A culture that promotes violence against people who are perceived as “weak” has a perception problem, and isn’t what most people would consider a happy place to live.
It’s no secret that changing our views about consent on a societal level is an uphill battle. But until today, I would’ve said we can all agree, regardless of political party or ideology, that it’s not OK to rape disabled people. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
In a shocking editorial published in The New York Times on Monday, utilitarian philosophers Peter Singer and Jeff McMahan argued precisely that. If you’re familiar with Singer’s take on utilitarianism, and his previous commentary about the value of the lives of disabled children and adults, you might not be surprised by his most recent piece. But his op-ed promotes dangerous and damaging views that have no place in a mainstream publication.
Utilitarianism is an ethical framework that determines the morality of a given action by whether it brings the greatest happiness for the most people. In its simplest form, it can be used to promote a hedonistic and meaningless pursuit of pleasure, but most modern utilitarians maintain that “happiness” requires more than a brief moment of pleasure to become a moral imperative. The type of happiness you achieve by eating a bowl of ice cream, for example, isn’t the same as the deeper happiness you gain from long-term close friendships.
Singer and McMahan, who are professors of philosophy at Princeton University and the University of Oxford respectively, do not imbue their arguments about disabled people with this nuance. Rather, applying their moral philosophy to the New Jersey case of Anna Stubblefield—who was convicted in 2015 of two counts of aggravated assault for the sexual assault of her developmentally disabled client known as D.J. and recently lost her appeal—Singer and McMahan find that she had every reason to believe D.J. wanted her to have sex with him because he didn’t struggle or resist. In fact, the pair characterizes her beliefs that they were in love and that he wanted her to have sex with him as sincere, and “she was neither reckless or negligent in forming them.”
Singer and McMahan rightfully raise questions about D.J.’s cognitive abilities and potential agency to have consented to sex. Many disability advocates have made the same arguments, and the ACLU filed an amicus brief on their behalf. But this op-ed goes on to argue that the absence of the ability to give or withhold consent creates a vacuum that opens the door to sexual assault. At no point do Singer or McMahan consider the idea that the inability to give consent is therefore an implied lack of consent. Rather, they immediately proceed as if the issue of consent simply can’t be settled. These types of assumptions perpetuate rape culture, and systems of oppression that unequally target disabled people in particular.
It only gets worse from there. Singer and McMahan argue that it was “reasonable” for Stubblefield to assume the sexual assault was pleasurable to D.J. because he didn’t struggle. The authors never raise the idea that victims can be too terrified to resist, the fact that Stubblefield was in a position of authority over him or even that D.J. might simply have been unable to physically fight back due to his disability. It’s important to note that the only “proof” that D.J. didn’t resist is what Stubblefield herself relayed to the court.
Singer and McMahan argue that D.J. couldn’t have sustained harm from being sexually assaulted because his cognitive impairments precluded him from understanding the depth of what had been done to him. In the absence of harm to D.J, and the presence of pleasure to Stubblefield, Singer and McMahan conclude that her sexual assault was a moral act. By the same logic, if a pedophile enjoys raping an infant who can’t struggle or comprehend what was done to her, that act would also be a moral one.
When your moral framework can be used to justify rape or sexual assault, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. The “happiness” of a rapist can never be used as the excuse for rape, and it should be clear to even the casual reader that Singer and McMahan’s moral philosophy lacks the type of nuance one would expect from leaders in ethical theory, much less any real understanding of rape and consent. Yet their op-ed was published in one of the oldest and most respected newspapers in the country. Clearly, they aren’t the only ones who have an understanding gap.
Consent, much like a contract, requires a clear “yes” to be valid. If someone is incapable of expressing their enthusiastic agreement, using whatever communication methods or devices are available to them, they can’t give consent and their consent can’t be assumed. Full stop. When Singer and McMahan removed consent from the equation, allowing its lack of existence to be excused, their analysis fell into the same old rape culture tropes. They, and The New York Times, must do better.
Singer and McMahan might be surprised to discover that not all disabled people are miserable. Many of us are leading deeply-fulfilling lives, and we don’t cede the decision whether to kill or rape us to people with greater physical or mental capabilities. A culture that promotes violence against people who are perceived as “weak” has a perception problem, and isn’t what most people would consider a happy place to live. The power of our suffering, on any scale, outweighs the satisfaction that perpetrators gain by abusing us—regardless of our individual disabilities.
I don’t know how much agency D.J. has or to what degree he was capable of giving Stubblefield his consent, or expressing a lacktherof. What I do know is that rhetoric that excuses rape and violence against disabled people under the guise of ethics isn’t morality at all. If Singer and McMahan are serious about leading a life rooted in happiness for the many, they should start by listening to the outcry their words have spurred in the disability community. They owe D.J., and all of us, an apology.
Photo credit: The New York Times