Pornography: Breaching Ethical Standards Essay


Pornography has been part of human existence for a long time. However, after the internet age, it has pilfered through many societies because virtual communication has made it accessible to a larger global audience. Therefore, more people have gained access to pornographic materials today, more than in the past. Indeed, a 2008 study revealed that more than 86% of adult males (aged between 18 and 26) used pornographic materials, at least at one point in their lives (Wagley, 2011).

Furthermore, about 20% of this sample population views pornographic materials daily (Wagley, 2011). About half of the men also view such materials weekly. Women were also included in the study because Wagley (2011) revealed that more than 30% of women, within the same age group, viewed pornographic materials. Despite the gender intrigues of these statistics, Wagley (2011) says the most shocking finding about pornography, in modern society, is its loss of “shock value.” Indeed, as he says, such statistics have lost their “surprise effect” through our passive acceptance of pornography. More surprising is the sheer number of young people who do not see a moral problem with pornography. However, this view is not universal.

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Many people have varied views about pornography. For example, some people see it as a harmless form of art, while others see it as an expression of people’s free will (King, 2008). The latter group argues that pornography appeals to democratic ideals because it expresses the people’s resolve to do what they want (King, 2008).

However, critics of pornography hold a different view. For example, feminists say it is exploitative and derogatory to women (Kindersley, 2001). They also say that paying for sex will always be unethical (Kindersley, 2001). This paper explores different ethical theories and perspectives on this issue and argues that moral relativism explains the ethical debate surrounding pornography better than other ethical perspectives and theories do.

It supports this ethical perspective because our perceptions of morality always change. Therefore, it is difficult to approach this topic, objectively, without exploring the greater moral evolution that has characterized human societies. However, before delving into the details surrounding this argument, it is important to understand the ethical issues and breaches of pornography.

What are the Ethical Issues?

Pornography has many ethical dimensions. However, the loss of human dignity, sexual exploitation, free will, the definition of what is right or wrong, human consent, and human virtues are the most common ethical issues surrounding the craft (King, 2008). Although researchers have explored some of these issues in legal, religious, and political forums, subsequent sections of this study focus on the ethical arguments surrounding the debate.

Where are the Breaches of Ethical Behavior?

Critics of pornography say pornography contravenes different ethical standards (Kindersley, 2001). One common breach is involving underage people in pornography production. Indeed, although using consenting adults to produce pornographic materials may be acceptable, using children to do so may contravene ethical standards because children cannot give their free will to take part in such activities (King, 2008). Another breach of ethics occurs when pornography involves different sexual acts that may be distasteful to the public.

For example, having sex with animals, or same-sex sexual acts, may be distasteful to some people. Proponents of this ideology also highlight the payment for sex as another ethical breach in this regard because it allows some people to use other people as slaves for their sexual pleasure (Shaffer, 2010). They are also concerned that pornography breaches ethical standards by perpetuating negative stereotypes of female sexuality by objectifying women (Kindersley, 2001).

Therefore, people who say pornography harms the society by destabilizing family unions and social units believe that its production breaches ethical behaviors (Kindersley, 2001). The following section shows how ethical theories and perspectives explain these ethical breaches.

How Ethical Theories and Perspectives Analyze the Pornography Issue

Utilitarian View

The utilitarian view often emphasizes the need for achieving the “greater good” (Mosser, 2013). When applied in the context of this study, it suggests that human societies should evaluate the ethics of pornography by analyzing whether it brings happiness (or not) to the people that use its materials. If it does, then it is ethical.

If it does not, then it is unethical. To understand how this concept works, it is important to view this debate through the perspective of an artist. If an artist paints a naked woman, he perceives his work as a creative piece of art that could possibly advance his career, or impress a client. Logically, it would be wrong to deny such a person the right to produce such materials (beautiful things are impressive).

In fact, people who hold such views do not support the feminist arguments about pornography because they perceive pornographic materials as works of art (Mosser, 2013). Moreover, it would be unethical to prevent people who produce such creative works, if they do so to earn a living.

