the Dawkins kerfluffle

Well, Richard Dawkins has at last posted a detailed response to critics of his recent tweets on the ethical logic of differentiating types of rape; but it isn’t the clarification or apology some of us may have been hoping for:

   I wasn’t going to get into the issue at all, because I just thought that Dawkins, whom I much admire, was just being temporarily dumb, and a lot of smart people I admire do sometimes say and do dumb things.   I also thought his critics were overreacting, but the case is one permitting over-reaction, first because rape is, to all women, a devastating threat (and ,to all too many, a painful event); but also because, in the US at least, we have religion-pandering politicians trying to decriminalize rape (they don’t put it that way, but that would be the effect of their proposed legislation).

   That second point got me thinking – is Dawkins wholly unaware that this is the case, especially in the South and in the Midwest ? Judging from his posted response, I would say he is. That’s doubly dumb. And it’s important for a very odd reason.

   In his response, Dawkins contextualizes his tweets in terms of hypotheticals in the learning of how to discuss ethics:

“A clock triggering a gigantic nuclear weapon hidden in a suitcase is ticking. A spy has been captured who knows where it is and how to disable it, but he refuses to speak. Is it morally right to torture him, or even his innocent children, to make him reveal the secret? What if the weapon were a doomsday machine that would blow up the whole world?

There are those whose love of reason allows them to enter such disagreeable hypothetical worlds and see where the discussion might lead. And there are those whose emotions prevent them from going anywhere near the conversation.”

Unfortunately, taking emotions into account is also a major function of learning to discuss ethics. One reason we do not want to live in a world of “justified” torture is because we empathize with the tortured, who we know feels pain. (By the way, Dawkins’ example here is skewered – how do we know the spy really knows where the bomb is? Have we already tortured him?)

But, more importantly, it is not “the love of reason” that would lead anyone into these “hypothetical” worlds (which unfortunately are not all that hypothetical). It’s the need to establish law. No, not “moral law,” whatever that might be; I mean good, clean, take-it-to-the-courtroom bar of justice law. You know, the reason we have judges, and lawmakers, police and lawyers? That kind of law. And at the moment, where I live, and for now, that law has been decided, and through a process of legislation by legally elected public servants.

The Dawkins tweets that set off the outrage, followed a binary logical comparison concerning rape, essentially (paraphrasing): ‘rape by a stranger is bad, but date rape is worse; date rape is bad, but rape by a stranger at knife point is worse.’ At one point Dawkins also remarks, concerning a perceived argument that

“There is no allowable distinction between one kind of rape and another.”:

“If that were really right, judges shouldn’t be allowed to impose harsher sentences for some rapes than for others. Do we really want our courts to impose a single mandatory sentence – a life sentence, perhaps – for all rapes regardless?”

Unfortunately he couldn’t have chosen a worse case for such a remark. According to the laws of the State of New York (my home), date rape, rape by a stranger, and rape by a stranger at knife point are ALL (without distinction) First Degree Rape according to the NYS Penal Code:

  • 130.35 Rape in the first degree.

   A person is guilty of rape in the first degree when he or she engages

in sexual intercourse with another person:

   1. By forcible compulsion; or

   2. Who is incapable of consent by reason of being physically helpless;


   3. Who is less than eleven years old; or

   4. Who is less than thirteen years old and the actor is eighteen years

old or more.

   Rape in the first degree is a class B felony.

Sentence: 1 year to 25 years in prison, depending on the threat or violence involved, plus a $5000 fine.

   Date rape and rape-by-a-stranger are also Second Degree Assaults; sentence: 5 years probation, to 7 years in prison.   Rape by a stranger – or a date – at knife point is also First Degree assault; sentence: 3 to 25 years in prison.

Now, a judge would have considerable lee-way in the sentencing; but having worked briefly as a paralegal back in the ‘90s, I can promise that whatever her other concerns would be, the judge’s primary concern is the interests of the general community. Because legal justice is not about “good” or “bad,” or about “bad” or “worse;” it’s about balancing the interests of the individual with those of the community.

Now, one might think that the sentences may be too lenient; in that case, if your in New York, get politically active and campaign for legislators who would toughen them.

But let us not forget the legislators in other states who wish to soften rape laws or even – in cases such as date rate or rape by angered spouses – do away with them entirely. Getting rid of these goons is a priority, because it is they who think that a ‘certain amount of rape’ is relatively harmless; therefore not so ‘bad,’ according to their religiously slanted worldview in which women are but servants of men. And it is their presence that makes Dawkins’ tweets – and his response – a foolish blunder; and, exactly in the context of his commitment to atheism, irresponsible. The kind of ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ ‘worse’ theorizing that Dawkins says we ought to engage in is not in opposition from archaic religious moralizing; it is derived from theological arguments dating back to the Middle Ages. And it is wholly irrelevant to legal issues concerning individual and collective interest. Such ethical musings may be of use in determining one’s own ethical behavior (although to be honest I can’t see why I should muse about either rape or torture, since I have never contemplated either of them – respecting as I do the emotions of others and their possible suffering).   But no amount of ethical theory trumps the law. And it is the law which determines the limits of behavior for individuals in the community, given the interests of the community and the acknowledged interests (many we know as ‘rights’) of the individual. Such issues should be found among the basic concerns of any secularist political or ethical thought.

   T orture is not in OUR interest; rape is not in OUR interest. There is no ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ or ‘worse’ about it. Sorry.

   Toward the end of his response, Dawkins remarks:

“I didn’t care whether we chose to say date rape was worse than dark alley stranger rape, or vice versa. Nor was I unaware that it is a sensitive issue, as is pedophilia. I deliberately wanted to challenge the taboo against rational discussion of sensitive issues.”

   This won’t do. Rational discussion of these issues happens every day both in legislatures and in classrooms, and other public venues. But they just don’t need to take the quasi-syllogistic form that Dawkins presents them in. And they shouldn’t, exactly because reason is a tool of thought , one purpose of which is to communicate to others in social context of many interests. The fact is, Dawkins could have raised his issues in a manner that did not afflict some of his readers. He assumes that our challenge is to meet his line of thought; he forgets that as a writer, he needs to invite his readers in.

As a blogger with no readers (yet), I can write anything I want (for now). But Dawkins has accepted being one of the most publically recognizable advocates for atheism in the world. He should remember that with great celebrity comes great responsibility.



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