Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Leave a comment

Ranking harms and sexual abuse

In my last post I defended the apparently unforgivable claim that it’s possible to judge the wrongness of an act by the amount of harm it causes. Because the post was in the context of Dawkins’ challenging and unsettling claim that sometimes instilling frightening religious beliefs into children might cause more lasting harm that some experiences of sexual abuse, I ended up being subjected to an awful lot of insult and anger. Indeed, I was accused of being a misogynistic rape-apologist, insane, a jerk, immoral, patronising to women and awful human being who downplayed abuse and supported a culture of rape. All in all, it was pretty dispiriting and unpleasant. However, amongst all of the angry insults and all-caps tweets, were some interesting arguments. I should say now that I’m not a consequentialist, so it feels strange to be defending a consequentialist argument, but here goes. Here are the two central claims that were made:

  1. Ranking harms is impossible.
  2. Ranking harms is morally wrong.

The first of those claims hinged on the premises that harm is subjective and impossible to measure, therefore it makes no sense to try to rank harms. Of course it is true that there’s a subjective element to harm, and there may well be no way we precisely measure harms. Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny that it is possible to say that some harms are worse than other harms. In general, it will be more harmful to lose an arm than to lose a finger. In general it will be more harmful to be traumatised by witnessing a real event than by watching a fictional one. We might not be able to quantify harms precisely, but we can get far enough off the ground to make some kind of consequentialist calculus. Furthermore, even entirely subjective experiences can be compared. If you say that you feel sad, and I say that I feel happy, then it’s not exactly controversial to claim that I feel happier than you do. What’s more, harm is often defined as a setting-back of frustration of a being’s interests or goals, thus, even if those goals or interests are unique to the individual, it’s still potentially possible to assess the degree to which the individual’s interests are set-back. To sum up then – not only is it doubtful that harm is entirely subjective, but even if it is that doesn’t prevent a comparisons of harms suffered.

The second claim, that it is morally wrong to rank harms, is the one that really baffled me – I’d never seen a claim like it. And it was repeated over and over again by lots of different people. It was argued that ranking harms (from sexual abuse) causes harm to those who have suffered abuse. First, it was claimed that comparing the harms suffered by individuals somehow made people feel that those ranked as less harmful would be treated less seriously. One person wrote that ‘pain is pain’ as if harm or suffering is some state that you are either in or out of – a self-evidently false claim. There was also the suggestion that if we measure the harm caused by abuse, and compare it to the harm caused by some other wrong, then somehow we downplay the seriousness of abuse. Again, I’m not sure how this is so: if I make the claim that genocide is more harmful than an individual murder, it does not mean that I think murder is not terribly harmful. Some of the argument was tied up in the subjectivity of the experiences of those who have been abused. This thread of argument claimed that individual’s experiences are unique and subjective and to attempt to compare them with those of other victims of abuse is damaging in some way. I’ve really struggled with that last sentence, because I’m still not sure what the claim being made was – perhaps it’s the thought that trying to measure harm might require intrusion into a deeply personal and private trauma. That’s certainly an argument I can accept (sadly, it wasn’t one that was made).  Rather, what was actually claimed was something along the lines that it’s always wrong to say one person’s suffering is worse than another’s because it pits people against each other or somehow makes people feel that their harm is non-serious. Again, this claim is self-evidently false in the general sense: if I badly cut my finger, then it doesn’t make that cut any less serious for me if I acknowledge that my cut is not as serious as someone else’s gun-shot wound. Might there be something special about sexual abuse harms that make it true for them however? Was Dawkins morally wrong to say that his subjective experience of being groped as a child did not cause him serious harm? Was he wrong to say that the amount of harm he suffered might be less than that suffered by some people who are terrified as children by the instillation of religious beliefs? I can’t really see how he was. Were he to generalise from this that all forms of sexual abuse, or forms of a particular type of abuse, are less harmful than religious indoctrination then this would indeed be a wild claim to make – but that’s not even close to what he claimed. Now, there is a sense in which discussing abuse can trigger post-traumatic stress and may therefore be harmful, and this means that discussion should be conducted with care and sensitivity. What it doesn’t mean though is that discussion is impermissible.

