Thursday, March 06, 2008

Precautions and Moral Responsibility

Is it advisable to take precautions that reduce one's risk of suffering victimization? That seems like an easy question. But in specific cases, people sometimes fear that an affirmative answer risks "blaming the victim", or excusing the actual wrongdoer. Consider the unwillingness of some conservatives to even consider the ways that U.S. foreign policy might raise the causal probability of terrorist attacks. Or, at the other extreme of the political spectrum:
when I suggest to campus sexual assault administrators that they could stop what Koss calls the “rape pandemic” overnight if they persuaded girls to exercise more prudence, I inevitably receive responses like the following (these are my interlocutors’ actual words): “I am uncomfortable with the idea of ‘recommending that female students exercise more modesty and restraint’—this indicates that if they are raped it could be their fault—it is never their fault.” Or: “Yes, modesty would have a certain impact, but who’s responsible?”

There are two possible reasons why the administrators refuse to take the most efficacious, practical action to end campus rape—counseling sexual prudence. Either they know in their heart of hearts that what is happening on campuses is not really rape, but something much more ambiguous and also much less traumatic than real rape. Or—and this possibility is too horrible to contemplate—these self-professed women’s advocates really do believe that a drunken hookup is rape, and yet are withholding from women the simplest, surest way to prevent being raped, simply in order to preserve the principle of male fault. If the latter situation actually prevails, I conclude that the campus rape movement is purely political, interested solely in casting men as the evil perpetrators of the patriarchy rather than in most effectively protecting potential victims of a traumatic crime.

I wonder how many people are consistent across both (terrorist and rapist) examples?

See also: how moral posturing can get in the way of actually achieving the good.


  1. In response to an article written by no other than a woman! Ms. MacDonald, I honestly would like to say that I am very disturbed to know that such thoughts may exist in the head of not only any human being, but a woman.

    What basically you are saying, Ms. MacDonald, is that had all women worn burkas, and never showed themselves, never got drunk, never behaved in a non candid way, we would never have rape?

    I wonder, when you say that the solution to the rape is problem is very simple: just "don’t get into bed with a guy when you are very drunk, don’t take off your clothes, don’t get involved in oral sex, and so on", do you not make men not moral agents unable to control their fate? In your paper you strongly argue that by promoting the so-called "candid" behaviour, women will become more empowered and "moral agents in control of their fate".

    My response is that such policy towards rape shows that you believe that men are the agents unable to control their fate or desires. Because I mean by your accord, if a woman starts to perform oral sex and then refuses to perform an intercourse, a man- an agent unable to control his urges- is fully consented to force a woman to do it and rape her? Or wait, just because she consented to having oral sex, being raped after such consent is not as traumatic as any other rape?

    By saying that women should not provoke men by behaving in a certain way, you are stating that men are not agents able to control themselves. Well, if you are right, then I say we put these uncontrollable creatures in a cage or may be restrict them with something, like dogs? At any point in time, when a woman says no but man continues, or a man says no and a woman continues to enforce sexual intercourse, no matter how invitational or seductive the "victim" was behaving, it IS the responsibility and the fault of the abuser. And yes, it is NEVER a victim's fault.

  2. I can't see how the terrorism and rape cases are analogous.

    In the terrorism case, one wrong action - US foreign policy - has led to another wrong action - suicide bombings etc. In this case, since responsibility is not zero-sum, both US war-mongers and suicide bombers can be anything up to 100% responsible for the deaths that result.

    The rape case is not like this at all. One permissible act - women dressing how they choose - sometimes leads to a wrong action - rape. It's pretty clear that the blame here sits on the rapist and not on the woman.

    You might say that the difference in blame doesn't imply that one is more advisable than the other. But I'm not so sure about that.

    One reason you question that thought is that you might think that in the long term we should aim for the best overall outcome, which is women dressing how they like and men not raping. Perhaps the sooner men realise that women dressed in certain ways aren't appropriately raped, the sooner we'll get to that ideal outcome.

    (I could retreat to a weaker claim: that thoughts such as these are hardly absurd, and that it's therefore a little strong to think that people who hold this combination of views are merely posturing.)

  3. Gregorya - I guess some people might be willing to blame the US for 9/11. But not many. Far more of us hold the combination of views:

    (i) It would be prudent for the U.S. to take further reasonable precautions (moderate its foreign policy) to prevent terrorist attacks. But still:

    (ii) The U.S. in no way "deserves" to be attacked by terrorists.

    There may be additional, moral reasons to support the changes advised in (i). But there needn't be. It doesn't change the point that (i) and (ii) are perfectly compatible as they stand. And of course the rape case is no different in this respect.

    (For another example, consider the inadvisability of walking alone in a dark alley, etc.)

    I do of course agree that people ought to "realise that women dressed in certain ways aren't appropriately raped". If anyone doesn't already realise this, then by all means educate them. But that's entirely compatible with advising potential victims in the meantime not to dress or behave in ways that greatly increase their risk of being raped.

    The only real question here, I think, is whether this these are reasonable precautions to take. It may be excessively burdensome. (Compare: one is less likely to be a victim of violent crimes if one never leaves one's home. But that does not make it advisable never to leave your home! The opportunity cost is too high.) [See also the discussion in comments here.] But the advice to not get into bed drunk with someone you don't want to have sex with sounds reasonable to me, as does the advice not to walk alone in dark alleys, etc.

    Cherepenka - did you even read the post? What Ms. MacDonald is "basically saying" is that by taking certain precautions, women can greatly reduce the risk of being raped. This is indisputable. It is also entirely compatible with acknowledging that yes, the rapist alone is morally responsible for their abusive actions, and yes, we should never blame the victim.

