html xmlns="" xml:lang="en" lang="en"> From the archives: I should have left at the words "Darwinian perspective".

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

I should have left at the words "Darwinian perspective".

Couple times in law school, maybe three times, I saw the same thing happen. A student would defend some vicious cleverness because we work in an advocacy-based system, or we would all agree that if you stipulated something completely contrary to the laws of nature, then the case made sense. Maybe the professor's Socratic questioning would lead to a reversal of our initial feelings, the ones based on common decency. There would be a ripple around the room as people sat back in their chairs, disgusted by the cynicism or unable to reconcile the result of our legal reasoning with what we had always known to be true. The dissonance would hurt people, they would literally push away from their books and tables, as far as their chairs would let them. One time a woman raised her hand and said what I thought whenever it happened again. "This is why people hate us. This is why people hate lawyers."

That's how I feel coming across this conversation, continued here. A bunch of very bright people, nearly all men, wrestling with the question of why isn't, genetically speaking, stealing food the same as rape. A few point out some key distinctions, but most go on to discuss the question with no apparent awareness that debating an equivalence is fucking morally repugnant. I like to assume that people mean well, aren't sexist fucks, believe that all humans hold equal dignitary worth. If that is true for those bloggers and commenters, they are seriously tone deaf. The question itself is sophmoric and inane, dismissed easily with a number of distinctions that people pointed out there. I desperately do not want to re-hash the topic itself in the comments here.

Instead, since I found the conversation at a site called Overcoming Bias, I would like to point out a different bias, the bias of male privilege. In this case, male privilege allows bloggers and commenters to treat what half the population considers such a likely event that they substantially alter their lives to avoid it for fear of a violent breach of their bodies and selfhood, as something that can be repeatedly trivialized by comparison and discussed in the abstract by people to whom it will very likely never happen. Even after amending the question, the point that proffering sex for the benefit of the men in the example requires the participation of an entire other equal and autonomous person gets short shrift in the discussion. It is, manifestly, not a conversation that women would have. Women know, plainly and profoundly, why the theft of food is not the same as rape.

None of this is to say that no one should ask that question. If it intrigues them, well, the internets is big and we value a very wide range of speech. We all have the option of self-segregating. There may be reasons to discuss a tremendously loaded topic with detached bemusement. But, if you do, you should be aware of how it looks to people who cannot share your detachment because they live with different risks and histories. If you do not still get that ripple, that dissonance, that rememberance that "this is why people hate us", you have gone so far into your privilege that you have lost your empathy.


Blogger Amber said...

Yeah, that same debate played out a bit on my blog last year. Just as gross then.

7:06 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

This question comes up repeatedly?

You know, it does make good comment bait - titillating question comparing two plausibly similar things (if you are more likely tp suffer hunger than rape) and then three or four very conspicuous ways to rebut the question, so that everyone will feel clever for finding an angle to debate. You get to feel terribly daring for callously discussing a serious topic, and self-justifying wankers get to use ev. psych. So, yeah, it is completely in line with undemanding blog fare.

Now I'm a little embarrassed I responded to it, but shit. If I disqualified everything I think because it has already been hashed out, I'd have nothing left.

7:44 PM  
Blogger Chris Capel said...

Hmm. As a regular commenter on the Overcoming Bias site, (and not one here,) I'd have to express a wholehearted agreement with your sentiment. I had exactly that thought: "This is why people hate us."

The only defense I can offer is that, in other posts, that site offers many great insights that even you could appreciate and agree with, Megan, if you were interested in them. But the people who post there simply don't have the knowledge of feminism to see why something like that is repugnant. And morally, most would agree with you. Most would agree with feminist ideals. They simply don't know enough about feminism to avoid mistakes like that. And because of that, I can forgive them, and overlook mistakes like those posts.

7:56 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I wasn't veryy offended that the conversation happened, but I thought the people in it should have the self-awareness to know what it brings out in other people. If they know that, and decide that the conversation is worth it anyway, then great.

