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What if your daughter was a porn star?
Americans have come to pride themselves on their moral libertarianism. But there are limits.
 
Think about it.
Think about it. (iStock)

We're living through a libertarian moment.

No, libertarianism hasn't consistently changed how Americans think about taxation, government regulation, or foreign policy. But it is transforming how we think about morality. We can see it in rapidly changing views about gay marriage, in the growing acceptance of recreational marijuana usage, and in the rise of a non-judgmental outlook on sex and pleasure more generally.

Behavior that was once judged harshly in explicitly moral terms (and often penalized by law) is increasingly viewed in explicitly amoral terms. Or rather, a wide range of moral judgments has been reduced to a single one: individual consent.

A gay couple wants to marry? As long as both people freely choose to enter into the arrangement, go for it!

Want to buy pot and get high in your own home? Sounds like a blast!

You like promiscuity, technologically facilitated hookups with strangers, threesomes, homoerotic experimentation, partner swapping, BDSM, and polyamory? Provided everyone involved has freely chosen to participate, have fun!

This moral libertarianism even extends to pornography — not just watching it, but "acting" in it, too. That's the subtext of discussions surrounding Miriam Weeks (stage name: Belle Knox), the Duke University undergraduate who has chosen to pay her way through college by performing in porn videos. At first she was subjected to harsh attacks on campus, but since her story went national, she's become a breakout celebrity and folk hero to some libertarians and feminists who see her choice as an act of empowerment for women and sex workers.

There's just one complication to this happy story: no one, or almost no one, actually believes it. People may say they see nothing wrong with or even admire Weeks' decision to become a porn actress, but it isn't unambiguously true. And our ease of self-deception on the matter tells us something important about the superficiality of the moral libertarianism sweeping the nation.

How do I know that nearly everyone who claims moral indifference or admiration for Weeks is engaging in self-deception? Because I conducted a little thought experiment. I urge you to try it. Ask yourself how you would feel if Weeks — porn star Belle Knox — was your daughter.

I submit that virtually every honest person — those with children of their own, as well as those who merely possess a functional moral imagination — will admit to being appalled at the thought.

But how could that be? After all, her decision to perform in pornography appears to be consensual. She even makes arguments defending the choice. She's making good money, and she's becoming famous, even a role model. Maybe, like some other porn stars, she'll be able to parlay her sex work into a mainstream movie career, or become a bestselling author. That's certainly more than most of her peers at Duke will accomplish in their lives.

And yet practically everyone would nonetheless be devastated to learn that a daughter had gone to work in the porn industry.

Some will say that this is because sex work is "exploitative," and it is. But so is working up to 100 hours a week as a junior analyst at Goldman Sachs. Most parents would probably be thrilled for their daughter to receive a job offer from a leading investment bank.

Others will detect a sexist double standard in the judgment — one based in gendered notions of feminine purity and fear of defilement. But I bet an awful lot of people would be equally appalled to learn that a son had gone to work in porn.

Why? Because at a level of thinking that we increasingly conceal from ourselves, we persist in making the same vertical moral distinctions that human beings have always made: high and low, noble and base, elevated and degraded. Of course precisely what is considered high/noble/elevated and what is thought of as low/base/degraded changes over time and varies across cultures. But what persists as a fundamental, ineradicable element of moral thinking is the act of placing some actions into the first category and others into the second.

And with a remarkable degree of unanimity, we supposedly non-judgmental, morally libertarian, 21st-century Americans judge having sex for pay and in the most public forum imaginable to be low, base, and degraded — and for that reason certainly not the kind of thing we want our children to be doing.

That much seems clear.

The question is why increasing numbers of us feel uncomfortable admitting to ourselves that we persist in making these kinds of distinctions and judgments.

One reason could be that we don't want to be ruled by any higher authority. That's what makes us libertarians (albeit superficial ones). We want to be free not just from political tyranny but from the rule of external moral standards, which can feel tyrannical in their own way — ruling us, as it were, from inside our own heads. The libertarian urge to overthrow this tyranny is what leads more and more of us to seek escape from traditional constraints as well as the vertical moral judgments that can leave us feeling low, base, and degraded. It seems easier and more pleasant to pretend that the very distinction between high and low is an illusion, even if our own thinking and convictions demonstrate that we secretly believe otherwise.

Then there's the fact that once we admit a belief in higher, nobler, more elevated behavior, we confront the difficulty of giving a convincing account of what could ground or make sense of this vertical dimension of moral life and experience. Down that road lies the possibility of God — the ultimate authority whose existence would permanently stand in the way of the maximization of our personal freedom.

So we embrace denial — which is much more fun.

But it's also confusing. It is producing a culture in which people regularly deny what is right in front of their noses — namely, the vertical moral distinctions we presuppose and employ in our moral thinking every day of our lives.

Not that the results are all bad. Our hesitation to judge certainly makes us nicer and more accepting of a much wider range of behavior (our own and that of others) than was once common. On the other hand, our inability to stop judging despite our professions of non-judgmentalism makes us at times stupefyingly un-self-aware.

Those may be the inevitable trade-offs of our libertarian moment.

A final note: None of this should be taken to mean that I favor banning porn or making it illegal to work in the industry that produces it. In the end, I'm a libertarian, too.

But only in politics. Not in morals.

 
Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a consulting editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, a former contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.

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