Empowerment Ethics: “How Can Atheists Condemn Rape Without Theistic Moral Absolutism?”

Empowerment Ethics: “How Can Atheists Condemn Rape Without Theistic Moral Absolutism?” May 17, 2014

This blog post is a new installment of my “Empowerment Ethics” series, in which I systematically explain, develop, defend, and apply my distinctive spin on humanist, perfectionist, virtue, consequentialist, ethical system called “Empowerment Ethics”. In response to my most recent repost in this series, about why moralities don’t need to be conceived of in moral absolutist terms in order to be accurately described and rationally defended, wal wrote the following comment:


[W]henever I ask atheists whether rape is always wrong, universally binding on all people at all times, they usually DON’T want to answer. It seems that if they agree that it is always wrong in all circumstances at all times, they are stuck with affirming that there is an absolute moral value, something they really don’t want to admit–how can they justify it?

And yet they don’t want to admit that there could ever be a situation where a human person COULD violate the integrity a fellow human being through rape–that it could ever be a moral thing to do. No atheist has ever said to me that there are PLAUSIBLE scenarios in a real world situation where rape would ever be the right thing for them to do.

Daniel, you seem to NOT agree that there are moral values that are universally binding on all people at all times. You have a well developed moral values presentation. So I would be very interested in your answer to the following question.

Is rape always wrong for all people, universally binding on all people at all times.

If morality is absolute, then it cannot come from a specific god’s arbitrary will. It cannot be a matter of his merely subjective feelings and preferences. The god of the bible does not respect people’s autonomy. The logic of the Bible is one of might makes right. Consider Romans 9:17-24:

17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, I have raised you up for this very purpose of displaying My power in [dealing with] you, so that My name may be proclaimed the whole world over.

18 So then He has mercy on whomever He wills (chooses) and He hardens (makes stubborn and unyielding the heart of) whomever He wills.

19 You will say to me, Why then does He still find fault and blame us [for sinning]? For who can resist and withstand His will?

20 But who are you, a mere man, to criticize and contradict and answer back to God? Will what is formed say to him that formed it, Why have you made me thus?”

21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same mass (lump) one vessel for beauty and distinction and honorable use, and another for menial or ignoble and dishonorable use?

22 What if God, although fully intending to show [the awfulness of] His wrath and to make known His power and authority, has tolerated with much patience the vessels (objects) of [His] anger which are ripe for destruction?

23 And [what if] He thus purposes to make known and show the wealth of His glory in [dealing with] the vessels (objects) of His mercy which He has prepared beforehand for glory,

24 Even including ourselves whom He has called, not only from among the Jews but also from among the Gentiles (heathen)?

So, if God wants to create a Pharaoh, deliberately harden the Pharaoh’s heart against Him, then punish the Pharaoh’s entire people by turning the seas to blood, sending a plague of frogs, murdering all the innocent first born sons of Pharaoh’s people, etc., and if He wants to do all of this just so that His chosen people will be grateful and grovel at His feet because He is kind enough not to vent his wrath on them but rather is merciful with them, then that’s fine!

Not only is it fine, but if you come to this God and complain, saying, “Hey, God! Absolute morality requires you to respect human integrity! It requires that you cannot punish people for doing things You forced them to do! It requires not murdering innocent first borns because a ruler You forced to disobey You disobeyed You!” the response from Paul is to treat you like an impudent peon who doesn’t know his proper place in the cosmos. “Who are you to talk back to God!” As though you’re an insolent child for pressing a fundamental morally absolute principle against God.

The answer is God is not accountable. He made you, He owns you, and can do whatever He wants with you.

This is the very logic of authoritarianism. It is not coincidence that the long history of Christianity and Islam is rife with authoritarian logic. It is not coincidence that in today’s America restorationist, regressive, reactionary “patriarchy” subcultures are growing up created by people who read the Bible and its morality as absolute. It’s not coincidence that at my Calvinist college, “autonomy” was a dirty word among very smart and logical people committed to being faithful to what the literal “word of God” really said, no matter how it jarred against the “merely modern” “secularized” “changeable” “relativized” moral feelings of the reprobates who made up the majority of modern Americans.

(For those of you don’t know, Calvinists think all those who never become Christians or who never really were Christians are all “reprobates” who were made by God specifically to be destroyed. They are born with total depravity because of Original Sin, this Original Sin makes them incapable of choosing to become Christians and be saved, and then God sends them to be tortured in hell for eternity when they die. The End. And they argue ’til they’re blue in the face that this is moral because “who are we to talk back to God?”)

