The Rape-is-OK-for-the-Survival-of-the-Human-Race Thought Experiment

August 29, 2012

A rescue from the past, which seems relevant to this discussion.

surprising (or not so surprising, alas) thought:

So, the premise is that the human race is nuked almost to extinction by a malevalent race of robots called the Cylons that humans created decades prior. …

Then you mix that with the whole human-race-on-the-run and barely surviving, while we try to scrape by and the “Oh yeah, we should make babies so we can propogate the species” thing. Man, it is intense. It makes you think about everything in a different light.

For example, in real life, I’m pro-choice, but if the human race was whittled down to 50,000 people, I think I would want every baby that we could possibly make. For all those closed-minded people out there, it really makes you consider things in new ways.

Battlestar Galactica presents a (vivid) thought experiment. I’d presented a variant to a friend of mine (male and a sort of liberal feminist, but he has read Marilyn Frye) who, like the commenter, tended to cave at the prospect of no more babies (OTOH, I’m pleased to say that my mom was resolute for No Raping To Save The Species).

The line “I think I would want every baby we could possibly make” does not directly call for coercion, though the rest of the paragraph suggests it strongly. Let me rephrase it in a stronger way:

Suppose there were only 50,000 human beings left. In this case, would it be permissible (or required!) to:

  1. forbid women from deciding to abort (or not to abort; for example, the policy might dictate that male fetuses were aborted very early or the policy might require extremely low risk tolerance for threats to the mother or the policy might be strongly against letting any by the most perfect, healthy fetuses come to term),
  2. compel women to conceive, or
  3. compel women to do little else but conceive and carry to term babies.

Here’s another variant of the thought experiment: Suppose that every woman living decided spontaneously and autonomously that they did not want to bear any more children (let’s assume that all current pregnancies that were priorly intended to go to term will go to term, so there’s no abortion component).

  1. Is it permissible or required to force (some) women to conceive (and bear) children.
  2. It is permissible or required to force women to conceive (and bear) enough children to sustain
    1. current population,
    2. current population of each self-identified identity which desires survival of that (partially birth determined) identity,
    3. a smaller population that was sustainable (i.e., had sufficiently robust genetic diversity), or
    4. a population like that we would have if women hadn’t chosen not to conceive?

Flip the sex: Suppose all men autonomously and spontaneously decided that they did not want to spawn children. It is permissible or required to force (some) men to impregnate women either through intercourse or through artificial insemination?

My answers to the questions in the first two scenarios is “Obviously, no! are you crazy?” though I suspect that it’s stronger in the second scenario. That the first and second case would prompt people to think, “Weeeelll, maybe”, or “Heck yes” is some sort of indicator, I think, of an non-feminist attitude. The first is perhaps less problematic for people given that it’s generally accepted that societies may coerce people into working, killing, or dying in order to ensure the survival of the society. Of course, there are limits there: While existential threats are held to permit more coercion and (intragroup) violence by the defending society, one might hold that there are limits. (If we were actually hit by a annihilating first strike, would a return strike be actually justified? I think not.)

Of course there are other ways to get women to bear children (e.g., economic and social incentives, of varying degrees). (Go mom! She nailed this by the time I’d gotten to the third case.) I would have thought that if one is strongly invested in the continuation of the species, then one would be willing to pony up. Offer huge bounties and lots of social status or political power or the like. In the Battlestar Galactica case, it may be that the marginality of the society precludes some of that (though I’m skeptical). If you jump to the coercion without checking out whether other incentives are possible, that’s an indicator of something worrisome, in my book.

The third case does have a point of disanalogy: the relatively lessor burden (no child bearing). Obviously, the rape variants are off (forcing intercourse, or forcing masturbation…imagine that the men stopped for religious reasons, or imagine that they contracted a disease that meant they could only fertility ejaculate when tortured horrible; no way that’s permissible). However, it might be ok to steal their sperm. If they freely ejaculate it might be ok to collect the result, even against their will or desire. As mom put it, we can use all sorts of things we find in the trash.

A metapoint: This is a horrible thought experiment. I put the brutal summary in the title to be clear what is being entertained. I suspect that there are plenty of “tough minded” people, and even not so “tough minded” folks who will be inclined toward thinking “loftily” of “saving the human race” blah blah. I’m hard pressed to think of those folks as feminist, or pro-feminist. The feminists I admire and strive to emulate would be, I think, tough minded in favor of women.

5 Responses to “The Rape-is-OK-for-the-Survival-of-the-Human-Race Thought Experiment”

  1. Lyanna Says:

    Hello, Bijan! I came over here from LGM, and (since for some reason I can’t reply to either your or tt’s comments there; the “reply” button just isn’t showing up) wanted to say that I appreciated your posts on the related LGM post, and this post as well.

    I’ve seen the “you’re just being libertarian because you value women’s bodily autonomy! You selfish bitch!” non-argument before, and it’s…highly annoying, so it was satisfying to see your well-argued take-down of it.

    • Bijan Parsia Says:

      Thanks Lyanna! I’m sorry tt was being such a wanker and misusing your comments. Sigh!

      This one is a bit new to me….never a nice thing to encounter new kinds of annoying pseudoargument, especially from an inverted libertarian.

  2. Lyanna Says:

    Also, this “rape for the survival of the human race” scenario (to which I respond by being tough-minded in favor of women) strikes me as suspiciously like the “ticking time bomb” argument in favor of torture.

    Both are hypotheticals so unrealistic, so extreme, and so easily punctured that they are clearly just desperate attempts by someone who *wants* to justify the atrocity in question.

    • Bijan Parsia Says:

      Well, at least in BSG it was a scenario. And, in fact, people do make “we’re facing genocide” (rightly or wrongly) arguments all the time.

      What’s shocking to me is how many people think it’s a no brainer for forced pregnancy!

  3. Fu Ko Says:

    “Economic and social incentives” are means of coercion — not alternatives to coercion.


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