Quick Thoughts 19: Homosexuality and the Universalization Argument

Until recent times, theists have been able to rely on the public to oppose gay marriage for religious (God says no) or just-so (It’s just wrong) reasons.  Now that many religious people have come to accept gay marriage either because they see nothing wrong with it or because they do not want to impose their religious beliefs on others, theists who oppose gay marriage have lost much of their support.  And now that people in general–and young people in particular–expect better arguments than “just because,” these theists have had to try to engage with the secular world on its own terms.  This means identifying the harm that gay marriage does to individuals, families, and our society; showing that said harm outweighs the good of gay marriage; explaining why other unions or behaviors that may do harm are not illegal; and so on.

They clearly struggle with this line of reasoning, often bringing up wholly unrelated matters (divorce) or technically unrelated ones (adoption by gay parents) and citing dubious studies with results that are not consistently reproduced.  This is to be expected from people who took for granted that people would continue to accept their baseless moral code.  But I want to call attention to another popular argument, often used in conjunction with the naturalistic fallacy, that goes something like this:

Premise 1:  The human race ought to continue to exist (i.e. to reproduce).
Premise 2:  If we were all homosexual, we would be unable to reproduce.
Conclusion:  Therefore, homosexuality (or at least homosexual behavior) is wrong.

Of course, the conclusion is used to condemn gay marriage as well.

In terms of logical validity, the argument is fine.  But that is literally the only good thing that I can say about this argument.

Problem 1

The idea that evaluating the consequences of a behavior if everyone engaged in it is proper moral reasoning is absurd.  Consider:  if everyone decided to become a plumber, no one would be able to do anything else.  But we do not therefore say that no one should become a plumber.

Or consider an analogy that might hit a little closer to the theist’s home:  if everyone decided to become a priest and thus be chaste, the human race would die out as surely as (in fact, more surely than–see problem 2) it would if everyone were homosexual.  Does this mean that there should be no priests?

Problem 2

Premise 2 is false:  reproduction requires neither heterosexuality nor sexual intercourse.  As long as a sperm meets an egg and the resulting zygote develops in the proper environment, we will produce more humans.  If we were all gay and we wanted our species to continue to exist, we could easily make it happen.

Problem 3

No matter how popular the first premise might be, it is not a given.  If humanity died out, there would be no people to mourn its loss.  Our species is not an entity capable of thought, feeling, or desire anyway.

This is the quality of secular argument that one can often expect to get from someone whose primary motivations are religious.  When asked why murder or theft or fraud is wrong, I suspect that most people would first appeal to harm, not God or the soul.  So when someone first appeals to God or the soul in support of his position on an arguably less obvious moral issue, it should be no surprise when his secular arguments are poor.


Filed under Bad Religious Ethics, Quick Thoughts

Quick Thoughts 18: Archie Bunker and Modern Conservatives

I have a family member who, despite seeming intelligent and reasonable in other matters, occasionally posts conservative memes and videos on Facebook that show a remarkable lack of understanding of liberal positions.  Many of us know someone like this, but yesterday he shared a video and caption that surprised me.

The video is set up so that President Obama gives part of his speech and Archie Bunker responds with something relevant.  Here’s one example that really stood out:

Last month we marked the eighth anniversary of the attacks on 9/11.  And on that terrible day when terrorists brought so much death and destruction on our shores and so many lives were lost, many of you were the first on the scenes, saving lives, working tirelessly to bring those responsible to justice, and guarding against future attacks in subsequent weeks and months and years.

Now I wanna talk about another thing that’s on everybody’s mind today and that’s your stickups and your skyjackings.  Which, uh, if that was up to me, I could end the skyjacking tomorrow.
You could?
All you gotta do is arm all your passengers.  Your skyjacker knows the passengers are armed, and then he ain’t got no more superiority there, he ain’t gonna dare to pull out no rod.  And then your airlines, they wouldn’t have to search the passengers on the ground no more; they just pass out the pistols at the beginning of the trip, and pick ’em up again at the end.  Case closed.

The caption shared with the video reads:  Archie Bunker.  Correct then.  Correct now!

The creator of Archie Bunker intended, at least in the beginning, for the titular character to be an unlikeable parody of conservative bigotry and foolishness in the 1970s.  Instead, he became popular.  That what was thought to be an unlikeable parody of conservatism in the 70s is still praised today, 40 years later, is ridiculous.  But I shouldn’t have been surprised:  these are the people who make up a party that favors Donald Trump for president.

