Submit your articles for publication on C&P at caffeineandphilosophy@gmail.com.
Is Rape Always Wrong?

Is Rape Always Wrong?

It is common to hear questions like this from Christian apologists in an effort to prove the existence of objective morality. C.S. Lewis and William Lane Craig both made versions of it, and I received a version of it from Myles and SuperLutheran of the Godcast.

The short answer is “yes, rape is always wrong”… but unfortunately for apologists, this actually doesn’t tell us anything about objective morality.

The problem with a term like “rape” is that the term itself is a judgment category. Rape is a subcategory of “sex” — specifically, the kind which we all agree is, by its nature, bad (it is not the only kind of bad sex, but among the higher bads).

By way of illustration, think about the difference between these two questions:

Is rape always wrong?

and,

Is sex always wrong?

Notwithstanding those Christians who would affirm the latter, we can already see the trick in the set up just by asking the proper question. To get to an objective standard of morality, we would have to describe actions categorically, not turn it into a tautology trap by beginning with a subcategory of a broader action which has already been separated — by humans — from the rest.

It isn’t made any easier by the fact that “rape” isn’t a clear category. In the West, “rape” has to do with consent, including the statutory possibility of consent. A 25 year old man having sex with a 16 year old woman is rape in America, but is not rape just south of the border in Mexico. Often times, a 25 year old woman having sex with a 16 year old man is not considered rape. And what of “consensual rape?” where a woman expresses interest in a semi-violent fantasy, and a man fulfills that? Is this morally wrong? Some might say yes, but it seems less categorically so.

The same problem exists with the parallel question “is murder always wrong?” When we replace “murder” with “killing,” it suddenly becomes less of a dunk on subjectivists and alleged moral relativists, and turns into an actual question, with some theological answers which put the Christian at odds with the cultural norms, rather than trying to leverage cultural norms for the purpose of evangelism. There are strong strains of pacifism and celibacy in the history of Christian thought. From a biological perspective, one’s starting intuition should be that sex and killing are categorically permissible, at the very least in the contexts of self-defense and procreation.


I think many people home in on this question because there is a kind of fear that if our moral values lack some kind of objective backing, they will bend and break against the tide of a short-sighted and hedonistic culture. Putting aside the truth of the matter, I think the concern is misguided — objectivity adds nothing, except maybe the hope that one might be able to browbeat another in debate by appealing to a shared higher authority. More often than not, this browbeating often just makes the other side dig in deeper, especially in the face of an apparently air-tight argument. But for an individual trying to live a moral and virtuous life, declaring a subjective value to be something objective adds nothing. Subjective values are sufficient to live by. They have to be, because even if objective values did exist, all we would have access to would be subjective interpretations of them (which might be why our history is dotted with so many civil wars between factions of the same religions with the same objective beliefs).

But there is also a danger in asserting that values are objective: it opens up those values to the inquisitorial elements of a new religion — science. Science is better at investigating objective claims than the church has ever been, and claiming that “beauty is objective” has already lead to a beauty-destroying path of scientific inquiry.

This, of course, would have happened without the claim too, but taking on Science head-on and asserting that beauty, justice, and freedom are subjective, and not the proper subject of scientific inquiry. This would put Science on the defensive, perhaps forcing it to explain the scientific origins of its own highly-developed ethics codes (or is there some foundation of value beyond objective truth?), and stemming the flow of its Utilitarian Skinner-Box approach to public policy from our current culture.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. I see what you’re saying, but I think the problem is not so much that the concept of objective morality is broken, but that subjective definitions don’t lend themselves to proper analysis.

    When we talk about an objective mathematical truth, like 2+2=4, the first part of the issue is we need to agree on definitions of terms and operations. We agree what “2” means, what “+” and “=” means, and what “4” means.

    Once we agree on the definitions, we can prove to most reasonable people that “2+2=4” is always true in all times and in all places.

    We can state that as a sentence: twoandtwo is four. It still holds true everywhere.

    A similar sentence is “rape is wrong” Does that hold true everywhere?

    As you point out, “rape” can have different meanings. “Wrong” can also have different meanings (and shades of meanings). We can leave out the existential discussion around “is” for the moment to simplify things 😉

    If I say x+2=2, is that objectively always true? Well, for some definitions of x it is, but we have to agree on a definition of x before we can even get started.

