Science and Other Drugs

….maybe a little less wrong….

The quandry of moral contradictions

The ring-like arcs in this image are the light from even-more-distant galaxies, bent into a halo by the gravitational distortion of the central galaxy. This gravitational lensing allows us to measure the weight of dark matter inside the central galaxy….something we don’t yet really know anything about. But we’ll find out someday. Image courtesy NASA.

Some questions have answers. But some questions are just impossible. Absolutely, unquestionably, without-a-doubt impossible.

I was raised to believe that all answers were knowable; all problems had solutions. They were all in the Bible, somewhere; if you just looked long enough and hard enough, you’d find them. All of life’s answers could be found by study, prayer, and listening to what authorities told you the Bible meant. 2 Peter 1:3, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness,” was touted as the unquestionable proof that the Bible has All The Answers….despite the fact that this passage has nothing to do with the contents of Scripture.

Turns out, we were wrong. Not because the Bible isn’t useful. As it turns out, abandoning fundamental prooftext-crazed literalism doesn’t suddenly cause the pages of your Bible to crumble and fall apart. It’s still the same book. But we were wrong: the Bible doesn’t have all the answers, because some questions don’t have answers.

It’s an uncomfortable place for someone like me to be. Not only was I conditioned to believe the Bible had all the answers, but I’m also into science. Like, a lot. Rationality, skepticism, and avoidance of cognitive bias should be able to get me anywhere. The thought of questions that don’t have answers isn’t something that even makes sense.

Even so, I’m faced with the reality that there are indeed questions without any answers at all. Problems that cannot be answered almost by definition. Serious problems.

In the United States, the criminal justice system is intentionally designed to assume the innocence of the accused. The fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth amendments outline a series of rights guaranteed to any individuals accused of a crime, including a right to trial by jury, a right to face one’s accuser, and so forth. But the most important element of criminal procedure in the United States is the standard of proof required for criminal prosecution: “beyond reasonable doubt”. In order for you to be convicted of a crime, the prosecution must demonstrate your guilt beyond any reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury.

This is good. Any reasonable person would agree that a lesser standard would be unjust; we have to guard fiercely against abuses of the criminal justice system. Requiring an individual to prove his own innocence is egregiously unjust. The most severe the crime, the more unjust such a requirement becomes

Unfortunately, this sometimes miscarries. For example, take rape.

Rape is vile and horrific. It deprives its victims of even the slightest dignity, scarring them for life and shattering their self-worth. It tells victims their sexuality has so little value that they don’t deserve to make choices for themselves.

The devastation of rape is further compounded by the response to rape in our culture. Thanks to the misogynistic legacy handed down from history, victim-blaming is a near-universal reaction. Did she really say no? Was she asking for it? Does certain behavior justify sexual assault? It’s despicable, but it’s prolific; educated politicians even argue that a woman “can’t really get pregnant” from rape because her body won’t let her conceive unless she secretly wants it.

Anyone who recognizes the horrific effects of rape and the egregiousness of rape culture would agree that demanding a rape victim prove she didn’t consent—to defend herself from accusations that she wanted it—is one of the most damaging and unjust things possible. Thanks to traditional, unwarranted, prurient teachings on sexuality, anyone who has sex is vilified and stigmatized. A rape victim who reports the crime is immediately placed under suspicion of being a slut and a whore and “easy”; for a rape victim, the assumption is guilty until proven innocent. Questioning an account of rape, implying that sexual assault was justified if the victim can’t prove lack of consent, is almost like perpetuating the rape all over again: it says, “The burden is on you to prove to us you didn’t deserve that.”

And that’s the problem, the question that can’t be answered. In order for the accused rapist to be innocent until proven guilty (which, for a crime of this seriousness, is absolutely necessary), the victim must be guilty until proven innocent. In order to prove rape beyond reasonable doubt, we put the victim on trial for the social and religious crime of consenting to casual sex, giving her the burden to prove her innocence.

The requirements of due process are in direct conflict with the imperative to protect the rights of the victim, and there’s no way around it.