I wonder if, forty years from now, conservatives will be praising South Park‘s Eric Cartman.

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Fiorina and Faith

The Republican strategy to win elections is apparently to alienate some Americans to win votes from other Americans who would have voted for them anyway.  I’m all for it.

Today’s (more accurately:  yesterday’s) example is from Carly Fiorina:

I think people of genuine faith, whatever their faith is–I’m a Christian–but people of genuine faith, I believe, make better leaders.  And I don’t say that with disrespect to anyone, but I’ll tell you specifically what faith gives a leader. 

I believe faith gives us empathy.  A person of faith knows that no one of us is any better than any other one of us.  Each of us are created by God.  And that empathy permits us to see, in someone’s circumstance, possibilities. 

Faith gives us humility.  Humility is really important in a leader because it is humility that causes a leader to say, “Sometimes I must be restrained.  Sometimes this is not something I should do.  Sometimes this is something I don’t know.  Sometimes I need to seek wisdom and counsel from others–perhaps, for example, the citizens of this great nation.”  Humility is important in leadership, in a leader. 

And finally, I think faith gives us optimism.  And you cannot lead effectively–which, in the end, leadership is about unlocking potential in others–you cannot lead unless you know that people will rise to the occasion, that there is a brighter future in front of us if we will do the right things.

Let’s dissect it!

1.) “people of genuine faith”

I am not sure what she means by genuine faith.  I suspect that she is pulling a No True Scotsman here to separate religious beliefs like hers from religious beliefs like those of Muslim extremists, otherwise she would have to concede that faith doesn’t give us the qualities that she lists.  Of course, there are conservative Christians who would dispute the authenticity of liberal Christian faith and liberal Christians who would dispute the authenticity of conservative Christian faith, so I’m not sure that the distinction is very useful.

2.) “I don’t say that with disrespect to anyone,”

Fiorina said, disrespectfully.  And it is disrespectful because there is a very easy way to make all of the points that she did without needlessly alienating atheists:  she could have just told us how her faith has given her the qualities that she lists.

3.) Faith gives us empathy, humility and optimism

Since she started out by distinguishing leaders with faith from leaders without it, the implication here is that people without faith lack empathy, humility, and optimism.  Apparently, all atheists (and inauthentic believers) are cynical, arrogant psychopaths and all of the “genuinely faithful” are empathetic, humble, and optimistic.  An insulting humblebrag!

4.) “A person of faith knows that no one of us is any better than any other one of us.”

This must come as a shock to a party that routinely belittles the poor, non-Christians, illegal immigrants, intellectuals, and so on, all while touting its piety and moral superiority.  Perhaps she means that her god loves us all equally, but that doesn’t seem to translate into any specific human behavior or public policy, which are what actually matter.

5.) Humility leads to restraint and acknowledgment that one needs help from others

I agree, but I’m curious to hear how a belief that one has a direct line to the One True God and knowledge of the One True Moral Code constitutes humility.  To be fair, she didn’t exactly say that she does; it’s her more evangelical rivals who are likely to say something like this.  Still, the implication is that those without faith do not have humility and thus do not restrain themselves, acknowledge their own ignorance, or ask for help.  Her claim seems to be a gentler way of conveying the common conservative Christian belief that atheists must believe themselves to be the ultimate authority in life since they do not submit to a “higher power.”  For this reason, atheists are worse than non-Christian theists, even though the non-Christian theists’ gods don’t exist according to Christians and therefore cannot actually constitute higher powers, which in turn means that any moral systems based on them are false.  It all makes sense as long as you don’t think about it.

6.) Empathy, humility, and optimism are good traits because…

A moral argument that appeals to a religious text is only convincing to people who already accept that text (and thus most likely accept the argument already).  A moral argument that appeals to practicality is (potentially) convincing to everyone.

Despite her opening statement about the best leaders having faith, Fiorina explains the value of these qualities by appealing to practicality, as she should.  The irony is that this shows that there are reasons for everyone, including atheists, to have these qualities.  Faith doesn’t need to enter the discussion at all unless it is the only way to promote or instill these qualities in people–and it clearly isn’t.

In short:  Fiorina undermined her own position by making a sensible argument.

Stay tuned for more religious nonsense from the weedy field of GOP candidates for President.  Huckabee, Cruz, and Carson are sure to have plenty more nuggets of foolishness to share.


