Banning Pornography

Closing down discothèque, pubs, localization of prostitution, massage parlors or even all night life before and during Ramadan is considered as government’s usual business. It aims to protect Muslim from any distraction so that they can fast well during the holy month. No one seems to protest or deny this policy due to the morality stand we defend. We tend to install our government as “moral watchdog” who knows best which moral principles should guide our daily lives.

Facing this 2010 Ramadhan, Tifatul Sembiring, former President of Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and now Ministry of Communication and Information, has told reporters last week that he is going to blocked all porn sites. Putting himself as mandated by pornography law, Tifatul assure that the policy will soon be realized before Ramadan (The Jakarta Post, July 23).

If there is any reaction to this paternalistic policy, it is very limited to those online comments or protests. Majority or lay people still see it as part of government’s duty to hinder and protects its citizens from any moral damages.

Let’s look at the reaction of The Jakarta Post’s readers (12 comments on July 28, 2010, 08:45 A.M). To those who agree with the policy, Mr. Tifatul has been seen as a representative of moral pole hold by the state, a very traditionalist and paternalistic approach to the problem of morality who view people as mentally incompetent persons. Ethical approach on pornography locates traditional view as dominated by some religious morality with paternalistic approach as its main character. This view says that pornography should be banned because it damages morality; and since morality is the very essence of religion itself, allowing pornography will rotten also religion. For them, “the consumption of pornography is bad for society. It undermines and destabilizes the moral fabric of a decent and stable society, by encouraging sexual promiscuity, deviant sexual practices and other attitudes and behavior that threaten traditional family and religious institutions.” They inspect pornography as “bad for those who consume it, corrupting their character and preventing them from leading a good and worthwhile life in accordance with family and religious values” (Caroline West, Pornography and Censorship, 2004).

However, this is not the whole story. We still find some “free thinkers” who comprehended well the issue and posted a very well thought of comments like the one of Abdullah and Richard from Jakarta or Noval from Melbourne (Readers Forum, The Jakarta Post, July 26, 2010). For them, since pornography is a moral issue, imposing one’s moral view as justified principles of morality is against individual rights.

Those comments on reader’s forum represented well the split in ethical debates regarding pornography. To the question should pornography be banned or censored, there is no single stand or single moral point of view. Utilitarian philosopher like John Stuart Mill will not agree with any kind of restriction because it against individual freedom. For Mill and his defenders, government has no right to intervene or ruled man’s deeds in private sphere. Here is the place for liberals or “free thinkers” who argue that “the only grounds that liberals typically regard as providing a legitimate reason for state restrictions on individual freedom is in order to prevent harm to others” (Caroline West, 2004).

It means that consume or accessing pornographic sites will not harm others if it is done privately. Both traditionalists and liberals see the importance of regulating the wide spread of pornographic materials. However, I disbelieve that moralistic approach as taken by the government will able to solve the problem. Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher once said that every rational being should lead his life according to moral principle he or she has formulated, which is universalizable (could be universalize so that every rational being could understand and abides it as his or her moral principle). Other nature of moral principle lay down by the moral agent is respect for the dignity of moral agent. In this context, any moral regulation coming from outside (heteronomous ethics) will degrade not only rational ability of human being but also his or her competences to chose and act responsibly.

Here the traditionalistic approach missed the point that moral agent are on their way to maturity due to their new experiences or advanced knowledge. What we need is not banning pornography but censor it. Only those adult materials that harm others that should be banned, which is designed to produce sexual arousal in viewers as its primary aim. The rest should be left to every moral agent (rational being) to decide it.

Would Mr. Tifatul concur with the idea? I am not that sure!

Jeremias Jena

Teaching ethics at Atma Jaya School of Medicine, Catholic University of Atma Jaya, Jakarta.


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