The Public Interest

Violence, pornography, and social science

James Q. Wilson

Winter 1971

To the extent that it has a philosophical basis, the case against censorship--at least in this country--typically rests on a utilitarian argument. Indeed, it is a leading utilitarian--John Stuart Mill- who is often cited in opposition to censorship in any form. Though Mill, in his essay On Liberty, wrote chiefly of the censorship of political and religious speaking and writing, his position can easily--I should say, must inevitably--be extended to the arts and amusements. "The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will," Mill wrote, "is to prevent harm to others." This principle applies not only to freedom of expression but to "liberty of tastes and pursuits." In this latter realm Oliver Wendell Holmes gave the utilitarian position its most memorable practical expression: "No woman was ever seduced by a book." Though many people echo this as an article of faith, it is of course an empirical statement. The truth or falsity of such factual, consequential statements is the ultimate basis of the utilitarian argument.

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