Rape vs. Keeping a Parent from Children

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A colleague who shares an office with me presented the following argument today (I can't remember where he said he got it from, but I'll try to ask him when I see him next Tuesday so I can give credit to the source):

1. If a complete stranger tells a woman to have sex with him or she'll never see her children again, she should have sex with him (and there's very good reason to believe he's telling the truth), because her children should be more important to her than her preferences about who she has sex with.
2. The issues involved with her decision are parallel to the issues involved in cases of rape and cases of a divorced parent preventing the other parent from seeing their children.
3. Therefore, preventing a parent from seeing their children is worse than raping someone.

Now some people might not accept premise 1. But assume premise 1 is true. I don't think you should have to deny premise 1 to get out of this argument. But the trick is identifying precisely where the argument goes wrong. Its conclusion is certain to be very unpopular. Rape is commonly viewed as one of the most despicable things anyone could do, and we never say anything remotely as bad about a woman who gains custody after divorcing her husband and preventing him from ever seeing his kids. But according to this argument, rape is not as bad as preventing him from seeing his kids. So where does the argument go wrong? Or is it actually true that, as bad as rape is, it's actually worse to rob a parent of access to their kids?

Update 10-23-07 1:17pm: The argument came from someone named David Thomas (not the founder of Wendy's, from a book called Not Guilty: The Case in Defense of Men). Second, I think I was overstating the conclusion a bit. It's not a comparison of the moral badness of the two actions. He was just trying to argue that we should care as much about men being kept from their children as we do about rape, and the fact is that we don't. Third, the cases he has in mind are not custody cases where men aren't granted visitation rights. He's thinking of the many cases when men are given visitation rights legally, but the police and courts won't enforce them, and the men never see their kids.

22 Comments

In answer to (1) obviously no. The Old Testament is clear that rape must be physically coercive to count as rape and not simple fornicating. The Christian response would be to have faith in God and resist temptation to take the sinful way out.

In an individual case of rape there is typically just one victim.

When one parent attacks the other parent's relationship with the child there are at least two victims. I'm not sure how someone who believes in hierarchicalism would address that. Are four murders worse than fifty rapes? a thousand rapes?

I'm not asking about the morality of (1), although I think that's an interesting question. I'm asking about whether, once you allow that she ought to have sex with him (as premise 1 assumes), you have to accept that rape is less bad than preventing someone from ever seeing their children again. I'm fairly confident that something is wrong with the inference, but I haven't been satisfied with my attempts to describe where the fallacy is.

I'm not sure how to compare these things. That's partly why I'm fishing for others' thoughts. I'm not even sure four murders will always be worse than three murders. It depends on the motivation. One murder may be worse than another merely because the person's motivation is much worse. I also think a murder can be worse than another if the consequences are worse. But I don't know how to compare whether a rape is better or worse than a murder, never mind whether some particular number of one is worse than some particular number of the other.

I think the problem lies in paralleling a "complete stranger" with a divorced parent. Giving up your children to you spouse is not equal to giving them up to a complete stranger. Further more in 1, she has every reason to believe harm will come to her children as a result of this stranger who has just threatened to rape her.

In order to make the parallel 1) would have to read something like "If a complete stranger tells a woman to have sex with him or a judge will grant permanent custody of her children to her ex-husband, she should have sex with him because keeping her children in her own custody should be more important to her than choosing who she has sex with."

I think the problem lies in paralleling a "complete stranger" with a divorced parent. Giving up your children to you spouse is not equal to giving them up to a complete stranger.

That's a very good point. I think that's a relevant disanalogy, although I'll have to think about it. My suspicion is that there's more wrong with the argument than just this, because this would still mean that a stranger raping this woman is not as bad as the stranger taking the kids. Does her consent to the sex under this coerced condition mean that she thinks the rape is less bad than the kids being stolen from her?

Further more in 1, she has every reason to believe harm will come to her children as a result of this stranger who has just threatened to rape her.

That wasn't my intent. I was thinking of this as if the kids would go on to have a life that's no worse than the bad life people seem to imagine when they prevent former spouses from seeing their kids. To make the case analogous, you do need that, but I think we could adjust the case to make it clear that she can reasonably expect something like that. She might still prefer conceding to sex under such conditions to avoid losing her kids. Does that mean she thinks the loss of her kids is worse than enduring coerced sex with the stranger?