The very mindset that said “who are you, a mere man, to criticize and contradict God” also the world over says, “who are you, a mere woman, to criticize and contradict your husband whom God has set over you, and not fulfill your marital duty to him whenever he ‘needs’?” This is how marital rape has been justified for centuries.

In the Bible, when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, who did God spare? Who was the only person whose family God was willing to let off from his holy punishment? Lot. What did Lot do earlier in the story? When asked for his guests in order that they may be raped, he offered them to rape his daughters instead.

Let’s be absolutely clear on this. When God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah the man he deemed righteous enough to save was the one who offered up his daughters to be raped. God committed a genocide for moral reasons. But spared that guy who offered up his daughters to be raped. When Lot’s wife, leaving the city, dared to look back at it she was punished by being turned into a pillar of salt on the spot. But her husband–the guy who offered up his daughters to be raped, he was spared.

So, wal can’t find an atheist who will entertain any lone solitary hypothetical in which it’s okay to rape someone. They mentally don’t want to go there. Well, Christians breezily accept a hypothetical case without a troubled night’s sleep. Poor Lot was protecting his guests from rape, so for that greater good, he gave over his own property, his daughters, for raping instead. And absolute morality must approve at all times of Lot and everyone like Lot because God approved of Lot and God’s absolute morality never changes. God approved of Lot so much that when he famously wiped out all the iniquitous people of Sodom and Gomorrah, the one guy whose family he saved was Lot. The guy who offered up his daughters to be raped. 

Christians are usually completely nonplussed by that part of the story and instead obsess over the story as a basis to condemn consensual sex between men (which is something absent from the story). Instead of condemning the rape, in their absolutist mindset, they think “it must be that deviant sex that breaks with the absolute rule for sex” that got Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed. So all gays are told they need to be celibate or they’re sinners because too many Christians cannot tell the difference between men who want to rape other men on the one hand and men who simply enjoy sex with other men and want loving relationships with them.

Christians, committed to the principle that whatever their god says must be holy and moral, even if does not seem so to us, routinely and self-servingly defend as moral the Old Testament God’s genocides, endorsement of slavery,  commodification and subordination of women to men, homophobia, stoning for trivial offenses, and more. Even in the New Testament, Jesus (despite his unearned reputation for moral wonderfulness, even among secularists) introduces the profoundly and obviously morally wicked doctrine of infinite punishment for finite “crimes” of disbelief in the doctrine of hell. And Christians through the ages have vigorously upheld this teaching. As I’ve said before, “You say we need Christianity in order to know right from wrong? I say it’s Christianity’s fault YOU can’t tell right from wrong whenever your own God does evil. Why in the world would I trust you to tell me right from wrong?”

Rather than determine rationally what is absolutely moral and immoral and then rationally assess the Bible’s morality, Christians routinely start with a dogmatic belief, “Everything the God of the Bible does must be moral” and rearrange all their moral intuitions to be whatever justifies that God, even if it means verbally endorsing heinous crimes against humanity. This shows me empirically that Christianity is not the distinctive source of moral truth, if its followers will get so morally warped by taking their Bible seriously.

Even if someone argues that it’s wrong to either read the Bible so the words on the page mean what they plainly mean or that it’s wrong to trust the Bible in everything, they know to make these differentiations between the Bible’s plain meaning and true morality not because of the fiat will of a morality-determining deity, but rather because they are applying their (vastly improved) contemporary moral values to their Christianity or their Bible.

And those vastly improved contemporary moral values did not come from a message from God fallen from the sky. Those values were improved through a centuries’ long process of experience, politics, and reasoning. Those values in recent times have been most accelerated by feminism. Christians in America less than two centuries ago vociferously defended slavery using the supposedly absolute will of God as revealed in the Bible. They rationalized their genocide of the Native Americans as a following in the footsteps of the Israelites who committed godly genocide of the Canaanites.

If morality is absolute and unchanging and universal, and if morality is identical with the will of the God of Abraham, then the will and the morality of the God of Abraham must never change. In that case if it was moral to have slaves and commit godly genocides against ungodly peoples in the Old Testament times, it must still be moral to hold slaves and commit godly genocides today. Their reasoning was logically valid.

