Does obscenity cause moral harm?

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


The classic justification for obscenity law is to prevent readers from being depraved and corrupted by sexually oriented publications. Moral harm is not an unfamiliar idea. It is what most parents have in mind when they censor what their children are allowed to see. Yet liberal critics of the doctrine have not understood it, and so have often missed the point of the laws they were criticizing. Texts shape our view of the world. Just as good literature invites us to perceive the world subtly and empathetically, it is possible - indeed, it is common - for novels, films, or television shows to view the world crudely and insensitively, and to spin out self-aggrandizing fantasies that invite self-centeredness and cruelty. Texts that do this can indeed cause moral harm. Discerning the moral content of texts is, however, too complex a task for the law to undertake. Some pornography is morally bad because it encourages the reader to regard other people as mere objects of sexual interest, whose feelings and desires do not matter. But this cannot be the basis for a workable legal test for obscenity, because it is too vague and its application too contestable to be a rule of law. Moral harm is not identical with, and only fortuitously overlaps with, what any legal test focuses on: the dissemination of particular types of images or subject matter. Obscenity law is thus an unsuitable solution to the problem it seeks to address, and should be abandoned.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1635-1679
Number of pages45
JournalColumbia Law Review
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jun 1 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law


Dive into the research topics of 'Does obscenity cause moral harm?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this