Is blaming the victim always wrong?

I’ve noticed this strange pattern of how people talk to one another about certain kinds of crimes: most especially rape against a female victim. The dialog usually starts with someone (almost always a man), saying something like “she was dressed too provocatively”, or “she shouldn’t have drunk so much”. This is immediately following by someone else (usually a woman) saying something like: “she should be able to dress however she wants; it doesn’t give anyone the right to rape her”.

First, I think we can all agree that there is no such thing as a right to rape anyone, for any reason, at any time. Doesn’t matter where they are, what they’ve been doing, how they’re dressed… full stop. No one is morally allowed to rape anyone else. If we can agree on that point, then we can also agree that it is in no way a woman’s fault for getting raped: no matter how she’s dressed or what she’s been doing.

It’s rapists who are at fault for raping. We should focus on teaching them not to rape, or, at the very least, providing some massive disincentives to do so. Right? Right. Of course. Rapists shouldn’t rape.

Now that we’ve got that settled… everyone will be fine, right?

Of course not.

Immoral people will always exist, and while we will always condemn immoral actions and try to educate / reform the people to commit them, that doesn’t actually do any good for someone already victimized by a criminal.

That raises the question of what are our moral obligations to looking after ourselves: especially in a dangerous situation. Let’s change the example. Let’s say I (a man) am walking through a bad part of town, at night, alone, in a smart suit with gold cufflinks. And, I get jumped. They take my wallet, cufflinks, and phone. They beat me up pretty well, and knock out a few teeth. Hell, let’s say I even get raped by one of the thugs, who happens to be gay. What responsibility do I bear for this event?

Clearly, I am not guilty of assault, robbery, or rape. I did none of those things, and the guilt for all of them lies completely on the thugs. Am I guilty of anything, then? Yes. I’m guilty of failing to properly assess the danger of my situation and taking sensible precautions. I have a moral responsibility to myself of looking out for my own person and property. In this case, I failed to do so.

It is crucial to differentiate between the level and nature of moral guilt here. The thugs are, without question, far more guilty of a much worse action. They deliberately, and purposefully, initiated violence against another person. On the other hand, I carelessly neglected my own safety. On the one hand, you have a egregious fault of morality, and on the other hand, a minor lapse—even if it had severe consequences. The difference in guilt here is so extreme as to practically bear no comparison.

I think this is the essence of the strange verbal exchange which started this essay. One mentality looks at a crime victim, and thinks the victim should have done more to protect themselves. The other looks and the criminal, and says we should prevent crime.

Both of these are correct stances. Both parties did something wrong. However, since these are not remotely equivalent wrongs, it is outrageous to focus one’s attention on the minor fault committed by the victim, instead of focusing on the immeasurably greater guilt of the criminal. And yet, one routinely hears more attention given to the women’s clothing, activities, or appearance after a rape than on the criminal.

So, yes, it can, sometimes, be proper to blame the victim, but absolutely not for the crime. At best they failed to take some necessary precaution (though even that doesn’t apply in most cases). They can—in no way—be blamed for the crime itself. The moral culpability for the crime is always 100% on the criminal.

One thought on “Is blaming the victim always wrong?

  1. Paul Schmidt says:

    It strikes me that the pushback against people who suggest you take steps to protect yourself is of the same origin as the assertion that ordinary people don’t need to carry guns. Ultimately, it’s an attempt to place full responsibility for your life in the hands of the state.

    Like

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