolkienomanes, or Greg-Groupies) to dictate personal behaviour or determine government policy. And no vast depth of knowledge of Green Cheese Theory, no deep exegesis of the determining texts of Cheesemoonism (or the Silmarillion, or Trollpack) would ever make it a good idea.

American Ronin said...

>One might be able to derive some kind of moral or ethical system from the theory that the Moon is made of green cheese, but it would be a bad system, and there would be no reason to invite Cheesemoonies (or Tolkienomanes, or Greg-Groupies) to dictate personal behaviour or determine government policy.

Even if the ethical system derived from the Cheesemoon had been the dominant force in ethics for two thousand years, with the government still maintaining official ties to the Cheesemooninite Church?

Andrew Rilstone said...

I don't imagine that Dawkins would accept many invitations to discuss the intellectual of the Chalcedean formulation. Though you're welcome to tell me of an instance where he did...

I believe that my point was "It is perfectly possible, and even interesting and worthwhile, to have an opinion about even some of the more obscure points of Christian theology without actually believing in its fundemental axioms." Bad Richard Dawkins (as opposed to Good Richard Dawkins, the scientist) was only one example. (Intended to make the point that the "I simply don't believe..." fallacy can be used equally badly by both sides of a given debate.)

No, I doubt that Dawkins has specifically debated the council of Chalcedon very often. He is, however, very inclined to say that certain Christian doctrines are very silly without having any understanding of what thinking Christians actually understand them to mean. If you try to explain what thinking Christians do understand, he is inclined to mutter "Aristotaelean obfuscation" and wander off. The kind of thing I have in mind is:

"Christians say that God is a sadist who wanted to burn the whole human race but got off on crucifying his own son instead"
"No; the doctrine of the Atonement is much more complex then that. St Anselm said..."
"Oh, why would I read Anselm when the account of creation in Genesis is so obviously unscientific."

I can look up some real examples if you'd like....


...and likewise, nobody takes the histories of Middle-Earth or Glorantha as authoritative guides to personal morality or public policy.

Don't see the relevance of that. "Was the reason for Melkor's fall simple rebellion? Or does the fact that he was the closest being to Illuvator, and therefore naturally the most creative mean that it was in his nature to try to usurp the music?" is a meaningful question about a book and about certain philosphical question as represented in a book. On the other hand, if someone said "Melkor stole fire from heaven to animate the men he had made from clay" then "No, he didn't." would be a pefectly good answer, even if no being such as Melkor has ever existed.

If someone said "I object to Tony Blair's policy in Iraq because I base my life on the teachings of Gene Roddenbury as expressed in the holy text "Star Trek" (while rejecting the heretical "Star Trek: The Next Generation") and the Iraq war violates the Prime Directive" then I don't think "Actually, there is no such person as Captain Kirk" would be a helpful answer. I would be more inclined to say "But surely, there are circumstances when the directive can be violated, particularly when one nation is interfering with the natural development of another, as, arguably is the case with the Kurds and Kuwait."

One might be able to derive some kind of moral or ethical system from the theory that the Moon is made of green cheese, but it would be a bad system...

You raise a very large question here. My first thoughts are

1: It might be that someone could start off with the premise that the moon is made of cheese, and then derive a set of moral beliefs from it. Those moral beliefs might be good or bad. But it is equally possible that someone would start off with a set of moral convictions, and use the myth that the moon was made of cheese as a way of expressing or encapsulating them. You could only find out by reading Cheese-Moonist literature.

2: It might be that people used the formula "the moon is made of cheese", but understood that terms "moon" and "cheese" were being used in a very specialised ways, and that what they actually believed in was something much more interesting and complicated. Or it might not. But you couldn't find that out without reading their books and talkling to informed Cheese-Moonists.

3: Some people might believe in the moral conclusions of Cheese-Moonism, without any longer believing in the literal truth of its premises. It would be unhelpful to respond to moral beliefs by referring back to premises they no longer believed in. (A neo-pagan might say "I call myself a worshipper of Thor because I admire and want to emulate his courage, his honour, his wildness, his spontaneousness, and his tricksiness. When I have to deal with authority, I think of a story about Thor and Odin, and try to emulate what Thor did. And I think that there is probably some spiritual being who embodies those qualities." To reply "No, in fact, thunder can be perfectly well explained as an atmospheric phenomenon, and the rainbow is only a trick of the light" would simply be a non-sequitur.)

4: If there were a very large number of people who genuinely believed that the moon was literally made of cheese, and who were genuinely upset about the blasphemy for firing rockets at it, to the extent that some of them were prepared to go on hunger strike and some of them were prepared to perform terrorist attacks at space shuttle launches, then it would be necessary to take their opinions into account when determining government policy. Particularly if there were enough of them to elect a cheese mooniest as prime minister. A starting point for "taking their opinions into account" and "talking to them" would be "getting a good idea about what they actually believe."

Phil Masters said...

Even if the ethical system derived from the Cheesemoon had been the dominant force in ethics for two thousand years, with the government still maintaining official ties to the Cheesemooninite Church?

Good grief, yes. Especially then.

Phil Masters said...

No, I doubt that Dawkins has specifically debated the council of Chalcedon very often. He is, however, very inclined to say that certain Christian doctrines are very silly without having any understanding of what thinking Christians actually understand them to mean. If you try to explain what thinking Christians do understand, he is inclined to mutter "Aristotaelean obfuscation" and wander off.

