To Those Who Say “There’s Simply No Question on This Topic”
Tauriq Moosa is a tutor in ethics, bioethics and critical thinking at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is currently pursuing a Masters degree at the Centre for Applied Ethics, Stellenbosch University. He has published essays and articles on practical ethics, focusing on subjects like free expression, killing, sex, and religion in public life. He debated religion with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the BBC documentary, the Tutu Talks, and has been featured on local radio shows. He is also an avid comic book writer and reader.
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On this blog, I often write about so-called controversial topics, which test people’s moral convictions: If you agree about abortion, you should agree about infanticide; there are no good reasons to have children; there’s nothing wrong with consensual incest or necrophilia; and so on.
Recently, I wrote about the legalisation of child porn. For some, there is “simply no question on this topic”: it is wrong, through and through. Debates are useless. To debate child porn’s morality is to show oneself to be, at the very least, crass or insensitive.
There are many topics I’ve written about that have encountered this reply. I want to, now, set out a reply to this assertion, despite its seemingly axiomatic nature with regard to certain topics.
To those who say there’s “no question”, we should remember that there are always questions because we are fallible, we make mistakes, we live with uncertainty. To say there is no question is to say that there is no need for further discussion: this topic is closed, locked down, removed from the framework of scrutiny. Whether you shut the gates of the discussion using religious outrage or what are considered self-evident viewpoints, the conversation is locked either way. You claim silence with certainty and conviction through dismissal.
But to do this is to ignore our fallible nature. All topics should open for discussion, even the morality and legalisation of child porn, since we could be wrong. To assume you know, beyond doubt, that something is right or wrong is to dismiss the history of our moral catastrophes. If nothing else, humanity’s history is a series of ethical failures that continued unabated because of the assertion of the powerful or the majority that they knew what was right, true, or good. One powerful way to prevent that is to be open to evidence and counter-arguments – but in order to do that, the gates must be at least unlocked, if not entirely open. To claim even something as apparently obvious as child porn to be wrong is not make a mistake: the mistake is to say all discussions on it are now no longer needed. It’s not enough to say something is wrong: we need to know what we mean by wrong, what standard, how it effects law and society, and so on. Recognising something as wrong should only be the conclusion of a long deliberation; then, upon recognising it is wrong, further deliberation only begins on what its wrongness means for us.
Consider two things I consider wrong: the criminalisation of marijuana usage and child rape. I strongly disagree with sending most drug users to prison, since current policies do not help stop drug-related crimes or addiction. However, I would, on a personal one-on-one basis, try dissuading you from using narcotics. I would support measures to dissuade people from using drugs, but strongly oppose the law being used as an instrument of dissuasion. With child rape, criminalisation and citizen opposition are needed. Notice that the two are different discussions: (1) Is this action wrong? (2) Will the law help oppose this wrong action? But there are parts (3), (4), and so on, that still need to be had. Is it wrong only in this country? Should we criminalise it anyway, but if someone is charged always give him or her a light sentence (as happens in most countries with physician-assisted suicide)? The point is that discussions are only beginning when you’ve decided something is wrong – even terribly wrong.
Are the terrorists’ actions of 9/11 wrong? Of course. Was Josef Fritzl wrong to treat his daughter like a sex-slave for decades? Yes. Is it wrong to force children to perform sex acts? Yes.
But now what? What do we do?
What happens to people who write and speak in support of Al’Quaeda on US soil? What happens if Muslims want to build a “mosque” near Ground Zero? What should happen to Fritzl now that we’ve caught him? How do we prevent this from happening again? What do we do about his wife and children, who were aware but felt powerless? What is wrong with merely looking at child porn, but hating how it was made? Why is it different to eating meat but opposing factory-farming, where enormous amounts of suffering also occurs?
The answers to these questions require us to discuss, debate and be open about our answers. You can’t tell me, you can’t affirm, you simply cannot assert that there are no questions on this topic. You can’t shut down the conversation because you feel that everything has already been said that needs to be said. This is clearly not true, if someone like myself is scrutinising aspects of it. As we previously noted, the tyranny of the many (framed in politically-correct or widely-assumed assertions of morality) is still a form of tyranny. Silencing a minority opinion is still silencing. When you bar the gates of the conversation you also prevent yourself from looking at what you’ve locked up. We should always be keeping a close eye on it, in case we discover the harm comes from our imprisonment rather than its freedom.
As we know, there might be more effective ways to tackle the problems; problems that we think we're opposing through our convictions. For example, as I previously asked, what happens if evidence suggests that legalising the possession of child porn dramatically reduces physical child crime (beatings, torture, kidnapping, rape, etc.)? We might miss out on an effective solution, merely because we're convinced the topic is over, done, decided. This means that we're more interested in maintaining our convictions on morality than taking specific action that might counter immoral actions. Being right matters more than making things better. If we reach that stage, we're no longer interested in morals and ethics, but maintaining an acceptable appearance. This is understandable, of course, since "radical" ideas can upset societies and undermine social cohesion. But again: we should all be more interested in doing what is best than doing what won't offend.
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