Art, Censorship, and Morality

The Rantings of a Feminist Hedonist

The main point of Wendy McElroy's recent article, "Freedom of Art Is a Prerequisite of Morality," is in opposition to censorship of art.

Ayn Rand also opposed all censorship. In the first of her four articles opposing censorship, she wrote:

"Before proceeding to discuss that [censorship] decision, I want to state, for the record, my own view of what is called "hard-core" pornography. I regard it as unspeakably disgusting. I have not read any of the books or seen any of the current movies belonging to that category, and I do not intend ever to read or see them. The descriptions provided in legal cases, as well as the "modern" touches in "soft-core" productions, are sufficient grounds on which to form an opinion. The reason for my opinion is the opposite of the usual one: I do not regard sex as evil—I regard it as good, as one of the most important aspects of human life, too important to be made the subject of public anatomical display. But the issue here is not one's view of sex. The issue is freedom of speech and of the press—i.e., the right to hold any view and to express it.

"It is not very inspiring to fight for the freedom of the purveyors of pornography or their customers. But in the transition to statism, every infringement of human rights has begun with the suppression of a given right's least attractive practitioners. In this case, the disgusting nature of the offenders makes it a good test of one's loyalty to a principle." [The Ayn Rand Letter Vol. II, No. 23 August 13, 1973, "Censorship: Local And Express."]

H.L. Mencken made a similar observation:

"The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all."

The main difference between Mencken and Rand's opposition to censorship and McElroy's is that Rand and Mencken based their opposition to censorship on the principle of individual freedom while McElroy bases her opposition to censorship on some hedonistic subjectivist view of morality.

For Mencken and Rand, "The issue is freedom of speech and of the press—i.e., the right to hold any view and to express it," no matter how mistaken, immoral, evil, or offensive. Wendy McElroy argues that no art or literature is mistaken, immoral, evil, or offensive and that without it, morality itself is limited.

Wendy McElroy quotes Oscar Wilde to illustrate, "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all."

There are two very bad mistakes in Wendy's view. The first is more subtle, because it is true that no "thing" has any moral value in itself. The morality of anything is determined in how it is used by an individual. A gun for example, is amoral and can be used for either moral or immoral purposes. Literature and art, however have a unique attribute that is determined by the creator (writer or artist). Some works of literature and art are created with the specific purpose of promoting ideas and behavior which are immoral and detrimental to those influenced by them.

Though inanimate objects, including books and works of art, have no moral value in themselves, either positive or negative, some man-created things are impossible to use in any moral way. All munitions of war and instruments of torture are examples. Their only possible use is for destruction and death. What possible moral use could there be for sarin, mustard, or nerve gas. What possible moral use could there be for cluster bombs or ICBMs.

The point is that much literature and art has no possible moral use, and is destructive to an individual's rationality and moral integrity. While it is certainly not up to anyone to "ban" or "censor" such material, it is very wrong to suggest such material is innocuous. The idea that one can fill their consciousness with just anything without consequence is very dangerous.

Wendy McElroy admits, "Books influence people, and the influence may encourage behavior good or bad." Why would anyone choose to read literature that encourages behavior that is bad? From the moral point of view, the issue is not censorship, but individual choice. If any art or literature influences one to make choices that are self-destructive or inhibits them from being the best human being they can be, the only moral choice is to avoid such literature and art as the plague it is.

Wendy McElroy's view seems to be, since no art or literature ought to be censored, [and it shouldn't], no art or literature ought to be judged by anyone for what it actually is.

Wendy obviously has no idea what morality is. "Art, even bad or so-called offensive art, is a prerequisite of or precursor to morality," she says. "Morality requires a free flow of information about the possible alternatives, both good and bad, in order for an individual to choose," and, "Morality is a freely chosen code of beliefs and behavior."

Chosen how? On what basis does one choose which things to believe and value and which behavior is good and which is bad?

[Wendy does provide an answer but it is the worst possible answer, which I'll address below.]

The Human Mind

For all the world it sounds like Wendy suggest one just reads and looks at everything, indiscriminately, and then picks from it all what they decide is best, without a hint as to how one decides what is best. The assumption that one can read, look at, and consider, just anything, no matter what it is, is very dangerous.

Ayn Rand explained why:

"The loss of control over one's consciousness is the most terrifying of human experiences: a consciousness that doubts its own efficacy is in a monstrously intolerable state. Yet men abuse, subvert and starve their consciousness in a manner they would not dream of applying to their hair, toenails or stomachs. They know that these things have a specific identity and specific requirements, and, if one wishes to preserve them, one must comb one's hair, trim one's toenails and refrain from swallowing rat poison. But one's mind? Aw, it needs nothing and can swallow anything. Or so most people believe. And they go on believing it while they toss in agony on a psychologist's couch, screaming that their mind keeps them in a state of chronic terror for no reason whatever." [The Objectivist, April 1966, "Our Cultural Value-Deprivation."]

