Sunday, 14 April 2013

'Men in Groups: Collective Responsibility for Rape' A Critical Response and Overview

Written by Larry May and Robert Strikwerda, Men In Groups is a 1994 philosophy paper originally published in feminist philosophy journal Hypatia. The paper went on to be republished in the widely ride anthology 'Ethics In Practice' meaning it has become one of the better known papers regarding male collective responsibility for rape. It is for this reason I have selected this particular paper to engage with. 

The abstract of the paper sets out four views the paper intends to criticize, before going onto to make the claim that in some societies men are collectively responsible for rape. The four views the paper intends to criticize are as follows: 
  1. Only the rapist is responsible, for it is he who committed the act of rape. 
  2. No one is responsible for rape due to the fact it is a biological response to stimuli.  
  3. Everyone is responsible since men and women both contribute to the rape culture. 
  4. The patriarchy as a whole is responsible, but no person or group. 
This response is going to be firmly aimed at providing a defense of the first position identified by the papers authors for criticism, as well as providing a criticism of the claim that in some societies men are collectively responsible for rape. The reason for defending only the first position is it seems clear to me that the other positions are quite obviously untenable. But in the spirit of intellectual fairness I will briefly outline why I believe positions 2,3 & 4 as untenable. 

2) It is clear that even if that some of the sociobiological theories of rape in fact do have some truth to them (this in itself is deeply controversial see Wiki for a brief overview and further sources), this does not make the act of rape morally acceptable. In saying that because rape may have a sociobiological aspect it is morally acceptable would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy. 
3) Again this is clearly a very objectionable view. It would appear to require us to hold women themselves in someway responsible for the rape of their fellow women.  
4) In saying that the patriarchy as a whole is responsible for rape we deny that it is possible for individuals or groups to be responsible for rape. May and Strikwerda want to hold that men as a collective group can be morally responsible for rape. But those who do not hold that men are collectively responsible for rape will likely still want to hold that it is the rapist that as an individual person is morally responsible. 

Strikwerda and May begin their criticism of the position that only the rapist himself is morally responsible for rape on the third page of essay under the title '1. The Rapist As Loner or Demon'. (May and Strikwerda 1994:136) It is here that they primarily outline their criticism of what I contend is our common sense notion of moral responsibility; namely that the individual who commits the morally grievous act is solely responsible act regardless of mitigating or other circumstances. While rape is mainly committed by individual men, according to the authors of the paper 'rape is not best understood in individualistic terms' (May and Strikwerda 1994:137) This is due to the fact 'that individual men are more likely to engage in rape when they are in groups, and men receive strong encouragement to rape from they way they are socialized as men' (May and Strikwerda 1994:137). No empirical data is given for this claim that rape is not best understood in individualistic terms and the claim seems to run counter to my own experiences as a man. According to May and Strikwerda, male group interaction plays a crucial role in the incidence of rape in western societies by instilling negative attitudes in regards to women. Such negative attitudes appear hard to understand by only focusing on the perpetrator of the rape himself and can be better understood in men as a collective group.

Even if we accept that May and Strikwerda's assertion that rape is not best understood in individualistic terms it doesn't follow that men as a collective group are morally responsible for rape. Assuming that men do instill negative attitudes in each other regarding women, would we hold those who have never committed or orchestrated a rape morally responsible? I would suggest that such collective moral responsibility flies in the face of most commonly accepted accounts of moral responsibility. While moral responsibility is to be differentiated from causal responsibility, our common conception of moral responsibility places a much greater burden on the agent. According to May and Strikwerda, 'Most of those who engage in rape are at least partially responsible for these rapes, but the question we have posed is this: are those who perpetrate rape the only ones who are responsible for rape?'. (May and Strikwerda 1994:138) In a certain sense I want to say, Yes. Though men might be influenced negatively by their peers the decision to act on this negative attitudes in regards women lie solely with them. Surely a moral distinction should be made between those who have succumbed to the negative attitudes introduced by the wider male community. Those who commit grievous acts are the ones who bear the sole burden of responsibility. 

Such moral intuitions run wide throughout ethical theory and in general life for good reason. Burglars and violent criminal often come from very damaged backgrounds and disadvantaged socio economic groups. The wider society is at least partly causally responsible for the situation that these disadvantaged people find themselves and it might be fairly said that the rest of society could do more to support the most disadvantaged. But those who commit the acts of burglary and violent crime are the one who are morally responsible, society in general in some very loose way may be partly causally responsible for the ultimate action of the burglar or violent criminal. They are no way morally responsible for the actions of the burglar or violent criminal.  

Individuals who commit rape are the ones who are morally responsible for rape. To hold that men collectively are responsible for rape is to conflate causal and moral responsibility. If men in groups do spread negative attitudes in regards to women which then play a causal role in cases of rape, those men are in some way causally responsible for acts of rape. This account of moral responsibility is both in-keeping with our common conception of moral responsibility, but also allows us to take a stance against negative attitudes in regards to women due to the causal role they may or not play in the incidence of rape.

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