Catholic legal theorist Robert P. George of Princeton University has a characteristically clear, compelling, and helpful article at the Philadelphia Inquirer website on the social costs of pornography.
The whole thing is worth reading, but one point in particular stood out for me. It is common for the defenders of pornography to talk as if the right to engage in it–as a subset, I guess, of freedom of speech–is somehow obviously important and substantive, a weighty matter of justice, while the moral objections that other people have to it are somehow merely symbolic or imaginary. George’s article is helpful in that it points out that the most intelligent and principled liberal legal defenders of pornography admit that there is a serious objection to it (even if they think the objection is not strong enough to justify legal strictures against it). Hence this passage, in which George quotes the great liberal legal theorist Ronald Dworkin:
Even in defending what he believed is a moral right to pornography, the late philosopher Ronald Dworkin identified the public interests damaged when pornography becomes freely available and widely circulated. Legal recognition of the right to pornography would, Dworkin conceded, “sharply limit the ability of individuals consciously and reflectively to influence the conditions of their own and their children’s development. It would limit their ability to bring about the cultural structure they think best, a structure in which sexual experience generally has dignity and beauty, without which their own and their families’ sexual experience are likely to have these qualities in less degree.”
This at least puts the debate on a fair footing. Many liberal or libertarian defenders of legal pornography will simply declaim that it works no harm. But this is just begging the question, since those who object to it do think that it does harm. Legal pornography will change the culture in which the people who object to it have to live, and this certainly constitutes an imposition on their interests (at least). The liberal or libertarian defender of legal pornography will argue in response that people should have no legally cognizable interest in maintaining a certain culture, but that they should have legally cognizable rights to consume whatever entertainments they choose. But this, again, is begging the question. Why should some people’s interest in looking at pornography be a right, while other people’s interest in preserving a certain kind of culture that pornography threatens be not a right?
A lot of our arguments come down to the idea that the interests I approve are rights, but the interests I don’t approve are just interests. But this is not a very principled way to argue.