The problem was with their premises. If you really think that morality is absolute and universal and unchanging, and that slavery and genocide are immoral, then it must not have been right for the Old Testament genocides to be committed or slavery to be instituted in the Old Testament. In that case either God is not morally correct or the Bible is 100% wrong about the most basic ethical issues. Wives, slaves, and children were all assumed to be property in the Bible’s logic. If morality is absolute and universal and unchanging then the Bible is immoral. 

If you say that it was okay to have genocides and slavery in the Old Testament but no longer is now because God made a New Covenant with his people, then you’re saying morality changes, is not absolute, and not universal. The only absolute moral principle in that case is “whatever God says goes”. The Bible justifies this mindset by denying we have any moral rights against God. Our autonomy, our integrity, our excellences, our goodness–none of it gives us any moral rights. Because according to the Bible, being created by a being and absolutely powerless to resist the will of that being gives that being the utter right to do whatever He wants with you. Paul could not be clearer in Romans 9:17-24, as we saw above.

One final, vital, word about the inadequacy of divine command theism (i.e., the view that morality must come from divine fiat in order to be valid).

Theistic religions’ obsessions with absolutes, particularly related to sex, lead to two categories of thinking that are devastating to rape victims, even to ones who intellectually can understand better. These are “black and white” thinking about sex and “purity” thinking about sex.

Absolutist moral mindsets have horrifically often in human history made people think “all sex outside the bonds of marriage is categorically unholy” therefore even raped women are unholy because they crossed the absolute boundary and had extra-marital sex. Even if it was unwilling, they are seen as stained and impure and immoral. Women have been stoned to death and committed suicide on account of this. The iconic story of Lucretia features a woman who “agrees” to be raped by the Etruscan king’s son who threatens to kill her and accuse her of adultery when she will not be able to defend herself. Her honorable reputation would be ruined if she does not acquiesce. So she gives in. But not to save her life. To save her honor. And to live long enough to see that the rapist is found out and will be avenged. The rapist assumed that she would not admit to being raped since that would ruin her reputation for honor too. And how does she resolve the dilemma? She submits to being raped and then confesses what happened to the men of her city and then slays herself so that no other women could justify their own lack of chastity by her example. She punishes herself for her illicit sex even though it was coerced rather than allow that any other women try to justify their “illicit” sex (presumably even their being raped) by her example. And her example was lauded and trumpeted in the ancient world.

An enormous amount of the trauma rape victims feel is because they have internalized, even against their reason, the disgusting logic of purity and impurity as a basis for morality and see themselves as hopelessly spoiled and damaged and worthless. Some of this false logic of “moral impurity” may be tragically brain-based if modern psychology is to be believed, even though it is an irrational way to construct a morality. Absolutist moralists compound this problem. In modern day America, Christian purity fanatics treat young women to see themselves as “used up like a piece of chewed up gum” if they have had sex outside of marriage. And legacy patriarchalism even among less religious parts of the culture leads to extraordinary slut-shaming. The most piggish and gallingly hypocritical sort coming from proudly promiscuous men who denigrate promiscuous women in these “impurities” by calling them “sluts”. If there were one word I could tie an anchor to and drop to the bottom of the sea it would be that rotten, sex-hating, woman-fearing, rape-excusing, double standard embodying word “slut”.

And so black and white, simplistic, absolutist “sex or no sex” thinking about the morality of sex, tied to outdated, superstitious “purity” and “impurity” concepts that religions make into dogmatic, enduring moral absolutes, has no place in a morality that adequately celebrates human autonomy, empowers women sexually, empowers women in agency, empowers all people sexually to thrive in mutually empowering ways, or empowers people to make logical and rational ascriptions of moral blame, responsibility, honor, and dishonor.

If we are going to talk about why rape is wrong, it won’t be by using a sophistical excuse to try to open the door a crack to reinstate the entire absolutist theistic moral tradition that normalized rape for so long. We’re not going back to a Bible that saw raped women as “damaged goods” that rapists had to marry under a “perfect” God’s “you broke it, you bought it policy”. Raped women aren’t broken and anyone who proposes forcing them to marry their rapist rather than dismantling the patriarchal system that sees her as damaged is no trustworthy moral arbiter of anything. So the God of traditional Western theistic religions is no moral arbiter of anything.

Finally, in practice, the secularization of the culture, occurring in tandem with the sexual revolution since the ’60s, has led to panicked moral reactionary “sky is falling” rhetoric from right wing Christians making (false) claims that this either has created or increased non-marital sex or teen sex. Supposedly, greater sexual freedom has meant a “moral relativism” that will crumble the entire foundation of society.

