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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Monday, August 15, 2016

One year ago at Cogito: "Amnesty International and the Prostitution Debate"

In case you missed it, this post at Cogito on "Amnesty International and the Prostitution Debate" appeared just on a year ago and I never did follow up in the way I foreshadowed at the end. Perhaps I should still do so, but it's one of those topics where I hesitate. It's so emotionally explosive - with very passionate views on all sides - that civil discussion is almost impossible, any factual errors will be pounced on viciously, and disagreement is likely to be interpreted as showing a morally corrupt character. If you want to make a genuine intellectual contribution, as opposed to engaging in noisy activism for whichever policies and viewpoints you already favour, this is an issue where you need to be very careful indeed.

Sample (slightly edited for flow):
Responses by philosophers run the entire gamut from fierce hostility toward prostitution (and toward any policy of full decriminalization) to an almost rhapsodic affirmation of prostitution’s benefits.

This illustrates both the strength and the limitations of philosophy as an academic discipline. The various philosophers who responded to a request from the philosophy blog Daily Nous to discuss this topic are clearly intelligent people. All of them make useful observations for the purpose of clarifying what is at stake. Yet they come to a wide range of conclusions, with no realistic prospect that they could ever converge on agreement.

As so often with philosophical debate, we can see that the participants are all operating with deep preconceptions about values, priorities, morality, and the role of law. Generally speaking, their responses are quite logical if you accept their preconceptions, but how do we establish which of these are the right ones?

Much work in academic philosophy involves an intellectually rigorous effort to solve exactly that problem. I certainly don’t suggest that it is impossible, and perhaps we do make slow progress. In practice, however, it’s extraordinarily difficult. If philosophers - or other people - are to reach agreement, sooner or later they must identify some shared premises from which they can reason and argue. But even professional philosophers find this difficult when engaged in moral, political, and social or cultural controversies, such as what we should do about prostitution.

As for what I think about prostitution… I think it’s a difficult issue, I change my mind frequently (at least about the details of a wise policy approach), and I think there are considerations that can pull in different directions. I’ve tended in the past to support full decriminalization, in the sense discussed above, but I doubt that it can be the whole story or that prostitution deserves our rhapsodies. It’s possible, too, that we need more empirical data, and that what might work in one society (if we’re mainly seeking harm reduction) could fail in another.

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