Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hellish Pronouncements...and Biblical Comfort for Voting Day

Thanks to my friend Arni Zachariassen giving me the heads-up on these matters, I've learned that as a philosopher I'm uniquely vulnerable to eternal damnation, and that as someone with a propensity to vote Democratic I'm pretty much doomed to the writhing agonies hell (primarily, it seems, because of the Democratic Party's growing support for same-sex marriage).

Actually, the article about philosophers and hell is a clever little piece by a pair of atheist philosophers--Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse--that aims to be a kind of reductio ad absurdum argument against anything like the traditional doctrine of hell.

Tragically, it appears that the article about Democratic voters going to hell, written by a guy named Dennis Marcellino, is not a satirical Onion piece but is meant in all seriousness--a kind of scare-you-to-vote-my-way article which, while it isn't likely to sway Democratic-leaning voters to rush out and vote for Romney, might actually inspire some of them to stay home on election day (operating on a better-safe-than-sorry mentality).

I think a philosophical refutation of Marcellino's absurd argument is actually laid out in the clever little piece by Aikin and Talisse. I defy you to find someone who chooses to vote Democratic (or Republican for that matter) because they correctly believe that the party they are voting for is the party of satanic evil bent on defying God and undermining all that is good and true--and so, out of a love for evil and mayhem, they vote for the party they judge to be most evil. And can eternal damnation really be warranted if a vote is cast out of a sincere belief that in an imperfect world, forced to choose between imperfect political parties (or not vote at all), the party one is voting for is perhaps a little bit more on track? If not, then your eternal fate isn't likely to rest on what you do on voting day.

But such philosophical arguments won't impact those who look to the Bible for all their answers. And Marcellino's case for the damnation of Democratic voters rests on a Biblical argument (albeit a very bad one that makes huge, utterly unwarranted interpretive leaps at every single step).

So, for those biblicists who suddenly find themselves hesitant to vote Democratic out of fear that Marcellino might be right, I offer the following words of comfort: At least according to what Paul says in the Bible, you won't be eternally damned for voting how you do. And why do I think that? Well, consider these statements made by Paul:

"Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous" (Romans 5:18-19).

"For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he many have mercy on them all" (Romans 11:32).

"For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive" (1 Corinthians 15:22).

"For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross" (Colossians 1:19-20). 

I've italicized the relevant "alls" here in order to make it obvious that Paul clearly thinks everyone is going to be saved--regardless of how they vote--on account of Christ's reconciling and justifying work on our behalf. So go vote as your conscience sees fit, without fear that God will smite you for it.

(Yeah, yeah, I know this is proof-texting, and that my proof texts can be interpreted in slightly different ways than what I offer here...but if Marcellino can claim that Democratic voters are all damned based on a few biblical texts taken out of context and then lavishly interpreted to force them to say what he wants them to, then I can take a series of biblical texts and assert that what they clearly seem to be saying is what they really are saying).

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Memorial Day and the Pacifist Conscience

Another Memorial Day is upon us. Social media sites are filling up with the call to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.  One cannot log onto facebook without seeing earnest images of military graveyards or soldiers in wheel chairs, paired with reminders that Memorial Day is not just about a long weekend and a barbeque party.

The images and messages do their inevitable work on me. I feel compassion for those who lost so much. I see the numbers--the nearly half million American soldiers who died in WWII--and think about them and the millions of others around the world who died during that conflict--both soldiers and civilians. And then I think of all the other wars, all the soldiers who came home physically or emotionally scarred, or who never came home at all. And I think, "Yes. We must remember."

But what does it mean to "remember" the wages of war and the sacrifices of our soldiers? The standard American answer is this: We remember that "freedom doesn't come free," that soldiers died and sacrificed themselves so that we can enjoy our freedom and way of life, and we remember this in order to express our gratitude to them.

But this answer, however much it resonates with those around me, doesn't quite capture how I feel when I reflect on our wars and the sacrifices of our soldiers. Here's the problem: Sometimes soldiers have been called into service by our government, torn from their families, required to fight and die--and their sacrifice didn't contribute to our freedom or way of life. They were sent off to fight optional wars for questionable purposes. And while it makes their loss more bearable to suppose that it served some great good, sometimes that's just not true. Sometimes our government made a bad decision, and our soldiers' bravery and sacrifices served a dubious cause. And I want to remember them, too. I want to remember and grieve for them, too. I want to honor them, too.

Part of what makes it difficult for me to earnestly repeat the platitudes so often quoted on Memorial Day is this: I believe that the number of cases in which our soldiers were sent out needlessly is far greater than most people seem to suppose. For much of my life I've described myself as a pacifist, although what I've meant by that term has evolved over the years. Sometimes I question whether the term is entirely fitting, since I worry about the kind of dogmatic or uncompromising implications that "pacifism" is often taken to connote ("It is NEVER morally permissible to resort to war").

It is more accurate to say that I am deeply skeptical of war. I look at the world around me and I see a war system. By this I mean that nations treat war and the threat of war as go-to responses to the range of threats that they face, and they devote often enormous resources to improving their capacity to wage war successfully. And what is the result? In a sense, it has become true that we have no choice but to go to war in many of the cases that we do--no choice but to send our soldiers out to kill and die. But the reason we have no choice is because we've put all our eggs in the military basket, so to speak. We haven't explored the nonviolent alternatives enough even to know what they might be, let alone invested in our capacity to deploy these nonviolent measures effectively.

How many trillions have we spent on the military budget? Can any of us honestly say that, yes, the US government has devoted just as much in financial and personal resources, in time and talent and energy, in training and preparation, in order to turn war into a genuine last resort, one that comes only after the enormous battery of powerful nonviolent tools we've developed have failed us?

