Acton Institute Powerblog

Eyes Without Feeling, Feeling Without Sight

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ABC columnist and Temple professor John Allen Paulos has an interesting piece this week on a new paper outlining an economic theory of prostitution. Basically, the authors outline the incentives and patterns involved in the “world’s oldest profession” (a moniker I think is misleading, for the title truly belongs to gardening). I will let you read both the paper and the article yourself, because it is only Mr. Paulos’s conclusion I would like to discuss here:

Like any statistical model, this one ignores the diversity of real people and the complexities of love and pleasure, changing social mores, et cetera. Still, once all its equations have been solved, a simple fact remains: Most women enter prostitution for the money.

This being so, legalizing it, regulating it (strictly enforcing laws against pimping, child prostitution, public nuisance and so forth) and improving the economic prospects for women seem to me a greatly preferable approach to it than moralistic denunciation.

But like any purely economic assessment, Mr. Paulos’s statements above ignore the essence of man, ignores the question “what is a human person truly?” Without an understanding of the inherent dignity of the human person–in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!–it is easy to reduce all human interaction to economics, to simple exchange.

All such reduction goes out the window if you posit the following: “the human person is designed to be a gift.” If the core of human essense is to love, that is, to make a gift of one’s self, all reduction of a human person to her market commodity is not only ultimately counterproductive to a healthy market, but destructive of the human person herself.

If the human person, at her core, is designed for love, for self-giving, to reduce her to a economic commodity is to deny her true nature. Why should this matter? To try to tease use out of something not designed for that use not only destroys the use, but the used as well.

Some closing thoughts from Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility:

“The principle of ‘utility’ itself, of treating a person as a means to an end, and an end moreover which in this case is pleasure, the maximization of pleasure, will always stand in the way of love…”

“The person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love…”

“…love for a person must consist in affirmation that the person has a value higher than that of an object for consumption or use.”

This is precisely what Mr. Paulos neglects to understand. His concern about ‘moralistic denunciation’ betrays an inexcusable ignorance about the end of economics, which is man, and the end of man, which is Love.

Before Mr. Paulos advocates regulation as opposed to moralism, perhaps he ought to spend some time asking himself morality’s question: “What is man?”

David Michael Phelps


  • David, thanks for raising this issue. But I think you’re being too hard on Dr. Paulos in one sense and talking past him in another sense.
    -In the passage you quote, he doesn’t reduce the women in question; actually he recognizes the “diversities and complexities”. Instead, he is asserting (perhaps incorrectly) that they reduce themselves.
    -We should agree with Paulos that “moral denunciation” (defined tightly) is unacceptable. But his two choices– denunciation and legalization– are a false dichtomy. Another option, at least in theory, would be continued prohibition without strident denunciation. The model of Jesus in John 8 comes to mind– in neither condemning nor condoning such sin.
    -That said, what is the Christian case for vociferously opposing legalization or ardently supporting prohibition of adult prostitution? And in particular (given your voiced concerns), how does the avid Christian pursuit of prohibition speak to the dignity of the human person and a Christian tendency to reduce people to their sexual exchanges?

    Grace and peace, eric

    D. Eric Schansberg
    Professor of Economics
    Indiana University (New Albany)
    Visiting Professor of Economics
    The King’s College

  • John

    I haven’t read the initial piece, but legalization isn’t any kind of panacea for prostitution. Look at Germany. By legalizing prostitution they made it valid employment which people can be compelled to take or lose their welfare benefits. Also, because it is legal, it is expected that 40,000 women will be imported (mostly from depressed eastern europe) to “take care of the needs” of the World Cup crowds. These are not individual subcontractors but women beholden to pimps and smugglers.

  • David Michael Phelps

    I think ‘reduce people to their sexual exchanges’ is an interesting phrase, one that contains the crux of these matters. I think orthodox Xian thought sees ‘sexual exchanges’ not as something that we can reach by reduction, but by exaltation! (Read Benedict’s encyclical on love, and see that eros is something highly valued). I don’t think that when Xianity speaks against sexual immorality, it is ‘reducing’–in fact, it says that the sexual act is a free exchange of persons–something so profound that it must not take on, amongst other things, even the hint of economic exchange.
    Perhpas I have misunderstood your concerns, but I do like to clear things up when people talk about ‘sexual exchanges’–it is love, in a profound sense, that this act is concerned with–to treat is in any other way is a terrible wound to being.

  • You’ve focused on one phrase in my response. But I think my point in that sentence aligns with your concern(s): we should not reduce people to their sexual exchanges anymore than others should reduce sexual activity to economic exchanges. But too often, many C’s (at least implicitly) do this, by focusing almost exclusively on sexual ethics– or beyond that, on certain sins within that category.

    Finally, to reiterate: it is not clear the extent to which government is an ethical and practical means to whatever ends Christians should be pursuing in this arena.