"no harm, no foul"
Saturday, August 30, 2003
THOUGHTS ON EMOTIONS: I’ve just finished re-reading the (long) first chapter of Martha Nussbaum’s book, “Upheavals of Thought.” In that chapter, and in the rest of the book, she argues for an account of what she calls “emotions as judgments of value.” Now, I take this thesis in its general form to be true, even to be obviously true: there’s a cognitive component to our emotions, which reflects our evaluations of objects in the world. The thing I’m curious about is whether the cognitive component actually exhausts what emotions are, which is what Nussbaum suggests. On its face, this thesis seems extreme – certainly emotions without feelings aren’t really emotions at all; we’ve left something important out if we say that. But Nussbaum gives a very complex account of the exact cognitive content of the emotions (how they involve the imagination as well as propositions about the objects, etc.) which, in its sophistication shows how her thesis might very likely be true. I have two worries, however.
First, we might run a thought experiment against Nussbaum, similar to the one David Chalmers runs against Daniel Dennett. We might imagine, that is, that there could be something like “emotional zombies” who had all the cognitive content related to a particular emotion, say love or grief or fear, but who nonetheless lacked affect, and so did not really feel emotions at all. (Chalmers' thought experiment is that there could be zombies who we like us in all physical and behavioral respects, but who nonetheless were not conscious).
Nussbaum, on my reading of her, would be committed to saying that the zombies in fact did have the emotions (as Dennett is committed to saying that the zombies are conscious). I find this to be implausible, because it seems to me that there could be emotional zombies who were cognitively identical to a person with an emotion, but would still not feel anything, making him unlike the person who did have the feeling (in addition to the relevant judgments).
Of course, this is only my intuition, and the zombie thought experiment only an intuition pump. Nonetheless, it might encourage us to give something like “affect” a place in our account of the emotions, by which I mean an independent place – independent of the cognitive content of any particular emotion. We might be moved to say, as Nussbaum records Michael Stocker as saying, that “affect” is a primitive concept, unanalyzable in terms of cognitive content, but which goes alongside it when we explain what emotions are. I am wary of such arguments, and Nussbaum is as well. But I think without positing “affect” as a primitive, we risk losing an adequate description of the phenomena. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that we can say nothing about affect, only that it resists a reduction to the cognitive. To further explore affect, we would have to proceed, I think, by contrasting it with belief (which Nussbaum also does, though in a way unfavorable to treating emotion and belief as distinct).
Second, while Nussbaum’s account of the emotions might work well with some types of therapy, i.e., psychoanalytic or cognitive-behavioral, I wonder how it would handle psychopharmacology. The thing about traditional therapies is that they do seem to work with a patient’s beliefs. So, on a crudely Freudian picture, you go back and find out what past events your present day emotions are linked to, and you work through them. On the cognitive behavioral account, you work to identify your negative and pessimistic thoughts, and to combat them by looking at them more realistically. But what about taking a Prozac, and having this change your emotional outlook? Doesn’t the fact that one might change one’s mood by taking a pill every day say something about how emotions work, that they might not solely be a cognitive affair?
Friday, August 29, 2003
INTEGRITY AS A VALUE: Is there any value to integrity, discernable apart from, e.g., the cause one is committed to, or the beliefs one strives to uphold in the face of adversity? I’ve been thinking of this question lately, in regard to those who are protesting the removal of the Ten Commandments monument from an Alabama courthouse. Isn’t there something admirable about those who are resisting the monument’s move, even if we might (as I do) disagree with them about whether such a monument in a public place is a good idea? Don’t they embody the value of “standing for something” or “sticking up for what they believe in”?
This particular question is part of what might be considered a skepticism about “formal virtues.” We might ask the same sort of question about the virtue of courage, e.g., whether there is anything admirable about being courageous in defense of a bad or wicked cause. And the question here, framed more generally, would be about whether there was anything intrinsically valuable about just being courageous, of facing down danger. Courage, isolated like this, is what I’m calling a “formal” virtue, because we’re considering it apart from the content, viz., what one is being courageous about.
I’m inclined to think that there is no intrinsic value to the formal virtues – that integrity or courage are on their own valuable, that is, valuable abstracted from any specification about what one has integrity about, or what one is courageous for. There are two ways of putting this point. The first way is to say just what I said, that courage is only valuable when one is, e.g., courageous in fighting an evil cause, and standing down danger in defense of that cause. The same thing with integrity: it’s only valuable when one sticks up for what is genuinely right and good. When you stand up for something wrong, or trivial, or misguided, your integrity isn’t admirable. So we might say that the protesters in Alabama have integrity, but that in itself doesn’t make them worthy of admiration. There’s nothing intrinsically good about their integrity, because they’re standing up for bad beliefs (about the relationship between church and state, about whether America is a “Christian Nation”).
