Our core values and ethics

What we val­ue, i.e. place impor­tance on, is core to who we are as indi­vid­u­als and as a col­lec­tive (whether that be a com­mu­ni­ty, soci­ety or the human race). Our val­ues shape our atti­tudes, our behav­iour, our iden­ti­ty, and the mean­ing and pur­pose we give our lives. Val­ues and their relat­ed over­lap­ping con­structs (such as goals and morals) have been the sub­ject of a range of psy­cho­log­i­cal the­o­ries and research lit­er­a­tures39, each with a dif­fer­ent focus and often their own vocab­u­lary, but togeth­er com­ple­ment­ing one anoth­er and inform­ing a deep under­stand­ing of what it is to be human, and to live more authen­ti­cal­ly. Key insights across these lit­er­a­tures are explored, lead­ing to analy­sis of what they mean for our under­stand­ing of porn and its impact on indi­vid­u­als, soci­eties and our world.

Human val­ues are both diverse and pre­dictable. The same var­ied set of core set of val­ues are found across numer­ous cul­tures stud­ied (nat­u­ral­ly with some cul­tures giv­ing cer­tain val­ues more weight than oth­ers) and these val­ues relate to one anoth­er in con­sis­tent ways40.

One set of uni­ver­sal val­ues, var­i­ous­ly termed Self-Tran­scen­dent, Intrin­sic or Com­pas­sion­ate, includes things like hon­esty, mature love, and a world of beau­ty. These val­ues clus­ter around care for each oth­er and the world. Whilst these val­ues are found to com­ple­ment self-direc­tion and per­son­al growth, they are in oppo­si­tion to the set of val­ues var­i­ous­ly labelled Self-Enhance­ment, Extrin­sic or Self­ish which include things like wealth, achieve­ment, pow­er and image. These lat­ter val­ues are con­cerned with indi­vid­u­als get­ting ahead’ and are found to sit com­fort­ably with hedonism.

It is not that peo­ple can­not hold oppos­ing’ val­ues in par­al­lel – most peo­ple do, rather it’s that these clus­ters of val­ues weigh against one anoth­er. The more weight a per­son places on intrin­sic or com­pas­sion­ate val­ues, the less like­ly they are to see extrin­sic or self­ish val­ues as impor­tant. Numer­ous exper­i­men­tal stud­ies find that when peo­ple attend to their intrin­sic val­ues, they care less about extrin­sic things, and vice ver­sa41. In oth­er words, if a large slice of their val­ues pie’ is car­ing for oth­ers, oth­er slices focussed on them­selves will be small – or as Tom Cromp­ton at the Com­mon Cause Foun­da­tion has sug­gest­ed, as we blow up com­pas­sion­ate bal­loons, self­ish ones shrink in response (or vice ver­sa). And fun­da­men­tal­ly, most peo­ple do hold their com­pas­sion­ate val­ues as more impor­tant than those focussed on self-inter­est. A large UK sur­vey by the Com­mon Cause Foun­da­tion found this to be true of 74% of adults, and a recent sur­vey of UK 7 – 18 year olds by Glob­al Action Plan found this to be true of 86% of young peo­ple42.

As might be expect­ed, what we val­ue is influ­enced by mes­sages from insti­tu­tions, organ­i­sa­tions and cor­po­ra­tions about what is impor­tant, as well as what we think the peo­ple around us care about43. Of con­cern, both adults and chil­dren tend to under-esti­mate how much oth­ers pri­ori­tise com­pas­sion­ate val­ues, and over-esti­mate how much they care about things like sta­tus, mon­ey and appear­ance44 – in short, peo­ple tend to assume the world is dri­ven by self­ish­ness even though it isn’t. This mis­per­cep­tion grows as chil­dren grow into adults45 and is like­ly dri­ven in part by cor­po­rate prof­it-dri­ven mes­sag­ing, implic­it­ly con­vey­ing that oth­ers’ are more sta­tus dri­ven and self-inter­est­ed than they real­ly are. This mis­tak­en assump­tion can in turn influ­ence people’s own behav­iour – for exam­ple, in the Glob­al Action Plan study, chil­dren shared that they might hide how much they cared about peo­ple and nature due to fears of being judged, bul­lied and less liked, and because they want­ed to fit in and not feel alone. This might then result in actions or inac­tion that sug­gests to us that we are more self-inter­est­ed than we real­ly are. More gen­er­al­ly, when we act in line with our val­ues they strength­en, like mus­cles, whilst those in oppo­si­tion weaken.

