Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The Objectionable Rape of Subjectivity


An interesting thing happens in some debates with certain types of theists.  It goes a little like this:

Prepared Theist (PT) – Without God there would be no objective moral values.  You agree that there are objective moral values, don’t you?

Unprepared Atheist (UA) – No, I don’t believe there are objective moral values.

PT – Ah, so you are telling me that rape is ok then?

UA – No, rape is wrong.

PT – Ah, so rape is objectively wrong, which means that there are objective moral values after all, doesn’t it?

UA – No, I mean yes, I mean, I don’t know what I mean.  Rape is wrong, but it’s not objectively wrong, it’s subjectively wrong.

PT – Ah, so it’s not necessarily wrong if someone else is doing the raping?  Or do you really mean that rape is always wrong?

At this point, the unprepared atheist feels the jaws of the trap begin to close.  Rape certainly feels wrong.  In fact, when I have run this argument myself, my victims have reported a quite strong emotional response to being hounded towards a statement that “rape is ok”.

However, what they also feel is that something is wrong with the argument.  They can’t quite put their finger on what it is, but they feel the “wrongness”.

Now this could be put down to cognitive dissonance, the discomfort you feel when you believe something at the same time as you know it to be false.  On one level you may be utterly convinced that there is no such thing as an objective moral value, but you are also convinced that rape is fundamentally wrong.

Personally, I think it is worth trying this argument out on someone because when you take the role of the “Prepared Theist”, you may be able to see the argument more clearly than when you are forced to play the victim role.  If, on the other hand, you’ve been the victim of this particular scam you should not feel too bad about your poor performance – even Richard Dawkins failed to think his way out of the bind.  He just burrowed deeper and is now quoted as saying that rape is “morally arbitrary” – implying that rape is not fundamentally wrong, just generally (and arbitrarily) accepted as wrong.

So what is the way out?

I want to point out at this stage that the way out that I recommend is not to attempt to redefine rape.  Nor is it to confuse the argument with discussions of statutory rape or fantasy rape involving neither compulsion nor violence or instances of rape within marriage or the controversy around “five second” or “30 second” rapes.  Nor is it to divert attention from the cognitive dissonance you might be experiencing.

When running this scam, the “Prepared Theist” takes advantage of your subjective response to a rape scenario, and more specifically your emotional response to a rape scenario.

When meeting this challenge, you should keep in mind that even if two (or more) people agree about any subjective value, agreement by those people does not make the subjective value objective – it just becomes a slightly more popular subjective value.  For example, calling on another argument from the rather sparsely populated toolbox of the apologist: the popularity of one flavour of ice cream (chocolate) over another (coconut) does not make one an objectively superior flavour and the other an objectively inferior flavour.  It’s true that the chocolate devotees might wish that their preference was objectively superior, but wishing does not make it so.  Similarly, no matter how strongly I might feel that rape is wrong, the strength of my opinion does not make my objection to rape objective.  Furthermore, the existence of another person who agrees with me on the issue of rape, or a billion people who agree with me, does not magically transform our shared subjective opinion into an objective fact.

Now pointing this out to a Prepared Theist is not likely to sway them.  This is not necessarily because your average theist is never easily swayed, nor that they struggle with such subtle points but more because theists tend to like explanations.  If they do, by some miracle, understand the point you make, the next question is likely to be along the lines of: “if there are no objective moral values, then why would the vast majority of people have precisely the same emotional response to a rape scenario?”

This is a good question, and the main point of this article.  We should ask ourselves the following question: is there a (non-moral) reason why we should have a common emotional response to rape in the absence of objective moral values?

I would say yes.  I would have thought that it is pretty obvious that the vast majority of people would agree that there are pragmatic reasons to object to rape, and if we have good pragmatic reasons to object to rape it is not such a stretch to imagine that we would have emotional responses to the idea of rape.

Since an appeal to the obvious just won’t suffice, let me illustrate (please stay with me, I do have a reason for doing what I am about to do):

Imagine you are walking along a path and you see a couple of pieces of relatively fresh excrement at the edge.  Now imagine the experience of picking them up and eating them, crunching through the thin, crispy outer shell so that the dribbly centre spurts out into your mouth.

