Making the Best of a Bad Situation

I have a knack for offending people unintentionally. Anyone who knows me well knows that I hate doing that. Darn it, if I'm going to offend somebody, I want to mean it! 😉 Seriously, though, my recent post on legalizing prostitution offended someone, and that was never my intention. The following is from an email by a woman who has escaped the hell of prostitution.

"Your thought experiment is dangerously naive and bordering on offensive. I don't believe that the comment thread does quite enough to explain your position. You spend most of that thread defending your initial assertion. As far as I can tell, you are insufficiently knowledgeable to even broach a discussion of prostitution and the ramifications of making it legal."

I am very sorry that my naivite caused offense. For the record, here's how that post and ensuing discussion came about.

Sometimes the oddest thoughts occur to me right before bed. If I'm lucky, I write them down before I've forgetten then. I'll usually discuss them later with friends, with my spiritual director, or on my blog. A few nights ago, for reasons unknown, I started wondering why prostitution illegal. More specifically, I wondered what made it, among the myriad of immoral acts, illegal when so many aren't. I decided that I'd query my blog readers.

I explicitly cast aside moral arguments because I thought the inconsistency of which immoral acts are illegal and which are not would cloud the issue. I then proceded to break down the various amoral arguments that came to mind. I really wanted to know what made this activity unacceptable by society in 49 states. At no point did I, or would I, state that I actually wanted prostitution to be legalized. Granted, I used some provacative language, but I never endorsed the practice.

Out of a discussion about a strange random thought came what I believe to be very important to Christians wishing to interact with secular government. Occational contributer and frequent commenter Steve Nicoloso posited (disapprovingly) that this country was not founded, nor is it guided by moral priciples, but rather Lockean notion of social contract. Commenter Tom Smith, on the other hand, argues that one can justify moral legislation via natural law. Putting aside the inflamatory topic of prostitution, I'd like very much to continue this conversation. Some questions that I feel are worth answering:

Was our country primarily founded on Judeo-Christian moral principles or amoral social contract theories?

Even if it was founded on Judeo-Christian moral principles, is it still guided by those principles?

If it isn't, why not, and how can Christians help change that?

If it was on social contract theories, is it still guided by those principles?

If it is, should we seek to change that? If we should, how do we go about doing so?

The question that summarizes the preceding is, "How should Christians interact with secular government?" Many of the arguments given against legalizing prostitution amounted to "because it's wrong". Before one can argue that an act is wrong, though, one must define wrong. You cannot define a right to perform a wrong action, or lack thereof, until there is agreement of what is wrong. Who defines right and wrong? Should laws only pertain to those rights and wrongs that are nearly universally agreed to or should a mere plurality or majority of the electorate be allowed determine right and wrong for the remainder?

It is my hope that a rational debate about such matters will aid Christians in the pursuit of moral legislation on nonreligious grounds. Determining whether there are universal moral concepts to base such work on or not is a core part of such a discussion. If we could be convinced, and then convince the secular world, that there are good reasons other than divine writ to ban (or maintain bans) on practices like prostitution, we'd be well on our way to formulating and executing more effective plans for getting wholesome legislation passed. Learning how to argue better on secular terms would be an invaluable asset in our efforts to abolish abortion. As long as secularists can accuse us of trying legislate our faith, no progress will be made in any of the political arenas in which we find ourselves fighting.

The preample to the Declaration of Independence ought to inspire us in these endeavors.

"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

"That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed."

"That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is in the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

"Prudence indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes; and accordingly all Experience hath shewn, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.

{All emphases mine]

We who believe in that Creator are among the governed from whose consent the just powers of the goverment are derived. If our government becomes destructive to the ends of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we the people have the right to alter or abolish it, to throw it off and provide new guards for our future.

I am not (and I cannot express this strongly enough) suggesting some kind of revolution. Rather, I would like to see Christians exercise their First Amendment right "peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" and to perform their civic duties of voting and running for office, at all levels of government, so that laws might enacted that, in accordance with the purpose our constitution, "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity". And if those laws should be found to be contrary to the Constitution of the United States, we should seek to exert our right under Article V of the that constitution to amend it.

So, dear readers, how do we go about doing these things?

Comments 30

  1. Peter wrote:

    Steve, did you not read what I wrote? Here is the relevant portion again, with emphasis added:

    “If any individual, like your critic, finds prostitution personally unworkable, then that individual should have as much freedom to leave the field as another should have to enter it.”

    It says “should,” not “does.” That is, the problem is the illicit structure of the institution, not the intrinsic nature of the activity.

    Posted 13 Feb 2006 at 8:34 am
  2. Steve Nicoloso wrote:

    More specifically, I wondered what made [prostitution], among the myriad of immoral acts, illegal when so many aren?t.

    Ah. Well that’s only because it hasn’t been made legal yet. It’s one of those last few taboos to be broken down, after adultery, divorce, contraception, abortion, adultery, sodomy, and some stuff we haven’t even invented names for yet. But don’t worry. Nevada is the vanguard. It is only a matter of time.

    But to the larger question:

    Was our country primarily founded on Judeo-Christian moral principles or amoral social contract theories?

    In my view, the latter. But that doesn’t mean that the vast majority of citizens in this country weren’t Christian and that an even larger majority gave assent to a public morality that would today be considered religious. I think many, not all, perhaps not a majority, but a a majority of the most influential of the founders of this country considered themselves too sophisticated for (i.e., above) particular religious observance, but at the same time deemed it necessary for social order.

