Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Ranking harms and sexual abuse

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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.


Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

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