    Surprisingly, objective morality requires context as much as if not moreso than relative morality. When a statement of objective morality is made, while it is unsaid, what should be implied (though I would agree often isn’t) is the following:

    All things considered equal, in a particular situation…

    So all things considered equal, in a particular situation, stealing is wrong.

    What’s the situation? Well, let’s say someone has a watch I want so I just take it for no other reason than avarice. Without getting into a formal discussion, most people would say that is “wrong” at all times and all places.

    Say I’m starving and steal the proverbial loaf of bread from a rich man to eat. Is that wrong?

    I think most people would say it is either not wrong or only a tiny bit “wrong” at all times and places.

    Just like 2+2=4 to be always true requires the definitions and contexts (there are a certain number of items in a given place and we understand the meanings of the terms), an objective moral statement needs definitions and contexts.

    Can we ever get an understanding of definitions and contexts? Unknown, but as the engineer said to the mathematician who complained they could never find the full value of Pi, “we can get close enough practical purposes”.

    1. “I think the problem is not so much that the concept of objective morality is broken, but that subjective definitions don’t lend themselves to proper analysis.”

      This might be the heart of what I’m trying to get at, but to another conclusion: “proper analysis” (i.e., conceptual analysis in philosophy, or systematic empiricism in science) might be the wrong approach to subjective knowledge (i.e., skills).

      The mathematical example you give sort of illustrates the point. “2” and “4” and the various operant symbols are all agreed-upon words in a sort of language. Logic constrains what deductions/inferences are valid/invalid, given the parameters of the rules and the meaning of the agreed-upon terms. But the natural world isn’t a part of any of that agreement. This doesn’t mean that the natural world isn’t objective, but it does mean that the systems and models that we build to map the world will always be incomplete.

      In mathematics specifically, Gödel is the go-to man on the subject.

      In the real world, all things are never equal. General heuristic rules of thumb are not objective law, and context will always dictate right action. To borrow from one of the better Biblical books, there is a season for every purpose under heaven. This doesn’t mean that all actions are morally equal, and who’s to say what’s right and wrong, etc; one can acknowledge that some choices are better than other (by the very standards in which those choices were made), while still recognizing that the world is too complicated to systematize knowledge, on morality or on anything else that exists.

      I’m sure we are in agreement that as a general rule of thumb and heuristic, “stealing is wrong” is a good baseline. Much as I hate to quote the man, Sam Harris did have a good metaphor when he said that telling a lie is like losing your queen in chess: it’s a thing you avoid in almost all cases, but in rare circumstances, it can be a brilliant move. Sometimes it’s the only good move. If “stealing is wrong” were an objective moral principle (a la divine command theory or deontological duty), then such exceptions would not exist because context would be irrelevant.

      1. “But the natural world isn’t a part of any of that agreement. This doesn’t mean that the natural world isn’t objective, but it does mean that the systems and models that we build to map the world will always be incomplete.”

        I agree, 100%. In fact, I would go further to specify the “metaphysical world” (i.e., where something like ethics and morals may be concrete) has the same characteristics – that what we use in the empirical (physical world) to map that just won’t work. Math works because it is designed from the beginning to describe the empirical world (i.e., width, length, etc.) whereas we only have common language to describe the metaphysical world, and that does a poor job (in fact, language does a poor job compared to math describing the physical world).

        “he said that telling a lie is like losing your queen in chess: it’s a thing you avoid in almost all cases, but in rare circumstances, it can be a brilliant move. Sometimes it’s the only good move. If “stealing is wrong” were an objective moral principle (a la divine command theory or deontological duty), then such exceptions would not exist because context would be irrelevant.”

        I think in this case it’s like the ends justifying the means. One can hold to stealing always being wrong, even a starving man stealing bread, if one is willing to accept the outcome – in that example, starvation. Personally I am not willing to accept my starvation over stealing bread, but it is a valid choice. But to follow the Harris example more closely, the question arises “Assuming if something is wrong, can it be prudent to do the wrong thing if the consequences don’t outweigh the benefit?” The practical end of classifying something as “wrong” is really classifying something that should be punished. So stealing can always with no exception be wrong, but the punishment could scale from a mere apology to execution. With a view that comes from objective morality, the rule would hold always and without exception, but the practical consequence would vary.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Close Menu
%d bloggers like this: