Thursday, February 18, 2010

Individualizing Victims of Delegated Abuse

Posted by Sherry Colb

In my column for this week, I discuss a woman (who goes by the pseudonym of "Amy") who was, as a child, a victim of child molestation.  The perpetrator, her uncle, filmed his abuse of her, and the results have been circulating among pedophiles for over a decade.  With an attorney's help, Amy has been seeking restitution from the people whom police have found  in possession of child pornography in which she appears.  Some courts have been quite receptive to her pleas, while others have not.  My column focuses on whether it is just to require people in possession of child pornography to pay compensation to the children or former-children who appear in that pornography.

In this post, I want to explore the relation between consumers of the products of abuse and the abuse itself.  I suspect that many pedophiles who purchase and watch child pornography do not consider themselves remotely as culpable as the people who abuse the children in the pornography (assuming they give much thought to culpability at all).  Several law professors, when asked about Amy's case, have concurred in this judgment and have suggested that it takes things a bit far to hold consumers personally responsible for victimizing the children molested to create the pornography.

As I discuss in greater depth in my column, it is somewhat odd to encounter this position (that consumers of child pornography are either innocent or unrelated to the sexual abuse of the children involved), given that possession of child pornography is a crime (and given the reasons that possession is a crime).  Nonetheless, the view that people are less culpable (or not culpable) when they delegate misconduct to someone else (through purchase and consumption) is quite common.

Most people, for example, view the infliction of unnecessary injury and death on animals to be unjust and culpable.  When they hear about what happens to animals on a farm or in a slaughterhouse (no matter how allegedly "humane" the farm or slaughterhouse), many people are outraged and horrified.  They find it disgusting that anyone could inflict such suffering on innocent creatures.  Yet they fail to see how their consumption of animal flesh and/or animal products is equally culpable.  They feel that someone else -- a slaughterhouse worker or a dairy farmer -- is the one who causes the screaming and bellowing, who cuts throats and ends the lives of babies, adolescent, and adult animals.  Once the consumers come into the picture, people imagine, the suffering and death of the creatures whose bodies and bodily secretions they eat and wear have already happened.

Consumers of child pornography (and their defenders) apparently believe the same thing.  Whoever sexually abused the child has perhaps done something wrong, but once the material exists,watching it is "after the fact" and cannot possibly be comparable to the production of the material.

People who wear the skin of killed animals and drink or eat the dairy and egg products that come from the slaughter of baby animals are often gentle and kind when they encounter a specific animal (even a calf or a chick).  If they see someone being cruel to an animal, moreover, some of these same people might well intervene and try to stop it.  This happens, in part, because people do not viscerally experience the very real connection between buying a dozen eggs and killing one-day-old baby chicks.  The individual animals who suffered and died have become invisible, in a way that they would not be if people could see them, alive, one-at-a-time.

The consumption of child pornography might seem distinct in that viewers actually do see the children being abused; that, in fact, is the entire point of the endeavor.  Yet, in an important sense, the children are also invisible to the perpetrator who watches child pornography.  They are sources of prurient pleasure, not living, breathing, and suffering innocents with likes, dislikes, joys, and fears.  They are simply instruments through which the viewer of child pornography becomes aroused rather than individuals with their own inherent value.

And the converse is true of animal consumption as well.  The animals whose flesh and bodily products people consume are not truly invisible either.  Milk containers typically have (highly deceptive) drawings of cows and calves grazing in the field, so people know that cows are forced to provide milk (and perhaps even know the horrors of how this is accomplished in the real world).  The meat section of a grocery store has corpses in it.  Dissociating the corpses from the live animals who they once were is no less an act of denial than it is in the case of a viewer of child pornography.  And as in the case of child pornography, the victim who is "consumed" has already been violated, but the consumption represents a clear expression of demand for more violation.

Most of us, of course, do not consume child pornography, while most of us do consume animal products.  What this means, for practical purposes, is that if you believe it is wrong to inflict unnecessary pain and death on animals (i.e., when the goal is to satisfy appetites than can be easily and more nutritiously satisfied without using animals), you are morally obligated not to consume animal products, just as you are morally obligated not to consume child pornography, if you believe that violating children is wrong.

Going vegan is not supererogatory (in the way that campaigning for tougher laws on child molestation might be).  It is simply refraining from harm, not participating in gratuitous violence against sentient beings, much like refraining from the purchase of child pornography.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thanks for this fascinating post, Sherry. You've drawn a very uncomfortable -- but undeniable -- connection that ought to make people re-think their attitudes. (Sadly, we know that most people are in total denial about these things and will simply mock even the suggestion that there is a connection between child pornography and animal exploitation.)