But there’s a second way we can put this point, which I tend to favor. We can say that words like “courage” and “integrity” are words that are only properly applied when the cause they are in the service of is right and good. In cases where the cause is bad, courage and integrity aren’t demonstrated – rather, courage in support of an evil cause is “zealousness” (or something like that); integrity in standing up for a bad belief is “stubbornness” or even “pigheadedness.” On this reading, the content of the virtue in question affects whether or not we call it a virtue. Put another way, there’s no neutral virtue of “integrity” which someone might have, which can be abstracted from the content question of whether the cause the person is standing up for is good or not. The broader point might be that we can’t define the virtues as virtues apart from a conception of the good.
Tuesday, August 26, 2003
PUBLIC REASON AND RELIGION CON’T: Lawrence Solum has an excellent long post on what Eugene Volokh has recently written on religion in the public square. Although I only skimmed Volokh’s post, my sense was that he didn’t adequately take into account the fact that some religions (I’m thinking especially of Catholicism here) have a natural law/natural reason tradition – so that certain moral prohibitions can be based on grounds accessible to all, through the light of natural reason. This is what distinguishes, in the Christian Ten Commandments., those particularly religious commandments (about worshipping idols, e.g.) and those which have more obviously moral content (e.g., prohibitions against murder, adultery, theft). My sense is that many theologians believe they are making a moral, and not a specifically religious, case against homosexuality: this is why it’s OK to discriminate against gays and not Hindus, because we can show, through natural reason, why homosexuality is bad – but the incorrectness of Hinduism is only showable via appeal to revelation, the truth of which is not rationally provable (though it can be shown to be consistent with reason).
But Solum has a number of interesting things to say about public reason, two of which I want to comment on.
First, is public reason an ideal or a norm? Solum writes that “public reason … helps to define an ideal of good citizenship, of what it means to be a good citizen in civic solidarity with fellow citizens.” This makes it sound as if giving public reasons is not strictly speaking an obligation people have, but more like a virtue – so that we are better people if we give public reasons, but this is not strictly morally required of us.
At the same time, Solum ends his post with the claim that giving nonpublic, sectarian reasons as a basis for the criminalization of homosexuality “violate an important norm of political morality.” I think Solum would be wise to stick to the talk of public reason as a norm, rather than public reason as an ideal, this both for exegetical reasons (if we’re in the business of interpreting Rawls, my feel is that this is closer to what Rawls actually says) and because it seems that one is unjust if one imposes one’s will on another for reasons he can’t reasonably be expected to accept. I see why Solum might want to use “ideal” talk: the norm of public reason is not, as he says “a law,” so it’s not something we are going to legally enforce. But this doesn’t mean that giving public reasons falls to being merely a “good thing.” Rather, giving public reasons, at least on some issues (“constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice,” according to Rawls) is a moral duty each of us has to one another, qua citizens of a well-ordered society.
(An aside: I do think it is an ideal, the ideal of civic friendship, to be sincere in offering the public reasons one does. That is, one shouldn’t give public reasons that support favored policy X if one doesn’t, oneself, believe in the validity of those public reasons. Again, this is an “ideal” not enforcable by law – there’s nothing criminal about offereing insincere public reasons. Still, one is being less of a “good citizen” when one passes on public reasons – even objectively valid ones – that aren’t truly your own.)
Second, I still find myself stumped in trying to figure out why the religiously devout person, as a general matter, has a good reason that is not a merely “prudential” reason for (in Solum’s words) “affirming the principle that law should be justified on the basis of public reasons.” The disconnect I feel here is that whereas the liberal will be concerned with what is “reasonable” the religiously devout person will be concerned with what the truth of the matter is. It’s certainly the case, as Solum points out, that we need to do a lot of digging into particular religious traditions to see what tenets that have internal to their belief systems that might allow them to be good political liberals. So, for example, some churches might have no problem with homosexual conduct (cf. the recent developments in the Episcopal church). Still other religious may believe that (as Solum puts it) the “inherent dignity and worth of the individual” means not interfering with his non-harm causing choices, and so on this basis will oppose laws that would criminalize homosexual conduct.
But it strikes me that we need to go on a case-by-case basis here. It’s not outlandish to think that protecting a person from his own homosexual inclinations might be respecting his dignity as an individual – by getting him to move away from disordered to ordered sexual activity (i.e., marriage and procreation). Some passages in Paul, it seems to me, strongly suggest this. In any case, the problem is that “inherent worth and dignity” is an extremely formal notion, that can be filled in by almost any sort of content – including illiberal content.
I want to get back to my general point, about the difference between wanting to base policy on what is true, rather than what is reasonable. Solum writes that, “if you would not want to live in a society where law was justified based on the sectarian premises of a faith that is alien to your own, then you have good reason to affirm the principle that law should be justified on the basis of public reasons.” Now, my question is what kind of reason this “good reason” is. If I am a person with a “comprehensive religious theory of the right on the good,” then I certainly won’t want to live in a society that governs according to a faith that is alien to my own.