Filed under Responses

Rubio, Walker, Carson, and Abortion Exceptions

There has been some outrage among liberals over responses from Republican candidates Marco Rubio and Scott Walker to questions about when abortion is acceptable.

First, consider Rubio’s question and response:

KELLY: You don’t favor a rape and incest exception?

RUBIO: I have never said that. And I have never advocated that. What I have advocated is that we pass law in this country that says all human life at every stage of its development is worthy of protection.

This is a consistent position.  If Rubio believes that human life equivalent in value to even adults begins at conception, then it would not make sense for him to support abortion even when that life is a product of rape or incest.  For people like him, the harm that abortion does outweighs whatever psychological pain the mother might endure by carrying a rapist’s child to term or whatever problems a child might face as a product of incest.

If we liberals must be angry with Rubio, then we should be angry that he opposes abortion in general.  Whether we support abortion because we believe that (1) women should have control over their own bodies even when another life is involved or (2) the fetus is not really a person for much of its development, Rubio would disagree with us even if he did support exceptions for rape and incest.  Attacking him simply for holding a consistent version of an anti-abortion position makes little sense and makes it seem like we haven’t thoroughly considered the issue ourselves.

Now, Walker’s question and response:

KELLY: Governor Walker, you’ve consistently said that you want to make abortion illegal even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. You recently signed an abortion law in Wisconsin that does have an exception for the mother’s life, but you’re on the record as having objected to it. Would you really let a mother die rather than have an abortion, and with 83 percent of the American public in favor of a life exception, are you too out of the mainstream on this issue to win the general election?

WALKER:  I believe that that is an unborn child that’s in need of protection out there, and I’ve said many a time that that unborn child can be protected, and there are many other alternatives that can also protect the life of that mother. That’s been consistently proven.

In short:  Walker denies that abortion is ever necessary to save a mother’s life.  One could try to interpret his statement as an attempt to appeal to the Republican base during the primary debates, but if it’s true that 83% of Americans favor a life exception, it’s difficult to see how this would help him.  More importantly, as a governor, Walker openly opposed life exceptions and probably only signed a bill that allowed them because it was the best option available to him for limiting abortions in other, more common cases.

Whether Walker genuinely believes that abortion is never necessary to save a mother’s life, cares more about the child than the mother, or believes that his god should decide who dies, his position is dangerous and liberal outrage here is well-deserved.  Fortunately, his position is also politically foolish.  Neither children inside the womb nor children outside it can vote; only women who see that he would let them die and men who see that he would let their wives (or just fellow human beings) die can.  And I suspect that many of the 17% of Americans who supposedly do not favor a life exception would change their minds quickly if they actually faced such a situation themselves.

Finally, another candidate, Ben Carson, had this to say in response to a question about life exceptions:

That’s largely a spurious argument because we have advanced so much in medicine these days that that situation rarely occurs.

I see similar sentiments among many conservatives.  I also notice it come up when people call for religious organizations to provide insurance that covers birth control pills because they can be used for purposes other than birth control.

While I do hold that such unusual situations have a place in the debate and thus ought to be addressed, I think that they are frequently weak points in liberal arguments.  First, pointing out that the mother’s life might be endangered pretty much cedes the rest of the argument to conservatives.  It comes across as desperate, like:  “B-but sometimes the mother’s life is in danger!  What then?”  Second, even if we find agreement on such a case, we make no progress on agreement for other, much more common cases.  Finally, it can even be dishonest:  if we promote abortion primarily for reason X (e.g. women’s rights or the fetus’ non-sentience), yet actually present reason Y (e.g. the mother’s life is sometimes in danger), we not only fail to argue what we believe for the reasons we believe it, but convey a lack of confidence in our primary reasons.

But regardless of the frequency of cases in which abortion is necessary to save a mother’s life, Republican candidates ought to state in clear terms that they support a life exception to abortion.  Their failure to do so indicates either that they do not support it or that they believe that they will lose support if they do–or both.  And this is unacceptable.

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Marriage and Reproduction

Are infertile couples forbidden to marry?

Are couples with no intention of having children forbidden to marry?

Is one only allowed to have children if he is married?

Must reproduction mandates be included in marriage contracts?

Do marital vows necessarily (or even usually) make reference to children?

The answer to all of these questions is no, so how can it be that procreation is a defining characteristic of marriage, such that gay couples may be denied the right to marry on their inability to procreate alone?

