The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Request

A few particular posts seem to generate alot of comments, and many of these comments are critical, which is all to the good, really. I welcome criticism, as it invaluable to learning. And, lets face it, like everyone else, I have opinions on many subjects on which I am no expert. Where I am mistaken or incorrect, I'd very much like to know. Moreover, the thoughts that I am carrying about in my skull don't always make it completely onto the screen, and as I can "fill in the blanks" based on what I am thinking, I may not be aware that the links between the different points I am attempting to make are not always clear to the reader. Again, it's useful to have this pointed out.

For example, say I make comments about the oil business. What do I know about the oil business? Not much. I can make arguments based on information that I do have, but I know very well that I may be missing important information, and if someone who knows more can provide information that I am missing (and may not be aware that I am missing), then, hey, good deal.

Likewise, as you have probably noticed, I am more than willing to make comments on contemporary politics and various social issues. Again, I am no expert, I can draw conclusions based on what I know, but there is likely to be relevant information that I am unfamiliar with and not aware that I am unfamiliar with - if you notice this and can fill me in, I'd greatly appreciate it.

And if my thinking seems muddled, well, it could mean one of two things: 1) my thinking is in fact muddled - if you can indicate how it is muddled, then that is great, and I would certainly benefit from it, or 2) my writing (rather than my thinking) is muddled because I have failed to include or fully explain my bridging arguments, thus making my conclusions seem disconnected from my line of thought - again, if you see this, let me know.

So, if you have a point to make - make it, and make it clearly. If you think I am out of line, mistaken, or am making a bad argument, let me know. If the reasoning behind a conclusion seems odd, out of place, or just plain bizarre, point it out and see if the point can be explained more clearly. But do it in a way that might actually be useful and gets at what is wrong, and doesn't come off as an attack (and, really, part of the problem with text communication is that we loose so much context that even gentle ribbing or friendly sarcasm can come off as hostile when it is not intended as such).

One last point - I am well aware that I can and do write things that are inflammatory from time-to-time. Often, though not always, it is because I am frustrated or pissed off. Some folks will take the tone offensively, and that's fair enough, and they may make comments reflecting how they took the tone. In these cases, if I think a case can be made that I have been unnecessarilly insulting, I'll figure that I had it coming. I am probably overly-fond of the term "bigot" for example, and my frustration with many of our cultural oddities can lead to me being insulting when I really shouldn't be, and I need to be more cautious.


mnsc said...

Ok, I'll bite. Here's a brief response.

Let's summarize your argument: we should not deny marriage to homosexual persons because marriage is a fundamental human right that is equally permitted to all. The primary reasons that people want to deny this right to homosexuals are: 1) Religious Bigotry, 2) Misguided diagnosis of mental illness.

Let's deal with them one by one. Firstly, marriage is not a fundamental right. It is a legal contract sanctioned and provided by the state in order to facilitate a social good. It is, for example, not a right listed in the Constitution. To my knowledge, no State constitution elaborates this right either. Although the Supreme Court has referred to marriage as a fundamental right in at least one case, it is still a hotly contested point of legal theory as to whether this decision was correct.

Marriage is something that society defines to further a social good. For example, marriage might ensure that children have two parents who are legally bound to provide for their welfare. Society wants this because children raised in a stable home environment make for good and productive citizens. Please don't bother to critique the example. There are many sociological examples for and against and it would be beyond the scope of this response to debate it. The point is that marriage, once you have stripped the religious or spiritual dimension, becomes nothing more than a legal construct that is a tool used by society to shape a social outcome.

As to being a fundamental right, there are many cases where marriage has been denied to individuals for one reason or another. Some examples: incompatible blood types; individuals too closely related, individuals considered incompatible for reasons of disability (Down's Syndrome, etc.). In all cases, society is seeking some social good by restricting the act of marriage.