In spite of the rhetoric, the point is absolutely correct. Human beings have specific natures that determine what is good and bad for them, both physically and psychologically. Just as a human body needs nourishment and one must eat what is necessary to stay healthy, the human mind needs knowledge and one must learn all one possibly can about as many things as they can, because knowledge is all one has to think with or think about. Just as one must not consume poison or fill their stomachs with what cannot nourish the body, one must not fill their minds with nonsense, and ideas that are contradictory or untrue, and since one's capacity for knowledge is limited one must not fill their mind with that which has no real meaning or cognitive value.

Human beings have two characteristics which determine what care they must take in how they use their mind and consciousness.

Human beings are volitional beings, which means everything they do as human beings they must consciously choose to do. No one ever chooses to do anything they do not first think. One must have something in their conscious mind before they can choose to do it, whether that means only to think it, or to believe it, or to overtly act on it.

If all one ever hears, or sees, or reads is the cheap and sordid, the sensational and shallow, the popular entertainment that satisfies the general public than all they think and believe will be cheap, sordid, shallow and commonplace because that is all they will have in their minds.

Human beings are creatures of habit. One of the most important characteristics of the human mind is the ability to habituate (or automate) by practice and repetition many kinds of behavior both in thought and action. Without habituation, we could not learn to speak, read, walk, type, play a musical instrument, or drive a car. When learning how to do such things it is necessary to consciously attend to each step at the beginning, but habituation makes it possible for us to eventually perform such things automatically and with a minimum of attention, leaving our consciousness free to attend to new and more important things.

Our mental processes such as our thinking, imagining, remembering, and evaluating are also largely habituated. If one only fills their minds with, "information about the possible alternatives, both good and bad," without any criteria for determining which is good or bad (except their feelings), whatever thoughts are accompanied with pleasant feeling will become habituated, no matter how right or wrong those thoughts are. It is those habits of thought a rational moral principle would reject that without such principles a person will continuously entertain that convinces them some evil force lies behind their desires to do things that are self-destructive. It is in the field of thought that a rational moral code is most necessary.

But there is a much worse and fundamental mistake in this article.

Getting Things Backwards

Wendy McElroy says art, "is emotional information."

There is no such thing as, "emotional information." Ayn Rand got that right too:

"Emotions are not tools of cognition...one must differentiate between one's thoughts and one's emotions with full clarity and precision. One...has to know that which one does know, and distinguish it from that which one feels....to distinguish one's own considered judgment from one's feelings, wishes, hopes or fears." [For the New Intellectual, page 55]

"An emotion is an automatic response, an automatic effect of man's value premises. An effect, not a cause. There is no necessary clash, no dichotomy between man's reason and his emotions—provided he observes their proper relationship. A rational man knows—or makes it a point to discover—the source of his emotions, the basic premises from which they come; if his premises are wrong, he corrects them. He never acts on emotions for which he cannot account, the meaning of which he does not understand. In appraising a situation, he knows why he reacts as he does and whether he is right. He has no inner conflicts, his mind and his emotions are integrated, his consciousness is in perfect harmony. His emotions are not his enemies, they are his means of enjoying life. But they are not his guide; the guide is his mind. This relationship cannot be reversed, however. If a man takes his emotions as the cause and his mind as their passive effect, if he is guided by his emotions and uses his mind only to rationalize or justify them somehow—then he is acting immorally, he is condemning himself to misery, failure, defeat, and he will achieve nothing but destruction—his own and that of others." ["Playboy's interview with Ayn Rand," pamphlet, page 6.]

Being guided by emotion is exactly what Wendy McElroy advocates as the basis of morality. [The name for that view is subjectivism, a form or hedonism.] In other words, she completely reverses the roles of reason and emotion. Our feelings are determined by what we think and believe and how those thoughts and beliefs determine our emotional reaction to what we are conscious of. Wendy attempts to reverse that process making what one feels determine what is right and wrong.

But feelings cannot determine what is right and wrong. Only reason based on one's understanding of one's nature and the nature of the world they live in can determine what is right and wrong. It is always one's values and beliefs that determine what feelings they will have about anything, and it is one's values one uses to decide what they will see, hear, watch, think, and read that will be of true moral value to them.

This is the kind of sentimental pap subjectivism produces: "In the creation of alternatives, art plays a unique role, because the information it imparts is emotional and connects people to each other through dynamics such as empathy. If freedom of speech is the life of the mind, then freedom of art is the life of the heart."

It apparently makes one love pornography as well. It would be immoral to censor her work in any way but no moral individual would choose to infect their mind with it.