I mean, there are things we can try. We can go to great lengths in counseling the victim to understand that the requirements of due process are distinct from her own emotion and experiences, that “beyond-reasonable-doubt” is the burden for conviction, not the burden for accepting her experiences as valid. We can fight the rape culture which applies a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to victims in society at large. We can try to do away with the stigma of sex, getting rid of the assumption that a woman who has casual sex is a “slut” or a “whore” and dismantling the culture of religious prejudice.

But at the core, the problem still remains. Either you require the accused to prove that he is innocent of rape, or you require the victim to prove that she is innocent of consenting to sexual assault.

(Now, before anyone jumps down my throat: I am absolutely not suggesting that presumption of innocence is necessary because false accusations of rape are common. All the competent research is overwhelmingly clear; only a vanishingly low number of false accusations of rape will ever make it to trial; back-of-the-envelope calculations would say less than 1 falsely accused defendant on trial per 1,000 actual rapes. But we still can’t remove the requirements of due process.)

This issue is larger than what I can address in a single post; this posting addresses a lot of the issues surrounding the legal basis for rape convictions. In the end, the fact remains that there’s no way you can have justice for the victim and due process for the accused at the same time.

So where does this leave us? This is a problem without a solution. There’s nothing we can do. There’s no perfect answer.

But should we really expect perfect answers to everything? I don’t think so. Christianity teaches that this is a fallen world; things are broken. Justice isn’t perfect; in places, it’s irreparably broken.

It was a major paradigm shift for me, but I think it’s important to realize we can’t solve everything. There’s no “perfect right and wrong” that can be uniquely generated for every situation. Some problems involve shades of grey; other problems are simply so difficult that they don’t have any solutions. Fundamentalism and literalism tell you every problem has a solution if you know what you’re doing, but that’s simply not true. It’s wrong to always claim the moral high ground because sometimes there is no moral high ground.

We can’t pretend we know all the answers. We just do the best we can, and look forward eagerly to everything being put right.

6 responses to “The quandry of moral contradictions

  1. violetwisp 2013/04/02 at 17:21

    Really interesting post! That’s a good example to illustrate how there is no correct way to approach it.

  2. Randal Rauser 2013/04/03 at 10:10

    Thanks for your article. I share your aversion to Bible proof-texting. However, let me take issue a bit with your reasoning in this statement:

    “But we were wrong: the Bible doesn’t have all the answers, because some questions don’t have answers.”

    Here I’ll make two points. First, the statement “some questions don’t have answers” is ambiguous. Does it mean there is literally no answer at all? Or does it mean that human beings cannot know what the correct answer is? Or does it mean that human beings could not even grasp the concepts necessary to understand the proposition that would express the correct answer? Or something else?

    It is also unclear what “the Bible has all the answers” might mean. Nobody ever thought “Will Randal wear a red shirt on Tuesday?” is a question that could be answered based on the Bible. So what could this mean?

    The problem here is only derivatively with your argument. The real problem is with the inherent ambiguity (or perhaps vagueness) of all claims that the Bible has “all truth” or “all the answers”. But until we get clear on what the Biblicist is claiming when he/she makes those claims, it is difficult to take issue with it.

    Perhaps the Biblicist might proceed like this: “I’m not sure all that it means, but it means AT LEAST that one can discern which scientific theories are true or likely to be true based on the Bible.” If the Biblicist were to make a claim like this then at least I’d have something to disagree with.

    • physicsandwhiskey 2013/04/03 at 10:29

      In speaking of “questions” and “answers”, I’m using them in the sense of moral and policy problems. So obviously something like “Will Randal wear a red shirt on Tuesday” isn’t one of the things a Biblical Literalist would expect to be able to answer.

      The (implied) claim of Biblical Literalism I was raised with would have formally gone something like this: “The principles contained in the Bible are sufficient to determine just and righteous solutions for all substantive moral dilemmas.” My example was intended as a counterexample to that claim.

      When I say “some questions don’t have answers” I mean that some of these moral problems literally have no solution at all. When it comes to rape, it’s de facto impossible to protect the presumption of innocence and victim rights simultaneously. In a human court, at least.

      Thanks for commenting!!

  3. john zande 2013/04/04 at 16:03

    I wish people like you, Whisky, would confront the fundamentalists in the US more vigorously. They are doing great damage to your fine country.

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