I Was Never a Fetus

It’s been a while since I posted anything.  “Life gets in the way,” and all that.  The amount of time I have spent away might make you think that the topic on which I’m writing must be very important, but I don’t know that it is.  It’s just something that’s been bugging me.

The debate about abortion is a topic about which many people have very strong feelings, and understandably so.  However, this post is not about abortion in general.  It is not about whether or not abortion is moral, immoral, or amoral.  It is about one, and only one, argument that I’ve heard several times when the topic has come up in private conversations and online.  The argument of which I’m speaking is goes something like this:

  • You were once a fetus.
  • You are a person.
  • Hence, a fetus is a person.

Once the personhood of a fetus is established, the idea is that all the rights and privileges that go along with such a status would apply to all fetuses.  I don’t know that such a thing does, in fact, follow, but that is not my big problem.  My big problem is that I just don’t think the first premise, “You were once a fetus,” is true in the sense that is needed for the argument to work.

Identity as it relates to persons is a pretty tricky concept.  Part of the reason it is so tricky is that it seems very straightforward.  There is quite a bit to the issue, but it should be fairly easy to demonstrate that when we talk about a person we are generally relying on one of two distinct concepts, one biological and one psychological.

The biological criterion allows us to say that our bodies are the things that make us “us.”  It allows us to point to individuals with certain physical characteristics and readily identify them as the same person at different points in time.  This is certainly the concept that those making the above argument have in mind when they claim that you were once a fetus.

However, that’s not typically the concept we have in mind when we think of what “we” are.  Here’s what I mean:  Think about the various movies, books, and TV shows that have had as an aspect of the plot some person getting a different body, like Freaky Friday.  In that movie a mother and daughter switch bodies, and, supposedly, hilarity ensues, and a lesson is learned at the end bringing the pair closer together.  Now, if you consider that plot, it should immediately become apparent that what we are not talking about when we point to the persons involved are the bodies.  Were that the case, the movie would make no sense at all.  No, in order for the story to work, we have to separate the person from the body.  In that case what counts for personhood is (probably) some particular psychology that continues through time*.  That is, what counts for personhood is something like psychological continuity.

With the distinctions above described it should be obvious where the problem with the “You were once a fetus” argument lies.  The problem is that it is just not at all clear that I or anyone else was once a fetus in the relevant sense.  As psychological continuity is what is important for personhood, psychological states are necessary before there can ever be a person.  Exactly where full-on psychological states begin is a matter of some contention, but even if those states begin while still in the womb, they clearly don’t begin until later in the gestation period.  As such, there is clearly some time where my body existed but “I” did not, where the fetus existed, but it simply was not “me.”  For this reason the argument as it is described simply cannot work.

I think I’ve been charitable to the proponents of this argument.  In fact, I’ve cleaned it up from the version I normally hear which is something closer to attempting to making people feel like they owe it to fetuses not to abort them since those persons themselves were not aborted.  That’s a trite play at emotions that I find kind of pitiful, so I didn’t present the argument in that way.  Even so, I just don’t see how this particular argument gets off the ground for the reasons given above.  It just turns out I was not a fetus, so attempting to piggy-back the rights of fetuses on the rights of full living persons in this way completely fails.

I’ll say once more that this is not an argument in favor of abortion, nor is it meant to suggest that no argument against abortion works.  That’s not what I’m doing here.  Rather, I just wanted to point out that this particular argument, one which I’ve heard repeated numerous times, relies on a clear conceptual error and does not work at all.

*There is some debate as to exactly how this gets cashed out, but for the sake of brevity I’ll rely on psychological continuity while readily admitting that the issue is more complex than is laid out here.