Unless there is something seriously wrong with you, you should have just had a disgust reaction - unless of course you are a rather intelligent and internet-savvy dog (or maybe you had read it before, so you’ve become desensitised).

Eating excrement isn’t morally wrong, there’s no “Thou shall not eat doo-doo” in the Bible, so far as I am aware and there’s no reason to assume that it is really wrong.  The consumption of excrement is reasonably prevalent in nature.  Plenty of insects do it, along with the smaller critters that break down dung (if they didn’t we’d be knee deep in the stuff).  Rabbits will eat their own droppings to get maximum value from the food they eat.

One of my dogs is quite the aficionado and is unfailingly happy if he can manage to scoff down some poo – which he will do either during a moment’s inattention on a walk or when he can get in the house unattended and feast on the cat’s litter tray.  (This behaviour is not related to a dietary deficiency, for those who are worried.  He’s in perfect health according to the vet.)

For humans, however, copraphilia is a fast track to dysentery and, consequently, a nasty painful death.  We have, therefore, an extremely good reason to not eat excrement.  It is no surprise that we should feel disgust at the idea of doing so, there’s an evolutionary advantage inherent in our disgust response.

(For those who want to make mention of plural girls and singular cups {thanks to xkcd for sharing that disturbing image}, shame on you!  The point still stands, the vast majority of us feel some level of disgust at what is being referred to, even if it might be tinged by a sense of fascinated horror.)

As much as we might like to think that perhaps we should, it is highly likely that not all of us truly feel the same level of disgust at the idea of rape as we do at the idea of eating faeces.  Those who don’t feel the same level of disgust are still likely to feel some level of disgust, even if it is of a milder version.  The question then is: is there a reason why we should have an instinctual aversion to rape – or against allowing rape to occur?

Well, of course there is.  Again, however, we should not stop there.  Let me explain why we should avoid rape, that is – why we should not rape as a male, why we should avoid being raped as a female and why as onlookers we should feel uncomfortable about a rape occurring.

We are a type of creature who produces young very, very slowly – it takes up to nine months to create a human which is sufficiently developed to exit the womb and that newly produced human is fundamentally helpless for quite some time after that.  If you want to find creatures with longer gestation periods, you have to look to elephants, rhinos, giraffes, camelids (camels, llamas and alpacas) and ocean-going aquatic mammals.

Producing a child is a huge investment.

Now for a male, all effort towards producing a child could conceivably end after the sexual act.  However, this is fraught with danger if the male intends to use this approach to propagate his genetic heritage.  A successfully impregnated female becomes his child’s incubator for approximately nine months and, in natural terms, its only source of nutrition for several months after that.  The male, therefore, in order to be certain of success, must encourage the female to thrive and to succour his child when it arrives.  Positive, nurturing behaviour on the part of the female is less likely if the act leading to conception was non-consensual.

Note that for this argument to have force, it is not necessary that it be totally impossible for males to produce children this way, wars and invasions through the centuries have shown that children of rapes do in fact live to adulthood.  In evolutionary terms, it is merely necessary that the inclination to rape be marginally less successful when compared with than the inclination to engage in consensual procreative sex.  If rape is marginally less successful, then, over time, the rape-based procreation strategy becomes a genetic dead end.

So, for the male, rape as a principle is bad – so long as it is a less successful strategy than consensual procreative sex.

For the female, rape is not only likely to be painful and traumatising, but it also denies her the ability to select a preferred mate.  Sexual selection pressures are clearly observed in the animal world, in which the male is far more likely to be brightly coloured and hampered by some ridiculous encumbrance than the females of the same species (the peacock comes to mind).  When it comes to saying who gets to father a child, it is almost always the female who chooses.

(Rape is rarely a laughing matter, but we can rely on William Lane Craig to provide us with a smile in the most unlikely of circumstances.  For some reason, he chose the great white shark as an example when arguing that animals don’t have moral accountability: “When a great white shark forcibly copulates with a female, it forcibly copulates with her but it doesn’t rape her.”  I was a bit bemused by a couple of things, firstly by the choice to refer to the male shark as “it” and the female as “her” and secondly by the mental image of a fish trying to force its attentions onto another fish.  How would a male great white even manage this forcible copulation?  Has Craig failed to notice that sharks don’t have arms?

