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Rape: Notes Toward a Moral Ontology of the Body

Thursday Lecture Series, Violence and Critique

dateApril 1, 2010 timeThursday, 12:15pm EDT location The Heyman Center, Columbia University

The ambition of Professor Bernstein’s talk was to examine the precise nature of the moral harm of rape. Surprisingly, standard moral theories—Kantian deontology and Utilitarianism—fail to capture the awfulness of rape: the former fails because it can do nothing with the idea of rape as a violation of bodily integrity; the latter, because the awfulness of rape depends not on the physical pain caused, but on its being a violation of the victim as a person. The moral injury of rape, in other words, is its injury to the standing of the victim as a person (an end-in-itself in Kantian jargon).

The bodily experience of invasion decimates the moral body: the body as bearer of personhood, the body as morally bound. As a consequence, it imposes on the victim the apparent necessity to absorb and make a part of her self-consciousness the revelation of that devastation. It is because of this fact that rape is routinely trauma-inducing. Rape can have these consequences, however, only if the bodily self is constituted by social practices of recognition: one is a person only if one is recognized as a person by proximate others.