I’ve been meaning to opine on the piece by Damon Linker from a week or so ago on what he calls “moral libertarianism” – a non-judgmental attitude towards personal choices and pleasure generally, and towards sexual choices specifically.

Linker distinguishes this from a purely political libertarianism, which would hold that the state has no proper role in policing morals, but would not necessarily question the validity of private moral judgments. Our libertarian moment, Linker avers, goes beyond this, to a discomfort with such private judgments. But, he maintains, our non-judgmentalism is exercised in bad faith. None of us, he asserts, really believe in it in our heart of hearts:

This moral libertarianism even extends to pornography — not just watching it, but “acting” in it, too. That’s the subtext of discussions surrounding Miriam Weeks (stage name: Belle Knox), the Duke University undergraduate who has chosen to pay her way through college by performing in porn videos. At first she was subjected to harsh attacks on campus, but since her story went national, she’s become a breakout celebrity and folk hero to some libertarians and feminists who see her choice as an act of empowerment for women and sex workers.

There’s just one complication to this happy story: no one, or almost no one, actually believes it. People may say they see nothing wrong with or even admire Weeks’ decision to become a porn actress, but it isn’t unambiguously true. And our ease of self-deception on the matter tells us something important about the superficiality of the moral libertarianism sweeping the nation.

How do I know that nearly everyone who claims moral indifference or admiration for Weeks is engaging in self-deception? Because I conducted a little thought experiment. I urge you to try it. Ask yourself how you would feel if Weeks — porn star Belle Knox — was your daughter.

I submit that virtually every honest person — those with children of their own, as well as those who merely possess a functional moral imagination — will admit to being appalled at the thought.

Why would we be privately appalled? Linker dispenses with a couple of possibilities before moving on to what he thinks is the true reason:

Some will say that this is because sex work is “exploitative,” and it is. But so is working up to 100 hours a week as a junior analyst at Goldman Sachs. Most parents would probably be thrilled for their daughter to receive a job offer from a leading investment bank.

Others will detect a sexist double standard in the judgment — one based in gendered notions of feminine purity and fear of defilement. But I bet an awful lot of people would be equally appalled to learn that a son had gone to work in porn.

Why? Because at a level of thinking that we increasingly conceal from ourselves, we persist in making the same vertical moral distinctions that human beings have always made: high and low, noble and base, elevated and degraded. Of course precisely what is considered high/noble/elevated and what is thought of as low/base/degraded changes over time and varies across cultures. But what persists as a fundamental, ineradicable element of moral thinking is the act of placing some actions into the first category and others into the second.

And with a remarkable degree of unanimity, we supposedly non-judgmental, morally libertarian, 21st-century Americans judge having sex for pay and in the most public forum imaginable to be low, base, and degraded — and for that reason certainly not the kind of thing we want our children to be doing.

I think Linker is too quick to dismiss the double standard as a motivating factor here. Why does Linker say “not just watching it” – why does he assume that it is more less disreputable to consume porn than to create it? It is more less disreputable, unquestionably – but why? As I’ve argued before, whether you take a traditionalist moral perspective, or your concern is merely the question of exploitation and power dynamics, or even if all you care about is the humane nature of the connection between people, the viewer is arguably in a much more suspect position, morally, than the participant, just as a john is in a much more suspect position than a prostitute. If the act is morally wrong as such, he is the reason the act is happening; if the act is performed under exploitative conditions, he is the ultimate exploiter; and whether or not the act is performed with mutual respect and in a spirit of true freedom, his experience does not partake of that exchange: he is a solitary consumer, taking an experience, giving nothing of himself. But that’s precisely why we are more censorious toward the performer: because the consumer is presumed to be in the position of power. This should lead Linker to interrogate that “high/low, noble/base” distinction to make sure that he’s not really looking at a distinction between “powerful” and “weak.” (On a separate note, this assumption that the consumer is actually in a position of power itself deserves to be interrogated.)