    Thus, while the revolution was not at all based on Christian principles and the Constitution 12-13 years later was in large part counter-revolution to protected moneyed (i.e., capital) interests, since the vast majority accepted Christian moral principles, positive law as well as social customs reflected strongly religious bases. But we were not then a pluralistic society, nor were we nearly as egalitarian as our philosophes advertised. These stresses would only come much later. Added to this we have the natural evolution of liberal democratic philosophy culminating in the enshrinement of private autonomy (choice) as highest good.

    I don’t think these are things we can change without violent (and therefore imprudent) revolution. The best thing for us to do is bite off pieces of the problem that are sized for human influence: make our families, local communities, and local parishes the top priority. And don’t allow ourselves to be dehumanized by a distant emperor who wants to take care of everything (education, energy costs, farm subsidies, terror, men on Mars, &c) for us.

    Posted 11 Feb 2006 at 10:40 pm
  3. Peter wrote:

    I don’t think it matters what type of law anyone thinks this nation was founded upon. That in itself is a point of perennial contention and can do nothing but cloud any issue predicated upon it, as you have done here. Ultimately, regardless of what people think, they end up driving on the right side of the road, forbearing from criminal acts, and otherwise being decent citizens. So what difference does it make which philosophical myth they think their actions flow from? Either you are going to be a law-abiding, participating citizen or not. I don’t care about your motivation.

    You’re dealing with a problem of public policy, which is about the goals of society, not about its historical moorings. Furthermore, if you’re going to talk about our historical moorings, you’re choosing a rather arbitrary point by talking only about how or why our nation was founded. Legally, we flow out of a tradition of English common law that pre-dates that mark by centuries and culturally we have roots that trace back through Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East for thousands of years. Where we are now may be connected to all those things, but it is also different from each of them. It is essential to know history, fatal to get yourself stuck in it.

    Personally, I find much good in the prospect of removing our legal system from the mire or moral culpability and punitive justice. When citizens can behave well not from the fear of punishment or retribution, or from the fear of being marked forever with a criminal conviction, then we will be well on our way to a much better society, and the idea of acts being “immoral” will have transitioned into being contrary to the goals of the society, which are (or should be) determined by the society at large, not by any ruler or faction.

    Thus, Christians should do no more or less than anyone else to participate within our society. Regardless of any historical accounts, all of which are interminably contested, the facts are that Christians comprise but one of many groups in our society. Personal motivations may drive social input, but personal motivations cannot be imposed uniformly across a diverse society (or even within a small subsection). The only workable solution is to deal with public policy problems by stabilizing the essential factors of the society (e.g., freedom of speech, freedom from bodily injury, freedom to contract, etc.) and allowing greater leeway on the higher level problems (e.g., which ideological group to join, which metaphysics to believe, etc.).

    Ultimately, if people find a useful economic advantage in charging fees for sexual services, I don’t see why they should be disallowed. However, just like anything else, compulsory participation is certainly unsavory. If any individual, like your critic, finds prostitution personally unworkable, then that individual should have as much freedom to leave the field as another should have to enter it. If other individuals find prostitution morally repugnant, they should not participate.

    Unfortunately, that tiny blurb is all I have time to produce right now. Must be on my way.

    Posted 12 Feb 2006 at 3:42 am
  4. Tom Smith wrote:

    Although I know little enough about political philosophy that I should probably not attempt to comment on the main questions you pose, I feel the urge to address a few things about the Declaration of Independence that I think are BS.

    Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? If the right to life is “inalienable,” why do we execute people? What does “liberty” entail? Freedom from taxation without representation? Ooh, so bad. And everybody has a natural right to the pursuit of happiness? BS! And how are these rights self-evident? They’re not “self-evident” to me, and they weren’t “self-evident” to anyone before the seventeenth century.

    Also, governments do not derive their power from the consent of the people; they derive their power from God alone. Governments, when exercising authority, derive this power from God in the same way that a procreating couple derives its creative power from God.

    And what exactly was the “absolute despotism” which caused our “duty to throw off such government” to kick in?

    Posted 12 Feb 2006 at 5:07 am
  5. Jerry Nora wrote:

    And what exactly was the “absolute despotism” which caused our “duty to throw off such government” to kick in?

    I guess the Founding Fathers would have said that a foreign government ruling one’s way of life with no legislative feedback on behalf of the people or balance of powers would be one such situation, and that George III and his mediocre advisers would fit that. In another timeline, perhaps the Revolution could have been avoided. Though in many ways it wasn’t a revolution in the sense that we are used to them, what with the various Communist coups and the French Revolution. Which is probably why we are where we are, and the other regimes largely have either collapsed or are desperately trying to remake themselves (e.g., China).

    Posted 12 Feb 2006 at 11:38 pm
  6. Steve Nicoloso wrote:

    Well, I hope Peter saw tonight’s Frontline (that bastion of right-wing demagoguery and faciism) on “Sex Slavery”. The most incredulous of our (admittedly many) foundational myths are that people are free and equal and they may therefore freely choose or freely choose not to participate in prostitution, based upon whether it’s “useful” or “workable” for them. Why you choose to accept (apparently uncritically) this particular myth, while acknowledging the doubtfulness of so many others is rather odd.

    Tom, you’re right and I don’t think the so-called truths were self-evident to anyone in the 18th century either. Look, the colonial leaders had a war for independence to drum up support for.

