Are cartoon characters persons?

A judge in the New South Wales Supreme Court has decided that Bart and Lisa Simpson are persons under the age of 16.

This is odd. According to The Simpsons, Bart and Lisa are certainly persons under the age of 16; but 'according to The Simpsons, P' does not entail P, I would have thought. Indeed, according to the Simpsons, Bart and Lisa exist, while in reality they don't. And since Bart doesn't exist, no-one is Bart Simpson; so in particular, every person under the age of 16 is not Bart Simpson; therefore Bart Simpson is not a person under the age of 16.

Saul Kripke, Peter van Inwagen and others have argued that fictional characters really do exist. On this view, however, they are still not persons, but abstract objects. Bart Simpson, for example, was created in 1989, which makes him a 19 year-old fictional character. He is not a 10 year-old boy, even though, of course, he is one according to The Simpsons.

Justice Adams, the Supreme Court judge, rejects both eliminativism and abstractism about fictional characters. What is his own view? Perhaps he is a Lewisian modal realist and holds that fictions describe events in other possible worlds. Then Bart Simpson really is a person under the age of 16, living in a universe spatio-temporally isolated from ours. Or perhaps Justice Adams is a Meinongian and holds that Bart Simpson is a real but non-existent person. Either option looks rather unattractive to me.

The Supreme Court these days cares about the ontology of fictional characters because it doesn't understand intensional transitive verbs. According to New South Wales state law,

"child pornography" means material that depicts or describes, in a manner that would in all the circumstances cause offence to reasonable persons, a person under (or apparently under) the age of 16 years (a) engaged in sexual activity, or (b) in a sexual context, or (c) as the victim of torture, cruelty or physical abuse (whether or not in a sexual context).

Given this definition, should a cartoon depicting Bart and Lisa Simpson having sex count or not? That is, should depicting Bart and Lisa Simpson engaged in sexual activity count as depicting persons under the age of 16 engaged in sexual activity?

'Depict' is an intensional transitive verb. This shows up in the fact that 'C depicts an F that is G' has a relational reading on which it entails that there is an F, and a notional reading without this entailment. On the relational reading, if you draw a pig flying to the moon, the pig you are drawing is a real pig -- perhaps your pet pig Fred. On the (usually more natural) notional reading, your picture does not depict any particular actual pig. On this reading, to depict an F that is G is simply to depict that there is an F that is G.

What happened, I suspect, is that Justice Adams felt that depicting Bart and Lisa Simpson having sex should count as depicting persons under the age of 16 having sex. Bewitched by grammar, he didn't see the notional reading of 'depict', and concluded that Bart and Lisa Simpson must be persons under the age of 16. What he should have said is that the law is to be read notionally.

Would that be true though? Perhaps it depends on why the law is in place. A common argument for outlawing child pornography is the suffering of children in its production. This may seem to favour the relational reading, but in fact it makes little difference for human suffering whether I draw a cartoon of a real child or of a fictional child. Even on Justice Adams's Lewisian/Meinongian theory of fictional characters, depicting harm is hardly the same as causing harm. (There's a difference between writing a novel about a murder and committing a murder.) The way the law is stated makes it clear that it is not primarily concerned with the production stage, but more with the consumption stage. Perhaps the argument is that looking at (any?) such material causes sufficiently many people to commit serious crimes. From my armchair, this seems kinda unlikely, but if it is true, then it is probably irrelevant whether the depiction depicts a real person or not. After all, the difference is highly extrinsic: two pictures can be atom-for-atom duplicates, yet one depicts someone real and the other one doesn't. So the intended reading is probably notional: depicting Bart and Lisa Simpson having sex really should count as depicting persons under the age of 16 having sex.

By the way, if 'person' is used for non-humans, where does the '16 years' limit come from? That looks rather anthropocentric. What if the depicted non-humans reach maturity after two years?

The law seems to apply the term 'person' very liberally. It states that societies, companies, and corporations are also persons. In New South Wales, material depicting offensive cruelty towards companies founded after 2002 1992 is therefore child pornography.


# on 08 December 2008, 12:34

I guess you wanted to write "founded after 1992" in the last sentence. Or do companies reach maturity quicker than humans, too?

# on 08 December 2008, 12:40

Oops, thanks, was living in the future.

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