Question-Begging and Victim-Blaming
By Bryan Caplan
Here is a sadly familiar story: a teenage girl sneaks out of her
parents’ house, goes to a party, and gets drunk. A man rapes her. Here
is another sadly familiar story: a black man in the wrong neighbourhood
shouts angrily at a police officer, who kills him. While this isn’t yet
settled ground in the culture at large, I suspect that most reading here
will agree that victim-blaming in cases like these is both
morally repugnant and practically dangerous…
Victim-blaming comes in stronger and weaker forms–the stronger
straightforwardly asserts that the victim is responsible for the harm
undergone; we also recognize a weaker form of ‘victim-blaming’ where one
focuses inappropriately on the victim’s actual or perceived
wrongdoings: she shouldn’t have drunk so much; he should have been more
deferential to the police officer. Whether or not these criticisms are true, they are highly inappropriate under the circumstances…
Are these analogies apt?
In case it needs saying–I hope it doesn’t–in the vast majority of
cases, I do not think that the harm the Ashley Madison victims are
suffering is equivalent to rape or murder; nor are Ashley Madison users
systematically oppressed in the way women and black people are. But
victim-blaming is problematic, even for lesser and more episodic harms… And the harm done to many of the current victims is by no means
trivial. Families are being broken up. People will lose jobs. It’s not
at all hard to imagine that lives will be lost. For
many, it is all too easy to trivialize these harms and blame the
victims: ‘I have no sympathy for cheaters,’ or ‘the real victims are the
Strangely, Ichikawa never addresses the obvious question: When would it be appropriate to “blame the victim”? If you say, “Never. Victims by definition should not be blamed,” you’d be right. But only trivially right. Since victim-blaming is never appropriate, attacking “victim-blaming” is as pointless as attacking “evil.” The real question isn’t “Should we do evil?” or “Should we victim-blame,” but “What’s evil?” or “Who’s a victim?”
Constructing hypotheticals with blameworthy pseudo-victims is easy enough. Imagine someone attacks you with a chainsaw because you failed to kiss his feet. When he misses your head, he accidentally saw offs his own hand. Telling him, “This is your fault” as he clutches his bloody stump is not victim-blaming. Or to take a less egregious case, suppose a worker feigns sickness so he can go to the basketball game. Co-workers spot him on t.v. in the audience and he gets fired. If he decries is fate, “This is all on you” is the bitter truth.
Or, to get a lot less hypothetical: Imagine you swear a solemn vow of fidelity to your alleged one true love. Then you get bored and sign up for an adultery website. Your life seems fine until hackers steal your information and publicly post it. Your spouse discovers your betrayal and divorces you. The obvious victims in this story are the betrayed spouse, children, and other family members who trusted and depended on you. Not you, the adulterer who’s sorry he got caught.
Ichikawa does point to potentially mitigating circumstances:
While there are individual cases deserving of little sympathy–one
name in particular comes conspicuously to mind–I think it’s a mistake to
have this reaction in general, for many reasons. One is that many of
the 33 million users whose privacy has been violated weren’t cheaters:
they signed up, had a look around, and left and forgot about it; or they
were just there for the thrill of thinking about the possibilities,
with no intentions of any physical connection.
This is a weak defense when you reflect on the fraction of Ashley Madison customers who didn’t cheat because they couldn’t find anyone who wanted to cheat with them. (In fact, it looks like Ashley Madison facilitated near-zero cheating, because near-zero women ever used their accounts!) But even for all the purely thrill-seeking customers, dire familial consequences are a strong sign that merely signing up is a major betrayal.
Suppose you ask users with no intention of cheating, “What would your spouse think if they knew what you were doing?” They answer, “They’d want to divorce me.” The obvious reaction is, “Then it’s a major betrayal, you shouldn’t do it, and if you get caught you only have yourself to blame.”
Some were in ethical open
A solid counter-example. But if they’re really in open relationships, there’s little reason to fear dire relationship consequences.
[S]ome were closeted LGBTQ people who needed discretion.
Conventional marriages are solemn vows of fidelity and commitment. If that conflicts with your LGBTQ orientation, you should marry someone that wants an unconventional marriage, or stay single – not enter a conventional marriage and cheat. “What if you have to marry under false pretenses to save your life?” is a fair question for Saudi LGBTQs to pose, but it’s bait and switch for all the LGBTQs who’s lives are patently not on the line.
And even when we’re talking about the actual adulterers, it’s a serious
lack of empathy broadly to vilify them or consider them unworthy of
privacy protections. People cheat for many reasons, some of them very
People also feign illness to attend basketball games for many reasons, some of them very understandable. Like, “My job is boring and I like basketball.” But we appropriately give their reasons little weight. Conventional jobs provide two recourses for disgruntled employees: negotiate with your boss or quit. Conventional marriages provide two recourses for disgruntled spouses: negotiate with your partner or divorce. If you find these rules draconian, negotiate a prenup or don’t marry. Don’t pretend you want the conventional deal, then break it because your reasons are very understandable.