    For the record, Jerry, I don’t think you can find a more liberal democratic government anywhere in the world at any time up to 1776 than Great Britain. The American Revolution really is largely inexplicable, but casting off chains of absolute despotism (incompetent or otherwise) is not one of the better contending explanatory attempts.

    Posted 13 Feb 2006 at 5:44 am
  7. Steve Nicoloso wrote:

    You’re right. There is a difference between “should” and “does” (i.e., have a natural right to freely contract services). So then you admit that natural equality is a myth, but one that should be made a reality? Given that there is a gulf between “should” and “does”, do you then propose society attempt to narrow this gulf? If so, by what means? Is it possible that some institutions are intrinsically unjust? Would you admit that, in the meantime (i.e., while we await utopia), certain economic contracts ought to be proscribed?

    Posted 13 Feb 2006 at 4:35 pm
  8. Peter wrote:

    Whoa, hold off on jumping to conclusions there, Steve. I didn’t say anything about equality; I’m only talking about the freedom to propose, enter, perform, and breach contracts. You are injecting “natural” rights and “equality” on your own, but those ideas are beyond the scope of what I am writing about.

    Posted 13 Feb 2006 at 5:21 pm
  9. Steve Nicoloso wrote:

    Peter, you’re saying that a person should have as much freedom to enter prostitution as another has to leave it, which I assume means (at least ideally) complete freedom to do either. But “should”, as you rightly note, does not mean “does”. Therefore, I take it you do not think that a person necessarily DOES have such freedom. Yes, I suppose I am “injecting” natural rights or equality, but that’s only because INequality (what I take to be the inherent inequity of the “contract” between hooker and john) is the only “natural” reason I can think of to forbid, even to “consenting” adults, entry into a prostitution contract, which is to say: true consent in such a relationship is not possible, or at least not probable.

    So does the prostitute have freedom to choose her profession or not? Perhaps she ought, but does she? And if not, why not?

    If I own all sources of water on the desert island and you own nothing that I need, wouldn’t any “contract” between you and me for the purchase of water be inherently unfair? Wouldn’t the interests of the island (irrespective of my own) be better served by my selling my water for less than I could potentially get for it.

    Posted 13 Feb 2006 at 8:15 pm
  10. Jerry Nora wrote:

    Steve, you’re right, Britain was the best in the world at the time, but being the best still can admit of failures, and when you’re on the other end of the known world and have this distant King fellow tell you that you must put up some unruly, very hungry, redcoats in your own home (hide the daughter), the relative merits of King George versus the Emporer of China, the Tsar or the Bourbon Dynasty are going to look mighty irrelevant. :)

    Had things gone another way, we could still have a nominal monarch like Canada. I am well aware that Britain had a very balanced government for the time, and do not consider the Revolution to have been inevitable.

    Heck, what are now the USA and Canada could have formed one gigantic English-speaking nation (well, with Quebec perhaps an exception, though a unified English-speaking country might prove very hard to withstand), which would make for an interesting alternate history novel!

    Posted 13 Feb 2006 at 9:24 pm
  11. Peter wrote:

    Steve, I think you’re reading way too much philosophy into my “should” and “does.” Currently, our society does not generally allow for the free contracting of sexual services and that contributes to the under-the-table nature of the business and allows for abuses. That’s the “does.”

    The “should” in what I’m saying is simply that if we allowed for the free contracting of sexual services, then abuses would be subject to redress in civil proceedings, offering a deterrent against abuses. That would put more power into the hands of the women who choose that line of work.

    (I would make a similar argument for certain drugs that are currently illegal.)

    I’m not talking about natural rights or philosophical angles — just pure public policy and how to protect the safety of citizens while allowing them economic freedom.

    Posted 13 Feb 2006 at 9:40 pm
  12. Steve Nicoloso wrote:

    Okay, but my point is that, based on the evidence offerred by Funky’s critic, a victim… err… independent contractor in Nevada’s LEGAL prostitution industry, it sounds like the life of the prostitute is pretty much the same there as anywhere else, maybe with slightly better enforcement of workplace safety regulations. My theory is that this is due to the nature of this particular contractual relationship, i.e., that it is grossly inequitable and unjust (because the value of the thing offerred by the service provider is so much higher than the going market rate), and that therefore the amount of government regulation that would be required to force the sexual services contract to be fair and equitable far outstrips the amount of government intrusion required to ban it.

    “Economic freedom”? What is freedom but power to do what you want? What is economic freedom but power to buy what you want? Economic freedom will always only be for the few, who can afford what they want. What they want will inevitably be provided by those who have no choice (i.e., no freedom) but to give the powerful what they want at the price they demand. And the more economic freedom we have, the more power will accumulate in the hands of the few (the blessed, the well-connected, the deceitful), and the less economic freedom we’ll have.

    How many of Nevada’s (or Amsterdam’s) prostitutes would remain in their profession if they could make the same amount of money as 9to5 office workers? That number is approximately the number of people who actually enjoy pretending to enjoy having sex with complete and usually disgusting strangers (after all what sort of person generally needs to pay to have sex). I won’t say it is zero, but it cannot be many.

    Posted 13 Feb 2006 at 11:10 pm
  13. Peter wrote:

    How many of Nevada’s (or Amsterdam’s) prostitutes would remain in their profession if they could make the same amount of money as 9to5 office workers?

