Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Archive for July, 2013|Monthly archive page


In Animal Rights, Philosophy on July 18, 2013 at 5:18 PM

A philosophical question is if it is not morally acceptable to kill another human and eat it, on what grounds can we kill non human animals and eat them? Are we guilty of “speciesism,” the characteristic of which is an unjustified prejudice against other animals? Speciesism can be compared to racism, an unjustified prejudice against other races, or sexism, an unjustified prejudice against a different sex. Peter Singer, a prominent utilitarian philosopher, believes that  many people are  unjustifiably speciesist. A different prominent philosopher, the late Bernard Williams, an opponent of utilitarianism, believes it not to be so. Both Singer and Williams use aliens to make a related  point.

Peter Singer, (Practical Ethics, [Cambridge University Press, Third Edition, 2011], p.68) appears unhappy that we might identify as members of the species Homo-sapiens and would prefer it if we identified as “self-aware beings” or, perhaps, “sentient beings.” He comments. “Personally, I would feel that an intelligent alien with whom I could communicate and share feelings would have more in common with me than a member of my own species who is so profoundly disabled as to be unable to have any conscious experiences at all – even if the latter looked much more like me.”

Bernard Williams, (Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, [Princeton University Press, 2006],pp.149-152) implies that if aliens land on earth and wished to live with us, whether they look like us or whether they are slimy and disgusting, “opponents of speciesism [would] want us to join them— join them…on principle.” In his fantasy, such people, presumably Singer included, would be the “collaborators.” Against them would be the “resisters,” those “organizing under the banner ‘Defend humanity’ or ‘Stand up for human beings.'” It is a question of whether people can be loyal to other human beings. The question to ask is “Which side are you on?”

Considering these two positions, I think I would fall into Bernard Williams camp. The nearest real life event to any of these fantasies that comes to mind is when Gary Kasparov, the chess grandmaster, played the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue at chess in the mid to late 1990s. At that point in time I desperately wanted Kasparov to win.  The reason for wanting Kasparov to win was because “he’s one of us.” Perhaps I am prejudiced in favour of humans, but I am not convinced that this is unethical.


Lies, Damn Lies, and False Rape Allegation Statistics

In Feminism, Trotskyism on July 18, 2013 at 3:43 PM

This is  a cross post. It was originally published on Harry’s Place on July 14th 2013, 11:12 am

Last month Rosie Warren wrote an article published by the International Socialist Network (ISN) entitled “On Believing Women Who Allege Rape.” Her concluding sentence sums up her position: “The statement that we believe someone alleging rape is not only an important act of solidarity, but is also, given what we know about the nature of rape allegations, the only logically coherent position to take.”

As part of her argument Warren discusses the possibility that the woman is lying:

She is lying – This is understandably an incredibly difficult thing to estimate, not least because so many rapes go unreported (a 2007 government report suggests that between 75% and 95% of rapes are not reported to the police,1 and most reports suggest the latter is more accurate) but those who have attempted to examine it place the figure at somewhere around 5% of reported rapes are false allegations2 – which means 5% of roughly 10% reported; less than 1% of women lie about being raped. I believe we can reasonably disregard (a), then, unless there is a very strong reason to suggest the woman is lying – these are exceptional circumstances, and should not be foregrounded.

This is a very flawed argument. Warren has accurately represented her first source for her claim that “a 2007 government report suggests that between 75% and 95% of rapes are not reported to the police.” She adds to this an unsourced claim that “and most reports suggest the latter  is more accurate.” I presume she means by this that 95% of rapes not being reported to the police is the more accurate figure.

Warren makes a further claim that “somewhere around 5% of reported rapes are false allegations.” Her source for this is an article in the Guardian. I am not sure why Warren linked to this article for her claim because the article does not justify the claim. The article does quote the Director of Public Prosecutions as saying “False allegations of rape are rare,” but there is no reference that “around 5% of reported rapes are false allegations.”  We can however look back to Warren’s first source, (paragraph 3.25, page 45) where it is stated that based on samples in 2000 and 2005, and dependent on counting methodology, somewhere between 8.1% and 10% of allegations are false.

It is now where Warren’s interpretation of the data is worryingly erroneous.  This is her statement: “5% of roughly 10% reported; less than 1% of women lie about being raped.” The 5% figure is clearly her view that 5% of reported allegations are false (a figure I have already discussed that she has not properly backed up). The “roughly 10%” figure I assume is her estimate of what percentage of rapes are reported. Her cited source states “between 75 and 95 per cent of rape crimes are never reported to the police” and she has settled on 90% not being reported and hence 10% being reported. Even if we accept both of these statistics (5% of reported rape allegations being false and roughly 10% of rapes being reported) we cannot, as Warren has done, conclude that “less than 1% of women lie about being raped.” While 5% of 10% is 0.5% and that is less than 1%, this is not what the data shows.