Based on this analysis, the utilitarian view changes our perspective of pornography because instead of concentrating on the merits, or demerits, of whether it degrades women, or not, it introduces a new perspective of evaluating it as an art. In this regard, Mosser (2013) says, “Utilitarian beliefs are that pornography would be morally correct if it was for the greater good in the greatest number of people, brought happiness to others, and was not evil” (p. 2).

Deontological View

Deontological ethics suggest the need to observe rules as a prerequisite for ethical actions. In other words, it perceives moral actions that follow rules as ethical, while those that do not follow rules as unethical (Mosser, 2013). When applied to the context of this study, Shaffer (2010) says deontological ethics proposes the protection of women from exploitation through pornography. This theory is of the view that pornography exploits women through exploitative power networks.

Its arguments also stem from the perception that pornography portrays women as sexual slaves and unequal to men (because pornography tends to objectify women more than it does men) (Kindersley, 2001). Human and civil rights issues also emerge in this analysis because women exploitation, through pornography, implies a contravention of civil rights (Kindersley, 2001). This line of thought also condemns pornography for its ability to trap people into cycles of dependency and obscene sexual behaviors. This way, people are bound to forget their morals and focus on activities that do not add value to their lives.

Therefore, the deontological view suggests that pornography is immoral because it objectifies people for the pleasure of others. Proponents of such views say that when people use pornography for their pleasure, they are degrading another person for this purpose (Kindersley, 2001). Mosser (2013) says the key to understanding the deontological view, in the context of this study, lies in comprehending people’s role in the analysis. Instead of perceiving people as a “means to an end,” the deontological view perceives people as an “end.”

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics is different from the deontological and utilitarian views because it encompasses almost all aspects of our lives by seeing every opportunity as a way of creating human virtues (Mower, 2013). Unlike other ethical approaches, virtue ethics does not explore the alternatives surrounding sexual behaviors, or explain how we should respond to sexual dilemmas.

Instead, it asks how people should act virtually within a long period (Oliphant, 2010). Therefore, virtue ethics does not dwell on the morality of people’s decisions, but the skills and habits that explain these decisions. This way, this ideology does not only influence what we desire, but also the issues that underlie such desires. In this regard, Mower (2013) says this ethical theory presumes there is a “right” and “wrong.” In its analysis, pornography is not (merely) a private decision, but a moral decision that affects the society.

Using the above analytical framework, virtue ethics perceives pornography through “virtuous eyes.” In other words, it strives to explore the virtues that should inform the craft (Oliphant, 2010). For example, since most forms of pornography involve a man and a woman, virtue ethics perceive such sexual acts, between both genders, within the realms of human sexual unions. In such relationships, men and women should show that they love and care for one another (virtues).

However, since pornography does not appeal to such virtues, virtue ethics considers the practice as unethical (Kindersley, 2001). However, if pornography involved treating people with dignity, the moral persuasion would be different because dignity is a virtue. Overall, Oliphant (2010) says, “This view implies tolerance towards others’ approaches to sexual ethics, while accepting that we are responsible for our character and the choices we make. Virtue Ethics also urges us to rediscover balance in human sexuality and in out sexual relationships” (p. 1).

Moral Relativism

The concept of relativism postulates that there is no objective definition of what is right or wrong. Instead, it suggests that morality depends on cultural or individual perceptions (Chapman, 2010). This ethical principle traces its roots to situational ethics, which suggests that people’s morals often evolve and our definitions/understanding of morality change as well (Kindersley, 2001).

A common example used to explain this fact is society’s perception of the slave trade. At one point, people accepted it as a morally correct practice, but as time went by, societal perceptions changed and most societies consider it an unethical practice today. The main advantage of ethical relativism is its ability to accommodate different cultural standards. Its main disadvantage is that it fails to provide direction regarding morally acceptable and unacceptable practices (Matt, 2008).

