Friday, November 18, 2005

St. Thomas and the Ho's

I'm a feminist more than a moralist on prostitution. It hurts women.

My friend and colleague Mr. Homnick writes:
However, we must also recognize the right of polities to place transactions of that nature outside the law. The vast majority of localities have exercised that right and most of them enforce those laws to some degree.

I think the right of a society, namely ours, to uphold its mores and sensibilities is under great scrutiny these days, if not outright attack.

Although the philosophical father of our constitution John Locke pays homage to "natural law," which asserts that one doesn't require a Bible to believe that prostitution should be proscribed because it is intrinsically harmful, I wonder if he meant it. I'm tempted to think he would view it as a question of the property rights of a vulva's legal owner.

Thomas Aquinas, the champion of natural law, holds that prostitution is a violation of natural law because it's a misuse of the teleology of sex, that is, the purpose of marital act, to engender intimacy and love. The Catholic obsession with procreation is in there too, but not even a Darwinist could argue that procreation is anything but a natural function. Interestingly and compassionately, Thomas' objection is mostly that the unintentional products of such unions will grow up without fathers, which he sees as indispensible to the proper development of a human being.

The repercussions of prostitution are harmful on the personal level in a number of ways then, and we religionists maintain that natural law does not descend from revelation (i.e., the Bible, etc.), but that the two cannot help but be in harmony as they are both functions of a moral order that supercedes man's will and desires. There's a vibe to things. Prostitution hurts women, and everybody else involved, too.

But Aquinas, as political philosopher, is pretty pragmatic: the open toleration of prostitution would be harmful to the social order, but a jihad, if you will, against it would create even greater social ills. Political philosophers are good that way--even the best of a society's laws, constitutions or aspirations should not be suicide pacts.

Thomas (scholastic types call him "Thomas"), as any good philosopher should, defers to practical wisdom but recommends that we gear the law to the highest, not the lowest or easily achievable in man, because the latter is incapable of fostering what Aristotle saw as the true end of a society, to enable and inspire civic (and individual) virtue, virtue being a positive thing, not an absence of "sin."


I myself am very uncomfortable with discussions of hypocrisy. It's a word thrown around far too loosely these days, and has become a rhetorical weapon instead of an tool for understanding things. Yet I seem to be defending it. I find our drug laws ridiculous, yet here in Los Angeles, we saw firsthand the carnage of the crack epidemic, which was mostly not the result of crack being illegal but of the overwhelming hunger for it that addiction creates. It strips the individual of every shred of his or her human dignity. We cannot legalize drugs.

But I can also say that consideration of these things led me to change my mind and disagree with the administration about its opposition to proposed laws banning torture of terror suspects. The law must be morally directed toward the best in us, not to accommodating the worst, toward moral progress rather than regression to the slime we rose from. There are circumstances where some of us would break anti-torture laws to save innocent life, but the law should not make such moral courage easily achievable.

To requote Mr. Homnick, "we must also recognize the right of polities to place transactions of that nature outside the law." If we can proscribe the soul-numbing effects of prostitution and drugs (and I believe we must), then surely torture should be one of those transactions that our polity places outside the law as well. If it's true of an addict or a whore (or a drug dealer, or a pimp, or a john, or the john's poor bastard), how could being a torturer (or the tortured) not numb one's soul?

12 comments:

Hunter Baker said...

I don't want to sidetrack. I really don't, but you brought up the torture thing and I have something to relate. I watched Stansfield Turner, former Admiral and CIA head if memory serves, bashing Bush for not embracing the "no torture" law. He was on the Wolf Blitzer show with another military talking head type with the same position. They both wanted the McCain no torture bill.

What was interesting was that Blitzer suggested the typical scenario where you have somebody in custody and you have reason to believe they KNOW something bad is going to go down and how it will happen. When push came to shove, both men agreed they would resort to torture in that situation. It took the air out of the conversation because they insisted we needed a law to send a message about who we are, but at the same time they also agreed that law would have to be broken under compelling circumstances.

Hmmmmmmm.

Amy & Jordan said...

Great post. A friend of mine who isn't a Christian asked me what I thought about the legal status of prostitution recently. I think at least one of the section's of Thomas that you're referring to is on the power of human where he specifically asks whether it is the duty of human law to "repress all vices." He says, “The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Wherefore it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous, viz. that they should abstain from all evil. Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written (Pr. 30:33): ‘He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood’; and (Mt. 9:17) that if ‘new wine,’ i.e. precepts of a perfect life, ‘is put into old bottles,’ i.e. into imperfect men, ‘the bottles break, and the wine runneth out,’ i.e. the precepts are despised, and those men, from contempt, break into evils worse still” (Summa Theologica, II.1.96.ii).

I posted a brief comment about this issue here.

Hunter Baker said...

I'm getting the sense Jordan knows his Thomas pretty well.

connie deady said...

I'm not convinced that prostitution is necessarily evil or degrading since I think we are too preoccupied with sex as evil. But I sure am convinced that torture is evil.

I think McCain said "it's not about them, it's about us". Buddhists have it right. They worry about the effect of evil on the actor as much as the consequence of evil. I was once chided by my buddhist friend for saying their was nothing wrong with wishing harm on Barry Bonds because I couldn't really effectuate it.

Then again, I think Christians talk about letting evil into your heart as well.