If you strip away the right of denial, then it allows for some very unpleasant results. Can we logically deny polygamists the right to marry? Should newly arrived immigrants from India be allowed to marry off their 8-year old daughters? The fundamental right at stake here is the right of society to determine the social good.

Ah, and there's the rub. We all want society as a whole to “do the right thing”. But who gets to determine the “right thing”? For the most part, it is the will of the majority, either expressed outright at the polls, or more subtly through the judicial system (which is no less immune from the will of the people than the ballot box).

For a very long time, the will of the majority was formed through Judeo-Christian values that prohibited homosexual unions. Now, you make the claim that the majority should be able to determine a new social good. In either case, a minority is “oppressed”. Since there can be no objective moral code to guide us here, the only reasonable conclusion is that might makes right. A dangerous thought at best.

What we have is two competing visions of the social order. You object to one because it based on religious values, but how is your ethos any better? On what objective grounds can you claim that your desires should be imposed on society? To paraphrase a long-forgotten 80's band: Everybody wants to rule the world. So why object so strenuously to religionists agitating in the public arena? They're simply doing the same thing that you want to do: impose a particular vision of the world on everyone else. From a strictly morally neutral standpoint, we should just let society's various components compete and may the strongest one win.

Now let's deal with the supposed bigotry against homosexuals.
First the religious one. Yes, some religions, Orthodox Judaism and Christianity in particular, prohibit homosexual acts. Note the distinction: they do not prohibit homosexual persons. That would be ludicrous and unfair to the theological teachings. In fact, Catholicism teaches fundamental respect for homosexual individuals and their basic human rights. This is often ignored in the media because it sells more papers to focus on sexual sins. However, the Church reserves the right to proscribe behavior not in accord with its received teachings as given by God.

Let's be clear about one thing: the Church does not teach that homosexual individuals are by nature sinful. It maintains that a homosexual orientation is intrinsic to the individual and for many not a choice. Although the Church maintains that it is a disordered condition, it does not make the individual any less equal than any other human being.

You may argue with the whole point of God's existence, etc. Let's not. Instead let's focus on the fundamental right of every citizen to advocate for their particular viewpoint in the public arena. It's called “Free Speech”, and unlike marriage, it is a constitutionally defined right. I find it so amusing that many want to deny religionists the right to vote and act according to their beliefs, while these same individuals feel perfectly justified in pursuing their beliefs and imposing them on everyone else. There's a level of hypocrisy in that line of thinking that defies words.

As for the mental health aspects of homosexuality, it's entirely a matter of debate. Psychology being the precise science that it is (can't you just hear the sarcasm dripping off of every word?), we might have a long wait to get a definitive answer.

Let's pursue it from another angle. It could be argued that homosexuality presents a certain cost to society. For one, homosexuals do not produce children at the same rate that heterosexuals do. Or, homosexual behavior imposes a high health cost on society due to the higher incidence of venereal diseases.

For instance, would AIDS have been so prevalent today if public health authorities had treated it like typhoid? Yes, many would have been stripped of their civil rights by being quarantined, but then how many thousands, if not millions might have been saved by nipping the epidemic in the bud, as it were?

I bring up these points not because I advocate them or necessarily believe in any of them. It's simply to demonstrate that from a morally neutral, rational point of view, conclusions can be reached that are every bit as objectionable as ones that you find so detestable among people of faith.

The conclusion: you have no objective grounds for polemics against anti-homosexual agendas. From a purely rational perspective, all agendas are equally “good”. If you have anything to say, it can only be from a deeply personal perspective and logically you should have no objection to anyone else advocating the opposite viewpoint. So, if prop 8 loses, you celebrate. If prop 8 wins, you celebrate. A win-win situation!

If only we were all so fortunate.

Anthroslug said...

Okay, you make some very good points here, you got me thinking, and I thank you for the response.

