Suppose you know the Meaning of Life. Would it be moral sell that information to the highest bidder?
A year ago, in “Selling Salvation: How Much is it Worth?”, I pointed out that the great religious leaders of the past — Jesus, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Mohammed — had given Salvation away for free, to anyone who would listen. Shouldn’t we follow their example?
Quite apart from that, I argued that a free market in religious ideas (or any kind of information) tends to drive prices down to zero. I decided that it was not only probably immoral to sell information; it was, in the long run, almost impossible. Therefore, immediately, I started offering everything on my site for free.
Amazingly enough, I haven’t gone broke — on the contrary, I’m doing quite well. How can this be?
I’ll explain. But first: prostitution. Trust me, it’s relevant.
Is Prostitution Immoral?
Suppose you don’t know anything about the Meaning of Life, but you have a sexy body. Is it moral to sell that to the highest bidder?
Does the idea sicken you? I’ll be honest: it sickens me.
Before I go any further, let me be absolutely clear: this is just my personal feeling, and I’m very painfully aware, from long experience, that my personal feelings are fallible. I’m not picking on prostitution because I’m on some kind of crusade, or because I think I’m the only one who has all the answers, or anything like that. I don’t presume to judge anyone or anything here. If I based my moral code only on my personal feelings of revulsion, I’d be calling for sweet potato farmers to be rounded up and shot. (I hate sweet potatoes.)
What I want to know is why it sickens me.
After all, plenty of people seem to have no problem with it. Look at it logically. If you own your own body, and you own your own labor, then you should be able to sell your body and your labor. If you can’t do that, then in what sense do you really own your body?
Ownership just means control and custodianship: if you own something, you control it, you decide how it is to be used and cared for. When it comes to your own body, you should be the one to decide what happens to it, who uses it and for what. If society or a government tells you what you can and can’t do with it, then it’s society or government that really owns your body, not you. And that’s an abomination.
Since you’re the one who owns your body, you should be able to sell it, right?
All of this appears to be logically compelling, but for me and many other people, selling sex still feels wrong. Why?
Why Does Prostitution Feel Immoral?
Surely it is not immoral to sell things you own. Surely you own your body, and your labor. So where is the problem? Where does the revulsion arise?
Perhaps we don’t really “own” our bodies, or the things we do with them…? But this seems crazy. Ownership of our bodies and our labor is the very foundation of property itself. Philosophies of property, going back at least to John Locke, agree that we have rights to property based on the following:
- We own our bodies, and our labor.
- We own things we have mixed our labor with — food we have personally grown, objects we have personally made with our own hands, etc.
- We own things people give us willingly.
- We own things we have acquired in a voluntary mutual exchange (i.e. a purchase).
Think about the things you own: unless you’re a thief, a pillager, or a government, everything you have comes from one of these four sources. If we remove (1), we necessarily remove (2) also; and this removes the whole foundation of property as a concept. If you don’t own yourself, your labor, and the things you make, then no one has anything to give away or trade; so no one can really own anything.
I’m reminded of the Soviet Union’s space program, during which the state forced a female astronaut to submit to sex acts and pregnancy in zero-G. Her ownership of her own body was not recognized by the state. After all, in the USSR, no one (except the state) technically owned anything.
So if it’s ok to own yourself, your body, and your sex acts… then perhaps it’s the purchase, the trade, that’s the source of the revulsion.
Is Trade Immoral?
Here’s the crux of it. Sex should not be bought and sold and haggled over like a pound of beef. Prostitution, I feel, does not give sex the respect and reverence that it deserves. I feel very strongly that it shouldn’t be sullied with dollars.
Sex isn’t the only thing that I feel this way about. Sentimental things — certain gifts from loved ones, memorabilia, art made by my children — these things shouldn’t be sold. They can be given, but not sold. Your mother may give you her mother’s wedding ring, but it would be uncouth to sell it to you. Beloved animals, family homes, sacred places… these things may be given away, but selling them seems to cheapen them somehow. It feels disrespectful. Why?