    To amplify your point about people's knowledge that the body parts and secretions they're eating come from actual animals, consider the advertisements a few years ago for a fast-food chain, showing cows parachuting into a football stadium carrying banners saying, "Eat mor chikin!" The "joke" is that the cows don't want to be eaten, so they're trying to get people to go after the chickens instead (by eating the new chicken sandwiches that the company is selling). Also, it seems like every "rib joint" has some kind of drawing of pigs (often smiling and wearing a chef's hat) at their entrances and on their menus.

    The idea that people don't really know what they're doing when they eat animal products does not, as you point out, withstand even the slightest scrutiny.

    10:44 AM

  3. The connection drawn between comsumers of pornography and consumers of animal products is throught provoking. As a non-vegan, my initial reaction was to dismiss it, but it has stuck with me and I intend to give it further, serious thought. Thank you.

    I am intrigued by the idea of restitution raised in your original article. Do you see this sort of abuse as part of a special class of crimes for which restitution of this nature is appropriate? Might it be more generally applicable? For instance, if someone steals my television and others knowingly recieve the stolen goods, should they owe restitution for their contribution to the crime (i.e. watchign my stolen television)?

  4. Greg makes two worthwhile points. On the first point, I am grateful to have given non-vegans food for thought regarding consumption of animal products. I am pleased that people are thinking about what I have said rather than doing what can sometimes be a natural reflex to dismiss uncomfortable challenges that call on us to change our behavior. Let me assure Greg and all other non-vegans, though, that it is very easy to be a vegan and not at all a sacrifice -- the food is delicious and satisfying and offers a great variety; I honestly do not miss anything from my omnivorous diet, and I am in much healthier condition than I was as an omnivore as well. Contrary to popular belief, it is not like becoming an ascetic. (Here are some web sites with vegan recipes to get started:

    Greg raises a very interesting question as well, regarding whether restitution is distinctively appropriate for child pornography cases. I think that what makes child pornography different from, say, receipt of Greg's stolen television, for restitution purposes (as opposed to for condemnation purposes) is that Greg the victim -- as an individual -- is harmed more by the person who previously received stolen TV's (and thereby encouraged the continued stealing that resulted in the theft of Greg's TV) than he is by the particular person who received his TV (provided Greg does not much care about the future of his TV, if it is not with him). By contrast, the child victim of pornography has his or her personal and intimate privacy invaded by the particular person who watches that particular pornography at the time that he or she watches it (much like a Peeping Tom who looks into the child's or adult's window violates that victim's privacy at the moment of watching). I think that restitution is appropriate for Amy because the people who watched her have violated her privacy.

    One could, of course, reject the notion of limiting restitution to cases in which there is a particular perpetrator that can be causally tied to a particular victim (as opposed to being causally linked to the continuing victimization). Such expansion could, for example, create a general fund for all victims to which all those in possession of child pornography must contribute, an alternative that I think could work well and could be applied to other sorts of crimes in which victims bear a cost, including receipt of stolen goods.

  5. Wonderfully interesting post, Sherry, thanks. The question whether more damages are due to Amy upon viewing of the video depends on whether that viewing is conceptualized as a separate harm, and I think it clearly is. A cow that is killed cruelly suffers no more when it is eventually eaten in the form of steak. But in this case, the harm to Amy does extend beyond the initial harmful act. The successive viewings themselves inflict harm on her, not only because they violate her privacy in an abstract sense, but because they cause her a humiliation and embarrassment above and apart from the initial criminal act. It's one thing to suffer, but quite another (and worse) thing to have others observe that suffering repeatedly.

    The moral culpability of consumers of animal products, by contrast, seems much different. Eating a steak does not cause the cow further psychic harm. Rather, it is objectionable because it supports and encourages the continuation of an immoral practice (though this is certainly also true of child pornography consumption).

  6. I am generally sympathetic with the claim that the consumer of child pornography (CP) ought to compensate the victim, but it is unclear to me that the reasons for this are the ones you identify. The two reasons you provide are: (1) the consumer motivates the production of further child pornography, and (2) the consumer violates the victim's privacy.

