Link to article on SEP.

Consider the following quote:

“The term “pornography” is used in all of these different ways in everyday discourse and debate, as well as in philosophical discussions: sometimes it is used to mean merely material which is sexually explicit; sometimes it is used to mean material which is sexually explicit and objectionable in some particular way; and so on. It seems to me that we do not need to choose between these different definitions, for all of them capture something of the term’s everyday use. What matters crucially is that we know which definition is being used in a particular case. For the fact that “pornography” has different senses can have two very unfortunate consequences if these differences are not clearly noted and kept in mind: it can make it seem that there is disagreement when there is not; and it can obscure the real nature of the disagreement when there is.

Here is one topical example of how this might happen. Some feminists object to pornography on the grounds that it harms women. Other feminists claim that pornography may not always be harmful to women, and may even sometimes be beneficial. It seems that there is genuine disagreement here. But is there? Not necessarily. For the two sides might mean different things by “pornography”. Suppose that feminists who object to pornography are defining “pornography” as sexually explicit material that subordinates women. So pornography, for them, is that subset of sexually explicit material that in fact harms women. This definition makes it an analytic truth that pornography, wherever it exists, is bad from a feminist point of view. Feminists who defend pornography, however, may be using “pornography” to mean simply sexually explicit material (regardless of whether it is harmful to women). There may thus be no genuine disagreement here. For both sides might agree that sexually explicit material that harms women is objectionable. They might also agree that there is nothing objectionable about sexually explicit material that does not harm women (or anyone else). If protagonists in the debate are using “pornography” in different senses in this way, they may simply be talking past each other.”

It seems to me that it is important to keep this to mind when using a word that has different meanings in a debate. It is entirely gereralizeable to other issues that are not pornographic.


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