While musing on this feeling of disrespect, I browsed over to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which had this to say on respect:
“Respect for persons is a central concept in many ethical theories; some theories treat it as the very essence of morality and the foundation of all other moral duties and obligations. This focus owes much to the 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who argued that all and only persons (i.e., rational autonomous agents) and the moral law they autonomously legislate are appropriate objects of the morally most significant attitude of respect… Kant… put respect for persons, including oneself as a person, at the very center of moral theory, and his insistence that persons are ends in themselves with an absolute dignity who must always be respected has become a core ideal of modern humanism and political liberalism.”
Kant argued that people have absolute worth — that is, they are ends-in-themselves, worthy of respect and dignity simply because they are people. If this is true (and it certainly is intuitively satisfying), then it follows immediately that buying and selling individuals (i.e. slavery) is immoral.
I’m going to look into slavery a little more closely, and its relationship to prostitution.
Absolute and Relative Worth
If someone pays $1500 for a slave, what they’re implicitly saying is that they value that slave more than the $1500; while the slave traders values the $1500 more than the slave. The trade is made, and both sides feel better off. But what of the slave? If you value $1500 more than the slave, then you are not acknowledging the absolute worth of that individual — you’re establishing a relative worth of $1500. If you’re not acknowledging that absolute worth, then you’re treating the person as an object; you’re not according them the respect and dignity they are inherently due.
Of course there are many, many other reasons why the slave trade is a Bad Thing. But what I’m trying to establish here is that any time a sale is made, a quid pro quo, a market exchange — any time that happens, the object being sold is being assigned a relative worth; and if the object in question actually has an absolute worth, then the sale of the object disrespects it, sullies it, cheapens it.
Is there anything other than persons that have an absolute worth? Kant thought not; he said (roughly, I think) that the capacity for autonomous moral choice gave all humans, and only humans, absolute worth. Now to be fair, I haven’t read Kant, but this sounds fishy to me. What about children who are too young to make moral choices? What about humans who are disabled, in a coma, or otherwise unable to make such choices?
Further: is a human being really more worthy of respect than anything else? Doesn’t that show a bit of… hubris? How about an old-growth forest? A loyal pet? A 600-million-year-old, 5000-foot high mountain? An ancient illuminated Irish manuscript? For that matter, how about a single tree? A sun-ripened tomato? An ear of sweet corn? How can you set comparative value on such things?
It seems to me that all things are equally holy, equally worthy of respect; and therefore buying and selling ANYTHING is inherently, at the deepest level, an act of disrespect. When you buy or sell something, you’re saying, “You’re worth $X to me.” You’ve demeaned it.
It’s not the ownership, nor is it the body, nor is it the sex, that makes prostitution immoral. It’s the sale.
The Malevolent Market
Of course, if buying and selling things is disrespectful and immoral, this means any market exchange, and indeed the whole capitalist economic system, is immoral. You can make things for yourself, and you can give things to others, but selling something is immoral, because it assigns relative worth to something that really has absolute worth.
Now, some of you nit-pickers out there might point out that the market exchange is the foundation of the world economy. Some of you might even think this is a good thing. I’d certainly be the first to admit that it’s superior to every other large-scale economic system that’s been tried. Here are a couple of reasons why:
- Capitalism naturally moves goods efficiently by balancing supply and demand. If one area or group lacks a product, then the price of the product will rise; and profit-seekers will produce more to take advantage of those high prices — until the demand is met, and the people stop buying, and the price drops again.
- Capitalism creates incentives to develop new products, to provide more options for existing products, and to make production more efficient. All of this raises the standard of living, and it generally makes products more affordable, so that more people can get them. These low prices mean that poor people in capitalist nations tend to have a higher standard of living than poor or even middle-class people in other nations.