    The same could be said of any unenviable, underpaid job. (Say, coal miners, who have had particularly hard times lately.) But who is standing up and saying that all the lousy jobs should be criminalized and prohibited to protect the workers? Your reasoning is flawed.

    If the contract relationship between a prostitute and her client is “grossly inequitable and unjust” to the prostitute, then it cannot be said that the prostitute entered the contract freely. Again, the problem is not intrinsic to the activity, but inherent to the structure of the institution, which comes with the moral disapproval of a society that does not want to support the party on either side of the bargain.

    How could a prostitute remedy such a situation? The obvious example is to raise the price, or add other terms and conditions to the deal that would make it less unfavorable. But even where prostitution is legalized (e.g., Nevada or Amsterdam) does the prostitute really have that ability? Unless she does, the legalization is meaningless (as it very well may be in practice).

    But returning to your idea that prostitutes would not remain in their profession if they could make the same or better money elsewhere, that’s just a basic economic decision. However, there are other factors involved, too. Prostitutes are not providing an unwanted or unneeded service, but rather are filling an economic niche that has existed since time out of memory and will continue to exist for the foreseeable future. So long as there are clients who seek prostitutes, there will be a market for prostitution. If the pool of prostitutes becomes smaller because other, more profitable work becomes available, that simply means that the price will rise. But if the pool becomes too small and the price becomes too high, such that demand outstrips supply, then you have a situation where violence and sex slavery are far more likely to occur. This is merely the calculus of the criminal, who, if he cannot have lawfully what he needs or desires and can obtain it unlawfully at lower cost, he will.

    Economic freedom will always only be for the few, who can afford what they want. What they want will inevitably be provided by those who have no choice (i.e., no freedom) but to give the powerful what they want at the price they demand. And the more economic freedom we have, the more power will accumulate in the hands of the few (the blessed, the well-connected, the deceitful), and the less economic freedom we’ll have.

    You have summed up the theory of socialism and the planned economy, which, regardless of how nice it looks on paper, has in practice been shown again and again to be flawed. Why?

    All goods and services have relative value. That is, different people assign different values to different things. The ideal would be for each person to have all the things that he or she values most and none of the things that he or she values least. Thus, a highly inefficient situation would be if each of us had an object, and each of us valued the other one’s object higher than our own. Say, perhaps I give my object a value of 3 but I give your object a value of 6, while you give your own object a value of 2 and my object a value of 5. As things stand, the total value between us is only 5. Regardless of what what any third parties may think about the value of the two objects, a perspective which would represent the “objective” value of the objects, the only way to create more value in this situation would be to trade. Then each of us would have the object more highly valued to him—my object, formerly yours, is now worth 6 and your object, formerly mine, is now worth 5, bringing the total value of the situation to 11, a net gain of 6. That’s pretty impressive for a transaction that didn’t require the creation of any new goods. It happens all the time.

    But if we don’t have the freedom to contract according to our own valuation of the goods and services that we encounter, how are we going to ensure that all goods and services flow into the possession of those who value them most? It might seem nice to simply redistribute goods and services so that everyone receives an equal amount. This would take away economic freedom, but the end result, in the mind of the economic planner, is justice, right? But how do you decide the value of the goods and services being redistributed? Maybe the government (or whichever authority) comes along, knocks on my door, and says “We are distributing the production of pickup trucks this week. Here are the keys to yours.” But I don’t want a pickup truck, I protest. Please, can I just have a bicycle? “No,” says the economic authority. “We have already given you the equivalent of a bicycle and to give you a bicycle now would be unfair to your neighbors.”

    It’s just an example, and it’s a little farfetched, but do you see the lunacy of this situation? Nobody but the individual buyers and sellers in an economy know what they want and how much they’ll pay for it. To come along and take away their freedom to seek the goods and services they desire would be soul-crushing.

    So what about prostitution? Like I said, so long as somebody wants it and somebody else is willing to provide it, and the two of them can agree on a price, what right have we to tell them they can’t make that transaction? Each of them is getting the thing they value most: the prostitute is getting money with which to purchase food or pay rent or spend on whatever she likes, and the client is getting sex. Sure, it’s probably not the best sex in the world, but if he wants to pay for it and she wants to give it, should anyone really be bothered? Maybe he’ll discover afterward that sex with a prostitute is lousy and he’ll never do it again. There’s no problem there, either. Now he’s a more informed consumer and better able to behave rationally in the marketplace. What could be bad about that?

    The problem comes when the prostitute decides that she does not want to sell sex anymore but can find no other means of employment. But as I pointed out way back at the beginning of this comment, that’s a problem that almost everyone experiences at one time or another. The economic part of the problem is exactly the same: my job sucks and is killing my spirits or damaging my body but I can’t find another one, for whatever reason.

    But our society distorts the issue by applying moral categories. Compare coal miners to prostitutes. Neither one is paid much, neither one has a tremendous amount of bargaining power in his or her profession, both jobs come with high risks, and many lives have been ruined by each profession. But society looks at coal miners and calls them heroes for doing such a horrid job, while prostitutes are considered immoral, indecent, perhaps even inhuman people. Meanwhile, that very same society increasingly decries its misuse and abuse of nature by its use of and dependency on fossil fuels like coal, but loves and values sex.

    The economics are clear: we need coal and we need sex and sometimes that means we need people to do dirty jobs; they ought to be compensated accordingly and given the respect they deserve for their willingness to do what many of us would not. It is only our irrational and inconsistent sense of morality that clouds the picture and causes the problems.

