An interview with Christopher Tollefsen


Editor’s note: Christopher Tollefsen is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina.  He will be presenting in the upcoming conference, Pervasive Porn, at 1:45 p.m. in the McKenna Conference Center on Saturday, January 31.


Irish Rover: In the upcoming conference sponsored by Students for Child-Orientated Policy [SCOP], what specific topic will you be addressing?

I plan to start with a basic argument for why the use of porn, and hence the manufacture of it, is morally wrong.  The key claim is that an adequate concern for the good of marriage requires absolute unwillingness to deliberately arouse or satisfy sexual desire with someone other than your spouse.  But pornography use involves the rejection of precisely that unwillingness.  So it is wrong to use pornography.  Beyond that, though, I think porn use distorts our grasp of a number of important truths about sex, marriage, the nature of human persons, the nature of human sociality, and even the nature of the divine.  I hope to identify some of these distortions and show just how serious they are.

The consumption of pornography is definitely an issue present on Notre Dame’s campus.  How does pornography affect college-aged students?  Is it more harmful at that age given that people could be looking to form long-lasting relationships, such as in marriage?

The college years are central to our personally shaping, by our choices, our moral character.  The environment of many universities puts pressure on young people to make bad choices, and the choice to use, or continue to use, pornography, is one of those possible bad choices.  If the arguments of my paper are sound, making that bad choice threatens our grasp of the truth in a number of areas, yet the mission of any university centrally involves the pursuit of truth.  So widespread porn use, I believe, is, among other things, corruptive of a university’s soul.

What are the most important concrete steps that a viewer of pornography should take to change his or her lifestyle?

The first and most obvious is to stop consuming pornography entirely.  But among the dispositions that pornography use creates is the tendency to treat even non-pornographic materials as if they were porn; and more importantly, to treat real people, including oneself, in ways shaped by previous choices to consume porn.  Those who want to make real changes in their lives need to be aware of these consequences and work to cultivate the virtue of chastity.  Another first and obvious step, rarely discussed with college students: resolve firmly never to masturbate.  The two activities, porn use and masturbation, are surely mutually reinforcing.

With the recent commemoration of Roe v. Wade with the March for Life, could you comment on the central argument of the book you wrote with Robert George, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life?

We defended the following claims: that beings like you and I are, essentially, human beings—not minds or souls; that at conception, individual human beings come into existence, even if some human beings also come into existence in other ways, such as by twinning or cloning; and that all human beings, and hence even those just conceived, or still in utero, are owed the most fundamental forms of moral respect, and thus should not be killed for the benefit of another.  Finally, we argued that a fundamental purpose of the state and its laws is the protection of all human beings within the state’s borders against intentional attack and damage.  It is the radical failure of the state to provide this fundamental protection that we mourn at the anniversary of Roe; but we need to be constantly working in all seasons to convince our fellow citizens that willingness to take innocent human life is a terrible moral failure.

Can college students even have an effect on ending abortions in the United States?  What can they do?  With what short, decisive arguments can you supply them?

A large number of abortions are performed on college students.  So the most direct way that college students can have an effect is by leading chaste, life-affirming lives.  They can provide witness to these values to others, and make sound, not facile, arguments in the public square.  Professor George and I do think, if I may say so, that our book provides guidance for making some of those arguments.

Given Notre Dame’s identity as a Catholic university, how important is it for us to confront these two issues—pornography and abortion—head on?  Commenting from your position from outside of the university, how does the university look if it fails to take a stance on either abortion or pornography use?

It is essential.  As I noted above, a university’s mission to inquire into the truth is threatened by pornography; it is similarly threatened by abortion, the desire for which prompts us as a society to deny obvious truths, both scientific and moral.  But Notre Dame’s specifically Catholic identity and mission are also threatened if, because of its passive or even acquiescent approach, its students’ lives are characterized by acceptance of porn, of sex outside of marriage, and of abortion, a nearly inevitable accompaniment of widespread lack of chastity.  So it is a very promising sign of the times that the Tocqueville Program, SCOP, and others are sponsoring the upcoming conference.


John VanBerkum is a junior studying philosophy.  He encourages you to attend the Pervasive Porn conference on Saturday.  He can be reached at