But if I believe my comprehensive religious theory is true, it doesn’t follow that I should refrain from giving my reasons and for hoping that they will someday be a basis for policy – unless, for purely prudential reasons, I believe that this would hurt my political standing (or worse). That’s because my religious truths are not just mine; they are God’s. If I’m this type of devout religious believer, the distinction I’m interested in is not between reasonable and unreasonable, but between true and false – and I will see no moral reason for assenting to a regime governed by principles which I deem to be false.
The lesson here is that there will be some forms of religious belief, viz., those that do not, internally subscribe to some fundamental norms of political liberalism, that will be unwelcome in a politically liberal regime (though they might be grudgingly tolerated). But didn’t we know this already? I don’t want to say that political liberalism and public reason are notions inherently at odds with religious belief, but it is certainly the case that, for the most part, only liberal religious denominations will be comfortable living in such a regime. So I conclude with the points that (1) if discrimination against gays can be given only a religious, and not a moral basis, (2) if a religious tradition does not have political liberal norms internal to it that will give it a reason not to want to discriminate against gays, then (3) members of that religious tradition have no general moral reason to subscribe to the norm of public reason when it comes to discrimination against homosexuals, although it may have a prudential one.
A note on free faith: Solum relies a lot on the idea of “free faith” as a way religious traditions can give a reason, a religious reason, for tolerating those of other religions. The free faith concept, as I understand it, is that genuine religious belief can only be had when a religious believer freely assents to the religion. We’re supposed to derive from this concept the idea that you can’t be coerced into religious belief. But it seems to me that these two things are analytically distinct, (1) real religious belief is religious belief freely entered into, and (2) one ought to tolerate other religions.
For one, there are a whole lot of things, short of outright physical coercion, that may make people more likely to assent to religious belief. Take early religious education, for example: we might see this as setting the stage (the necessary prerequisite) of later, freely assented to religious belief. To be sure, we can’t force real religious belief, but there are many other things we can force that may make it much more likely that one will, in the long run, give one’s free assent to the true religion. As a matter of fact, coercing one to outwardly conform to a religious belief may lead to one, later on, to accept that religion as your own. (More generally, the lines between a religious belief that is freely entered into, and one that you are socialized into accepting, seems to me a very fuzzy one).
Second, it may be that outward conformity to religion, even if it doesn’t lead to true, free, belief, can still be a good. So we might want to enforce that, to support some other (perhaps a moral) good, even if by enforcing outward conformity to religion alpha, we’re not getting people to actually believe in the religion in question. So for example, if we think homosexuality a disordered form of sexual conduct, we might criminalize it, and thereby realize a good for the homosexual – even if by coercing him we’re not getting him to act for the right reasons. At least we’re getting him to act rightly
Monday, August 25, 2003
MORAL REASONS, AND RELIGIOUS REASONS: A few places in his recent (I should say, recently translated) book, “The Future of Human Nature,’ Jurgen Habermas tries in various ways to translate certain religious claims into moral ones – or more generally, give a secular gloss to some religious terms. This isn’t just an idle exercise: certainly, one wants to say that the great religious of the world were on to something, even if we can’t accept that “something” in the form in which they present it. Moreover, and perhaps a bit cynically, it is undeniable that religious language has great rhetorical force – and if we can preserve that force, while at the same time giving those (religious) claims a more acceptable grounding to us secularists, so much the better.
The locus classicus of this type of “translation” perhaps comes from Kant, who said that we could think of the moral law as also and at the same time a set of “divine commands”; a gloss which suggests that the true content of divine commands was, all along, the moral law. He also suggests, in the Groundwork, that Jesus was the Holy One, precisely because he lived up to the imperatives of the moral law. A little after Kant, Feurbach was to do this type of translating in spades, by suggesting that all references to God are really just tacit references to human powers, or human wishes and hopes.
The passage in Kant’s Groundwork shows the trouble of this type of translation, however. Kant writes that even Jesus himself had to check with what the moral law said (going through the universalizability tests, for instance) before he acted rightly. So the authority of Jesus qua moral teacher is only the authority of Jesus qua follower of the moral law. Kant also writes, in his Religion with the Bounds of Mere Reason, that we can’t possibly think that the command of God to Abraham to kill his son was really a command from God – God would never command a thing so contrary to the moral law.
But saying things like this just begs the question of whether religion is itself an independent source of claims, that Jesus, for example, is himself the source of what we ought to do, rather than just a personification (the most perfect one, to be sure) of the Moral Law. More specifically, moral translations of religious claims ignore the possibility that their might be specifically religious goods which will sometimes conflict with the realization of moral goods – and to say that they can’t, that we have to dismiss religious claims that conflict with moral ones really just assumes away the possibility of those religious goods.
