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Pornography, ethics, and video games


In a recent and provocative essay, Christopher Bartel attempts to resolve the gamer’s dilemma. The dilemma, formulated by Morgan Luck, goes as follows: there is no principled distinction between virtual murder and virtual pedophilia. So, we’ll have to give up either our intuition that virtual murder is morally permissible—seemingly leaving us over-moralizing our gameplay—or our intuition that acts of virtual pedophilia are morally troubling—seemingly leaving us under-moralizing our game play. Bartel’s attempted resolution relies on establishing the following three theses: (1) virtual pedophilia is child pornography, (2) the consumption of child pornography is morally wrong, and (3) virtual murder is not murder. Relying on Michael Rea’s definition of pornography, I argue that we should reject thesis one, but since Bartel’s moral argument in thesis two does not actually rely thesis one that his resolution is not thereby undermined. Still, even if we grant that there are adequate resources internal to Bartel’s account to technically resolve the gamer’s dilemma his reasoning is still unsatisfying. This is so because Bartel follows Neil Levy in arguing that virtual pedophilia is wrong because it harms women. While I grant Levy’s account, I argue that this is the wrong kind of reason to resolve the gamer’s dilemma because it is indirect. What we want is to know what is wrong with virtual child pornography itself. Finally, I suggest alternate moral resources for resolving the gamer’s dilemma that are direct in a way that Bartel’s resources are not.

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  1. 1.

    Maplethorpe produced many self-portraits. The one I have in mind here is the infamous image of him taken from behind with a bull whip inserted in his anus.

  2. 2.

    The motivation for condition three is to rule out pornographic images that lovers send to one another. These images, Rea thinks, are pornographic but not strictly speaking pornography.

  3. 3.

    Obviously desire and enjoyment are not the same thing. However, given that Bartel has invoked Rea’s account here, I take the liberty of treating his account as Rea-friendly.

  4. 4.

    I don’t mean to suggest here that either type of gamer escapes moral criticism. My only claim here is that such gamers do not put the game to pornographic use.

  5. 5.

    Still, the thought that such imagery harms children indirectly does have some support in public policy. In the United States, for example, the PROTECT Act of 2003 makes such virtual imagery illegal, and those charged with defending this aspect of the protect act have appealed to the harm that such images bring to actual children.

  6. 6.

    A comprehensive study on child sexual assault in the United States conducted by the Department of Justice found that 285,400 children ages 17 and younger experienced a sexual assault in 1999, which amounts to about 4.1 children in 1,000. Of those victims, 89 % were female and 95 % of the perpetrators were male, see Accessed 25 September 2012. Further, a recent study on sexual assault, again in the United States, found that an estimated 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime, see The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (2011): Accessed 25 September 2012.

  7. 7.

    For a helpful discussion of the distinction between erotic imagery and pornographic imagery, see Jerrold Levinson’s ‘Erotic Art and Pornographic Pictures’ in Philosophy and Literature. 29 (1), 228–240.

  8. 8.

    While in the United States, there is likely too much intolerance for child nudity, what is likely to survive cross-cultural scrutiny is a general intolerance for the sexualizing of children. Where we will are likely to have cross-cultural difference is in what kinds of activities count as sexualizing.

  9. 9.

    It is worth pointing out that in a 2006 discussion paper entitled “Corporate Paedophilia: Sexualisation of Children in Australia,” Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze argue that in Australia there is growing evidence of the sexualization of children in the media, particularly in advertising that is aimed at children. They conclude that “children face a range of risks associated with their sexualisation. These include: an increase in eating disorders at younger ages; increasing body dissatisfaction; more extreme attention-getting sexual behaviours; first sexual intercourse at younger ages; promotion of paedophilia; the undermining of other aspects of their overall development; and the absorption of ethical values that undermine healthy relationships” (p. 47). It seems then that we may be experiencing a shift in our cultural tolerance for the sexualization of children, one that raises concerns about the effect that such a shift will have on children. I do not doubt that children who consume such images are likely harmed in the ways that Rush and La Nauze identify, even though they recognize that we lack the necessary empirical data to adequately support their worries. Still, I’m not convinced that this study can be used to support a Levy-style argument in relation to the kind of sexualized representations that are the subject of this inquiry. Consider, for example, that the primary subject of such sexualization is, unsurprisingly, girls. Also, the case that Rush and La Nauze make is one wherein which children are harmed because they are exposed to images that they consume. However, the case that we consider here is one in which adults play a game whose characters are representations of children, not one where children are playing such a game. I have no doubt that we have strong reasons, of the type cited by Rush and La Nauze, for keeping children away from such games. But, in order for this data to support a Levy type argument, it would have to be the case that such imagery plays a part in the willingness of adults to oppress children, and I am not convinced that we are there yet. I thank an anonymous reviewer for pointing to me to this very interesting, and disheartening study.

  10. 10.

    Here think of advertisements for American Apparel, just about any Maxim Magazine cover, Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue, Sun Magazine’s page three girls, and Victoria’s Secret Catalog, just to name a few. Readers are invited to think of cases internal to their own culture.

  11. 11.

    Interestingly, the ethics of video games literature shares this feature with debates over the moral and legal status of pornography. Eaton (2007) calls the thought that any moral criticism of such imagery must rely on making the case that such imagery harms actual people “the harm hypothesis.”


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Correspondence to Stephanie L. Patridge.

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Patridge, S.L. Pornography, ethics, and video games. Ethics Inf Technol 15, 25–34 (2013).

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  • Pornography
  • Video games
  • Ethics
  • Gamer’s dilemma