People get married for many reasons, may or may not have children, may or may not sleep together, may or may not live together, and may or may not be faithful to each other.  None of these variations nullifies the marital contract, though some of them might be used as reasons to do so.  In fact, that contract is the only consistent aspect of legal marriage, which is to say that the contract is the defining characteristic of legal marriage, even if not every contract is identical.  Without it, there is no legal marriage.

Those who want to prevent gay couples from getting married need to start being honest with themselves and others about their reasons for doing so.  And if they want to have a say in whether or not a shared, secular government recognizes gay marriage, they need to bring more to the table than arguments from religion, tradition, disgust, and arbitrary definitions.


Filed under Bad Religious Ethics

On Discrimination and Anti-Discrimination Laws

Claim 1:  “Forcing me to serve gays violates my religious liberty.”

My response:  I’m not aware of a religion that commands, “Thou must not serve sinners.”  It’s certainly not a part of Christianity.  If it were, then no one could be served.  If you want to discriminate against gay people, but not against other groups of people who are sinners according to your religion, then you are morally and religiously inconsistent.  You might be able to claim that your religion condemns homosexuality, but your inconsistent behavior reveals that something other than your god or holy book is guiding you.

Claim 2:  “I should have the right to serve or not serve whomever I please for whatever reason.”

My response:  This is certainly a more consistent position.  By claiming that one should be able to discriminate for any reason, he avoids accusations of demanding special rights of which only the religious can take advantage.  By claiming that one should be able to discriminate against anyone, he avoids specific accusations of racism, sexism, etc.

However, it ignores a significant problem:  if a vast majority of people in the country come to believe that gay people, for example, don’t deserve service, then gay people will find themselves unable to meet their needs or desires.  (Alternatively, gay people living in a small town, where important services are run by Christians, might be similarly out of luck.)  The few businesses willing to serve gay people might also face backlash for doing so, leading them to adopt the same position out of self-interest.  We can’t simply say that gay people in such a situation ought to establish their own businesses; after all, they need customers and supplies from people who likely hate them.  Given all that we say about freedom, equality, and happiness in our country, it also doesn’t seem right to tell them to just find another place to live.

Unfortunately, anti-discrimination laws aren’t perfect, either.  Minorities who face discrimination generally have to wait until a large portion of the public sympathizes with them, which also means that groups who get no sympathy (either because they are too obscure or because the public just doesn’t care) get nothing.  These patches, decades apart, can never protect everyone who deserves the opportunity to get a job, find housing, eat, or anything else necessary to a life–or, to be daring:  a good life.

We also can’t pass one simple bill that declares, “No one shall be turned away from a place of business or denied employment on the basis of some characteristic that has no impact on that business’ operations or the employee’s quality of work.”  Defining “impact on a business’ operations or the employee’s quality of work” would be contentious in itself, but most of us also don’t want it.  Even many of the most open-minded among us don’t want to be forced to serve or hire people who are openly hateful toward members of other races or religions, even though those qualities might not affect business operations or work quality.  I certainly wouldn’t want to be forced to cater a fundamentalist Christian event where guests go on about how vile atheists are.

In short, there is no perfect solution.

Claim 3:  “There is a difference between serving someone and participating in his events.  Businesses should be forced to serve gays, but not cater their weddings.”

My response:  I understand the sentiment here.  The two actions feel different according to the degree of involvement or exposure to the “sin.”  The trouble here is that both are cases of exchanging money for services and defining activities according to degrees of involvement is likely an exercise in futility.  Selling a wedding cake to a gay couple and catering the couple’s wedding might seem far apart, but where does driving the couple to or taking pictures at the wedding fall?  This “moderate” position might be well-intentioned, but I’m not convinced that it works.

Claim 4:  “Homosexuality isn’t like race or sex or nationality.  It’s a choice.”

My response:  Even if that were true, it is irrelevant to the debate.  Religion is clearly even more of a choice, but we don’t seem to be trying very hard to allow people to discriminate on that basis.

Claim 5:  “This is about religious liberty.”

My response:  No, it’s about liberty.  Any law that entitles only religious people to discriminate according to their conscience is clearly unfair.  If a Christian can turn away gays, especially if he can do so without having to be consistent with the rest of his religion or prove that his convictions are sincere, then anyone should be able to turn away anyone.  This means that an atheist can turn away a Christian, too.

Claim 6:  “We have a right to live according to our faith or conscience.”

