Jerry Shepherd offered an extended rebuttal to my article “Christian moral schizophrenia and psychopathy.” Reading through his comments I recognized that a single question could help us focus the issue of debate significantly and so I focused on the moral status of acts of rape:
“It seems quite clear that on your view it is possible that God could command acts of devotional divine rape in the future. Will you concede that on your view God could possibly command acts of devotional divine rape just like he could command devotional genocide? If not, why not?”
Jerry offered another extended reply centered on four points. I’ll begin by citing his response and then offering a reply:
(1) I reject your premise that on my view it “seems quite clear” that God could command acts of devotional rape. So I really can’t concede the point. Why not?
(2) There is no precedent in Scripture for acts of devotional rape. The acts of genocide which Joshua carried out against Jericho, Ai, and Hazor were indeed devotional (cherem) acts of holy war. The essential character of these acts as devotional is that the entire plunder from these acts belongs entirely to Yahweh. No possessions, livestock, or people were to be retained by the plunderers. Acts of so-called “devotional rape” would contradict the very essence of the cherem warfare, in that the plunderer would be benefitting from what was supposed to be devoted wholly (cherem) to Yahweh.
(3) There is absolutely no statement in the OT that condones rape or regards it as anything other than immoral. Genocidal acts are also condemned in the prophets when perpretrated by despotic rulers against both their own and other peoples. But Scripture nowhere condemns Joshua’s actions against the Canaanites.
(4) You and I discussed earlier the whole issue of apparently universal moral sensitivities and natural law. I wouldn’t at all deny the force of these arguments. Abraham himself appeals to them in Genesis 18. But the same Abraham refused to appeal to them in Genesis 22. So, now, my question for you is, are you an apologist for natural law, or for the revealed God of Scripture?
So Jerry does not think that God could command acts of devotional rape in the future. I agree with him there. The crucial question before us is whether the resources available to Jerry in his moral reasoning are sufficient to ground that belief. I would argue that they are not. Thus, if Jerry wants to retain the strongest of condemnations of rape he must reject his biblicist moral epistemology.
First, let’s be clear on definitions. According to dictionary.com, “rape” is defined as follows:
the unlawful compelling of a person through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse
I am going to accept this definition except that I will drop the qualifier “unlawful”. Thus, I will define rape as:
the compelling of a person through physical force or duress to have sexual intercourse
(The problem with retaining “unlawful” in the definition is that it would mean that if God did command one person to have sexual intercourse with another person through physical force or duress it would, by definition, not be rape since God would only command lawful acts. Thus, curiously enough, it would follow that God could command forcible sexual intercourse but not rape.)
Now the question before us is whether God could ever command a person to rape another person as a devotional act.
Rape, moral intuition, and proper basicality
First let me say something about my own moral epistemology which is broadly reflective of the natural law tradition that serves as the background for western ethical discourse.
It should be no secret that much of what we believe in terms of morality comes from a basic intuition. The core of this intuition, as Thomas Aquinas famously noted, is that good is to be done and evil is to be avoided. But this very basic intuition begs the questions what is the good? and what is the evil? A person may not be able to answer those questions clearly, and yet they may still have a basic intuition about a broad range of possible behaviors.
This basic moral intuition is not infallible, but it is nonetheless generally reliable, especially when it comes to our very strongest intuitions of attraction and aversion.
As an advocate of proper function epistemology, I explain these basic moral intuitions as deliverances of our moral perception which is one of our basic cognitive faculties. We have been designed by God to perceive certain basic moral facts. Among those basic moral intuitions is an unqualified moral condemnation of rape. Thus, I believe that properly functioning human beings know that it is always wrong to rape, and they know this a priori. Consequently, if a human being denies that it is wrong to rape they are either (a) not functioning properly (e.g. they could be suffering from psychosis) or (b) they are functioning properly but suppressing the intuitive moral aversion toward rape that they possess (e.g. as a moral relativist might).
When we know rape is wrong what is it that we know?