My own personal view is that the government should only be concerned with civil contracts (or civil unions in this case) and that marriage should be a non-legally binding social institution handled by community groups (certainly religious groups, but others can get in on the action as well) who can limit or expand it as they see fit. However, because in this arena our government is concerned primarily with marriage and civil unions are secondary, marriage becomes the disputed matter. I would happily have marriage left to community groups, but as long as the government is conflating the social institution with the legal contract, the two become inseperable. Of course, separating the two also entails problems (you bring up child marriages for example, and I will readily concede that I have no good answer to that).

In other words, it’s less about fundamental rights than about the government favoring the interests of one group of adults above another. As to your point about the right of denial, I think you make a good point overall. However, you have failed to make a point in favor of excluding same-sex couples as a way of forwarding the social good. Should we do so? Why? How does it forward the social good?

My point is simply this – unless there is a clear and compelling reason why same-sex couples should be barred from marriage, it makes little sense to do so and is nothing more than legal descrimination. It may, in fact, even improve both their lot and our society at large (by better including more of our members) to allow it. The only objections I have heard are either from outdated mental-health arguments (themselves long-since abandoned by those who work and do research in mental health) or religious objections (which, based on a court rulings concerning 1st amendment issues are considered legally invalid).

You claim that I want to impose my view on others – well, that depends on what you mean. My view is that legal adults of sound mind should have freedom to act so long as we are doing no harm to others (and yes, this means that people should be allowed to do all sorts of things that I don’t like, so long as they aren’t hurting anyone else) – heh, no wonder I sometimes get mistaken for a Libertarian. Yes, it’s idealistic. Yes it’s unrealistic. I know that, but most ethical positions ultimately are, that doesn’t mean that they can’t or shouldn’t serve as compasses for our courses, so long as we keep in mind the practical limitations and need for concessions and don’t confuse the compass for the road map. So, I would argue that what I want to see in the world is that neither myself nor anyone else is able to impose our will on others any farther than is necessary to prevent harm.

You state that my particular ethos does not offer any better way to determine the social good than a religiously based one. I would argue that it does – that we can determine the social good by watching the effects of our actions upon society, attempting to predict the impacts of our actions, and adjusting (or even flat-out changing course) as we find more about the effects of our actions. That being said, if you were to say that we could end up in some ugly places due to people differing on what is or is not a social good, well, I would agree, and I have no good solution at this time (but, then, I have seen no evidence that those who wish to restrict our actions do either). On this point, I think that we would have to respectfully disagree, and as I cannot persuasively argue against your point at this time, I will consider what you have to say – you may change my mind in the long run.

As for the notion that I want to silence or somehow prevent participation in public life by the religious – that is simply not true and I am getting sick of people claiming that this is my goal. I see no way that such a thing could be done even if it were desirable, and I don’t see how it is desirable. What I do want is for government policy to be based on evidence and an attempt to prevent harm, and I want to have everything (including my own ideas and beliefs) open to scrutiny. More, based on a fairly consistent legal reading of the 1st ammendment, religion is not to be the basis of law – this seems a good thing to me as it means that we must have a basis for law other than claims of revelation from on high. And, yes, I will advocate for this position just as much as others advocate for wanting a biblical basis of law – they are in their rights to argue for their point, and I am within mine.

One last point – you comment that the church doesn’t claim that homosexuals are inherently sinful. Which church? There are some that do not, that is true. My own experience, growing up in a very religious area, is that many do advocate for that position, and my recent experiences indicate that these churches provide a good deal of the driving force behind the current ballot measure. So, just as I would be well cautioned to avoid over-generalizing, so would you.

mnsc said...

I appreciate your distinction between civil unions and marriage. In fact, gays in California already have access to civil unions that give them most of the benefits of marriage. What is left could be added in without all the controversy. No, what is really at stake here is yet another battle in the endless “culture wars”. The gay community, rightly or wrongly, will not accept “second-class” status even if in name only. I think it will be a Pyrrhic victory, but that's neither here nor there.

