Phil Robertson’s Argument from Rape

Introduction: On March 20th, 2015, Phil Robertson spoke at an event known as the Vero Beach Prayer Breakfast in Florida. The Duck Dynasty star is an outspoken evangelical Christian who has espoused right wing political views on a number of occasions. Robertson’s talk included an elaborate rape fantasy which soon generated a great deal of controversy.

The full speech can be heard on True News. Critical Responses can be found on Right Wing Watch as well as a number of other sources. The excerpt used below came from Time Magazine.

Key Facts: Most of Robertson’s critics have focused on questions about his representation of atheism, it should be noted that the purpose of his speech is to show that faith in God is central to morality. The passage presented below follows a reading of comments from the psychologist Orval Hobart Mowrer. Mowrer’s comments had focused on the effort to eliminate the concept of sin from psychology, efforts Mowrer appeared to regard as unsuccessful (at least as Robertson quotes him). Robertson provides no source citation for the Mowrer quotes which he finishes up by noting that Mowrer committed suicide. (The implication appears to be that Mowrer’s work in secular psychology led to the suicide. This narrative would be complicated by Mowrer’s own embrace of Christian messages.) Robertson’s overall point thus advances the general notion that all moral consciousness stems from acceptance of Jesus. Robertson further asserts that a broad range of worlds views are simply attempts to escape this fact. His remarks about atheism must be taken as a sub-argument toward this larger conclusion.

Text:

I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’

ANALYSIS

Comments: The central argument of this passage is folded into a story. It may be best to group much of the details of the story into one statement.

Statements: I am grouping most of the story scenario itself into one single claim. I’ve tried to isolate the rest of the claims made in this argument below and presented them in bold. No effort was made to clean up the punctuation after doing so, and various bits and pieces that don’t contribute to the logic of the argument are left dangling, so to speak. Anyway, here it is!

***

I’ll make a bet with you.

[1] Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say,

[2] ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged?

[3] Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this?

[4] There’s no right or wrong,

now is it dude?’

[1] Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say,

[5] ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this?

But you’re the one who says

[6] there is no God,

[4] there’s no right, there’s no wrong,

so

[7] we’re just having fun.

[8] We’re sick in the head,

have a nice day.’

***

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Indirection, interactional eclipse, paraphrasing, reduction ad absurdum, redundant assertions, rhetorical questions, straw man, and voicing.

Indirection and Interactional Eclipse: Most of the controversy over this passage has bypassed any straight-forward evaluation of Phil Robertson’s argument to focus on questions about why he would want to field such an elaborate rape fantasy in the first place. This does not exactly go to the logic of the argument, but it is a perfectly legitimate question.

Such imagery is likely generate significant (negative) emotional response. When delivered in person, an argument portraying someone as the victim of graphic violence serves to intimidate or anger its target, so much so that any rational dialogue is likely to end. But of course Phil Robertson isn’t exactly talking to atheists. He is speaking to an audience of believers (though his speech was recorded and hence shared with a wider public). This illustrates a common feature of Christian apologetics, namely its use of indirection. Phil frames his argument as one against atheism, but it is actually an argument intended for an audience consisting primarily of true believers. It’s probative value as a means of furthering debate with unbelievers thus takes a back-seat to its value as a message to the faithful, and any adverse reactions by atheists would thus have little meaning to Phil or his audience (except perhaps for the side-benefit of generating Schadenfreude.

In the end, we are left with a kind of rhetorical pornography, an argument that plays ironically to the prurient interests of its audience without doing much to advance the soundness of their position.

Paraphrasing: The argument requires some paraphrasing to piece together. Three rhetorical questions require rewording (see below) and the opening teaser line needs some fleshing out. I’m inclined to see it as a reference to statement number 5. If you were to finish the thought, I think it would look something like this:

[5] [Atheists will object to the actions taking place in this story.]

Reduction as Absurdum: The overall structure of the argument is that of a reductio. Phil Robertson doesn’t attend much to the details, and hence his sub-deduction leaves a lot to be desired, but it would seem he is trying to show us that atheism leads to a contradiction of sorts.

Redundant assertions: Claim number 4 is made twice. Robertson further alludes to claim 5 at the outset of the argument, though he only makes the claim explicit later in the argument,

Rhetorical Questions: Claims 2, 3, and 5 actually take the form of questions. The following revisions may be used in order to transform them into statements.