Meanwhile, in reality, the secularization of morality around sex has led to women having babies older, not younger. But more importantly it has broken the hold of hierarchical traditions that protected rapists and domestic abusers. The secular/sexual revolution, in no small part led by feminists and the LGBT community, has seen a revolution in protecting children from child abuse, in freeing LGBT people from closets, in liberating wives from violent husbands (and vice versa), in criminalizing marital rape, in shifting the focus of rape discussions to be ones about meaningful consent and challenging stigmas of sexual impurity that shamed rape victims, and in exposing the heinous sexual abuses of religious organizations who thought since they were the protectors of “absolute morality” they were entitled to hide their sins lest anyone’s spell of belief in their holiness be broken. It’s also in churches that routinely an absolutist ethics of showing God’s forgiveness to all who repent leads to rapists not being held accountable and their victims being shamed for their anger, while their congregations blithely welcome their abusers back and thoughtlessly judge the victims for not being more merciful. (See Sarah Moon’s post, “When my abuser is welcome at the table, I am not”.)

The secularizing sexual revolution has also made women more self-sufficient by giving more of them the economic means or the social safety net necessary to free themselves from abusive husbands, and by destigmatizing divorce and instead stigmatizing domestic battery.

In real practice, moving away from theistic, voluntaristic, traditionalistic, mindless, hierarchal, absolutist morality and towards a morality that prioritizes the actual, tangible empowerment of actual people as the highest mental focus has been what has raised our moral consciousness to qualitatively better levels.

(Many thanks to Stephanie Zvan for pointing out this line of argument connecting the sexual revolution and vast moral improvement in our judgments about sex and our protections of the vulnerable.)

What I want to argue is that all these changes are rational. They constitute rational progress, through a culturally carried out empirical process of reassessing norms in light of consequences and in light of greater formal rational consistency with respect to formal moral categories like autonomy. It is eminently rational to say that rape is wrong and irrational to approve of rape. It is wrong at least because it

*frequently causes devastating psychological harm

*violates people’s vital power of autonomy (and autonomy is a main constituent in maximal human thriving)

*rends the fabric of social trust which is the precondition of everyone’s thriving

*makes the rapist someone who disempowers rather than empowers

*damages many rape victim’s abilities to feel comfortable sexually, emotionally, and socially, in turn hindering their abilities to be maximally empowered with respect to their constitutive powers of sexuality, emotionality, and sociability

*serves as a lethally effective tool for systematically personally, socio-politically, and morally disempowering, demoralizing, and subordinating women

I could go on and on teasing out the numerous tangible harms rape does to the maximum empowerment of the maximum number of people and of the least empowered, most marginalized, in our societies.

We do not need to be moral absolutists on a theoretical level to say this.

We also don’t need to wait with worry for the tyrant “morally perfect” might-makes-right God of Abraham to get off his rape approving butt and tell us it’s wrong to rape.

There are more rational, more objectively defensible, and more universally applicable values and ones that are less rational, less objectively defensible, and less universally applicable (or applicable to our time and place). And I think most atheists agree with me even if too many use overly relativistic language for understandable reasons that I think are flawed and amount to an overcorrection in the opposite direction of absolutism.

I am a moral pluralist, not a relativist or a subjectivist. I think the supposed choice between moral objectivity and moral subjectivity is a false dichotomy. I think absolutism and relativism are, as Nietzsche put it, “equally childish”. I demand people think with situational carefulness about what really will maximally empower people. That is not an “anything goes” mentality. I grant that some cultures might have some practices that are not as bad in their culture as they might be in ours. I allow that some moral values are rightly different in different historical circumstances, but I am still not a cultural relativist who says “anything goes”. I think if you defend a foreign culture’s seemingly wicked practices you must do so by rationally demonstrating precisely how that culture actually thrives in some vital way more with that practice than without or I’m going to call it immoral. And I would be hard pressed to think of a case where normalizing rape would be justified. My default assumption is that it has been wrong and would be wrong in every realistically possible human culture.

(High Alert Content Warning: Graphic descriptions of rape and victim blaming are in the following paragraph.)

