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The Moral Value of Prostitution


For years, prostitution has been viewed as an immoral act. From the Victorian age to the contemporary age, prostitutes have been criticized and even had to face the hand of the law for going in contrary to its stipulations. Mostly, the practitioners of this informal profession have been accused of soliciting or in the case of the ancient days, going against the morals of the society. Furthermore, states that are governed by religious laws- for example, Islamic laws- still hold on to the teaching that the act of prostitution is a woman’s worst sin. In some states, if caught in such acts, one could be subject to a hundred lashes (Mohammed, 2009, par. 6). However, this topic has triggered heated debates on whether prostitution could be beneficial to society if legalized. Many points have been put forward in opposition to this proposition while many others have been put forward in favor of the proposition. Accordingly, this paper suggests that prostitution, contrary to most of the held beliefs, is a beneficial trade whose legalization would contribute more positively to society than to its illegalization. In fact, the criminalization of prostitution can cause more havoc to society, both emotional and physical as compared to almost no damage as reflected in a well-organized prostitution setup.

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Anti-prostitution arguments

For decades, the feminist camp advocating against prostitution has pointed out several arguments in their effort to ascertain the evilness of prostitution. On the other hand, advocators for sex-for-work have rubbished these arguments pointing out that they are “extreme…absolutist, doctrinaire, and unscientific” (Weitzer, 2005, p. 2). To begin with, the arguments against prostitution will be highlighted. There are various accounts of the radical feminist theory concerning the issue of prostitution, according to Weezer. One of these versions could be regarded as “extreme” on the basis of its doctrinaire and absolutist nature. The work of such feminist writers as Catherine MacKinnon, Andera Dworkin, and Kathleen Barry, clearly exemplifies this approach. According to these writers, prostitution entails the exploitation and domination of females by males, despite societal context, historical time period, or even legal status. Owing to male dominance, female prostitutes are usually deficient in the agency. Accordingly, they are not frequently actively involved in the making of choices as to whether they should enter into prostitution, or remain in it. There is a clear indication of a lack of merit between what may be regarded as forced prostitution and voluntary prostitution. It then appears that women only get to make an independent choice should they opt to abandon prostitution in totality.

Feminist advocates argue that prostitution is synonymous with sexual violence. Literature that tries to justify the illegalization of prostitution usually purports that violence is, by design, present to every instance of prostitution by category and in universal terms. The literature argues that prostitution is a form of human rights violation against women. It suffices to say that feminist advocators against prostitution have always linked prostitution to violent and oppressive situations (Weitzer, 2000, p. 2). Weitzer further points out that those who campaign against prostitution argue that women prostitutes do not have agency. To be precise, they argue that the women who participate in this activity usually have no choice when entering or quitting this profession. In most cases, they are forced by circumstances to engage in this profession, and hence become victims of these unfair circumstances.

Most of the literature does not highlight the fact that there exists voluntary prostitution where women voluntarily choose to enter this profession. They argue that in most cases, women are prostituted. This is to say, prostitution is done on women and that they don’t choose to do it.

Finally, the feminist theorists argue that decriminalizing prostitution would be a government’s blessing on an institution that is morally deficient. They purport that making prostitution legal means doubling the extent of the evils mentioned above. By allowing prostitution, then there would be a resultant increase in the number of individuals engaging in it (Weitzer, 2005, p. 3). These have been cited to be among the major arguments of the feminists who are anti-prostitution. Considering their positions, one finds out that the arguments are not founded on more than one foundation. They only disallow prostitution from a moral point of view. All arguments point to the fact that should society deem it appropriate to legalize prostitution, then its moral fabrics stand eroded. This leads to another contagious issue, what are morals, how are they formed and how do they affect an individual?

