Saturday, June 25, 2011

Causality vs. Moral Culpability

The issue of causality vs. moral culpability has been weighing on my mind for months now. The more I mull it over, the more I am startled by our culture's unwillingness to make any effort to change its behaviors and perceptions for fear that it will somehow be an admission of guilt. It is as if, in ignorance, we have collectively walked into a bear cave and been mauled, but rather than agreeing that we should avoid bear caves in the future we keep walking foolishly into them because to stop would be a tacit admission that we were somehow guilty of our own mauling. It’s nonsense, plain and simple.

In conjunction with my reflections on The Obedient Wives Club, I promised to give a fuller discussion of this problem. This is it. My thoughts on this coalesced in response to a story that broke back in March, and I wrote the below then. If facts have changed in the particular case in question, there may be some factual inaccuracies or at least some strokes imprecisely brushed. The point, however, remains the same.


There is a difference between causality and moral culpability that is critical for the construction and preservation of a healthy society. Unfortunately, this distinction is not only not acknowledge but is feared, with the ultimate consequence being that in an effort to empower victims, we actually ensure a sort of universal victimization. Let me explain.

For every moral event, there is both a morally neutral set of causes which brings about the event and a moral actor who is the cause of the event itself. Moral culpability necessarily resides in the latter, but, with the exception of omniscient and omnipotent beings, the moral actor cannot have exhaustive power over the former category. While the emphasis of my point will be on negative moral actions, let me illustrate this principle first with a positive example. Let us imagine that your spouse needs you to go to the grocery store on a stormy day. When you arrive, you are forced to park at the back of the parking lot. There you see a woman without an umbrella carrying a baby. You go to her and offer to share your umbrella.

From a deterministic perspective, we can posit an infinite causal catena or, if you prefer, an immense chain of cause and effect which stretches back to the beginning of the universe (be it in God or in natural causation) leading to any particular interchange, including the one described above. For practical purposes, however, let us admit a number of more direct and evident causes. First, had it not been raining, there would have been no need either for you to have your umbrella or for you to offer it to the woman. Furthermore, had the woman not forgotten her umbrella, you never would have acted virtuously in offering yours to her. Finally, had your spouse not needed you to go to the store, you would never have encountered the woman.

All of the above, I hope, is entirely self-evident. I hope it is equally obvious that any moral culpability (and here, I intend both positive and negative moral value) belong to you alone as the moral actor. The fact that an obvious causal connection can be seen between your spouse needing groceries and your moral action does not lead you automatically to impute moral virtue to your spouse. Even more nonsensical would be to suggest that the woman with the baby is morally virtuous because had she not been there without an umbrella you never would have behaved virtuously. The recognition of causality has essentially no bearing on moral culpability.

With the principles thus laid out--hopefully in a way that is totally uncontroversial--I will shift to address negative moral action, first in a hypothetical case and then in the actual case that has spawned this musing. Let us take the same inoffensive logic that recognized causality but imputed moral virtue only to the moral agent at the grocery store and apply it to a touchier subject. Imagine now that you asked your spouse to go to the grocery store on a stormy night, New Years Eve to be precise. While driving to the store, your spouse’s is engaged in a fatal collision with a drunk driver. Looking once again at the obvious and direct causes, we can say that had you not needed groceries, it is likely that your spouse would be alive. Had it not been stormy, it is likely that your spouse would be alive. While there may be some impulse in us to blame God for making it rain or yourself for needing the errand run, ultimately we know that moral culpability for the death is on the moral actor alone: the drunk driver.

Let me go a step further, however, and point out that neutral moral causality is not entirely out of our hands. While it may be psychologically dangerous to dwell on this in the actual instance of tragedy, for the purposes of our hypothetical let us admit that we can make a reasonable assumption about the danger of driving on New Year’s Eve (when drunk drivers abound) in stormy weather. Had we been thinking with a level head about the dangers of driving when compared with the pressing need for groceries, we may very well have concluded that it would be better to wait rather than risk grievous injury. We make these kind of decisions all the time, trying to control or predict insofar as is possible for us the various morally neutral causes which may come to bear on our lives. If you don’t want to get mugged, don’t walk down a dark alley at night. It is common sense.

I imagine at this point, if you have bothered to read that interminable build up, that you may be wondering if anything of any real substance will be said, anything which runs against the grain. In truth, I agree that all of the above seems totally innocuous. There has been, however, outrage over a recent story about a young girl who was gang raped by nearly twenty men. More to the point, there has been outrage over some of the coverage of the story which quotes members of the girl’s community describing her dress and behavior as promiscuous. The culprit in question is the New York Times which reported:

Residents in the neighborhood where the abandoned trailer stands — known as the Quarters — said the victim had been visiting various friends there for months. They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

“Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. “How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?”