Good juxtaposition of issues Tom.

mjwatson said...

How is the feminist case any less moral than the "moralist" case?

That something hurts women is as much of a moral issue as whatever rationale is assumed under the "moralist" framework.

A minor point perhaps, but I think the terminology important.

And, I should really lay out a defense of Locke sometime, as Hunter said on another post, but I'll suffice at this point to say that Locke wrote more than just the property chapter of the 2nd Treatise, and I'll reference Jeremy Waldron's God, Locke, and Equality which highlights Locke's argument for equality that we are God's workmanship.

Hunter Baker said...

MJ, if you write something good about Locke, I might be moved to promote it to the front page. I think that where Tom and I are going with Locke is probably a bit more the drift of Locke than necessarily his "original position." Did you like that? A little philosopher's joke.

connie deady said...

That something hurts women is as much of a moral issue as whatever rationale is assumed under the "moralist" framework.

I'm not sure the prostitution inherently hurts women. Much of the harm comes from it's illegality and lack of controlled environment. In the abstract it's about selling sex, which applies to both men and women as there are male prostitutes. I don't think women are hurt more by selling sex than men. Prostitution is not forced sex or violence, nor even objectification of women since it's strictly a business proposition.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Reminds me of my favorite line from SCTV, where Catherine O'Hara reassures her boyfriend's jealousy about her dating a cycle gang: "All they want is sex, and that's all I give them."

mjwatson said...

Ha! Yes, one must be careful when talking about sex and original positions in the same topic. I'll leave it alone.

Speaking of philosphers, I suspect Alasdair MacIntyre's thinking will come in handy when we have two people who disagree about whether prostition is harmful for women. The differences may go all the way down to first principles (though to be sure my original point was that if prostition is harmful to women, it is a moral issue for that reason).

At the root of the view that prostitution is harmful to women, and men, is that there is something intrinsically valuable about our sexuality that should not be commodified. To engage in prostittuion is to treat oneself as a means rather than an end.

Connie's view seems to rely only on the criterion of consent. Whatever one consents to is legitimate. My view is that one can consent to an activity that nonetheless is demeaning and immoral.

I don't know that there is a prior principle to appeal to that would prove either of us right or wrong, but let me give two illustrations of why sex is intrinsic to us in a special way, even at the risk of making this too long of a comment.

1. Imagine Fred says to Steve, "Hey Steve, Betty and I are playing tennis on Thursday night. But I can't make it, would you be willing to fill in?"

No imagine Fred says, "Hey Steve, Betty and I are having sex on Thursday night, but something has come up and I can't make it. Would you be willing to fill in?"

We may laugh at this, but our laughter reveals that we know there is something not quite right about this scenario. Sex is not just another activity.

2. On a more serious note, consider why we think rape is wrong. Leon Kass has an amazing article about the rape of Dinah in Genesis. He notes that today rape is seen as wrong merely because it violates a women's consent and because of the physical harm. But on the older view rape is also considered wrong because it also violates her "womanliness", or, to really use antiquated language, her virtue (her specifically sexual virtue).

But on the consent only view it's hard to understand what makes rape the specifically awful crime that it is. It is a violation unlike any other because of the special nature of our sexuality, and thus the act of rape is intrinsically different from a punch in the nose or another violent assault.

I grant these examples don't prove that the consent-only view is wrong. As I said, I'm not sure what would do that. But I hope they illustrate why we have good reason to think there is something intrinsically valuable about our sexuality and that it thus should not be treated like a widget to be commodified.

Kathy Hutchins said...

When push came to shove, both men agreed they would resort to torture in that situation. It took the air out of the conversation because they insisted we needed a law to send a message about who we are, but at the same time they also agreed that law would have to be broken under compelling circumstances.

In our legal justice system, aren't these considerations usually expressed not in the legality of the thing, but the sentence imposed? Isn't that why we typically have mechanisms for considering extenuating circustances when imposing sentences? We want to say an act is illegal, but also want to acknowledge that under certain sets of circumstances, we may not want to punish the perpertrator very heavily for it. I don't know if the UCMJ allows such flexibility.

connie deady said...

In our legal justice system, aren't these considerations usually expressed not in the legality of the thing, but the sentence imposed? Isn't that why we typically have mechanisms for considering extenuating circustances when imposing sentences? We want to say an act is illegal, but also want to acknowledge that under certain sets of circumstances, we may not want to punish the perpertrator very heavily for it. I don't know if the UCMJ allows such flexibility.

The killing of another is illegal. However, there are defenses to the killing, including self-defense, defense of another, justification. Additionally, murder requires intent and/or malice. Manslaughter is a killing without malice (malice being an evil state of mind).

If I kill out of what I believe is self-defense, but it's an irrational belief, I'm guilty of manslaughter, or if I kill out of extreme emotional state of mind, like finding my husband in bed with another woman, that's manslaughter. If I'm criminally reckless, like driving down the road at 100 MPH and kill someone that's manslaughter.

IOW, we can outlaw the killing of another human being, but provide both defenses to the crime and mititgation depending on the circumstances.

With torture, one should say it is wrong. However, if a circumstances command someone to commit torture, we can then evaluate the circumstances in determining if it was a criminal act or if there were mitigating circumstances.

I think the point is that, like with killing a human being, you need to define it as a wrong act.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Wow, what a quality discussion. I am profoundly impressed... and moved.