Relevant theories

Scholars have tried to come up with explanations on what morals are and how they originate. This has led to the development of several viewpoints and hence diverse theories. It is therefore essential to understand some of these theories for one to be able to come up with a personal decision as to whether prostitution should be legalized or not. When dealing with moral theories, several factors come into question. These are the agent, the receiver, and the spectator. These three psychological players were developed by moral theorists like Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), Joseph Butler (1692-1752), and Francis Hutcheson (1694-1747). According to these moral theorists, an agent is a person who commits the action. The receiver is described as the person to whom the action is perpetrated or the person who feels the direct effect of the agent’s conduct. In our case, it is the prostitute of which the man has paid so that she can offer her services in exchange for money. Finally, the spectator is the person that silently observes and hence approves or disapproves the agent’s action (Fieser, 2005, par. 2). Is there a justification for the arguments against prostitution from the point of view of anti-prostitution advocates? According to the moral sense theories, a human being has an innate faculty for perceiving morals just like other faculties of sense which perceive smell, color, sound, touch, etcetera. The theorists argue that the moral sense of the spectator perceives the qualities of an action by the agent on a receiver and immediately analyzes it just like the other senses perceive an object and analyze its qualities. In essence, they argue that the way the eyes perceive an object, for example, an orange, and sees its color as orange so does the inbuilt moral faculty perceive an action and analyses to ascertain whether the action is good or bad. In this argument, two distinct positions are brought forward. The object, along with its qualities and the person who perceives such an object in question, is similar in moral view to an agent and his qualities. The same is also true for the spectator whose role it is to perceive these qualities (Fieser, 2005, par. 2).

From the given points of view, three distinct psychological positions are clearly outlined when applying to the prostitution case study. However, there are two distinct spectators in this case: spectators who find prostitution as immoral and therefore believe it should be banned and those spectators who find prostitution as harmless to the society and that it contains no immoral aspect and hence should be legalized. There is a disagreement with regard to the moral perception of feminists, the political leftists, and rightists amongst others, concerning the issue of legalizing prostitution. In this regard, there are those who view prostitution as being an immoral activity, while others tend to view it as a profession, and hence moral. So far, one cannot give a conclusion as to which one of the two perspectives is correct because the theories have pointed to the variations in the moral sense of individuals. Similarly, several people would have different perceptions of a similar object. For instance, an individual can perceive beauty (favorable qualities) in the Mona Lisa portrait. However, this does not necessarily imply that every human being will find the portrait captivating and interesting. Another person might find it boring and repugnant. Just like the senses of perception within different individuals might differ on a similar object, so do the moral senses from different spectators differ when directed to the same action by an agent. However, does the perception from the person who finds the Mona Lisa portrait attractive give it its qualities of attractiveness, or does the other perception of abhorrence determine the actual qualities of the portrait? To make a fair judgment, one must agree that the perception of the spectator cannot be used as the viewpoint from which the qualities of the object are determined. This could cause a rift between those who perceive the object as attractive and those who perceive it as boring. This means that the object is not summarily attractive or repugnant. It is the perception of the spectator that decides to label the object. To what conclusion does this drive? From this perspective, the object itself has no qualities. The qualities are within the mind frame of the spectator (Cohon, 2004, par. 5).

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Similarly, the perspective can be applied to the debate of whether prostitution should be legalized or not. As mentioned above, the feminist activists who are against prostitution have labeled the practice as immoral and degrading womanhood. However, this is their perception. It is clear that prostitution has no quality of its own. The quality is decided by the mind frame of the spectator. While the mind frame of the feminists finds prostitution to be immoral, pro-prostitution advocators find nothing wrong with the practice. This, therefore, drives us to the previous conclusion. The action itself is neither bad nor good. The badness and goodness are derived from the spectator’s mind. As a result, prostitution itself is not bad. Neither is it good. What makes it bad or good is the perspective from which one views it. And this perspective is determined by the mind frame of the spectator.

David Hume’s contribution

One of the distinguished contributors to the moral sense theory is David Hume. In his argument based on the three psychological positions, the agent, the receiver, and the spectator, Hume argues that the most essential feelings to take into account when analyzing the moral degree of action are the feelings of the agent and those of the spectator. Not those of the receiver. What contribution does Hume add to the prostitution debate? From his perspective, the receiver does not play an important role in the determination of moral degrees in actions. This means that while we try to point out the evilness of prostitution, we are obligated to base our judgment on the act itself instead; our judgments should be founded on the spectator’s and agent’s perspectives (Fieser, 2005, par. 6).

