Impeding the Development of Our Children’s Moral Reasoning: The Case of Porn

In philosophy, moral reasoning is the reasoning process by which we identify what is good and what is bad.  I think that as parents, one of our primary responsibilities is to develop this moral reasoning in our children.

Just how we as parents are supposed to do this is a rather big question, but here’s a way in:  Aristotle points out that when we reason about what is ‘good’, this process involves not only the mind, but also the passions.  Our passions affect our moral reasoning, no matter who we are.  If we have learned to control our passions, then we reason well about what is good and what is bad.  If we have not learned to control our passions, then we do not reason well about these things.

Unhealthy, Uncontrolled Passion

Now, if Aristotle’s idea that our passions affect our moral reasoning is at all true, then we as parents have a mighty challenge on our hands.  This is because, more and more, we live in a world that does not encourage people to control their passions.

There are lots of examples of this, but perhaps the most obvious one is the explosion of the porn industry.

Please allow me a ‘mother bear’ moment.  Do you know how many porn sites there are on the internet?  A recent GQ article by Scott Christian ( estimated it at 420 million.  Porn is everywhere, and more children and teens are watching porn regularly than ever before.  According to Christian, in a survey of porn users, 53% said they developed a porn habit between the ages of 12-14, and 16% started watching before they were 12.  That means that almost 70% of porn users started viewing porn by age 14.  Porn is, if anything, a parenting issue.

The problem is that porn is not some harmless pastime.  Scientific studies have shown that a porn addict’s brain looks exactly like a drug addict’s brain.  As the website Fight the New Drug ( explains, this is because, like drugs, exposure to porn releases unnaturally high levels of the chemical dopamine, which goes straight to the reward center of the brain and causes a ‘high’.  As a porn user gets addicted to that high, physical changes happen in his brain such that he needs more and more exposure to porn to get the same kind of high as before, just like a drug addict needs more and more drugs to get high.

But that need for ‘more exposure’ to porn is devastating. What it means is that the porn user needs ‘constant newness’ in order to get sexually aroused.  According to Christian, those porn addicts who were surveyed experienced a decline in arousal with the same mate, while those who ‘regularly found different mates were able to continue their arousal’.  No surprise, then, that regular porn users report an increasing disinterest in sex with their partner.

The need for ‘constant newness’, however, goes further – so often regular porn users are driven to seek more deviant forms of porn in order to get aroused.  These more deviant forms portray violence and humiliating, abusive behavior as sexually exciting.

However, a warning:  before we start feeling relieved that our kids have never seen the more extreme kind of porn,   Fight the New Drug argues that violence in porn is not just relegated to the more deviant kind.  A few years ago a study was done of the 50 most popular porn films, and it was found that of the 304 scenes the movies contained, 88% of them contained physical violence.  To make matters worse, in 95% of these violent scenes, the target of this violence – which in the vast majority of scenes was a woman – had either a neutral response to the violence, or responded with pleasure!

In effect, porn is training the appetites of a whole generation of people to be oriented toward violent sex.

Not only does porn give the user an appetite for unhealthy sex, it also distorts the user’s view of relationships.  Porn portrays an unrealistic world in which digitally doctored images of people ‘enjoy’ dangerous sex acts.  Fight the New Drug reports that studies show that porn users are more critical of and dissatisfied with their partner’s appearance, sexual curiosity and sexual performance.  They also report being less in love with their partner, and are cynical about romantic love and marriage.  Porn trains the user to see sex as a performance with objects, instead of understanding it as something that happens with a real person, who has thoughts and feelings and an imperfect body.  Frankly, as Fight the New Drug so aptly puts it, porn kills love.

Passion and Moral Reasoning  

Fortunately, there is an increasing amount of scientific evidence informing us of these harmful effects of porn, particularly that porn leads a person to have a warped perspective on what is ‘good’ in key life issues like committed relationships.  Yet, philosophy, too, can play a role in illuminating why porn might be damaging to a person in this way.  Of course, there are some philosophical theories which support porn.  But I’m going to discuss here Aristotle’s theory of moral reasoning, which holds that any passion, if it has not been trained to be expressed in the right way, can seriously alter a person’s perspective on what the ‘good life’ is for humans.

