Beware Morality Porn

“Porn” stimulates strong sexual desire and satisfaction in ways detached from many of the contextual features that usually accompany such desire and satisfaction in real and praiseworthy sex. Critics complain that this detachment is often bad or unhealthy.

Metaphorical applications of this porn concept include food porn, gadget porn, shelter porn, and chart porn. “X porn” refers to stimuli that induce desires and/or satisfactions usually related to X, but detached in possibly unhealthy ways from context that ideally accompanies X. Food porn, for example, might entice you to eat foods with poor nutrition, or distract you from socializing while eating.

Of course how fair it is to call something “X porn” depends on how bad it is to desire X detached from some ideal context. For example, isn’t it ok to sometimes eat really tasty but unhealthy food, as long as you don’t do that too often? And what’s so wrong about loving cool-looking gadgets, even ones that aren’t very useful – everyone’s gotta have a hobby, right?  In fact, many use “X porn” terms not as criticism but to say they like a stimulation even though others may disapprove of its detachment.

But there’s one case where the “X porn” criticism seems to me especially solid: morality.  Let us call a stimuli “morality porn” if it gives people a strong desire to act morally, and a feeling of satisfaction of that desire, but without their actually acting morally. It seems an especially bad idea for people to feel moral, without actually acting moral.

For example, the Lord of the Rings movies are some of my favorites. They let viewers vicariously feel Frodo’s moral quandary – whether or not to sacrifice himself for the greater good – and then vicariously feel Frodo feeling good about himself for doing the right thing. Many war movies function similarly as morality porn.

But is this good? First it might be bad for people to feel good about their morality when they haven’t actually been moral – maybe this will make them feel like they’ve done enough when they’ve hardly done anything. Second, it is way too easy to imagine from the comfort of your seat that you would do the heroic thing in the situation on the screen, when in fact you would do no such thing.

Third, movie morality is often unhealthily detached from important moral context. For example, movies usually focus more on whether characters have the strength of will to do what is obviously right than on whether they have the wisdom to discern what is right. And movie characters rarely have to choose between the praise of associates and doing the right thing – key associates usually support doing the right thing.

I’m not saying all porn is bad, or even that any porn is bad. Or even that morality is good. But if I was going to worry about some sort of porn, I’d worry most about morality porn.

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  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    This time I’m not going to link to an old OB post. Instead, here’s Katja Grace on fictitious sentiments.

  • KSE

    Moral feelings are just the consequences of correspondences between certain features of the moral stimuli and certain features of our moral-perceptual receptors, or what we might call our moral psychology. To call a feeling “fictitious” or “pornographic” is to suggest there is something (morally?) wrong with the way inputs are mapping on to outputs. But why should we think there is anything wrong with that? We might as well say there is something “wrong” with the way taste-eliciting features of foods map onto taste receptors on the tongue. We have all kinds of feelings we can’t help but have, and given how sensitive we are to moral stimuli and how good Hollywood or the music industry are at producing moral super-stimuli we ought to go easy on ourselves for feeling the way we do initially.

    Moral sentiment and moral judgment are one thing, moral action is another entirely. Why shouldn’t the person watching Lord of the Rings, having judged Frodo’s actions favorably, be inspired to better himself? The act of opting for (unwarranted, in your view) self-congratulation is logically separable from the initial feeling of approbation.

    • blink

      I agree. Theoretically, the psychology could cut either way: self-congratulation crowding out real moral action or mental rehearsal that trains one to act morally. My priors lean toward rehearsal — I’ve read that myths/fiction help to create an self-image that makes certain moral choices easier or more difficult — but I could easily be persuaded by empirical evidence. Even with (sexual) porn, there has been some debate about whether the effect is to heighten or alleviate desires.

      Robin, do you have evidence to support your frame?

  • Constant

    Porn violates a strong and nearly universal norm against public nakedness. The porn star is publicly naked, having in effect an audience of strangers. In contrast, public displays of moral sentiment are encouraged.

    That porn is “unhealthy” may not be a significant part of why it is held in low regard. It may be more rationalization than reason. So maybe the real reason for the disapproval of porn does not extend to “morality porn”.

  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    What about greed porn?

  • candy

    I think religious ritual has a “pornographic” function in this way, too. It doesn’t make the world much of a better place because you listened to a sermon or sang a song, but you get to feel like a more worthwhile/respectable person because of it.

  • Cyan
  • Buck Farmer

    People who wash their hands are subsequently less generous in ultimatum games.