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Tolerance of Religion vs Respect for Religion

The question of religious tolerance may very well be the single most divisive issue among secular liberals in the west.  From the proposed French ban on female head-covering to pandering defenses of female circumcision, liberals find themselves divided on the question of when and whether it is appropriate to tolerate the institutionalized intolerance that is often a part of religious conviction.  The debate takes on a special vitriol in the United States where minority religious rights are as close to a sacred value as any secular principle could be.  We hold it as a virtue to protect freedom of worship, even if we cannot agree about what god, if any, is worthy of our worship. But, at the same time, we are made uncomfortable when confronted with the racist, sexist, homophobic, violent, and xenophobic descriptions and prescriptions that lurk in the pages of every major religious text.  We embrace liberal theologies that explain away these uncomfortable details, and we shake our heads with frustration when confronted with fundamentalists who refuse to compromise.

The recent controversy over the proposed plan to build a Muslim community center- which would include a mosque- a few blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood has given me pause to reconsider the puzzle of religious tolerance.  Let me say from the outset that I have no problem with a mosque being built at or near ground zero.  If the United States protects the rights of citizens to peaceably assemble for the purposes of religious worship and fellowship, then it should protect that right for all citizens, regardless of the content of their beliefs.  Moreover, most of the people who are complaining about this "disrespect" or "insensitivity" really just have a problem with Muslims, not the content of their beliefs (which are, incidentally, much more similar to the beliefs of Christians and Jews than are secular philosophies and various other Eastern and polytheistic religions).  So, lest there be any confusion on the matter, I am not on the same side as Sarah Palin and her ilk.  I don’t think building a house of prayer "hurts hearts."  I don’t think every Muslim is a potential plane hijacker anymore than every Christian is a potential abortion-clinic bomber.  And, if places of worship are going to be built, I think the former site of the Twin Towers is as good a place as any to put one.

All of that being said, I don’t think the imperative to tolerate peaceful assembly or private religious fellowship in any way extends to an imperative to respect religious belief.   If your religion tells you that the world is less than 7,000 years old and you believe it, then I think you are an idiot.  If your religion tells you to disown your gay son and shun your immodest daughter and you do it, then I say you’re an awful person.   I can tolerate your believing things that are nonsense so long as you aren’t breaking the laws we’ve both agreed to obey, but that doesn’t mean I respect what you believe.  Moreover, I think I have a moral obligation to challenge your beliefs when you hold them up in defense of a policy that will affect me and other people in my community.

It’s this distinction between religious tolerance and religious respect that is really at issue in the mosque-at-ground-zero controversy.  The most vocal critics of the mosque are not rabid atheists who are angry about religious zealots killing people.  They are right-wing Christians.  Now, leaving aside the possibility that some of the Christian mosque-building opponents are just plain racists, I think the best explanation for why this group opposes building an Islamic house of worship near the former site of the Twin Towers is that they conflate the imperative to tolerate peaceful religious practice with an obligation to respect the content of other people’s religious belief.  Their thinking seems to be that because Muslim belief (among other things) motivated the 9/11 hijackers, showing tolerance for Muslim belief so close to the site of the attacks is an inappropriate sign of respect for the religion.  If you think about it from their perspective, the twisted logic is not hard to follow.  The Christian right is quite fond of accusing the secular left of intolerance. Whether by charging that the left is "closed-minded" for not teaching creationism as a science, or "ignoring the will of the people" when a federally-appointed judge overturns the church-promoted Proposition 8, Christians in this country are fond of painting themselves as the victims of religious persecution.  So, given that the Christian right conflates legitimate challenges to their beliefs with "intolerance," it kind of makes sense that they might confuse the reasonable mandate to tolerate Muslim religious practice with a legitimate objection to belief in the tenets of Islam.

So, let me make the distinction between religious tolerance and religious respect explicit.  Refusing to teach religious myth as science in public schools is not intolerant.   Allowing homosexual couples the same legal rights as heterosexual couples is not intolerant.  Blocking people from building a religious community center on property they have legally acquired is intolerant.  In all three cases, I don’t respect the religious beliefs that motivate the project.  I don’t believe in your God, so what you think He says about the age of the Earth, the sin of sodomy, and the proper way to pray doesn’t matter to me.   In the first two cases, the issue is not private religious belief but the legal definition of the terms "science" and "marriage" which have implications for everyone in the country, regardless of their beliefs.  In the third case, once the legal status of the building property is determined, the issue really is private religious belief.  I am not affected by you praying at your house of worship, but I am affected by you legislating from it.  Perhaps the religious right would appreciate the relative harmlessness of the former if they stopped doing the latter.