I used to think that giving moral readings of religious texts was a way to preserve religion (and perhaps paying it a sort of compliment) by getting at its essence or its moral core and so enabling it to survive in a “postreligious” climate. I thought, to use Hegel’s word, that we could “aufgehoben” religion – canceling it in one sense, keeping it and perhaps raising it to a higher level in another sense. But now I think this can’t be done, because by translating religion this way we are in fact eliminating it, by getting rid of the possibility that religious claims might have their own, independent source, and that they might be tied to their own specific set of goods. It is not a way of complimenting religion, but instead constitutes a sort of condescension – by claiming to know what religion was “really” all about in the first place, while at the same time denying religion any sort of independent validity.
I’m tempted to say that if we think religion has no validity, we should just say it. And we should say that although certain religious myths may have a moral meaning, that meaning has to be separated from the stories that surround it, and put on a different footing. “Translating” does nobody any good – it insults those who are genuinely religious (and so believe the myths to be much more than myths), and it intimates that perhaps there is no independent ground for our moral claims apart from the religious contexts in which those claims are found and gain a lot of their resonance. At least, this is what I’m tempted to say.
Friday, August 15, 2003
MUCH ADO ABOUT ALIENATION: I haven’t read Audi’s book, which Nate Oman discusses at his blog. But I’d be surprised if Audi uses the notion of alienation Oman attributes to him – an empirical notion, which tracks the “actual, subjective, reactions of citizens.” Let me first contrast this “subjective” idea of alienation with an objective one, which I think is plausible; then I’ll say why only the objective idea is suitable for political decision-making.
First, is alienation only plausibly construed as a matter of subjective feelings? Or can we be alienated from something (the good, some aspect of ourselves) without knowing it? It strikes me that we can be objectively alienated, that is, be alienated, without actually feeling alienated. Indeed, though I’m no Marx expert, it seems the case that the proletariat can be alienated from their “species good” without knowing it – indeed, they might feel perfectly happy, which is what makes their alienation from their true good so poignant: their non-recognition of their alienation is a sign of how deep their alienation is. False conciousness, anyone?
More generally, I think we can (and do) sensibly talk about people being alienated from their good, or their rational nature, or their true selves. We can look at a person who wastes his life away, debauched, and speak of a way in which he is alienated, although he himself is perfectly satisfied with where he is. He is alienated from his good as a human being; he’s not living an objectively good human life. We say to him, “You’re not living a life fit for a being endowed with reason” (or something like that). Perhaps we can even reason him into a recognition that the life he is living is objectively deficient. But it doesn’t seem to me that his recognition that he is not living a good life (viz., a life befitting a human being) is a condition of his being alienated – that would be to say that one can only be alienated if one feels or thinks one is, which is what I’m suggesting isn’t necessarily the case. (At the same time, it may be the case that in order to legitimately coerce somebody, you have to be, in principle, able to rationally persuade the other person that he is in a state of alienation from his good, his rational nature, etc.)
So I take we have two notions of alienation, at least, that we can work with. The question now is, which notion is the one most relevant to talking about policy? I think it’s pretty clearly the objective notion: we should worry about creating the social conditions where people aren’t objectively alienated. It may be that even when these conditions are in place, people will still be alienated (some people are never happy, no matter what you give them), but that’s not the state’s legitimate concern.
If Audi is using the subjective sense of alienation, then I agree with Nate: he’s made a mistake. But the fact that he talks of “fully and rationally informed consent” as being the standard (i.e., only politics that you would agree to if you were fully informed and rational are non-alienating) makes me think he’s using the objective one. So what he’s talking about is not the feeling of alienation, but being alienated from your rational nature, where “being alienated from your rational nature” is an objective standard – i.e., you can be alienated from your rational nature without subjectively feeling alienated.
There is another possible way out for Audi, even if he’s using the subjective standard. He may be making a claim either that (1) empirically, the only time people feel alienated is when they are rationally alienated, or (2) conceptually, that the only “true” alienation is alienation from one’s rational nature. This is possible, but strained. As Nate’s Shakespearean examples show, alienation as a subjective feeling can have all sorts of sources, and it’s artificial to say that some of these are alienation and others aren’t. So the principle of charity leads me to attribute the objective concept of alienation to Audi, since that gives him the stronger argument. But perhaps I should read the book first.
THE ANALYTIC PHILOSOPHER’S CREED: This, from reading introduction to Robert Brandom’s book “Tales of the Mighty Dead”:
Faith – in reasoned argument
Hope – for reasoned agreement
Clarity – of expression.
(And the greatest of these is clarity.)
