Follow us on

The Virtuous Paedophile?

by Matthew Beard
16 June 2017
LAW, JUSTICE AND HUMAN RIGHTS

Matt-Beard-Profile.jpg
What’s more important to society, good outcomes or virtuous citizens? Matthew Beard explores the complex ethics behind risk management of former sex offenders.


Imagine having a desire so strong, so vicious, you weren’t trusted to control it. Imagine it being so powerful you’d consider altering your body in an attempt to destroy it.

That’s precisely what people convicted of child sex abuse have been invited to contemplate. 

In NSW, sex offenders can now volunteer to be "chemically castrated" as part of their parole. They can choose to take libido-suppressing drugs that limit their experience of physical sexual desire and – over time – their ability to maintain an erection or engage in sex at all. The process is reversible.

At a federal level, the Australia government has announced new laws removing the passports of up to 20,000 paedophiles. This would prevent them from travelling overseas, primarily to South East Asia, where the government alleges many Australian sex offenders go to pay for child sex slaves. Supporters describe the new laws as a world leading step to combat child sex trafficking. 

If child sex offenders are simply unable to avoid acting on their desires, taking those desires away via something like chemical castration may give them freedom rather than removing it.

Both measures invite deep questions and fresh ways of thinking about how our community protects potential victims of sexual abuse – particularly children. Perhaps more deep are the questions the measures raise on how we protect potential sex offenders from themselves.

The first question touches on one philosophy’s more hotly-contested issues: free will. Are paedophiles so caught up in their sexual impulses that they simply cannot help but act on them when given the opportunity?

If child sex offenders are simply unable to avoid acting on their desires, taking those desires away via something like chemical castration may give them freedom rather than removing it. It would stop them from being slaves to their desires. According to the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, it would make them more able to act as human beings.

Frankfurt suggested all people have two kinds of desires: first order and second order. It’s easier to think about them as ‘the things you want’ and ‘the things you want to want’.

For paedophiles who can’t resist their impulses, it seems like a kindness to take those desires away. However, it also forces us to ask a troubling question: why did they deserve to be punished in the first place?

We all want lots of things. We want coffee, sex, revenge, a meaningful job and an extra hour of sleep. These are what Frankfurt calls ‘first order desires’. But we also want to be certain types of people. We want to desire the right things and we want to avoid the wrong things. Frankfurt describes these as our desires about desires – meta-desires, if you will. These are second-order desires.

Here’s how they work in practice. You might really want to eat a cheeseburger for lunch (first order desire) but if you’re dieting or a vegetarian, you’d wish you wanted something different, like a salad (second order desire).

Frankfurt believed second order desires are what define us as human beings. He wrote at a time when people with drug dependencies were a subject of philosophical inquiry. Did they have free will? Frankfurt thought they did. He felt even if they couldn’t control their first order desires, they still chose whether they wanted them or not. That is, they were still free and human in a really important way.

Virtue is formed when we are able to use our will to act on our second order desires, not our basic wants. A central test of virtue is how we act when we face temptation.

In opposition to Frankfurt we could say people with addictions are also trapped in a really important way. They’re trapped by an inability to bring their first order desires in line with their second order ones. They’re unable to live as they would like because their choices are subject to external forces. German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who more or less wrote the book on why free will was important for ethics (he called it autonomy), would probably have argued none of their actions were fully human because they were motivated by desires beyond their control.

This brings us back to paedophiles. For those who can’t resist their impulses, it seems like a kindness to take those desires away. However, it also forces us to ask a troubling question: why did they deserve to be punished in the first place?

Many would argue paedophiles can act against their desires and never be a child sex offender, even if it’s difficult. They would say the protective measures taken by the NSW and Australian governments aren’t because paedophiles lack free will, it’s because it keeps innocent and vulnerable people safe. ‘It’s just not worth the risk to children to let these people be free in the community while they still have these urges’, they might argue.

If by either chemical castration or travel bans we protect paedophiles from desires or situations that might lead them to do so again, we may well keep the community safer.

This forces us to consider how important it is for people to be able to resist temptation. Frankfurt’s talk about first and second order desires is useful but the key point for those of us thinking about ethics is that virtue is formed when we are able to use our will to act on our second order desires, not our basic wants. A central test of virtue is how we act when we face temptation.

If by either chemical castration or travel bans we protect child sex offenders from desires or situations that might lead them to offend again, we may well keep the community safer. However, in doing so we also prevent them from practicing or developing the virtues of sexual self-control. As the saying goes, there is no courage unless there is fear. Similarly, there is no self-control if there isn’t desire.

This might not be a concern to many. Indeed, we take similar measures in other walks of life. People opt for surgical interventions to deal with weight issues and some alcoholics take tablets that make drinking even a small amount incredibly unpleasant. Each case aims not to conquer the desire but to remove it.

Avoiding temptation works as long as you’re successful. If you fail, then you need some resources to manage the situation.

There’s nothing inherently evil about this. When it’s intended to guard people against doing the wrong thing, it may even be noble. As the Bible passage says: if your eye tempts you, cut it out.

Still, this leaves behind a risk. Unless someone – paedophile or not – is able to manage their desires when they arise, there is always the chance of something going awry. Avoiding temptation works as long as you’re successful. If you fail, then you need some resources to manage the situation.

What if for some reason a former paedophile stops taking the tablets and their desires return? What if they elect to stop taking them after the parole period? What if, despite our best efforts to restrict the movements of previous offenders, an opportunity for abuse arises?

We’re left to wonder, can paedophiles live a life of virtue – of abstinence? If not, how do we best protect their potential victims whilst perhaps also counting sex offenders themselves among the victims of desires they cannot control? And if self-control and virtue are possible even for former child sex offenders, at what cost do we take away their opportunity to build better habits?

Dr Matthew Beard is an Ethicist and Writer at The Ethics Centre.

Follow The Ethics Centre on TwitterFacebookInstagram and LinkedIn.

Twitter-Logo.png Facebook-Logo.png instagram-logo-sketch-copy.png linkedin-logo.jpg

Have a comment? Join the conversation on Facebook >>

An Ethi-call session could be one of the most important conversations in a person’s life, helping those stuck and struggling through complex ethical decisions. Make sure more people have access to this critical support.

EOFY-EMAIL-FOOTER_435x52_96dpi.jpg