On victim blaming and moral responsibility

Left-wing writers today sometimes accuse their opponents of “victim blaming.” We see this especially in feminist discourse, in discussions of rape.

Many on the left argue find it important to argue that one should not blame the victim of a crime for that offence. And I agree with them. Yet common uses of the concept of “victim blaming” often confuse different types of responsibility for what happens. This essay explores how responsibility for bad things that happen can be broken down into causal and moral components. In so doing, it illuminates discussions of rape and Islamic extremism, and of how we should deal with them.

Moral and causal responsibility: the case of rape

In the Wikipedia article on “victim blaming” (#), we see that the concept was first used in the 1970s to talk about attempts to blame black people for racial discrimination. We still speak of victim blaming in a racial context. Today it is also used in discussions of sexual assault. The SlutWalk protest movement, for instance, originated as a protest against victim blaming. It responded to a Toronto police officer’s comment that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised” (#).

Against this view, many of today’s feminists blame rape and sexual assault first on those who commit such crimes. They may expand this blame to a wider “rape culture” that they argue supports rape and prevents its suppression. And they may use still wider ideas of patriarchy or misogyny, where men are seen to dominate all mainstream culture and use it to oppress women.

This kind of feminism prohibits discussing the actions of sexual assault victims, which is seen to place responsibility on the wrong person, and to prevent further reductions in sexual assault.

In some senses, this is unimpeachable. We should not hold rape and sexual assault victims to have been in any way in the wrong. This is especially so for those who feel tempted to accuse a rape victim of sexual misconduct. And yet, contemporary discussion of victim blaming relies on a confusion between two distinct kinds of responsibility. This confusion clouds our discussions of rape and sexual assault and crime in general. It also shows confusion about the nature of morality and causation.

For a recent example, let’s take musician Chrissy Hynde, of The Pretenders. In an interview with the Sunday Times about her 2015 biography, she said of her gang-rape at 21 by motorcycle-gang members,

Technically speaking … this was all my doing and I take full responsibility. You can’t fuck about with people, especially people who wear ‘I Heart Rape’ and ‘On Your Knees’ badges … those motorcycle gangs, that’s what they do. (#)
You can’t paint yourself into a corner and then say whose brush is this? You have to take responsibility. I mean, I was naive.

Hynde was widely criticised for this and other remarks. Lucy Hastings of charity Victim Support said, “Victims of sexual violence should never feel or be made to feel that they were responsible for the appalling crime they suffered.” (#)

In this particular case, Hynde and her critics are talking past each other — -and both sides are in one sense correct. Hynde is right to say that she bears causal responsibility for being raped. And Hastings is correct to say that victims do not bear moral responsibility for being raped.

What is causal responsibility?

To say that someone is causally responsible for something means that their actions contributed to a thing happening. If I hold an apple and I drop it, I am causally responsible for its falling to the floor. So is gravity. And so is the apple’s having a particular mass and having been present at a particular place and time. All these things are part of what lawyers might call a “chain of causation”, in which each link is necessary for the outcome to occur. Because of all these things, the apple falls and hits the floor, and perhaps it is damaged and the floor needs to be cleaned.

In Hynde’s comments about her rape, she acknowledges that she was part of the chain of events that led to the event. Without having decided to associate with the motorcycle gang member who led her to the rape, that particular rape would not have occurred.

Hynde’s assumption of causal responsibility is useful mainly because it is empowering. Assuming causal responsibility puts us in at least partial control of what happens to us. When something bad happens, by taking causal responsibility we identify what we did that contributed to the situation. And we are likely to take individual action to ensure it does not happen again. Such action allows us to protect ourselves from harm without the support of others, including the state, which cannot be relied on. It also allows us to actively pursue favorable outcomes for ourselves.

Whether we should be expected to take such protective measures is another question. It would be better if we did not have to. Yet we must live in the world that is given to us, even as we may strive to change it. The strategies we use to protect and promote our interests must take reality into account if they are to be effective.

Assuming causal responsibility need not be discouraged, because it is morally neutral. Seeing causal responsibility as being about causation neither harms crime victims nor absolves criminals.

What is moral responsibility?

Lucy Hastings says “Victims of sexual violence should never feel or be made to feel that they were responsible for the appalling crime they suffered.” Like Hynde in her assumption of causal responsibility, Hastings is also right. Yet when she says “responsibility”, she means moral responsibility. Victims of sexual violence are not morally responsible for that violence.

What does this mean? Let us say that a rapist is morally responsible for the rape they commit. We mean by this that they have done something wrong and that they are to blame.

What form will this blame take? In the case of rape, the action is illegal, and having been found guilty of that action, a person will be punished. In a modern, liberal country, this will usually be by incarceration.

There are multiple philosophical theories of morality. In some, certain acts are inherently wrong. This may be because they are forbidden by a supernatural being or transcendent moral order. It could also be that they are prohibited by a fundamental, rational moral principle. An example of this would be Kant’s categorical imperative, which is that one should do only what one would have everyone else do as well.

In other theories, that something is “wrong” may mean it is not socially tolerated, or that it provokes an instinctive reaction of disapproval. If I have read his book The Righteous Mind correctly, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt thinks our moral intuitions serve to defend our interests. What we think and say about morality seeks to justify these intuitions to ourselves and others, and to convince others to support our interests.

To see more about the nature of morality, we could look at the effects of its application. What will happen to the person who is morally responsible for doing something wrong? They will be socially excluded (through censure, shaming, avoidance, or exile) and in extreme cases they will be restrained, punished, or killed.

To say something is immoral means that we warrant it justifies social exclusion or punishment. We are on solid ground when we say this because we know an action threatens our safety or the collective good. Yet dishonest people may use the concept of immorality to protect personal or group interests that they know no one else has a real interest in upholding.

Let’s look again at rape victims. Are they morally responsible for being raped? Have they done something immoral? What we are really asking is, have they done anything that warrants social exclusion or punishment? And the answer is no: even if they bear some causal responsibility for a crime committed against them, it could not justify exclusion or punishment. This would be perverse and unjust. Only the criminal deserves that. In fact, every person’s safety requires that this consequence be dealt out by some person or agency (typically the state).

Hynde assumes causal responsibility for her rape to assert control over her own life (and others’ control over their lives). Hastings assigns moral responsibility for rape to the perpetrator to ensure that the correct person will be excluded or punished. Both are right.

Islamic terrorism and moral responsibility

In certain circles, such as the academic humanities, it is commonplace to hear the United States and other Western countries blamed for Islamic terrorism. We may hear someone like John Pilger minimise the impact of Islamic terrorism in relation to “state terrorism” (#). Or we may hear it said that the US funds the Taliban (#). People we know may view some of Al Qaeda’s grievances against the US as valid justification for the 9/11 attacks, such as:

  • U.S. support of Israel
  • Support for the “attacks against Muslims” in Somalia
  • Support of Russian “atrocities against Muslims” in Chechnya
  • Pro-American governments in the Middle East (who “act as your agents”) being against Muslim interests
  • Support of Indian “oppression against Muslims” in Kashmir
  • The presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia
  • The sanctions against Iraq (#)

Put in vulgar terms, Western “imperialism” is seen as justifying Islamic terrorism. Conversely, the need to avoid imperialism justifies inaction against Daesh/Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL, or could be seen as a reason for not supporting Israel’s continued existence.

Making a distinction between moral and causal responsibility can help us make sense of this issue.

Assuming that the factual claims about America’s actions are true, we must say that certain people in American government are causally responsible for Islamic terrorism. Given different foreign policy decisions, many lamentable events (and deaths) may have been averted.

Is the US or anyone in it morally responsible for Islamic terrorism, or for the outrages committed by Daesh? To do this, we must ask — -would it be sensible for those responsible for US foreign policy to be socially excluded, restrained, or punished?

We find ourselves on more difficult ground here than in the case of rape. Perhaps inevitably, in its foreign policy and the waging of wars, US organizations will have not only made strategic mistakes — -they will have done immoral things. Who, then, is morally responsible for strife in the Middle East?

What makes an act wrong?