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The Problem of Free Will

There is no subject more divisive in my household than the question of free will.  Holiday dinners have devolved into screaming matches over abstract reflections on moral responsibility, and so it is with some reluctance that I broach the subject in this blog.  But, I haven’t done a post in a while, and Jim suggested that I write something on this essay, so I’m going to humor him.  I would like to recommend that all of the readers of this blog take the time to review Galen Strawson’s "Basic Argument for Determinism" as well as William Eddington’s response, "The Limits of the Coded World" (linked above) before continuing this post, but since you may not have time to do that, I will briefly review the relevant arguments.

Simply put, if we have no free will, then moral responsibility as we normally think of it (blame, praise, obligation, etc.) seems impossible.  This is bad news for the study of ethics because the arguments against free will are pretty compelling.  Whether we cash the story out in terms of mental states (desires, personality, beliefs) or pure physics, it looks like there’s no way around the fact that unchosen forces determine our actions.  It certainly feels as though I have a choice about whether to spend my last 20 dollars on food for my family or whiskey and cigarettes, but the choice is going to come down to the person I am (values, experiences, beliefs, and desires, none of which I choose) and the circumstances in which I find myself (again, unchosen).  Or, to reach the same conclusion in a different way, my brain states are as causally determined as all other physical phenomena,* so there is no place in the causal chain of neural events for an undetermined "free" choice.

I think that Strawson’s arguments for determinism are very compelling, which is unfortunate because the implications are devastating.  If my choices are actually illusory, then so too is my sense of moral responsibility.  I am not morally responsible for choosing whiskey over food for my family if I am not responsible for being the person I am, and there is a very good case to be made that I’m not. And of course, this same logic applies to all levels of "choices," some of which are great deal more heinous than alcoholic excess. Because the implications of determinism are so devastating, I am very sympathetic to philosophers who attempt to navigate some alternative route to moral responsibility which bypasses the problem of free will.  So, I really wish that I could agree with William Egginton.  Unfortunately, I just don’t think his argument works.

Egginton seems to think that the problem of free will and the corresponding question of moral responsibility are really issues in epistemology, not metaphysics.  In other words, he seems to believe that the fact that we don’t know our futures is somehow relevant to whether or not we have free will.  I would like to pick out one short sentence from his essay that summarizes this position, but unfortunately, for all of his references to Kant and interesting asides about neuroscience, I can’t find a single place where Egginton makes a complete argument. So, I am extrapolating a bit, but I think his point (largely borrowed from Kant) must be that because we can never have knowledge of the world from an omniscient perspective but instead must experience it temporally, the future, as it is to us, really is undetermined.  This leads him to conclude:

As much as we owe the nature of our current existence to the evolutionary forces Darwin first discovered, or to the cultures we grow up in, or to the chemical states affecting our brain processes at any given moment, none of this impacts on our freedom. I am free because neither science nor religion can ever tell me, with certainty, what my future will be and what I should do about it.

Now, as nice as Egginton’s conclusion sounds, it is clearly not logically sound.  The question of whether I believe I have a choice is certainly relevant and useful in terms of psychological motivation, but belief in moral responsibility no more corresponds to actual moral responsibility than belief in magic corresponds to actual magic.  Moreover, if Egginton’s argument is motivated by a desire preserve our intutions about free will, moral responsibility, and all of the ethical theories that depend upon them, then this "solution" to the problem of free will fails on that front as well.  We may not want to say that the child rapist is not responsible for his actions because he had no choice in his desires or impulses, but we certainly don’t want to say that the child rapist is only responsible for his actions because he feels responsible.

Free will is a metaphysical issue, not an epistemic one.  Epistemology plays an important role in ethics because belief justification is an important part of moral deliberation, but the mere fact that we believe in free will does not prove that we have it, and the mere fact that we believe ourselves to be morally responsible for our actions is not proof that we are.  If we are going to make sense of moral responsibility in any useful way,  we need some account of choice that can distinguish between non-cognitive action (impulse), delusional action, and deliberative, intentional action, and  Egginton’s story can’t do that.  I kind of wish it did.

