I thank Greg Forster for responding to my post on Public Discourse about hotels offering in-room, pay-per-view pornographic videos, and I am happy to continue the conversation. I have three main points.
First, Forster misstates my position in one important respect. With regard to the open letter from George and Yusuf asking hotel executives to cease selling pornographic videos, I never said that “this is probably a fight not worth picking,” as if I thought that George and Yusuf were in any way wrong to send the letter. What I said was that “I fear … that their request … will not produce the result they hope.” There’s a big difference between expressing doubts about the success of a project, which I did, and expressing doubts about the desirability of the project, which I did not. Some fights are worth having even if the chance of success is small. George and Yusuf’s project falls in this category.
Second, Forster is right that my information about the economics of in-room, pay-per-view pornographic videos is old. I was relying on a market study I saw sometime in the 1990s when I was still practicing law. I am not surprised, and should have realized, that the internet has overtaken pay-per-view as the preferred delivery system for pornographic videos, even for people in hotel rooms. I assume this is because people who want to watch pornographic videos can get a wider selection of videos and get them for free on the internet. If this is right, then the pay-per-view, in-room pornography business is doomed. I agree with Frank Beckwith, however, that it is a mistake to view this as a victory for morality. If hotels give up selling pornographic videos because they can’t make money doing so, and people are watching more pornography than ever in hotel rooms, though on the internet and not on pay-per-view, there has been no improvement from a moral point of view. This remains true even if Forster, or anyone else, declares a moral victory. If you want to have a real fight with the hotel industry, ask the hotels to install filtering software so that patrons can’t view pornography in their hotel rooms. I will leave the reader to speculate for himself on the fate of that request.
Third and most important, in the course of explaining why I thought George and Yusuf’s project would likely fail, I observed that a significant portion of the population wants to watch pornographic videos and, more importantly, a large majority of the population doesn’t object to their doing so. This means that, in a democratic and capitalist society, people will watch a lot of pornographic videos. In explaining that result, I observed, “The legal institutions of a democratic and capitalist society are not designed to give people what is good and prevent them from getting what is bad; they are designed to give people what they want and not give them what they don’t want.” This, Forster says, is dead wrong, because democracy and capitalism do a better job of cultivating the authentic human good in the polity and in the economy respectively than the available alternatives, and this, he says, is their only justification for existing. From my point of view, this is the most interesting point in Forster’s post.
Interesting, because in my view Forster is running together two different, but easily confused, things. In particular, he seems to be conflating (a) whether the institutions of democratic capitalism are designed to produce morally good results, with (b) whether the institutions of democratic capitalism tend to produce morally good results.
As to whether the institutions of democratic capitalism are designed to produce morally good results, I noted in the original post that these institutions produce moral results when the people or the market want what’s moral and immoral results when the people or the market want what’s immoral. This is because these institutions are procedures or systems to implement aggregated human desires; there is nothing built into these procedures or systems to filter the people’s desires so that morally good ones get implemented and morally bad ones don’t. That’s what I meant when I said that these institutions are designed to give people what they want, not what’s good for them. It would not be hard to modify the democratic system to change this. For instance, our constitution could provide that, before any law takes effect, it shall be reviewed by an unelected, self-perpetuating Council of Moral Philosophers, who would determine whether the law is moral, just and right, and if the council so determines, then the law would take effect, but not otherwise. Compare the Guardian Council under the Iranian constitution. Here would be a system that was designed to produce moral results. But no society with such a moral-review council could seriously be called democratic.
Now, with a caveat to which I shall come presently, I agree with Forster that the institutions of democratic capitalism tend to promote the authentic human good, at least in general and for the most part. But this is because, in general and for the most part, people have moral desires and not immoral ones. We disapprove, on moral grounds, of murder, rape, robbery, fraud, theft, racial discrimination, and so on, and so we have strong laws against these things. All this promotes the genuine human good. But we get these good results not simply because we have the legal institutions of democratic capitalism but because we have a people with moral desires that can be and are implemented through these institutions. When the people have a moral failing, such as our current tolerant attitude towards pornography, we get morally bad results.
Which brings me to the caveat I mentioned, which is that the institutions of democratic capitalism tend to promote the human good only when the desires of the people are by-and-large moral. If there were a people who, on balance, had morally bad desires, then the institutions of democratic capitalism would allow them to implement those desires, and the results would be very bad from a moral point of view. Imagine what democracy would mean in a society in which a large majority of the people approved of race slavery for a certain racial minority, human sacrifice in connection with the state religion, a radically circumscribed role for women in society, and fraud and robbery when perpetrated against outsiders. To say that such a society cannot exist is fatuous, because, for each of these delicts, there have been societies that approved of them. In a society like that, democracy and capitalism may well not promote the human good. A society like that might be better off, from a moral point of view, under the rule of an enlightened strongman.
Which returns me to my main point, which is that the institutions of democratic capitalism are designed to give the people what they want, not what’s good for them. If the people want what’s immoral, the institutions of democratic capitalism, far from correcting the people, will actually help them implement their immoral desires. In a democratic and capitalist society, there is a moral guardian, but it not an institution. It is the people themselves.