Could one censor pornography, on Millean grounds?

For years the censorship of pornography has been heavily debated, with philosophers like Mill commonly being quoted. Although Mill does not specifically refer to pornography in his work he gives a variety of principles, all of which are open to interpretation, by which we can come to conclusions on censorship. Views on censorship mainly depend on the harm or offence it causes and what kind of pornography is being considered. Pornography ranges from hardcore to soft, involving consenting adults on one hand and on the other hand forcing children to participate in it.

Similarly some viewers simply look at it and it has no other effect on them except to "stimulate sexual excitement"1. However it is claimed that some pornography depicts a degrading picture of women and in some cases has incited men to use violence against women. In my essay I shall outline what Mill stated concerning freedom of action, spend some time defining and explaining pornography and then link the two, showing both arguments for and against censorship of pornography on Millean grounds. J. S.

Mill is often referred to as the founding father of modern liberalism particularly due to his emphasis on freedom of speech and action and minimal government interference so as to maximise human development. Although not specifically mentioning pornography in his work, his general principles can be interpreted to either support or oppose censorship of pornography. Mill states that humans have two basic rights or freedoms, firstly that of freedom of intellect, namely to have beliefs and to be able to express them and secondly freedom of action, the freedom to act in accordance with those beliefs.

Mill himself didn't like the social pressures that were on people during the 1940's fearing that this would result in "social tyranny"2, where the majority force their prevailing morality on the minority. This would fetter the development of individuals and so Mill's chief aim is to set a limit, firstly on the exercise of collective opinion on individuals and secondly on interference from the state and others on the individual freedom. Mill's defence of freedom of action is most accurately described in his Liberty principle where "the sole end of which mankind are warranted in interfering with the liberty of action is self protection…

the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant"3. He puts people's actions into two categories, self regarding and other regarding, where he states that harmful other regarding acts can be interfered with whereas harmful self regarding acts should not be. As a utilitarian, Mill believed in the principle of "the greatest happiness for the greatest number"4 and connected freedom to this happiness.

In a search for truth, that brings happiness, people must have freedom to act according to their own plan for their lives, as they know best for themselves in an attempt to use the "elevated faculties"5 that we all possess. So in this light Mill believed that people should "not live according to customs or social traditions but rather on the basis of their own judgement – based on their own needs, desires personality and interests"6. Development is individual to each person and the one who has the greatest character, according to Mill, is the one whose impulses and desires are strongest and whose nature is "energetic"7.

Restrictions should not be placed on people simply due to others having feelings of disgust, resentment or jealously but only if harm is being caused to others and even then, only if it is better to do so for the general interest of everybody. So having seen what Mill believes generally, it is then necessary to define and think about pornography in the modern world. Pornography can viewed in a variety of ways including writings, pictures and films. A common medium today is via the Internet. Its full definition as stated before is something that "stimulates sexual excitement" (see1) but can involve many different people.

Pornography can also be divided into soft-core and hardcore, with more sexually explicit and indecent forms coming under the illegal category of hardcore. The question before us is whether Mills principles can warrant pornography censorship. Many would argue that they would warrant censorship especially writers like Catherine MacKinnon. This is because she and others believe that the production and consumption of pornography has severe consequences for women, both psychologically and physically.

Firstly it is argued that pornography portrays the wrong view of women, which is often degrading and humiliating, and could have repercussions in the lives of those who are connected with it i. e. how they treat their partners, with a lack of respect, with disdain and with sexual dissatisfaction. MacKinnon claims it isn't be long before "consumers want to live out the pornography"8. Therefore it produces a breeding ground for tension within families and society which could perhaps be lessened if pornography was censored.

Also pornography could encourage rape and murder of women by the users of pornography, where violence in the videos etc occurs. It is claimed that often those women who are encouraged to participate come from poorer backgrounds, and are often desperate for money and that they suffer so much during it that some turn to drugs. Hence if you add up all the consequences of pornography, particularly to women, you could say that it does fulfil Mill's principle of interference as a "harmful other-regarding act"9 is being committed and it is the states duty to intervene and censor.

Many would even go as far to say that there is no such thing as a self-regarding act as "no action, however intimate, is free from social consequences"10. Therefore as pornography does have consequences on society, most of which people believe are bad, it should be censored. One could also argue that Mill being a utilitarian would censor pornography as it does not bring happiness and therefore is a wrong action. Ryan admits that "the utilitarian must admit there will be cases where people are made happier by giving them less freedom rather than more"11 and therefore censoring pornography might be right.