I think I'm coming to some sense of what was bothering me about the example. The example shows, at most, that someone might prefer (maybe even rationally) to have one bad thing done to them than to have another bad thing done to them. The conclusion, however, is of a different sort. It takes that to imply that the thing she prefers is morally less bad for someone to do to her. If consequentialism is true, then maybe that follows (assuming what I would rationally prefer is going to match up to what's objectively better).

But if there are other moral considerations besides consequences, I think the conclusion simply doesn't follow. It may be morally worse to rape someone than to take their children away, even though someone might rationally prefer to be raped than to have the children taken away. But I think I'd need to have some principle for why that would be. What would make rape morally worse than kidnapping even if it's the consequence that a rational person might prefer?

Curious case! It seems plausible to me that the harm of keeping a parent from their children could be even worse for them (the parent) than suffering rape. Their informed preferences are what settles this matter. Holding all else equal, consequentialism then implies that the moral status of the respective actions follows suit. But we may still assess the agents differently: only the most despicable person could ever intentionally rape, whereas depriving a parent access to their children seems - sadly enough - to be something that even otherwise mostly decent people can all-too-easily be motivated to do.

At least, that's one possible way to save something of the common intuition while granting the argument's soundness. Rape reflects a more vile character. But sometimes good people do even worse things.

The argument doesn't look valid to me - at least not obviously. The premises are about what the mother should do whereas the conclusion is about what is being done to her. I can see how someone might think it better for the mother to submit to coerced sex than to never see her children (maybe she has very strong obligations to her children in virtue of being their mother). But I don't think it follows from this (at least not obviously) that preventing her from seeing her children is worse than raping her.

I'd need an additional premise or I'd need to see premise 2 spelled out in more detail so that the relevant parallels between the mother's actions and the rapist's actions are made clearer.

Richard, I'm not convinced that being otherwise mostly decent is sufficient here, because people who rape also seem to be otherwise mostly decent. We're often surprised at who could end up being a racist or a murderer. Really nice family men were the perpetrators of some of the worst atrocities committed in the Holocaust.

Nathan, I think the connection between what she should do and what's done to her is supposed to be that she accepts some situation as better and then does something that accords with that assessment, when in the other case what's done to her is less or more bad according to how it matches up to the earlier assessment of the situation. So the question is whether her assessment of the relative badness of the two outcomes is sufficient to justify thinking that it's morally worse to do the one that she assesses as worse to be done to her. If it's invalid, it's because there's a slippage there. But to establish that there's a slippage there, I really want to see a principle that the slippage violates. I'm not sure what that would be.

I like the suggestion that what might motivate her to choose coerced sex over losing her children is because she thinks she has moral obligations to them that she'd be violating if she didn't go along with the coerced sex. I'm sure that would be part of it. But couldn't she have a merely selfish desire not to see her kids taken away from her and as a result agree to the coerced sex?

An issue I see here is about the meaning of "she'll never see her children again". The woman in the first scenario, as I read this, would understand this as a death threat, either to her children or to herself, as that is likely to be the only way the man could enforce "never". That puts an entirely different slant on the scenario. If the threat were actually, and believably, that the children would be taken from her permanently but she and they would be unharmed, the issue would be a significantly different one. But that is not how I read it.

He doesn't mean it as a death threat, just that she'd never see them again. and he'd make that clear to her. That was how the case was originally set up when my colleague presented it to me. It really just literally means she'll never see them again, not that they'll die.

There is a transition from 2 to 3 that does not necessarily follow if I'm understanding correctly how Jeremy is using worse.

If you mean worse, as in "for some individuals being deprived of their children is worse than rape" than this is obviously true. Some people hold preferences that cause that to be true.

If you mean morally worse intrinsically than the question may be different.

If there is intrinsic evil in raping someone or kidnapping a child than human preferences aren't the focus of determining which is worse.

Do you mean "worse" in terms of being unpleasant in 2 and then as intrinsically worse in some broader sense in 3? Your use of the word 'preferences' in your final sentence suggests that.