What really counts here are the legal ramifications. Because ultimately, people of faith will be called up to accept something that they simply cannot do. Think discrimination laws. Will you be able to deny someone's application for rent because you do not recognize their “marriage”? Will a business be forced to provide spousal benefits? Bigoted or not, it smacks of the majority running roughshod over the minority.

As to the “clear and compelling” case for denying same-sex couples the right to marry, well, it all depends on your assumptions, doesn't it? That is precisely the case I am trying to make. In your vision of the world, such a case does not exist. For others, religious or not, there is a clear case. What makes one better than the other?

You could make the case of “as it long as it does no harm”, but then that's such a value-laden judgment, isn't it? Who defines “harm”? It's a quasi-Benthamite point of view with which I am distinctly uncomfortable.

I think what amuses me the most is the attempt by rationalist thinkers to provide a more “sound” and “compassionate” way to think about social issues. In the rush to avoid absolutist types of thinking, they believe that they are jettisoning the old bigoted ways. Instead, they have merely unmoored themselves from any moral compass, and now set adrift on an uncertain sea, find themselves at the mercy of whomever has the better “logic”. And oh, what dangerous and murky waters those are!

As for Churches and their teachings on homosexuality, I cannot vouch for them all. I am familiar only with Orthodox and Catholic thinking on this. But I would caution you to look hard at even the most fundamentalist Baptist: I guarantee you that they will condemn the sin, but love the sinner.

Anthroslug said...

Thank you for the continued comments, you have provided me with some excellent food for thought.

The point that you make about discrimination laws is well-taken, but the same applies to laws regarding ethnicity-based discrimination. Under the course that you seem to advocate, do we do away with those laws as well, or do we make a special case for sexual orientation? I have heard some decent arguments made both ways on this. I'm not being sarcastic, I am curious as to your opinion.

But turn this around - why should someone who is not a member of a religious group that is opposed to same-sex marriage be denied the right? If you are concerned about the rights of business owners, landlords, etc., to practice their religious beliefs, then is it not also reasonable to insist that those who do not share those beliefs should not be forced to behave as if they did?

As for your characterization of "rationalists" as "unmoored from morality" - I know and know of many non-religious "rationalists", and I have yet to meet one who has no moral guides. We don't rely on scriptures for them, but we do manage pretty well. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of a simple response, but are tied in to both notions of social responsibility and our nature as evolved social animals.

You are correct that the term "harm" is subjective, and one I have struggled with. The problem is that we don't get away from it by relying on religious models of morality. At best, they come out looking essentially the same as non-religious models of morality, and at worst they label essentially arbitrary things immoral.

My own experience with biblical literalist and "social conservative" sects has indicated that while lip service is paid to the "love the sinner", both behavior of the flock and sermons tend to be condemning of the person as unsalvageable. Your experience has, apparently, been different, and you have clearly had experience with a better class of person than I have.

But, of course, there are many churches with many teachings, and many of them approach this issue in ways different than we have been discussing. I don't claim, nor have I ever claimed, that all religious people hold the same point of view - but simply that the opposition to gay rights in the US is primarily rooted in a particular and prevalent form of religion.

Anthroslug said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anthroslug said...

Mnsc - I thought what you had written over last night, and I have the following thoughts.

You make a good point about how the concept of harm can be either abused or used discompassionately to justify actions that, while they may ultimately serve some good, we would all consider reprehensible. However, our legal system (itself a secular system) does currently balance identifiable harm with individual rights and responsibilities, and while there are many cases where one can argue that the balance is shifted too far in one direction or another or that some laws (such as many of the anti-drug laws) have more to do with alarmism than with good policy, it usually works well enough. So, we do have a long-lasting and more-or-less working model to draw from and to demonstrate that while imperfect, a method of judgement based on the concept of harm (coupled with individual rights and responsibilities, as mentioned) can be made to work better than a method based on revelation from on high (if you doubt this, compare the current US legal system to those used during the Renaissance or Medieval periods of many European countries, or many Middle Eastern nations today, where revelation from on high was used). The system is, of course, far from perfect, and requires constant vigilance, but history has shown it to be better than the alternative. If you have a third alternative that shortcuts the problems, please, let us know.