However Mill believes that we all search for a higher truth in our actions in regard to mortality and that is why they should not be interfered with as it is an "invasion of liberty which thwarts the development of human individuality"12. Pornography, though, is not about great moral and philosophical truths, does not help individuals develop and has no real value except to satisfy people's base lusts in life. Therefore as it is a lower physical pleasure, perhaps one can argue that Mill would censor it as it is not beneficial to society's progress.

However when viewing this on utilitarian grounds, the person pursing lower baser pleasures might be just as happy doing it as a person pursuing higher pleasures, as all people have different things that make them happy. So this would infer that they should be allowed to pursue their base pleasures without state inferences just as those who pursue the higher truths. Another argument for Mill allowing for censorship of pornography is to see that he does allow the state to occasionally interfere with individuals even when their actions only harm themselves.

So if the state comes to the conclusion that people are engaging in activities that are harmful to themselves and are not being rational about it then he allows for interference. Although this doesn't mention pornography, it could be evaluated in this manner and censored accordingly. However others believe that Mill would not censor pornography, on the grounds that his principal of state inferences if direct harm is being done is not fulfilled in pornography. In the majority of cases no harm seems to be done physically to the people involved and often they are doing it freely and willingly.

Furthermore a lot of views/consumers of pornography do so within their own homes and it may not adversely affect their lives. This is because of "individual sovereignty"13. Although they might be degrading themselves by watching it, it only affects them and not society. In this way the pornography could be considered more of "a harmful self regarding act"14 which the state is not allowed to censor. And in most cases consumers of pornography do not do any direct harm to women.

Although the activity may be distasteful to many, Mill generally believes that differences of opinions are not a justification for interference (however Mill is not clear on this contradicting himself on several occasions). It all comes down to how to define what harm means as pro-censorship writers would include mental and psychological harm. Mill however more sees harm in a direct manner, which some say is a flawed view as harm comes in many forms. In this regard people have to make up their own minds.

Mill also firmly believes in "human rationality"15, that people are capable of knowing what is best for them, so if they want to participate in pornography that is up them. And even if pornography were censored it would not eliminate the problems attributed to it by pro-censor writers such as rape, violence against women and sexual discrimination/inequality. As it is only a possibility and no definite that women would be harmed, the government would be restricting the rights of the majority who watch it simply for pleasure because of the minority who watch it and are incited to further crimes.

Mill would put all those who watch/produce pornography as one of his "small groups"16 whose claims would be stifled by "tyranny of the majority"17 who didn't like what they were doing. This would be an infringement of liberty in Mill's view as all are entitled to their own views, thoughts and actions. However most people would agree that pornography using children is wrong and has to censored in order to protect them. It is deemed by many to be "the most offensive form of pornography"18. Mill is a firm believer that people should not have anything forced upon them, whether opinion or action as it can fetter their individual development.

When Mill talks about people knowing what is best for them, we assume he means adults, and therefore can interfere in children's activities as they are not of an age to be rational. So perhaps it is not whether Mill would or would not censor pornography but whether he would censor certain types of pornography like that using children. However in general for adults "the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these actions are the interests of no person but himself"19.

Mill would probably not agree with pornography as he would see is as distasteful but it is important to remember the age in which he lived, where society was becoming in his mind a "permission society"20 where citizens needed permission to think, speak and act. He was concerned to "limit the sphere of the government"21 by not give it more power than necessary to suppress the views of the minority. It would be making the decision on what was right and wrong for people instead of letting them decide for themselves. And this would mean the state would start to claim to be "an infallible guide on such matters"22 which is dangerous.

Thus many like Brannon Miller believe that Mill would not support censoring because "informal sanctions of society"23 and "oppressive legal controls"24 would inhibit people's individual liberty. And if the government is given a freer hand in interfering with society in more trivial issues such as pornography it might then lead to further interference in more important issues in society. There is also the minor issue that it would be very hard for a government to censor pornography today due to the most common medium being the Internet, which is extremely difficult to control.

Although personally I would myself censor pornography and perhaps even ban it given half a chance, I have to agree that from reading Mill, on his grounds you probably would not censor pornography. This would mainly be because it does not fulfil his principle of interference if there is harm and I do agree that he is referring to direct harm rather than "potential harm"25, however narrow that view may be. Censoring pornography would restrict people's liberty to act as they please and also curtail the happiness of those who find enjoyment in the baser, lower pleasures of life.