I would have thought it was intrinsic badness in both 2 and 3, actually, which was why I was distinguishing between intrinsic badness of the state one is in and intrinsic badness of the action (or, as Richard suggests, of the character of the person doing it).

So you may have found another way someone might mean 2 and 3 such that the inference isn't valid, but I didn't mean 2 that way.

I think we are confusing two things
one is the degree to which activities are socially sanctioned. This ia a game played at a very high level. violent rape is socially repugnant because we see no legitimate excuse. this allows one to have a open hatred for the image of "rapist" and to seek to punish them (prison sentances etc). we cloud that a bit by including 'statutory rape' and 'date rape' but the image of rape is strong enough to withstand that.

On the other hand seperation from ones children is somthing that often happens for legitimate reasons. A "seperator" might be a child welfare agency or a preist or a mother. We cant just kneejerk hate every 'seperator' so we dont get as strong an instinctive reaction when we hear about them.

More generally, society might choose for strategic reasons or as a result of natural emergance to oppose somthing at a certain level - but that might not be the way that it should be or the natural sum of the individual's preferences.

To me, it seems almost incomprehensible that one would give up ones child just to avoid rape even of a pretty violent sort (rather like how there would not even be any consideration of comparing an assult with loosing children). How could you live with yourself? So its seems pretty natural that that would be the greater evil. I imagine many people have faced that sort of choice before and had similar thoughts.

> Are four murders worse than fifty rapes? a thousand rapes?

hmm - I guess it depends on the rape/murder and the concequences thereof. I exect there are many people out there who have been raped a lot of times - maybe hundreds - and still fear death rather than wishing for it.

I don't see anything about social acceptance in the argument at all, though. Where do you see it? It can't be a fallacy of equivocation on that issue if only one of the two things appears in the argument.

I exect there are many people out there who have been raped a lot of times - maybe hundreds - and still fear death rather than wishing for it.

I'm not sure that shows what you think. Someone could fear death and not want to die out of hope that the rest of life would be good. It doesn't mean the person prefers being raped 100 times to dying. If someone expects to be raped 100 times and then chooses not to die instead, that might show what you're saying.

Wouldn't the first premise have to presuppose the woman's moral obligation not to be separated from her children? Otherwise, I see no basis for the claim that the woman should comply. Merely having a selfish desire not to see her children taken away can only tell us what she would be likely to do, not what she should do. But then there's the second premise. In its first analogy, the stranger's ultimatum to the woman, by which he coerces her to have sex with him, is compared to rape. That one is legitimate. In fact, we could say that it just is rape. The coercion does not have to be physical. However, in the second analogy, the stranger has made a credible threat that the woman will never see her children again. Since it has been established that this does not involve murdering the children, then we have to assume kidnapping or the immenent threat of kidnapping. But where is the argument that winning exclusive custody in a divorce settlement, with no visitation rights for the other parent, is necessarily tantamount to kidnapping?

So then, if I can rephrase the conclusion, a better question is whether kidnapping someone's children is worse than raping someone. Even then, the first premise may not allow us to go even that far. In that case, the same individual is given the choice of rape or having her children kidnapped. The moral obligations on the woman to comply with the stranger might be different if the choice had been to have sex with him or a woman she didn't know would never see her children again. Or take it even further. Suppose a man is told to go out and rape someone or he will never see his children again. Remember that, as with the original case, the children will not be harmed. Does the man's moral obligation not to be separated from his children extend so far that he must now become a rapist? What if the parents are given the option between letting their children be permanently kidnapped or raped and then returned? Perhaps, though, child rape is so heinous as to belong in an entirely different category. So we can modify the scenario a bit. Are parents' obligations not to be separated from their minor children such that they should not do whatever they can to prevent their grown children from being raped?