Next, we should take a moment to articulate the nature of our knowledge that rape is wrong. Consider the following two statements:
(1) It will never be morally permissible or obligatory to rape.
(2) It never could be morally permissible or obligatory to rape.
My claim is that moral intuition supports not simply (1) but (2) as well. Thus, as a result we know not only that God will not command rape but that it is not possible that God ever could have commanded rape. In fact Jerry agrees with me. That means that Jerry must provide an adequate justification not only for (1) but (2) as well .
Biblicism and an a posteriori condemnation of rape
So why does Jerry believe that God never could command rape? What is his reasoning? Does he appeal to an a priori basic moral intuition?
Not at all. Instead, his answer is thoroughly biblicist:
“There is no precedent in Scripture for acts of devotional rape.”
The first thing to note about Jerry’s reasoning is that it is a posteriori. He is claiming that the way he knows rape is wrong is not through a basic moral intuition that it is wrong, but rather through reading the Bible. Thus, on his view, he reads the Bible, fails to find acts of devotional rape, and then concludes that rape is wrong.
But that is not all. Jerry then adds that devotionally raping a person would contradict the herem:
“Acts of so-called “devotional rape” would contradict the very essence of the cherem warfare, in that the plunderer would be benefitting from what was supposed to be devoted wholly (cherem) to Yahweh.”
There is so much to say in response to this that it is difficult to know where to start.
Let me begin by observing that it is empirically false and (if I may sacrifice charity on the altar of candor) completely bizarre to suggest that people know rape is wrong because they read the Bible, fail to find evidences of devotional rape, infer that somehow it violates the herem, and then conclude that it must be wrong. Just think for a minute how silly that is. Imagine a properly functioning Vietnamese man in Hanoi who has never read the Bible is walking home when he sees a young woman being raped in an alley. That man knows that the act he is seeing is evil as surely as any reader of the Bible. So Jerry’s account of moral epistemology is false.
Needless to say, Jerry’s account is also obviously false for Bible readers. Those who read the Bible don’t believe rape is wrong for the reasons Jerry provides. At least, I’ve never ever heard of anybody apart from Jerry himself present this kind of moral epistemology for the wrongness of rape.
As for Jerry’s supplementary argument that rape violates the herem, this is also problematic for two additional reasons. To begin with, the herem has been suspended, but that doesn’t mean that the immorality of rape has been suspended. So in fact, the immorality of rape is independent of the herem. Further, the core of Jerry’s argument is that rape violates the herem because the rapist “benefits” from the rape. But it is by no means obvious that a person commanded to rape another person would in any way benefit from the act. Indeed, if a morally properly functioning individual were commanded to rape another individual, one can expect that the experience would be morally shattering and in no way beneficial whatsoever. Thus, rape would not violate the herem in the way Jerry describes.
Finally, in the third point Jerry comments:
“There is absolutely no statement in the OT that condones rape or regards it as anything other than immoral.”
Again we see Jerry’s biblicism. And again I reiterate the obvious point that people don’t need to study the Old Testament to see whether or not it condones rape to know that it is immoral. Nor do they study the Old Testament to find out if rape is wrong. They know it is wrong.
Has Jerry succeeded in defending his knowledge of (1) and (2)? Unfortunately no, his biblicist arguments are a complete failure for the reasons already noted. The most Jerry can do is point out that scripture doesn’t provide examples of God commanding devotional acts of rape. But this observation does not warrant the conclusion that God never will command acts of devotional rape, still less that God never could command acts of devotional rape.
Jerry recognizes that rape is always wrong. That’s because he has the same basic moral intuition as every other properly functioning human being. Unfortunately, his biblicist moral epistemology cannot provide an account of his moral knowledge.
Were Jerry to be consistent he would admit that on his own terms he cannot know if God will command devotional acts of rape in the future.
Of course a far better option would be for Jerry to reject his biblicist position and recognize that his absolute and uncompromising condemnation of rape stands apart from his reading of the Bible. And once he recognizes that we know God would never command moral horrors like rape wholly apart from our reading of the Bible, we can have a discussion about the other things we can know God would never command as well.