Thursday, April 04, 2013

Meet Professor Steven Landsburg. Rape and Intellectual Games.

Contents Warning:  Rape and Intellectual Games

Steven Landsburg is an economics professor at the University of Rochester and a former Slate columnist. He is  known for "controversial" arguments (meaning sexist ones), as an aid to sharper thinking, we are told.

And of course that can be the consequence if you can wade through the sexism first.  For instance, his textbook once argued that polygamy (one man with more than one wife)  is good for heterosexual women (and not for heterosexual men) because it expands the market of potential husbands, whereas it makes it harder for men to find any wives at all, at least for some men.

Thinking about that clarified to me that he deems a fraction of a husband every bit as good as a husband or a father than a whole husband.  Husbands as a kind of a public good, like lighthouses sending their messages to as many boats as fits in the ocean, equally.  But the time, resources and attention of a husband (or a wife) are not public goods of that sort, and a fragment of a husband is not the same as the whole man.

He also ignores the fact that real-world polygamy is not exactly an egalitarian system but one in which the husband has the lion's share and each wife much less power than she had were she the only wife.  Those criticisms mean that his argument (based on fairly competitive marriage markets)  is flawed.

So yes, such examples can sharpen one's thinking.  But how odd that professor Landsburg's examples almost always veer in that direction.  Now he has come up with an argument which suggests that raping an unconscious person might be hard to justify as a crime if a) the rape victim didn't get sick or hurt or pregnant from the rape and b) if she or he never learned about it all.  After all, what's the harm in something you never knew about?  And light particles and air enter our bodies all the time, which means that our bodies are continuously  penetrated  and nobody calls that anything criminal.

The practical example he ties his argument to is the Steubenville rape case:

Let's suppose that you, or I, or someone we love, or someone we care about from afar, is raped while unconscious in a way that causes no direct physical harm—no injury, no pregnancy, no disease transmission. (Note: The Steubenville rape victim, according to all the accounts I've read, was not even aware that she'd been sexually assaulted until she learned about it from the Internet some days later.) Despite the lack of physical damage, we are shocked, appalled and horrified at the thought of being treated in this way, and suffer deep trauma as a result. Ought the law discourage such acts of rape? Should they be illegal?
Later he writes (emphasis ours throughout):
As long as I'm safely unconsious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn't the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits? And if the thought of those benefits makes me shudder, why should my shuddering be accorded any more public policy weight than Bob's or Granola's? We're still talking about strictly psychic harm, right?

Benefits, eh?  What bizarre minds some people have.   Suppose I turn into a vampire and decide to visit professor Landsburg every night and drink some of his blood.  Suppose the bite mark would vanish right away and suppose I never take so much that he'd feel any negative health impact.   Suppose, also, that I'd not mess up his house or bedroom or wake up anybody in the process.

 Nothing wrong with any of that, I guess.  After all, Landsburg clarifies his argument this way (where the third case is the rape that nobody but the rapist knows about):
Edited to add: Some commenters have suggested that Question 3, unlike Questions 1 and 2, involves a violation of property rights. This seems entirely wrong to me; in each case, there is a disputed property right — a dispute over who controls my computer, a dispute over who controls the wilderness, a dispute about who controls my body. To appeal to a “respect for property rights” solves nothing, since in each case the entire dispute is about what the property rights should be in the first place.
In short, Landsburg argues that we haven't really decided yet who has the property rights to women's (and men's) bodies, for the purpose of sexual uses.  And obviously we haven't decided yet if I have the property rights to his blood or not, though he seems to lean towards the idea that I might have those rights!   Because clearly there are benefits for a vampire of having more unconscious food.

The term "property rights" is used in the economic sense in that blog post, not in the common parlance sense.  But its meaning isn't really that different.

I would argue that we have already decided that people have the general property rights to their own bodies.  Slavery is no longer legal, for example.  Landsburg seems to want to take the debate back a few centuries, at least within his imaginary case where nobody suffers at all and the rapist benefits.

But his example is far too unrealistic to matter in the first place.  Someone using an unconscious person sexually that way (to avoid calling it rape inside Landsburg's thinking game)  would have to be female or a vasectomized male, would have to carry a recent certificate of having no sexually transmitted diseases, would have to somehow get training in how to have intercourse with an unconscious person without leaving bruises, pain or bleeding and would also have to go through a process which kills all germs and bugs, including influenza viruses.  Because, remember, that the rules are the only suffering would be "psychic."  Add to that what being unconscious might mean:  A person could be seriously ill or extremely inebriated.  It is very difficult to see how someone could sexually use that unconscious body without leaving any traces at all or without causing some harm.

The point is that Landsburg's example  is invalid in any real world situation if his intention is to suggest that certain kinds of rapes shouldn't be regarded as crimes at all.  And though I like Amanda's take on this matter,  the picture attached to it suggests that Landsburg's imaginary case is like:
"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
But it isn't, because the "sexual user" was in the forest.  What this means is that at least one person knows what happened and at the very minimum that knowledge could alter his (or her) behavior in ways which have repercussions to the person whose body was used.  Smirking, for instance, or condescension.  And getting away with such a "crimeless" crime could increase the chances of that person trying the same again.  And again.

Enough of that game.  Let's look at the wider game professor Landsburg was playing here.

Suppose he has both female and male students who read his blog.  Does this particular example affect them exactly in the same manner?

Could it be the case that because of different life realities the female students might find their adrenaline levels rise, their hearts start pumping faster, their emotions turn to thoughts of self-protection and such?  If such sex differences exist, could it be that the example is easier to think about for some students than others?  Would this be good teaching?  Fair teaching?

The use of the Steubenville rape case where the victim was not only unconscious but also a minor might remind the students of the many defenses of the young rapists in the media, might even suggest that the whole post is somehow linked to such defenses.   Another way to explain why some rapes really are not rapes?

I believe the use of such an example elicits different average reactions from women and men, even though most men might find it distasteful, too.  And that's what makes it an example of sexism.