8:08 PM  
Blogger Chris Capel said...

I think they were defeating their own ideals to start the discussion in the first place, and that they would regret treating the issue in the manner they did, because they apparently didn't know how it would exclude so many women from the conversation. I wouldn't say they were wrong to do it.

And, at least in most cases, I'd say it's less a matter of self-awareness and more a matter of lack of education.

8:19 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:27 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Reposting with slightly better phrasing:

I should say that I don't have an opinion about the Overcoming Bias site, having not read much of it. I like the concept of identifying and overcoming bias.

Sure. Both. More education in feminism and awareness of how they're acting is in line with male privilege wouldn't hurt them.

8:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But the people who post there simply don't have the knowledge of feminism to see why something like that is repugnant.

Ironically, I suspect the average commenter on that thread had more exposure to feminism in their education than the average person in general population. Yet, they seem to be much less able to understand what is morally repugnant even as a discussion topic.

9:02 PM  
Blogger Robin Hanson said...

Since our original posts I think Scott and I agree that the same issue we were trying to get at can be better discussed in terms of charity for hunger vs charity for sex. (See added sections to our posts.) Framing similar issues in terms of theft and rape just brings up too many distracting reactions. Do you find the reframed question also so repugnant as to call into question our sanity?

10:21 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

I didn't call your sanity into question (I just went back to check) and have never doubted your sanity.

But since I myself have had the experience of being drawn into modes of thought that were seriously repugnant, and then recoiling from them when I realized that we were discussing them as if they were a casual matter, I know that can happen to people. And I was looking for an explanation for how people whom I assume to be decent being apparently unaware of how ugly that conversation is. And then I wondered if they'd gone as far as that shocked feeling of "this is why people hate us."

10:43 PM  
Blogger Robin Hanson said...

Megan, the first paragraph of your post seems to me a nice example of how the mind turns off in the face of strong moral intuitions. You are apparently so very confident that all of your moral intuitions are correct, that when some analysis seems to suggest some of your intuitions might be wrong you recoil and say "that's quite enough, stop all this thinking before someone gets hurt." And it saddens you to note that not everyone shares your confidence.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

The re-framed question? I still think it is a dumb question. The difference in the immediacy of need for food and sex, and the consequences of not getting each are so huge that the comparison is pointless.

I called it sophomoric, and remembering that we addressed it the first year of law school reinforces that for me. I have a very clear memory of the Funnier Megan saying that we do not air drop sex in humanitarian emergencies. I seriously need to get her to show up here. For one, she really is funnier than I am, and I liked it back when the blog was funny. For two, wouldn't you want to read someone who has done both criminal defense and prosecution? For three, she's libertarian, so y'all could gang up on me. I swear, they're everywhere in my life.

10:50 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Also, dude, aren't you East Coast? What are you doing up?

10:50 PM  
Blogger Robin Hanson said...

Sure there can be differences in the immediacy of need for sex and food, and there can be huge differences in the degree to which we need each. But it is not obvious how these considerations explain our differing attitudes toward charity in the two cases.

Yeah, I should get to bed. :)

10:56 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

You know, I had an asterisk that I took off because it slowed the post. It was about the woman who raised her hand to call us out, and it went something like:

Tiffany was braver than us. She was the one who would give answers like "Torture is WRONG" and "Because it hurts our common human dignity when we do not help people in need." Everyone laughed at her "human dignity" answers, but more and more I value the final irreducible moral core and I respect her for saying them out loud in the face of our coolness.

I don't think the mind has to turn off, even if it allows reasons based in emotion or morality to be the final word. Rationality is only one mode of analysis; if it takes you to mean places, you should have a reason for placing it above decency.

10:59 PM  
Blogger Robin Hanson said...

But you are assuming that your moral intuitions are correct in claiming that the places rationality takes you are in fact mean. Some of us just do not have the same level of confidence in each specific moral intuition. You may think we are under confident, but we fear you are overconfident. And honestly, over confidence is a lot more common that under confidence.

