Monday, March 15, 2010

If Anything Is True, Nothing Is Permitted

Back to A Very Bad Wizard. The first discussion that caught my attention was with Michael Ruse, a prolific writer on philosophical topics whose Homosexuality: A Philosophical Inquiry (Blackwell, 1988) I read but remember nothing much about. He's written several books defending Darwinian theory against Creationism (and testified in the famous Arkansas "creation science" trial of 1981). His interest for Tamler Sommers lies in his attempts to connect evolution to ethics.

Starting on page 96:
TS: So it's not morality itself, but this feeling of objectivity in morality that is the illusion -- right? But doesn't that mean that as clearheaded Darwinians, we have to say that there are no objective moral facts? And therefore that it is not an objective fact that rape is wrong?

MR: Within the system, of course, rape is objectively wrong -- just like three strikes and you're out in baseball. But I'm a nonrealist, so ultimately there is no objective right and wrong for me. Having said that, I am part of the system and cannot escape. The truth does not necessarily make you free.

TS: The truth here being that there is no real right and wrong.

MR: Yes, but knowing that it is all subjective doesn't necessarily mean that I can become a Nietzschean superman and ignore it. I take very seriously Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky points out that even if we have these beliefs that there is no right and wrong, we can't necessarily act on them. And, you know, I see no real reason to get out of the system, either. If I rape, I am going to feel badly, apart from the consequences if I get caught. And the reciprocation -- I don't want my wife and daughters raped. But even rape is relative in a sense to our biology. If women went into heat, would rape be a crime/sin? I wrote about this once in the context of extraterrestrials -- is rape wrong on Andromeda?
I disagree with Ruse here, because I disagree with Dostoevsky. It's hard to prove a case in fiction, and I wasn't convinced by Crime and Punishment, where the protagonist Raskolnikov tries to prove his superiority to religious morality by robbing and killing an old woman. He botches the job, and eventually turns himself in -- just as the police are closing in on him anyway. Within the terms of the novel and the problem it poses, this only shows that Raskolnikov isn't a superior being after all; old-fashioned "slave morality" is good enough for the likes of him, and you, and me. There are other objections to Dostoevsky's argument, such as the fact that he considered the state qualified to do things (like killing people) that are immoral for individual citizens, so he had at least a two-tiered morality, and of course God's ways are not our ways, etc. But they aren't pertinent here.
TS: I'm not sure what you mean by "within the system, it is objectively wrong." Do you mean that because we have laws and norms against rape, then rape is wrong? Or do you mean that for our species, given our biology, rape is objectively wrong? If it's the latter, aren't you violating Hume's Law, too?
(Hume's Law is the dictum that you can't infer "ought" from "is", values from facts.)
MR: ... There is no ultimate truth about morality. It is an invention -- an invention of the genes rather than of humans, and we cannot change games at will, as one might change from baseball if one went to England and played cricket. Within the system, the human moral system, it is objectively true that rape is wrong. That follows from the principles of morality and from human nature. If human females went into heat, it would not necessarily be objectively wrong to rape -- in fact, I doubt we would have the concept of rape at all. So, within the system, I doubt that we would have the concept of rape at all. So, within the system, I could justify it. But I deny that human morality at the highest level -- love your neighbor as yourself, etc. -- is justifiable. That is why I am not deriving is from ought, in the illicit sense of justification. I am deriving it in the sense of explaining why we have moral sentiments, but that is a different matter. As an analyst I can explain why you hate your father, but that doesn't mean your hatred is justified.

TS: So then by analogy, Darwinian theory can explain why we have moral sentiments and beliefs, right? So let's get into the details. Why was it adaptive to have this moral sense? Why did our genes invent morality?

MS: I am an individual selectionist all the way. Natural selection has given us selfish/self-centered thoughts. It had to. If I meet a pretty girl and at once say to Bob Brandon [the philosopher of biology at Duke University], "You go first," I am going to lose in the struggle for existence. But at the same time we are social animals. It's a good thing to be, we can work together. ...

TS: I wanted to ask this before -- what is it about human females not going into heat that leads us to be moral?

MR: Human females not going into heat does not make us moral or immoral -- but it is an important fact of our sociality and it is an important fact when we are making moral judgments (which are always matters of fact plus moral principles). I am simply saying that if women did go into heat, then even if we had the same moral principles -- treat others fairly, etc. -- it would simply not make sense to condemn someone for fucking the female if he got the chance. Having to take a shit is a physical adaptation, and it makes silly the moral claim that you ought never shit -- although it does not affect the claim that it is wrong to go to your supervisor's home for supper and end the evening by crapping on his Persian rug.

TS: That's what I meant -- why would it not make sense to condemn someone for raping a human female, if human females went into heat?

MR: Look, in my view, as a naturalist, I think epistemology and ethics are dependent on the best modern science. Look at Descartes and Locke and Hume and Kant. The point is that if women went into heat, then biology really would take over and we would lose our freedom. ... The point is that ought implies a choice, and if women went into heat then there would be no choice. I wouldn't have a hell of a lot of choice even though they also wouldn't. So it's not that we are always moral -- we certainly aren't -- but we have the urge to be moral as one of the package of human adaptations.

