No harm in it

It looks like I am starting the new year how I plan to carry on. Irritated.

Dr Brooke Magnanti is number two on my list of people whose face I’d like to slap, were it legal to do so. I won’t tell you who is number one. (There are only two people on the list, actually.)

And for the purposes of the malicious electronic communications legislation, please note that this does not in any way, shape or form constitute a malicious communication. There is no threat, or implied threat, since slapping people around the chops is undeniably against the law, even if they are dozy cows who deserve it, and my wish to slap her is hypothetical, conditional upon a very unlikely change in the law. (I have actually often argued that slapping someone in the face is in fact a speech act, much in the same way that other gestures are speech acts, the last resort for communicating with someone who is beyond reason, or who deserves an insult that cannot be captured in language, – “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must slap the bugger round the chops” as Wittgenstein put it.) But on the whole, I couldn’t be bothered to give this woman the wrong sort of publicity for her pathetic cause by actually making contact with her skin.

At the bottom line of her dreary views about sex – her dreary claims to have uncovered the truth about it, that everything anyone else has ever thought about it or told you about it is lies – are a few highly dubious claims.

Number one is the claim that certain approaches to sex – involving, inter alia, casual sex, commercial sex, sex openly discussed (albeit probably concealed from one’s other sexual partners), numerous sexual partners, (not to mention the oddest of all, sex involving the wearing of rather uncomfortable looking underwear), are all fine because they are harmless.

Number two is the implied claim that this is the right view because it’s based on empirical evidence. She is a scientist, after all.

Despite her supercilious superiority whereby she seems to think she’s more or less single-handedly noticed this, these are in fact the wearingly common tropes of the threadbare discussion that passes for moral debate these days.

How can we gather empirical data about whether a certain type of practice is harmful to human beings, in and of itself? We can test it on them. But there’s a problem. We can only tell if it’s harmful to certain particular human beings, at a certain particular time and place. We can’t actually tell if it’s harmful to a human being simpliciter, because there is no such thing. Any human is raised in a bombardment of familial, societal, and cultural influences. And these can mould people in a variety of ways. They can shape people so that certain things may be harmful, or may be perceived as harmful; certain other things may be good, or may be perceived as good.

Here is an example. Children generally learn to fear strangers at a certain time in their development, or at least to be wary of them, and learn to feel concerned if their usual caretakers do not appear. So they will feel distressed and harmed at the absence of those they are used to, and fearful of being left with those they do not know. But children brought up in orphanages with a plethora of different caretakers often won’t – they will happily go with any stranger who approaches them, happily take food from anyone, happily let anyone put them to bed and change them. Looks then like it would be ideal to raise children in orphanages, then, wouldn’t it, because it seems to inoculate them against one type of harm and distress.

However this is obviously nuts, because we feel so deeply that there must be other worse, more harmful effects from being orphaned and brought up in an institution. Or even if we don’t necessarily think there are harmful effects, we think it’s just sad, just wrong. But it’s not at all obvious that other ways of changing how a child is brought up won’t have good effects. Maybe raising children in something slightly akin to an orphanage, like a kibbutz, would have good effects. The point is, however, that when you test out the harms and benefits, you are testing them on people whose capacity to experience harms and benefits is moulded by the very thing you are testing. If you raise children without shoes, their feet get tougher, and they don’t feel the same sensitivities that other shoeless children would feel. But it’s not much of an argument against footwear that it makes you sensitive to walking on rough ground, certainly not in a world of tarmac, dog shit and pin-tacks.

Thus, any simplistic claims about harms and benefits of practices which would have a profound effect on our psychology and our relationships, need to be examined very carefully. Any such claim can’t simply be seen to be something that can readily be subjected to a repeatable empirical test.

This raises profoundly difficult questions about moral progress.  If we can envisage a future which would seem to produce more overall good and less harm, in the long term, it may well be the case that the transition of getting there might cause more harm for the people that currently exist, or at least, for those people as they are right now. They may have to be prepared for some pretty profound changes in attitudes and reactions. Some of these changes are ones we can see from here might be great – wishing no longer to be afraid of spiders, for instance – but others are harder. If one is upset because one’s spouse is sleeping around, there are two solutions. Change the spouse’s behaviour or inclinations. Or change yourself so you no longer care. Which is better? Which person would you wish to be? Hmmm. If this particular example doesn’t grab you, make up your own examples until you see the point. It’s even the case – shock, horror – that we might prefer to be a certain way, even if that means that in the world as it is, or in the world as it feasibly might be, we have a worse time.