    Robin’s right that there’s an immediate short-term risk posed by morality porn. People (at least in the short-term) appear to have an accounting theory of morality where if they feel their “virtue quota” has been fulfilled they’re far more likely to indulge themselves. (You can also see this when supermarkets place healthy fruit and vegetables at the entrance, although I wonder if this isn’t also to activate primordial switches indicating a sense of “plenty” or “wealth”).

    There are other possible interpretations for this result, and the interpretation above reads a lot into the result, so take it skeptically.

    However, in the long-run morality porn may have a salutary effect by conditioning certain behaviors as socially-acceptable and socially-promoted while condemning others. Storytelling and play certainly can serve an instructive purpose. Confucius was on to something with the use of external ritual to cultivate internal virtue (the “fake it till you make it” school of human nature).

  • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

    What about “productivity porn”.

    Let us call a stimuli “productivity porn” if it gives people a strong desire to act as if they are productive, and a feeling of satisfaction of that desire, but without their actually being productive. It seems an especially bad idea for people to feel productive, without actually being productive.

    Some examples would be engaging in zero-sum transfers. No added value has been generated, it has only been transferred. An example would be engaging in theft. The thief has gained property, but the victim has lost property. There is no net gain, no production of property, there should be no productivity satisfaction.

    Health insurance companies are masters at this. They only act as middlemen between the payers of premiums and the providers of services. They don’t actually produce anything but they get their administrative costs and profit paid for out of the inefficiencies they create in the health care markets.

    Health insurance companies actually destroy value, not create it. Much of their administrative cost is spent on investigating clients so as to cancel policies on clients who might actually need medical care. Another administrative cost is making their regulations so Byzantine and complex that the barriers they create discourage health care use, health care that is needed, covered and already paid for by insurance premiums.

    Rent seeking behavior is another type of productivity porn. It provides the usual reward of productivity (money) but without actual productivity commensurate with the money that is received. Monopolistic and other market manipulations are productivity porn too.

    Just like the other types of porn, when people get addicted to productivity porn, they can’t go back to the real thing, they can’t even recognize that the real thing is actually more valuable than the porn they have become addicted to. The problem with productivity porn is that it interferes with actual productivity because it deals with the same substrate (money). Productivity porn is easy money, actual productivity is difficult. When the easy drives out the difficult, the difficult goes away. That is why the economy is stagnant. Productivity pornographic enterprises are taking out all the money so actual productive enterprises can’t be successful.

    It is hard for an actual productive business to compete with the productivity pornography of a Ponzi scheme.

  • JF Sullivan

    Interestingly Louis CK has a bit about this in his current show: where he thinks about trading his first class seat on a plane with a soldier and doesn’t… but he feels really good about himself. “I bet no one else in the first class cabin even thought to consider offering that soldier their seat!”

    This also is one reason why transgressive literature seeks to correct. It’s hard to feel moral about reading Celine or Bret Easton Ellis when you have to battle with the unsavory elements and immorality of the protagonists.

  • dave

    daedalus2u,

    For almost every good retail is greater then wholesale. The difference between retail and wholesale reflects the fact that the “middleman” has made the purchasing decision much easier for the buyer. I could drive 4 hours to some warehouse and then try to buy a new TV, or I could drive 20 min to Best Buy where I can see a vast # of TVs, talk to a salesmen about their different characteristics, easily purchase the product and return it if it malfunctions. All of that is value added by the middleman.

    In our society nearly all things have a low wholesale costs. Figuring out what to buy and where to buy it is the hard part. Information = value.

    Similarly, insurance administration is value added. Claims need to be administered for logistical reasons and because fraud is a big problem in insurance. Trained professionals must be employed to determine the price the insurance should cost, the reimbursement rates given to doctors, etc. All of this would still be true if we had universal healthcare, you would still have a # of “middleman” professionals employed at the Department of National Health Insurance doing all this admin work.

    One can complain that there are too many middlemen in a lot of industries because they are protected by government regulation or there are unique market failures in their industries. But to state that the act of being a middleman has no value is incredibly ignorant.

    • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

      dave, middle men can generate value, and in the retail/wholesale examples you give they do, but they can only do so in efficient markets. Retail selling of merchandise can be a pretty efficient market.

      In inefficient markets the middlemen can extract what ever value they want and starve the rest of the value-added chain. Health care is delivered to individual consumers, it is not generated “wholesale” and then distributed retail. Health care is generated on the retail level. Health insurance doesn’t add any value other than the value of aggregating the purchasing power of many consumers and then doing the actuarial accounting to figure out what the premiums should be.