Intrin­sic val­ues are in large part those that we might describe as eth­i­cal or moral; they enable us to live in har­mo­ny with one anoth­er and the world. An inter­est­ing the­o­ry46 built on a wealth of anthro­po­log­i­cal, zoo­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal find­ings argues that in hunter-gath­er­er groups humans evolved to be assertive­ly egal­i­tar­i­an’. They held close to and act­ed in line with prin­ci­ples which stressed the impor­tance of con­nec­tion, trust, co-oper­a­tion and fair­ness. In con­trast, the social struc­tures of our ear­li­er non-human pri­mate ances­tors were based around hier­ar­chy, dom­i­nance and sub­mis­sion. This has left us with two implic­it oppos­ing men­tal sets’, each acti­vat­ed by dif­fer­ent social cues, one based around equal­i­ty and co-oper­a­tion, the oth­er around sta­tus and dom­i­nance. From this van­tage point, our intrin­sic val­ues might be described as our most human’.

What­ev­er their ori­gin, we find that these intrin­sic val­ues are of fun­da­men­tal impor­tance, beyond even the social har­mo­ny they sup­port. They are linked to greater well­be­ing and vital­i­ty, both col­lec­tive­ly and indi­vid­u­al­ly47. And indi­vid­u­als who hold intrin­sic val­ues tend to expe­ri­ence greater auton­o­my, they are more read­i­ly able to embrace inti­ma­cy and they hold a clear­er, resolved iden­ti­ty48. Con­verse­ly, research indi­cates that oppo­si­tion­al val­ues such as mate­ri­al­ism low­er both indi­vid­ual and soci­etal well­be­ing49.


When think­ing about how pornog­ra­phy may pull us away from things we think are impor­tant, it’s worth con­sid­er­ing that the val­ues humans tend to intu­itive­ly feel are moral’ go beyond those that con­cern being fair to oth­ers or harm­ing them. Through cross-cul­tur­al research on moral­i­ty, psy­chol­o­gist Jonathan Haidt has sug­gest­ed we have sev­er­al moral taste buds’ includ­ing one cen­tred on sanc­ti­ty, and its oppo­si­tion, degra­da­tion50. It’s exis­tence is per­haps most mem­o­rably illus­trat­ed with his chick­en exper­i­ment: Peo­ple are pre­sent­ed with a sce­nario in which a man buys a chick­en from a super­mar­ket and then goes home and has sex with it, before cook­ing and eat­ing it. Most peo­ple of dif­fer­ent cul­tures and demo­graph­ics judge this to be wrong. This feel­ing of wrong­do­ing emanates from what anthro­pol­o­gist Richard Shwed­er and col­leagues termed the eth­ic of divin­i­ty’, the sense that our souls, our bod­ies and the uni­verse hold a sacred­ness’ – they are inher­ent­ly spe­cial and are to be respect­ed51. Hon­our­ing the sacred’ is con­nect­ed to feel­ings of ele­va­tion, where­as dis­hon­our and degra­da­tion pro­voke repug­nance – this feel­ing may at times be a valu­able warn­ing to us not to trans­gress what is unspeak­ably pro­found’. So much of porn appears to delight in this transgression. 

Repug­nance… revolts against the excess­es of human wil­ful­ness, warn­ing us not to trans­gress what is unspeak­ably pro­found. Indeed, in this age in which every­thing is held to be per­mis­si­ble so long as it is freely done, in which our giv­en human nature no longer com­mands respect, in which our bod­ies are regard­ed as mere instru­ments of our autonomous ratio­nal wills, repug­nance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the cen­tral core of our human­i­ty. Shal­low are the souls that have for­got­ten how to shudder.

Leon Kass (1997)52

Pornography and values

How does all of this inform our under­stand­ing of porn and its impact? To sum­marise, research sug­gests a com­mon con­cep­tion of what is good and finds that com­pas­sion­ate and self-tran­scen­dent val­ues are bet­ter for indi­vid­u­als, soci­eties and the world. In tan­dem, humans have a pro­found aware­ness of sanc­ti­ty, which can con­tribute to respect for peo­ple and the plan­et. In direct oppo­si­tion to all of this, we have seen how pornog­ra­phy unapolo­get­i­cal­ly pro­motes self-inter­est and indulges in peo­ple being con­trolled, manip­u­lat­ed, degrad­ed, humil­i­at­ed and hurt. 

