Victim Blaming?

The New York Times has a "Room for Debate" feature today on whether young women should be advised against binge drinking at college parties, to reduce their risk of being raped.  In the introduction it says "studies have repeatedly found an association between binge drinking and rape on college campuses."  So of course women should be advised against binge drinking....?  No, half the debaters say such advice is pernicious because it blames women for being raped.  Louise Anthony offers this analogy: advising people not to chew ice is fine, since it's in the nature of chewing ice that it damages teeth. But advising black men not to walk around in white neighborhoods is problematic, since it's not natural that they run the risk of being harassed and assaulted.  The focus should be on reducing the harassment and assault.  Likewise with advising young women.
The special risk that drunkenness poses to women – that’s due to a social climate that tolerates sexual predation. When we tell young women to stay sober in order to avoid getting raped, we send the message that we do not intend to change that social climate, that we have chosen to regard misogyny as inevitable.

I can't imagine caring parents and parental figures thinking this way.  How would it go?  Let's see.  Our daughter Maria is going rock climbing and likes to drink.  May we tell her to stay sober, to avoid plunging to her death?  Yes we may, because it's in the nature of safe rock climbing to require sobriety. If she did fall while drinking, it wouldn't be the fault of any second party, so we can warn her without committing the sin of blaming the victim.  Our other daughter, Laura, is going to a car dealership to buy a car. May we tell her to go there sober, to avoid being taken advantage of by the sales person?  No, because it's not in the nature of drinking to cause people to be swindled.  If we tell her to stay sober, we'll be sending the message that we don't intend to change the behavior of car dealers, that we have chosen to regard swindling as inevitable.

If Maria and Laura are my daughters, I'm not going to think this way. I'm going to tell them both to stay sober to protect themselves.  I don't think I'm going to care about "messages"-- I'm just going to want to protect my daughters.  But supposed I did care.  There's still be no problem with warning both Maria and Laura.   Cause is one thing, blame is another.  Laura's drunkenness may be one cause of her winding up being swindled, but only the swindler has the mens rea that is crucial for moral and legal responsibility.  We can actually point out drunkenness as a cause and not blame the drinker for the things others do to her.

Now, you might say binge drinking at a party is different from drinking at a car dealership, because nobody regards drinking while buying car as a valuable liberty.  Advising women against drinking at parties is more like advising black men against walking in white neighborhoods.  But why talk about that, and not something more pertinent to women and rape? As a young woman in Boston, I resented having to take so many precautions when walking home late at night.  All that vigilance, checking behind me, walking fast, looking for streetlights, avoiding the wee hours--my liberty to walk home at all times and while day-dreaming was definitely curtailed.  But would any parent not advise daughters about where, when, and how they get about in a city, for fear of victim blaming?  If so, I'm speechless!

Yes, of course, the real problem when it comes to rape, assault, harassment, shady salesman, etc., is the agent who perpetrates these things.  So if you're going to advise your daughters against binge drinking at college, you should be shot (not to put too fine a point on it) if you don't also advise your sons against binge drinking at college parties. No doubt studies also show that more rapes happen when men are drinking a lot. We should be trying to reduce the incidence of rape as well as helping our daughters avoid becoming victims of rape.  Of course.


Speciesism, Malignant and Benign

There's a certain sort of bias against animals that seems clearly pernicious and bears a strong resemblance to racism and sexism.  This is the sort where animals are immediately dismissed because of surface characteristics--"They're just animals".  In contrast, there's the idea that humans should have some sort of priority in our decision-making, most of the time.  This sort of prioritizing is widely assumed, even by advocates for animals.  It's the sort of prioritizing you do when, after a natural disaster, you worry first about the people affected, and only later (if at all) about squirrels and rats.  It's the prioritizing that would allow you to survive in the wilderness by killing animals if your vegetarian provisions got lost. I don't think this sort of prioritizing has any connection to nasty, groundless attitudes like sexism and racism.  But ... how to defend it?  What's it based on, such that it's not just another nasty prejudice?

There are two approaches.  One is say that animals are different from humans in such a way that they deserve less in some specific circumstances.  This is what Peter Singer says when he admits that animals have a weaker interest in going on living than humans do--since they have far fewer preferences about their futures.  So even if we do owe equal consideration to their equal interests, their interests are often not equal to ours. On the more traditional, less animal-concerned end of the ethics spectrum, there are those (like Kant) who think animals can't be owed anything at all, because they are missing the preconditions for moral considerability.  Animals are on the outside of the moral community, for lack of this or that special characteristic.

The other approach is to say "It's not about the animals" (in so many words).  Rather, there's something about co-membership in one community, partly defined by species, that makes conspecifics have special duties to each other, and weaker duties to outsiders.  On this approach, even super-smart aliens would be second priority, if they happened to land just before a natural disaster or we needed them for some type of resource. And even not-so-smart conspecifics would be first priority, like anyone else.

In my book Animalkind I take both approaches (in chapters 5 and 6), but start with the first.  Maybe, though, that was a mistake.  Perhaps it's more fundamental to understand what's morally important about two individuals being conspecifics, such that some degree of prioritizing each other, at least in some situations, is perfectly appropriate, and unlike mutual support among racists or sexists. The challenge is to explain why prioritizing conspecifics is not like prioritizing members of your own race or sex. 

