A small point of interpersonal morality.

We recognize the notion of “emotional abuse” as a non-coercive form of mistreating other humans. Well, it is sometimes non-coercive: for surely, emotional abuse can be committed in relationships that the victims cannot leave (children being emotionally abused by parents), or cannot leave easily (married couples). But it surely also can be committed in relationships that the victims can leave: non-married romantic partners can emotionally abuse one another, work colleagues can emotionally abuse one another, friends can emotionally abuse one another.

If that’s true, then it must be that emotional abuse is not excused by the “consent” that might be imputed to the victim who doesn’t simply flee the interaction. The victim may complain of being abused even if the victim could have fled, because the wrongfulness of the abuse isn’t essentially in the avoidable harm, but in the perverse state of mind and choices of the abuser. (Sorry, consequentialists. The sort of cases where we don’t blame the person who had the “last clear chance” to avoid a consequence pose you some minor problems. Though they are minor.)

Thus, suppose Jack and Jill are in some kind of non-coercive interaction, and Jack treats Jill badly over an extended period of time, but Jill is too timid or deluded to leave the interaction. When Jill comes to her senses and accuses Jack of mistreating her, it would rather miss the point for Jack to turn around and say that Jill should take some responsibility for her own life.* That’s not a contribution to the answer to the question “did Jack do wrong to Jill,” that’s a contribution to the answer to the question “did Jill screw up with respect to Jack.” It is perfectly possible for the answer to both of those questions to be “yes.”

Yet we hear this sort of thing all the time. It strikes me as being of a kind with the crude “you shouldn’t have dressed like a slut” sort of victim-blaming that goes on in rape cases, only slightly more subtle, appearing in, for example, dime-store existentialist cant about the victim’s “agency.”


* It bears some resemblance to the tu quoque.

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