The Gospel Coalition

Law professor Robert Miller has an important and sobering response to a letter from Professor Robert P. George and Shaykh Hamza Yusuf sent to hotel executives urging them to cease the sale of pornographic films and channels on their hotel TVs.

George and Yusuf, building on the idea that all that is legal is not necessarily morally right, present the heart of their argument as follows:
We urge you to do away with pornography in your hotels because it is morally wrong to seek to profit from the suffering, degradation, or corruption of others. Some might say that you are simply honoring the free choices of your customers. However, you are doing much more than that. You are placing temptation in their path---temptation for the sake of profit. That is unjust. Moreover, the fact that something is chosen freely does not make it right; nor does it ensure that the choice will not be damaging to those who make it or to the larger community where degrading practices and materials flourish.

They conclude their appeal as follows:
We believe that the properly regulated market economy serves the good of all by providing products and services at reasonable prices and by generating prosperity and social mobility. But the market itself cannot provide the moral values that make it a truly humane and just institution. We---owners, managers, employees, customers---must bring those values to the market. There are some things---inhuman things, unjust things, de-humanizing things---that should not be sold. There must be some things that, for the sake of human dignity and the common good, we must refuse to sell---even it if means forgoing profit.

In Professor Miller's response, he identifies some of the obstacles to this proposal---namely, the financial cost of such a decision, and perhaps (amazingly) the illegality and liability of it, given the relationship between executives and shareholders within a corporation.

This is the most important part of Professor Miller's perspective:
There is an important lesson here about how our society is organized, and it can be best brought out by a comparison. Like pornographic videos, videos espousing racist views are immoral but legal, but we never find such videos on offer in hotel rooms or, for that matter, almost anywhere else. Why not? Obviously, because practically everyone nowadays finds racist views deeply offensive, and any company that attempted to make money selling such trash would be severely punished by the market. The situation is different with pornographic videos because a significant portion of the population wants to watch such videos and, more importantly, a large majority of the population doesn't object to their doing so. With racist videos, market institutions reinforce a moral result; with pornographic videos, market institutions reinforce an immoral result. The lesson is that, when a people's desires are consistent with moral norms, markets produce moral results, but when a people's desires are inconsistent with moral norms, markets produce immoral results. The economic institutions of capitalism are thus analogous to the political institutions of democracy. With limited exceptions, laws can be enacted and enforced in a democratic society only if they command the support of a large majority of the population. Hence, it is not so much wrong as it is impossible to impose moral norms through law: the only norms that can be imposed in this way are norms that already command broad support.

The legal institutions of a democratic and capitalist society are not designed to give people what is good and prevent them from getting what is bad; they are designed to give people what they want and not give them what they don't want. For this reason, some people decry capitalism and democracy as amoral. Such views are misguided. In a democratic and capitalist society, there is a certain division of labor: it is up to the people themselves to become moral individuals with moral desires, while the political and economic institutions of the society implement the individuals' aggregated desires. In any alternative system, there are institutions not accountable to the people and powerful enough to impose their will (really the will of the individuals who control the institutions) on everyone who disagrees with them. The historical record of such institutions has been terrifying, which is the best argument in favor of democratic capitalism. It is true that, in such a system, it may be harder to be moral when your understanding of morality is different from the majority view, but at least you will not often be forced into doing what you think is wrong. You may be seduced, but you will not be coerced. Democratic capitalism is a moral system, but in this system the guardians of morality are not institutions but the people themselves. . . .



July 20, 2012 at 08:23 AM

Why on earth should pastors get preferential treatment? Lay people find the distractions you mention just as much as a problem.


July 19, 2012 at 11:30 PM

I've often pondered why, when there are big gatherings of pastors for conventions, they don't somehow regulate the television availability in the rooms. You know, arrange it so that the rooms are no-frills and no cable: and I mean not just porn, but no prime networks (which aren't much different) or anything, so that the pastors can keep their focus on the conference without having a stupid distraction like television and readily-available porn at their fingertips. For crying out loud, they give away stacks of books at these conferences, don't they? So why not eliminate the life-wasting TV completely, and set the hotel rental up as a "room with bed only and no cable" arrangement? Wouldn't that make sense to conditionally kill the cable for all pastors for the timeframe of the conference? couldn't a hotel attange this?

Mert Hershberger

July 19, 2012 at 03:47 PM

This is why it is vital that we make disciples of all nations: so that the nations will choose what is right. Not just pastors, but all Christians who speak up for what is right and against what is wrong have an impact. I dare say fathers and mothers who raise their children in the nurture of the Lord have more positive impact than many pastors.

Steve Ross

July 19, 2012 at 02:43 PM

Great's so true that without the support of like-minded compatriots, we are much more likely to succumb to our more base desires. This is one reason why we need to live in community rather than isolation.

Steve Fuchs

July 19, 2012 at 02:31 PM

Thanks be to God that in the NC system of absolute monarchy, we citizens of heaven will ultimately, upon the redemption of our bodies and the full consummation of our adoption, be Coerced rather than Seduced into moral righteousness.
This is what's promised from the one who is perfect:
"I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my righteous ways" Ezek 36/Jer 31
We groan inwardly for that day when our bodies too are redeemed. Rom 8

When the one controlling the institution is himself perfectly righteous, then and only then is coercion a gracious blessing to long for, even though in any other case it is a curse.
Contrary to popular belief, seduction (to righteousness) is not the promise of the NC system. .