I’ve been writing lately about Aristotle’s concept of the virtuous person, and about how he suggests we teach human beings to be virtuous.  Those ideas are all relevant here, because for Aristotle, the defining characteristic of the virtuous person is that he excels at moral reasoning.

So, if we know how to teach virtue, then we know how to teach moral reasoning.  I mentioned in a previous entry that for Aristotle, we learn to be virtuous in a two-part process.   The first part of the process is where we learn to love the good, by repeating good actions over and over again, which trains our passions to love acting in the right way.  The second part of the process comes later, where we learn, through rational explanation, to understand the good.

Let’s look more closely at what Aristotle thinks happens in each part of the process.

The first part is a process of what we can call ‘pre-rational habituation’.  This is where a person is taught to develop habits before they are sufficiently rational to understand why those habits are good.  So, for instance, from the time your child is very young, you develop in him the habit of helping other people.  You take him to visit old people who are housebound.  You ensure that he helps you make a meal for a sick neighbor, or look after your friend’s children, and so forth.  You might talk to your child while you do these things about how it is good to think about other people; you might even explain that your family is part of a community and has a responsibility to help those who are having a hard time.  Yet, the child doesn’t really understand the concepts of unselfishness or community; but his passions are becoming trained to identify helping others as ‘good’.

The second phase of becoming virtuous happens when the child is older, when he is ready to understand rational arguments about what is good.  One characteristic of the virtuous person is that she understands not only ‘that’ something is good, but also what Aristotle calls the ‘why’: she has a mature understanding of why something is good.

So, this second phase is about focusing more specifically on the young person’s ability to reason about what is good.  It is done by getting him to think upon what is good for human beings, so that he develops a reflective understanding of that good. And yet, even though this phase focuses on engaging the reason, Aristotle thinks this rational reflection upon the good involves both the mind and the passions.  That is, if our passions have been trained to love what is good, then – and only then – are we in a state of mind where we are able to identify and understand what is good.

For instance, continuing the example above, during this phase you can have mature, meaningful discussions with your child about the concepts of compassion, unselfishness, and the importance of community.  Because he has had positive experiences with these values, he will be able to reflect on, and understand, why these things are good.

I can’t stress enough Aristotle’s point of how our passions have a profound effect upon our understanding of what is good.  For him it is so important that he thinks that someone whose passions have been trained to love what is not good will be unable to take on a true conception what is good when someone tries to explain it to him.  In other words, moral teaching cannot be done with someone who has not been taught to love the good.  They love the wrong things, and are therefore ‘blinded’ by their passions, such that their concept of the ‘good life’ for humans is far removed from what is really good for humans.

The Effect of Porn Upon Our Children’s Moral Reasoning 

Of course Aristotle could be wrong about how our passions influence our reasoning about what is right and good.  But I think he has made some rather astute observations of human nature here.  And those observations are helpful in showing why we need to fight with everything we have to protect our kids from porn.

Exposure to porn trains a person’s passions to love unhealthy things.  And this would be especially true of children, since childhood is the time where our passions are first trained.  Childhood is so important that, although in later life we may be able to ‘retrain’ our passions, what we learn during that time stays with us forever.

So, make no mistake, if our children view porn, that will be not only their sex education, but also a large part of their relationship education.  And when we come to discuss with them what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ about sex and relationships, their passions – trained by porn – will affect their ability to rationally reflect about what a good, loving relationship might be.

Consider these points:  If porn trains them to love ‘constant newness’ in sexual experiences, then it will affect their understanding of the idea that it is ‘good’ to be faithful to one’s partner.

If it trains them to love digitally doctored images, then it will affect their understanding of the ‘good’ of the whole person – warts and all – in a sexual relationship (especially when childbirth, breastfeeding, and the aging process will make that digitally perfect body yet even more elusive for us mere mortals).

If it trains them to love sexual violence, then it will affect their understanding that rape is ‘bad’, that verbal and physical abuse is ‘bad’, and that a relationship where people gently kiss, cuddle and speak respectfully and lovingly to each other is ‘good’.