Wednesday, August 13, 2003
IMPROBABLE ARGUMENT: I read this in the most recent issue of the Atlantic Monthly, in a story by Paul Davies. I’m mystified why he thinks this is a good argument, or even an argument at all:
“Many scientists believe that life is not a freakish phenomenon (the odds of life starting by chance, the British cosmologist Fred Hoyle once suggested, are comparable to the odds of a whirlwind’s blowing through a junkyard and assembling a functioning Boeing 747) but instead is written into the laws of nature. ‘The universe must in some sense have known we were coming,’ the physicist Freeman Dyson famously observed.”
To begin with the parenthetical is extremely misleading, because it makes it look like some real argumentative work is being done: that we get from extreme improbability to necessity (“written into the laws of nature”). But there’s no entailment between these two notions in the least. An analogy is helpful here: it is extremely improbable that you, the very person you are, ever got born into existence. Consider not only the odds of your parents’ meeting and having you, but also the odds of the particular sperm cell that ultimately became you meeting up with an egg. And reiterate this process over and over again, to your grandparents having your mom, and your dad’s grandparents having him – and your grandparents’ grandparents having them, etc. etc. In short, it is extremely improbably that you exist at all! Was your existence written into “the laws of nature”? Sorry, no. In fact, you are a “freakish phenomenon.” Sorry again.
The idea behind this argument is that when the numbers get too large, chance ceases to be a plausible explanation. So we need another explanation – and here we invoke God or “intelligent design” (science talk for God) or something like the “anthropomorphic cosmological principle” (science talk for something-I-know-not what). But in fact we don’t need another explanation, we just need chance plus time, and a sufficiently expansive imagination (so that we don’t take the improbable to be the impossible)
And since we’re talking about the very existence of the earth, we’ve got plenty of time. There might have been millions, maybe trillions, maybe more, of botched “attempts” at life (quotes here because no one was attempting to make life), until it so happened that people like us were born and starting running around the earth. Life, it turns out, is just a happy accident – something “incidental” and not “fundamental” to use the terms Daives does later on in the paragraph. Indeed, it strikes me that taking Darwin seriously means not being able to give content to the distinction between what is “incidental” and what is “fundamental” in nature. Saying that human life, or even life itself, is “fundamental” is just a complicated and very misleading way of patting ourselves on the back.
META-REFLECTION ON SEXUAL ETHICS: I’ve not read much of the sexual ethics literature, but what I have read of it is pretty poor (by “sexual ethics literature” I’m not referring to some specifically feminist literature on sex and rape, etc. much of which is very good, and extremely practically useful). My sense is that there’s a back and forth going on, between certain religious fundamentalisms and their views on sex, and an extreme libertarian line on sex, which says that if it’s consented to, it’s OK. This leads to a pretty sterile debate, where on the one hand, you’ve got an actual ethics of sex (say, the Catholic Church’s position) but which seems both morally objectionably and dependent upon a weird metaphysics. On the other hand, you’ve just got a very thin, very legalistic, type of ethic – not really and ethic at all – which leaves out any ideas of ethically “good” or “bad” sex and instead appeals solely to the consent of both parties.
I think we need to work on a middle ground. What the Catholic Church, e.g., gets right is that there do exist ethical standards of sexual conduct, beyond merely questions of consent. The problem is that the fundamentalist religious view tends to be dominated by the idea that to go wrong on certain matters of sex is, how should I put this, an absolute wrong, rather than the failure to live up to an ideal. Thus one could imagine a toned down view of the orthodox Catholic position on gay marriage which said something like: gay marriage is permissible, it’s not to be outlawed or even frowned upon, but nonetheless it is deficient in a way, because it can’t meet up to the true ideal of marriage, which is to be in a procreative relationship with a member of the opposite sex. In other words, marriage between a man and a woman is held up as marriage’s perfection, but this doesn’t entail that other forms of marriage need to be sanctioned, or banned, etc. So there’s not a bright line between good and bad, with straight marriages on one side and everything else on the other, but a kind of hierarchy, which straight marriage on the top, and gay marriage a little below.
In fact, I don’t think gay marriages should be looked at as deficient, as failing to live up the one and only sexual ideal, but rather trying to live up to a different ideal, of life long partnership. So we have competing ideals, rather than one ideal that’s obviously superior to another. And note that once we start looking at things in an “ideal” based way, rather than a right-wrong way, we can get away from the lefty based picture where only consent matters. In a weird fashion, the libertarian scheme merely gives a negative of the religious fundamentalist scheme: where you’ve got a bright line between what’s consented to (which is OK) and everything else (which is not OK). But there are lines to be drawn within what’s consented to, so even if we want to take consent as the legal standard, which we probably should, it shouldn’t be the ethical one – because there’s a lot of consensual sex which is still extremely ethically deficient (say, sleeping around). Such sex is permissible, but it’s not especially good; and you can be faithful to the law, but still be a really rotten person. In sum, consent matters, but it’s only the beginning of the story.