In order for Warren’s claim to be fair, and assuming we accept her statistical data, she would have to demonstrate that away from the women who report rape, all of the women who allege rape have been raped. She has not done this. Just because a large proportion of rapes go unreported, it does not mean that all women who allege rape are women who either reported rape or fell into the category of women who were raped but did not report it. The women could fall into a completely separate category: those that did not report rape, and falsely allege a rape. We have no idea of what this  percentage is, or certainly not from the statistics presented by Warren. Intuitively, far from the zero percent (or close to it) which is what it would have to be for Warren’s statistics to follow through, one might actually think that this category of false allegations is higher than the false allegations of rapes that are reported. This is because the consequences of falsely reporting a rape to the police are far more severe than the consequences of falsely alleging but not reporting rape, particularly so if no perpetrator is named. However, my intuition is not necessary to demonstrate that Warren has jumped to a conclusion where she had no justification to do so.

Warren goes on to argue that a woman cannot be mistaken about consent but a man can. This contradicts an example in a recent report by Alison Levitt QC and the Crown Prosecution Service Equality and Diversity Unit to the Director of Public Prosecutions (paragraph 42, page 31):

In another case, it was plain that the suspect did not understand the legal definition of consent. Thus although she said in answer to a question put to her that she did not “consent” to sexual intercourse, it became clear that she did not understand what the word meant.

Warren gets around this legal conundrum to change the definition of consent to suit her purpose.

Moving on, Warren states:

Given what I’ve already outlined, there is a 99% chance she is telling the truth, and she cannot consent by accident. If she says there was no consent, we can be 99% sure that there was no consent. Either the man was mistaken about the consent, or else he was well aware, and was not concerned. Either way, sexual intercourse without consent is rape. Rape has occurred.

In other words, Warren is declaring, based on erroneous reasoning, that if a woman claims that she has been raped, there is a 99% chance that she has actually been raped.

Warren also states:

Some of those I have the utmost respect for, reveal they will still not categorically, even privately, make a stance beyond “This needs to be investigated with absolute seriousness” and “We can’t say anything about guilt, or innocence, because we know nothing about the details”. I reject this wholeheartedly; such tentativeness is a failure of political rigour. We should, of course, start by believing the alleger.

This is a very dramatic statement. Warren is “wholeheartedly” rejecting the idea of a serious investigation and finding out the details of a rape allegation prior to guilt being determined. She is suggesting that someone who alleges rape should “of course” be believed. This view correctly leads her onto the following: “this throws up issues for dealing with rape accusations in law.” Of course it does! There is a long standing legal principle in this country that someone is innocent until proven guilty. If Warren has her way, at least when it comes to allegations of rape, someone would be guilty until proven innocent. This is not something that I feel anyone who truly believes in justice should accept.

Philosophers and bizarre thought experiments, No. 3

In Just War, Philosophy, Thought Experiments on July 4, 2013 at 11:41 AM

Jeff McMahan wrote a book, published in 2009, that sought to turn on its head what we understand about morality in war which is based on the centuries old tradition of Just War Theory. In the traditional theory, the morality of war is broken down into two major areas: just reasons for going to war (jus ad bellum) and just actions in the conduct of war (jus in bello). It is accepted that there is a moral equality of combatants. Hence, even if one side was unjustified in going to war, it does not mean that the combatants on that side are war criminals unless they commit unjust actions such as deliberately killing civilians.

This can be illustrated by a good example. It is not particularly controversial to say that the Allies were the just side in the war against Nazi Germany in World War II and the Nazi side were the unjust side. According to standard theory, Nazi soldiers who were involved in permitted actions of a soldier, such as fighting other armies and not killing civilians, are not doing anything morally wrong. This means that while SS officers who were involved in killing Jews were war criminals, Rommel’s Nazi troops who stormed around North Africa but obeying the rules of war such as proportionality and not deliberately killing civilians are not morally blameworthy.

McMahan thinks this is wrong. He thinks that an unjust war should not be participated in and that soldiers are morally blameworthy if they fight for an unjust side. He would view, contrary to the standard theory, Rommel’s Nazi troops as war criminals.

A conflict can occur when a just side would kill innocent civilian without intent but as a side effect of a just action. McMahan argues that while soldiers on an unjust side should not engage in combat with a just side, innocent civilians on the unjust side are permitted to defend themselves from harm resulting from actions of the soldiers on the just side. McMahan’s case is illustrated with a very bizarre thought experiment:

Suppose that just combatants are justified in destroying a storage facility for chemical weapons, but that the destruction of the facility foreseeably creates a cloud of toxic gas that will soon engulf an area inhabited by innocent civilians. If the civilians could somehow blow the cloud of gas away, they would be permitted to do that, even if their only option was to blow it over the just combatants, who would then be killed by it.


Jeff McMahan, Killing in War, (Oxford University Press, 2009), p.47.