I am sure that we would all agree that the act perpetrated by these men is truly despicable and that they alone are responsible for it. It would, in fact, be wrong to try to defer any blame for what happened onto this girl or her parents. None of that is in question, and frankly none of that is truly addressed by the quotes which the New York Times reported. It would appear, at first blush, that the members of the community of Cleveland cannot totally ignore causality. It is something which we ought to be able to recognize, perhaps even intuitively and particularly those causes which are within the realm of our control. Certainly, anyone can be raped, and there is nothing to say that an Amish woman locked in an isolated country home with a state of the art security system (if you can even imagine such a thing) still couldn’t be raped. In theory. From the perspective of our experience though, we know that if you go jogging alone at night, you are at risk. We know that if you let a stranger mix your drinks, you’re at risk. And if you let your eleven year old daughter present herself to the public as an object of sexual desire, dressed immodestly and surrounding herself with older males, then you can imagine that she is at risk. Not at fault, mind you, but at risk.

And why shouldn’t we notice that with relation to this story? We tell women never to go jogging alone at night. We tell women not to let strangers mix their drinks. It is that same logic which ought to permit us to say, “Look! Our culture creates permissive parents and children who think that promiscuity will lead to happiness. Maybe that has something to do with a world where twenty men can gang rape a child.” There is nothing in that which says, “She got what she deserved,” nothing which tries to mitigate the legal or moral responsibility of the rapists. It only recognizes causality and suggests a preventative.

In a perfect world, we could behave in ways which are morally neutral without any thought of evil. I could send my wife to the store and would only need to worry about events which were truly accidents. People would stop at stop signs, never drink and drive, and never take advantage of opportunities for sin. Shocking as this may be for the more delicate among you, however, we do not live in such a world. In the treacherous endeavor of navigating through life, it is pragmatic (if not always encouraging) to remember that humanity is a base, degenerate group of semi-rational beasts. For every saint who offers an umbrella to a drenched mother there is a vicious, nasty, brutish scoundrel who cares only for himself. If you don’t want your wives and daughters raped, then don’t send them out on the street in clothing which invites sexual objectification. It is no guarantee, but it is a cause which is within our limited sphere of control. You are all welcome to defend parents rights to be as negligent as they please and a person’s right to be as reckless as he or she pleases, but I dare say that it would be more constructive for us as a society to take instances like these as nauseating object lessons in the necessity of living shrewdly but innocently in a world which demands both.


  1. Hello:

    There is a missing link that I think you failed to address. I agree that spiking a drink could lead to unconsciousness, or that a drunk driver hitting your spouse's car can cause grave bodily harm, but I am not convinced by anything in your article that dressing a certain way increases your chances of getting raped. Very few rapes are perpetrated on strangers (93% of juveniles knew their rapist: and implying that 2 inches of skirt is the difference between getting raped and not getting raped is at the crux of the issue. Had she been wearing a floor length dress would have had no bearing on whether the rape would have happened, and I've yet to see someone provide proof that it would. Rape is a crime of power and control, not of passion as it might seem.

    Furthermore, it has become a trope to analyze what a woman was wearing when she was raped, to what end? I see it as searching for a scapegoat to further our culturally permissive stance on rapists (see case regarding the Stanford swim team student, among many others). She probably had a "sexy" voice, slender ankles, and soft skin, but these details are not related to her being raped (many women have these attributes), and it's quite dangerous to bring them to the conversation about causality (it implies that they are related even without saying so). Infants to octogenarians are raped and physical appearance is rarely the motivating factor for the crime, though we continue to perpetuate that myth. Bringing her clothes up shifts focus away from him (or them) onto her, where it doesn't need to be if we are actually interested in fixing the problem, not just scapegoating. Using her dress as a data point in the likelihood of her rape furthers stereotypes that are not borne out by research.

    Thanks for listening,

  2. Both of those are fair criticisms (although the statistics about family/acquaintance rape are beyond the example and therefore beside the point). I absolutely cannot provide a statistical link between sexual objectification and sex crimes--either because their isn't one (the possibility of which I fully admit) or because establishing one is methodologically problematic. In any case, neither of us could possibly know with any certainty if or to what extent the perception that she "dressed and acted above her age" may have played in the minds of the rapists, because thankfully neither of us can get in there. So in that you're absolutely correct.

    Perhaps it would have been more productive to focus on the question of letting your child roam through a dangerous neighborhood unattended--the other half of the offensive quote. The same logic applied to that problem largely sidesteps your criticism. Like the man in the parking lot, if he hadn't been there then the moral action never would have taken place.

    The absence of any engagement with the constant recourse to appearance as a slut-shaming trope is also a worthwhile critique, although again I think it falls short of undoing the basic problem of our inability to separate causality and culpability. (It is, as with the above, a problem of the example rather than the argument.) More importantly, I am reluctant to attribute the behavior entirely to scapegoating. It seems more likely that the shocked members of the community drew a common sense connection between sexuality and sex crimes in a desperate effort to understand and, in so doing, take control. Obviously, the fact that it is commonsensical does not make it correct; it just suggests that the response is more benign and human than your characterizations suggests.