Recently I had a protracted dispute with two philosophers on Twitter over the moral status of prostitution. The conversation settled on this topic after an initial altercation concerning reality television but there's little doubt that the subject of prostitution is of much greater interest than reality television. Essentially my inter-locutors presented two alternative views of prostitution to the conception that it is morally wrong. On the one hand, the argument was ventured that dislike of prostitution is an aesthetic rather than a moral stance and, on the other, the argument was made that it is essentially not different to any other trade. The second of these arguments seems to me more worthy of consideration than the first, not least because it cuts to the core of the disagreement. The first argument can only really be responded to by showing that the reasons for objecting to prostitution are primarily moral rather than aesthetic ones. In this posting I want to list the reasons for considering prostitution morally objectionable at greater length than can be done in a set of tweets but should add that it is only as a moral question it is here being treated, not as a jurisprudential one though there are certainly important questions in the latter area. But there is here, as elsewhere, no simple move from moral to jurisprudential considerations. Finally, I should make clear that in presenting arguments concerning the wrongness of prostitution it is the trade as a whole that is being so considered, not simply, or even primarily, the acts of the prostitute alone. Acts of clients are just as much viewed here as wrong, perhaps, though I'll leave this open for the sake of the argument here, it is the clients who are engaging in acts that are much more wrong than the prostitutes themselves. Finally, gender matters are recognised in the discussion in the sense that the feminine article is preferred for the reference to the prostitute, not to deny that there are male prostitutes but they are rather less numerous.
As I brought out in a posting sometime ago Kant's arguments in the area of sexuality have a great deal in common with those of some contemporary feminists. This is particularly true with regard to his views of "objectification" and this matters here since one of the central arguments concerning prostitution is the view that what makes it "wrong" is that it involves objectification. In order to begin with an assessment of this claim it is first necessary to specify what the notion of "objectification" involves. In the Stanford Encyclopedia article on feminism and objectification a number of features are listed as involving objectification, seven from a study of Martha Nussbaum's and a further three from Rae Langton. They are:
1. A purely instrumental relation to the person is involved which treats the person in question as merely a "tool" for the other's use.
2. Denial of autonomy: a person who is objectified is treated in a way that denies their autonomy and self-determination.
3. The objectified person is treated as inert: meaning by this that their agency is denied.
4. They are viewed as fungible: that is, as inter-changeable with objects.
5. They are viewed as violable: meaning by this, that their person has no integral boundaries that cannot be crossed.
6. The person is treated as something that can be owned by another.
7. The person in question has no feelings that need be taken into account so we deny their subjectivity (correlate of viewing them as an object).
8. They are reduced to their body and identified only with their body.
9. They are reduced to their appearance so they are treated only in terms of how they look.
10. They are treated as if they had no capacity of speech (silenced).
Now it is clear from just looking at this list that not all of these characteristics apply to how the prostitute is related to and that some of them apply to wider relations than the one the prostitute is specially part of. This particularly applies to the last 3 characteristics listed (all taken from Rae Langton). Reduction to appearance, for example, applies to fashion models, film stars, body-builders, athletes and others. Reduction to body is a more subtle notion but surely the person of the athlete is, again, largely conflated with their body parts. Finally, silencing, whilst perhaps not applicable as a wide characteristic is not specific to prostitution and need not apply to it. So I think none of these three characteristics can be regarded as either necessary or sufficient ways of marking wrong-making aspects of prostitution.
Others that are listed apply to only certain types of prostitution. Denial of autonomy is often part of prostitution and is part of the reason why prostitution is thought to involve exploitation frequently. In such cases it likely features alongside inertness but it could be argued the presence of these features are contingent elements of prostitution that relate to it being a trade engaged in by poor people often without their real consent being part of the transaction. Given that this is so the wrong-making characteristics here are part of a general pattern of injustice that need not apply to the prostitute's trade in principle.
So the real challenge of showing the wrongness of prostitution occurs with regard to the view that it is only contingent elements of the relationship that mark it as possessing wrong-making characteristics but that ideally it need possess no such elements. This would be the case, for example, if the prostitute operates without being coerced or exploited in the above indicated ways. In such an ideal case, which can be said to happen with what are euphemistically termed "high-class" prostitutes, the characteristics that are contingent appear not to be present.
So which characteristics remain and how do they suffice to render prostitution a trade unlike others in being wrong in principle? Again, they cannot include "ownership" if what is meant by that is that the prostitute can, as a whole, be sold (slavery). This is ruled out in such an ideal case and, in any case is wrong for its own reasons which are not specific to prostitution and would apply just as much to other cases.
What we are left with from our original list are instrumentality, fungibility, violability and denial of subjectivity, four characteristics of "objectification" that can be said to be wrong-making characteristics that, whilst perhaps not only applicable to prostitution could be said to be essential to it and its wrongness. Let's look at these criteria a bit more closely. Denial of subjectivity might be thought not to be essential in the sense that the ideal case being considered has assumed consent on the prostitute's part to a relationship that is not inherently exploitative. However what we can see by removing the characteristics that make the prostitutive relation exploitative is that it is not these exploitative elements that are conclusive in making prostitution deny the subjectivity of the prostitute.
