Vice work if you can get it

A recent report claims that more and more university students are turning to prostitution and other work in the sex industry to fund their studies, including A level students. This has been a standard “option” for student work at universities in Australia for some time. In the ACT, prostitution is legalised and when I worked at the Australian National University, during freshers’ week when students have talks on various things such as where they might get part time work, work as a prostitute was mentioned as one viable option. A former colleague of mine once explained to me in words on one syllable, as if I were some kind of moral imbecile, what a pity it had been for the girls working as prostitutes when the brothels were regulated, because then they were all moved out to the two industrial areas of Canberra – meaning that instead of  just nipping out to nice suburban house around the corner from the campus, they had to travel across town and thus had to get a taxi home. Was I hearing things? No, she went on to explain to me and to the equally stunned adminstrator with whom I had been having a chat, how, due to outdated attitudes, such students found it harder to get married “because there are still some men out there who don’t want to marry a girl if she’s worked as a prostitute”, shaking her head at this irrational and unjust prejudice.

When I had lived in Canberra only a few weeks, it was National Open Day at the brothels around Australia. The newspapers were full of it. I read a double page spread which included an account from an elderly lady who had looked around a brothel to see what they were like because her son was a frequent visitor. “They are so lovely and clean” she said, or words to that effect. Well, even I clean up my house when I am expecting guests. As a method of moral inquiry, looking for traces of dust rates pretty low in my humble estimation. Did she expect to “see” some moral turpitude lurking in the corners? David Hume springs to mind: “Take any action allow’d to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object.” Hume’s conclusion from this was that the vice existed solely in one’s own breast. Others seem to consider that our failure to pinpoint vice in the same way as we might pinpoint the Higgs Boson implies its nonexistence. With such a simplistic strategy, one is on a fast track to moral nihilism or extreme subjectivism.

Some commentary on the report about the rise of students working in the sex industry pointed to the sea change in morality regarding sex and sexual entertainment: it’s everywhere around us. I would add to this a more fundamental sea change in attitudes to morality more generally, one that strikes me forcibly having recently spoken to dozens of sicth formers about their views on ethics. It seems to me to be a product of how people are taught to think – or not to think – at school. When presented with a moral problem, many will say: a Buddhist would say this, a Christian would say this, a utilitarian would say this, a Kantian would say this … ad nauseum. “Yes, but what would YOU say”, I prompt. “Well, in my opinion .. but you can’t tell other people what to do … that’s just what I think, it’s only my subjective view.” There is perhaps only one moral principle  left standing, the idea that it is wrong to  “force” someone else to do anything. Morality as wallpaper, as choice of breakfast cereal.

One further oddness about this contemporary abandonment of value: it’s notable that our media and culture is more and more sexualised. It’s also notable that we are bombared with programmes that seek to set standards in the most trivial areas of life: what to wear, how to host a dinner party, how to look good naked, how to win prizes at village fetes. Put alongside the view that it’s wrong to judge anyone’s ethics, isn’t this obsession a bit, shall we say, “arse backwards”?

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