Two caveats, and potential objections to what I’ve said: (1) From the left, we might worry that there are a lot of different ways of sexual expression, each of them potentially satisfying, and to start drawing lines within types of consensual sex is to risk frustrating the diversity of sexual pursuits – of legislating what is good and bad sex based on some subjective notions, and of presuming to know what is pleasurable for other people. I concede the point, but also think that there are nonetheless some commonsensical, intuitively plausible lines that can be drawn, at least for starters. We just need to be careful, not to refrain from drawing lines altogether.
(2) From the right, it might be argued that certain forms of sexual life, e.g., sustainable life-long marriages, depend not just on legally available options, but on a certain cultural climate – say, if divorce becomes too easy, this may endanger a lot of marriages that otherwise might have lasted through some tough times. Examples could be multiplied. I don’t know what to say to this. It strikes me that this is the case. But it’s also the case that some arrangements cause suffering to some (say, the couple that would benefit from a divorce), and so reform is prima facie warranted in these cases. To repeat an oft-repeated phrase: there is no social life without loss.
DISCONNECT: I can’t cite many specific examples, but I seem to have noticed a pattern in how George Bush responds to criticism of his policies – he treats it as if it’s an attack on his character, as if the person criticizing his tax plan, say, is saying that he (George W. Bush) is a bad person.
The best example I can think of this is during the 2000 debates, when Gore criticized Bush for not funding a children’s heath program in Texas. Bush responded along the lines of, “What? You think I don’t care about children? Because I do, I have compassion for them, I have a heart.” I guess Gore was disarmed by this, because he didn’t directly respond (he repeated the criticism). Anyway, my sense is that a lot of Bush’s reply to criticism of his economic policy is: “You don’t think I care about the jobless? I want them to have jobs.”
There’s this eerie disconnect that’s going on here – as if Bush weren’t President, as if he were merely an ordinary citizen being asked about whether he felt bad about people not having jobs. But the fact is that he is President, and he does have control over some economic factors (not all, admittedly) and so it is a reflection on his character if he passes policies that don’t help, or even harm, workers. Is it somehow a low blow to say this?
Sunday, August 10, 2003
RELIGIOUS PLURALISM: What kind of normative weight does the fact that most people usually adopt the religion they were brought up in have? People may change denomination here and there, but for the most part, if you’ve grown up in the west, and end up adopting the tenets of some religion, it’ll be Christianity. Same thing with Islam and the Middle East, and so on with other religions and other parts of the world.
What does this show? The one interesting problem it raises is “religious luck.” If it turns out that one of the religions is the true religion, then it does seem to be a matter of luck whether one is raised in a country or region that has the true religion or not. Of course, one might say that, e.g., it is possible that one learn the tenets of Christianity wherever one is. But to do this in the climate where the dominant religion is other than Christianity is difficult – not to say impossible, but still difficult. And so again, luck rears its head, because it’s a matter of luck whether one will be born into the right religion or will have to work to learn it (whatever it is).
Does religious pluralism count against the rationality of religious belief? I’m not sure. One wants to say that it does, because it seems that what religion you believe in is more a product of where and how you were raised, rather than what you’ve been rationally led to believe. It doesn’t seem to be primarily, or only, the fact that most religious Americans are Christian because they have rationally argued themselves into that faith. Instead, it seems more a product of socialization.
But I worry about going down this road, because a lot of what we believe is the product of socialization, and I don’t want to say that merely the fact of socialization makes a belief illegitimate. We’ve been socialized into a lot of moral norms (maybe all of them), and not rationally persuaded of them. Still, this doesn’t by itself make those moral norms ones we should give up.
And also, there remains the fact (trumpeted by Alvin Plantinga) that if your religion is the true one, how could it be irrational to believe in the truth? That there are many religions doesn’t make it unreasonable or irrational to believe in a particular one, if you believe that your religion is true. It just commits you to believing that the other religions are in error.
So I admit to being stumped. I want to say that religious pluralism in the sense I’m talking about here, does undermine the rationality of religious belief, but my epistemology says it doesn’t.
GAY MARRIAGE, CON’T: There was a minor flap in Chicago recently about a headline in the Chicago Sun-Times that read, “Vatican launches global campaign against gays” – in the bold-faced, tabloid style that the Sun Times has adopted of late. The accompanying story was about the statement released by the Vatican which came out against gay marriage (or as they like to put it, gay “marriage”) and gay couples adopting children. The Chicago Cardinal, Francis George, in a sermon last week, lashed out against the paper, saying the headline was untrue; George also said he wrote a letter to the Pope, apologizing for the headline.
