On Rape and Pragmatism

Tibor R. Machan

Something not often noted in the discussion of rape across the globe is that in an age that prizes pragmatism as opposed to firm principles of conduct, even rape can be excused based on the expected benefit to the rapist versus injury to the victim.

If one doesn’t care about the basic principle of consent, of voluntariness of human relationships–as many do not do so–why worry that victims of rape don’t have their rights respected? Consider how proudly Nobel Laureate (and NYTimes columnist) Paul Krugman, for instance, and even President Obama champion the pragmatic approach to public policies! Since ideas have consequences, this should not be ignored.

Some think one can simply differentiate between principles pertaining to personal conduct–i.e., ethics or morality–and guidelines concerning public policy, such as how to deal with public finance. If it is pragmatically OK to carry unbelievably high national debt, with no concern about the consent of those who will have to cover it (members of future generations who aren’t even alive or able to give their consent to being burdened with it), why not just be pragmatic about anything at all.

Strictly speaking, for pragmatists it is all a matter of whether something works and that is determined by what one is aiming for, never mind any principles. It is usually Machiavelli who is credited with promoting this line of thinking but in our time it is usually the more vulgar (but even not so vulgar) pragmatists who peddle it! So in the case of rape, the pragmatist would ask whether it is sufficiently pleasurable to rapists when they assault their victims to outweigh the pain and injury of the victim(s).

I do not assume that rapists normally engage in such cost-benefit calculations but these things tend to become second nature based on one’s ideas. Since ideas do have consequences, it can be expected that the spread of the pragmatic approach with the help of prominent folks like Krugman and Obama would aid and abet the kind of conduct that led to the murder of the young Indiana woman. Those six or so men who decided to rape her–and thousands of other rapists–may very well have internalized the pragmatic approach. (And since what works or doesn’t work can often only be established after a policy has been implemented, without principled opposition to rape and other forms of assault, it is easily imagined that potential perpetrators will “calculate” so as to rationalize their own strong urges or desires.)

A hero of mine, the late Ayn Rand, used to ask in the title of one of her non-fiction works, “Philosophy, Who Needs it?” and here is an excellent instance for answering that we all do, at some level of engagement. Pragmatism–or at least its vulgarized version (since more sophisticated ones tend to resist deploying it in such barbaric ways)–is a philosophy that has become influential in America. (Indeed, it had its origins in America, with the thinking of such figures as C. I. Lewis, John Dewey, and most radically Richard Rorty.)

Not unless pragmatism is rejected as a reigning public philosophy, with the president of the country and prominent intellectuals such as Paul Krugman repudiating it good and hard, will folks once again take principles seriously and think twice before they ignore the basic human rights of women as they consider intercourse with them.

It would be catastrophic if instead of spreading the principles contained in the Declaration of Independence, America left a legacy of spreading pragmatism around the globe.