Rape, right or wrong? Depends on how you define rape, you might say, Very well, define it how you like. Now answer the question: right or wrong?
Here is what science tells us about rape. It occurs more often at this time of day than at that time. It is, science might say, more likely to be perpetrated by a person known to the victim than a stranger. Women in the years from twenty to fifty have a better chance of being raped than women younger or older. Women commit rape at rates less than men. Rape is common in prisons of a certain sort. Men will rape women and other men. Rape in times (so-called) pre-historic, rape accounted for some non-negligible proportion of births.
When a woman is raped, she undergoes the following list of traumas, some physical, some psychological. These traumas will very in severity based on this set of circumstance. Pregnancy via rape occurs at such-and-such a rate, depending on these mitigating factors. Women who are raped abort their babies this number of times more than women who conceive absent rape. The children produced from rape are like compared to children conceived in absence of rape. Women almost always view their rapists in a negative light, but sometimes this emotion softens over time, as in the case of the Sabine women. Some, both men and women, submit to rape in order to avoid more drastic violence, like a beating or a murder. Some submit to rape because of blackmail.
Men rape for the following reasons, and women for these. The observed rates of these reasons varies according to this formula, which accounts for a given set of circumstance. To prevent rape or to greatly reduce its likelihood, follow these guidelines. Men who are convicted of rape are seen to serve the following sentences. The punishment women rapists face differs in this and that degree, and matching here. A man who has raped before is this much more likely to rape again, and that much for women recidivists.
Now all these rates, proportions, severities, lists, circumstances, mitigating factors and so forth, can be quantified to various degree, some being fairly certain, some carrying substantial doubt. The list of subjects tracked and observed can be added to or subtracted from. Predictions can be made based on the uncertainties in any of these things, and these predictions can be verified. The models responsible for the predictions can tweaked, fixed, abandoned, or be validated.
But here is what science says when asked whether rape is right or wrong. Nothing.
Whether rape is moral or immoral, good or sinful, legal or illegal, is not something which can be decided by science. Science, you will recall, tells us what is or what might be about the contingent. It never says what should be.
Now rape occurs at a rate of x per 1,000 (this figure is also conditional on some set population). Does that mean rape is x/1000% moral and 1-x/1000%? That implies if we found ourselves in a (let us call it) robust land where there was lots of rape (x is large), then rape would be akin to speeding on the freeway. Such “lands” exist, for instance in countries beset by large-scale war. Rape is war is mostly good, not evil. But then in a quiescent land, where x=0, a rape, should it occur, would be infinitely bad.
Women rape at rates less than men. Is a woman caught raping guilty of a lesser crime because women on the whole rape less than men? This would be like saying a Dane who murders is guilty of a lesser crime than a United States citizen who murders, because Americans murder with more frequency than the Danish. The exact severity of the crime in either instance can be quantified (to whatever degree) based on some function of the observed rates.
Maybe rape is wrong because it can cause “unwanted” pregnancies? If that is so, women cannot be guilty of rape, and neither can a fertile man having unwanted sexual intercourse with a pre-pubescent girl or a post-menopausal woman be considered rape. Either way, that a pregnancy is not desired is not a scientific question. Whether human desire can be crudely quantified is a scientific question; whatever that quantification is is not.
Yet rape is good way to pass on genes. A man who can successfully rape lots of women heightens his chance of passing on his genetic material. And does not science say that the “goal” of life is to pass on genes? If so, then whatever boosts the opportunities of sexual transmission is good. The more a man can rape, and not be prevented in doing so, say by being restrained, the better his actions are. This is tricky because having acting towards a “goal”, or rather calling that goal good, is extra-scientific; it is itself a judgment. One might say that rape is not good for the species as a whole, perhaps arguing that the rapist cannot care for his progeny adequately. But the good of a species, whether that species thrives or expires, is again a judgement and is not scientific.
This exercise can be continued for every trait thought related to rape, and the answer will be the same in every instance. Science cannot extrapolate from the observation to morality. And there is another difficulty, Even the list of traits thought related to rape is not free of moral judgment. A man is convicted of statutory rape. “But judge,” he pleas, “She told me she was sixteen—and just look at her!” Whether the judge is right to consider this a mitigating factor, and whether he alters his judgment based on that factor, is also not a scientific question, even though science can (perhaps) quantify how likely fifteen-year-old girls pass for sixteen.
Two choices are thus possible. If ones want to swear allegiance to reason and science only and to nothing else, then one has to admit rape is not wrong, and it’s not right, either. It just is. Worse, it depends on a subjective definition, which itself has no scientific bearing. Rape happens, and that is that. Even the word rape is a prejudice. Some people have sex in this way and some in that, and that the best that can be said. This view is scientism, the argument that only scientific judgments count. Yes, science will say, some people claim rape is wrong, evil, or sinful. But that is merely yet an another emotion that can be quantified. One can make decisions based on the measurement of these emotions, of course. Don’t try to have this kind of sex in this place, because the natives will call it “rape” and punish me. But the desire not to meet this punishment is itself not a scientific judgment; it itself is only another prejudice. Indeed, every action you—or anybody—takes about anything is prejudice and wholly arbitrary.
The second choice is to look outside science, to philosophy, metaphysics, and religion. There why rape is immoral can be discovered. This is acknowledgement that science cannot provide the answer. Rape really is wrong because of a principle derived or deduced from these areas of knowledge. How to make these deductions is non-scientific, although science, via observation or projection, can inform these deductions. Science is not useless in deciding morality because we all these deductions move from the observed to the principle. But the deductions and derived principle is not itself scientific.
Rape was chosen as an example because it so obviously wrong.