Looking only at whether an act would result in exclusion or punishment leads us to a relativist position. In certain societies, sex out of wedlock can result in shaming and even death for women. To an extent, this is socially sanctioned. In that context, it is the woman’s act, rather than her shaming or murder, that is considered immoral.

It would be hard to find someone of an Anglo-American cultural background who agreed with this proposition. We may have different views on how much we should intervene in the cultural practices or governance of foreign countries. But we would agree that the Saudi practice of executing female adulterers, or the Iranian or Daesh practice of executing apostates, does not involve a correct view of what is immoral.

Why is this?

Let us consider a few crimes whose wrongness is almost universally agreed on in the West:

  • murder
  • rape, including child sexual assault
  • theft

There are at least two things that these crimes all have in common:

  1. They cause material harm to the victim.
  2. The victim did not (or could not) consent to them.

The element of consent is crucial. In its absence, the crime against the victim is an instance of coercion. This coercion is the key factor that makes the crime morally wrong, which is to say that it merits social exclusion or punishment.

We know this because coercion separates things whose wrongness is universally agreed on from those whose wrongness is controversial:

  • suicide, which though lamentable and indisputably of material harm to the victim, is voluntary
  • masturbation, oral and anal sex, and adultery, which are voluntary, though religious moralists may frown on them
  • destroying one’s own property, which though probably foolish and self-destructive, is nonetheless voluntary

In general, those acts that are universally agreed on as immoral, worldwide and across all major belief systems, involve the victim’s coercion.

Let’s put it another way: initiation of coercion is the common factor involved in all acts universally viewed as just cause for social exclusion and punishment.

Here I venture an extra point. When one presents acts not involving coercion as morally wrong, it is a dishonest attempt to justify the advancement of one’s own individual or group interests against those of others. Employing coercion, including social exclusion, punishment and even execution to enforce such a dishonest moral characterization is itself wrong, and this initiation of force justifies exclusion and punishment of those who use these methods.

It is wrong to force others to serve one’s will, or to live by one’s own values. To do so merits exclusion and punishment. To use those sanctions in the absence of coercion merits exclusion and punishment itself.

Moral responsibility for Islamic extremism and other forms of authoritarianism

As in the case of rape, it can only be the perpetrator who is held morally responsible for, say, executing an apostate, a homosexual, or an adulterer, or committing a terrorist attack.

Islamic extremists are not alone in immorally punishing crimes that do not involve coercion and regulating behavior to force people to live by values other than their own. Most, if not all, political movements that seek legislative expression of religious values are the same, be they American Christian fundamentalists, Indian Hindu nationalists, South-East Asian Buddhist nationalists, or Islamic theocrats. Governments and political movements that control speech or punish people for criticism are also immoral. And at an everyday level where the stakes are lower, so are the petty tyrants of workplace, home, and school, who try to discipline, nag, and shame others into living by their values or according to their will.

The victim of those unjust punishments, or the architects of the ill-advised foreign policy that created an opportunity for its application, may still be held causally responsible. We have to think carefully and honestly about what we ourselves have done to make bad things happen, if they could have been avoided.

Yet these victims or blunderers are still not morally responsible for the wrongs of Daesh (or of secular dictatorships or workplace tyrants). The West (like the Middle East’s persecuted homosexuals, apostates, and dissidents) has nothing to apologize for in this moral sense, and nothing that it could be punished for. Rather, these authoritarians’ use of coercion against people who have not initiated force themselves warrants exclusion and restraint.

National borders contain neither human community nor moral and causal responsibility. Inaction against Daesh has caused a flood of refugees into Europe that raises the question of how it should be accommodated. Economic reliance on Chinese or Saudi Arabian trade compromises those who might otherwise call them to account for punishing dissidents and others. That an apostate is executed in the Middle East, and not in America, does not exonerate those who do it. Knowing that this is done by states whose embassies we host, whose representatives we sit alongside in international institutions, and who we allow to trade with us in relative freedom, presents a moral problem for our representatives and for we who elect them.

Rapists are morally responsible for rape. Extremists and authoritarians are morally responsible for initiating coercion. All are dangerous and need to be restrained so that blameless people can live in freedom and safety. To be consistent, we should exclude and punish them all.


Originally published at Ben Hourigan, author.