If it trains them to perceive and ‘love’ sex as a one-way digital experience, then it will affect their understanding of the ‘good’ of building a life partnership with a real person, where that person is not a mere object, but someone who has opinions and feelings that matter.

The Effect of Us Upon Our Children’s Moral Reasoning

However, I see a silver lining here.

If there is some truth to the idea that what we love has an impact on our moral reasoning, then we as parents have a challenge, but we also have an opportunity.

Instead of waiting for what seems to be the inevitable seduction of our children by the porn industry, we can use Aristotle’s insight to empower our children against it.  We can train their passions to love the antidotes to porn:  faithfulness, openness, honesty, kindness, compassion, respect, equality, gentleness, unselfishness, and love.  When they are young, they may not understand why these values are good, but they will feel that they are good.  When they are older, we can employ the love they have for these values to help them rationally reflect on the ‘why’ – on why they are a constituent part of the good life, and on why porn is antithetical to them.

That way, when the time comes that they are exposed to porn, they have a fighting chance to use their well-grounded moral reasoning to see it for what it is:  bad for human beings.


How do you think we can train children to love the ‘antidotes’ to porn?  Over to you …

Children, Happiness, and Screen-Time

     As a parent, what is it exactly you are trying to do?  Maybe you are trying to raise your child to be really good at school.  Perhaps you are trying to raise your child to be responsible with money, or great at sports, or fabulous on an instrument.  Perhaps you are trying to raise your child to be charitable, or community-minded.  Whatever goals you may have for your child, surely most of us as parents have the same end goal in mind:  we want to raise our children to be happy.

     Funnily enough, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle says the same thing about how human beings in general try to live life.  In his Nicomachean Ethics, he argues that everything we do in life aims at some purpose, which for him is synonymous with some ‘good’ or ‘end’.  Some of our actions are meant to accomplish smaller or lower ends; for instance, I do the laundry because I want my children to wear clean clothes.  However, all of the lower ends we aim to accomplish are done for the sake of something higher, until we come to the highest end in life, the ‘chief good’, which is the thing that we aim at above everything else – the thing that we want ‘for its own sake.’  And that chief good for man, according to Aristotle, is happiness.   

     However, even though we all aim for happiness, Aristotle thinks that many of us will fall short of that goal.  That’s because we misunderstand the nature of happiness.  For Aristotle, not just any old way of life will make us happy.  No, Aristotle believes that you have to live a certain kind of life – indeed, even become a certain kind of person, in order to be happy.

Restrictive Parenting and the Unhappiness of Children

     So often my children seem unhappy.  Let me talk about the issue that seems to cause a great amount of unhappiness in our household:  restricting ‘screen-time’.

     Perhaps like many other parents, have a pressing concern about ‘screen-time’.  I do not wish to stop the march of technology – knowing this to be only a futile exercise – but at the same time, an ipod, iphone,  ipad, smartphone or whatever in the hands of a child or teenager can be a very destructive thing. 

     First, there is the addiction issue.  I have teenagers who live to socialize.  If they lived 30 years ago, there would have been natural limits to the socializing during their waking hours.  But now, from the minute they awaken to the minute they (don’t) go to sleep, they have instant access to hundreds of ‘friends’.  Since socializing is the end of their existence, they see no reason whatsoever to detach themselves, at any point in the day, from the many forms of social media.  There is no other activity they particularly want to pursue, such as homework, family time, reading a book, learning a skill, or practicing their music.  And I don’t think they are the only ones.  If an addiction is defined as something which takes over your life, then most teenagers I know seem to be well and truly addicted to their screens.

     Second, there is the privacy issue, which spills over into what I will call the ‘appropriate’ issue.  With FaceTime, my children can speak face to face, for free, with anyone, at any time, and more to the point, in any location.  So I worry when teenage boys call up on FaceTime, from their bedrooms, scantily clad, wanting to have a very long conversation.  With Snapchat, anyone can take a picture of themselves, clothed or otherwise, in whatever pose they choose, send it to their friends, and then a few seconds later the image is deleted, leaving no way for parents to check up on what their children are doing.  The ‘screen’ has introduced us into a bizarre world in which what is private becomes public, and at times my children need some convincing that there is a difference between the two.

