Provocation and Sharing the Blame

Originally written in June 2013

A woman goes out wearing revealing clothes, gets raped. Does she deserve the blame for provoking the rapist? Could she be said to have provoked it, simply because she wore revealing clothes? An adult woman can’t be so naive as not to know the laws of sexual attraction. Does she deserve partial blame at least, for wearing revealing clothes in the world with sexual predators? Ignorance is not a crime, but is willful ignorance to be tolerated? Let’s analyze.

You go into the jungle unprotected for pleasure. A tiger pounces on you and you are badly wounded. Who is to blame? The tiger? All would agree that it is foolish to blame the tiger. All would blame you for going into the jungle unprotected when you knew there were tigers in the jungle. Did you provoke the tiger? You may not have, but it is tiger’s nature to attack humans entering their territory. To walk in there is nothing short of provoking. You didn’t know that? Well, then you should have known better, that’s what is called being adult. In any case, one can’t blame the tiger, for it merely acted according to its nature.

The man who walks into the jungle unprotected and gets attacked by a tiger deserves the full blame. And no one would disagree. Because tiger is an animal. It can’t be expected to know that the man was there just for pleasure and would not have caused any harm to it. Tigers don’t have advanced thoughts as humans. They act on instincts. Nature, not intellect, directs them. They are heteronomous beings. They don’t have free will. It is for this reason that we can’t blame animals for their actions which may be harmful to humans. Since the tiger doesn’t have autonomy or free will it couldn’t be expected to behave differently. Therefore, it was entirely the man’s responsibility to gauge the danger and act accordingly.

There is, however, a difference between animals and humans. Humans are expected to contain their nature, because unlike animals humans are autonomous beings. They are not slaves of their nature. Therefore, when a woman dresses revealingly, we expect men to control their natural urges and behave in a civilized way. If a woman gets raped we place the full blame on the man, because he could act differently owing to his free will.

The decisive element, here, is free will.

There is large body of scientists and philosophers who are determinists, that is, believing in determinism. According to them, we don’t have free will. In determinist view free will is merely an illusion. I personally don’t subscribe to the determinist view for practical reasons, but I can’t (and no one can) refute the view either. At large, I am a proponent of free will, but being also aware of and humbled by the philosophical truths of our existence I think it would be fair to say that what we have, at best, is partial free will.

We are like a dog tied to a truck by rope. The truck is nature. We can move around a little bit believing that we have autonomy or free will, but ultimately we have to follow the truck, or be dragged by it. Therefore it is partial autonomy.

Think about some mental states like romantic love/obsession and its suffering. The one suffering from the obsession wants to get the person of fixation out of one’s head but can’t, because one’s nature is in control, not the will. From sexual desire to craving for a smoke, there are many urges that we know we would be better off without, but we can’t always control them. We have to indulge them against our rational nature which gives us the so-called free will.

Science is now finding that our forebrain (neocortex), the house of rationality, has evolved only to rationalize the proclivities of our hindbrain, the house of animal nature. We never really have total control over our animal nature. Even when we feel we are fully in control, it may well be an illusion created by our forebrain.

It is not true that humans are virtuous beings capable of animalistic behavior. We are animals capable of virtuous deeds. Fundamentally we are animals. Animals with partial autonomy.

In the example quoted above, the man who becomes a victim by walking into the tiger’s territory is blamed fully, for the tiger does not have autonomy. A woman who dresses revealingly and gets raped isn’t blamed at all – and the rapist is fully blamed – because here the attacker is believed to have autonomy.

What if autonomy or free will is shaky? We have partial free will at best.

If the blame was placed because the attacker had free will then if the free will is partial, the blame too has to be partial, not full. Where do we factor in the other part of the blame then? Clearly it has to be shared by the victim. After all, she too has the “autonomy” to act diligently.

When a woman puts herself in the way of danger and gets attacked, she has to share part of the blame even if she did not mean to provoke the attacker. Considering the natural laws of sexual attraction and the kind of partial autonomy we have, getting in the position of being attacked is nothing short of provoking the attacker. If an adult woman does not know that then that is willful ignorance which a virtuous society should not tolerate.

Note that I am not saying that the rapist does not deserve the full punishment, or that the victim has to share the punishment. In the eyes of the law the rapist is the criminal and the woman raped is the victim. Because we would want a society where rapes don’t take place even if women dress revealingly. Therefore, in practical analysis we must lay the full blame on the rapist, for otherwise we won’t get the socially desirable conclusion or outcome. In pure analysis, however, we must look at the full reality of our existence and draw the conclusion without regard to what is socially desirable outcome. In pure analysis the provoker as well the provoked deserve the blame.

While criminal justice system should take care of punishing the attacker, the morally conscious society should impart values and create pressures for its members to not behave in a way which would create undesirable disruptions in the society.

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