As regular readers will now know I spent much of the last week or so analysing the details and the context of a single act of ungentlemanly behaviour and interviewing the lady involved. Paul Givan, Chairman of the Justice Committee in Northern Ireland’s Assembly suggested, during a live web-cast formal evidence session, that a woman – Ms Laura Lee – should perform sexual intercourse with disabled strangers for the sole reason that they are disabled: “Would you not rather do it for free?” he said.
I’d like you to try something. Try and put yourself into the emotional shoes of a woman asked to do such a thing. Lets put a face to the partner too. Let’s imagine a famous actor – a real style icon at home on the red carpet – they take a fall, break their back and end up lonely and living on four wheels. Such a person may not be bad looking, is not infectious or deformed, but may have ended up very emotionally needy. How would your wife or your daughter (for Laura Lee is both of these to someone) handle such a request? What would be required of them emotionally?
It takes approximately half a second to realise that such an act would be emotionally very difficult. In fact it might be difficult even if you were married to the person, nevermind if they were a stranger. Asking someone to do that is a huge ask. Something of the person performing such a service is going to be lost. Some kind of emotional energy drained.
When you suggest that something like that is done for free, you are naming the value you place on the person you are asking to do it. You are calling that person a whore, or worse, a robot. A resource to be allocated to your purposes.
How could a senior politician (don’t laugh) be such a callous and ungentlemanly idiot? What vexes me is that, within all the philosophical theories about what is proper or not, I don’t think he did a single thing wrong. What he said was not only okay, it was in fact virtuous. It was not ungentlemanly at all, it was Saintly.
As it happens, calling Laura Lee a whore in a live web-cast, transcripted formal session of Government has a certain basis in fact. She is a part time call girl. She set’s a price for the service, and because she also seeks to be virtuous, she sets a lower one than normal for the disabled. It is obvious from understanding all the theories, that this is perfectly wrong. Let’s unpack why that is:
There are three basic moral theories:
Altrusim – we should all live for others, and sacrifice all that we can bear to the needy either becuase nature allows us to or because God gave us the faculty to do so. In other words, becuase we can, and wouldn’t it be just dandy if we did?
Utilitarianism – the greatest good for the greatest number. Society should be organised in whatever way has the best mathematically calculated outcome, weighing quantity and quality.
Egalitarianism – some people are unlucky others are very lucky, and we need to even that out. We should do whatever it takes to even out the outcomes, usually by taking the good and putting it where there is less good.
There is also a pseudo theory namely “what God said”, and if you can be bothered to read the Bible (I haven’t) it probably frowns on sex workers. Over all “what God said” is basically Altruism, and thats true whoever your God happens to be.
Under “Altruism” and “Egalitarianism” the analysis is pretty simple. The ethical thing to do is for the healthy professional sex worker, who has no particular vulnerability, to dish-out the goods to the needy guy. I don’t think I’m missing anything there. In utilitarianism it’s a bit more complex, but if you imagine that a professional sex worker is – by definition – a specialist then you can assume that the act is less costly to the sex worker than it is valuable to the disabled man, so the ethical thing to do is work for free. A fee would simply upset the calculations in the wrong direction.
In summary: “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”, now get to work!
Obviously, this is utterly wrong. You don’t have to be an expert on ethics or economics to figure out that something is missing from the picture. I may be speculating, I am not a sex worker and am not female, but that something is Laura Lee’s soul. Asking someone to work for free, in such a personal way, in aid of the disabled is asking them to give up their soul and attaching zero value to it. Paying a fee however, attaches some kind of value to the soul, and allows for the establishment of boundaries to protect it (read the interview to understand that). I don’t think the amount of the fee matters so much as the fact that there is one. We are dealing with spiritual values so these values are ordinal: a fee implies the soul is worth more than nothing and the intimate act is less than the fee. The soul is enhanced and the act diminished by the fee.
The conclusion I want to draw is this: that the basic ethical theories we work with are bullshit. You cannot apply them consistently and also behave in a way that is empathatic and decent and gentlemanly. Respect for an individual’s personal sovereignty is not a feature of any standard moral theory. You have to look elsewhere for that.
As I said, this is based on a lot of speculation. I am considering the basic facts about a case, and some a priori knowledge of moral theory and epistemology and producing a theory about what went on in the head of someone I never met and never sought to correspond with. By publishing I am asking for it to be challenged and corrected.
There is, however, a little evidence. Consider the tesimony of Dr Brooke Magnanti and Laura Lee as they write elsewhere:
Magnanti, the Belle de Jour, watched the live web-cast:
As this was the first justice committee hearing in Britain to invite a current sex worker to testify about the proposed legislation, one might have expected a lot better. But instead the committee were inappropriately hostile, insufficiently objective, and forewent listening to Laura’s testimony in favour of mean-spirited point scoring and blatant attempts to break and shame a witness whom they had invited.
And Laura Lee, the lady in question recollects:
The chairman of the committee Paul Givan, began by undermining my credibility as a representative, saying that because I am from the IUSW I am effectively the face of pimps. Very calmly I explained that the person they were repeatedly referring to may have had links with an escort agency but that I was there in my personal capacity as an Irish sex worker with twenty years experience. That was completely ignored and Jim Wells MLA went on to allege that I receive funding from pimps and that’s why I speak out.
Frankly, you don’t have to rely on these accounts. The transcript and the video make clear that the thrust of the questionning was to undermine, contradict and reject the arguments she was putting forward, not to get more evidence or information. This represents a malfunction in the democratic system of Northern Ireland, but it’s also important for our moral theory. Givan was pointing to a moral transgression – behaviour contrary to the theories above – in order to show up Ms Lee as an evil outsider. To reject her along with her knowledge and her opinion.
In doing so, I believe he highlights his own evil, that having self-worth and acting to preserve it aren’t normal or proper in his view. In his view, individuals have no fundamental value.