According to my careful research, no-one has ever seen the great white mating, so it would seem that we must rely on Craig’s unique personal testimony in this instance.  So if Craig could explain how the smaller male great white shark manages to force his attentions on the object of his desire, he’d be doing the scientific world a great favour.

Finally, why has Craig been using the great white shark as his example of rape-like behaviour in nature for the past decade?  I can understand that the example could have been initially chosen due to monumental ignorance on the part of Craig (much as Plantinga chose the tiger in his example), but surely he’s been advised since then that his example is nonsense?  If he has continued to use the example, despite being informed that it is nonsense, then it’s what we atheists call a “lie”.  I would have thought that continued monumental ignorance on the part of an academic is a somewhat weak excuse. He is supposed to be educated and by continuing to present an argument as if it were well-informed when it is patently not, he is also lying.)

Getting back to more serious thoughts … for a female, rape is bad for more than just the obvious reasons.

(I would have thought that pain and trauma that derives from rape should serve as sufficient justification for considering any rape to be unacceptable – including male-on-male rape – but I have noticed that some organisations tend to overlook the moral dimension of this pain and trauma under certain special circumstances.) 

Not only does the female not get to choose her partner if she is raped, but if she is successfully impregnated, she is locked out of the “market” for suitable mates until she becomes fertile again, about a year later.

There are a myriad of reasons why rape could be considered wrong from the perspective of the victim, but for the Prepared Theist pain and traumatisation on the part of a victim is apparently not a sufficiently obvious reason for something being wrong.  Therefore I’m going to present two arguments here for why rape is not a good option for the perpetrator, based on the fact that rape is a suboptimal option when a female victim is involved.

The first is patently ridiculous, but unfortunately not ridiculous enough to prevent American politicians from raising it.  Representatives Steve King and Todd Atkin made statements publically in the past year or so along the lines of “women can’t get pregnant from rape”.  (King said he hadn’t heard of it happening, Atkin said that a woman’s body can “shut down” the process of conception in the event of a “legitimate” rape.  Atkin sits on the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, so he must know what he is talking about.)  So, if this is the case, rape is bad for the male – you don’t get to produce children from it and by harming the female you risk potentially fatal retribution from her family as well as becoming a less attractive mate for other females.

The second argument is a little more nuanced.  The victims of rape are less likely to want any child produced from rape and therefore they are less likely to care for such a child.  Even in the best of circumstances there is a risk of mothers rejecting their babies, the chances of a child being rejected only needs to be slightly higher if rape is involved for rape to be a less successful strategy than consensual procreative sex.

Then there is the risk of women who are pregnant as a result of rape committing suicide due to the trauma which also results from rape.

For an onlooker, the reasons for objecting to rape are a little more abstract.

In pre-human times (and indeed early human history), we lived in small tribal groups and we have therefore become wired to assume that people that we see are likely to be related to us.  Because someone related to us is carrying some of our genes, protecting them from harm is imperative.  As a consequence, seeing an attack on someone who is related to us will trigger a defence response, almost as strong as if we were being attacked ourselves.

However, even if we don’t consider the person being raped to be related to us, we will still see them as human (except, of course, where we’ve gone to the extra effort of dehumanising them – as we might do if we are next in the queue for raping privileges, as happens in some subcultures).  If someone we consider as human is being attacked in front of us, sexually or otherwise, we are thus informed that the attacker has no compunction against harming other humans and, therefore, we are in danger because we could be attacked next.

So, purely aside from the sexual nature of the attack, we can respond defensively to seeing a rape because it is an instance of violence, and our response can be experienced as an impression that “rape is wrong”.

Therefore, regarding the question “is there a reason why we should have an instinctual aversion to rape – or against allowing rape to occur?” it would seem that the answer is a firm “yes”.

If we might have such an inbuilt inclination against rape, we are justified in stating proudly that “rape is wrong”, without any need to worry that a Prepared Theist might have any success in his attempts to pin divinely imposed objective moral values on us.  We have purely rational reasons to object to rape, which are securely grounded, not on some magical set of objective moral values, but on the evolutionary impulse to propagate our genetic structure.

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