11:05 PM  
Blogger Chris Capel said...

Crap. I think Blogger might have eaten my comment. It basically said in a different way what Megan just said. I'll try to summarize it.

Robin, I think Aumann doesn't apply here, because at this level of thinking it's just not about rationality, because there's no fundamental rationality to being human--no fundamental teleogy. You could take a perfectly Bayesian sentience and give it any arbitrary set of motivations. Morality is our set of arbitrary motivations.

This might require assuming moral relativism. Not sure if that's a problem.

11:06 PM  
Blogger Chris Capel said...

I was also going to say that some people may want to shape their moral intuitions to some extent so that they fit a more consistent rational framework than they would otherwise. But other people may not want to do that, and I'm not sure we can criticize them for that.

11:07 PM  
Blogger billo said...

Chris, is it really a knowledge of *feminism* ?

Is it really even knowledge..or is it understanding?

11:53 PM  
Blogger Dewb said...

Robin, you talk about minds turning off in the face of strong moral intuitions. If you're enlightened enough to resist that impulse and leave your mind on when confronted with this question... why didn't any of the many obvious distinctions occur to you?

I do agree that sometimes we need to hold our nose and debate distasteful things to get at some kind of truth or understanding, but I don't see any kernel of that here.

Nobody should be smug just because they're not blinded by moral intuition. One still has to decide what situations merit flipping the switch. If there's no underlying debate to be had, then the only substance is "Look, I brought this up to prove that I can turn off the switch, and you can't."

1:56 AM  
Blogger Amber said...

Responding to the second comment, way up there: Don't feel bad for responding. Our natural reaction when confronted with something so wrong is to jump in.

What I find disturbing is that the guy making the argument on my blog later essentially admitted to trolling (I'd argue that in some ways Harvey Mansfield, the post's subject, is kind of an academic troll, but that's neither here nor there), but that's not what's going on here. The earnestness of the discussions you linked is far creepier.

6:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

but more and more I value the final irreducible moral core and I respect her for saying them out loud in the face of our coolness.

This is a highly conservative point. -K.

7:08 AM  
Anonymous Dagon said...

I regularly read Overcoming Bias, and usually find something intriguing there. That particular post disappointed me. More because it was dumb than because it was wrong. There are enough fairly obvious differences to make the comparison useless.

That said, I fully support the practice of testing moral assumptions by trying to dissect their causes.

In this case, my reasons support my morals - rape is wrong. There have been other cases where I've changed my moral stance after examining the reasons for my feelings.

7:53 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Welcome to! (c) 1858

Please login to IRC: wgarrison
Welcome, wgarrison!

Main channel topic: Moral Intuition

fdouglass: There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

stowe_fan: I mean, I read her book and all my feelings changed. I can't believe I ever thought otherwise.

moral_compass : Don't you realize how obviously morally offensive it is for many people to suggest that Negroes should live among us as free people? This is why people hate abolitionists.

harper_brown: Hate them back. Works for me.

wgarrison has logged off

8:35 AM  
Anonymous Francis said...

on the original question of stealing food vs. stealing sex.

If you honestly can't see a handful of really basic issues as to why it's an utterly idiotic comparison, you may actually be beyond all help.

1. Property can be regrown / replaced / repaired. Sexual violence must be endured.

2. Property has no self-awareness; it doesn't mind being stolen. The rights violation is indirect. Sexual violence is a direct violation of the woman's right to be free from violence.

3. You can live without sex for your entire life. If you're so worried about propagating your unique genome, you can go deposit your sperm in a bank. Food is needed every couple of days at least.

So on the one hand you have a thing that the thief must have to live, and the victim can be made whole (food is not unique). On the other hand you have a thing that the thief does not need to live, and the victim can never be made whole.

This is a hard question?