Grab bag « Words of Grace

July 15, 2012 at 11:41 AM

[...] Taylor summarizes a discussion by Professor Robert Miller about “Hotel Pornography and the Market of Morality.”  Miller uses this situation to talk about the relationship between democracy and capitalism.  It [...]


July 15, 2012 at 06:29 PM

"It is always easier to practice virtue and resist vice when you have support of your compatriots."-Francis

Yep. I grew up when all films were "G" rated. It was a more moral culture, but the hearts of men were still wicked, weren't they. Perhaps a bit more religion, (going to church, etc.), mixed with moral attitudes made for a better society, but God gets down into our hearts and souls, doesn't He. He exposes us for what we truly are. And the only way a soul and heart can be set free is the Gospel. God quickens a soul, and the Gospel becomes that soul's new love; Christ Himself becomes the love of this new heart.
And this new heart will struggle, although Jesus says to the quicken disciple, "Go and sin no more." Porn is filthy pollution running through our nation, and yet only God can clean this up with His Gospel flooding the hearts of sinners.

I pray the Church would preach Jesus to a world that is full of sin and religion. Amen.

[...] don’t really have anything substantive to add to Justin Taylor’s post on “The Market of Morality” but Princeton’s Robbie George has written a great [...]

Steve Long

July 15, 2012 at 04:10 PM

Public companies make "moral" decisions all the time about how to operate their business, without bowing to the moral compass of the public. Do you think the average shareholder of Wal-Mart is in favor of the corporate policy to not sell music with a Parental Advisory?

Francis Beckwith

July 15, 2012 at 03:50 PM

Miller has got it backwards. The laws on obscenity changed before the markets changed. In fact, when the laws changed in the 1960s it was the consequence of pressure from elites, not ordinary people. The influence of legal realism, pragmatism, and Millian understandings of liberty had begun to dominate the law schools. Ordinary folks still thought, and correctly, that pornography was immoral, even if on occasion they indulged in after acquiring on the black market.

With the ascendancy of the internet, things changed drastically. Now Miller points out that there is a market for this stuff that CEOs and boards cannot ignore. That may be true, but the clamor for pornography is not what produced the market. What produced the market was a change in law that undermined self-governance and opened the floodgates. Once they were open, a market was born that had not been there before. Again, I am not naive to believe that people did not desire pornography when it was illegal. Of course they did. What I am suggesting that far more people abstained than abstain today, largely because it was illegal, and many of them were grateful for the fact, since it made virtue easier to practice. It is always easier to practice virtue and resist vice when you have support of your compatriots.

John K.

July 15, 2012 at 01:03 AM

Church leaders will be able to provide better guidance when they better understand the market, business, and what their parishioners do every day from 8-5. Unfortunately, not many pastors know what they are speaking in to...

In college I came across the Acton Institute (, well worth the time of those who have good intentions...

[...] Hotel Pornography and the Market of Morality — Can the market direct morality, or does it work the other way around? Here’s an exchange between law professors on the ethics involved with selling pornography in hotels. Two of them — a Christian and a Muslim — asked hotel executives to stop offering pornographic videos in their hotel rooms on the grounds that it tempts travelers to sin, while another lawyer responds that the market (like the law) is incapable of imposing moral norms on the people. It is true that, in such a system, it may be harder to be moral when your understanding of morality is different from the majority view, but at least you will not often be forced into doing what you think is wrong. You may be seduced, but you will not be coerced. Democratic capitalism is a moral system, but in this system the guardians of morality are not institutions but the people themselves. . . [...]

Peter G.

July 14, 2012 at 04:06 PM

I think Miller is right. Majority rules does not mean morality rules.

Pedro Jimenez

July 14, 2012 at 01:04 PM


I like your blog. Keep doing your great work.


Joshua Harris

July 13, 2012 at 12:18 PM

To me, Professors George and Yusuf misspoke when they said the "market" itself cannot provide moral values. The market is already constituted by the owners, managers, and employers, etc. That's what the word means. If this letter were to make consistent sense, it would have to undermine the language altogether--as opposed to simply reorganizing the terms.

Carlton Wynne

July 13, 2012 at 03:50 PM

Justin, etc.

You may be interested to know that Robert Rowling, Texas owner of Omni Hotels and a committed Christian (and PCA church member), quietly made his rooms porn-free in 1999, long before streaming entertainment via phones, iPads became commonplace. As "market forces" would have it, this decision was not only revenue sustaining but, in some cases, enhancing.

Todd Hoyt

July 13, 2012 at 02:53 PM

This is an appropriate post as thousands of Christians will be in Orlando hotels for ICRS this week. Regarding the legality of making available only certain content, that argument does not work. What about staying in hotels that have no TV, or limited TV, and I can't get ESPN or History Channel? The argument can only extend so far.

Frank Gantz

July 13, 2012 at 02:05 PM

As one who spent more than a decade managing hotels, let me assure you that these movies do not remain because of profitability. Hotels make very little and usually fight to avoid losing money each month. The hotel guests fees go toward paying the companies who provide the movies.
Where they remain, it is because of a perceived value to guests.

Bruce Russell

July 13, 2012 at 01:59 PM

Someday, we hope, the Church and its preachers will provide moral guidance to the market.

Brandon Vogt

July 13, 2012 at 01:01 PM

Professors George and Yusuf are not attempting to 'force' anyone into doing anything. They're not aiming to have pornography outlawed in hotels, and thereby "impose moral norms through law."

They're simply making an appeal to morality and conscience and *asking* the hotels not to provide pornography.

I'm not sure why Professor Miller thinks that is illegal.