Considering the thesis of this paper, prostitution should be legalized. From the moral perspective, it has been established that the action itself has no qualities of badness or goodness. These qualities could only be determined in the mind of the spectator basing on the outcomes of the action. As Hume develops his theory, he argues that an individual develops his judgment criteria by joining the receiver to share the feelings that he derives from the actions of the agent. If the agent’s actions were of charity or benevolence, the receiver will equally develop fond feelings or agreeable feelings from the act. Subsequently, the spectator will observe this e spectator will develop agreeable feelings based on the fact that the receiver has developed agreeable feelings from the agent’s action. Similarly, if the agent’s action were based on injustice and hence developed disagreeable feelings in the receiver, the spectator will, in the same line, develop disagreeable feelings towards the action. Eventually, this becomes the basis of decision-making concerning the moral degree of action (Fieser, 2005, par. 8).


The motivations and moral values of individuals engaged in the approaches and debates to prostitution are issues that are quite complex in nature. This is a result of the different stances that proponents and opponents of prostitution have taken. Opponents of prostitution argue that it encourages violence, considering how males tend to exploit and dominate the females engaged in prostitution. Nevertheless, there is a need to appreciate the fact that not all forms of prostitution are characterized by violent episodes. For example, the indoor sector experiences far less frequent cases of violence in prostitution. In light of this, it may be argued that legalizing prostitution would also make it easier to reduce exploitation and violence. This is because a beneficiary of the services of a prostitute who perpetrates violence or exploitation would face the full force of the law, such as receiving a fine, or imprisonment.

In the absence of regulations of the business agreement, the man would want to have the services and not pay for them. This eventually leads to violence. By legalizing prostitution, there is a need to ensure that measures are put in place so that the women are not exposed to exploitation and violence. For example, the women would be subjected to testing for sexually transmitted diseases hence making it safe for them and for their clients (Sills, 2009, par 3).

Considering Hume’s theory development, one’s moral judgment will be based on the agreeable feelings that develop from the action of the agent. In this case, the agent is ready to offer money to the woman who has, according to the feminists, been forced by circumstances to enter prostitution. By legalizing prostitution, the woman will be in a position to get the money that will enable her to afford a decent life not just for herself but also for her family. Legalizing prostitution will put regulations on men who try to have free services and also involve violence (ILO, 1998, par. 6). Subsequently, the effect of the action of the agent will have generated agreeable feelings which will be triggered by the fact that the woman will have gained money to live a decent life. Equally, the spectator will share the agreeable feelings with the receiver and hence develop positive feelings towards prostitution. With legalized prostitution having reduced chances of diseases and violence, no bad activities will be associated with the profession. In addition to this, the government will get enough money to better the lives of its people. Therefore, prostitution is a beneficial trade whose legalization would contribute more positively to society in comparison to its illegalization.


Chappell, V.C. (1996). Hume: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday.

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Cohon, Rachel. (2001). Hume: Moral and Political Philosophy, Aldershot, England and Burlington, Vermont: Dartmouth/Ashgate.

Cohon, R. (2004). Hume’s moral philosophy. Stanford Encyclopaedia of philosophy. 2009. Web.

Fieser, J. (2005). Hume: Moral Theory. Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. 2009. Web.

Forbes, D. (1977). ”Hume’s Science of Politics” in Morice Austin (Ed). David Hume: Bicentenary Papers. Texas: University of Texas Press

International Labor Organization. (1998). ILO report on sex sector receives prestigious publishing prize at Frankfurt book fair. 2009. Web.

Mohammed, A. (2009). Lashing Stoning, Mutilating: Islamic Law is barbaric and outdated. Web.

Sills, P. (2009). The Benefits of Legalizing Prostitution. Helium. Web.

Weitzer, R. (2005). The growing moral panic over prostitution and sex trafficking. The Criminologist. 20(5): 2-5. 2009. Web.

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Weitzer, R. (2000). Why we need more Research on sex work. In R. Weitzer (ed), Sex for Sale: Prostitution, ponorgraphy and the sex industry. New York: Routledge.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, October 29). The Moral Value of Prostitution. Retrieved from


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