We have reaching the difficulty arising from the malleability of human beings. This is even worse of a problem than first appears, because we know they are malleable, but we don’t really know how malleable. And the human being that we are right now judges how we’d like, or not like, to be changed; the human being we might become may have views we now can’t appreciate.

Then what are we to do? This is a hard question, but for a beginning of an answer, we can see at least some things we should not do, or approaches which are likely to be misleading.

If a practice is claimed by many to be harmful, or at least subjectively distressing, it may be argued in reply that it is not, because look, here is one person at least who did  not find it harmful. This is basically the Brooke Magnanti method for testing the harmfulness of prostitution. It seems to show that the practice can’t be inherently harmful, because if it were, it would harm everybody. This argument is profoundly wrong. I am actually surprised she has fallen for it, given her background in genetic epidemiology. She must know full well that finding a genetic variant that is associated with a trait in one individual or population group does not at all mean it’s going to be associated with that same trait in another individual or population group. She might even have worked out that a variant which is harmful in most people may fail to be harmful in one individual because that individual has a second variant which is also harmful in most people yet which by lucky happenstance protects against the effects of the first variant. Yet, (although she does try to adduce evidence that prostitution doesn’t actually harm others either) she seems to extrapolate from her own case of ‘high class’ call girl work to prostitution in general. Tut, tut.

Firstly, it’s problematic because any account of human nature must recognise that there are wide individual differences. So finding one person who, to go back to where we started, does not mind having her face slapped, does not in any way mean that most people would not mind.

Secondly, it’s problematic because it fails to note that to test harm on one human being is to test it on a particular human being with particular inborn dispositions and particular cultural and personal history. It would be useless to try to claim that finding one person who’d been brought up without footwear, or who had naturally thick skinned feet, or a naturally low pain threshold, who didn’t find it a problem to walk on pavements barefoot means that those brought up with shoes were being silly or making a fuss about nothing.

Thirdly, it’s problematic because altering views about practices in response to such arguments in turn alters the social and cultural environment in which humans form their very views and the psychology which in turn shapes whether or not certain things are harmful or beneficial. Maybe a few people have in fact worked as prostitutes without being harmed. Does this mean we want to live in a society awash with prostitution? Maybe yes, maybe no.

There is a certain cultural assumption also operating in the arguments of the likes of Magnanti. The idea is this: As a starting point, the claims that choice is good, that more choice is good: in particular, that physical enjoyments are good, whatever the source. (There’s probably the idea that these physical enjoyments are ‘natural’, although what is ‘natural’ about wearing suspenders and corsets beats me.) Then, add to this potent brew the idea that anything which reduces choice, or hampers any physical enjoyment, must be bad, and in addition, must somehow be imposed by some unnatural or otherwise unwarranted spoiler of harmless fun. Anyone who seems not to experience pleasure where another person does is missing out! There must be a potential for pleasure in them which has been distorted, destroyed or masked! Oh no! Call the fire brigade! There is likely also a profoundly infantile notion that it is our natural birth-right that we must all have as much fun as possible and that that fun is at root some primary physical enjoyment.

This then is the perfect tool for crediting more validity to the finding that one person experiences no harm from an activity, than to the finding that other people do experience harm from that same activity. The harm they experience is ‘wrong’! They have failed to experience pleasure! ERGO, something has gone wrong!

In the latter case, the person themselves has been prevented from appreciating the experience; has had their list of choices shortened – (a great crime indeed, in any society that worships rampant capitalism); or else the particular forms of the experience were not so great, but could be altered (you were a street prostitute working to support a heroin addiction; not a ‘high class’ call girl – you simply needed better employment circumstances, oh, and you needed to be more conventionally attractive (sorry about that love, but got to be honest,  no-one’s going to pay much for that face), and middle class, and, not a heroin addict, and not to have revolting ill-mannered syphilitic clients, and not have a wildly jealous boyfriend,) then it would be lovely.

Wouldn’t it, Dr Magnanti?

You dozy cow.

This entry was posted in Ethics, Feminist philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.