On a Philosopher Defending Pedophilia

Larry Sanger

A series of short videos, all drawn from interviews with philosophy professor Stephen Kershnar of SUNY-Fredonia, has gone viral—because he has the shocking temerity (and I use that phrase totally unironically) to defend pedophilia. This is nothing new, by the way. I’ve been aware of his 2015 book, which I will not link, which defends pedophilia. If his contemptible attempts to change the culture to legalize sex with children will finally be subjected to the Internet’s wrath, I say: excellent.

I do not have time to respond in depth to his philosophical work, and I am not sure it would, in the end, be a very good idea for me to do so. But I thought I would comment on the puerile and shockingly ridiculous things I heard come out of his mouth in the following short clips shared by the @libsoftiktok Twitter account. Here goes, then.

Should a defense of adult-child sex be taboo? Suppose, Kershnar says, an adult man wants to have sex with a 12-year-old girl, and she is a “willing participant.” “It’s not obvious to me that it’s in fact wrong,” Kershnar intones.

My immediate response to this is, “It’s obvious to me that it is in fact wrong. What’s wrong with him?”

Philosophers often put absurd views on the table, saying “It’s not obvious to me that not-p,” and this is regarded as a more or less legitimate move to create some space to argue that p (any philosophical position at all). Others tolerate this move more or less out of respect for the wide-open perspective that philosophy as a discipline requires. If not-p were obvious, then the argument for p could not begin.

There are in fact very few instances in philosophy where you could respond, “It’s obvious to everyone else that that not-p—so what are you talking about, dude? What’s wrong with you?” But the present case strikes me as one; other strongly-held moral principles make other cases. Imagine he had said, “It’s not obvious to me that murdering absolutely innocent people is wrong.” Or, “It’s not obvious to me that raping any woman I want to is wrong.” Or, “It’s not obvious to me that I should not take out a knife and slit your throat.” Would we allow him to proceed?

When he says it’s not obvious to him that engaging in statutory rape of a 12-year-old girl is wrong, he’s declaring the issue to be an “open question,” or in other words, it is not absolutely out of bounds to debate it seriously. And yet it seems to me it is and should remain a closed question. I certainly would never want to take a course from a professor with such views, nor would I want my child taking a course from him, nor would I want to hire him if I were in a position to do so.

This is especially the case because Kershnar goes on to declare that believing sex with 12-year-olds to be wrong is actually “a mistake.” In other words, he’s not just saying it’s not obvious that it’s wrong, he appears to come right right out and say that sex with 12-year-olds is in fact morally permissible (not wrong). Incredible.

Now, this is not to say we could not explain why statutory rape of a 12-year-old is indeed so wrong as to be quite rightly regarded as a taboo (which is what I think). In fact, I have written an essay doing exactly that; it is called “Why Pedophilia Is Evil.” But seriously taking the contrary position strikes me as something that ought to be ruled out of bounds, period.

Anyway, let’s go on.

A question-begging “threshold” argument. Next, he says that we might want to imagine a threshold below which all sex with children is wrong: “I’m making this number up here, let’s say it’s age 8.” What follows? Kershnar says, “Still, that tells you some adult-child sex is permissible.” Really. He says that: watch the video.

Now, obviously Kershnar could be going over some more complex arguments quickly, but the way he puts it here in this clip would be laughable, if it were not seriously outrageous. His argument appears to be:

Suppose

(1) Sex with children age 8 and below is not permissible; sex above that age might be permissible.

It follows logically that

(2) Therefore, sex with some (older) children is permissible.

Yes, this conclusion follows from this premise, but the premise is obviously false. So the argument begs the question.

What is fascinating is not the argument so much as the fact that he actually thinks it is acceptable to make such a terrible argument, and that he continues to hold a position in the SUNY university system.

The wrongness of sex with a baby is not quite obvious to Kershnar. Yes, that is what he says. On what grounds does he motivate remaining open to such an unspeakably evil act? I kid you not, he says:

There are reports in some cultures of grandmothers fellating their baby boys to calm them down when they’re collicky. Now I don’t know if this is true, but this is just, sort of, widely reported as occurring in at least one culture. …and the grandmothers believe the sex works. … If this were to be true, it’s hard to see what would be wrong with it. … I don’t think it’s a blanket wrong at any age.

He says this as if it were a good argument. But it is hard to imagine even a green freshman philosophy student making such a terrible argument.

What this shows about Kershnar is what is interesting to me, as an anthropological point. He seems to think that one can believe what one likes on an issue, even sex with babies, if it is permitted in “at least one culture.” He seems to be trading on multiculturalist, cultural relativist assumptions. Because it is permitted in some culture where grandmothers think fellating babies “works,” and because Kershnar can’t see what is wrong with it, it is (or might be?) permissible.

That he arrives at such a ridiculous conclusion, it seems to me, is a very strong argument against, what philosophers call a reductio ad absurdum of, Kershnar’s ridiculous cultural relativist assumptions.

Kershnar says those wanting to ban “adult-child sex” (i.e., child rape) “bear the burden” to justify such bans. Think molesting children should remain illegal? The burden is on you to justify those laws! Bet you can’t convince Kershnar!

The ridiculous assumptions he seems to be making here are:

(a) There exist no good reasons to ban child rape. (A contemptible assumption. Again, see my essay.)

(b) If no one has produced a careful analysis of such reasons, then child rape should not be outlawed. (One wonders if any analysis could possibly satisfy his twisted, evil principles.)

(c) The vast, strong, long-standing set of taboos against sex with children—regardless of some minor qualifications and some exceptions in some decadent and backward cultures—is not itself a strong prima facie argument against it, meaning the burden rests on the monster who wants to dismantle the taboo. (Of course the taboo is a strong prima facie argument against the practice. Things are and remain taboos for typically good reasons. You don’t get rid of taboos lightly.)

No further comment here seems necessary. His claim about where the burden lies seems just obviously false.

There are evolutionary advantages to adult-child sex. Ugh. This is particularly disgusting. I just can’t.

I’m done. This pair are like movie villains. They’re beyond parody. Chances are, both of them were molested as children themselves.

I think that’s quite enough.