Ethics, the internet and sexual imagination

This is interesting.

Here’s something I wrote about the issue a number of years ago.


Operation Ore is big news here in the UK. It is, in the words of the BBC, the largest police hunt of internet paedophiles there has ever been in this country. It started after the United States Postal Inspection Service passed to the UK police a list of more than 7000 people who had allegedly used their credit cards in order to access web sites featuring child pornography. To date, some 1600 people have been arrested in the course of the investigation.

It is, of course, a good thing if this investigation prevents the occurrence of harm to children. Nevertheless, it does bring to light a number of interesting and difficult questions about ethics, the internet and sexual imagination.

Paedophilia is normally taken to mean the sexual attraction of adults to children. The first point to make, therefore, is the obvious one that viewing child pornography is not synonymous with paedophilia. Indeed, it is difficult to see how it is possible to draw any general conclusions about a person from the simple fact that they have looked at pornographic images of children. Consider, for example, that such a person: might be a regular user of child pornography and also might pursue face-to-face sexual encounters with children; might have viewed these images out of curiosity, been shocked to find that they were sexually aroused by them, but have no intention of looking at them again; or might have looked at these images because they were curious about the internet, but have no particular interest in pornography.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the internet is a new technology. Prior to its advent, possession of child pornography, correctly or incorrectly, was widely perceived to be a good indicator of a propensity to engage in the physical abuse of children. But the internet has removed many of the barriers which in the past might have deterred relatively casual “pornophiles” from amassing collections of photographs. Easier access means that increasing numbers of the simply curious will have viewed this kind of material. In sum, then, the relationship between the use of child pornography, paedophilia and child abuse is complex.

However, it is an important point that the absence of a sexual response when viewing pornographic images of children is not sufficient to guarantee that this activity is morally acceptable. There are apparently strong arguments which suggest that simply viewing child pornography is a moral wrong. For example, one such argument is that the supply of these kinds of images follows the demand for them, and that if people view these images ā€“ certainly if they pay for them ā€“ they are part of a process which necessarily involves children being harmed.

This is a persuasive argument, but it has its problems. For instance, whilst it is plausibly levelled at the person who regularly downloads child pornography from a commercial web site, it is much less convincing when applied to the person who occasionally downloads a picture from an internet newsgroup.

Also, there is a suspicion that the primary function of these kinds of arguments, regardless of their veracity, is to provide a rational underpinning for prior moral convictions. In other words, even if there was no harm associated with adults finding children sexually arousing, people would still think it wrong; but arguments which show that there is harm associated with these desires perform the useful function of solidifying this baseline moral commitment.

This line of thought raises another thorny issue which is integral to the debate about pornography on the internet. This concerns whether sexual imagination, in and of itself, is the kind of thing about which it is sensible to make moral judgements. For example, if a person fantasises that they are a rapist are they, for those thoughts alone, deserving of our moral condemnation?

Yes, is the answer suggested by the philosopher Gordon Graham, in his book The Internet: a philosophical enquiry. He argues that the causing of an outward harm is not the only mark of a moral wrong. “In an older language,” he writes, “there are gross appetites and interests. People can resist them, fail to do so or wilfully indulge them. Which they do is relevant to moral character, just as whether people’s thoughts about others are charitable or uncharitable, contemptuous or sympathetic, are morally relevant facts even if their outward treatment does not specially reflect these attitudes.”

As ever, though, these arguments are not conclusive. Most significantly, they appear to presuppose what they need to demonstrate; namely, that there are such things as gross appetites and interests where there is no outward harm. Also, it seems possible to come to the opposite conclusion to the one reached by Graham. For example, it doesn’t seem counter-intuitive to argue that the person consumed by uncharitable feelings, who nevertheless behaves charitably, in some sense behaves heroically.

The fact that there are complicated arguments to be had about the internet, pornography and sexual imagination in no way mitigates the harm that some children suffer at the hands of pornographers and predatory child molesters. However, what it does mean is that it isn’t possible to arrive at the truth about the internet, child pornography and its consumers by uncritically taking the tabloid line, and indeed it seems the BBC line, that Operation Ore is about unmasking more than 7000 dangerous perverts.