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, meanwhile, questions Linker’s method of inquiry – “Linker knows that nearly everyone must feel appalled because… he thought about it and was appalled? That’s some pretty shaky logic.” She asserts that she would have no such qualms – but the core of her response returns to the policy realm that Linker wanted to distinguish from the moral. (Linker: “None of this should be taken to mean that I favor banning porn or making it illegal to work in the industry that produces it. In the end, I’m a libertarian, too. But only in politics. Not in morals.”) She retorts:

There’s nothing wrong with having certain expectations for your children—most parents want to see their kids live up to their fullest potential and achieve certain markers of normative success. All else being equal, I’d rather my own hypothetical daughter choose, say, engineering over becoming a Burger King cashier or a brothel worker, because the former seems to offer more security and room for advancement. But here’s the crux of the matter: Our best laid plans mean jack.

“It’s fine that you wouldn’t want your daughter having sex for money,” I told my friend yesterday, “but say she does anyway, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Would you want her to have to stand out on the street, get in cars with totally unvetted strangers, be arrested, get a criminal record? Or would you want her to be able to work in a safe environment? And go to the police if something bad happened? And not get thrown in jail?”

Decriminalizing prostitution is a means of harm reduction.

You could call this a “moral libertarian” version of Rawls’s veil of ignorance. We don’t know what our daughter might decide to do when she is of age. She might decide to have sex for money. Therefore, we should examine our political (and moral) attitudes with a view to who would be most harmed by them – and the person most harmed by a morally condemnatory attitude is the daughter who decides to have sex for money, and would be condemned for it.

As with Rawls’s own perspective, this makes perfect sense if you take the existing distribution is a given – in Rawls’s case, of wealth; in Nolan Brown’s, of life choices. If you don’t assume that – if you assume instead that redistribution of wealth will lead to less production of wealth overall, or that a permissive moral attitude will lead to an increase in objectively poorer life choices – then you can’t blithely say that the only thing that matters is harm reduction for those who make those choices. You have to weigh the costs on all sides of the equation. This much should be obvious.

But I still think Nolan Brown’s critique has teeth, because she’s drawing a distinction between the daughter as thought experiment and the daughter in reality.

Linker’s daughter-in-porn is a hypothetical. His attitude – he would be appalled – is rooted in the fact that his daughter is not involved in porn, and he hopes she never is. If a grown daughter of his actually were having sex for money, his attitude would unquestionably change.

How would it change? I’m going to assume that this (hypothetical) Linker would make a priority of his daughter’s well-being, so I can rule out reactions like killing his daughter for the sake of the family’s honor – or, for that matter, cutting off all contact with her for the sake of protecting the virtue of a (hypothetical) younger daughter. In other words, I’m going to assume that if his hypothetical became actual, Linker would actually take an approach something akin to what Nolan Brown hypothesizes. He would likely worry about his daughter being exploited – which might lead him to try to get her out of the business, or might lead him to fight to make sure the business is properly regulated, or any number of other reactions. But I strongly suspect that revulsion, which he previously felt, would no longer hold a place in his heart, not if he valued his relationship with his daughter. And that change, in turn, would change the baseline from which other people judged their own hypothetical daughters’ choices.

Don’t agree? Let me throw a slightly different hypothetical on the table: how would you feel if your daughter decided to become a professional screen actress – and suddenly got a big break to appear on a major, critically-acclaimed television show? I suspect most people would be very proud. But once upon a time, “actress” was a decidedly “base” profession – precisely because it was associated with prostitution. Well, we’re all beyond that identification today, aren’t we?

Okay: how would you feel if your daughter’s big break as a professional screen actress was her opportunity to appear fully nude in a sex scene on the popular cable television drama, ”Game of Thrones?”

