Spring time in Rochester: Visiting students flood the halls, sophomores run miles with major declaration forms, the weather plays sadistic games, and Professor Landsburg has infuriated students with yet another blog post. Last year he called Sandra Fluke an “extortionist.” This year, he questioned the moral justification for condemning rape in a hypothetical circumstance in which the victim faced no chance of physical harm. A negative Gawker article about the post has generated bad press for the school while an online petition with nearly 400 signatures requests that President Seligman “censure” Landsburg. There is indeed room for productive criticism of his post and potential to use this incident to educate students and faculty about rape culture. Unfortunately, the online petition and other criticisms misconstrue his argument, wasting such an opportunity.
Bizarre thought experiments are common for philosophers and economists. Philosophy students know that almost any moral philosophy can lead to a repugnant conclusion in some hypothetical circumstance. The classic hypothetical is the “trolley problem.” In one formulation, a runaway trolley is about to hit a fork in the tracks, where six people are tied down. A moral agent does not have time to untie anyone, but is able to pull a lever, causing the trolley to run over just one person, saving the other five. In a second version, the agent is standing on a bridge, and can only stop the trolley by pushing an obese man to his death. Traditional deontologists would prescribe inaction in both circumstances; traditional utilitarians would flip the lever and push the fat man. There are tenured professors at Harvard and Princeton who defend both these views. Deontology leads to the conclusion that hiding Jews during the Holocaust was immoral because the ends do not justify the means of lying to Nazis. There are moral theories that conform to the normal intuitions in both circumstances, but these tend to create arbitrary distinctions or pose other problems.
If Landsburg’s post had been about the trolley problem, it is unlikely that defenders of the obese would call for his censure. Philosophers do not have this problem. This is not because rape is worse than murder. Rather, the social nature of each crime differs. We do not live in a world where the majority of murders go unreported, where the vast majority of reported murderers go unpunished, where online trolls send death threats to (attempted) murder victims who were “asking for it,” or where the majority of murders don’t consider themselves killers. Studies show 83 percent of men who will admit to acts that fit the definition of rape don’t consider those acts “rape.” Multiple perpetrators of the Steubenville rape — which Landsburg’s post unwisely and unnecessarily references — told the public they “didn’t know” penetrating an unconscious woman was rape. The exact nature of “rape culture” is hard to pin down, but we do know that pernicious cultural myths about gender stereotypes, sex, and consent are responsible for the prevalence of rape and the lack of legal enforcement. It is a statistical certainty that students in Landsburg’s classes have been the victims of rape or attempted rape, and that most will not receive justice. These realities should not stop us from asking deep questions, nor stop us from critically examining imperfect moral theories. They do, however, justify caution. Trigger warnings and disclaimers would be a good start, and those writing about such topics must be especially careful to avoid ambiguity and brazen language. Even if they intend their words to be read in an ivory-tower context, they will in fact be consumed by members of the public who are both participants in and victims of rape culture. If a blogger is going to connect a hypothetical example to a real incident like Steubenville, they cannot be shocked when readers bring in all the implicit baggage into their interpretation of their words.
However, just as writers like Landsburg must consider the context of their audience, those rushing to judge Landsburg should be cautious as well. Many people unfamiliar with his writing were confused by some parts of the post, and believed he was genuinely suggesting that rape could be permissible, or that the harm of rape is comparable to being penetrated by photons. These are just not true. Economists (like Kenneth Arrow and Amartya Sen) have built entire careers around proving that certain intuitively desirable normative principles are incompatible. Landsburg frequently likes to pose unsolved dilemmas on his blog. A significant number of Landsburg’s readers are Libertarians who often use knee-jerk appeals to property rights to resolve everything; his seemingly-novel argument about photons is actually a stock reply to absolutist claims about property rights. His blog doesn’t suggest accepting that rape is justifiable, even in his hypothetical circumstance. He also points out the (very obvious) reasons why laws legalizing rape would not make sense, even if one accepted that rape was acceptable in his hypothetical. As Landsburg told a reporter, “It’s about a situation which is intentionally so abstract and hypothetical as to be completely unrealistic.” This should have been obvious to any reader.
Sadly, the online petition ridiculously claims “[there is] no doubt as to what Landsburg is suggesting—that raping unconscious individuals might be perfectly okay.” This is flat-out false. People generally do not respond well to being publically shamed; people never respond well to being publically shamed based on a lie. This kind of discourse poisons the well and ruins the opportunity to create a useful dialog. Even more shockingly, the petition calls for Seligman to threaten “disciplinary action” beyond mere condemnation. Punishing a tenured professor for writings on a personal blog would be an egregious violation of academic freedom, which exists for a reason. The proper response from the school should be to point out that Landsburg’s private blog postings do not represent the school and affirm the school’s commitment to preventing rape without endorsing a specific interpretation of Landsburg’s blog. Students who genuinely want to fight rape culture should educate, not condemn, and distinguish insensitivity from malice. Those who’ve signed the petition should reconsider their stance, since most students are thoughtful enough to prioritize honesty and rape prevention over the knee-jerk temptation to respond to outrage or exploit a gaffe.
Taylor is a member of
the class of 2015.