[2a] [It is] great that I don’t have to worry about being judged?

[3a] [It is] great that there’s nothing wrong with this?

[5a] [There should be] something wrong with this?

Straw Man: The most common complaint relating to the logic of this argument is that Phil Robertson has misrepresented atheists to the degree that he assumes all atheists reject the notion of moral values. There are of course a good many atheists who would object to the notion that there is no right or wrong, and they would object strenuously to the notion their own views amounted to such a position. From this standpoint, Robertson’s argument misrepresents atheism. It isn’t even particularly subtle about it.

It should be noted that Christian apologists often field a somewhat more moderate version of this argument by suggesting that atheist may be moral and decent people, but that they are unable to provide an adequate philosophical basis for any moral attitude they may have. Phil’s argument seems to share in this approach at least to the degree that he makes little effort to base his position on the claims of actual atheists (though his Mowrer quote seems to provide a token effort along these lines). In the end, this simply isn’t Phil Robertson’s approach. he isn’t merely suggesting that atheists lack for a sound philosophical account of their morality. His argument explicitly attributes to atheists claims rejecting moral values.

Although there are certainly atheists who also reject morality altogether, Phil Robertson is wrong to equate this position with atheists in general. His argument is accordingly a pretty clear case of a straw man.

Voicing: This argument contains voicing insofar as the rapists in his story appear to be speaking for Phil himself. Their words constitute his argument. Hence, the characters in the story provide a voice for the author of the argument.

Diagram: It’s tempting to abandon the hope of diagraming this argument. Aside from the lack of explicit explicit reasoning indicators Phil Robertson does seem to jump around a bit. I think I can make sense of the general flow of ideas here, but this seems to rely on more imaginative reconstruction than I would prefer. It isn’t entirely clear for example just what Phil thinks is a reason for what, or more importantly, whether he distinguishes some of these propositions from each other at all. That said…

The key to the argument here is to remember that Phil is attacking the moral sensibilities of atheism. The whole narrative is a reduction ad absurdum directed against those sensibilities, so we begin with the core assumption to be refuted (claim number 6). Phil seems to derive two specific consequences from this, that there will be no consequences for bad behavior (claim 2)and that there is no right and wrong (claim 4). Phil thus infers from claims 3 and 4 that there is nothing wrong with the behavior in the story (claim 3) and that it should be construed either as mental illness (claim 7) or mere fun (claim 8). He then assumes that an atheist will want to object to the behavior anyway (claim 5), thus refuting the initial assumption (number 6) which he started with.

Back of the envelope alright!

Back of the envelope alright!

Evaluation: I’ll just call attention to a few problematic steps in the argument. Note that it is in claims 2 and 4 that the Straw man mentioned above enter Robertson’s argument.

A) The inference from 6 to 2 is weak at best. Without God, people may still be accountable to other people and/or social institutions.

B) The inference from 6 to 4 is likely nil. If absence of a a God entails a lack of moral values, Phil Robertson has done little to show this. Of course that is the point of the overall argument, but the presence of that notion here as an assumed basis for the inference in question would do little but make this a circular argument. In any event, the inference from 6 to 4 lacks force.

C) The inference from 2 and 4 to 3 is strong to deductively valid insofar as it would be difficult to imagine how general statements about the lack of moral values or consequences would be reconciled with the notion that there is something wrong with the specific behavior in the story. (The problem of course lies up above in the diagram.)

D) The inferences to 7 and 8 are a little beside the point. Each is little more than an elaboration of the main point which is contained in claim 3.

E) The final inference to a rejection of statement 6 is weak. At best Phil Robertson’s argument would establish a desire to believe in god, perhaps even a need for such a being in moral philosophy. It would not prove that such a being does exist.

F) Ultimately, the argument is unsound. Atheism does not logically entail the nihilism Robertson associates with it, and the moral problems Phil advances would not prove that atheists were wrong to reject belief in God if he had establish them properly.
Final Thoughts: Some might think it unwise to treat such an argument as worthy of analysis. At this point, I’m not entirely sure that they are wrong.

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One thought on “Phil Robertson’s Argument from Rape

  1. Pingback: Want to Listen to Gay Porn? Listen to a Homophobic Crusader! | northierthanthou

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