*Also, just in case you skipped the recommended reading, and happened to see the colossally awful film What the Bleep Do We Know?,  no. Quantum Theory does not get you out of the problem of free will.

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Good Without God

Mitch Daniels after an award ceremony

Image via Wikipedia

There is a common argument used against atheists by theists of various types that concerns the supposed inability of an atheist to do the right thing without the belief in some sort of deity that is looking down and keeping watch over all of us.  It is so common, in fact, that it seems to me that the people who use it do so without being aware of the consequences of such an argument, that they themselves would be doing all sorts of awful things if they didn’t think that some god were somewhere keeping track of all they do.  Or maybe they do get it, but, if this is the case, that, to me, makes those making such an argument simply terrifying individuals.

Though examples of this argument are ubiquitous, one such example, via Pharyngula, comes from an interview of Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels on the site wane.com, a website for Channel 15 in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  The relevant portion reads thus:

People who reject the idea of a God -who think that we’re just accidental protoplasm- have always been with us. What bothers me is the implications -which not all such folks have thought through- because really, if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.

And atheism leads to brutality. All the horrific crimes of the last century were committed by atheists -Stalin and Hitler and Mao and so forth- because it flows very naturally from an idea that there is no judgment and there is nothing other than the brief time we spend on this Earth.

I don’t want to venture too far into the idea that Stalin’s, Hitler’s, or Mao’s actions were the result of their atheism.  Certainly, the idea that Hitler was an atheist has been refuted countless times along with his supposed commitment to Darwinian evolution.  Further, the assertion that any of these individuals’ actions were the result of some lack of a belief in gods just strikes me as bizarre.  But, really, the important point here is that the argument that these people represent atheists in general, as if there is some necessary connection between those actions and atheism, is clearly fallacious and patently wrong.  This can be easily demonstrated by the fact that these individuals are rare, but atheists are abundant.  Even the idea that these men are the solely responsible for “[a]ll the horrific crimes of the last century” is so obviously demonstrably wrong as to be laughable.  All that said, we can set that aside, because that’s not the main point I want to address here.

Daniels suggests that “if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.”  I cannot begin to imagine what the justification for such an assertion might be.  After all, if it is true, as Daniels clearly implies, that without some “eternal standard” there is no meaning, nothing that “matters,” then why would power matter?  Why is power the one thing that is valuable in the valueless world of the atheist that exists in Daniels’ imagination?  Surely it is not because there is something intrinsically valuable to power, for, according to Daniels, without some god there is no intrinsic value to anything.  So whence the value of power?

I’m guessing that Daniels would say that power is valuable to people, and that’s where the source of this value lies, in the subjective tastes of the individuals.  But then this entire argument falls apart.  People value all sorts of things besides power.  Most of all they value the relationships they have with others.  If there is one thing we know about our species, it is that we are groupish.  We are desperate for those relationships with others that are called things like family, friendship, and love.  We definitely value that stuff.  But, if that’s true (and it is), then this idea that we are all going to become tyrannical despots if we don’t believe that God (Allah, Zeus, whatever) is looking down from Heaven (wherever) is just bullshit.  It just turns out that it’s incredibly difficult to maintain any sort of close relationships when you’re trying to control everyone around you.  Just look at Daniels’ own examples.  Man, was anyone more paranoid than those guys?  Was anyone more lacking in some sort of genuine friendship than Stalin and Hitler?  Those guys saw betrayal all around them both in the faces of betrayers and those most loyal to them.  Since most atheists are normal people with families and friends, it seems a safe bet that what they find valuable is the same thing as most all other humans:  relationships with others.  Power is simply further down the line in their interests.

Having said that, most atheists aren’t governors, either, a position for which “powerful” seems an apt description.  It might be that Daniels himself would be some maniacal dictator if he lacked a fear of God’s Wrath, that fear keeping him from merely seeking positions like governor and, potentially, president (Daniels’ name is one that is thrown around when considering future presidential candidates).  It might be a good thing that Daniels believes the way he does.  Or, better yet, it might be that we shouldn’t vote people obsessed with despotism into positions of great power.