      Health insurance is an inefficient market because no one knows what they need when they pay the premiums, the consumers of the service are not the ones paying for it, the trade-off between price and utility is completely obscure and can change by more than an order of magnitude depending on things which have nothing to do with health care, the provider or the patient.

      Health insurance is made less efficient by insurance companies “gaming” the system by kicking people out if they have health problems and need insurance. Those people still need health care. Their health care needs don’t disappear when they lose their health insurance, only their ability to obtain health care disappears. Health care providers are still obligated to provide health care, they just don’t get paid for it.

      Health insurance companies make the health care market less efficient because they spend administrative resources (at a cost which they pass on to subscribers) trying to move costs from them to someone else. Kicking a person off of a health insurance plan means someone else has to pay the cost of their care, it doesn’t make the cost any less.

      Insurance companies can negotiate prices for services that are below actual cost for providers. What happens when there are two hospitals serving an area and one is reachable by mass transit and the other is not? Where do the uninsured people who need health care go? Who pays for their care? Which hospital can afford to charge a lower price for insured health care? The one with little uninsured care, or the one forced to provide lots of uninsured care?

      I think that health insurance is a good example of productivity porn because it produces a lot of profit while not producing any value. Moving costs around in health care doesn’t produce any value, even if it does produce profit.

      Usually moving costs around produces a more efficient market (and does so in the wholesale and retail example you used) and so lowers total costs. That doesn’t happen in the health care market because the inefficiency is built into it and the moving around of cost doesn’t improve efficiency it makes it worse.

  • http://offbooze.blogspot.com offbooze

    I’m not sure the core argument has any validity–it may, of course. The assumption, pared down, seemes to be that we hold a definite reserve of positive moral intent, once depleted, we will be less likely to exercise it elsewhere. Yet it is our capacity to imagine–to induldge the porn of life without actually engaging in the act–that keeps us moral (or our capacity for morality) in the first place. Without the ability to try something out mentally, we don’t have a choice at all.

  • Acahti

    The reverse seems just as dangerous. Shows like Seinfeld, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and all reality shows. People get to feel good about themselves just because they get to say “I’m not as bad as those people.”

  • Dave

    Sexual porn is frankly and honestly a substitute for sexual activity with a real person. Other forms like food or gadget porn depend on secondary gains that are falsely, usually and not explicit.

    Food porn, as I read the link emphasizes the increase status, luxury and class of those who eat such food. The same goes for the contents of entire magazine rack at the store, while only honest sexual porn is kept behind the counter.
    I don’t see how this applies to morality in story books and movies. Movies are essentially entertainment and intentionally or unintentionally propaganda. I don’t see how a movie about the life of Christ will make you think you don’t need to be a good person. Just the opposite is true. If the movie intentionally depicts Christ as a phony it might have this affect.

    The Propaganda movies of the Hitler era didn’t substitute for persecuting the Jews, it justified it. On the other hand the Diary of Ann Frank didn’t make people say, ”OK we don’t have to worry about that.” In the sense movies simplify and limit moral ambiguities, what you say is true. (PS Who the hell is Goodwin anyway, Jesus?) I am Dave not dave.

  • guthrie

    First of all I think yours is an excellent description of ‘X porn’ and how it’s used in everyday language. In years past, the term ‘porn’ included a sense of illicitness, whereas enjoying an episode of ‘America’s Test Kitchen’ (‘foodie porn’), or Transformers 4 (‘explosion porn’) doesn’t have that same illicit sense. Thank you!

    That being said, I think there’s a misunderstanding here about the function of entertainment to begin with. To your first point, EVERY story has a ‘hero’. EVERY story makes a moral stand on something (or else it’s not really a story). So to pick at something like ‘moral porn’ (using the term ‘beware’) would be to indict all but the most obscure works of fiction, whatever medium. To try and avoid something like ‘moral porn’ (if that’s ones goal) would require almost no ingestion of most forms of entertainment. (Nevermind that ‘morality’ is an ambiguous and ephemeral concept to begin with, and much of what we consider ‘moral’ is subjective in nature, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment…)

    As to your second point, isn’t this simply a function of the imagination itself, and not truly specific to a certain moral sense? Can’t we (and don’t we) do the same thing watching the news or sports? Isn’t this called ‘Monday Morning Quarterbacking’? Of course we have no idea what we’d do in whichever situation we’re presented with in a fictional or voyeuristic sense. On the one hand we want to think we’d ‘do the right thing’, on the other hand we’re glad we don’t have to make those kinds of choices.