On the charity question: frankly I prefer straight cash payments rather than charity in-kind. It's substantially less insulting to the recipient's dignity because it allows him/her to allocate the resources as he/she feels fit. And if sex is the most important thing, that can be purchased.

(In LA County, low-level street prostitution costs a john probably about as much as a meal at McDs.)

9:18 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

I'm much more interested in the way male privilege is playing out in the comments than I am in the original question. I don't want to draw people into discussing it. There's plenty of room for that on either of the sites I linked to.

9:26 AM  
Anonymous Indigo Starblaster said...

Megan, I clicked on the link, kind of dreading what I might find... but I didn't actually find it that repugnant.

Most of the commenters were fairly respectful and on the "right" side of the answer (although the one who didn't seem to realize that forced sex with a spouse is rape made me shudder), and I think the discussion was intellectually interesting, as it touched on various ways of looking at the issue, even if none of it was original (but then again, what is?).

I remember that feeling from first year law school (yes, been there, done that), and how painful it was to be broken down and rebuilt in the form of a lawyer, but I honestly do feel it made me a better thinker (and better yet some years afterwards, when I learned how to turn the damned legal analysis tool _off_ when it wasn't the right one for the job).

The problem with going with the moral certainty of saying that something is "just wrong" is that there's no room to convince anyone who doesn't share the conviction. I think it's a good idea for people to explore, over and over, why something is wrong, or why we feel something is wrong; and I don't think such conversation should be detered by the fear that others will be morally repulsed that we're having the conversation or disgusted at the sophomoric level we're having it at (because if that's the level you're at, that's where you have to start).


Indigo S.

10:08 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

Indigo, that was lovely comment, well thought out and persuasive. I am so impressed.

Nothing I link to is likely to be as bad as the dregs, because I write the dregs off as soon as I come across them. I only point out when people I have high expectations for don't live up to them. (Not that my expectations should be their internal standards, just the standards of some imaginary person who is willing to voice them. I fully understand that they'll take them or leave them as they please, and I assume they'll mostly leave them.)

I still think the existence of the conversation and the luxury of thinking it is abstract and that there are multiple sides to discuss comes from within the bias of privilege, but that may be a bigger prison than they can break.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline Passey said...

Agree with all that's been said previously about the differences between personal violence and property crime and the difference in needs, but another obvious flaw is that there isn't really ever a situation in which no one will have sex with you. Even the most repugnant person can usually find someone else equally repugnant to have sex with, or work really hard to persuade someone to have sex with them, or if all else fails, pay for it.

So the comparison, if you're going to make it, really should not be to someone who is starving, but to someone who has plenty of mac and cheese at home but decides to steal lobster and steak, or who is too lazy to go to the store so he steals food from his neighbor, or who has money in his wallet but decides to steal food instead of pay for it. I don't think there's much pity for people who steal because they're lazy.

A lot of men seem to feel that they're entitled to sex, or that they "need" it, and that women are mean gatekeepers who won't let them have what they need/are entitled to. In reality, the men are just too lazy to figure out what they should be doing to get women to want to have sex with them.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Megan said...

No, come on. Not discussing the question, or making generalization based on gender. Remember? Those lead to conversations had many, many times over on the internets. New conversations! We like new conversations!

11:58 AM  
Anonymous T said...

Your point seems to be that women inherently understand the answer to this question due to their experience as women. Seems reasonable to me. However men, not having had that experience as women, tend to lack that inherent awareness. Thing is, they're not just going to spontaneously develop it. The idea of sexual assault doesn't, broadly speaking, have the same immediacy and gravity for men as it does for women; an excellent way for men to realize the female perspective is through conversations like this, which is why I'm not bothered by the existence of that thread. If you had people concluding that there was no difference, I think that would be a different story. Instead, someone raised a question, acknowledging the moral reaction you describe but looking for a logical framework to justify it, the salient points were quickly raised, and almost everyone seems to have reached the right conclusion. Speaking from the depths of my male privilege: Hey, we don't alway understand what it's like to be a woman. Sometimes we need to be educated, and that seems to be what's been happening here.