At one point in yesterday’s fusillade of angry tweets, one person made a series of derogatory comments about philosophy and philosophers, claiming that the abstract consideration of sexual abuse ignored the real harms caused by abuse. I’m not really sure what to make of that sort of criticism, however, I was helpfully referred to chapter one of Janet Radcliffe Richards’ The Sceptical Feminist,* which has things to say on the subject and is engagingly written (a copy is now on it’s way to me in the post). The worrying theme of many comments was the thought that even giving consideration to the measurement and comparison of harms is impermissible. If it is, then it’s wrong to practice moral philosophy. So too would the legal system be wrong to take into consideration how much harm results from an act. What are the logical outcomes of such a claim? Well, we’d have to either judge that all wrongful acts are equally wrong, or that all wrongful acts are incomparable, or that the wrongness of acts is completely independent of the harms caused by them. I’m not sure that any of those possible conclusions leaves any scope for meaningful morality. I don’t know about you, a world where we can’t say that sexual abuse is wrongful or causes serious harm isn’t a very desirable one. A morality that doesn’t take any account of the harm caused by wrongful acts doesn’t seem like a very plausible morality either.

The fact that discussing abuse in terms above makes me misogynistic rape-apologist in the eyes of some is very worrying. It shows a hostility to reason and suggests that the topic of sexual abuse is so taboo that it’s forbidden to even consider how wrong it is. Most worrying to me was the fact that lots of basically decent people were so hostile to the idea of comparing harms that they thought it acceptable to hurl insult after insult – I was left wondering if as much energy and vitriol is directed by those same individuals at people who aren’t feminists.

*Much  of Richards’ first chapter is viewable in Googlebooks by the way – work a read.



Dawkins, ‘mild sexual abuse,’ and religious indoctrination

Earlier this evening public intellectual, Richard Dawkins, posed the question, via Twitter, ‘Is it child-abuse to teach about hell? Might such mental abuse cause longer-lasting trauma than mild sexual abuse?’ The response to this inflammatory question was as predictable as it was disappointing. One person on Twitter wrote ‘Richard Dawkins, you are a cockroach for even asking this.’

But just what was so very wrong about his short question? Perhaps it is forbidden to  describe any child-abuse as ‘mild’? Child abuse is wrong, that much is not in doubt. But it can’t be denied that not all forms of child abuse are equally wrong. If smacking a child’s bottom is child abuse, then it’s surely not in the same league as sexually abusing that child, or beating that child. Furthermore, it’s plausible to claim that not all forms of sexual abuse are equally harmful (and bear in mind that Dawkins is framing his question in terms of harms caused). It’s hard to deny that different types of child abuse cause different levels of harm along a scale.

Nevertheless, given that child abuse is wrong, and that children are, by nature, innocent, the use of the term ‘mild’ to mark a point at the lower end of the scale of harms is offensive. Perhaps, no matter how much the difference between the end-points on the scale of harms, the lowest point still counts as a serious harm, particularly when describing sexual abuse. To call child abuse ‘mild’ is to show insensitivity and trivialise the trauma experienced by victims of abuse. The problem with this position is that for some people the harms clearly *are* mild. What’s more, Dawkins is using his own personal experience of being sexually abused to describe this kind of harm – that’s a pretty authoritative position to take.

If it’s not the use of the term ‘mild’ to describe child-abuse that’s right to so upset people, then perhaps it’s the comparison with religious indoctrination or the thought that physical abuse can be less wrong than psychological abuse? Let’s start with the question of whether instilling beliefs in children can cause them trauma. Again, it looks like a plausible claim that instilling a frightening belief into a child might lead to lasting psychological harm. That’s an empirical question and there’s nothing offensive or wrong in the asking of it. If it is the case that frightening a child could cause harm, then surely it’s at least in principle possible that the harm cause by terrifying a child might, in some case, be greater than that caused by certain physical harms? In other words, a psychological harm might have a longer-term or greater effect than a physical one. Again, I’m not sure what’s so wicked about suggesting this.

