Define Your Terms, Dr. Dawkins: A Rational Response

The other day, Richard Dawkins decided to illustrate syllogisms for his Twitter followers.  Fine, good; more people should understand logic and how to use it.

The part that’s not fine and good is that he used child sexual abuse and rape as examples of syllogisms.  “Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think,” he said in one tweet.  Then, “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.”

Here’s my syllogism: “Punching someone in the face is bad.  Murder is worse.  That’s not an endorsement of either one, but Richard Dawkins makes both look like attractive choices.”

This is his typical MO.  He likes being provocative.  It gets him attention and free media coverage.  I’m sure his stunt generated thousands of tweets responding to him, mentioning him, and retweeting him.

But for a guy who claims to be trying to teach people about logic and rational thinking, he’s committing some pretty glaring logical transgressions.

First of all, most US statutory law doesn’t differentiate between acquaintance/date rape and stranger rape.  There aren’t separate charges for raping someone you know or raping someone you don’t know.  There are often more serious charges in cases where more force is used or cases where the victim is a child or disabled, but that wasn’t what Dawkins was arguing.  So that’s strike one for his logic.

(To be fair, I don’t know if English statutory law has different charges for acquaintance rape and stranger rape.  I doubt it, though, since English law is in most regards very similar to American law.  But if someone knows differently, please correct me.)

Also, his argument assumes that date/acquaintance rape isn’t violent.  There’s nothing to keep a date rapist from raping his girlfriend at knifepoint or inflicting violence upon her.  Strike two, Richard.

My freshman year of college, I had this stereotypical mad professor who would shout at us in his Irish brogue, “What exactly do you mean?  Define your terms!”  He was nuts, but he taught me the importance of crafting an argument using precise language so the audience understands the precise point you are making.  Apparently Dawkins needs to study with this guy.

How is he defining worse?  I think it’s fairly clear that he wasn’t making a legal argument, so I don’t think he means worse in a legal sense.  I assume that what he means when he says worse is that it has a more negative effect on the victim.  If that is indeed what he means, then he’s still wrong.

The degree of violence inflicted on the victim in the course of sexual abuse or rape does not necessarily correlate with the emotional impact on the victim.  What Dr. Dawkins is employing here is a good ol’ logical fallacy, folks.  There are tons of studies showing that when several people experience the same trauma, some develop PTSD, while others don’t.  Dawkins implies a correlation between degree of violence and degree of negative emotional impact on the victim, but the data doesn’t support that conclusion.  In point of fact, sexual assault perpetrated by someone the victim trusted is often more emotionally traumatic than stranger rape because the victim has to deal with betrayal trauma and rape trauma.  Strrrrrrrrike three!

Or maybe he’s trying to make a moral argument: that violent sexual abuse or rape is more morally wrong than nonviolent sexual abuse or rape.  To make that moral argument, he’d first have to define the moral code by which he is judging the degree of wrongness.  In general, we base our moral codes on a set of values that can vary widely from one culture to another or even in different subcultures within a single culture.  Almost every moral code recognizes that it is bad to hurt another person, but the specifics of what’s more or less acceptable vary.  That’s why logical arguments are usually recognized as being separate from moral arguments, something a very educated scientist should already know.  Strrrrrrrrike–wait, you’re already out of strikes, so shut the fuck up.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Define Your Terms, Dr. Dawkins: A Rational Response

  1. Pingback: Fuck Off, Dawkins: An Emotional Response | Another Hope Entirely

  2. good for you, Hope, I agree entirely!

  3. Great points Hope! I didnt see those tweets, but if I had have, I’d have gone nuts! How dare he! But as you said, he’s probably pretty pleased with himself, gaining a lot of media attention. Stupid man. For all his education, he seems to have little to no intelligence about how abuse effects people. XX

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