But what about specific rapes? Can there ever be a specific, wildly imaginative hypothetical scenario where a rape could be justified? Well, if we think diabolically enough (as wal’s atheist interlocutors were understandably too repulsed to want to do and shouldn’t be shamed for not doing), we can come up with some heinous scenarios. But to what end? What would they prove? If someone puts a bullet in two people’s heads right in front of you and says, rape this other person or I will put a bullet in their head and yours, should you do it? Should you rape them? Whatever your answer–you are the lowest form of rotten, mindless absolutist if you would morally blame the person who raped someone else under the violent threat of a gun. You are the morally lowest form of rotten, mindless absolutist if you hear a rape victim say they “gave” a blow job to their rapist under the threat of a knife in the ear and you were to say, “well, you should have just let him kill you rather than break the moral absolute of participating in extra-marital sex” or “you could have just ‘let’ him kill you, so you chose to ‘let’ the rape happen by acquiescing”. Those are the rotten victim blaming extreme places that moral absolutism about rape actually leads in honor cultures around the world. Saying, “well, I guess to prevent a more heinous evil (death) at the hands of a vicious sociopath, you could, theoretically rape someone” is not to say “there can be no binding rule against rape for all non-coercive scenarios“. This is not your silver bullet to prove atheism means hopeless moral nihilism.

It’s like our rule against cutting up someone’s chest and taking a saw to their rib cage. It makes perfect sense to ingrain in someone never to do that to someone else. Except, you know, if you’re a heart surgeon and it’s necessary for doing life saving or life prolonging heart surgery. Are surgeons radical moral relativists who don’t believe in absolutes because they cut people’s chests open? Do they need God’s holy moral absolutes to stop them? All throughout life we have perfectly rational rules that in 99.9999% of cases we must follow for life and death moral reasons but when the consequences flip the other way and we must break those rules to save a life, we must do that. That’s not “having no rules”, that’s “having a brain“. And extreme, rare, “desert island” moral choices don’t invalidate ordinary morality when they yield morally abominable exception scenarios. And anyone who pedantically uses desert island scenarios with the purpose of trying to weaken the general feeling of absolute horror at rape under the auspices of proving that morality is not absolute is disgusting and a moral sophist to be shunned.

When we atheists say that “there are no moral absolutes“, we don’t (or shouldn’t) mean “anything goes” or “morality is arbitrary and unreal”. We mean that morality requires thinking and not mindless, rotten blaming and decision-making that would absolve all the acts of the Abrahamic God (no matter how genocidal) from blame while heinously blaming all the victims of rape, false-imprisonment, or torture for what they may be made to do under duress.

No. Fucking no. 

Every emotional fiber in my being, every turn of my most scrupulous logic, and every moral bone of my body says NO to the disgusting, appalling, twisted, archaic, devastating, regressive, self-contradictory, mindless, rotten Abrahamic divine command moral absolutism.

Your Thoughts?

Related: In Moral Defense of Feminism.

Not satisfied with some aspect of my moral philosophy yet? Click the question or challenge that is closest to yours or raise it below in the comments if you don’t see it:

What is Empowerment Ethics?
Who Is Anyone To Tell Others What To Do?
How Can We Find External Criteria To Assess Morality’s Truth and Authority?

Is Empowerment Ethics Atheistic?
Can Morality Mean Something Other Than Absolutist Morality?
Is Morality Just Subjective?
Are Individuals’ Moralities Merely Personal?
Is Morality Relative?
Does Everyone Mean Something Different By The Word ‘Good’?
Are Moral Issues Too Subjective To Argue Over?

Can Atheists Condemn Rape Without Theistic Moral Absolutism?
Is Morality Just Culturally Relative?

Empowerment Ethics Permanent Page, Regularly Updated With Answers To More Challenges and Questions

I am a philosopher who specializes in ethics. For years, starting in my doctoral dissertation and then continuing right here on Camels With Hammers, I have been drafting, defending, and developing my own spin on the perfectionist and humanist ethical traditions that I call “Empowerment Ethics”. I write about everything from the most abstract foundational issues related to the nature of value and morality themselves (what philosophers call “metaethics”), to the most pressing moral controversies of our time, to how to live a good life in practical terms. The post above was an entry in this larger series. For a regularly updated full list of posts in this series and a very brief, 5 paragraph long, primer on what “Empowerment Ethics” is about as a moral philosophy see and bookmark this permanent page. A more thorough overview of the views can be found in my post My Systematic, Naturalistic Empowerment Ethics, With Applications To Tyrants, the Differently Abled, and LGBT People.

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