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Risk, uncertainty and ethics.

Wed 29 Jun 2011 23:37:52 Leave a comment

It’s been a while since my last blog post. I could lie and pretend I was busy with assignments and studying for exams (which finished last week). If you consider the 24 hours prior to each assignment or exam that might be true. The rest of the time I was far too busy procrastinating in less productive ways to blog. I’ve got a few weeks between semesters with nothing to procrastinate about so maybe I’ll get through a few blog posts. As a result I’m somewhat late to the party when it comes to the topic of this post, but hopefully I’ll make up for it by considering the issue more generally.

My particular train of thought in this instance dates back to the beginning of SlutWalk. I’ve been reading feminist blogs long enough to be familiar with the concept of victim blaming, and in the context of supporting victims it seems to have merit. However the idea of ignoring any impact the victim’s actions have in influencing the perpetrator seems to be ignoring a source of information potentially valuable to preventing future harm. I’d seen various takes on the issue around, but hadn’t seen much in the way of productive engagement between those that disagreed. The Club Troppo thread had a number of interesting analogies but ultimately seemed to end in a stalemate of differing opinions about risk with neither side having evidence to support their claims. There doesn’t appear to be evidence to indicate whether or not dressing in a sexually suggestive manner increases the risk of being sexually assaulted or raped.

To me that raised an interesting ethical question: to what extent is it reasonable to attempt to influence others on the basis of opinion? We live in a free and open society where people are generally entitled to express their own opinions. Is this any different when it comes to opinions about risk? Does the fact there’s at least some form of intent to influence the behaviour of others impact the answer? If one perceives a risk to others, does one need to prove the risk is real before sharing perceptions of the risk (presuming the others are not yet aware of the perceived risk)?

I found it an interesting question, because within the Troppo thread, there was an interesting similarity noticed between the uncertainty of risk from the SlutWalk topic and the broader concept of rape culture. Common to both are a perceived  but unevidenced risk, apparently formed by innocent actions influencing others to be more likely to cause harm. I use the term ‘innocent’ there, because generally we ascribe fault or blame base on human agency, so the fault lies with those who perform the acts that directly cause the harm. To put it more bluntly, only the rapist is to blame for the rape. However things are different when we consider the issue at a broader level and attempt to act collectively to reduce the aggregate harm. Unlike when attributing blame for an individual act, when we’re trying to minimise harm we need to look further than fault and consider the deeper causes (or risks), even where considering those causes might involve uncertainty or discomfort.

To answer my question (for this particular issue at least), I think its quite reasonable to share ones perceptions of the risks with others, as long as its framed as such and in a non-judgemental way. This leaves it up to the individual to judge for themselves whether their actions are worth the apparent risks they pose. While I think it’s important to be able to share opinion and views on how things work, but I don’t think we have a right to judge others based on unsupported opinion. So in general I support the idea of a SlutWalk protests to advocate for the idea that women shouldn’t be judged for the way they dress. But equally I support people providing their perspectives, particularly professionals who work in the area, when they feel that dress standards do affect the risk of rape. What I don’t support is either ‘sides’ attempt to silence the views of others. This leaves it up to the individual women to judge the risk for themselves and determine whether its significant enough to justify changing their actions. Similarly, I don’t have a problem with people who try to raise awareness about rape culture, for example by expressing the view that making sexist jokes plays a role in causing rape. But I don’t support using the idea to judge the actions of others, for example by saying that making sexist jokes is always wrong or that the joke makers are somehow bad people or to blame for rape.

In looking at my answer, I guess what underlies it is a call for intellectual humility. When all we have is our unevidenced opinion about supposed facts its important to acknowledge we may be wrong, and that those who disagree with us may be right. When it comes to judging right from wrong, it’s important to acknowledge there is no clear objective measure and we do so by weighing factors and values. Small changes how factors or values are weighted can change the way issues are judged, so an assumption about values derived from someone’s opinion on a complex issue is likely to be both wrong and offensive. All this means that while it’s perfectly ok to disagree, it probably not ok to judge.

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