I choose that particular show advisedly, because, on the one hand, it’s a very well-made and popular show, with a lot of impressive talent involved. You may consider it “base” but plainly a whole lot of people with a great deal of cultural power do not. But, on the other hand, “GOT” is infamous for its deployment of “sexposition” – using explicit sex to “spice up” what would otherwise be boring scenes transmitting information to the audience. In other words, one might question the “validity” of the nudity, whether it is truly integral to the artistic endeavor. In this hypothetical, assume your daughter is going to be in one of these scenes.

Do you have qualms now?

If you don’t, then I’d say all we’re doing is haggling over the price. You’re still bothered by the idea of her actually having sex on camera for money, but you have no problem with her performing fully nude and appearing to have sex on camera for money, for a largely prurient purpose. I have no doubt that, given a bit of time and cultural drift, you’d get over that remaining hangup about actual sex in due course.

If you do have qualms, then clearly you should recognize that your private judgments are not universal. There are just too many actresses competing for those kinds of parts, and too many of those actresses have fathers. You should be open to the possibility that our “morally libertarian” moment has already significantly changed what we actually feel to be base, and may change it further. And so you can’t just use your gut as a guide either to whether we’re all acting in bad faith, nor to what is “essentially” base or noble.

But now, to turn the screw one more turn the other way: how would you feel if HBO’s contract specified that your daughter, a young actress, had no right to refuse to do a scene such as described above? If, in other words, the price of admission to the game of “be a successful screen actress” is being willing to perform nude sex scenes. This is, as it happens, a reasonable approximation of the state of play these days – a young actress who refuses to work nude is essentially cutting herself out of entire categories of legitimate work (or so I am told by a number of young actresses who have had to make precisely that choice). My question to Elizabeth Nolan Brown would be: how serious does the question of “exploitation” sound now?

I don’t have the libertarian’s faith in the self-regulating capacity of the market. Decriminalization is sometimes an important harm-reduction strategy – but it isn’t the only one. It seems to me that, once money enters into the equation, and we consider the extreme difference in bargaining power between a young actress and a studio – to say nothing of a novice porn performer and the filmmakers in that industry – as well as the intense competitive pressures, it becomes problematic to lean really hard on “informed consent” as your only moral standard. And bear in mind, the film and television industry is a heavily unionized one.

Of course, as Linker points out, questions of exploitation are relevant to all industries – even high paying ones. The concern about sex work is that gut feeling Linker has that “sex is different.” I don’t think I’m dismissing that concern when I say that I agree with Nolan Brown that sex is also different for different people – different for someone who’s an exhibitionist from the way it is for someone who’s more body-conscious, different for someone who’s naturally promiscuous from the way it is for someone who naturally forms deep and exclusive attachments. Because these tendencies exist on a spectrum, and the opportunities that present themselves can push one in this or that direction in terms of what one is willing to consent to do.

And money is a particular kind of opportunity that presents a particular kind of pressure. It is entirely plausible to say that everyone should feel free to have whatever kind of weird and kinky or extreme experience they want, without fear of legal or even social sanction, and still to feel that bringing money into the picture raises real concerns, simply because consent to sex is more fraught and more fragile than consent to being a forklift operator.

We use the word “prostitute” not only literally, but also as a metaphor, and we are all faced with situations where we have to decide whether we will prostitute ourselves – that is to say, whether we will do something for money that, if money were not involved, we would not do not merely because we don’t wish to but because we don’t think it’s right – for us, or in general, or whatever. The doctor who bills for unnecessary tests or procedures, the writer who creates “advertorial” copy, the salesman pushing an inferior product – every single one of us, I venture, has put ourselves in a position where we have felt like a prostitute, in the metaphorical sense: that we have sold something – some portion of our integrity – that ought not be sold. And, if we had any integrity to begin with, we hate ourselves for doing it.

It would surprise me very much if there were no actual prostitutes, or porn performers, who felt similarly about their work. And it doesn’t strike me as weird to fear that, if your daughter entered into such a profession, she would be one of those who did so.

[UPDATE: typo fixed, but also the headline; it's bad enough that I'm addicted to often-obscure allusions, but inexcusable when I also mangle them.]