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A question posted and closed this morning, which concerned the ethics of using AI to generate images of child pornography, prompts me to ask whether it is possible that there might be topics which, if raised in questions, are likely to damage the reputation of Philosophy SE, and if so whether it might be helpful to have a policy about handling such questions. I appreciate that it might be difficult to delineate a boundary between what was and wasn't likely to be damaging, but I thought it might be an interesting problem to consider.

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A question cropped up today, see Aggregate utility and the sadistic theatre which cites a scenario of child rape as the basis for an academic discussion about utility. Surely that should not be tolerated on the site. I can just imagine tabloid headlines about it. Many other scenarios featuring one person being disadvantaged for the benefit of others could have served as the basis for the question, so the choice seems gratuitously offensive while presenting a risk of serious damage to the reputations of the site and the people who contribute to it. I would be grateful if the moderators could reconsider whether the question should be deleted or at least edited in a way that makes it less controversial.

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  • I saw that as well, and it is deeply troubling. We need a clear policy on this, so when it happens again, nobody can cry foul. Definitely needs to be careful monitoring of answers for any such questions (if and when they are permitted). A single nut's answer can ruin the reputation of such a question (and by extension, Philosophy.SE as a whole). +1
    – Hokon
    Oct 6, 2023 at 5:27
  • I agree and came to Meta just to rant about that. Can someone start by deleting the thread in question? I am not offended easily but this is so gross! Made me want to ask in response: Is it unethical to draw your mother sucking bears?
    – Olivier5
    Oct 6, 2023 at 17:27
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    @Olivier5 and Hokon, many thanks. I was prompted to raise the issue not just because of the recent question- there was another some months ago about rape that seemed to be coming from an equally disturbed angle. While it might be hard to draw a line, those two had clearly crossed it. Oct 6, 2023 at 19:50
  • Discussing such an issue on the philosophically in clear web can be a cause for civil war. We're not here to report to the police and this is not open to a level discussion. Do not allow people who will receive psychiatric treatment to be not diagnosed by opening such topics for a few reductionist ideologists will want.
    – fkybrd
    Oct 18, 2023 at 11:56
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    I get the sense that some questions (including the one linked) refer to especially vile, disgusting sex-crimes because they hope to look at ethics for dealing with grossly objectionable things without getting derailed by numbness. This is, there're some deeply wretched, evil, and horrible things that might be mentioned in discussions of ethics that might end up being largely dismissed or zeroed-out because folks are so numb to them -- for example, war. Though desensitization doesn't seem to as readily apply to rape.
    – Nat
    Nov 29, 2023 at 10:01
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    We seem to be better at visualizing harm to one person than to many. More relatable?
    – Scott Rowe
    Jan 13 at 2:57

2 Answers 2

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Policy should primarily consist of reporting to Law Enforcement posts about pedophilia or child pornography. Merely banning or closing those questions will prompt their authors to ask elsewhere. I'm mindful that this suggested policy places burden on mods, but only they can ascertain users' data, discern which agency/jurisdiction to contact, and facilitate the agency's investigation.

The generic term "offensive content", more so if prefixed with "potentially", is too broad to be encompassed effectively in a single policy. It seems more appropriate to adopt a piecemeal approach as the need arises.

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    many thanks. I would be happy to trust the mods to exercise their judgement on a case by case basis, so perhaps we just need a policy statement along those lines. Oct 6, 2023 at 19:53
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I think we should go much deeper into this question, especially as philosophers. Progress would be developing the topic into multiple dependent sub-questions, rather than expecting a fast, final answer.

I can think of these aspects, so far.

  1. Pragmatic necessity. You mentioned a few times that a major concern is that “it would damage the reputation of the site”. It sounds like you are saying that regardless of if it is right or wrong, you are worried about undesirable outcomes, for example, some sort of unpleasant social hostility directed towards individuals or a group (users of the site, for example), or even a scenario where the site is shut down by a social group who opposes it.

  2. You also mention a certain example post as being “gratuitously offensive”. This raises other aspects of consideration. Let us say that the poster of that question could have used a less extreme example to effectively argue the same point. Should they have, and if so, for what reason? For example:

    a. is it merely inherently wrong to ever sort of increase the amount of “mental existence” (thoughts, writings) of things which are inherently morally wrong; i.e., because child rape is wrong, we should always, generally, and categorically strive to not even think about or discuss it - which would lend it a kind of noumenal existence in the world - unless we find it necessary for some reason? Perhaps this is a sort of “moral idealism” in the epistemological sense of “idealism”: if murder is wrong, we actually feel that we wish to decrease even the amount of mental phenomena in our universe regarding murder. (This would be an “inherent” axis of a moral consideration, i.e., the point is to designate something as inherently bad, but that our final decision regarding some action would be based on an interaction between multiple inherent moral criteria, so we might still choose to do something if it is moral in regards to other inherent criteria, like “discussing this topic allows us to understand what the ethical optimum is, so we should do that because it’s for the better.”)

    b. The argument from direct negative outcomes. I am running out of time and space here, so I summarize this is related to the idea of “trigger warnings”, where it is wrong to expose people to awful ideas simply because it is inherently traumatizing and/or emotionally painful, and can cause suffering.

    c. The argument from extended negative outcomes / consequences: we should never allow people to even question these ideas because it is leading to a culture and a society where such awful ideas begin to gain more traction and sanctioning, even if minor. We pragmatically want to oppose the occurrence of those social phenomena, by socially communicating to people that they are so wrong and unacceptable, we forbid them from having any type of connection to our platform.

    d. The argument from common sense, intuition, or perhaps a kind of epistemological “agnosticism”: “I don’t know if I have or need an argument for why this should be; I choose to believe intuitively in that it is wrong; I do not wish to open the possibility of making an error in reasoning which could allow me or someone else to falsely justify something that does, in light of later theories, turn out to be morally awful. I choose to hold the intuitive belief that such things are wrong.” This is certainly a valid perspective which, again, I’d love to analyze deeper, philosophically, as to why it may indeed be deeply logically and morally justified.


Because these are philosophical questions, we can package them as subquestions back on the regular Philosophy Stack Exchange site, to develop a philosophical theory to inform each one of them.

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