Now, one understands the worry George has here, at least one thinks one does. He doesn’t want it implied that Catholicism is hostile towards gays, or condones violence against them, or that the Catholic church hates gay people. But it still remains the fact that the Vatican is against offering certain benefits to gays because they are gay, and so is in this sense “against” gays as a class.
But it gets worse. The language of the Vatican statement on homosexual unions is extremely hostile. It talks of legislation supporting gay marriage as “the legalization of evil” and says when gays adopt children, this would mean “doing violence” to those children (because it would place them in “an environment that is not conducive to their full human development”) which would be “gravely immoral.” In a nice touch, the statement refers to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, the drafters of which I imagine were not thinking of gay couples adopting children at the time. This is far from, as George says, “a statement about the nature of marriage.” It strikes me as an attack on gays.
I think it’s fine if the Catholic church wants to uphold its ideal of marriage in a religious context, and refuse to give a blessing to those unions it considers suspect, whatever they are. But this has to be separated from the bundle of civil benefits one gets if one is married, and also one’s ability to adopt (supposing that one is a fit family, which is an empirical question in any case). The quest for these is different, and ought to be treated as different, than an attack on any particular religious idea or ideal of marriage. There’s a failure to make an obvious political distinction here.
Tuesday, August 05, 2003
GAY MARRIAGE: I’ve been reading a few conservative magazines the last few weeks, trying to discern the argument against gay marriage. I’ve routinely been stumped by the claims of John Finnis, Robert George, et al. about homosexuality, and thought I’d try harder to understand the conservative point of view this time around (the arguments of Finnis have, to my mind, been best characterized by Richard Posner, who says that “they sound as if they’ve been poorly translated from the original Latin”).
So here’s my best shot. The function of marriage is procreative – to have kids, and to raise them. Now, it’s true that we allow elderly people to marry, and also people who are infertile. But these at least symbolically embody the ideal of marriage, even if they can’t embody the ideal. Marriage between two members of the same sex doesn’t serve this symbolic function, because there’s no way men or two women can have kids (leaving out adoption). At least a man and a woman have the right equipment, so to speak, even if the equipment isn’t working properly or at all. And I imagine also working in the background is the idea that children, to be properly raised, need both a mother and a father, a masculine and a feminine influence.
Now, at first blush, this type of argument seems to put a whole lot of weight on biology, or as some like to put it, “the natural teleology of the body” and also on the “essential” differences between men and women. But this aside, I find myself at least able to grasp the sense of conservative arguments against gay marriage, and why they think it would transform our understanding of that institution, by making it more an institution geared towards mutual commitment rather than the bearing and rearing of children.
The trouble is, a whole lot of other things have transformed our understanding of marriage and its function. Birth control, for example, which severs the link between sex and procreation. Or divorce, which makes permissible a child not being raised in a home with a father and a mother. And so on.
It’s sometimes said that marriage is in such trouble now that adding gay marriage risks ruining the institution altogether. But it seems to me the rot, if it is rot, is already occurring within the context of heterosexual marriages. And it strikes me that if we deny gay marriages, then, in principle, we’re going to have to go back and deny a whole lot of other things, like divorce and birth control. Catholics on this point, should be praised for their marvelous consistency, if little else. I believe it’s a refusal to face the implications of a denial of gay marriage that leads so many politicians to return to those tired refrains that “marriage is by definition between a man and a woman” and that “traditionally, marriage has always been between a man and a woman.” If we got into the “why” question, as in, “why should marriage be thought of this way?” we’d get into messy questions of procreation, etc., and we’re quickly down a slippery slope to unpopular political stances.
I think defenders of gay marriage, of which I count myself one, should be up front that what we’re proposing is a transformation of marriage, to make explicit what seems already implicit in the way we do think about marriage: that it is a contract between two people, and has at its essence an idea of mutual, life-long commitment, with or without children. Talking about gay marriage is, in a sense, hijacking the word “marriage” – and suggesting that we conduct an experiment to see what life would be like consistently looking at marriage in this new (actually not so new) way.
THE RANDIAN ARGUMENT: Nate Oman, at goodoman, makes a slam on Randians, but as far as I can tell, his is mainly a rhetorical criticism (which I think is plainly correct: Nietzsche does the sort of thing Rand does much, much better. As Nietzsche himself put it, “I say things in a sentence that it takes others a book to say – indeed, more than a book!”).
Anyway, I thought I’d help Nate out here, and give him a few arguments, free of charge (and which I hope aren’t merely ways of falling back on the “Judeo-Christian” ethic that Nate cites in passing). I’ll admit up front to not basing my arguments on anything Rand says, explicitly. I’m more concerned to diagnose a mood, which comes through quite well in the quote Nate posts on his page from Capitalism magazine (is there really such a magazine? Oy.), so I’ll refer to the “Randian” point of view, rather than to Rand herself. I have never been captive to the Randian style of thinking myself, considering it mostly an adult expression of teenage angst. But I know a lot of smart people who admire Rand, and many more who have gone through a “Randian” phase. So who knows.