My response:  This is totally naïve, anarchic, and historically ignorant.  I imagine that we all disagree with at least one thing that our government does, but that does not mean that we can stop paying the taxes that support that behavior.  I imagine that we can all find at least one law that troubles us morally, but that does not mean that we can ignore it as we see fit.  This has always been the case in the United States as well as most of the rest of the world through most of civilized history, as it should be. Our right to live as we see fit only goes so far–and the debate over discrimination touches on precisely this issue.  What we ultimately determine is appropriate–even if we determine that it is OK for businesses to refuse to serve gays or cater their weddings–should not be based on self-defeating, nonsensical, absolutist, feel-good proclamations of religious liberty.

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Filed under Applied Ethics, Bad Religious Ethics, Dilemmas

Defining Torture?

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines torture as the following:

1.) the act of causing severe physical pain as a form of punishment or as a way to force someone to do or say something

2.) something that causes mental or physical suffering : a very painful or unpleasant experience

When we think of torture, we tend to think along the lines of the first definition:  everything from the rack and other medieval devices to breaking fingers to (perhaps) waterboarding.

What about sensory, sleep, and food deprivation?  Sensory overload?  Confinement in small spaces?  These don’t necessarily cause any physical pain, but many of us insist that they are torture and they do fall under its second definition.

What about imprisonment?  It is an effective deterrent precisely because it is so undesirable, at least for extended periods of time.  For many prisoners, imprisonment would meet the second definition of torture:  a very unpleasant experience that causes mental suffering.  And yet virtually no one describes it as such.

Note also that the dictionary’s definitions say nothing about how long the experience has to last before it is considered torture.

But perhaps the dictionary definition misses the point.  Let’s consider the Geneva Convention:

“For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

So mental suffering does indeed count according to international law.  Fortunately, suffering related to “lawful sanctions” doesn’t count, so that settles the issue!

Well, not really.

Forget about these definitions of torture.  The real question is what separates acceptable harmful actions from unacceptable harmful actions, as applied to criminals or suspected criminals.  Whether the suffering comes from a “lawful” sanction or not is irrelevant.

Given the choice between 10 years of torture and 10 years of imprisonment, everyone would choose 10 years of imprisonment–and not just because torture entails imprisonment as well.  In a 1:1 comparison, the undesirability of constant physical pain and the accompanying psychological trauma outweighs the undesirability of confinement.  But what if the torture only went on for a month or less?  What if it weren’t constant, but only for a minute per day?  What if the torture only entailed exposure to the cold?  If we change the parameters of torture, we can make it much more desirable than long periods of imprisonment.

This wouldn’t really matter if no one held the absolutist anti-torture position that even, say, a minute of waterboarding crosses some significant moral line and renders us uncivilized monsters.  But people do hold that position.  After all, debates over torture tend to focus on whether or not torture is appropriate at all, not on how much torture is appropriate.  These same people also hold, like the rest of us, that imprisonment is an appropriate punishment and/or means of keeping our society safe.  Given that we would prefer brief torture to extended imprisonment, it seems to me that accepting the latter and forbidding the former on the grounds that it is monstrous makes the least sense.  Otherwise, on what do we base the notion that torture is so uniquely bad and worse than imprisonment?

In practice, of course, torture is not used for a minute at a time as a substitute for imprisonment.  It is used as the torturers see fit in addition to imprisonment, though that imprisonment is not necessarily permanent.  But this is irrelevant to the point that we are morally inconsistent and imprecise in our definitions, which has allowed some of us to pretend that “enhanced interrogation” is something else entirely and others to pretend that using the force of government to imprison people for years is so different from torture as to be uncomparable.  We can talk all we want about the ability of torture to produce reliable information or about its necessity, but if we are comparing the evils of torture and imprisonment as actions, then the most important aspect to consider by far is their desirability to the people who have to endure them.  Once we do that, we can’t hide behind words and definitions.  We have to consider what we are actually doing to people.

I don’t write this to argue that we should torture, as that subject must take other details into account.  I also don’t write this to argue that we must do away with imprisonment.  I write this to point out what seems to me to be a case of hypocrisy based on a moral argument that is disconnected from reality.  I find the idea that even a little torture crosses a moral line that extended imprisonment does not cross to be comparable to many of the “X is just wrong” arguments that I have dealt with on this blog.  If we are to oppose torture, then we should do so for other reasons.


Filed under Applied Ethics