Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The principle of luxury

The Sacred Slut writes on prostitution in Iraq. She has a good point: Why should prostitution specifically be more degrading than any form of labor coerced by necessity?
I don't think anyone should be forced to do anything they don't care to do, but life circumstances generally do require that we perform some form of labor to support ourselves and our families. Is it any more intrinsically evil or degrading to collect garbage, or do others' laundry or housekeeping, or to spend 50-60 hours per week in a grey cubicle doing mindless, repetitive mental work than it is to fuck a stranger?
While I agree in the very broadest of principles, I think her analysis is a little too shallow in this case.

I agree with the Sacred Slut: I object just as much to the coercion of physical necessity as I do to violent coercion (and I even have a plan for fixing it). But even in a relatively wealthy economy such as our own, the coercion of necessity is the reality, with considerable inertia. While I don't endorse cultural relativism as a universal principle, there are times when we have to make ethical decisions in the here and now, in a context that is manifestly suboptimal and non-ideal.

Prostitution is not universally (and therefore intrinsically) degrading or evil, but it is generally degrading, in the sense that most people do in fact consider it degrading. Similarly, we can might also intuitively consider serving coffee as not degrading, but having to do so in a bikini would be degrading.

We can reduce these intuitions to a consistent, fairly straightforward principle, The Principle of Luxury: If you would not do something in a pure luxury economy, where your physical necessities were given, it is degrading to do so from physical necessity. If you would do something in a luxury economy, it is still non-ideal to have to do so from necessity, but not degrading. Since a sufficient amount of luxury might persuade almost everyone to do almost anything, we might further refine this principle by comparing the amount of luxury one would require to do something vs. the actual compensation in a necessity economy: The difference is the degree of degradation and exploitation.

For example: I work as a computer programmer, manager and executive. Even if I didn't have to pay for rent and food, I would happily do the same work just for luxuries. Furthermore, I would do the same work for about the same amount of luxury I'm able to afford now, even after paying for rent and food. In this sense, I personally am not being degraded or exploited at all.

On the other hand, you'd have to pay me a hell of a lot of money—millions, really—to be a homosexual prostitute. If I had no other way to acquire necessities than to be a homosexual prostitute I would consider myself considerably degraded and exploited.

I don't think the above attitude toward being a homosexual prostitute stems from any sort of sex-negativity. I approve of people having all the responsible, consensual sex they want, with whomever they want, under whatever circumstances they want. One partner or many, men and/or women, missionary position or elaborate acrobatics, for money or for free; as far as I'm concerned it's none of my business.

But I personally don't enjoy homosexual sex. I'd rather work for a year as a computer programmer than have homosexual sex for an hour. Up the price to ten years, however, and I'd consider it. Therefore, if I had to have homosexual sex just to live, I'd consider myself at least ten years pay worth of exploited and degraded.

This principle seems both widely applicable and generally approvable (to anyone, I suppose, other than a die-hard chattel-slavery-approving Libertarian). It applies to both Iraqi prostitution as well as the somewhat less egregious attempted exploitation of coffee shop workers. It even applies in the opposite sense to truly consensual sex workers such as Renegade Evolution.

5 comments:

  1. From what I read, the prostitution in Iraq is about more than just money - many women are being forced at gunpoint to do it. That is more than just economic necessity pushing them toward a profession, that is rape.

    But taking a step back, for those who don't have a gun to their head, but instead do it out of pure economic need, you have a point, some jobs are more degrading than others. Though what degrades is, to a certain degree, a matter of taste, there are general trends. I would not want to be a homosexual prostitute either, though if given a choice between that and a job eating human excrement, I'd probably opt for the prostitution. (And yet strangely enough, there are people who actually get off on eating human excrement and pay to be able to do it - which I find disgusting, but I suppose it is all a matter of taste).

    I agree there would be plenty of programmers even in a luxury economy, but probably most of the actual projects that programmers today work on would find no takers. Several of the projects I worked on would go into that category - so in that sense, working on those projects was degrading.

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  2. From what I read, the prostitution in Iraq is about more than just money - many women are being forced at gunpoint to do it. That is more than just economic necessity pushing them toward a profession, that is rape.

    Rape is not prostitution-plus, it's a horse of an entirely different color.

    I agree there would be plenty of programmers even in a luxury economy, but probably most of the actual projects that programmers today work on would find no takers. Several of the projects I worked on would go into that category - so in that sense, working on those projects was degrading.

    I tend to disagree. The whole point of trading work is that you do what someone else wants in return for what you want. Just because I've worked on some projects I wouldn't do for purely my own sake doesn't mean that I wouldn't work on them to earn money to buy luxuries.

    I'm particularly stubborn, and I'm privileged to be in a position to be stubborn without risking starvation. I've never worked on a project that I found morally reprehensible or in which I felt degraded.

    You're a lawyer, no? so YMMV. ;)

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  3. I'd rather work for a year as a computer programmer than have homosexual sex for an hour. Up the price to ten years, however, and I'd consider it.

    "Would you go to bed with me for a thousand dollars" he asked.

    "I would think so" she replied

    "Would you go to bed with me for ten dollars"

    "I most certainly would not, what do you think I am?

    We've ascertained what you are, it's just the price we're negotiating.

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  4. Of course, H. I may be a whore, but I'm not a cheap whore. ;)

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  5. I like this idea; it's a good way to think about the problem.

    ReplyDelete

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