Now, I am aware that you personally probably do not actually advocate for a system based entirely on some form of religious revelation, but as those two are the only that have been suggested in our discussion here, it is the side that you have been taking. Again, if you have another idea altogether, I’d like to hear of it.

Second, you essentially chuck psychological research out the window because of its imprecise nature. While it is true that psychology doesn’t allow for the precise predictions that physics does (yes, I know that that is an understatement), it does produce real information nonetheless, and that information can be of great value in determining public policy. Certainly it must be used with caution, but when certain patterns emerge time and again, or fail to emerge at all (as in the question of whether homosexuality is a mental illness), then that places the burden of proof firmly on the shoulders of those opposed to said data. So, if you are going to chuck out one form of inquiry because it is not precise enough, what do you replace it with?

And that brings us to another point, a pattern I have noticed in your arguments both in this post and previously. You tend to state that “proposition A cannot be fully proven beyond all doubt, and therefore should be either rejected or considered no better than proposition B.” Previously, you had argued that because the existence of a god could not be absolutely disproven, it was only reasonable to assume that god’s existence and nonexistence should both be considered equally likely. In this case, you argue that because ideas of harm, social good, and mental health cannot be demonstrated with perfect confidence, then the best recourse is to maintain a traditional stance without question.

Considering that the current exchange started with you accusing me of illogic and mis-statement, this is interesting. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can be proven beyond all possible doubt. There is always the possibility of some missing piece of information that, when found, will change or understanding of the situation completely. However, that doesn’t mean that all possibilities are equally likely, and we can figure out likelihoods pretty well, even while we forget about absolutes. We can either make the best decisions we have based on the information available to us, as all of us (even you) do, or we can sink into nihilism and simply say “well, I can’t know it absolutely, therefore I’ll take no stance or stick with tradition.”

Another big logical problem with your arguments, and I refer to this above as well, is that you express concern about people who are opposed to same-sex marriage due to their religion being forced to live in a society with it. But what about those who do not share these beliefs – there are after all both religious and non-religious people who have no problem with same-sex marriage. Your solution seems to be that everyone should be forced to live by the religious standards of the opponent so that the opponents won’t be offended. The only conclusion that one can draw from your argument is that only the opponents have any rights here. How is that either reasonable or moral? You express concern about the “tyranny of the majority” and then advocate for the “tyranny of the minority.” Again, if you are going to hurl insults, be more cautious of your own reasoning.

Now, if you are going to advocate that the laws should be structured so that those who are opponents don’t have to serve same-sex couples as if they were married, then say that – again, though, I would argue that if you are going to do this, you must also make allowances for those who are opposed to inter-racial couples, couples of varying ages, etc. on a religious basis – and yes, such people do exist. Are you comfortable arguing for such a position?

One last thing - you also have a history of claiming that I am taking positions that I am not taking. It was you and not me who brought "fundamental human rights" into the discussion - my concern was rooted in our legal system rather than broader human rights questions. You also have claimed that I want to silence the religious - which is about as far from the truth as possible (I want to critique religious beliefs, but this is just as much protected free speech as anything that they wish to say is), and you have routinely implied that I am "adrift without moral moorings" - which, aside form just being insulting, is about as incorrect a description of me and how I live my life as one can get.

again, as this current exchange started with you making comments about my "illogic and mis-statement", you should be more cautious about attributing views or actions to me that are not mine.

Anthroslug said...

I should also add one last thing - I am assuming that you support the position in favor of Measure 8 because you do advocate for that side in your comments here. I am aware that you may be playing devil's advocate - and fair enough if you are - but as I don't even know who you are (though you seem ot know who I am), I can only argue with the position that you take, whether or not it is one that you personally hold.