6:08 PM  
Blogger Spungen said...

Now I'm a little embarrassed I responded to it, but shit.

No, don't be. Thank you for having the guts to take that on, and you did it brilliantly. We turn away far too often when that subject gets tossed in because it's so distasteful to some of us. And it makes it easy for a certain subset of men to cheat at arguments, to upset us, to put us off our game. It's a sucker punch, is what it is, and I'm tired of it.

11:19 PM  
Anonymous Glenn said...

This post is, at its core, strongly conservative. To see why, try replacing the food/rape discussion with a discussion, about, say, liberalization of laws concerning gay sex. All your rhetoric about needing a strong moral core rather than logic and the prima facia offensiveness of the discussion can be cashed out to argue that we shouldn't allow discussions about liberalizing anti-sodomy laws. I would hazard that you would find this result unacceptable.

That said, there are two subsidiary issues clouding the waters here. The first is that, for a host of wholly understandable reasons, rape has become rather fetishized in feminist discourse. Rape is treated as The Worst Thing That Can Happen Ever, when this is clearly not the case. Even if rape ranks fairly high up on the list of evils, its fairly easy to conjure up yet more horrific possibilities. And when the question is, indeed, precisely how terrible rape is, then this taboo becomes especially nettlesome--in this example, in times of famine it isn't necessarily true that rape is worse than stealing food. Your conception of rape smuggles in a potent premise that predetermines your answer to the question under discussion--of course you are going to thing the question is foolish if your understanding of rape ranks it at or very near the top of the hierarchy of evils. For a cogent discussion of this feature of feminism and some of its consequences, see H.E. Baber's paper How Bad is Rape?:

The second issue is the noxious trend in certain corners of the modern media(HI2U SLATE.COM) of privileging counterintuitive arguments simply because they are counterintuitive—especially if they have shitty just-so evo-psych explanations attached to them. This is the crap that gets mocked over at Unfogged with “On the veldt…” The original posting at Shtetl-Optimized superficially indulges in these bad habits, but as Robin Hanson pointed out, the “genetic” component is so much window dressing and isn’t actually central to the moral quandary. It’s understandable that this set off all your relevant alarms, but at worst Aaronson deserves a light rap on the knuckles for poor phrasing.

12:13 AM  
Anonymous PoopDoctor said...

The risk women have of being raped is vastly overrated. The vast majority of women have very little chance of ever being raped. Most "rapes" are actually he said-she said affairs when there is an irresponsible woman who got drunk, put herself in a compromising position, got fucked, and then is mad at herself the next morning. The crazy guy in a mask peering out of a bush is not a common occurrence.

7:03 PM  
Blogger Spungen said...

The crazy guy in a mask peering out of a bush is not a common occurrence.

Most rapes are by someone the woman knows. That doesn't make them any less rape.

10:07 PM  
Blogger Megan said...


I vehemently disagree with that assessment.

2:57 PM  
Anonymous doctorpat said...

I think it's interesting that you (Megan) are considering this from what I consider a biased perspective.

I don't think this is a male/female feminist issue. I think it is a moral issue.

If you have a strong moral basis, you will be disgusted by the question.

Feminisim may provide this moral basis, but it isn't the only source.

Such discussions arise because people are taught that morals are uncool and the mark of stupid, rednecks or has-been victorian times.

Feminisim has rejected all the old sexual morality, and then ended up reinventing it all again, because, some things are just wrong.

7:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I find disturbing about this post is its implied claim that half the population can have no valid opinion about some topic because of their tragic genetic accident. There are numerous grave violations of personhood that persons of both genders suffer. And while it may be pointless, and even offensive to some, to compare and contrast the nature of those violations, such comparisons are likely to occur especially in the search for balanced societal justice.

