The sensational news highlights the moral issue of prostitution. It is because the “criminals” have a high social status that this incident got special attention. If the working class commits the crime, the society wouldn’t give a damn about it. The fact is, prostitution is forbidden in law but condoned in real world. This article aims to explore prostitution from the perspective of morality, clarifying its “should” and “should not” by the libertarian and Kantian philosophy respectively. The line of argument is borrowed from Michael Sandel’s two books, Justice and What Money Can’t Buy.
According to libertarians, justice is connected to freedom. People are free to choose for themselves the value of the things exchanged. Thus the ideal of an unfettered market is produced, wherein goods and services are freely sold and bought by consenting individuals. Libertarian philosophy emphasizes the autonomy of self. They object to interferences from the government, moral legislation being one of them, which includes the ban on prostitution or homosexual marriage. Their central argument is that since I own myself, I can do whatever I like with my body, like being a prostitute, selling my body and even killing myself. I am the master of myself; I do nothing wrong, as long as my act doesn’t hurt others, and I can even benefit others by gratifying their sexual desire or saving their life! This logic sounds solid enough: two consenting individuals carry out their contract, each reaping what they need. This free market logic validates prostitution on the ground of mutual benefit. The headline news fits this argument in the sense that both parties consent to the sexual deal without hurting anyone else. Both get what they want---the actress, a big fortune; the bureaucrat, sexual gratification. There is also no problem of fairness in this deal. Both made this choice voluntarily. There was no coercion involved here, as in the case of cheap prostitution when one disadvantaged side desperately needs money to support her family. Since neither the actress nor the bureaucrat is the “disadvantaged” side desperately needing money to sustain life, the “fairness objection” to prostitution doesn’t apply here. The actress is more like the “upscale prostitute” who likes the work and freely chooses it (What Money Can’t Buy 112). So, we may say that the free market logic excludes the possibility of moral censure in this case.
Contrary to the libertarian conception of autonomy as “I do what I like,” Immanuel Kant regards autonomy as acting according to a law produced by pure reasoning, not according to the dictates of nature or social convention (Justice 109). True autonomy lies in doing what is right for right’s sake, not in doing whatever I like. And the right thing is determined by pure reasoning. Prostitution is an act yielding to the dictates of nature---sexual desire. Therefore, it is not autonomy as defined by Kant, because the desire is not chosen by pure reasoning; it rushes within my body beyond my control, the so-called “dictates of nature.” Then, what is it the right thing determined by reason? Here is Kant’s argument: “human beings are not entitled to offer themselves, for profit, as things for the use of others in the satisfaction of their sexual propensities “(Justice 131). Kant considers prostitution immoral because it degrades humanity by using the female body as a means to the ends---sexual gratification. The act reduces human beings to objects; there is no soul left but the sexual organs sold and bought. So, in Kant’s view, an ideal sex should involve the union of soul and body, which can uplift humanity. In other words, only when sexuality leads to the union of body and soul can human dignity be kept (Justice 131-2). In What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel reiterates this point by eliciting the “corruption” opposition to prostitution. This argument views prostitution as a “form of corruption that demeans women and promotes bad attitudes toward sex” (112). The “bad attitude” means the violation of the norms that should govern sex. That is, market values corrupt the meaning of sex in human life. When sex becomes a commodity ready to be sold and bought, it deprives true intimacy between two persons, both physically and spiritually. Furthermore, prostitution erodes the value of marriage, in which love plays a central role with sex serving to unite two people in body and soul.
Now back again to our headline news. This case also highlights greed and lust, two of the deadly sins condemned in public minds yet not punished substantially by law. As another actress remarked in the interview, although Miss Chang’s way of earning money is “shameless,”such a deed, however, is widely acknowledged and practiced in the entertainment circle. What’s wrong with that? For one thing, celebrities bear the social role of inspiring the good and beautiful. Their high income means they function well in the society, so the society grants them big profits for their contribution. The high-status bureaucrat is expected to serve his country and people; the beautiful actress is expected to shoot films to entertain the public. Celebrities’ higher income implies their better contributions to a society than ordinary citizens. Therefore, society grants them more rewards. But contrary to the social expectation, the “criminals” seem to squander these rewards in gross pleasure. The unjust distribution of wealth and power in Mainland China is looming larger and larger.
In the libertarian perspective, this act is not immoral because they are engaged in a contract, in which the willing partners get what they need. In Kant’s view, the sexual deal is immoral because the selling and buying of bodies degrades humanity. If the purpose of a civil society is to give people a good life, then, prostitution is definitely the wrong thing to do. But in most cases, the wrong thing happens to be the source of temporary happiness. And people tend to seek happiness without regard of its duration or consequences. To indulge in momentary sexual gratification is not true happiness, for it brings forth more desires, strivings and even sickness. To sleep with a powerful man may bring glittering gold; to sleep with a beautiful woman may bring intoxicating excitement. But the consequence is the same---both parties will have more and more. Greed and lust, implicitly endorsed by free market logic, will always crowd out the possibility of a good life.
Sandel, Michael J. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2009.
---. What Money Can’t Buy. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2012.