    Posted 14 Feb 2006 at 1:17 am
  14. Mark La Roi wrote:

    I think that we all have thoughts of things along these lines from time to time. The analogy that helps me keep things in perspective is milk vs. meat. Some people have been fully nourished by the milk and are now ready for the meat. At the same time, there are some discussions and ideas which must consider the hearer before being entered into.

    There are things I could discuss frankly with my pastor that would bring great and unnecessary dissention if I just put them “out there” for all to see.

    In other words Ales, I can dig that you were just exploring a legal quandry.

    Posted 14 Feb 2006 at 6:15 pm
  15. Steve Nicoloso wrote:

    The same could be said of any unenviable, underpaid job. (Say, coal miners, who have had particularly hard times lately.) But who is standing up and saying that all the lousy jobs should be criminalized and prohibited to protect the workers? Your reasoning is flawed.

    If the contract relationship between a prostitute and her client is “grossly inequitable and unjust” to the prostitute, then it cannot be said that the prostitute entered the contract freely. Again, the problem is not intrinsic to the activity, but inherent to the structure of the institution, which comes with the moral disapproval of a society that does not want to support the party on either side of the bargain.

    You’re correct, Peter. That particular bit of my reasoning was flawed. Tho’ I dare say that more prostitutes would jump at the chance to slide economically sideways into a 9to5 office job than coal miners. And another thing, coal mining is reasonably well rewarded these days thanks to collective bargaining, and (we might hope in our more credulous moments) the good will of mine owners. We don’t “need sex” (of the economic variety at least) in the same way that we “need energy”. Although I’d be quick to agree that we don’t “need” nearly as much energy as we consume, there exist socially beneficial reasons for extracting and using energy. There are none for mere economic sex. What we really NEED (naturally for a healthy, sustainable, a biologically strong society) is stable, two-parent families led by committed, monogamous (for all practical purposes at least) men and women having fertile sex. Societal taboos (as well as positive laws) protect and have always and everywhere protected this state. Cracking these taboos open threatens the very future of society. We’re already seeing socially suicidal birth rates in much of Europe, in spite of lavish social welfare and big financial incentives for procreation.

    So I think we’re agreed that prostitution as it now generally exists is grossly inequitable and unjust and therefore cannot be contracted freely. But I simply cannot see how it follows that this sad state of affairs is related to (or caused by) the moral disapproval of society. If you’re saying that society disapproves of prostitution but fails to lift a finger to help those who have no other choice, then I suppose I would agree: that is a screwed up moral disapproval. But it is far from clear that this describes American society (Ukrainian or Turkish society maybe), and even if it does, it certainly doesn’t describe the nature of my disapproval.

    Please note I am not arguing for a planned economy or state-enforced egalitarianism. Far from it. As much as I hate capitalism, I hate socialism more. I’m rather arguing for a much less grandiose point, merely that freedom is power, that power is always inequitably distributed (no matter who the emperor is), and that therefore the power of the state should be brought to bear against the abuses of power (freedom) whenever possible. And to obtain recreational sex from a person who has no option but to sell it is an abuse of power (freedom). I don’t deny that is possible that someone might be willing to sell their bodies for sex for a truly fair price (to them), and that they might enter the contract freely. What I deny is that this could ever be commonplace. It doesn’t appear to be the case even where prostitution has been decriminalized (a fair bit of the western world). There will always be too many have-nots (whether it be society’s fault, their own, or both) swelling the supply and bringing down the price. For every one prostitute who gets powerful (free) enough to contract justly for her own services, there will be a 100 at least who will forever lack this power.

    But if the pool [prostitute supply] becomes too small and the price becomes too high, such that demand outstrips supply, then you have a situation where violence and sex slavery are far more likely to occur. This is merely the calculus of the criminal, who, if he cannot have lawfully what he needs or desires and can obtain it unlawfully at lower cost, he will.

    Sadly, this is a true observation of human nature. Sometimes history records that criminalization of certain practices can lead to even worse societal problems. But is far from clear that there is clear line of demarcation between the things that ought to be illegal and the things that should be tolerated because making them illegal will make things worse. My personal thinking about the dismal failure of prohibition (on virtually every level) was that alcoholic beverages are in fact a positive good and that it was simply immoral to prohibit them in the first place.

    So what about prostitution? Like I said, so long as somebody wants it and somebody else is willing to provide it, and the two of them can agree on a price, what right have we to tell them they can’t make that transaction? Each of them is getting the thing they value most

    First, the right we have to tell them is that we are the society and have a right to determine which behaviors are acceptable or not. If we decide that no one shall publish pictures of the prophet, then that is our law. You may not like the law. You may get executed for disobeying the law. Too bad. You didn’t get to choose to be born into this society. Too bad. You don’t get to choose certain things. There is no law higher than the law of good order. Pluralism has not yet truly been tried. When it is, it will fail.

    But I also happen to think that we have a right to forbid the transaction because it would be extremely rare to be entered into freely, i.e., as among rough equals, where neither person’s next meal, or that of their children, or lifesaving cancer treatment, depended upon the transaction. Prostitution may not present a unique case. There may be many other such transactions that deserve an equal amount of oversight on the principle that you should not be able to be the SOLE provider and charge ANY price for a cup of water in the dessert.