It sounds to me as though the big problem there is involuntary Christian obscurationism. If a "plain" statement of doctrine leads people to fail to understand what it actually means, the statement may need review.

Kind of ironic, really, from one of the few religions to invent an effective system of missionary work. But I guess it's the price you pay for two thousand years of often-contradictory ideological development. (As Papa Ratzi may have recently discovered. Or possibly not.)

"No; the doctrine of the Atonement is much more complex then that. St Anselm said..."

Reflex appeals to authority. Unfortunate habit when dealing with people who don't trust your authorities.

If someone said "I object to Tony Blair's policy in Iraq because I base my life on the teachings of Gene Roddenbury as expressed in the holy text "Star Trek" (while rejecting the heretical "Star Trek: The Next Generation") and the Iraq war violates the Prime Directive" then I don't think "Actually, there is no such person as Captain Kirk" would be a helpful answer. I would be more inclined to say "But surely, there are circumstances when the directive can be violated, particularly when one nation is interfering with the natural development of another, as, arguably is the case with the Kurds and Kuwait."

And here we have a fundamental disagreement. Because I think that anyone who took Star Trek as some kind of authoritative moral text would be so far away from sanity that engaging with debate would be pretty pointless - and seeking to do so on his terms would be (a) a losing battle, and (b) likely to reinforce the poor blighter's madness. Better just to walk away shaking one's head.

There seems to be a similar problem in trying to engage with Muslim fundamentalists. Islam may or may not be "inherently violent" - frankly, I'm not sure that it's a useful question, religions mostly just turn out to be whatever their more powerful followers choose to make of them - but trying to dissuade the violent fundamentalist types by quoting the Koran and the hadiths doesn't seem to work, because obsessive fundamentalists always have a larger quotation collections closer to hand. Invocation of basic texts is the essence of fundamentalist thinking, after all.

1: It might be that someone could start off with the premise that the moon is made of cheese, and then derive a set of moral beliefs from it. Those moral beliefs might be good or bad. But it is equally possible that someone would start off with a set of moral convictions, and use the myth that the moon was made of cheese as a way of expressing or encapsulating them. You could only find out by reading Cheese-Moonist literature.

Well, yes, as I said, yes, "religious morality" usually seems to come out close to what the holder wanted to believe in the first place, only heavily reinforced. Reading Cheese-Moonist literature might have a certain academic interest, but in the end, you probably just end up in a string of sterile chicken-and-egg arguments.

2: It might be that people used the formula "the moon is made of cheese", but understood that terms "moon" and "cheese" were being used in a very specialised ways, and that what they actually believed in was something much more interesting and complicated. Or it might not. But you couldn't find that out without reading their books and talkling to informed Cheese-Moonists.

Making Cheese-Moonism into a system of wilful obscurationism. It's not entirely unbelievers' fault if they tend to take statements like "The Moon is made of cheese" to mean that the speaker thinks that the Moon is made of cheese.

3: Some people might believe in the moral conclusions of Cheese-Moonism, without any longer believing in the literal truth of its premises. It would be unhelpful to respond to moral beliefs by referring back to premises they no longer believed in. (A neo-pagan might say "I call myself a worshipper of Thor because I admire and want to emulate his courage, his honour, his wildness, his spontaneousness, and his tricksiness. When I have to deal with authority, I think of a story about Thor and Odin, and try to emulate what Thor did. And I think that there is probably some spiritual being who embodies those qualities." To reply "No, in fact, thunder can be perfectly well explained as an atmospheric phenomenon, and the rainbow is only a trick of the light" would simply be a non-sequitur.)

Indeed. But it's often effective, when debating moral issues, to question and challenge the underlying principles of a position - and if the other person says, "Oh, the underlying premise is X, but I don't really believe that any more myself", the other person is usually considered to have lost the argument. And if the other person says "The underlying premise is X, but we can't debate that because it's a sacred doctrine and some people take it Terribly Seriously - but I'm not going to tell you if I'm one of them", a reasonable response is to cry foul.

4: If there were a very large number of people who genuinely believed that the moon was literally made of cheese, and who were genuinely upset about the blasphemy for firing rockets at it, to the extent that some of them were prepared to go on hunger strike and some of them were prepared to perform terrorist attacks at space shuttle launches, then it would be necessary to take their opinions into account when determining government policy. Particularly if there were enough of them to elect a cheese mooniest as prime minister. A starting point for "taking their opinions into account" and "talking to them" would be "getting a good idea about what they actually believe."

Up to a point (Lord Copper). When they persist in demanding a veto over government policy, despite being shown detailed spectroscopic analysis of moonlight, despite the lack of coherence to their theory, and despite a lot of Reform Cheesemoonians freely admitting that the Moon-cheese thing was a metaphor, there comes a point when sarcasm and mockery begin to feel like the only viable response.

Sam Dodsworth said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Charles Filson said...

Sylvia,

My apologies. I meant Simon of course.

Anonymous said...

There are always going to be people who do 'wrong' things by society. Ie: sex where the other person is decidedly unwilling.

If you asked most parents 'would your rather that messed up soul over there fiddled with his cow or your daughter?" It wouldn't take too many brains to know what the answers are.

You'd think they'd turn their focus to support services, instead of pretending something which is as old as sex itself, doesn't exist.