Moral Badness vs. Punishment

Just Because You Didn't Demand Sex Doesn't Make It Better

The (now confessed) allegations against Louis CK are certainly awful behavior and shouldn’t be tolerated but they raise an interesting issue about the distinction between appropriate punishment and moral harm.

For instance, we set the penalty so high for some crimes (cheating on taxes or insider trading) not necessarily because those crimes are such atrocious moral infractions but because we need sufficiently high penalties to deter that behavior effectively. I’d argue that a similar thing is going on when someone uses their power over someone’s career to extort sexual favors.

Obviously, its morally unacceptable to ruin someone’s career for your own selfish reasons. However, we often tolerate people with power harming the careers of others out of pure pique, spite or other selfish reason. Now the individual moral harm of offering someone a choice (sleep with me or I hurt your career) is no more1 than the harm of simply hurting their career out of spite or pique.

However, this doesn’t mean we should reserve the same level of punishment (and here public condemnation is a form of punishment) for those two behaviors. The unfortunate fact of the situation is that without serious and strong punishment (legal or social) for, even implicitly, conditioning (non-sexual, porn-stars and prostitutes are hard cases) career success on sexual favors we risk creating an environment in which succeeding in an industry requires providing sexual favors. In contrast, when someone with power hurts a career out of spite, pique or on a lark we don’t face the same danger of creating an environment in which some people are systematically disadvantaged (we still face some risk of that). But, at least in an environment where demands for sexual favors aren’t the norm that doesn’t make the harm of the individual act greater.

Anyway, this is all a very long way of pointing out that while we appropriately punish people who condition career advancement on sex more it’s just as morally wrong to harm someone’s career for no reason or because you have some kind of personal or political disagreement with them. No, this is not an attempt to minimize the harm of behavior like that of Louis CK but, rather, to point out its no better when you screw over someone’s career because you dislike their politics, find their voice annoying or any other random (job unrelated) reason.


  1. I realize this claim is arguable but I think it’s true on reasonable psychological assumptions.