PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Friday January 23, 2015




[3.3.] Another Illustration of MCR: Rape as the Responsibility of the Victim.


Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Mulsim who is now an activist for women’s rights and an outspoken critic of religion and of Islam in particular. She was born in Somalia and spent her childhood there, in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. She was forced to undergo excision (female genital mutilation) at the age of five. This was against the wishes of her father, but it occurred when he was in prison for his political activity in Somalia—her traditionalist grandmother was responsible for Hirsi Ali having the procedure.


In her memoir Infidel (2007), she writes about the religious education she received as a teenager living in Nairobi, Kenya:


I found it remarkable how many esteemed Muslim thinkers had philosophized at such length about precisely how much female skin could be bared without causing chaos to break out across the landscape. Of course, almost all these thinkers agreed that once a girl reaches puberty, every part of her body except her face and her hands must be covered when in the company of any men who are not immediate family, and at all times outside the home. This was because her bare skin would involuntarily cause men to feel an uncontrollable frenzy of sexual arousal. But not all thinkers agreed on exactly which parts of a woman's face and hands were so beguiling that they must be covered.

Some scholars held that the eyes of women were the strongest source of sexual provocation: when the Quran said women should lower their gaze, it actually meant they should hide their eyes. Another school of thought held that the very sight of a woman's lips, especially full ones that were firm and young, could bring a man into a sexual state that could cause his downfall. Yet other thinkers spent pages and pages on the sensual curve of the chin, a pretty nose, or long, slender fingers and the tendency of some women to move their hands in a way that attracted attention to their temptations. For every limitation the Prophet was quoted.

Even when all women had been covered completely from head to toe, another line of thought was opened. For this was not enough. High heels tapped and could trigger in men the image of women’s legs; to avoid sin, women must wear flat shoes that make no noise. Next came perfume: using any kind of pleasant fragrance, even perfumed soap and shampoo, would distract the minds of men for Allah’s worship and cause them to fantasize about sinning. The safest way to cause no harm to anyone seemed to be to avoid contact with any man at all times and just stay in the houses. A man’s sinful erotic thoughts were always the fault of the woman who incited them.[1]


MCR implies that there is no objective truth about whether rape is the moral responsibility of the rapist or the victim—there is no objective truth about the morality of rape that applies universally, to all societies.

·         In some societies, such as ours, it is believed that it is the rapist who should be blamed for committing a rape.

·         In other societies, it is believed that rape is the fault of the rape victim and thus she who should be blamed.

If MCR is true, neither way of thinking about rape is objectively better or worse than the other. We believe one thing, they believe another, and that’s all there is to be said about it.



[3.4.] A Full Statement of MCR.


Moral-Cultural Relativism (MCR) is an ethical theory consisting of a group of separate claims (from EMP pp.16):

1)      Different societies have different moral codes [i.e., different collective beliefs about morality].

2)      The moral code of a society determines what is right within that society; that is, if the moral code of a society says that a certain action is right, then that action is right, at least within that society.

3)      There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one society’s code better than another’s. There are no moral truths that hold for all peoples at all times.[2]

·         This is another way of stating “full blown” moral skepticism—so MCR includes full-blown MS as one of its claims; in other words, MCR is a form of full-blown moral skepticism.

4)      The moral code of our own society has no special status; it is merely one among many.

5)      It is arrogant for us to judge other cultures. We should always be tolerant of them.


These five claims are independent of each other. It is possible for some to be true and others not.



Stopping point for Friday January 23. For next time, (1) read King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (RTD ch.31) and then finish reading EMP ch.2 (sections 2.5 through 2.9).



[1] Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2008, p. 110, emphasis added.  For more information on Ali, see her page at the American Enterprise Institute web site, URL = <> (accessed January 20, 2015), and the website of the AHA Foundation, URL = <> (accessed January 20, 2015).


[2] Strictly speaking, the claim is really two different claims: 1) there is no objective moral truth,  and 2) there is no universal moral truth. Objectivity and universality are not the same thing. It is possible for morality to be objective but not universal (e.g., if there are things that are objectively right for one group of people but objectively wrong for another) and it is possible for it to be universal but not objective (e.g., if morality is determined solely by what people believe about morality, but everyone happens to believe exactly the same thing about morality, like that it is wrong not to care for one’s children).

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