Consider the following scenario.
A Muslim terrorist has got hold of a massive nuclear weapon that can be triggered by remote control and has placed it in a secret location in the heart of New York City. You are his prisoner in a room where he has his finger on the detonator button. He gleefully tells you that he is going to set off the weapon killing and injuring tens of thousands of people unless you agree to his demands. What demands? He points to a woman cowering in the corner and says that if you rape her, he will not blow up the bomb and will give himself up peacefully.
Wouldn’t rape be justified in such a situation?
Now that I have got your attention, and before you start (at least metaphorically) throwing things at me, let me hasten to add that I do not believe any such thing. Rape is a horrendous crime and is never, ever justified. The hypothetical I have created is ghastly and an obvious attempt at using manipulative rhetoric, such as calling the evil person a ‘Muslim terrorist’ who ‘gleefully’ contemplates using a ‘cowering woman’ as part of his diabolical plot. In some circles it is pretty much taken as a given these days that once people are assigned the label of Muslim terrorist, they are assumed to be capable of such cruel and insane behavior that no further information is necessary to make their behavior plausible.
What I have tried to do is make a point by adopting one gambit out of the Sam Harris playbook, where you say something outrageous and offensive using a hypothetical that has no connection to reality and assumes an outlandish initial situation that appears out of nowhere, all the while ignoring the huge number of bizarre assumptions involved in getting there and without any explanation how such an improbable situation could have ever come about.
This is what Harris does to justify torture, though he is by no means alone in doing so. His article In Defense of Torture begins:
Imagine that a known terrorist has planted a bomb in the heart of a nearby city. He now sits in your custody. Rather than conceal his guilt, he gloats about the forthcoming explosion and the magnitude of human suffering it will cause. Given this state of affairs–in particular, given that there is still time to prevent an imminent atrocity–it seems that subjecting this unpleasant fellow to torture may be justifiable. For those who make it their business to debate the ethics of torture this is known as the “ticking-bomb” case.
While the most realistic version of the ticking bomb case may not persuade everyone that torture is ethically acceptable, adding further embellishments seems to awaken the Grand Inquisitor in most of us. If a conventional explosion doesn’t move you, consider a nuclear bomb hidden in midtown Manhattan. If bombs seem too impersonal an evil, picture your seven-year-old daughter being slowly asphyxiated in a warehouse just five minutes away, while the man in your custody holds the keys to her release. If your daughter won’t tip the scales, then add the daughters of every couple for a thousand miles–millions of little girls have, by some perverse negligence on the part of our government, come under the control of an evil genius who now sits before you in shackles. Clearly, the consequences of one person’s uncooperativeness can be made so grave, and his malevolence and culpability so transparent, as to stir even a self-hating moral relativist from his dogmatic slumbers.
Critics might argue that my attempt to draw a parallel scenario to Harris’s fails because he was advocating hurting the person contemplating the evil act while in my scenario an innocent is the target. No problem! I can easily up the ante since there is nothing that limits the scope of hypotheticals except the writer’s imagination. Now I make my villain have access to a powerful thermonuclear device that will release such a massive ash cloud that it will plunge the entire Earth into darkness and kill pretty much every mammal. Surely the rape of an innocent is justifiable to prevent such a global catastrophe, since I would also be saving the life of the victim?
Harris is quite right that you can keep on ratcheting up the horrific nature of the threatened outcome until people agree with your recommendation to end it, whatever their initial qualms may have been. In fact, I am going to postulate a general rule: For any moral or ethical prohibition, you can always construct a hypothetical that requires violating it. But that does not make it right or justifiable. This is why such extreme hypotheticals are pretty much useless as a means of arriving at moral or ethical principles of behavior, since we live in a real world where such scenarios do not occur.
So why use them? It is to defend the indefensible. The purpose of extreme hypotheticals is to get the camel’s nose under the tent, to get the other person to agree that under certain conditions, a proposition that normally would be rejected out of hand may be justifiable. Once that purpose has been served, you can ditch the hypothetical and exploit the acceptance to cover situations that come nowhere close to the extreme situation that was used to gain acceptance in the first place. This was the case with torture that the US government started using.
The other Harris playbook gambit is to say something appalling like “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” and then when people take your words at face value and denounce you for advocating execution for thought crimes, you take the next step, which is to say that people are either misunderstanding you or taking your words out of context. You then ‘clarify’ your remarks by adding so many conditions and caveats and auxiliary statements that under this reinterpretation either your original statement becomes so banal that it was not worth saying in the first place or people no longer understand what point you are trying to make and just give up engaging with you. If people continue to criticize you, you can then accuse them of deliberately seeking to distort your words in order to defame you.
The basic idea in both cases seems to be to say something so repulsive to any reasonable person’s moral sensibilities that it serves the purpose of getting people to pay attention to you and start angrily denouncing you. Then you get the opportunity to appear to be a heroic truth-teller, seeing yourself as venturing into areas where others are afraid to go, and also of being someone who is such a deep thinker as to be aware of subtleties in logic and ethics and morality that the great unwashed masses cannot appreciate. Harris boasts in his torture article that “I am one of the few people I know of who has argued in print that torture may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror”. Well, congratulations. It does not seem to strike him that there may be good reasons why so few people argue in favor of torture.
I initially thought of using the header In Defense of Rape for this post, to draw a closer parallel with Harris’s essay that he titled In Defense of Torture. It would have definitely increased its shock value. But even writing it was difficult for me because it goes against everything I believe in. I am also well aware that this post will live forever on the internet and people who do a search will find my name linked to the header and, not reading the post, will assume that I actually believe such a thing. That would result in me having to write endless rebuttals to my critics explaining that they were mistaken. Harris may enjoy that kind of notoriety and attention but I don’t.
So let me be perfectly clear: Rape is always wrong and never, ever justifiable.