    To your third point, another function of entertainment is to provide a ‘release’ as we see (and allow ourselves to ‘experience’) the hero making choices we would never actually make, or don’t feel as if we could ever make, in our own lives. We go the theater to yell at the blonde girl in the horror film ‘DON’T GO IN THERE’, and what does she do? Likewise, of course Frodo sacrifices himself. So does Luke Skywalker. So does Jesus. But just because we as an audience are ‘rooting’ for the hero, that isn’t an indication of some sense of heightened ‘moral superiority’. It may just be that we want to see people do things that we would never dream of doing ourselves. In my opinion, the position of an audience member is far more tenuous (morally speaking) then you seem to be presenting here.

    Perhaps taking Arnold Kling’s advice and applying this idea to ‘theater, specifically political theater’, might be more appropriate and applicable?

  • Bo
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  • John

    To those commenters arguing that morality porn might be safe (or possibly beneficial) because it could teach viewers to do the right thing, no matter how hard: isn’t the issue here the fact that morality porn’s examples are so incredibly unrealistic? Morality porn makes morality about strength of will rather than wisdom. The enemy is pure evil–who has the courage to face him? Frodo doesn’t ever have to stop and consider an Orc’s point of view, and indiscriminate slaughter of Orcs is an obviously good thing. My fear is that morality porn teaches us that moral ambiguity is a lie, that we are always on the side of justice, and that the moral course is to have the strength of will to crush our enemies completely. Oh, and no one else on our team ever does anything evil.

    In real life, the “evil” side is just as convinced of their own rightness as you are. Encouraging both sides to fight for their beliefs is just a message of strength, with no actual moral content.

    • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

      Most morality porn is about encouraging self-sacrifice. It is about encouraging others to think that by sacrificing themselves they will achieve high status (but useless status because they are dead).

      This is the whole point of religions that promise an afterlife. Sacrifice yourself for the benefit of the leaders, and you will receive an infinite reward in Heaven.

      Morality porn is trying to get people to adopt the idea that self-sacrifice is equivalent to being moral. It isn’t. It is interesting that the political party that talks the most about morality is also the party that sent the US to war, killing thousands of US service men and women, but refuses to raise taxes. The “sacrifice” of the life of soldiers is good and acceptable, the “sacrifice” of higher taxes (still very low by historical standards) is bad and unacceptable.

      Of course to get people to be willing to sign up for a job where they might be sacrificed requires that they not have any better options. Shrink the economy enough and that is what will happen.

      • http://www.hopeanon.typepad.com Hopefully Anonymous

        It is about encouraging others to think that by sacrificing themselves they will achieve high status (but useless status because they are dead).

        Daedulus, I’ve been liking your writings but I think this is a dangerous simplification. A widespread norm to increase risk of sacrificing oneself in order to prevent a larger existential risk from existing within a community can make each individual community member safer than the absence of that norm. I think that’s an important caveat to your point although the whole topic deserve greater discussion.

      • http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/ daedalus2u

        HA, if that is how self-sacrifice was used, only to cope with existential risks I could agree with you, but self-sacrifice is not used to cope with existential risk. Self-sacrifice is (usually) used to enrich the leaders and increase their power and status and to massage their egos.

        Why exactly did the military to into Iraq? There were no WMD. Which company got a zillion no-bid contracts? Starts with H. Why were there no tax increases to pay for that war? Why was there such a delay in getting body armor to the troops that many of their families bought them with their own money.

        Why do the wealthy not subject themselves to circumstances where self-sacrifice might be necessary? When there was a draft, the wealthy could get out of it. During the Civil War, you could hire someone to take your place. In Vietnam, there were all sorts of student deferments you could use political connections, and people at the local draft board could be bribed and had great discretion in who got drafted and who didn’t. And then you could always go to Canada.

        Now there is a “volunteer” military, but how “voluntary” is it when there is 9% unemployment? How voluntary is it when there is a gigantic disparity in income and the risk premium isn’t very high. Why isn’t there any morality porn that encourages the wealthy to pay higher taxes?

        The whole idea of self-sacrifice derives from a strange zero-sum idea of sin and punishment. That anything “bad” has to be balanced by some amount of “punishment”. The self-sacrifice of Jesus was necessary to satisfy God that the “sins” of humans were balanced by the 3 days of torture on the Cross that Jesus endured. Why did God require the sacrifice of an innocent for God to be satisfied? Because that fit with the social order that those who made up the stories wanted. The leaders wanted to have followers that would be willing to sacrifice themselves for the leaders.

