Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Let's Talk About Morality

The latest atheist community dust-up pits Richard Dawkins against a bunch of people who take exception to something he said about sex crimes.  He tried to clear it up on Twitter, which of course reaches only the people least likely to give serious thought to a subject.  If a person can't be bothered reading more than 140 characters, how thoughtful can s/he be?  (Remember, the first four letters of twitter spell "twit.") Then he tried to clear it up on his blog.

The essential facts:  He broached the topic of taboos in atheism then proposed a hypothetical discussion of two hot-button sexual topics: pedophilia and rape.  As if to prove his point and disprove it at the same time, the interwebs blew up in a hot second.  Here are the tweets that are being tweeted around the world:

He disproved his point when a jillion people (I wouldn't know - I don't follow twitter, tweets, twits, or interweb dust-ups closely enough to count) discussed pedophilia and rape, and why he was wrong to say those things.  With so much discussion, I think it's safe to say that those topics are not "taboo."   He proved his point that emotion rules the discussion, though.

Well, of course it does.  Sex is highly emotional, highly personal, and sexual offenses are attacks on basic human dignity.

Unfortunately instead of engaging in a rational discussion -- which is what he presumably wanted to do -- he has insulted the people who took issue with his examples.  This just fuels the fire against him and changes the topic.  It's trollish behavior, at the least.

On his blog he summed it up perfectly:  "I didn’t know quite how deeply those two sensitive issues had infiltrated the taboo zone"  Well, those are clearly not taboo or else nobody would have responded, and I'm surprised if he's surprised.  He followed up with his implicit definition of taboo as "off limits to reason and logic."  

He digs himself deeper here:
That, then, is why I chose rape and pedophilia for my hypothetical examples. I think rationalists should be free to discuss spectrums of nastiness, even if only to reject them. I had noticed indications that rape and pedophilia had moved out of the discussion zone into a no-go taboo area. I wanted to challenge the taboo, just as I want to challenge all taboos against free discussion.
Nothing should be off limits to discussion. No, let me amend that. If you think some things should be off limits, let’s sit down together and discuss that proposition itself.
I would love to discuss these things rationally.  Unfortunately Dawkins didn't set the tone for rationality.  He was accusatory, and mistook emotional response for irrational censorship.  In his follow-up blog post he mentions his revelation of an incident from his childhood.  Digging himself deeper, he sets up a straw man, and then suggests that "We need to look more carefully at exactly who is belittling what."

Well, let's not belittle anyone or anything.  Let's start fresh and be rational.  In a rational discussion of sex crimes or other "taboo" topics, there should be some elements of rational discussion, such as:
  • Definition of Terms
  • Definition of Goals
  • Research Findings about the Topic
  • Quotes from the World's Most Well-Respected Thinkers
  • A Few Proposed Solutions
  • Testing of the Solutions (with thought experiments)
  • Discussion of Results
  • Rational Decision of Best Conclusion
You can't do that in a tweet, or even a series of tweets.

Dawkins's proposed quantification (?) of the badness of sex crimes is only one way to come to a conclusion about sexual morality.  It's not even an original way, because the court systems of every country have done this.  Even sharia law has done this, in its perverted way.  The fact that they all disagree means it's fertile ground for discussion, but coming to an agreement will take a long, long time and requires open mindedness on all sides, including his.

In the old days of the Internet Infidels Discussion Board (iidb), there was a section devoted to "Moral Foundations and Principles" and I was one of the moderators.   I wasn't personally interested in the discussions about pedophilia (we had few discussions about rape or other sex acts) but I kept an eye on them.  So yes, I can say unequivocally that atheists can discuss difficult topics rationally because I have seen it happen.  For what it's worth, these were the foundations and principles that a rational person would bring up:

  • What should be the basis for judging morality of a sex act?  The consensus was that consent was an imperative.  Any sex act that was not consensual for both parties is immoral.
  • How does one determine consent?  The consensus was predictable:  adult, not mentally compromised
  • How old should someone be to consent?  There was no consensus here thanks to pedophile trolls, but there isn't any consensus in the world, either.  The trolls tried to make the case that because some children & teens are more mature they should be considered able to consent, just as some "retarded" people, i.e. people who mature more slowly, shouldn't be able to.  How do you test such a thing?  Well, my personal view is that someone who appears to be mature for his/her age is actually still maturing.  The pre-frontal cortex is not fully formed until about age 25.  A person who has a genius intellect at age 12 may still be socially and psychologically underdeveloped.  et cetera.  They are like a hamburger that's been browned in a fry pan before being put into the oven: still raw on the inside and should stay in the oven for awhile.
  • What about painful or injurious sex between consenting, mentally capable, adults?  That didn't come up much but I would question the mental competence of someone who would permit themselves to be hurt during sex or at any other time.
  • Are there exceptions to these "rules?"  What about necrophilia?  A dead person can't consent, but they don't really "own" their bodies and they won't suffer any repercussions.  My personal opinion is that the family generally owns the person's body, unless other arrangements have been made.  It could also be injurious to the person doing it, though I admit that I have not had the curiosity to investigate the details.
Dawkins wanted to create gradations of "wrongness" but he didn't offer much in the way of specifics, nor suggest the potential consequences (such as differences in sentencing).  One of the big problems with the penal system is inconsistency in the way crimes are handled:
  • Some miscreants don't get caught  
  • Their crimes are noticed but go unreported
  • They confess to someone who covers for them
  • Their crime is reported but the police and the victim don't pursue it
  • Charges are filed and then dropped
  • They are found innocent or found guilty of a lesser charge
  • They get released on a technicality, escape. or otherwise get out of jail
  • They commit their crime in a jurisdiction that doesn't consider it a crime
There is a large body of literature on criminal justice, and I haven't read much of it.  Neither has Dawkins, I would guess.  From cases I've followed, it seems that the theoretical underpinnings that create something like gradations of "badness" have to do with intention of the perpetrator and consequences suffered by the victim.  Sometimes there is also the factor of number of offenses together. I think the dichotomy that seems to offend Dawkins, in which all rape is rape and all pedophilia is pedophilia, is appropriate, based on the principles that I listed above.  If someone has not consented to penetration, penetration is a crime (or any other sex act).  "No" means "no."  Likewise, if you drive the wrong way on a one-way road it's the wrong way whether the speed limit is 30 or 60, or whether there are children in the vicinity, etc.  A cop has discretion whether to issue a ticket or a warning, based on whether the driver is white rational principles (we hope).  But the wrongness of driving the wrong way is not in dispute.  What might be in dispute would be the extent to which we are morally repulsed:  someone whose wrong-way driving results in a car wreck would be charged with a felony, while someone who happened to drive on the wrong way on a street with only a cop car on it might just get a ticket.  The crimes are the same, but the results are vastly different.

For an opposite take on gradations of badness, Atheist vlogger Joe Dixon, who is black, argues against hate crime laws in his stand-up act:  He points out that John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln because he hated him.  Selena was killed by a fan because she loved her.  Which one is more dead?  Dead is dead.

Theft is one crime that I think has been graduated in the wrong ways and would make for a much more fruitful discussion.  It's a felony if you hold someone up at knifepoint on the street and rob them of $20.00.  The perpetrator may spend decades in a harsh prison, and in many states will be disenfranchised of his (or her) right to vote for life.   But if you steal someone's life savings of $250,000 in a Ponzi scheme, you'll go to club Fed if your lawyer isn't crooked clever enough.  The person who was held up at knifepoint may feel insecure about walking alone at night afterward, but the person who's lost his or her life savings may become homeless or commit suicide.  Bernie Madoff never used a knife or laid a hand on his victims, but he was sentenced to 150 years in prison.  His attorney asked for twelve years!  If he hadn't bilked NYU's Law School, Sandy Koufax and other high-profile investors he might have gotten off easier.   I hope that his case has set a precedent for other "white collar" criminals.

Note that this blog post has more than 140 characters.  I am a fan of brevity in Hemingway, but he couldn't have squeezed even his most brilliant work into a tweet or even a series of them.

If I were to compose a brief question posing a moral conundrum, I would choose two things that are more closely related and ask readers to comment (Have at it, readers!)  My thought experiment is this:

Which is worse, and why?  Raping a victim and then killing him/her?  or Killing him/her and then having sex with the corpse?


If I haven't bored you with my response to the twitstorm, here are some other responses from around the web (titles/summaries mine):

The Dawkins Disillusion:  young atheist disappointed in Dawkins, whom she admired greatly

Dawkins isn't as logical as he thinks he is

Dawkins is a troll, an ignorant wanker, and a moral coward, and he should be ashamed of himself

Studies show that in the U.K. attitudes toward rape affect victims

Dawkins is using his own experience as a yardstick for judging others' experiences.


L.Long said...

Ya heard about all the Dawkins bashing. Great biologist, well known atheist. And this is suppose to mean that he isn't lame about other stuff??? When has it happened that anyone hasn't said something silly and then made things worse by trying to explain??
He speaks biology- I will listen. Speaks anything else, he is no better than me or anyone else so use a grain of salt.

LadyAtheist said...

Yep. That's why I felt "qualified" to offer my two cents on morality.

Marcus J. Ranum said...

An aside Re: Hemingway. There's a story (which has not been confirmed well enough to cite as true) that Hemingway once engaged a $10 bet that he could write a novel in 6 words. Everyone hemmed and hawed and Hemingway picked up a napkin and dashed off:
"For sale: Baby shoes, never worn."
I think Hemingway, Twain, and Voltaire would have ruled twitter. Because they actually could communicate briefly when they wanted to.