    And if that’s bad for the “economy”… well too bad for the bloody economy. Pure rational economic libertinism that admits of no transcendant goods will naturally ultimately result in a denial of more freedoms to more people than any communist state could ever muster.

    I agree that the lash cannot make us moral, but I’d also insist that we cannot be moral without the lash.

    Posted 14 Feb 2006 at 8:04 pm
  16. Adrian wrote:

    Dear Peter,

    The economics may be clear, but they are clearly inadequate. The relationships between human beings can hardly be reduced to laws of supply and demand, and the role of society can hardly be reduced to the protection of market forces. The measure by which we must judge any society is the degree to which it is ordered to the service of the human person, and its promotion and protection of the common good. In that analysis, money is not the overriding determinant.

    As to Funky’s question, lest we lose it in our discussion, I believe the Christian’s role in our society is the same it is in every society: to renew/perfect the temporal order. We should work to ensure that the structures of our society are in accord with their proper purpose. This is necessarily informed by our understanding of the human person and his ultimate end, and will inevitably involve debate and the need for persuasion in the public square. This is something we all too often shy away from in our present day for fear of being labeled “intolerant”. But the reality is that someone’s view will prevail, and by failing to give voice to what we believe to be truths relevant to the temporal order as informed by our Christian beliefs, we are doing a disservice to our neighbor, and our society suffers as a result.

    Please do not misunderstand this to mean that I’m advocating a theocracy–that would be contrary to the fundamental Christian principle of freedom of religion. Rather what I am saying is that we believe that the Christian understanding is in accord with the human reality, and that basic principles cannot therefore be denied in any human society, and it still be considered licit. I.e., ‘We hold certain truths to be self-evident’, and they are true regardless of race, color, or creed.

    Your servant,

    Posted 15 Feb 2006 at 4:12 am
  17. Peter wrote:

    [W]e are the society and have a right to determine which behaviors are acceptable or not.

    No doubt. But you’ve only evaded the problem posed by my original question. Why should our society prohibit a private transaction between two people who wish to trade money for sex and vice versa? It isn’t a rhetorical question.

    The economics may be clear, but they are clearly inadequate. The relationships between human beings can hardly be reduced to laws of supply and demand, and the role of society can hardly be reduced to the protection of market forces. The measure by which we must judge any society is the degree to which it is ordered to the service of the human person, and its promotion and protection of the common good. In that analysis, money is not the overriding determinant.

    You take a narrow and inaccurate view of economics; it is not simply the problem of money, but the allocation of resources, be they goods, property, time, energy, attention, or money. You might also say that economics is the study of prioritization and that the use of economics in explanation and policy-making has no other goal but to enhance the service of the person and protect and promote the common good by removing incentives that are contrary to those goals.

    As well, your statement that the Christian understanding is in accord with human reality comes with the implicit message that the economic view is not in accord with human reality. I find that odd, because the Christian view requires the injection of a transcendent realm that is by definition opposed to human reality while the economic view is stringently restricted to human activities themselves.

    Posted 15 Feb 2006 at 5:20 am
  18. Funky Dung wrote:

    “Why should our society prohibit a private transaction between two people who wish to trade money for sex and vice versa? “

    The point that I’ve seen a number of people make is that this private transaction has public consequences and they are generally not positive. When private activities have sufficiently negative consequences, laws are made to limit or eliminate them.

    Posted 15 Feb 2006 at 12:22 pm
  19. Peter wrote:

    What, specifically, are the measurable public consequences of allowing a fair transaction for prostitution?

    Posted 15 Feb 2006 at 6:14 pm
  20. Funky Dung wrote:

    I didn’t say I had the answer to that question. I just wanted to point out the obvious answer to your previous question. If you look back at the comments on the previous prostitution post (where I’d prefer that particular topic be discussed, BTW), you’ll see that I asked your current question repeatedly and got no substantial answer. I’m not saying there isn’t one to be given, but none has been given thus far.

    Posted 15 Feb 2006 at 6:18 pm
  21. Steve Nicoloso wrote:

    No doubt. But you’ve only evaded the problem posed by my original question. Why should our society prohibit a private transaction between two people who wish to trade money for sex and vice versa? It isn’t a rhetorical question.

    Peter, I didn’t evade the question. You just failed to quote my response. As I said, my main argument (in this thread at least) has been that the transaction is not or can only rarely be among equals and cannot therefore be entered freely. Is statutory rape a real thing, or just a figment of our tortured puritanical imaginations? What magic happens at age 16 or 18 that makes a person competent to consent to anything? Can an 11-year old really consent to sex with an “adult”? In my view anyone who would enter into a contract to fellate the filthy loins of a complete stranger for $20 (or $100) is not entering freely into that contract. Such a person needs protection, if only from himself. The contract should not be allowed to exist. Call me a prude.

    Now Funky brings up another point, which is a good one, that this transaction (that potentially any transaction) is not merely private. I.e., the transaction affects society (associates of the contractors, their families, children, neighbors, would-be children). All of which, I suppose gets back close to the sheer power argument: society bans it because it does not like it. I think society has good reasons (some objective, some not) for not liking it. Not everyone may accept those reasons, but they’re reasons just the same. Good order, being necessary for the very survival of society, always (eventually) trumps individual freedoms, which are at best frosting (at worst, cyanide).

