A Puzzle about Obscenity


  • Michael Joel Kessler University of Toronto, Canada




Obscenity, Mill, Moral Harm, Freedom of Expression, Law


Laws against sexual obscenity rely on a distinction between explicit materials that merely offend and materials that cause something worse than offense. While most offensive content is protected under the banner of freedom of expression, obscenity is not. In this paper I try to locate a distinctive harm in the case of obscenity, that would justify prohibiting this material while permitting other kinds of offensive content. I argue that the best case for laws against obscenity relies on the concept of moral harm. If we rely on Mill’s Harm Principle and moral harm is a real harm, then it could be used to justify the distinction between protected and unprotected sexually explicit speech. I argue this demonstrates a weakness in the Harm Principle as a liberal principle of justice. By giving weight to moral harm, Mill’s principle risks eroding an important distinction between the public and private domains.


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How to Cite

Kessler, M. J. (2017) “A Puzzle about Obscenity”, De Ethica, 4(1), pp. 5–30. doi: 10.3384/de-ethica.2001-8819.17415.