The Ethicist: Am I Wrong to Believe My Friend Is Innocent of Rape?

November 25, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Am I Wrong to Believe My Friend Is Innocent of Rape?”.

One of my closest friends was accused of raping a fellow student in college. There were no criminal proceedings, and he has always maintained his innocence. In the years since, he has not been accused again. I know nothing about the woman who accused him other than what my friend has told me about her — or about what happened, other than what he has told me — and having not been in the room with them, I must live with the fact that the truth is in some respects unknowable. I have chosen to believe him, largely because I do not think raping someone is in his character, but I am also aware that, statistically, false allegations of rape are rare. With this in mind, is it ethically wrong to choose to believe my friend? Name Withheld

My response: There is no book in the sky or other measure of absolute right, wrong, good, bad, or evil that 7.6 billion people will agree to. If there were, you would have consulted it, gotten your answer and wouldn’t have had to write here. There isn’t, so you did.

You ask what’s ethical. Since everyone has different values, you’ll just get a label that not everyone agrees on. I suggest you want not a label but a practical plan to resolve your situation as best you can by your values and the values of others affected as best you can tell using empathy and projecting possible outcomes.

I searched “innocent until proven guilty” and found this passage in Wikipedia, which you may find relevant.

The presumption of innocence is the principle that one is considered innocent unless proven guilty.

In many states, presumption of innocence is a legal right of the accused in a criminal trial, and it is an international human right under the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 11. Under the presumption of innocence, the legal burden of proof is thus on the prosecution, which must collect and present compelling evidence to the trier of fact. The trier of fact (a judge or a jury) is thus restrained and ordered by law to consider only actual evidence and testimony presented in court. The prosecution must, in most cases prove that the accused is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. If reasonable doubt remains, the accused must be acquitted.

The New York Times response:

Is it wrong to believe your friend? Suppose you decided that it was. The trouble is, you can’t just decide to disbelieve him now — because you didn’t exactly choose to believe him in the first place. What people believe is not under their voluntary control. But there are things you can do that might, in the end, affect your belief.

Reviewing what you know, you could try to engage in “reflective equilibrium,” adjusting discordant beliefs into some sort of coherence. You could attend to the strength of your previous assumptions: How probable would you find a rape accusation in general? (A 2010 study of sexual-assault reports in a major Northeastern university over a 10-year period coded only about 6 percent as false claims, although the authors suggested the baseline was between 2 and 10 percent.) You could delve into the social-psychological literature on character and conclude that ascribed personality traits are less predictive than you had thought. After all this, you might come to think that your earlier response was biased — historically, women who make rape accusations have often faced skepticism and worse — and you might no longer credit your friend’s claim of innocence. Investigating further what happened at that college might deepen those doubts — or, alternatively, eliminate them. It can be morally wrong to fail to look into something. It can’t be wrong to believe what the available evidence suggests.

I said that it can be morally wrong to fail to look into something. Is this one of those cases? Let’s suppose that, by doing so, you convinced yourself that he did something that meets the legal definition of rape. Now what? Even assuming that the statute of limitations hasn’t expired, you can’t get him punished for it: That would be up to the survivor, who isn’t likely to think that settling your scruples is something to spend time on and may not want it brought up again anyway. It isn’t for you to intervene in her life in order to salve your own conscience. And of course, you haven’t proposed doing so. Your real concerns are interior: what to think, whom to believe.

Your obligations would be different if you thought he posed an ongoing risk. But you clearly think otherwise, and let’s suppose you have grounds to be confident of this. If he really poses no further risk, then, on this hypothesis, you’d have a friend who did something very wrong some years ago but has never done so again. Paradoxically, had he been punished, after a finding of guilt, and shown remorse, you might have reason to show clemency. Instead, as you indicate, you’re trying to live with uncertainty, with the prospect of a close friend who may have done something abhorrent. And that friendship is what’s ultimately at stake here. Are you condoning his past behavior if you don’t cut ties? The very fact that you’re struggling with this issue suggests that the answer for you is no. Not all values are moral ones, and in ways that can vex and perplex, human relationships involve unbidden currents of affection, loyalty, intimacy and care. In the Faulknerian formula, “You don’t love because: You love despite.”