    Peter, you weren’t on the other thread so I don’t know if you saw this, but I liked this critique of late liberal democratic society from Houellebecq (quoted in a review here… sounds like a guy more pleasant to read about than read). He kills two birds with one stone in my opinion:

    Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperisation. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It?s what?s known as ?the law of the market?. In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system, certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment in misery. In a totally liberal sexual system, certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude. Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society.

    It all comes down to what kind of society we want to live in. The law of nature pulls one way: absolute freedom in which power and freedom accumulates to the very few, while misery and slavery becomes the lot of most. Society in order to remain stable must resist this pull of nature. Taboos (whether they be called commandments, conventions, manners, or social contracts) are part of this resistance. Are they irrational? Mostly I don’t think so, but who really cares? Society should be preserved. (…which is itself ultimately irrational I suppose.)

    Posted 15 Feb 2006 at 6:53 pm
  22. Steve Nicoloso wrote:

    What, specifically, are the measurable public consequences of allowing a fair transaction for prostitution?

    Why do they need to be specific or measurable? Why is not a vague but overwhelming sense of distaste sufficient? However it may have happened, we have evolved unbelievably complex mechanisms for living (more or less) successfully in society. Why pull, push, and poke at these and question whether things like “moral outrage” really have a rational justification? We may disagree on whether they do, but don’t you think it illadvised to summarily dispense with them, i.e., to cast off the chains of our own evolution? Is that rational? Whether we agree with it or not, isn’t “morality” a pretty good safeguard for all of us?

    Posted 15 Feb 2006 at 7:04 pm
  23. Peter wrote:

    Why do they need to be specific or measurable? Why is not a vague but overwhelming sense of distaste sufficient?

    I have a vague but overwhelming sense of distaste for your religion but you don’t see me calling for the criminalization of Christianity.

    Conversely, I have no vague nor overwhelming (nor even underwhelming) distaste for the prospect of legalized prostitution.

    Why pull, push, and poke at these and question whether things like “moral outrage” really have a rational justification?

    Because if it has no rational justification then it has no grounds by which a diverse society such as ours can agree upon it and it has no business being criminalized.

    Whether we agree with it or not, isn’t ‘morality’ a pretty good safeguard for all of us?

    Oh, boy, you’re opening a real can o’ worms with that one. Should we start talking about all the sick, twisted, disgusting things that people have done for the same of morality? Are you going to make me drag out the list?

    So long as a morality without rational basis, which relies on “vague but overwhelming distaste,” is left to safeguard the people, then you must contend with the fact that different people have different vague but overwhelming distastes. How do you decide who gets to be in charge? Perhaps by beating us all on the head with your particular version while refusing to offer a rationale for it? Or, to put it another way, perhaps by using your freedom to exercise power over the decisions of others?

    Posted 15 Feb 2006 at 7:30 pm
  24. Steve Nicoloso wrote:

    Peter you keep claiming that I am refusing to offer a rationale for prohibition of prostitution, yet much of what I’ve said above offers just that. Instead you pick out the occasional bits that suggest that sometimes you don’t need a rationale, then quote and slam those instead.

    Sure. Drag out the list of all the things done in the name of morality, and how shall we judge them? By yet some other version of morality? You have yet to deal with the underlying question: Aside from the question of whether morality has a rational basis, and aside from the question of whether it occasionally leads to conditions that we might agree to deplore, isn’t the public expression of morality (whether in religion, politics, customs, or mass psychology) a complex adaptation with which we have been fitted by millions of years of selection to live in society? And if so, is it rational, or more importantly safe, to so readily cast such an intricate adaptation aside?

    Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of tolerance and a big fan of individual freedom. But tolerance and individual freedom necessarily and naturally militate against the “good order” (define as you wish) and ultimately the very survival of any society. So, in order for society to survive, there has to be a balance between individual freedom and fascism. And while there’s still time, we need to be wise in our choice of fascisms, otherwise fate and history will chose one for us.

    You may not possess a distaste for the prospect of legalized prostitution, but dare I ask what harm proscribing it causes you? If your next door (or upstairs) neighbor opens a brothel or if you had provocatively dressed young women and boys walking the street in front of your house from 9pm to 3am, I would think you’d be happy to have the current law on your side.

    Yes, different people have different vague but overwhelming distastes, but they are often more alike than this discussion suggests. And even more alike are those found among those sharing a similar culture. This is what it means to be a part of society. As I’ve said elsewhere (I think), true pluralism has not yet been tried. When it is tried, it will surely fail. Europe is facing this very problem today. Will those western democracies have the cojones, the sheer intolerance, the will to compel assent to a particular set of ideals (and the firepower?) to stamp out the clear threat to their continued existence as western democracies or not? I don’t know, but I do think that either way we will come to know the limits of pluralism and by extension liberal democracy.

    And yeah, if preventing (by way of my elected representatives) a crack whore from accepting $20 in exchange for fellatio is an abuse of my freedom over that of another, then call me a fascist… no problemo. I’ll also go on record against loansharking and pedophilia.

    Cheers!

    Posted 15 Feb 2006 at 9:39 pm
  25. Peter wrote:

    Very little time. Short responses:

    (1) If my next door neighbor opened a legal brothel I would have the same problem I would have with any other legal business, which is increased traffic flow and too many people nosing about my space. I would have exactly the same objection if somebody started a church next door.

    (2) I don’t see any of this rationale you’re talking about. I only see you saying over and over that some things are just wrong and therefore should be prohibited.

