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Phoenix Philosophy Meetup Group Message Board Socrates Cafe Philosophy Discussion in Tempe Discussion Forum › Socrates Cafe Summary: What is Obscene?

Socrates Cafe Summary: What is Obscene?

David W.
Tempe, AZ
Fellow Philosophers -

My thanks to everyone who participated in Wednesday evening's meeting. Below is a summary of the discussion. It's not a precise narrative but rather an organized description from my notes and impressions.

1. QUESTION: At the start of the meeting, each participant offered an initial answer to the question: "What is Obscene?" The answers from the 18 participants were divided between three ethical approaches: harming the common good (10), violation of rights (5), and offending virtuous ideals (3).

Of those who defined obscenity as harming the common good, all recognized that the common good differed for each common/community, which made it impossible to define obscenity universally for all places and times. One participant commented that if the woman he had recently seen in full burqa at the Tempe Marketplace had removed her head covering in public, it wouldn't have been obscene to him though it would have been obscene to those from her culture.

Of those who defined obscenity as a violation of rights, nothing was obscene as long as it was done consensually. Consent for one participant included the right not to be involuntarily exposed to graphic pornography while in public. For another, witnessing the involuntary victimization of another, as in a "snuff film" where an actor is actually murdered for entertainment, would cause him to shiver in disgust.

Finally, of those who defined obscenity as offending virtuous ideals, all recognized that what was obscene to their personal ideals would not be obscene to those with different ideals. Included in this category was one participant who defined obscenity as that which obstructs Eudaimonia: the pleasurable flourishing of potential experienced in the pursuit of moral excellence.

2. DEFINITIONS: Given that the question itself was to define the term "Obscene", we skipped this stage. However, so that participants had a generally understanding of the term for purposes of discussion, the moderator read at the start of the meeting the following definition of Obscene from the American Heritage Dictionary at "Behavior, appearance, or expression (such as films and books) that violate accepted standards of sexual morality." Most participants in their initial answers chose to define obscenity beyond the sexual to include anything that was extremely offensive.

3. ASSUMPTIONS: Participants offered the following suggestions for why the question was being asked: a) Pornography is a big industry, driving technological innovation and creating American jobs, so how we defined obscenity would determine our economic prosperity. b) One purpose of Art is to provoke, defining obscenity determines what's considered Art. c) Community living requires balancing acceptance of standards with tolerance of differences, so defining obscenity determines how much individual freedom we give up in return for collective security. d) The children are our future, so defining obscenity determines what type of society they will create. e) Freedom of expression is a fundamental necessity for the fair operation of majority-rule democracy, so defining obscenity determines what public speech is allowed.

4. OBJECTIVES: The moderator asked participants to prioritize the ethical approaches in terms of which were most relevant for determining what is obscene. a) Utilitarian: While a cost beneficial approach is unavoidable in decision making, it's difficult to measure social costs against economic benefits. For example, are the economic benefits of porn worth the cost of sexualizing children? b) Fairness/Justice: The Golden Rule (would you want this done to you) did not seem appropriate to deciding obscenity unless everyone in a community already agreed on what was obscene. c) Common Good: For most participants, the objective of improving community was foremost in defining obscenity. However, given the diversity between communities, the Common Good approach could develop a local but not a universal definition of obscenity. d) Virtue: While it would be safe to say that all participants were personally motivated to choose the admirable and life-affirming, the Virtue approach could develop a personal but not a universal definition of obscenity. e) Rights: Asking whether something violates an entitlement was an approach to defining obscenity that was acceptable to all participants. The one entitlement to which everyone agreed upon was the right to not be involuntarily harmed.

5. OPTIONS: Given that the rights approach seemed most appropriate to defining what is obscene, the moderator asked the group to give examples of expressions that were not already crimes but should be because they were so offensive as to be considered harmful to adults. Options offered were a) Bestiality. b) Depictions of rape for entertainment. c) Glorification of torture. Snuff films were not included because their creation and distribution is already a crime.

6. COST BENEFIT: Despite the extreme offensiveness of the above examples, participants couldn't craft a definition of obscenity that made clear which expressions "taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value," which is protected speech as decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in it's 1973 ruling on obscenity in Miller v. California.

7. ANSWER: At the end of the meeting, participants were asked by the moderator to answer two questions: "What examples of non-criminal expressions do they personally consider so extremely offensive as to be harmfully obscene?" and "Would they then make those expressions a crime?" Most participants were able to give examples but none would choose to make them a crime. By reaching this conclusion, participants acknowledged the existence of obscenities but wouldn't prevent their consensual consumption by adults.

You can post your comments to this discussion on the Message Board under the topic "Socrates Cafe Summary: What is Obscene?" at http://philosophy.mee...­ You can also suggest a question for a future meeting by posting it on the message board under the topic "What Question Should We Discuss?"

The question for the next meeting on Wednesday, November 26th, will be "What is Redemptive?" You can read an event description below my signature and RSVP here http://philosophy.mee...­

Hope to see you there.


What is Redemptive? - November 26th
As we struggle through a financial crisis brought on by sub prime mortgages – home loans to less than prime borrowers – we see the consequences of failed redemption: the loss of precious homes because their mortgages can't be paid. These failures of financial redemption call to mind the concept of religious redemption: reclaiming your soul by paying off the guilt and sins upon it.

At the next Socrates Cafe, we will discuss the question, "What is Redemptive?" Even if you don't believe in a supernatural soul, do you lose precious self-esteem by failing to pay your debts? What are the debts that put self-esteem at risk? What can give you the power to pay off your debts and redeem yourself? To prepare for the meeting, read the Wikipedia entry on Guilt at http://en.wikipedia.o...­

Only 20 people can attend. RSVP now at http://philosophy.mee...­
Phoenix, AZ
Post #: 42
Which brings up this interesting case of "child pornography". Chistopher Handley was arrested for buying comic books from Japan that depicted minors engaging in sexual conduct. Comic books! No actual photos, just drawings. Should he spend 20 years in prison for buying cartoons? When does it go from art to a crime?
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