We can expect pornog­ra­phy to work like any oth­er pro­mot­er of self­ish val­ues – in short, increas­ing the degree to which peo­ple hold self­ish val­ues, act in line with them, and think that oth­ers do too – and of course, doing the oppo­site for com­pas­sion­ate val­ues. Con­sis­tent with this analy­sis, research finds that ado­les­cent pornog­ra­phy use cor­re­lates with hedo­nism and self-enhance­ment val­ues, and is neg­a­tive­ly relat­ed to self-tran­scen­dence val­ues – this is like­ly to rep­re­sent a bi-direc­tion­al rela­tion­ship in which val­ues pre­dict pornog­ra­phy use and are influ­enced by pornog­ra­phy53. Going fur­ther, stud­ies using a range of meth­ods are con­sis­tent in indi­cat­ing that view­ing pornog­ra­phy can increase uneth­i­cal behav­iour54. One study, for exam­ple, found that it increased the pro­cliv­i­ty to lie in order to shirk com­mit­ments55.

Moral disengagement

Porn doesn’t just encour­age uneth­i­cal behav­iour by pro­mot­ing self­ish val­ues, it also direct­ly sup­ports moral dis­en­gage­ment mech­a­nisms’, a set of cog­ni­tive process­es that work to unhook peo­ple from their moral­i­ty. These strate­gies sup­port, legit­imise or jus­ti­fy moral trans­gres­sions, serv­ing to hide the wrong­do­ing both from self and oth­ers. Per­haps the most exten­sive­ly stud­ied of these strate­gies is dehu­man­iza­tion, also termed objec­ti­fi­ca­tion. In this process, cer­tain groups of peo­ple are seen as lack­ing either unique­ly human and/​or human nature attrib­ut­es. The for­mer are those qual­i­ties seen to dis­tin­guish us from ani­mals (such as ratio­nal­i­ty, intel­li­gence, moral­i­ty and agency), the lat­ter are those felt to be deep with­in us, uni­ver­sal and dis­tin­guish­ing us from inan­i­mate objects (such as warmth and emo­tion­al­i­ty)56. So when peo­ple are objec­ti­fied, they are per­ceived as hav­ing less of a mind, and being less com­pe­tent, less sen­si­tive to pain, and/​or less deserv­ing of moral treat­ment57. In turn, var­i­ous actions that hurt and harm them can be viewed as accept­able, or indeed log­i­cal. For exam­ple, if peo­ple are not viewed as hav­ing agency, as being inde­pen­dent deci­sion mak­ers, they can be exclud­ed from involve­ment in deci­sions that affect them; if peo­ple are viewed as less capa­ble of pain and hurt, they can be the tar­get of aggres­sion, and so on.

A par­tic­u­lar focus in media on women’s appear­ance or sex­u­al fea­tures and func­tions is inher­ent­ly object­fiy­ing, so it unsur­pris­ing that research indi­cates that pornog­ra­phy usage increas­es view­ers’ ten­den­cy to objec­ti­fy women58. Giv­en the link between objec­ti­fi­ca­tion and atti­tudes sup­port­ive of sex­u­al vio­lence and harass­ment59, this is like­ly to explain at least in part, pornography’s role in spurring this behav­iour. Inter­est­ing­ly, the study cit­ed above that found porn to increase lying, found it did so via its impact on objec­ti­fi­ca­tion – it is eas­i­er to lie to oth­ers when they are sim­ply viewed as a means to an end. Note the spill-over effects implied here – when peo­ple objec­ti­fy those they see on screen, they are more like­ly to objec­ti­fy those around them.

Oth­er moral dis­en­gage­ment mech­a­nisms that we can pre­dict porn to encour­age include: euphemistic labelling (for exam­ple, aggres­sion, degra­da­tion and humil­i­a­tion labelled as hard­core’ or bdsm’); pal­lia­tive com­par­i­son (for exam­ple, the implic­it mes­sage that there are many out there watch­ing worse’); mis­con­stru­ing and min­imis­ing the con­se­quences of actions (for exam­ple, painful actions usu­al­ly depict­ed as not caus­ing pain); and vic­tim blam­ing (for exam­ple, reg­u­lar deroga­to­ry labelling of women and girls as sluts, whores, and bitch­es60).

In sum­ma­ry, through a set of pow­er­ful, inter­lock­ing process­es, main­stream online porn works to pull peo­ple awayin their thoughts and actions from their intrin­sic val­ues and moral core. Yet these are cen­tral parts of being human. When we act in line with them, we are more con­tent, inte­grat­ed and vitalised, and we con­tribute to the good of oth­ers and the world in which we live.