    Consider (1). I agree that consumption of CP motivates the production of CP. As you say, the production of CP is something society reasonably wishes to deter. But the rationale of deterrence does not justify a scheme of *compensation* or *restitution*. What deterrence justifies is the imposition of a serious cost (in the form of jail or fine or both) on consumers of CP. To make this clear, suppose society wishes to deter salmon fishing. To do this, society imposes a cost on those who fish for salmon, but we would not want to say that the rationale of deterrence justifies a *compensation* scheme here. If we extract money from those who fish for salmon, it is not in order to compensate the salmon.

    Now consider (2). Violation of the victim's right to privacy, if this is what happens, is indeed sufficient to justify a compensation scheme. This is because the violation of the victim's right is a wrong committed by the perpetrator against the victim. But does the *consumer* (as opposed to the producer) of CP violate the victim's right to privacy? I'm not sure. What the consumer of CP does is consume (purchase and look at) material that was produced and distributed without the victim's permission. The consumer of CP in not entitled to purchase or look at the material, and clearly wrongs the victim when he does so. But it is not clear to me that the wrong here concerns *the violation of the victim's right to privacy*. In a relatively recent piece ("The Right to Privacy Unveiled", San Diego Law Review 2007) I argue that for X to have a right to privacy against Y is for X to have a claim against Y that Y not learn or experience some personal fact about X by breaching a barrier used by X to keep others from learning or experiencing some personal fact about X. On this theory, the peeping tom violates his victim's right to privacy, but the consumer of CP does not violate the relevant victim's right to privacy.

  7. Interesting thoughts, all. I want to propose that the consumer of animal flesh and products does violate that animal, in addition to demanding the infliction of harm and death on more animals. To illustrate this proposition, consider a child victim of child pornography who is murdered in the process of creating the pornography. The purchaser of the snuff film is demanding the production of more such films -- and therefore is culpable in connection with future molestations and killings for the camera, as I have described. But there is a bit more to it as well. Each time someone watches the molestation and killing of the victim for arousal purposes, he does violence to the child who was (much as we might say that desecrating a corpse is a harm to the person who was), even though the victim is not alive to experience that harm. In a similar way, it strikes me as a desecration to consume the corpse of and bodily secretions of a nonhuman animal victim, even though that victim will -- like the child victim of molestation, murder, and pornography -- never know of that desecration. Is compensation appropriate? One could say that given the ongoing harm that the consumer inflicts, the appropriate thing would be to call for group restitution -- in the form of donating to living child victims of child pornography or, in the case of animals, donating to animal sanctuaries.

  8. p.s. Thanks for everyone's kind words about my post!

  9. I'm not sure we can speak of dignitary harms against the dead (human or non-human). Tort law does not allow recovery for defamation against the dead for the reason that the harm associated with defamation (loss of dignity, humiliation, embarrassment) is distinctively personal, and can't be experienced once the individual being defamed is deceased.

    On the other hand, the CA Supreme Court just held that the family of a deceased girl has a cause of action against state actors who disseminated photos of the girl, on the theory that the dissemination violated their right of privacy. This ruling appears to contemplate the possibility that dignitary harms inflicted on some third parties (as opposed to just the victim) are legally cognizable.

    Separately, I'm not sure that the idea of dignitary harm can be extrapolated from the human to the non-human animal context. While this is ultimately an empirical question to which we may never know the answer, it may be the case that the very idea of dignitary harm (and emotions like humiliation or embarrassment) are uniquely human.

    This doesn't mean that the thrust of Sherry's comment is wrong; it may be right that some forms of meat consumption are desecrations. But the fact that these acts may be objectionable doesn't necessarily mean that they also inflict cognizable dignitary harm separate from the initial harm.

  10. DF raises interesting points. First, I agree with the basic thrust of the argument that the main harm we inflict by consuming animal products or by consuming child pornography in which the victim is killed is the harm of paying those who inflict pain and death to continue to inflict more pain and death. The dignitary harm to the dead, in other words, is very much secondary to the palpable harm to the living. I meant to suggest only that we are capable of understanding harm to the dead, and such harm is not confined to dead humans.
    My own experience with animals suggests that for living animals, there is dignity as well as humiliation. There is shame and pride among social creatures, and almost all of the animals we consume are social beings. Much that we imagine as uniquely human is a product of our unfamiliarity with other animals. The context in which we interact with other species is, most often, by consuming them or by watching them in conditions of captivity and deprivation. Perhaps our investment in viewing them as objects for our use makes it difficult for us to know that they are in fact individuals, each with the capacity to experience the range of emotions and sensations that we take for granted for our fellow humans.

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