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We are a worldwide social network of freethinkers, atheists, agnostics and secular humanists.

I return from a vacation and can't resist being a bit of a fire-brand. I am going to touch on a sensitive topic here, bear with me because I think it is a point worth making.

 

I reject outright the concept of objective and absolute morality and one of the primary reasons is that the system is dreadfully inconsistent.

Let me explain why objective morality cannot be applied consistently. We accept that morality is complicated, and that things generally considered wrong, such as theft or murder, are not always necessarily wrong. We accept that the cost of the means and the benefit of the ends can be difficult to weigh against one another. In order to make my case here I will take the example of one of the least ambiguous and most universally abhorred evils I can think of: Rape.  Much of the following will be considered in poor taste, but I must use such commonly reviled language in order to make my point. Apologies are due in advance.

We may accept that theft and murder are justifiable under some circumstances, but what about rape? Who can think of a hypothetical in which rape is permissible? I certainly have trouble doing so, but let us first define rape for this discussion: Copulation against the will of the partner and often by force or under coercion. I think that should suffice for our purposes here.

I have trouble thinking of a way to show that rape is not objectively wrong until I allow myself to be somewhat less anthrocentric in my thinking. Humans are not, after all, the only creatures on this planet that can copulate, exert force, or have things done to them against their will.

Suddenly the idea that the act of rape is objectively wrong is completely dissolved. If a male lion kills the cubs of a pride and rapes the females, we hardly consider that morally wrong. If we see a male dog mount a poor and haggard female, who is obviously less than willing, and take her against yelps of protestation, we might conjure up a moment of sympathy for the bitch and perhaps boot the male if the couple happens to be close at hand, but we’d hardly think the male had committed a morally reprehensible act. Now let us imagine that the female lions were able to speak the King’s English and express to us their grief over the loss of their cubs. Imagine that a bitch dog were able to cry on our shoulder after being victimized and express her disgust at the seed growing inside her. I do not need anyone to admit that animals are capable of entertaining such thoughts, only to contemplate the hypothetical. When we do it becomes immediately clear that we now deem the acts of the males to be morally wrong. The point I am trying to make here is that the physical act of rape is irrelevant to us if the victim can only stare at us with dumb beast eyes, but if that victim is able to express itself in a way with which we sympathize, then the act now qualifies as being “wrong”. The act is not objectively or absolutely wrong, it is only wrong subject to a set of conditions, namely that we can sympathize with the victim and understand its will to be subjugated for the brutish pleasures of another.

Now some people may flippantly disregard the above example and simply say that animals are not afforded the same considerations under God’s objective law. The act of forcible copulation against the will of the recipient is not rape amongst animals; it is only rape amongst humans.  Fine, if a Theist wishes to play that game I will play.

Imagine that a typical man rapes a typical woman. That act is morally wrong. Now imagine that we have a genetically altered male, whose genome is altered just enough that he is not quite human, but to all but the most detailed observation still appears to be human, and considers himself as such. Imagine that this hypothetical sub-human rapes a woman. Is this act still morally wrong? Imagine that we have a woman altered in the same fashion, and now a sub-man rapes a sub-woman. To any observer they still appear to be human, and they consider themselves as such. In fact only a detailed examining of their genetics would betray that they are not human, is this still rape? We are inclined to say that this act is, indeed, still morally wrong.

Now imagine several hundred creatures along a gradient from normal recognizable human to dumb beast. We don’t think twice about a dumb beast mounting a female and doing the work of nature regardless of the female’s reception, but we find a stalker raping a woman on her way home to be among the most vile acts imaginable. At what point along the gradient do we say the act is no longer wrong? What particular anatomical property, emotional state, or genetic marker do we claim humans posses that makes the sovereignty of their genitals able to be transgressed against that a dog does not have? A Theist may be tempted to say that the distinction is based on the soul. Apparently only creatures with souls can be raped. My response to this is simply a reformulation of the previous question; at what point along the gradient from normal human, to indiscernibly modified human, to clearly inhuman is the soul lost or gained? If it is impossible for us to tell, then by what criteria do we determine which entities qualify for certain moral absolutes and which do not?

In closing I want to make it clear that I have not made these arguments in order to claim that rape is not wrong. I am simply making the case that rape is not absolutely or objectively wrong, and nothing can be. All morality is subject to us, to you and me and the next person over. Our common goals, interests, desires, and fears drive morality in an evolving way. Morality builds and grows as different cultures clash; ideas are shared, compared, discarded and promoted as we encounter new and unprecedented situations generation after generation. That is exactly the way it needs to be if we have any hope of continued growth. Of course those who would say that we were made perfect and in the image of God wish only that we regress to a state we have fallen from, rather than progress to the independence we have purchased for ourselves through centuries of exploration and thought.

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Replies to This Discussion

Rape is a tool used throughout the ages to gain control - it's disgusting.

 

 

I'm not entirely certain i agree with your premise that there is "rape" in the animal world.  Human facial expressions  and body postures, moves, etc, during sex might also look odd to like,an alien, another species.  Even some dogs get confused about humans having sex and think there is aggression going on there. 