The weak are always at a distinct societal disadvantage. The alarmingly large number of instances of abuse of children, physical, mental and emotional violates and distorts the lives of many girls and boys.

The question should not be whose genetic "privilege" or other accident of birth renders their opinion meaningless, but what should individuals and formal society institutions chose to do the right thing.


8:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Spungen said...

Megan uses very occasional profanity judiciously for good effect. She has never said it where I wasn't already thinking it, or used it abusively. Your comment is the obscene and abusive one, 9:09.

9:56 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

A9:09 - comment deleted for violation of the affirmative kindness comment policy. Aside from slamming me, the only content in the comment was the opinion that it is disappointing that someone with my smarts (their assessment, not mine) has to resort to profanity. So, we'll preserve that, and lose the rest.

Thanks, Spungen, for the back up.

10:59 PM  
Blogger Benquo said...

There have been societies where rape (at least of some persons) has been regarded as a misdemeanor, not a humongous moral crime. Most people in our society feel differently: that rape is monstrous. But it's obviously not a universal attitude. Why isn't it perfectly normal and natural to ask why we feel this way when others don't?

As for the "autonomous person" dodge, how does food production (and the taxation that supports it) not require the participation of "autonomous persons"? Sure, it feels like less of a complete violation, but that's because it can be divided up into pieces, unlike sex. But a wrong is still a wrong no matter how widely the burden is distributed. Or is it? That's also part of what's being asked. The equivalent of rape in food production is agricultural slavery. So why don't we find food subsidies abhorrent? Why would we find a once-a-year mandatory sex draft an onerous burden? (Or would we?)

And the lasting psychological damage of rape is not a reason for our abhorrence of rape; it is a consequence of it. It's mental/spiritual, after all. Your preexisting narrative is what determines your response to events. If society didn't think rape or sex were such a big deal, isn't it plausible that rape would in fact become less traumatic? Mightn't the victims feel less violated if they hadn't been conditioned from birth to think of sexual violation as the ultimate humiliation? Or is there something intrinsically horrible about rape? (If so, why haven't all societies recognized this?)

If rape is so obviously very very wrong by nature (as opposed to a little wrong by nature, and very very wrong by convention), then it should be very easy to answer every single one of those questions clearly and completely. Perhaps it is -- but I haven't heard the answers yet.

And as for the idea that rape is exclusively a womens' issue, try telling that to, for instance, victims of male-on-male prison rape -- a type of rape which is, unlike ordinarily male-on-female rape, not only unpunished, but encouraged by society. Some public figures, like Bill Lockyer when he was Attorney General of California, have actually come out explicitly in support of prison rape.

Obviously, you don't think prison rape is horrible, or even very wrong, or you wouldn't say that only women can know about rape.

9:29 PM  
Blogger Megan said...

Benquo, props for writing your name. You're making a lot of assumptions about me and my opinions; a close reading of my post won't support those.

For the record, I am deeply opposed to prison rape.

10:35 PM  
Blogger Spungen said...

A lot of men seem to feel that they're entitled to sex, or that they "need" it, and that women are mean gatekeepers who won't let them have what they need/are entitled to. In reality, the men are just too lazy to figure out what they should be doing to get women to want to have sex with them.

And props to Passey for working Libertarian philosophy to feminist ends! Let it never be said the two can't agree.

11:03 PM  
Blogger Benquo said...


I was responding to some of the other comments (including your comments vs. Robin Hanson) more than the original post. I realize that your original point was actually more limited in scope (and largely correct; real philosophy tends to be nauseating in large doses).

But am I wrong to think that part of your point was that the question under discussion was contrived? That there weren't really grounds for being both a moral and sympathetic person, and being genuinely puzzled? I was trying to show that a lack of sympathy with rape victims is not the only reason someone could think of it as a question worth asking.

My final sentence's sarcasm would probably have been easier to detect had the previous version of that comment not been lost (thank goodness!) to the internet; the tone of my first attempt was a good deal angrier and less constructive.

4:19 PM  

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