- Capitalism is voluntary. It is a system that works without swords or guns or central coercive planning, at least in theory. Every trade, every exchange of labor, money, or goods, is made by the people involved because they think their lives will be better. Both sides benefit from every exchange. This fact alone makes it far better, in my mind, than every other large-scale economic system that has ever been tried.
But if capitalism is the best we can do, we’re in sorry shape. Here are some reasons why.
- The first advantage of capitalism above — the efficient movement of products — fails if the people who lack the product have no money to exchange for it. So there are large sectors of the population who experience chronic lack compared to other sectors.
- The second advantage of capitalism — the higher standard of living for even the poor — is meaningful only if you measure “standard of living” by “availability of products”. There are lots of other ways to measure standard of living, and capitalism does nothing to redress those iniquities.
- Capitalists tend to take over the state apparatus. They have strong financial incentives to make sure that the laws on the books favor their business, and so the government becomes more and more the puppet of corporate masters. In particular, capitalists use the government to squash competition and reduce production costs (by polluting public property, getting government subsidies, etc.). The corporations and the government collude to fleece everybody. The result isn’t “true” capitalism, but corporatism, a system that has much in common with fascism.
- Buying something can give you a sense of entitlement. You think, “I paid for it, hence I deserve it. I deserve a house, an iPod, a nice car, a well-watered lawn…” And since you think you deserve these things, you begin to think, consciously or subconsciously, that you’re a Better Person than people who can’t afford them. But in fact, of course, your ability to pay for something has nothing to do with what you deserve to have.
- Capitalism breeds discontent & depression because it encourages people to compare themselves to dollars. As I pointed out above, people have absolute worth, and any comparison cheapens them. Self worth shouldn’t be based on mediums of exchange.
- Under capitalism, providing a service to the rich is much more profitable than providing a service to the poor, even when the poor are aggregated. So even though the poor frequently do better under capitalism than they do under totalitarianism, mercantilism, etc., they are still much, much worse off than the rich.
- The market exchange, while mutually beneficial to the folks doing the trading, ignores side effects to other people. In the ideal case, one person’s property cannot be affected by an exchange between two other people; but in fact this happens all the time. For example, if consumer C decides to buy bananas from company A rather than company B, workers in B may lose their jobs, through no fault of their own.
- Under capitalism, for most people, working is not an option — you MUST work, or lose home, status, even life. Now, working for a living is pretty much something you have to do on this Earth; but there’s no call to work 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week. People in stone age societies gather food for maybe an hour or two a day. Capitalist society encourages people to work much harder than that, so that they can compare themselves favorably with dollar amounts.
- Capitalism encourages ubiquitous, manipulative advertising, which entoxins the quality of life much more than is generally realized.
Most of these derive ultimately from the disrespect inhrent in the basic market exchange.
Let me be clear — and a little confrontational — here. It doesn’t matter if you’re working for a business, working for the government, working for a non-profit, self-employed, whatever… unless you’re volunteering, you are subject to the same corruptions and distortions as all capitalists. Like large corporations, you are tempted to get government protection and subsidy (e.g., you may want to stop those damned illegal immigrants from “stealing” your job). You’re tempted to think better of yourself if you get a raise, or worse of yourself if you lose your job. You are tempted to work for richer companies, or find richer customers, so that you can make more money, regardless of who needs your services more. Your purchases and sales affect people around the world in ways you cannot see. You may even be tempted to “advertise” misleadingly or manipulatively — by spicing up your resume, arranging your web site to encourage traffic and sales, or spreading rumors about people in your office.
Do I include myself in this indictment? Well, at the moment, I’m unemployed… But yes, I am guilty. It’s almost impossible to live in America and not wake up one morning to find a price tag affixed to your heart. We buy and sell our souls.
We’re all guilty of prostitution.
What Else Can We Do?
What alternatives are there? If people can’t buy and sell, if markets are shut down, what happens to the economy? This is a huge issue, because people live and die by economic systems.
There are alternatives — workable ones, maybe even inevitable ones. I’ll look at these in future posts.