Todd Akin Shows Us How Morality Distorts Reality

An examination of Akin's remarks through the lens of moral psychology.

Posted Sep 22, 2012

By Alek Chakroff and Liane Young

Representative Todd Akin's remarks have been dismissed as false and inflammatory, but his remarks provide an instructive lesson in cognitive psychology, revealing the radical ways our morals reshape our perceptions of reality. 

Here is Akin’s statement: “If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” In other words, when a woman is forced to have sex against her will (“legitimate rape”), her body becomes non-receptive to the sperm, lowering her chances of pregnancy.

In constructing this biological account, Akin reveals a bug in his psychology. To understand this bug, let’s talk business. Suppose a CEO makes a business decision that will increase profits but hurt the environment. The CEO, however, doesn’t care about the environment. Did he intentionally hurt the environment? For many, the answer is yes. Now suppose the CEO makes a business decision that will increase profits but also help the environment. Again, he doesn’t care about the environment. Did he intentionally help the environment? This time, for many, the answer is no. Joshua Knobe and others have found that in general when people find someone to be morally blameworthy (e.g., for hurting the environment), they also assume that the blameworthy action was intentional and freely chosen. Akin sees abortion as morally wrong, and those who want to get abortions as morally blameworthy. Since “rape victims who want abortions” are still “people who want abortions,” they must be blameworthy. Akin supposes they must have consented to the sexual encounter, just as people suppose the CEO must have intended to harm the environment.

Akin suggests further that consent has biological consequences – “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” This move may seem outrageous, but it highlights the impact of our morals on our perceptions of reality. Let's move from business to medicine. Jonathan Phillips (and one of us, Liane Young) presented people with the following story. Suppose the chief of medicine asks a doctor to inject morphine into terminally ill patients, facilitating their death to make space for more patients. Did the chief force the doctor to do this? Many say “yes.” But, was the doctor forced to do this? Many say “no.” He was free to do otherwise. These answers reveal a paradox: The chief forced the doctor, but the doctor was not forced by the chief. Focusing on the chief leads us to blame the chief for what happened, but focusing on the doctor leads us to blame the doctor – surely he could have chosen to do differently. Moral blame can alter our perception of even the causal structure of events, and in Akin’s case the biological structure.

Akin fell prey to this psychological bug not once but twice. Akin changed his perception not only of the psychology but also of the biology at stake. Rape victims seeking abortions must have freely consented to the sex because if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t be pregnant. By this logic, any rape victim seeking an abortion was not raped at all.

Finally, what did Akin mean by "legitimate rape?" Akin’s biological account rests on the idea that some cases of rape are more “real” than others, and that a key distinction between the “real” rapes and “fake” rapes lies in the intent of the victim during the event. Akin may have based his idea of “legitimate rape” on a sort of rape archetype: a young woman attacked by a complete stranger in a dark alleyway or parking lot. Joshua Greene and Fiery Cushman have shown that some kinds of harm seem more like “real” harm than others. For example, pushing someone off a bridge feels more like harm, compared to pushing a lever that pushes someone over the edge. The same may be true for rape. This time, the problem is not the fact that Akin has a “rape archtype” (we probably all do). The problem is that Akin did not treat this archetype for what it is: a single example from an unfortunately diverse set of possible sexual assaults. Instead, Akin may be allowing himself to redefine more cases of rape as illegitimate based on his moral stance on abortion.

Akin's remarks provide an interesting case study into the strange depths of moral psychology. We perceive some violations as more “legitimate” or prototypical than others. We reconstruct reality to accommodate our moral judgments. The extravagance of Akin's statement robbed it of any legitimacy, making Akin an easy target for ridicule. We should remember, however, that we may all be guilty of changing our reality to fit our morality. And we might benefit from shining a spotlight on some of our own moral distortions.

Co-author Alek Chakroff is a doctoral candidate in psychology at Harvard University.