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Friday, November 16, 2012

Making Things Right

Seriously, folks? I mean, seriously?

A U.N. report is calling for and international decriminalization of prostitution. Why? Here's what the story said:
The report called for the decriminalization of prostitution because it found “no evidence from countries of Asia and the Pacific” that outlawing the sex trade has prevented HIV epidemics among sex workers and their clients.
What? I was not aware that laws against "the sex trade" were aimed at preventing sexually transmitted diseases in general, let alone HIV specifically. Well, of course, that might be the case if laws (and morality) are predicated solely on the principle of harm -- we only outlaw that which does harm and harm is whatever we define it regardless of our constant failure to actually comprehend it.

The story goes on to say, "The terms 'prostitution' and 'prostitute' have negative connotations and are considered by advocates of sex workers to be stigmatizing." That, you see, is a no-no. Stigmatizing ... is bad. Stigmatizing, in case you weren't completely clear on this, means "to describe or regard as worthy of disgrace or great disapproval." And at no time ought we consider anyone worthy of disapproval. So calling a prostitute a prostitute suggests disapproval of prostitutes and, as such, ought not be used. "The term 'sex work' is preferred." Yes, that helps. I mean, who doesn't like sex?

"I would like to be a sex worker in New Zealand," said Mandeep Dhaliwal. She's the director of the U.N.'s director of the HIV, Health and Development Practice group of the U.N. Development Program. Nice.

"There is no evidence that anti-prostitution initiatives reduce sex work or HIV transmission, or improve the quality of life of sex workers," the group has reported. And, indeed, that alone should be sufficient reason to legalize prostitution, shouldn't it? Oh, wait ... I mean "sex work". Because the primary and only viable function of the law is to "improve the quality of life" for people. Now, I'm pretty sure "rapist", "child molester", and "pedophile" are certainly stigmatizing terms. Can't we come up with more approving language? And while we're at it, can we talk about the rotten "quality of life" that thieves, murders, and other criminals have to endure?


Marshal Art said...

Well, Stan. It's the U.N. We can't expect sanity and reason form the U.N., can we?

Stigma has its place. Prostitution is one of them.

Bubba said...

Like fire and many other objects, stigma is a dangerous tool that is nevertheless necessary for civilization. A few years back, Jonah Goldberg pointed out a brief piece by Charles Murray, arguing that the stigma that surrounds (surrounded?) receiving charity is essential if the "safety net" is NOT going to become a hammock.

Jonah makes the broader point, "Stigma is what keeps a society free without descending into the bad sort of anarchy (and such anarchy breeds a natural desire for a unhealthily powerful state to impose order)."

In a free society, government doesn't attempt to micro-manage our lives: there are laws on the books, but they are relatively few and limited to criminalizing the most obvious assaults against individuals and the broader social order.

As a result, there are A LOT of behaviors that are legal but foolish, and the non-coercive power of stigma disincentivizes foolish behavior and keeps it from metastazing.

I still say stigma is dangerous because a society can become censorious: we ought to hate sin, but it's easy to overreact and end up hating the sinner.

But that's hardly a great danger in the post-modern age, and here I'm reminded of Screwtape's Letter #25.

"The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere 'understanding'. Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make [classical] Liberalism the prime bogey."

Stan, what you quote above tells me that some don't just view stigma as dangerous in its excess, but harmful in any case -- I guess because stigma can hurt a person's feelings, and we can't have that.

Bubba said...

I missed the earlier conversation on the principle of harm, but I must say that I'd love to see how this principle could possibly be defended on biblical grounds.

After all, it cannot explain the Bible's two great summaries of the moral law: the Ten Commandments and Christ's two great commandments.

Of the Ten Commandments, at most half are concerned about actions that cause direct harm -- dishonoring your parents, murder, adultery, theft, and false testimony -- and that's only if honor is a big deal for the society in which you live, and I include adultery because most people are deeply upset about the act, but you could argue about the harm it causes, too.

(Of the ten, only three are completely obvious: murder, theft, and bearing false testimony in court, which could lead to a wrongful conviction and punishment.)

The other five? No other gods, no idols, don't take the Lord's name in vain, observe the Sabbath, and no coveting? There's no obvious harm (as some would define it) in breaking any of those laws, yet the Bible treates them as pretty important.

That's the Old Testament, and we could move to the NT and Christ's two great commandments, but we run into the same problem.

"Love God" is a nice sentiment, but disobeying the command leads to no obvious harm, variously defined, and yet Christ calls it the greatest commandment.

Even "love your neighbor" isn't a great fit to the principle of harm: it may entail the command, "do no harm," but it is much, MUCH more demanding.

"Do no harm" can be obeyed just by keeping self-contained, as can the command to not do anything you wouldn't want done to you.

"Love your neighbor as yourself" involves a much more active approach to the people around you.

You can place the principle of harm under one of the two great commandments, but it doesn't explain the breadth of that commandment, much less does it even touch the greatest commandment.

So I say again: I wonder how anyone could make a biblical argument that the principle of harm is what underlies the moral law.

Stan said...

Yes, Bubba, normally speaking "stigmatizing" is only a problem when it used by people with moral values. Stigmatizing, as an example, those who place a high value on human life as "anti-choice" or "anti-abortion" is a good thing. It's only stigmatizing the bad that is bad. As always, then, there are some feelings that must not be hurt, but we do get to decide to hurt others and that's okay.

Stan said...

And, indeed, the "do no harm" principle as the definition of morality just doesn't work at all. That, of course, if you're willing to assume a biblical worldview. Otherwise, what else do you have?