The lack of moral absolutes has significant implications to our understanding of pornography issues, as explained in this paper. Indeed, it broadens our understanding of these issues by making us more flexible to the ethical issues surrounding this debate. For example, it suggests that human societies cannot use one perspective of morality to “judge” human behavior (Matt, 2008). Therefore, there is a need to accommodate varying perspectives of sexual behaviors because human societies are different.

The need to accommodate varied views, surrounding the ethics of pornography, has emerged in different debates around the world. For example, New Zealand has had a debate regarding whether the government should allow women to ride their bicycles, topless, or not (to promote an erotica cultural festival). Most of the people who supported the cause (nudity) voiced two reasons. First, they said that since this is the 21st century, the government should allow people to do as they please (Matt, 2008).

Second, they said New Zealand is a liberal society and the society should allow the women to show nudity, if they wanted (Matt, 2008). If we unpack both reasons, we see that these people use “time” to justify their ideas of morality. By saying, “it is the 21st century,” they do not outline any other reason for accepting nudity except a lapse of time.

Concisely, in the past, the society could not tolerate such an occurrence, but since people’s attitudes have changed, they do not understand why the government does not allow women to ride their bicycles, topless. It is important to understand the implicit assumption behind this assertion. In other words, proponents of nudity say morality depends on what people accept (people’s attitudes) (Matt, 2008). Mainly, this argument suggests that the society should accept pornography and public nudity, based on whether societal attitudes would accept them, or not.

The above argument has resonated through many television shows that have interviewed prostitutes who say that they have no issue with pornography, but would not wish their children to engage in it (Matt, 2008). This assertion highlights double standards when applying moral values because it is difficult to understand why a mother would accept one thing, but deem it inappropriate for a child. Such arguments explain why we normally hear people who are engaged in the sex trade asking, “Who are you to judge?” Similarly, the same people also caution the society from “forcing” their moral standards on them (Matt, 2008).

Therefore, such assertions suggest that moral scruples only apply to people who hold similar views. These intrigues define the principle of ethical relativism because it postulates that right and wrong are not absolute (Matt, 2008). Instead, a combination of experiences, emotions, and social preferences define people’s perceptions about pornography.


Pornography is a controversial ethical issue because it presents different ethical dynamics that one ethical perspective or theory could not cover. For example, this paper shows that pornography highlights different ethical issues such as human dignity, sexual exploitation, free will, the definition of what is right or wrong, consent, and human virtues. The utilitarian and deontological views strive to discuss these issues, but differing societal perceptions regarding what is right or wrong limit their analyses.

Virtue ethics also exposes the same limitation because human society does not subscribe to one set of virtues. Therefore, the main commonality surrounding the ethical theories and perspectives highlighted in this paper is human diversity. The ethical relativism principle captures this issue because it respects people’s diversity when discussing the ethical issues of pornography. Based on this analysis, this paper argues that our perceptions of morality have always changed. Therefore, it is difficult to discuss the ethical issues surrounding pornography without exploring the greater moral evolution that has characterized human societies.


Chapman, R. (2010). Culture Wars: An Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices.

Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe. Kindersley, T. (2001). The degradation of the species: Tania Kindersley believes in freedom of expression and in an unfettered sexuality, but in this frank and disturbing investigation shows why hardcore pornography is repulsive, demeaning and dangerous. Spectator, 8(287), 12-22.

King, P. (2008). No Plaything: Ethical Issues Concerning Child-pornography. Ethical Theory & Moral Practice, 11(3), 327-345.

Matt, M. (2008). .

Mosser, K. (2013). Ethics and Social Responsibility. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.

Mower, D. (2013). Situationism and Confucian Virtue Ethics. Ethical Theory & Moral Practice, 16(1), 113-137.

Oliphant, J. (2010). OCR Religious Ethics for AS and A2. London, UK: Routledge.

Shaffer, R. (2010). Atheism ethics & pornography: The Humanist interview with Nina Hartley. The Humanist, 70(5), 24.

Wagley, R. (2011). .

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