  There are courtship steps in the animal world that you may be misinterpretting.

Your interpretation of the sexual activity of another species may be correct, or incorrect. 

 

Rape is always wrong, always morally wrong, unless you can present some fantastical situation in which there is some bizarro scenario past my imagination to justify rape.  Til then, it's morally wrong. 

 

I realize you are trying to sort out absolutes in morality, to provoke thought on whether there are, or are not, 'absolutes' in morality.

 

I've seen threads go by on that kind of discussion, and never read them, so maybe i will learn something here, but----

 i think  there are some things that are always wrong--- like genocide, slavery, rape, child abuse, to name a few, off the top of my head.   If you can come up with a scenario, some fantastical situation to justify any of those, i'll listen to see if i would reconsider my deeming it abominable, but, til then, those crimes also go into my basket of "always wrong" behaviors.

I'm still happy with my club. =)
Actually, she drags him around by his hair.
We've come a long way, baby!
Joke on, I love them all.

Thanks for a well thought out argument. But I see a glaring flaw in it:

The animal behaviors you describe (e.g., in lions) are 'justified' because they ensure reproductive success and thus survival of the species. But while other animals are limited to the transmission of inherited traits through sexual reproduction, we humans have the unique ability to transmit acquired traits (knowledge) to other humans without resorting to gametes. (It's not 100% true, a few other species are known to transmit newly acquired knowledge as well, mostly technical knowledge, but this is anecdotal and not fundamental to their evolution as a species.)

The point is, to us, cultural evolution is as essential as natural evolution in defining what we are (as a species), it's been so since at least the neolithic era, and the transmission of moral values is a fundamental part of human culture. There's nothing remotely similar in the rest of the animal kingdom, and for this reason I think you can't compare animal rape to human rape from a moral point of view.

Human rape is objectively immoral because everyone (including psychopaths) would agree that there's no benefit to it as far as the species is concerned, and that it benefits the aggressor less than it hurts the victim. And the fact that it's a cultural construct doesn't make it any less objective, because as I said, culture is an objective part of what humankind is (I mean 'culture' as a general phenomenon, specific cultures are of course built on subjective as well as objective values.)

That is a very good answer, Jaume. Chapeau.

 

I would like to add that "objective" morality is not something that only theists propose, several secular philosophers and scientists/thinkers think that morality is objective (the most notable proponent is Sam Harris who maintains that science can determine what IS moral, re-starting the old debate of IS vs OUGHT, moral premises, etc. I do not subscribe to this, but I do believe that certain moral principles appear indeed "real" not just "made up" (see the discussion on quasi realism in this group). Rape is one of them. As in any moral dilemma situation, one can come up with thought exercises under which circumstances rape may be the preferable option, for example, if a Nazi soldier told you he will shoot your 14 year old neighbor in the head unless you rape her, perhaps raping her would be the lesser of evils. Or if you had to pretend to "possess" a female and claim her as property in order to avoid that she is gang raped, etc., all horrible situations but moral dilemmas are like that, designed to teach us something about how morality works.

 

Short answer: yes, rape is morally wrong and also disgusting as Chris G said because it has been used and continues to be used as an instrument to degrade and control women.

Not only women. The target of mass rapes in war-torn African countries is the civilian population, rather than just women. It's very destructive for a man to be told, "now watch while I rape your mother/wife/sister/daughter."

As I read through the thread I thought "morality is a cultural construct" then read your response and worked out that you had beaten me to the punch rather more eloquently than I could have phrased it. And I had nothing new to add, except maybe some questions.

 

Rape is also perpetrated on men by men. Prison inmates as an example, for the purpose of establishing the dominant males, (and I'm sure for other reasons too). Is this rape less wrong than the male stalker/female victim? All of my learned morality says kind of.

 

Deviant sexual behaviour, in particular incest and pedophilia, which we might call statutory rape, are common in victims when they become adults. Has their morality learning process been compromised? Is this an indicator that right and wrong need to be taught and demonstrated by someone who knows the difference otherwise the message is lost?

 

Is morality simply the folder in which we keep our right and wrong lessons. If so then yes, rape is wrong because wrong is also a cultural construct.

 

Is it natural?

Has their morality learning process been compromised? Is this an indicator that right and wrong need to be taught and demonstrated by someone who knows the difference otherwise the message is lost?

 

I would say from what we know now in terms of studies in young children, that a moral sense, a sense of fair and unfair, and an avoidance of harm and a tendency to help, is innate. It would make sense, because morality evolved as a mechanism to favor pro-social behaviors and avoid conflict within the social group. However, the specific rules and moral values are undoubtedly learned from the social group. In addition, people who are abused as children often suffer irreparable damage to their psyche, and their behavior is thus compromised as adults. Of course, there are also psychopaths who can distinguish between right and wrong but do not care about the consequences of their behavior, therefore their morality is impaired. Here is one link, but there are other, similar articles.

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