Thursday, August 25, 2005

More Ethics; though this time about sex

Given the interest that has been shown to ethical dilemmas on this blog I thought that people might like to sink their teeth into this one. Then again maybe nobody will want to touch this with a ten foot pole....yes, it's about paedophiles.

This hypothetical situation was one presented by Dr. Dave some years ago in one of his ethics seminars. The issue being discussed concerned people's experiences with the nature of their sexuality. It was suggested by our wise guru that some people don't choose their sexual orientation, rather they experience a process of discovery whereby they 'find' that they are straight, gay, etc. A reasonable enough claim given that we have all no doubt heard people discussing their sexuality as though it wasn't a choice before. Now, suppose someone goes through this kind of discovery about themselves and learns that they become turned on by watching children. Of course we will all agree that were this person to pursue the source of their arousal and commit some heinous act, thereby harming some poor child then we should lock them up and throw away the key.

But suppose that this person were to take a different course of action. We can imagine that instead of pursuing their lust they instead make efforts to keep away from areas such as schoolyards and playgrounds. We can even imagine them taking efforts to construct their life such that their career, residential address and so forth never require them to risk temptation, again by avoiding areas where children are abundant and vulnerable. We can even imagine that they are quite successful with this strategy.
The question is: should we think of this person as being a monster in the same way that we think of paedophiles who actually do go through with these terrible crimes?


Samuel Douglas said...

In answer to the question, I would say no, people who have desires of this kind but never act on them should not be considered in the same class of people who do. Thinking about killing someone would not place a person in the same category as an actual murderer. If someone has passing thoughts about doing someting morally reprehensible, and they never act on it, then I have no problem with that. With our internal lives being somewhat private, we have no idea how many people such as you describe there might be., If more people who have these desires choose not to act on them than do, then there would be an awful lot. I guess it is the borderline cases that are problematic, from an ethical standpoint. While someone who enjoys viewing exploitative and gratuitous child porn (ie depictions of child abuse) could easily be considered a "monster". Someone who gets off on innocent unclothed immages of children (in which and associated with, no abuse or similar occured) are harder to judge. If they never say anything or act on it, we would never know. And if no actual harm comes to anyone, why should we care. The judgement and ordering of desires, disconected from acts and consequences is a ridiculous exercise.

"An 'inner process' stands in need of outward criteria." (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations , 580.)

MH said...

At the moment there is a large, un-quantifiable, and un-qualifiable 'but' lurking in the shadows of this discussion (or perhaps there are several ... one seems to go by the name of 'but the second class of person is still morally reprehensible', another goes by the name 'but they may still be morally admirable', and a third goes by the name 'but do you want to denounce sexual practices that hurt no-one'); give me some time and I'll try to shine Diogenes' lamp over them and get back to you.

By the by, nice problem Peter.

Cooly McCool said...

So the question is really: are desires subject to moral valuation? I would be inclined to say no they aren't in and of themselves. They may however form the motivation for intentions or actions which are. If having a desire, which you feel may lead to commiting some moral wrong, but from this you you are motivated to prevent these motivations of a morally wrong nature, then can't we say that they have acted in a morally good way?

By the anecdote provided for the question's origin gives rise to another interesting question, but even riskier than the one posed, so I am not posing it as such, but just drawing attention to it as it might alter your judgement on the post. Dr Dave posits that we don't choose our sexuality, but 'discover' it through experience. Presumably this discovery doesn't start to take shape the second an arbitrary age is reached (i.e. 16). Infact if there were a sexuality to be discovered, then there would be a certain level of inateness to the individual's sexuality, or at least that sexuality isn't something detached from the individual but already there (think meno of sexulaity).

This flies in the face of how we concieve of sexuality: that there is an untainted purity to children, and sexuality is a corruption that occurs during adolecence, the view that pervades our society coming from rise of the atomistic family.

On one level, this idea of 'discovering' sexuality actually erodes a substantive part of how we actually define paedophilia and why it is considered such a heinous crime. That aside, what if this process of 'discovery' occured in for example a twelve year old, and took them to finding pleasure from an older individual, who being say twenty, is also 'discovering their sexuality' and is one where they derive pleasue from young adololecents. Assume, that both are at the same level of sexual maturity, in that they are both discovering meaningful sexuality for their first time, would there be any moral wrong doing if both were sexualities that weren't chosen? Also, does it introduce 'sexual age' rather than physical or psychological age to the problem?

Pete said...

OK, a question for those of you who might say 'no, such a person who shows restraint and doesn't act upon their impulses is not to be considered the same as a paedophile': suppose that this veiw were to be generally accepted by society in the same way that society currently generally accepts that actual paedophiles should be punished for the monsters that they are. Would this position make it seem more likely that the actual paedophiles out there are merely the same as our hypothetical character except for their weak character? That instead of punishing them, society should in general be helping such people to control their urges and resist temptation? That instead of being monsters, they are merely unfortunate victims themselves?

And for Cooly, these are really issues for a different discussion but here are a few points just to bring you up to speed...
-So far the behavioural sciences (i.e sociology, psychology, sexology, etc) report that some people claim to experience the discovery of their sexuality as though it were something innate, while others describe themselves as having made a choice. At the moment there really is no further way of gathering data about these issues other than asking the subject so for now their word is final and we have to consider that there are people of both types.
-incidently Dr. Dave didn't say that we all discover our sexual orientation.
-the idea that pre-adolescents have a developing sexuality is not new and by now is not counter-intuitive to most people. There was some fairly solid research done throughout the 20th C which demonstrates this. You can also look to the enourmous amount of research produced by sociologists studying families to see that most families demostrate this acceptance.
-the term is 'atomic family' not 'atomistic' (btw I have no idea why you chose to focus on this particular structure, seems odd)
-this problem is already pretty much saturated with the idea of 'sexual age'
Finally though, I'm not sure what you're trying to get at with the last comments about the 12 and 20 yr old. It seems that you might be confusing the concepts of 'sex' and 'sexuality' here, could you try to clarify this at all?