    Of course victims do not "deserve" to be raped. But the whole point of my post was to point out how this is compatible with the observation that certain precautions are advisable nonetheless!

    So please, take a moment to actually read what's being said before launching into a histrionic screed. Otherwise, you're not contributing anything to the conversation.

    What's more, it is argued that the common failure to appreciate this compatibility (of precautioning with blamelessness) makes prudent advice less common. Hence potential victims less often protect themselves than they otherwise might. That is, this philosophical error is getting in the way of actually helping to prevent rape. If you really care about preventing rape, it might be worth taking a moment to consider this.

  4. In the clothing case you've got the potential for a really nasty snowball. Surely it's not that there's a relationship between any particular sort of outfit and being raped. If anything, the relationship is between wearing clothing that's revealing relative to what women in the society at large wear or what women in the social context they're in wear. But if you're successful in getting women to dress more conservatively to reduce the likelihood that they'll be sexually victimized, you'll push back the fashion norm, and will simply move the line that needs to be crossed to be at increased risk. Repeat the process over a couple centuries, and you'll have us all in burkas being escorted about by male relatives.

  5. That should read "in the rape case". And the same thing should apply to behaviors as well as dress.

  6. Helen - interesting point. It suggests a collective action problem of sorts, since individual risk-takers suffer the costs of shifting the norms in a more liberal direction (to the benefit of all women). It would still seem inadvisable to be one of those risk-takers, even if it's desirable overall that someone or other do this job. Hmm.

    Note, though, that the nasty snowball effect would only arise if women were always advised to be more conservative than the norm. Instead, we might merely consider it advisable not to be out at the most flagrantly "immodest" extreme of the spectrum. If most people clustered around the norm, or even slightly on the liberal side of it, they might safely avoid a backslide into conservatism (or even slowly push society in ever more liberal directions). So I think the nasty snowball can be avoided.

    I'm not sure that the behaviours MacDonald talks about (e.g. drunken hookups) are risky for merely "relative" reasons. It seems likely a society where drunken hookups were the universal norm would still be a society with much more rape than otherwise. (Compare the frat party vs. chess club sub-cultures!)

  7. Incidentally, I don't think many people at all dispute either your (i) or your (ii), myself included. US foreign policy can be a cause of some violence for which the US is blameworthy, but it doesn't follow from this that the US "deserves" to be attacked.

    More generally, I'm getting a little lost at to the subject matter. Is it blame, desert, advisability, or something else?


  8. Oh, my claim is simply that some precautions may be advisable (to prevent victimization), and that recognizing this in no way implies that victims (who fail to take those steps) are blameworthy, "deserving", or otherwise morally responsible for the aggressor's act.

    (In short: we should take care to distinguish causal from moral responsibility.)

  9. "Cherepenka - did you even read the post? What Ms. MacDonald is "basically saying" is that by taking certain precautions, women can greatly reduce the risk of being raped. This is indisputable. It is also entirely compatible with acknowledging that yes, the rapist alone is morally responsible for their abusive actions, and yes, we should never blame the victim."

    Indeed. Although I think MacDonald's main point is the even more controversial claim that most so-called "date-rapes" are not really rapes at all, but just consensual (though intoxicated) sex that the women happen to regret afterwards. Most women go to great lengths to lower their chance of "real" rape (e.g. few women would ever walk alone outside at night, at least in the city), thus in this case they have no problem doing the prudent thing and thus accepting personal causal responsibility, while not conflating it in any way with moral responsibility.

    On the other hand, the fact that women generally don't take practical precautions to avoid date rape suggests that they don't really take it that seriously. Even more, the fact that women's advocates, and others who stress the importance of the rather abstract moral principle "one should not exercise prudence, because that is to assume moral responsibility", probably suggests that even _they_ don't take date rape that seriously. Presumably if they really believed date rape was so horribly traumatic and damaging they would welcome any practical method which would drastically lower its chance of occurring, even if this method happened to violate the above-mentioned abstract principle.

    I agree with MacDonald. In the real world, base desires and fear of injury and failure are what control people's actions, and any instance of abstract, moral, principled reasoning is a symptom of the fact that the people involved have nothing at stake.

  10. Ugh, please excuse the horribly jumbled third paragraph in my above message.

  11. Right, MacDonald does make that further argument, but it's an independent issue from what I'm talking about in this post.

  12. In the rape case, I think there's a causal point being made too, viz., skimpy clothes etc. don't actually cause rape. Part of the phenomenon of "blaming the victim" doubtless consists in falsely -- falsely, note -- ascribing causal responsibility to the victim's acts. That's why the same people who say (correctly, I think) that scolding women for dressing skimpily and bringing about rape is victim-blaming also say that rape is about power rather than sex.

    Of course, the same might not be said with respect to getting into bed drunk, etc. But note the different kinds of causation at play there. The (nonsense) causal story that I think people are imagining when they talk about skimpy clothes causing rape is something about overwhelming lust, per cherepenka's point -- it's about temptation, about bringing into being the criminal urges of another. The causal story about getting into bed drunk, etc., is more about vulnerability -- about failing to defend oneself against the predictable criminality of another. And we ordinarily don't attach moral opprobrium to the latter kind of causation. (So it's not an answer to a mugging victim "well, why were you stumbling drunk through central park at 3 am?") Ergo, I think it's reasonable to advise women (and people who might be victims of muggings) to take such self-defensive measures, without blaming them for not doing so.

    And this is why there is a disanalogy between the terrorist and the rape cases. The causal claim in the terrorist case is just an (accurate) claim of the tempting type, not the self-defense type. The claim is that U.S. foreign policy (wrongfully) brings about the disposition on the part of others to hurt the U.S., not that U.S. foreign policy fails to adequately protect the U.S. against that preexisting disposition.


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