Advanced Search

Is a presumptive skepticism of as yet unproven rape allegations immoral, anti

Is a presumptive skepticism of as yet unproven rape allegations immoral, anti-feminist or otherwise problematic? Or is it a matter of justifiably presuming innocence?

Singling out rape allegations for special skepticism would be problematic to say the least. As far as I know, there's no reason at all to believe that allegations of rape are less likely to be true than allegations of other sorts of criminal behavior. But in any case, skepticism and the presumption of innocence are two different concepts. The presumption of innocence is a legal principle about the burden of proof in criminal cases, and it has nothing to do with how likely it is in general that people accused of certain sorts of crimes are guilty. In the American legal system, before someone can be convicted, the state must provide specific evidence (not generalities about the kind of crime at issue) that establishes guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." This means that even if a defendant is probably guilty, the probability might still not be high enough to meet the standard for conviction. A jury member might believe it's more likely than not that the defendant committed the crime and yet might not vote to convict because "more likely than not" isn't the same as "beyond a reasonable doubt."

A juror who takes the "presumption of innocence" seriously will be on the lookout for weaknesses in the State's case. We might use the phrase "presumptive skepticism" for that way of approaching the evidence. But this has nothing special to do with rape and it has nothing to do with how likely it is in general that people accused of rape (or any other crime) are guilty.

Singling out rape allegations for special skepticism would be problematic to say the least. As far as I know, there's no reason at all to believe that allegations of rape are less likely to be true than allegations of other sorts of criminal behavior. But in any case, skepticism and the presumption of innocence are two different concepts. The presumption of innocence is a legal principle about the burden of proof in criminal cases, and it has nothing to do with how likely it is in general that people accused of certain sorts of crimes are guilty. In the American legal system, before someone can be convicted, the state must provide specific evidence (not generalities about the kind of crime at issue) that establishes guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." This means that even if a defendant is probably guilty, the probability might still not be high enough to meet the standard for conviction. A jury member might believe it's more likely than not that the defendant committed the crime and yet might not vote...

Is it unethical to look at a woman's breasts? What if she has cleavage?

Is it unethical to look at a woman's breasts? What if she has cleavage?

Here's a plausible principle: in general, we shouldn't do things that are likely to make people uncomfortable. This is particularly true if our only reason for doing whatever we're doing is that we get some sort of enjoyment out of it. And if we're in doubt about whether we're likely to make the person uncomfortable, better to err on the side of caution.

The principle is actually a broad one, as we can see if we change the example a bit. Suppose the person sitting across the room from me has a very sweet face. There's nothing wrong with noticing, but staring is another matter; that's likely to make the person uncomfortable. This is true even if the s/he has made some effort to highlight facial features. Noticing, even appreciating is one thing; staring, let alone ogling, is another.

That's the general advice. In real life, there are lots of subtleties. It's not unusual for one person to notice that another is "checking them out," as it's sometimes put, and to be flattered. That might be particularly true if the setting is a bar where people go to meet one another. But even there, the general rule is still a good one.

Maybe the simple version is this: I shouldn't be creepy. And if someone might well think what I'm doing is creepy -- even if I don't mean it to be -- I shouldn't do that either.

Here's a plausible principle: in general, we shouldn't do things that are likely to make people uncomfortable. This is particularly true if our only reason for doing whatever we're doing is that we get some sort of enjoyment out of it. And if we're in doubt about whether we're likely to make the person uncomfortable, better to err on the side of caution. The principle is actually a broad one, as we can see if we change the example a bit. Suppose the person sitting across the room from me has a very sweet face. There's nothing wrong with noticing, but staring is another matter; that's likely to make the person uncomfortable. This is true even if the s/he has made some effort to highlight facial features. Noticing, even appreciating is one thing; staring, let alone ogling, is another. That's the general advice. In real life, there are lots of subtleties. It's not unusual for one person to notice that another is "checking them out," as it's sometimes put, and to be flattered. That might be...

I have a question concerning the gender of words that exist in many languages,

I have a question concerning the gender of words that exist in many languages, except in English. What does the presence of grammatical gender in a language say about the mentality of its speakers? A different question is whether the features of a language reflect the characteristics of the societies where it's spoken in a largely unconscious and involuntary way. (Modern) Persian, spoken in Iran and Afghanistan, doesn't have the feature of grammatical gender (anymore), just as English. Many say that the languages that do have grammatical genders are sexist, and that they help to perpetuate the conviction that sex is a tremendously important matter in all areas. For Marilyn Frye, this is a key factor in perpetuating male dominance: male dominance requires the belief that men and women are importantly different from each other, so anything that contributes to the impression that sex differences are important is therefore a contributor to male dominance. Societies whose languages do not have...

As a matter of fact, there are some psychologists and psycholinguists investigating the very question you ask. Lera Boroditsky, at Stanford University, has data that suggest that speakers of languages that use broad gender marking do associate more feminine characteristics with things whose names are marked as feminine, and more masculine traits with things whose names are marked as masculine. You can read a summary of that research here: http://www-psych.stanford.edu/~lera/papers/gender.pdf She argues that these and other data show that language shapes thought. However, psycholinguists at U Penn (Lila Gleitman and John Trueswell), and at Delaware (Anna Papafragou) argue against the view that language shapes thought in this way. (Here's a link to a very readable paper by Gleitman and Papafragou on this topic: http://papafragou.psych.udel.edu/papers/Language%20and%20thought.pdf

I don't think that Frye's case depends on how this particular debate comes out. Her point is that there are multiple ways in which everyday life demands that individuals make clear what their gender is. She calls this "mandatory sex announcing." The fact that our language gives us no neutral personal pronoun and no neutral form of address (it's either "sir" or "madam" or "miss") is one thing that makes us have to find out someone's gender even if the person's gender is completely irrelevant to our purposes in referring to or addressing that person. Think of writing a letter to someone when you cannot tell from the individual's name whether that individual is a man or a woman. (Think of how hard I had to work to write those last two sentences without using a pronoun!) But language is just one factor, one way in which our social practices and conventions make it necessary for us to classify people as "men" or "women."

You've several questions, though they're closely related. Let me start with the first one: "What does the presence of grammatical gender in a language say about the mentality of its speakers?" My answer is: "Darned if I know!" But I rather suspect that most of my co-panelists are in the same position. Whether the presence of grammatical gender in a language has an effect on the outlook of people who speak it is something we could only figure out by bringing to bear the reseources of disciplines like sociology, psychology, sociolinguistics and who knows what else. It would also call for refining the question itself to the point where we knew what counts as an answer. As you yourself observe, it's not exactly obvious that societies whose languages don't mark gender are less sexist than their grammatically gendered counterparts. If there is an effect here, one suspects that it's a subtle one, and not easy to tease out. It may well be that if the people in a society believe that men and women are ...