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Naked children, moral philosophy and photographs

By Peter Bowden - posted Friday, 15 August 2008


The debate about children in art and the surrounding morality started with Bill Henson's photographs of naked pubescent children. It is wider now, extending in several directions.

First has been the front cover of Art Monthly Australia with the photo of a naked six-year-old Olympia Nelson, a photograph staunchly defended by her father, and then savagely castigated by Miranda Devine. Next has been the request by the Minister that the arts community come up with a set of protocols. But the final reason the debate has widened is the most intriguing - and difficult to answer - and that is the pitting of people with respected social consciences on either side of this debate.

It opened with Cate Blanchett against Kevin Rudd.

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Not long after, a highly regarded Julian Burnside, defender of refugees, took a position opposite to an equally respected Clive Hamilton, Professor of Ethics at Charles Stuart University. But the most important question is, in discussing these issues with many people, I find some whose opinions I have long respected, see no wrong in exhibiting photos of naked children. Others, in contrast, intrinsically believe the exhibitions are wrong.

These paragraphs are an attempt to discover why the community differs, and whether we can find an answer. It will not be easy for the arts community to develop protocols.

A first step was to explore what guidelines the great thinkers on moral philosophy have left us. They will not give us an absolute ruling but they might help decide. Immanuel Kant seemed the most appropriate: if you are unwilling to allow everybody to adopt an activity whenever they wanted to, then that activity is not morally acceptable. Would we allow photographers to photograph and exhibit the photos of every pubescent child who was willing to pose for him? Even when the parents of the willing children gave permission - for whatever reason, for the child to do so?

Kant's second categorical imperative was even stronger which was that we should not use anybody for our own purposes. It is a superb injunction that asks us to respect the autonomy, individuality and self-respect of other people.

What ever the parents' motives might be, or the photographer's, be it an artistic desire, a search for notoriety, or to make money, they are using their children for their own objectives. A naked full frontal is unlikely to be the photographic objective of any child, but even for those that it is, the children are not old enough to make these decisions.

 We only have to look at the experiments of Stanley Milgram in the 1970s that showed us the extent that adults will obey people they believe to be in authority, even when such obedience is against all basic instincts. Would it not be more so with children?

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Another major moral guideline comes from John Stuart Mill, which we know as utilitarianism, or consequentialism. He said create happiness, avoid harm. This theory, which is probably the most widely used moral theory today, is only partially useful. We are not sure whether the photos cause harm. Did Olympia Nelson suffer any harm? Will she, or any of the child models, as adults, feel mortified when the photos surface in adulthood?

Aristotle and then Aquinas supposedly gave us the virtues to guide our moral decisions but the virtues are rarely of much use in today's difficult decisions. I can always find a virtue to support one side and another to support the opposite view. In this case, none of the seven virtues provide any guidance.

So a wider search becomes necessary. From social gatherings to a survey of attendees at a national ethics conference, listening to the public debates, as well as this paper, all became methods of determining why people's opinions differ.

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is formerly Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University and now Research Associate in the Department of Philosophy at Sydney University. He is currently a Research Associate in the Department of Philosophy at Sydney University, working on institutional ethics, runs with others a Philosophy Cafe (Philo Agora) in Sydney and is on the National Committee of Whistleblowers Australia.

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