So, that leaves the claim that you can frighten a child by giving them a religious belief, and that to do so is wrong, and that this might be the offensive claim here. I doubt anyone would dispute that frightening a child to such an extent that they experience lasting psychological harm is prima facie wrong. Nor do I see how it would be less wrong, or not wrong, if the child were frightened to such an extent through being made to believe a religious claim. Harming a child by instilling a frightening belief (to the extent that it causes trauma) is prima facie wrong whether that belief is true, religious, or whatever.

This is the problem – statements of the sort made by Dawkins immediately trouble us when we read them because they rest on claims which shock us, or challenge our intuitions, or values and institutions that are precious to us. But the reaction to such statements is appalling – it is to ignore the argument being made and to resort to hate-filled abuse in a bid to vilify and shut down debate. Dawkins is the victim of the kind of social censorship that so worried J. S. Mill – the reaction to his statement is, to my mind, far more unpleasant that the words that he himself wrote to provoke them. When I read Dawkins’ comment I was shocked, I admit it. Partly, that was because I was swept up by the amplifying effect of other people’s shock. But, the comment forced me to begin thinking about real, serious issues that need to be discussed in an open-minded way. Twitter is proof that we need J.S. Mill’s ideas today more than ever.

You can read his the piece that Dawkins’ comments refer to here:

Edit: you can read the Daily Mail’s typically low-quality article on the comments here:


Direct & Indirect Duties: Climate Change & the Left

Ever wondered about the difference between direct and indirect duties? When Kant says that duties to non-human animals are indirect, he means that any duties we owe to non-human animals are in fact duties owed to humans. If you take more than a passing interest animal ethics, you will often see research linking animal cruelty with domestic abuse or other forms of violent behaviour. This is what Kant was getting at – being cruel to non-human animals makes us cruel to humans, and that is what makes animal cruelty wrong. The animal itself doesn’t matter for its own sake in this argument. If the evidence showed that being cruel to animals provided an outlet for aggression that made individuals less likely to harm other humans, then Kant would have had to conclude that being cruel to animals was therefore good.

You might think that this argument is not really relevant to contemporary thought. Not so. In fact, it’s very similar to ethical arguments in contemporary climate change and conservation debates. I was reminded of this fact by a post today by the new Climate Change Editor at the New Left Project: Climate Change and the Left [the original post is gone, but it’s archived here]. The argument is interesting, and provides good reasons for people on the left to care about climate change. However, it’s also interesting to me for two further reasons: 1) because it highlights that the reason many people on the left care about the environment is not because the environment is considered valuable for its own sake, and 2) because it makes use of the strange argument that one cannot or should not care about both animals and humans at the same time.

The first of those reasons is interesting because it suggests that a whole lot of people professing to care about the environment might be quite willing to destroy it completely if benefits to humans could be accrued. It follows from the post that the same is true of the treatment of animals – so long as humans benefit, the interests of animals are not really considered.

The second reason is interesting because it’s one of those ubiquitous claims that is often made, but rarely carries an argument with it. The author of the post linked to gives a reason why the argument is flawed – much like the Kantian position – but it also seems very much mistaken if you think that non-human animals or the environment have final value of their own. At the most very basic level, the decision to become a vegan doesn’t exactly require us to stop caring about humans, or divert any significant energy away from doing so.

Truly caring about the environment, or about non-human animals requires thinking about more than the interests of just our own species. The indirect duty view is right in that it shows us that it’s in our interests to care about non-humans. But, to avoid the charge of specieism, there also needs to be an acknowledgement that we may also have direct duties, and that these may on occasion trump the indirect ones.