Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Moral Ills and Social Dysfunction

My fellow members of the Religious Right, who often like to argue for laws against things like pornography, prostitution or drug use based on the social consequences of these actions, might want to consider Glenn Reynolds' Tech Central Station column "Porn and Violence: Good for America's Children?"

When teen crime and pregnancy rates were going up, people looked at things that were going on -- including increased availability of porn and violent imagery -- and concluded that there might be something to that correlation. It turned out that there wasn't. Porn and Duke Nukem took over the land, and yet teenagers became more responsible and less violent.

Maybe the porn, and the videogames, provided catharsis, serving as substitutes for the real thing. Maybe. And maybe there's no connection at all. (Or maybe it's a different one -- research indicates that teenagers, though safer and healthier, are also fatter -- so perhaps the other improvements are the result of teens sitting around looking at porn and videogames until they're too out-of-shape and unattractive for the real thing…) Most likely, the lesson is that -- once again -- correlation isn't causation, despite policy entrepreneurs' efforts to claim otherwise.

But regardless, the fears of the doomsayers were proven wrong. People can continue to claim that psychological research suggests that videogames lead to violence and that porn leads to promiscuity, but in the real world the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. That's an argument against regulating videogames -- and it's an argument for taking other claims of impending social doom with a grain of salt.

Obviously, there is a large degree of facetiousness in the article but the general point is worth noting. If you have argued that behaviour X is wrong because it leads to consequence Y, and it is later shown not to lead to this consequence, people may rightly become suspicious of your claim that the behavior is wrong. Not necessarily, of course, because it might still be wrong for reasons you haven't mentioned. But the very fact that such reasons went unmentioned the first time naturally leads people to suspect a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario, especially if they are not inclined to support the agenda in the first place.

Of course, Reynolds makes the same mistake in the opposite direction by stating that this in an argument agaisnt regulation. It isn't. It is merely a rebuttal against one argument for regulation. And since, as he rightly points out, there may be other factors complicating the research, it may not even amount to that.

But in any case, his article highlights the dangers of tying moral arguments to secular outcomes. If we do not have the courage to admit that we think that legislation ought to be pleasing to God, quite apart from human sociological concerns, then we should either rethink our agenda or try to implement it in a way that does not involve legislation.

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