All the first premise tells us, if we accept it, is that parents should choose being raped over being separated from their children. At this point, we should clarify the parents' moral obligation regarding their children. The obligation is not so much to the parents, such that being raped or being separated from her children are both things that happen to the woman. It is rather that the parents have a moral obligation to prevent their children from being separated from them. If this is accurate, then the contrast in the first premise is not properly between rape and kidnapping but between whether the parent or child should be harmed. And whether or not a moral obligation actually does attach to this phenomenon, it is quite often the case that parents will choose personal harm if they think that this will prevent their children from being hurt. This is the case even when the children would not have been hurt as badly as the parents. Consequently, the fact that a woman will opt to be raped as opposed to allowing her children to be deprived of her is not, in itself, sufficient evidence to decide which of rape or kidnapping is the greater evil. That is, unless morality is defined according to what the victim would prefer. Even then, we are limited to saying which is worse in a particular case. There would be no warrant for generalizing the assessement to all cases of rape and kidnapping. Returning to the original conclusion, if we can't even determine from the premises that kidnapping someone's children is worse than raping someone, we can hardly hope to decide whether or not rape is better than winning exclusive custody rights.

Kevin, I didn't mean to imply that. You could read "should" in terms of what's rational or what makes her life better, either of which is more than just selfishness, and you still aren't assuming any moral obligations. I do think most people who accept (1) does do at least in part because they think she has certain moral obligations to her kids, but I don't think you need that to get what the person offering this argument would think is necessary to get the conclusion. It seems to me that the relevant sense of "should" must have to do with what's best in some way, or it couldn't explain why being raped is supposed to be less bad than losing one's children. But that sense of being best doesn't require any sense of what you morally ought to do.

I think the cases you bring up are interesting, but I don't think they help as much here, because I think a lot more people will deny the premise if it claims that you should do something morally wrong against an innocent (in a harmful way) in order to save your children. Most people think it would be wrong to kill an innocent person to save your child. Many would say the same about raping someone to save your child.

I think most of what you say after that is right, though, and what isn't is at least moving in the right direction. These are all important distinctions that the argument seems to ignore.

I don't think you need to limit it to what the victim would prefer to get the result that the kidnapping comes out worse. The woman herself might prefer the coerced sex. But so might the kids, and so might the kidnapper. Assuming there aren't any other affected parties, you might end up with all affected parties preferring it. Yet it doesn't seem enough to me to conclude that it's morally better, and if what's morally good or bad affects which is the worse or less bad evil, then preferences, even of all affected parties, won't answer the question fully.

> I don't see anything about social acceptance in the argument at all, though.

I think people (including people in this debate) oppose rape to a large extent (in fact mostly) because you are part of the mechanism of social acceptance (which works via social reinforcement and habit). So when you look into yourself and dig out an intuition it, for the most part, is not based on an ethical framework it is instead based on what society has decided to oppose (so that controls the magnitude of the gut reation and the outrage, relitive ranking etc).

Ie one confuses two reasons (ie is unable to clearly see the magnitude of one due to the other) for somthing happening and answers the question with the less significant of the two.

>Someone could fear death and not want to die out of hope that the rest of life would be good.

Er, doesn't induction count? It seems a bold statement to say that those that have been raped hundred of times tend not to expect to be raped again. Of course if you could measure what they expected then yours would be stronger proof - but i have not done that study so I dont think I should be referencing it.

I meant that if the horror of being raped hundreds of times isn't likely to be repeated (i.e. unless the conditions leading to the hundreds of rapes still obtain), then we have an alternative account of why the person fears death rather than welcoming it. Someone who has been raped hundreds of times and is still in conditions making a similar future likely is probably not going to value life because the future is likely to be better than the past but for some other reason. My point is that not all cases must be like that. And I'm about to keel over from exhaustion, so I hope that's coherent.

To whatever extent the author is including a moral dimension in his conclusion we need to assume that this also exists in the premise. The stranger would incur more guilt for preventing the woman from seeing her children than he would for raping her. The way the premise is set up though, the relative amount of guilt for the stranger depends on what the woman should do. I can see this if what the woman should do is a result of moral obligation, but not if it's a result of rational decision or of the belief that here life would be better if she chose rape. Although a rarer choice, I don't see that it would be irrational if she chose to skip the rape and allow her children to be raised by someone else. Her life might even turn out better. Yet, if this is the case, then the relative morality of the stranger's actions is determined by the woman's preference. As long as another woman could legitimately choose the second option, then kidnapping would only be worse than rape most of the time. There would be no basis for the categorical conclusion that depriving a parent of their children is worse than raping someone. I'll agree that “should” needs to include some concept of what is best. However, unless what is best is applicable to all women in this situation, then the most that the arguer can conclude is that most parents would prefer to be raped over being deprived of their children.