The reason I make this claim is that the denial of the feelings of the prostitute, during the time of the transaction, is part of the point of the contract. The prostitute does not, during the period the contract defines, have lea-way to determine that at this point their feelings count. Should their feelings count at any stage of the relationship, count, that is, in such a way that they could, of themselves, determine what can and cannot happen now, then the prostitute will only have engaged in a partial transaction and the client would have grounds, if this is to be regarded simply as trade, to claim that they had not been delivered the product offered. And on those grounds they could sue for compensation. So it doesn't seem to me that denial of the subjectivity of the prostitute, at least during the period covered by the contract, can be removed from the relationship in question, even should we be speaking of an ideal transaction.
It is possible that the presence of denial of subjectivity is taken not to be essential to prostitution to some though I would require arguments for how the contract in question could possibly incorporate recognition, during the transaction, of subjectivity without violating delivery of service. The next element would be violability which is likely to be controversial in the same kind of way as denial of subjectivity and in this case I can concede part of the critic's case. The boundary of the prostitute is leaky in the sense that very different kinds of access to their body can be incorporated into distinct contracts such that it is not obvious how the prostitute can defend any part of their body from being included in the transaction. However it is the case that the prostitute in question could set guide-lines here such that certain types of act would never be regarded by her or him as permissible. In this sense violability is not necessarily an absolute characteristic of prostitution but perhaps only a relative one. I remain unconvinced, however, that this concession matters much since I am unclear as to how violability applies to other trades.
However the key characteristics that make prostitution wrong do nonetheless appear to reside in the first and fourth levels of objectification, namely, in viewing the person only instrumentally and purely fungibly. The instrumental characteristic alters the sexual relationship so that it involves nothing that requires reference, during the time of the transaction, to purposes that are those of the prostitute herself. So, during the time specified by the contract, the prostitute is put at the disposal of the client. This instrumental relation might be thought, however, not to be distinctive to the trade of prostitution. It might be argued that such instrumental relation is part of trade in general. However, if we look at other trades I don't find that this is so. So, to take an arbitrary example, it is true that a builder has purposes set for them by their client in the sense that they don't get to build things simply by virtue of their own wish to do so. They respond instead to the directives of their clients. However, whilst this is true, the manner and way the contract can be executed has a number of ways of being interpreted. The prostitute has no such lee-way of interpretation. What this suggests is that instrumentality is here understood in a relatively narrow sense in the prostitute's case and it is this which distinguishes her case from those of others.
Fungibility is, however, almost certainly the most serious problem with prostitution. The prostitute is treated as inter-changeable with things (such as sexual toys or inanimate objects). She is treated as on a par with these things in a relationship that would otherwise be expected to be intimate. This characterisation is quite different from what occurs in other trades since, whilst labour can often be replaced by operation of things, it is nonetheless not true that such fungibility is usually part of an intimate relationship between individuals.
These characterisations emerge from general consideration of the prostitute's trade. However, the fungible aspect with which I concluded also move us someway towards Kant's comments on sexual matters indicating the ways in which sexuality brings in matters of specific concern. Sexual relations are characterised, as Kant puts it, as involving someone becoming an object of appetite for someone else. In this respect there is something specific about sexuality that invites objectified relations. Kant thinks there is only a contractual solution to this problem in the form of monogamous marriage but that involves matters of jurisprudence that I've deliberately prescinded from here.
The point about fungibility in Kant's view is that the sexual relationship involves merely treating the person as a thing that can be related to for the purposes of satisfaction of an appetite. This is what specifically and clearly occurs in the prostitute relationship and is the point of the reference to the absence of intimacy (which reinforces my suggestion that the denial of subjectivity is not a separable part of the prostitution relation). For Kant the key question is one of respect for humanity and what is meant by respect for humanity is respect for rational capacity to set one's ends.
The defenders of the prostitute contract as effectively being no different to other trades assert in response that the prostitute has adopted the rational choice of an end in choosing her trade. However the question is not whether the trade has been freely chosen, which we can grant in the ideal case, but whether such choice is a rational one. This is how Kant's universalisation test for the categorical imperative works by suggesting that there is a contradiction in a maxim that cannot be universalised and that this shows the wrongness of the activity in question. In relation to prostitution the question is best framed with regard to the notion of respect for humanity.
Respect for humanity is expressed in conduct that either preserves or enhances rational capacities. Does prostitution at least "preserve" such capacities? Not on the view I have suggested simply because it enshrines the contractual commitment of one of the parties to subordinate her rational capacities to the appetites of the other. Viewed in this way it cannot be universalised and is thus marked as wrong. So Kant's argument, as suggested above, focuses on instrumentality viewed in terms of fungibility.
Widening the points above out, many feminists whilst generally agreeing with the Kantian analysis add the point that social subordination is an essential part of the prostitute's relation and that this again is distinct from other trades. So the prostitute is subordinate to the client, not least because the work in question cannot be reciprocated. This is effectively a combination of the point about fungibility with one about denial of subjectivity as the point about subordination is really part of a complaint about the lack of intimacy in a relation where we have a right to expect such intimacy.
Perhaps, in conclusion, the argument concerning prostitution does demonstrate a general problem with moral arguments since it might be thought that there is something intuitive at work here that is not shared between disputants and that this generally affects moral disputes. I suspect something of this sort might be true but that nonetheless listing of considerations might lead to clarity of argument in a general sense and at least make clearer which characteristics are properly disputed as having serious wrong-making force.