And that leads me to my big point.  The people who say that we cannot be good if we do not believe in some god are suggesting that the only reason we don’t rape babies, stab mothers, commit genocide, etc is because of some kind of supernatural influence.  My response to these people is simple:  what kind of psychos are you hanging around?!  You are certainly hanging around some crazy psychos if your impression of people is that their belief in God is the only thing preventing them from killing you in your sleep.  If you make this argument without seeing this implication, then you should stop making it since you’ve now been explicitly shown the absurd position you’re taking.  If you already saw this, if you believe about yourself that you’d be a baby-raping, mommy-stabbing, genocide-committing monster if your god weren’t around, then, for your god’s sake, don’t move next door to me!  I don’t want you around my kids and mom when you happen to have a bad day and slip.  And if you are that kind of monster, I’m telling you in no uncertain terms that you’re the freak, the one who is unusual, not those of us who don’t sit frustratingly fantasizing about all the horrible things we would do if only God weren’t around to stop us.

If the only thing preventing you from committing acts of tremendous horror is your belief in some deity, seek help, please, for all our sakes.  Regardless, I can tell you that while you might be teetering on the edge of committing acts of atrocity, most of us just don’t have some strong desire to put people in ovens, and, hence, just don’t need the Fear of God in us to prevent us from doing such things.

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The God-Fearing Democrats

People in my family don’t follow sports much, but, to make up for it, we follow politics and cheer on our party as though it were an athletic team. At a very young age, I came to understand that the Democrats represented most of the things that were good about America- fairness, equality, diversity- while the Republicans represented the things we ought to work against -elitism, dogmatism, and stinginess. Democrats were the party of the poor and also the party of the intellectually inquisitive (my family being both), while Republicans represented the rich and the religious, an unholy alliance brought together by Reagan (a quasi-demonic figure in my non-religious household).

Life and education have slowly stripped away the simple political narrative that shaped me. I now know that some Republicans are atheists, and lots of them are poor, just as some Democrats are racists, and lots of them are dogmatic. Still, I was a bit shocked to learn from Charles Blow’s most recent New York Times column that, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted last week, more Democrats than Republicans expect Jesus Christ to return to the Earth by the year 2050. Blow takes this information in stride, explaining that two highly religious groups, black and Latino voters, currently comprise about 37 percent of the Democratic base, and another 20 percent of the base is composed of very religious white people. The Democrats are becoming more religious because they are the party of growing ethnic minorities. These groups, comprised mostly of the descendants of former slaves and recent immigrants, have become a significant chunk of the party’s base because they see the Democrats exactly as I did- the party of fairness, equality, and diversity, and the party that represents the interests of the poor and the working class.

I don’t call myself a Democrat these days. I don’t even think it’s important that I vote. But, I have to confess that there is something about my home team putting bets on the Apocalypse that really makes my skin crawl. The explanation behind this recent trend reveals something that has long-embarrassed Democrats, which is why they have failed to exploit it the way Republicans have: Class is highly correlated with education, and education makes people more tolerant and less religious, in other words, more liberal. If anything, this observation seems like it should favor Democrats, but clearly the Republicans have made better use of its strategic implications. Over the last 35 years, the Republican Party has successfully managed to convince millions of working-class, religious white people who did not go to college to consistently vote against their own economic interests. It has done this by telling a story of cultural identity that exploits religious faith, racial prejudice, and xenophobia, and makes the base believe that labor and environmental regulation hurt their job prospects and that immigrants and “welfare queens” steal their hard-earned income through redistributive taxation. Republicans have managed to convince their base that intellectual sophistication rather than material privilege is the sign of true elitism, and that the people who teach their kids, not the people who own the means of production, are their political adversaries. The Democrats, in contrast, have no story of common identity and are reticent to identify a common enemy. They are the party of organized labor and most college professors, but they fear both populism and elitism.