        In the other thread, Robin talks about the acceptability of deaths due to coal mine disasters. Those deaths are only acceptable to the mine owners, and the mine managers like at Massey that forced miners to work in unsafe conditions. Who willingly signs up to risk their lives to increase their employer’s profits?

        LOTR is fiction. Reality is not like that. Reality does not require sacrifices to appease gods. Those who control how much gets spent on safety decide how much sacrifice is necessary to appease them.

  • jtg

    Video games are achievement porn. You get the feeling and satisfaction of mastery and accomplishment without any actual accomplishment.

    Which is why men are much more drawn to video games. Our brains think we must be mastering some important tribal skill and our mastery will be held in esteem by the tribe.

    • oldoddjobs

      Maybe people will increasingly “achieve” through videogame or VR because of increased automation. Won’t there be less cognitively demanding or creative work for well-educated, ambitious people? I think I can see it already.

  • Drewfus

    “Porn” stimulates strong sexual desire and satisfaction in ways detached from many of the contextual features that usually accompany such desire and satisfaction in real and praiseworthy sex. Critics complain that this detachment is often bad or unhealthy.

    I’m not sure about that, Robin. Porn helps to regulate sexual desire, by enhancing the experience of masturbation. It does not add to the desire, it reduces it (generally speaking, a good thing). Why would anyone want to increase their sexual desire, when most people, especially single men, are sex starved?

    We know from evolutionary psych why this is the case – essentially due to the vulnerability of the human infant and the extended period of maturation – that women have metaphorically declared a “sex strike” on men, and so men, and perhaps to a lesser extent women, have invented masturbation to deal with this. It works, and porn makes it work better.

    Biological evolution does not have to justify itself to any moral standard, only a practical one – “if it works, use it”.

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  • Victor

    Add to the list “belonging porn”, or tribalism.

    Sport club rivalries, class warfare, nationalism, patriotism… it feeds on the ancestral need of belonging to a tribe of a few dozen foragers, when there really was a more defined “us” and “them”.

    Now it’s easy to triggger that emotion and manipulate it for fun and profit.

  • Evan

    @Robin

    And movie characters rarely have to choose between the praise of associates and doing the right thing – key associates usually support doing the right thing.

    Now this is interesting. My first thought when reading your description of morality porn was that superhero stories often fall into it by portraying a hero acting against an unambiguously evil enemy. But because of their secret identities, choosing between praise of associates and doing the right thing is a common theme. In Spider-Man 2 Peter has to make himself look like a coward who flees from danger to stop Doc Ock, and in classic Flash comics Barry Allen is seen as constantly late even though he’s the fastest man alive because he always gets distracted fighting evil. And the most heroic thing Bruce Wayne does in Batman Begins is act like a huge jerk in order to get everyone to leave his birthday party before the villains blow up his house. Maybe those stories aren’t morality porn after all.

    For example, movies usually focus more on whether characters have the strength of will to do what is obviously right than on whether they have the wisdom to discern what is right.

    For major policy decisions and stuff wisdom is a huge factor. But in people’s day to day lives, there are many problems they face where they know what the right thing to do is, but have trouble getting the willpower to do so (exercising, not cheating, not procrastinating, etc.). The writers could just be trying to give their audience a feeling of common identity, by showing that even heros have willpower problems.

    @Victor

    Add to the list “belonging porn”, or tribalism.

    You’re right, belonging porn might even be more harmful, since it often encourages opposing outgroups for no good reason.

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  • mel

    ok i can’t believe nobody else has pointed this out yet, so i guess i’m gonna have to be That Nerd. but um… Frodo didn’t actually do the right thing. he made it all the way to Mt. Doom but he never would’ve destroyed the ring if Gollum hadn’t bitten his finger off………………. just sayin’.

    • oldoddjobs

      Aww, he did his best

  • Josh Morrison

    Or even that morality is good?

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      Or even that morality is good?

      For an argument that it isn’t, see “The deeper solution to the mystery of moralism—Morality and free will are hazardous to your mental health” – http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/2012/10/normal-0-false-false-false-en-us-x-none.html

      • Josh Morrison

        If I read that piece right, it seems to exclude a plausible middle by saying the alternative to moral realism is moral nihilism. (And it’s also wrong to think that a belief in free will is necessary to a belief in morality). I don’t really see why the integrity theory in the piece is not itself a theory of morality.

        Just generally, I find the moral realism debate a bit misguided. Clearly there is such a social institution as morality. Descriptively, people feel bound by tenets within that category (even though those tenets vary). That morality’s not like math doesn’t make it false, just different.