Definitive of the Millian liberalism to which most of us purport to subscribe is the view that a) all is permitted save what is prohibited, and that b) a necessary, albeit insufficient, condition of some behavior being justifiably prohibited is that it be demonstrably harmful to others.
Not unlike any one of the Ten Commandments, the devil is in the details, and details are what the Decalogue assiduously avoids.
“Thou shalt not kill!”
“Well no. Obviously there has to be exceptions.”
Which are …?
“Well, that’s something you’re going to have to work out amongst yourselves.”
So we shouldn’t kill who and when we’ve decided amongst ourselves that we shouldn’t kill. Is that the divine advice for which Moses spent forty days and forty nights without the conform of his tent?!
God has said some pretty vacuous things, and so, apparently, has Mill. According to the Harm Principle, what counts as harm? Typically but not necessarily tissue damage, But what about symbolic harms, like the subordination of women through their representation in pornography? What about offense, like the words nigger and kike?
And what counts as demonstrability? Is it sufficient, as the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Butler, that notwithstanding the absence of a preponderance of evidence, the state need only have a reasonable apprehension of harm? And is an apprehension reasonable just in case it’s not unreasonable? If so, what is there that couldn’t be judged not unreasonable? Given that the words nigger and kike are known to be highly provocative, surely it’s not unreasonable to likewise worry that a human sneeze might be misunderstood as the ultimate insult when interpreted by the highly sensitive auditory apparatus of our brothers and sisters on Mars.
All right, let’s take a look at a more real world case in point. Let it be supposed, however fatuous or spurious the arguments for this may be, that
1) using a sleeping infant as a visual masturbatory aid is some kind of harm to that infant.
And let us further suppose, however unsupported this might be by any data, that
2) exposure to child pornography increases the likelihood that one will engage in that purportedly harmful behavior.
And, just to be jurisprudentially rigorous, let us also suppose that
3) the criminalization of such exposure is likely to reduce the incidence of such exposure, and that
4) any right one might have to such exposure is outweighed by the harm cited in (1) above.
It follows from (1) through (4) that the criminalization of exposure to child pornography satisfies Mill’s Harm Principle.
But now consider this. As is well known, there are fetishes, some of which we share, some we don’t share but understand, and some we couldn’t share because we don’t even understand them. As it happens I’m not a pedophile, but I understand it. I’m also not into ladies’ shoes and, to be honest, I don’t understand those who are. As it happens I’m an out-of-the-closet vanilla heterosexual. But I don’t condemn people who are sexually aroused by young children or ladies’ shoes, any more than I condemn people who are aroused by adults of the same sex or, like myself, adults of the opposite sex.
Not being a sexologist I neither know nor care whether our sexual orientation is something we’re born with or is socially constructed. For that matter – and again I have to be honest – of all the things I care least about, your sexual orientation, whatever it may be, is pretty much right at the top of the list. Unlike some people, I just don’t find sexual orientation all that interesting.
But what I do find interesting, and what I do care about, is jurisprudential reasoning, and more particularly what jurisprudential reasoning might be involved in parsing the following case:
Suppose that in the same way that some people are into ladies’ shoes, I’m into infants’ clothing. Pictures of naked infants leave me absolutely cold. Pictures of their clothing, with or without them in it … well, there are just no words to describe my excitement! Am I a pedophile? Absolutely not. In fact I don’t even understand it.
Now suppose I’m arrested for exposing myself to child pornography. Notwithstanding I don’t understand pedophilia, I acknowledge that it’s not unreasonable for a judge or a member of a jury to suppose that my fetish for infant clothing is just a variation on what must be my pedophilia. My question is: ought that association be regarded as defeasible in a court of law? And if it is, on whom falls the burden of proof? That is, is it an element of the charge – if so the onus would fall on the Crown – that my viewing of the clothing is a surrogate for the viewing of the infant? Of is the court entitled to assume that inference, and it falls on me to show that in my case that inference is unwarranted?
Have empirical tests been devised to reliably determine what’s arousing me? Apparently there have. Apparently sexual arousal is detectable. So why might the courts be disinclined to allow the results of these tests being placed into evidence? If my response is to the clothing but not the infant, then the harm argument cited above, be it sound or not, doesn’t come into play.
My suspicion is that the Crown would not want to assume the burden of establishing the connection between the fetish and pedophilia, either as a rule of thumb or in my particular case. One reason for this is that the Crown might not want to incur the cost of these tests. And few defendants have the resources to pay for these tests themselves. But in any case I don’t think the court would be inclined to allow the accused to show the disconnect even if on his own dime. And I suspect the reason for this has nothing to do with pedophilia. I suspect it has everything to do with not wanting to allow the precedent of allowing an empirical challenge to inferences upon which many of our criminal offenses hang.
Such as? Well, for one, the inference from either a) anti-Zionism or b) 9/11 Trutherism, or c) Holocuast-denial to d) anti-Semitism, then from d) anti-Semitism to e) so-called hate speech, and then from e) so-called hate speech to f) incitement.
What’s especially telling about these inferences is that a) anti-Zionism and b) 9/11 Trutherism and f) incitement are reasonably well defined. And e) hate speech could be defined as what it would not be unreasonable to worry could lead to f) incitement. But notwithstanding I’m a Jew, I haven’t the faintest idea what would count as either c) Holocaust-denial or d) anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, the inference from a) anti-Zionism or b) 9/11 Trutherism or c) Holocaust-denial to f) incitement is at least as incorrigible as the inference from my infant clothing fetish to my pedophilia.
Here’s a third example. As you’re reading this you’ve inferred that I think the incorrigibility of these inferences is unjust. But did I say anything of the sort? No I did not. And yet critique is almost invariably interpreted as opposition.
Well yes, I am arguing against that inference.
My own positive view, for what little it’s worth, is that these unsound incorrigible inferences are not intended to be subject to such analysis, any more than the concepts of race or God or any number of concepts are intended to be subject to analysis. They’re moves in what Wittgenstein called language games, which are in turn constituents of what he (didn’t but could have) called political discourses, which in turn are constituents of what he called our forms of life.
Some people think they can change a form of life not to their liking by ‘correcting’ some erstwhile incorrigible inference. As a prime example of this, think of the current challenge to the binary of male and female. I wish these social justice warriors God’s speed. But I think there’s a much more direct way by which to protect our right to our fetishes, the practice of historical revision, or whatever.
Instead of challenging one of these inferences, just don’t give it uptake.
Since you really don’t understand the inference you don’t have to pretend you don’t. You need only pretend you don’t understand that others understand it. If this be doubted, think of how this works when you’re on vacation abroad,. You’ve rented a car, you’ve inadvertently cut someone off in traffic, and he’s berating you as he pulls up beside you at the next red light. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand Italian!” Watch his high dudgeon deflate like a spent erection.
Try it. It works every time. Nothing debilitates like the look of incomprehension.
But that’s not the only payoff. If I don’t understand your reasoning, it’s going to occur to you to wonder why. Perhaps not immediately, but eventually it’s going to dawn on you that maybe, just maybe, it’s because your reasoning is incomprehensible. So you’ll give it a check, only to discover that it really doesn’t make any sense. At which point you have only two options. Either you drop the inference and behave accordingly, or you deny that your judgments need to make sense, at least in the domain in question. Individuals can do that. Courts of law can’t. Or if they do, they cease to be what they were and become something else.
Courts of law deserve our respect. The something else deserves a bullet.