First, though, there’s a tension between the two strands in Randianism, on display in the quote from Capitalism magazine: there’s the (1) “the do what you want to do, there being no other standard besides what you want” strand of ethical egoism, and there’s the (2) the “strong should prevail, so quit holding us back weak and poor people” strand. It’s hard to reconcile these two strands, as can be seen by the fact that it may be that what many, many people want to do is to help the weak and poor. That’s your right, if it’s what you want to do.
If we separate the strands, we get either an ethical egoism or a sort of social Darwinism. The problem with ethical egoism can be put succinctly in a question: what makes you special? That is, by virtue of what should your interests trump the interests of others? To reply to this that your interests are special because they are yours is to make a claim everybody else can make, because their interest are theirs, too. Unless you give some basis why your interests should carry more weight in this instance, you’re just falling back on a sort of racism, a racism of one, a “meism”: you’re saying that because you possess some arbitrary characteristic, the characteristic of being “you,” your interests trump everybody else’s.
If we go the social Darwinism route, then there isn’t one big problem, but a lot of little problems. The main problem is trying to figure out what exactly “stronger” means, and why we should allow the stronger to do what they want, come what may, and no matter what the weak think. There’s a curious paradox, also, in noting that in all these declamations of the weak, the Randian (again, no textual reference, I’m diagnosing a mood) seems to concede that the weak have seized power that rightfully belongs to the strong. So have the weak become strong? (One gets this curious feeling from reading Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals that he kind of admires the priest-class, for pulling the wool over the eyes of the stronger, for being just so clever).
Finally, although I’m not sure how much weight to give to this kind of argument, I do find it appealing: if you say that the strong should dominate the weak, then you’re committing to saying that if you become weak (or are weak), then it is permissible that you be dominated. I don’t know that if anyone agrees to this, he’s contradicting himself, but it would sort of give me the creeps if anyone assented to being dominated, should he ever become weak. I think he’d have a pretty poor idea of what he’s worth. And this may reflect a general failing of the Randian argument – of failing to recognize the independent worth of persons, strong and weak.
Sunday, August 03, 2003
THE SOURCES OF VALUE: How could it be that in addition to things being of instrumental value, there might also be things of intrinsic value in the world? Intrinsic value doesn’t seem the sort of thing we could bestow on an object, just by calling it “intrinsic.” People, we don’t think, have intrinsic value (if they have intrinsic value) just because we think they do; they have it no matter what we think about them. But then where, barring a theological source, do persons get their intrinsic value?
What does it mean to have intrinsic value? This is actually a hard question, because it’s not at all clear what it means. Similar questions could be asked of other labels, like “dignity” or “sacredness.” What does it mean to have these properties? (Or: what does it mean to have these properties, absent a theological context?)
The best way to proceed is probably by negation. To have intrinsic value (or to have dignity) is not to be liable to be used in certain ways, to be treated as an ends and not merely as a means to the satisfactions of others. The “liable to” is important here. It’s not that to have an intrinsic worth (or dignity, etc.) is that you will never be used for the satisfaction of others; it’s that if you are so used, something bad had happened, you have been wronged by being treated inappropriately given your status as a person.
So having intrinsic value is in a way reducible to being treated in certain ways by other people. But it is not reducible to how people actually treat you, because they could treat you in all sorts of ways unbefitting your status as a person. What having intrinsic value means is that people ought to treat you in a certain way, a way that, roughly, corresponds with your status as an end (what this will mean in particular circumstances will have to be spelled out, but I take it that we can at least roughly grasp a distinction between being used merely as a means and being treated as an end).
The condition of there being intrinsic value in the world, say the intrinsic value of persons is that there be a moral system in place that says people ought not to be treated in certain ways. This sounds like it gets things backwards. Shouldn’t it be a condition of there being intrinsic value in the world that there are actually things that are intrinsically valuable?
The way I’m putting things makes it seem like that by our choice of a moral system we can bring certain sorts of beings into the world – and thereby make the world an intrinsically better place! (This is how F.M. Kamm draws out the point.) If we can get over the idea of choosing one moral system over another, then the idea that one moral system could make the world more intrinsically valuable might give us a reason to favor that moral system.
Again, this tends to sound like wishful thinking. But if we define being intrinsically valuable as “ought to be treated in certain sorts of ways” then there’s no paradox in saying that a given moral system might create beings with a special status, given what it says about how we ought to treat them. In fact, this way of looking at “intrinsic” has its advantaged. It seems to leave out any spooky metaphysics, by cashing out the existence of intrinsically valuable objects by relating them to a certain form of treatment. But it still preserves the normative force of “intrinsic” by not reducing it to how people (for example) actually are treated. I like that.