Picturing an average Republican is easy: He’s white, drives an SUV, owns a gun, waves a flag, and goes to church on Sunday. Of course, the next Republican you meet might not fit any of those descriptions, but that doesn’t stop the image from persisting. In contrast, picturing an average Democrat is difficult. A Prius-driving vegetarian, a blue-collar AFL-CIO rep, and a black church-lady, wealthy or poor, are all equally plausible models. Even though the average Republican may have gone to college, may have gay friends, and may believe in evolution, he can be counted upon to vote with the party that panders to Christian fundamentalists because that’s what it means to be a Republican. The meaning of “Democrat” is, in contrast, much less precise. Some of the same Democrats who voted to elect Barack Obama voted against gay marriage on the same ballot in California. And a similar vein of social-conservatism runs through “purple” rust-belt states such as Pennsylvania, where the Democrats who get elected are often both pro-labor, and “pro-life.” Religious and cultural identity is likely to influence whether you are a Republican, but not how you vote. The same can’t be said of Democrats, and this is why the rise of the religious Left scares me.

I would like to believe that the Democratic Party is attracting more religious people because the religious are starting to believe that the Democratic platform better reflects their values (aid to the poor, fairness, etc.), but I think it’s more likely that they just see the Democrats as better representing their interests*. This isn’t all bad. I’m glad that religious people in my tax bracket want their vote to represent their economic interests because I share the same interests. However, I don’t share the same values as religious Democrats, and that’s a problem because, as we’ve seen with the religious Right, values are at least as important to most voters as economic self-interest. I haven’t seen as much pandering to the anti-gay, anti-choice, evolution-is-just-a-theory- crowd by the Democrats as I have seen by the Republicans, but there really isn’t any good reason to think that the Democrats won’t pander to this group if it becomes politically advantageous for them to do so, and, with growing numbers of religious Democrats, it may. I could say that a robust package of social programs, including low-cost higher education is likely to make the children of today’s religious Democrats less religious and more socially liberal than their parents, but that hope reeks of just the sort of paternalism that embarrasses liberals like me. I want my “team” to represent the interests of the common person, but I want the common person to share my values. This is why I don’t study politics anymore.

*Let’s be clear here, I don’t actually think the Democratic Party really represents the interests of poor/working people, regardless of race. The Republicans have just done such a good job of alienating black and Latino voters by pandering to racists and xenophobes that the Democrats have won them over by default.

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Poverty, Values, and Why I Don’t Like Ruby Payne

I have training as a philosopher, but I pay my bills through my employment at a Community Action Program, working with the homeless.  Unsurprisingly, working on the practical side of a field in which one has lots of theoretical understanding can be as frustrating as it is rewarding.  I certainly wouldn’t expect any of my coworkers to be able to summarize Rawls’ Difference Principle (let alone trace the connection between A Theory of Justice, Johnson’s Great Society, and the subsequent CAPs that were a result of the Economic Opportunity Act), but their lack of interest in foundational issues in economics, politics, and ethics sometimes shocks me.  Recently, I had an especially polarizing experience with my co-workers when I was required to sit through the Bridges out of Poverty workshop, based upon the book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby Payne.

If you are not involved in social work, you may be unfamiliar with the work of Ruby Payne, which is primarily based upon anecdotal observations about the "hidden rules" of social class.  Despite the fact that Dr. Payne’s "research" is widely dismissed even by sociologists for its lack of methodological rigor, the revelation that poor people have different attitudes about food from rich people appears to be profoundly enlightening to some people, at least if anecdotal observations of my co-workers is any in indication (maybe I should write a book).  To be fair, the Bridges Out of Poverty program is well-intentioned, at least as far as I can tell.  Though after a seven-hour workshop I was still unable to identify a single explicit foundational principle or specific directive, the implicit theme seemed to be that people in different classes see the world differently, and the general directive seemed to be that we should be sensitive to that fact in our work with the indigent.