TS: Okay, I see why selection has given us selfish thoughts. A trait that leads you to give up the girl to Brandon every time is not going to get passed on to the next generation. Because you need a woman to pass on traits of any kind. At least for now, with the cloning ban. ...
Sorry for the long quotation, but I wanted to do Ruse's argument justice, and there's plenty more where this came from.

It seems to me that both Ruse and Sommers are unclear about what rape is; I want to argue that whether human females go into heat is irrelevant to the moral question Ruse is talking about.

What got my attention as I read this dialogue was that as Ruse frames the issue, rape is a moral issue between men. Women barely feature in it, as is typical of both adaptationist-oriented discussions and traditional moral and legal codes down to very nearly the present. (Yes, Ruse says that he wouldn't want his wife or daughters to be raped; while laudable, it still means in context that he's concerned about the safety of "his" women, and more important, he puts it in terms of "reciprocation", where males try to agree to leave each other's women alone. Not to spare the women's feelings, which are curiously absent from the field, but to spare other men's feelings.) This relates to some previous posts I've written on the subject, from Thornhill and Palmer's Natural History of Rape to other sociobiological grappling with male rut.

Since Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape it's been a cliche in pop-evolutionary talk about sex that, unlike many other species, women don't go into heat -- they're always potentially sexually receptive. Maybe the ethological knowledge has been refined somewhat since then (I found a couple of articles referring to research which indicated that women might be more sexually receptive when they're ovulating, and send out pheromones that bring all the horndogs running; seems to be mostly boyish wishful thinking though), but as I recall, even in species where females do go into heat / estrous / season, they are not totally indiscriminate in accepting males, and males may struggle ("compete") to keep other males away from a female they want to inseminate. The "sexual selection" so touted by evolutionary psychologists really has more to do with women's choices about the men they accept than men's selectivity about the women they pursue; women constitute a reproductive bottleneck in this scenario, since once they're fertilized they won't be available for further breeding for several years, a troublesome obstacle for males who seek to maximize their reproductive success. And blah blah blah -- this is old hat.

In Homo Sapiens sapiens, that's certainly the case: men try to hoard women, preventing other men from getting access to them, and the morality of "rape" is more about keeping women secure and intact from other males than about respecting women's wishes or decisions. I've been annoyed, in the "evolutionary" discussions of rape I've seen so far, by their careful avoidance of the fact that in the real world, rape is not considered such a bad thing after all, that women are presumed be wanting it secretly, and that men are constantly trying to construct scenarios in which a woman forfeits her right to say No. (For example, by saying, "I do" -- once a woman says Yes, she can never again say No.) Indeed, women are regarded in traditional discourse as untrustworthy, devious, wandering critters who'll jump the fence if they can, then blame an innocent feller who didn't even get his wick wet. Did he really force her, or did she lead him on? Did she struggle, did she yell, did she prefer to kill herself than receive his embrace, or was she really willing all along? Why was she walking alone at night in that part of town, dressed that way? Did she have her fingers crossed behind her back?

So Ruse's distinction is probably bogus to begin with, since women's potential approachability has nothing to do with the state of their ovaries, neither does the morality of rape have anything to do with it, partly since he takes for granted that men are always "in heat." It's noteworthy that he throws in that little joke about deferring to a colleague; the "pretty girl" is not consulted, and "I am simply saying that if women did go into heat, then even if we had the same moral principles -- treat others fairly, etc. -- it would simply not make sense to condemn someone for fucking the female if he got the chance." But that is the rationale of rapists in the actual state of human biology. "What could I do, Your Honor? The bitch was out there all by herself, without a chaperone or an armed male escort. A woman can run faster with her skirt up than a man can run with his pants down, haw haw haw. She didn't rip my throat out with her teeth, so I could tell she wanted it. How can you condemn a man for fucking the female if he gets the chance, especially a chance like that? Besides, she's ugly as all get out, she should thank me. She wanted it, she wanted it, I could tell she wanted it."

And so on. Pardon the offensive litany of rapists' excuses; I thought it necessary to spell them out since they are a routine part of male culture and therefore of our evolutionary heritage, and yet the evolutionary psychologists' discussions proceed by pretending that they don't exist. (Except when Thornhill and Palmer, for example, drop trou and prescribe classes to teach young women to avoid rape by not dressing "provocatively.") I'm not saying that Michael Ruse would accept them, either; I'm sure that as an educated Western moral philosopher he would reject them in high moral dudgeon. It's just that his discussion never does consider women as full human subjects in the matter; as I said, he frames it solely in terms of men, and ignores the actual moral/legal approach to rape in the real world, in which a woman's consent is secondary to the primary question of whether the man had licit access to her.

Look at Deuteronomy 22, where the disposition of rape cases depends on the circumstances. If a bethrothed virgin is raped out "in the field", the rapist is to be executed and the victim spared, because she "cried, and there was none to save her" (vv. 25-27). If a betrothed virgin is raped in the city, she is to be stoned to death along with her rapist, because she didn't cry out (vv. 23-24). If the victim was not betrothed, the rapist must pay a fine to her father and marry her (vv. 28-29). Rape in the Bible is a crime between men, against each other's property, not a crime against a woman. Ruse's discussion is just as male-centered. That's clearheaded Darwin-informed moral philosophy in the 21st century for you, after forty years of feminist agitation.