Most people would deny the premise if it included the examples I brought up. And I can see the point that, by including the rape of an innocent third party, I have substantially altered the premise. But consider the conclusion. It is not, “Preventing a parent from seeing their children is worse than raping that parent,” which would seem to be the strongest conclusion warranted from the premises. Instead, the rape applies to 'someone'. If the arguer wants suddenly to include innocent third parties in his conclusion, then why not improve the consistency of his argument by retroactively including innocent third parties in the premises?

It may be the case that kidnapping is worse than rape, but I don't think that it's possible to reach that conclusion with this argument. I don't believe in preference based morality. People are depraved and don't always prefer what's moral. If I'm correct in my assessment that the first premise actually describes a parent choosing to endure harm over letting their child be harmed, then kidnapping and rape are accidental. The argument has based the morality of the stranger's actions on what the woman should choose. But if the substance of the woman's choice is to allow herself to be harmed rather than her child and is not about rape over kidnapping, then the conclusion would have to be that it's better for a parent to suffer than to allow their child to suffer. As I see it, the argument's only valid hope (if not true) for reaching its stated conclusion is to base the stranger's morality on the woman's preference rather than on the merits of what she has chosen.

It seems to me that there are two disjuncts here, each of which derails the argument:

1) As many have already noted above, the preference of the victim doesn't determine the morality of the agent. But Jeremy wants to know why: So the question is whether her assessment of the relative badness of the two outcomes is sufficient to justify thinking that it's morally worse to do the one that she assesses as worse to be done to her. If it's invalid, it's because there's a slippage there. But to establish that there's a slippage there, I really want to see a principle that the slippage violates. I'm not sure what that would be.

So we need to show that there is some slippage between what the victim finds prefereable, and what morality/Goodness/God/Society-at-large finds preferable. Or, in other words, we need to show that what seems rational for an individual is not rational for the greater good. The Prisoner's Dilemma nicely shows this slippage.

2) Kidnapping is not equivalent to custody hearings. Kidnapping is, by definition, taking someone away when you don't have the rights to do so. A custody hearing determines whether or not you (still) have those rights.

So even if kidnapping is morally worse than rape, it still does not show that "keeping a parent from seeing their children" (via lack of custody rights) is worse than rape.

Kevin, you've convinced me on the third-party issue. That's a further factor where the argument assumes something that it can't support.

Wink, you're right that prisoner's dilemma cases show that an individual's preferences can be against the greater good. I'm not doubting that such a disjunct can occur. What I'd like is a principle behind why her preferences in this case might not track with the greater good in this case. I'm beginning to think the only way to achieve that is by recognizing the intrinsic goof or bad of moral facts (e.g. the moral status what the kidnapper or rapist is doing or his character) as opposed to the mere consequence. But you'd need some principle behind why rape is worse than kidnapping, which is the very thing at issue to begin with.

You're right that custody hearings vs. kidnapping involve one crucial difference, and that's that custody hearings (at least ideally) follow the rule of law and due process. That counts for something. But the worry is that they do so unjustly, even if they have the stamp of legality. In those cases, they would be morally tantamount to kidnapping in the same way that many pro-life people think abortion is morally tantamount to murder while being legally acceptable.

Yes, some custody hearings are morally tantamount to kidnapping. And some are not, which makes the conclusion too broad. Would the arguer agree to modifying 'parent' with 'fit'?

I agree. Some custody hearings are in the best interest of the child, and the parent really needs to be out of the child's life. You don't need to think custody hearings are even usually just to think that occasionally they are. So that is another problem with the conclusion. But I don't think the issue is so much with granting women custody as it is with granting them custody in way that allows them to declare that the father can never see his kids again. Even if they aren't raising the children, allowing them to see them occasionally seems better than not letting them see them ever, at least in many cases. That was the original point of the argument.

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