The polarizing moment came when talk moved to values. After spending the better part of a morning listing less-than-revelatory observations about how poor people view violence, bedtimes, school performance, and other aspects of everyday life, the speaker cautioned us that these views were not good or bad and the program was only meant to inform us about the different ways in which people in different classes view the same issues.  I raised my hand and commented that this seemed like a bit of an exaggeration.  "Surely," I said, "we can appreciate that a person living in the inner city has reasons to fight or sell drugs, and we can still make a value judgment about why that behavior is bad."  I was met with polite nods, but nobody seemed to appreciate that my comment was a subtle criticism of the myopic relativism of the program.  I tried again after lunch.  The speaker said explicitly that we were not there to make judgments about the values of the different classes, only to learn something by observing their differences.  This time I was more explicit.  "But, surely," I blurted out, "we all know that this program and the work that we do is biased toward the values of the middle class.  I mean, we may understand why poor people don’t value education the way middle class people do, but we still make a judgment that education is valuable, and we push that value to our clients."

This time I was met with blank stares.  Several of the other participants volunteered less-than-useful responses which belied the fact that they really didn’t understand my point.  Each response was some version of,  "But, poor people really do want the same things as middle class people, they just don’t have the tools/knowledge/resources to achieve those things!"  After succeeding in annoying everyone in the room, I waited until break to take up the issue privately with the speaker who nodded sympathetically when I explained that debate about the empirical effectiveness of different means to the same end is not the same thing as a genuine difference of values.  "Insofar as there is a genuine disagreement about values, I don’t think that any reconciliation is possible," I said, "But, don’t get me wrong.  I think most people value similar things, which is why outreach programs are useful.  We aren’t teaching people to value different things, we’re teaching them better means to their ends."  Again, I was met with a blank stare, but, perhaps believing I agreed with her, she nodded and walked away.

As I tried to explain to my coworkers, my objection to the Bridges Out of Poverty program is not an objection to the implicit middle-class value judgments that give social work its motivating force.   For the most part, I share the same values as my coworkers, and I share the intuition that most of the practices that we push through education and outreach are attractive to our clients precisely because they share those values as well.  (Of course, this is another way of saying that I don’t really believe that class plays a major role in determining values in this first place.)  My objection is to the absurd and contradictory combination of explicitly stated relativism and implicitly assumed objectivity that is pervasive in the work of Ruby Payne and the people who follow her.   And, it maddens me that so many people in social work seem to miss this rather simple point:  Either values are objective, or they are not.  If values are objective, then they are not relative to class.  Also, if values are objective, then there is a fact of the matter about how people should behave, and we absolutely can and should make judgments upon people who fail to promote objective values.  If values are not objective, then it is silly to argue about them.  The only discussion worth having is about which actions are more efficient means to the promotion of values, not about the values themselves.

Though I find the contradiction between explicit relativism and implicit value objectivity worrisome, I have a pretty good guess about why it is so pervasive in my field.  On almost every level, education and outreach work is based upon the assumption that the poor have some control over their poverty.  Political activists can organize strikes, mobilize voters, and publicly denounce economic policies that create and maintain class disparity.  Social workers take on clients who have very few resources and try to improve their condition by giving them information alone.  We may privately believe that poverty persists because of huge variation in the distribution of political and economic power which will never be altered by changes in individual behavior, but our job is to reassure people that they will be able to get out of poverty if they work hard, follow the rules, and take advantage of the meager resources provided by public welfare programs.   Unfortunately, the belief that hard work and education will get you out of poverty implies that individuals who aren’t getting out of poverty are either not working hard enough or are ignorant about the resources available to them. It’s a hard truth, and nobody wants to admit it, but discussions about why different classes value different things are pointless.  The discussion we need to have is about why different classes have different things.  Community Action Programs like mine were founded upon a very simple, value-driven principle:  Poverty is a bad thing.   We don’t need a framework for understanding it.  We need practical strategies for ending it.

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Junk Science, Hypocrites, and Rentboys

I want to say something about the story of George Rekers, the Southern Baptist Minister and co-founder of the Family Research Council who was recently caught in the company of a male escort.  Stories about religious leaders who preach a standard of sexual purity which they themselves fail to practice abound.   But even in the world of Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard, the hypocrisy of George Rekers is a special case.   His hypocrisy is not merely farcical and outrageous, it is also a lesson about the dangers of junk science.  This is because for the past 25 years Rekers has been a figurehead of the conversion therapy movement which holds not only that homosexuality is caused by environmental influences (rather than genetic) but also that it can be cured.