     There are many other concerns I have with screens which I won’t discuss here – for instance, the addictive nature of computer games, especially for boys, and the ever-present danger of pornography – but even these most basic ones are enough for me to be setting restrictions for when the children can have their screens and when they can’t.  No screen during homework.  No screen during music practice.  No screen during family mealtimes.  No screen in the bedroom after 9pm (it comes into Mom and Dad’s room for the night), and so forth.

     The rules, however, are perceived by the teenagers as harsh, demeaning and punitive.  The true extent of their resentment was revealed to me when one of them compared taking away her screen to the performance of female circumcision.  The other one said, ‘My friend would have committed suicide by now with these rules.’  Apparently we as parents are engaging in the extremely brutal – and, according to them, completely unthinkable to anyone else – practice of screen extraction.      

Aristotle’s Happiness:  Align Actions with Values, Not Impulses

     Often I feel alone in this battle. So many other kids seem to have their screens all the time; I know, because they try to contact my kids in the middle of the night!  There have been times when self-doubt has crept in.  Am I doing the right thing by insisting on these restrictions?  Am I fighting the right battle?  Is it worth it to make my children so unhappy?    

    I take heart from Aristotle, who takes a longer term view of happiness than what is happening in the here and now.  This is not to say that I think we should ignore our children’s immediate concerns and feelings; only to say that Aristotle believes that the concept that happiness is something that needs to be learned over time, rather than something that comes about through indulgence of whatever we want to do at any given moment.

     In the last entry I talked about Aristotle’s idea of the human good, which is that man reaches the good for him as a human being when he lives his life according to reason.  As may be clear by now, the human good and happiness, for Aristotle, are closely linked:  those who achieve the human good are those who are happy.

     Yet, there is more to Aristotle’s concept of happiness.  Aristotle says that the happy man is the man who acts according to reason well.  It isn’t enough for a happy life to sometimes act according to reason, and sometimes not.  Acting according to reason must become a habit for us; it must become part of our character.  So, achieving happiness for Aristotle is a process.  It comes as we gradually develop our reason and learn to be good at using our reason to govern our actions.

     We have already established that to act according to reason means to use one’s practical reason to control the impulses, desires and emotions that we have as part of our human nature, so that we feel them and act on them in the right way.  Along this same line of thought, Aristotle thinks that reason is the faculty that enables us to act for an end, or a goal.  Impulses and emotions make us focused on what is happening right now, and can blind us as to the ‘bigger picture’ – for instance, my child has made me very angry, and I lose my temper, but I haven’t thought about how losing my temper is going to damage my relationship with that child.  It is reason that enables us to look past what our impulses are urging us to do at the present moment, and plan for a longer term goal based on our values – on what is really important to us.

How to Help Children Be Happy 

     Now, what about the child that has a strong impulse to engage constantly (and I do mean constantly) with social media, or play computer games for hours on end?   To state the obvious – although perhaps for some it is controversial – these impulses can interfere with some important longer term goals.  Achieving a good education, developing the ability to concentrate on tasks which don’t provide immediate rewards, building up family relationships by actually giving them your full attention and talking to them when they are sitting right next to you, keeping physically fit, and so on –these are all part of a fulfilling life, and they are all adversely affected with too much screen time.  

   Following these impulses may make your child feel as though he is happy, and all of his friends may be unrestricted in following their impulses.  Furthermore, your child may throw a major temper tantrum when you get up guts to tell him that enough is enough, and it’s time to get some fresh air and interact with the real world.  Yet, no matter what your child’s reaction to the enforcement of your restrictions (and I’ve witnessed some pretty awful ones), I think as parents we have to be confident in the knowledge that the restriction of indulgence is a prescription for long-term happiness.  Stay strong, fellow warriors, and remember that Aristotle is on to something when he argues that true happiness comes from acting on our values rather than on our impulses.