Guest Post: The dignity of the prostitute
“Human dignity” demands that we must (never) legalize prostitution
st week, a judge in Canada’s largest province struck down the country’s federal laws criminalizing prostitution. Judge Susan Himel of the Ontario Superior Court ruled that prohibitions on prostitution infringed Canadians’ constitutional rights to freedom of expression and to security of the person. If the decision is upheld at the federal level, Canada will join countries such as Germany and the Netherlands and states such as Nevada where prostitution is, to varying degrees, legal.
The legalization of prostitution is not currently a live issue in the United States, but a major policy change from our neighbour and largest trading partner could prompt a re-examination of the issue. Such a debate would likely pit progressive against progressive and conservative against conservative. In the prostitution debate, the camps are separated less by the traditional right versus left dividing lines, and more by a disagreement regarding the meaning of “human dignity.”
Although prevalent in Enlightenment thinking, the idea that states must respect human dignity entered the political and philosophical vernacular following the adaptation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Since then, liberal and constitutional theorists have struggled to define what, exactly, respect for human dignity by the state entails.
Liberal theory encompasses two different conceptions of what constitutes respect for human dignity, which point to two radically different conclusions in the debate over prostitution.
The more libertarian strains of liberalism argue for dignity as autonomy. In this understanding, human dignity requires that each person should be able to exercise his or her autonomy to make choices, consistent with the freedom of all other individuals in society. The state must protect a broad sphere of individual autonomy, so that people can determine the course of their own lives.
On this view, it is the choice-making ability of humans that makes them unique and worthy of respect. Human dignity is violated when our choices about how to live our lives are coercively determined by others or the state. In Rousseau’s evocative language, human freedom is living by a law we each set for ourselves, and dignity as autonomy seeks to capture this intuition. In the prostitution context, the state must allow prostitution, to maximize the freedom and autonomy of individuals, so they can define the ends and lifestyles viagra which accord with their own values.
A thicker understanding of human dignity is dignity as sanctity. This acknowledges the importance of individual choice and freedom, as established by the dignity as autonomy view, but holds that not all choices are equal. Indeed, people can sometimes make choices which degrade their fundamental humanity and the state must occasionally step in and correct these faulty decisions. In the case of prostitution, a “dignity as sanctity” theorist would hold that prostitution allows individuals to be merely used for the pleasure of another person, in manner that disrespects their inherent worth
When you allow another to use your body merely as an object which offers sexual gratification, you cease to be seen as a person who must be respected as an autonomous creature, and become a commodity in the eyes of another. This ‘choice’, while it may be a free one, disrespects one’s dignity and humanity, and the state must step in to prevent this fundamental degradation.
This second view on human dignity and prostitution is the more prevalent one in the US. If we ever rethink our stance, it will require at least one of two ideological shifts. Either we decide that we respect people more by permitting them to choose whatever career they want and to do whatever they want to their bodies. Or we conclude that prostitution does not actually degrade sex workers in the manner many people believe.
Ultimately, if the debate over legalizing prostitution spreads south of the border, we will need to confront exactly what respect for human dignity means for us.