September 26, 2022

Examining the last taboo

A Norwegian ethicist defends certain aspects of paedophilia, so long as it is not harmful.

It’s hard to think of an activity with stronger moral taboos than paedophilia. Seeking sexual intimacy with children is popularly regarded as one of, if not the worst, possible crime. Other sexual activities, even bondage or bestiality, might even provoke ribald humour, but paedophilia is feared and loathed.

But a Norwegian bioethicist has just published a call to examine the ethics of paedophilia more coolly and rationally. “Pedophilia is bad only because, and only to the extent that, it causes harm to children, and that pedophilia itself, as well as pedophilic expressions and practices that do not cause harm to children, are morally all right,” contends  Ole Martin Moen in the latest issue of the Nordic Journal of Applied Ethics.

Let’s be clear about what his aims are. Dr Moen, who teaches at the University of Oslo, has not written a manifesto for paedophilia. But he does believe that society treats paedophiles with revulsion because of certain confusions and contractions which he endeavours to clarify.

Are paedophilic feelings wrong? No, he says. “Pedophiles do not choose their preferences, and that though their preferences might well be both unfortunate and pathological, the mere fact of having such preferences is neither moral nor immoral.”

Why is adult-child sex wrong? For two reasons, says Moen. First, because there is a high risk that it could be psychologically harmful. Second, because children are not capable of consenting to something that might harm them.

Can we blame paedophiles who act upon their impulses? Yes, but their guilt might be mitigated by ignorance or “moral bad luck”. “Pedophiles are unlucky to be pedophiles, and we should concede that for many of them, it must be very difficult to go through life without ever seeking sexual contact with a child. Why, we might ask, should we expect it to be easier for pedophiles to abstain completely from adult-child sex than it is for others to abstain completely from adult-adult sex?”

But what about paedophilic activity which does no harm to a child? Would there be anything wrong with that? Probably not, if we accept Moen’s analysis, but sexual activity with real children is far too risky. However, paedophilic pornography harms no one, so there is nothing wrong with it. In fact, “Granted our current knowledge, it therefore seems that texts and computer-generated graphics with pedophilic content may result in less adult-child sex.”

So, he concludes, “the enjoyment of fictional stories and computer-generated graphics with pedophilic content is, in and of itself, morally acceptable … The production, distribution, and enjoyment of texts and computer-generated graphics with pedophilic content should almost certainly be made legal.”

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