I recently learned that a friend of mine was asked to babysit for the sick child of a woman who had to work that day but was unable to find another sitter. My friend babysat and two weeks later came down with the flu, which is known to be potentially harmful to the elderly. The woman did not believe in vaccinating her child, and she failed to inform my friend of this decision, thereby putting her at risk. The ethics of this woman’s not informing my friend of her decision to not vaccinate her child against the flu is not, however, my question.

As a potential grandparent who has seen a few conflicts between grandparents and parents about the parents’ child-rearing decisions and practices, and one who is a firm believer in staying out of the child-rearing decisions and actions of one’s adult children, my question concerns the ethical choices available to grandparents whose adult children choose not to vaccinate their children against potentially dangerous and even lethal childhood diseases. How does the right of grandparents to protect their grandchildren from potential harm fall relative to the right of parents to raise their children the way they see fit, even if it involves potential harm to their children? Name Withheld

My response: You’re framing your question around rights, but I wouldn’t look to police and courts to resolve issues within families. I would categorize this situation as a problem-solving, not an ethics, issue.

Abstract questions of philosophy won’t resolve this issue as effectively as adopting a problem-solving approach. Practically speaking, resolving a conflict between parents and grandparents in how to raise children is an issue of how to lead people, meaning you want to improve your leadership if you’re asking about yourself. If you’ll allow me a quick analogy, if you want to learn to create art, taking academic classes in art appreciation may help you appreciate art others made but not to create it. You have to practice, starting with the basics.

Nearly every resource I’ve seen on leadership is leadership appreciation—that is, books on principles and such that help you appreciate others’ leadership but not to lead. To learn to lead you have to practice, starting with basics.

To answer your question on how to lead people, I recommend my book, Leadership Step by Step, which gives you exercises to practice the skills of leadership, not just to appreciate others’ practice. You have to do the work of the exercises, not just passively read it, but what expressive or performance-based practice can you learn without work?

I’m not just plugging my book. I wrote it because nothing existed to give you experience and skills, not just appreciation.

Unit 4 covers what you want, though I’d start at the beginning and do the exercises in order.

The New York Times response:

First, the background facts. The C.D.C. estimates that since 2010, an average of 42,000 people in the United States have died annually from flu, with a record of 79,000 in 2017-18 (the mortality varying with the severity of the virus and the effectiveness of the vaccine). There’s a strong scientific consensus that we’re better off if people over the age of six months are vaccinated for the flu, assuming they don’t have a medical reason to refrain. Yes, there are dissenters on the web, on this and every other subject. But it’s significant that a vast majority of children killed by the flu were unvaccinated.

I doubt your friend fell ill because of the sick child you mention; the typical incubation period for the flu is only a couple of days. But because people are contagious before they are symptomatic, avoiding people who already have flu isn’t a guarantee of safety. This is a particular issue with older people, which is what many grandparents are, because they’re more susceptible to serious consequences from the flu virus. So a parent has a reason to vaccinate his or her kids for the flu, because doing so reduces the likelihood both that they’ll get sick and that they’ll make others sick.

What role should grandparents play when the issue of their grandchildren’s vaccinations comes up? When it comes to vaccines for childhood diseases, like measles and mumps, they should certainly offer their best advice, pointing out the sorts of things I’ve been pointing out — and emphasizing that, unlike the flu vaccine, which must be given yearly, vaccines for common childhood diseases provide decades-long immunity and help reduce the possibility of harmful, even lethal, outbreaks. But in our society, we leave the ultimate responsibility here in the hands of the custodial parents. And, once family and friends and medical establishment have given them their view, it’s up to those parents to decide. They should tell you, though, if they decide not to vaccinate their children. During flu season, it might affect how much time you want to spend with them.

Read my weekly newsletter

Lsbs book

Subscribe for a weekly update of musings on leadership, the environment, and burpees.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Sign up for my weekly newsletter