Surely (my intuitions tell me) it's not. Roll back to primormordial folks living in harsh conditions. It's OK when a tribe decides to save itself in a harsh winter and doesn't expend equal energy checking on the welfare of rabbits and wolves in their burrows and dens. In fact, for the sake of survival, you can even kill rabbits and wolves, and this is a much better idea than conspecifics killing each other.  If I look at a rabbit as potential food, but not my neighbor, that can't, just can't, put me in the same category as a racist or sexist!  So my intuitions tell me, but why?  Why is it morally respectable for humans at least in situations of scarcity and hardship to see other humans as "in-group" and wild animals as "out-group"?  (Leave aside pets, who are honorary family members, and can only confuse our thinking about these issues.)  What would be a respectable way to explain yourself, if you would never eat a baby to survive, but you would eat a rabbit?

Well, there are the facts of life.  I can reproduce with other humans, but not with animals.  I can enjoy certain kinds of friendship with humans, but not with animals.  The survival of my species in the future feels to me like my survival, but not so, the survival of rabbits and wolves.  The problems of conspecifics seem like my problems, but less so the problems of others. These seem like unchangeable and innocent parts of human psychology--nothing at all like the various insidious attitudes that lurk in sexists and racists.  If this be speciesism, then we've got to distinguish between malignant speciesism and benign speciesism. 

To put it another way, I'm skeptical that "the expanding circle" should expand in such a way that animals are not just members of the moral community (they count, we have duties to them), but there are no longer any respectable boundaries between groups. It's respectable (I think) that caribou in a herd care about each other in a way they don't care about wolves; and it's respectable that the humans in a community care about each other in a way they don't care about caribou or wolves.

Animal advocates sometimes erect more powerful moral principles than needed, to argue against the worst, most flagrantly speciesist abuse of animals.  To counter extreme cruelty, they ask us to pretend there is exactly one moral community, with no lines at all between groups.  But nobody really thinks this--we believe in lines even between different families and different nationalities, let alone different species. We need to allow for certain kinds of groupishness, but without descending to the level of the virulent speciesist.  We can see the human community as "one nation" in some ways, with animals on the outside, without descending to the cruelty of the animal abuser or factory farmer.

Groupishness.  What is it, what's good about it, when is it bad....?  Discuss.


Negotiation vs. Blackmail

If you read liberal editorials about the government shutdown, you're bound to run into words like "blackmail" and "extortion" and "hostage taking."  So many commentators (like Paul Krugman in today's New York Times) are saying that Boehner & Co. aren't just engaging in politics as usual by tying the budget to postponement of the mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act, they're being manipulative in a nefarious, immoral way.  But why...why are they guilty of the bad kind of negotiating that blackmailers and hostage-takers do, and not the good kind of negotiating that legislators do?

Backing up a step, what is so terrible about blackmailers and hostage-takers, and why are the Republicans at all like them?  Saul Smilansky has an interesting discussion of blackmail in his book 10 Moral Paradoxes, which I wrote about several years ago at Talking Philosophy.  He asks why blackmail-style manipulation is wrong, but a boycott or strike is not wrong, and finds a good answer elusive.  Without rereading that (I really should!) it seems like at least a reasonable starting point to say that A can't demand payment for something that B is already entitled to.  The more important the "something" to B, the more nefarious the demand.  For example, A can't demand payment from B for keeping a secret of B's extra-marital affair.  B is already entitled to privacy about his personal affairs.  A can't demand payment from B before releasing B's child from captivity, since B's child was already entitled to her liberty.  At least prior entitlement to the contested thing seems like a sufficient condition for it to be unethical for A to make demands on B.

If that's right, then it's true, and not just rhetoric, that Boehner & Co. are doing something akin to blackmail and hostage-taking, not engaging in ordinary political negotiating.  Obama and his Democratic allies are entitled to a budget that funds all the government programs that have already been democratically chosen.  It's an unethical manipulation, in the same category as blackmail or hostage-taking, to say "we'll let you have them if you capitulate to our demands."  No, Obama, the Democrats in Congress, and in fact all citizens, are entitled to an up-and-running government, consisting of all democratically anointed programs, unconditionally.

It's different when legislators are hammering out legislation.  "I'll support building your bridge if you support building my hospital" is ordinary deal-making, because nobody's yet entitled to the bridge or the hospital.  But we are entitled to a government consisting of all the programs already signed into law and approved of by all three branches of government.  And yes indeed, that does include the entire Affordable Care Act, not some fraction of it.

Sigh. I'd sure like to stop watching the Shutdown Show, because it's loathsome and disillusioning.


A Puzzle about Parenthood

Here's something I'm mulling over and finding pretty perplexing.  To see the puzzle, you have to go along with me on some claims about the rights of biological parents.  To wit:  biological parents have very strong rights to take on the parenting role with respect to their children. If I give birth to Sally, I get to raise Sally, even if her prospects would be much better with someone else.  For example, if I am a very poor mother, perhaps in Haiti or Ethiopia, and social workers present me with the option of giving up Sally, so she can be raised by affluent parents in America, I am entitled to keep Sally, even if it would be in her best interests to come to America.  Right? Surely yes:  the poor third of the world aren't obligated to give up their children to more affluent people.  The puzzle, then, is this:  assuming I'm entitled, in every sense, to keep baby Sally, possibly contrary to what's in her best interests, why is it that once I'm playing the parental role, I should continually do, to the best of my ability, whatever is in her best interests?  The answer can't be that I must always maximize well being for Sally, because that would mean I should let someone else raise her.  So what's the basis for my obligation to be a good parent--to take care of Sally in the way that best advances her interests? 

Speaking of whether destitute parents are entitled to raise their own children, a fabulously interesting book is The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, by Kathryn Joyce.  If you think the destitute have parental rights (as I do), it's a shock to discover that international adoption agencies don't just find orphans and find homes for them, but sometimes create orphans... or rather, "orphans".  How does that work? The book explains in very rich detail. Topic for a future post!