    (3) The way to extend freedom against Islam is the same way we have always extended freedom: inversion of our basic culture at the edges of the society. I.e., we’re tolerant and friendly and peaceful in the middle, but extremely efficient killing machines around the edges.

    [I]sn’t the public expression of morality (whether in religion, politics, customs, or mass psychology) a complex adaptation with which we have been fitted by millions of years of selection to live in society? And if so, is it rational, or more importantly safe, to so readily cast such an intricate adaptation aside?

    If this “public expression of morality,” as you call it, were fixed and unchanging, you might have a better argument. But our values, our norms, and our means of enforcement are constantly changing, almost always against the kind of gut-feeling traditionalism you describe, mostly because that tradition developed in much smaller, more homogenous societies.

    Anyway, I have to go. Sorry I couldn’t explain further.

    Posted 15 Feb 2006 at 10:38 pm
  26. Adrian wrote:

    “You take a narrow and inaccurate view of economics…economics is the study of prioritization and…the use of economics…has no other goal but to enhance the service of the person and protect and promote the common good by removing incentives that are contrary to those goals.” (Peter)

    I’m not saying economics is of no value, just that it is an incomplete system for understanding humanity, and therefore cannot be the only lens through which we evaluate decisions (personally or as a society). The transcendent reality is an assumed premise of this comment thread–we are seeking to answer Funky’s question of “How Christians should interact with a secular government?”. The Christian is by definition coming from a transcendent perspective. If transcendence is in question (and from your comments it sounds like it may be), then I think we’re on to a different question. It is fruitless to debate B if we are not agreed on A.

    “What, specifically, are the measurable public consequences of allowing a fair transaction for prostitution?” (Peter)

    This is more appropriate on the other comment thread. You can find some of my thoughts about the subject here.

    “I didn’t say I had the answer to that question [question quoted above]…If you look back at the comments on the previous prostitution post…you’ll see that I asked your current question repeatedly and got no substantial answer.” (Funky)

    Funky, I have yet to see your reply the explanation I attempted. I guess you find it less than substantial, but I would be interested to hear your reasons why.

    Posted 16 Feb 2006 at 3:00 am
  27. Funky Dung wrote:

    To be absolutely honest, I totally forgot about your most recent comment. I really didn’t mean to belittle it. I was recently rather distracted with comments on another post. At some time tomorrow I’ll be sure to read it and respond to it.

    Your response aside, wouldn’t you agree that the question was danced around for quite some time?

    Posted 16 Feb 2006 at 3:17 am
  28. Adrian wrote:

    Yes, it was batted around quite a bit. I think the back and forth helped clarify some thoughts in my own mind, and I found it helpful. :-)

    Posted 16 Feb 2006 at 4:25 am
  29. Steve Nicoloso wrote:

    I don’t see any of this rationale you’re talking about. I only see you saying over and over that some things are just wrong and therefore should be prohibited.

    Peter, you are usually a very astute observer, so I’m not sure how to read this. I have repeatedly said over and over (and over) that I think the contract between hooker and john cannot generally be entered into freely on the part of the hooker. Now maybe you don’t agree. Or perhaps you don’t see that compulsion ought be considered a handicap in entering a contract. But regardless, this is not the same thing as saying that prostitution is simply wrong and ought to be banned. Perhaps you are being intentionally dense as a calculated response, but if so, the subtlety is wasted on me.

    If this “public expression of morality,” as you call it, were fixed and unchanging, you might have a better argument. But our values, our norms, and our means of enforcement are constantly changing, almost always against the kind of gut-feeling traditionalism you describe, mostly because that tradition developed in much smaller, more homogenous societies.

    Really? What societies lack sexual taboos? What societies have not recognized marriage as something akin to a promise not to (routinely at least) have sex with women who were not your wife (or wives)? What societies have not merely tolerated but welcomed prostitution as a net social good? What fraction of people in America see it perfectly good and moral to cheat on their spouse? (Not how many do, but how many pat themselves on the back for it?) Sexual mores (like social customs more generally) are I think far more alike across time and across different cultures than they are different.

    You are quite right however in pointing out that traditions (customs, mores, whatever) work most effectively in smaller, more localized, more homogeneous societies. And I’d go further and say that on this basis alone locality and homogeneity are really part of the definition of a society. Can cultural anthropologists really speak in any meaningful sense of an American culture? Heck, America even has small enclaves of folks who don’t own cars (NYC and Lancaster County PA)!

    America, therefore is not a society, nor even a nation, but an empire… dangerously listing, but an empire nonetheless. Questions such as prostitution, gambling, suicide, contraception, and what not really cannot effectively be handled at the level of the emperor in DC. The problem is that more than ever, the morons who vote in this empire look to DC as an integral and necessary part of the solution to virtually every problem. This goes to the impossibility of true pluralism across such a diverse spectrum of cultures.

    Posted 16 Feb 2006 at 5:28 am
  30. Advogado de Diabos wrote:

    Funky,

    I have a little problem with your premise for this post – your use of the Declaration of Independence as the starting point for discussion. To me the Declaration is only a rabble rouser, meant to inspire the colonials to war while giving the middle finger to the brits (which I think it did very well). As far as I know the document has no formal legal status. So to me as an agnostic I just ignore the Declaration of Independence as evidence that our laws should be guided by Judeo-Christian moral principles.

    I would however be interested in a similar discussion if it were based on the Constitution.

    Posted 16 Feb 2006 at 10:11 pm

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