I am not going to rant about how infuriating it is that the same guy who was called as an expert witness to defend bans on gay adoption in Arkansas and Florida was recently perusing Rentboy.com in search of a 20 year-old with an eight-inch penis.  It may very well be the case that George Rekers thinks homosexual sex is wrong and that a homosexual lifestyle is harmful, and at the same time he can’t resist the urge to dial up a rent-boy on occasion.  It may also be the case that Rekers genuinely believes that homosexuality is caused by environmental factors such as family dynamics and early sexual experiences, which would mean some parents are responsible for raising their children to be homosexuals.  Of course, I think both of these positions are absurd*, but I can grant that Rekers might believe all of this stuff and still, at the same time, like to get his rocks off with young men.  If it it were only that Rekers were a weak Jimmy-Swaggart-type, preaching the virtues of one lifestyle while secretly indulging his dark side, I could be satisfied with a sigh of disgust and the vindication of knowing that his hypocrisy is now a public spectacle.

The problem is that Rekers is also a liar, and not just a liar about his own personal life.  Rekers is a liar because he is an officer and figurehead of NARTH, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality a group which purports to offer “effective psychological care” for “individuals with unwanted homosexual attraction.”  To be fair, the group does not promise full homosexual-to-heterosexual conversion to every person seeking treatment, but it does promise that there are “positive alternatives to homosexuality,” either in the form of abstinence or in conversion, and it publishes numerous quasi-scientific articles arguing that homosexuality is a choice influenced by experience, while minimizing or entirely ignoring the overwhelming body of contrary data published and peer-reviewed by the American Psychological Association and other mainstream medical science authorities.

It may be the case that George Rekers thinks homosexuality is wrong, it may be the case that George Rekers thinks homosexuality is caused by bad parenting, and it may be the case that George Rekers thinks that homosexuality can be “cured” either through conversion therapy or the abstinence support offered by NARTH and its partner agencies.  But I just don’t see how it can be all three.  That is, I don’t see how it can be the case that George Rekers believes it’s bad to be gay, and believes he knows how to “fix” being gay (he has, in fact, profited by telling other people how to “fix” being gay), and yet he still chooses to hire male escorts for sexual romps.  I am certain that a psychologist could map a convoluted web of competing and contradictory desires and beliefs to describe how Rekers probably justified all of this to himself, but the explanation from the outside couldn’t be more simple or more clear:  Conversion therapy to “fix” homosexuality just doesn’t work.  Rekers’ organization can’t “fix” gay in other people.  They couldn’t even “fix” it in him.

Groups like NARTH and the Family Research Council and a whole host of other religiously-bent, political lobbying machines insult our intelligence by offering up dogma and ideology and calling it “science.”  When confronted with research that does not fit their political conclusions, they ignore it or condemn it as a part of a liberal, secular conspiracy.   It is a sad fact of contemporary American life that these groups maintain disproportionate political power by mimicking the language of non-partisan scientific authorities, and pretending to have legitimate scholarly intentions.  In the wake of this scandal, these groups have already begun to distance themselves from Rekers, and we should not let them.  However they may want to portray Rekers’ indiscretion as an isolated incident, it is a case-study in why the conversion therapy/ex-gay movement has failed.  We shouldn’t let them forget it.

*To be clear, I do not think it is absurd to acknowledge that sexual orientation may be the result of both environmental and genetic factors.  In fact, I think the bulk of the data strongly suggests this.  But the mere fact that environmental factors play a role in sexual orientation does not imply that parenting is the most significant (or even a significant) factor in sexual orientation, nor that later-life therapy can significantly alter a person’s orientation.  And, I feel compelled to add, even if it were the case that homosexuality was a choice, this in no way implies that a homosexual lifestyle is immoral nor that homosexual sex is wrong.

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