No. We don't have an enormous battery of powerful nonviolent tools. Certainly nothing to compare with our military arsenals. Is that because there aren't in principle such nonviolent tools? Or is it because we haven't spent nearly the resources to discover them and develop them that we've devoted to developing military tools?

Too often in international conflicts, the only real alternative to walloping others with our big stick is approaching them and saying, "Hey, you really don't want me to wallop you with this big stick, do you?" Far too often, this is what diplomacy amounts to, and when others don't respond to it--when they get defensive, when their egos won't allow them to "lose face"--we say, "See? Some people just can't be reasoned with." And we wallop them with our big stick.

Is it ever the case that wielding a big stick on the international stage is the only way to promote our safety, our prosperity, our freedom? Perhaps so. But our big stick is people. People who are taken away from their homes and families, often for long stretches of time. People who suffer and sometimes die. People who kill and who live with the memory of those they killed. People who sometimes come home without arms and legs, or who come home with post trauma.

And our big stick wallops people--and usually not the ones who respond defiantly to our underdeveloped efforts at diplomacy, the big egos in charge. Usually it's people very much like our own soldiers, people with families they've been taken away from, people who would rather live and love than fight and die. And then there's the "collateral damage"--again people, in this case civilians, who were in the wrong place at the wrong time when the big stick fell.

Is it sometimes necessary to resort to a big stick? Perhaps so. But the costs are so high that we'd better make damned sure we've explored the alternatives, cultivated our capacity to pursue the alternatives effectively, and exhausted the alternatives before we send real human beings out to kill and die for our sakes. For me, remembering and honoring those who've died in war should mean redoubling our commitment to reducing--and perhaps one day eliminating--the need for war.

Going to war may sometimes be the best we can do under the circumstances. But we need to keep in mind our role in shaping those circumstances. And we need to look for ways to change them.

I am grateful that when our collective fixation on military solutions puts us into a situation where the only option is war, there are those who are willing to leave home, to leave love and comfort, and to risk themselves for our sakes. But I also want to honor those who were sent out to fight and die when war wasn't the only option--and not by pretending that it was. I think we honor all of them by striving to expand our options, by increasing the range of national alternatives to our big stick made of human lives.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Social Meaning of Marriage: Some Thoughts on Wedgwood's Same-Sex Marriage Argument

USC philosopher Ralph Wedgwood has a published a very helpful article, "The Meaning of Same-Sex Marriage," in The Stone (the New York Times' philosophy forum). In it, he notes the debate over same-sex civil marriage shouldn't be limited to the legal issues, since marriage (even in its civic rather than religious sense) has more than just a legal meaning defined in terms of the legal rights and responsibilities it bestows. It also has a social meaning.

So what is this social meaning of "marriage"? Wedgwood notes that an institution has such a meaning when there are a set of "understandings and expectations...that almost all members of society share." Such general understandings and expectations typically exist when an institution is traditional, that is, when it has been around for awhile and has become part of our shared cultural furniture. While laws might support such an institution, it has a life apart from the laws. And so, as Wedgwood puts it, marriage is "a traditional way of life imbued with social meaning, held in place by law."

This is a point, Wedgwood notes, that opponents of same-sex marriage tend to stress. But Wedgwood argues that if we look closely at the social meaning of marriage, it actually gives a further argument in favor of marriage equality, in addition to the legal argument that tends to be what progressives on this issue focus one. Here's how Wedgwood puts it:
So what exactly is this (social) meaning? Since it consists of generally shared understandings and expectations, it can not include any controversial doctrines (such as the traditional Christian belief that marriage symbolizes the union of Christ and His church). It must consist in more mundane and less controversial assumptions about what married life is normally (though not always) like. These assumptions seem to include the following: normally, marriage involves sexual intimacy (which in heterosexual couples often leads to childbirth); it involves the couple’s cooperation in dealing with the domestic and economic necessities of life (including raising children if they have any); and it is entered into with a mutual long-term commitment to sustaining the relationship.

At least until quite recently, it was also part of this social meaning that every marriage was the union of one man and one woman.
But while it is important to make this last concession on pain of living in denial, Wedgwood doesn't think this fact about the traditional understanding of marriage can carry the weight that opponents of marriage equality want to give it.

And why not? Here's where Wedgwood's argument gets interesting. For Wedgwood, to understand which features of the traditional social meaning of an institution are most important, we need to know what benefit is conveyed by the existence of an institution defined in this way. And for Wedgwood, the benefit is a communicative one. Here's how he puts it: marrying, a couple can give a signal to their community that they wish their relationship to be viewed in the light of these generally shared assumptions about what married life is like....In this way, marriage’s social meaning makes it possible for couples to communicate information about their relationships in a particularly effective way. This is important because people do not only care about tangible benefits (such as money or health care or the like); they care about intangible benefits as well. In particular, people care deeply about how they are regarded by others — which inevitably depends on the information about them that is shared in their community.
What the social meaning of marriage does is enable couples to communicate something to the broader society that it would be much more difficult to otherwise communicate efficiently: "This is how we'd like to be regarded and treated by our neighbors, our friends and family, our community, and the broader society."  The "this" might be a bit more involved than Wedgwood indicates in his sketch. I supect it generally involves the communication of a commitment to sexual and romantic fidelity which leads society to view sexual activity--and the cultivation of romantic feelings even when they don't involve sex--with someone other than the spouse in a different light than such activity would be viewed if the couple weren't marriage.

But such details aside, Wedgwood's makes the very interesting point that a person's sex is well-established and readily communicated apart from the institution of marriage. You don't need marriage to communicate that. And so the communicative benefit of marriage is in no special way served by hanging on to the old assumption that married couples are comprised of one man and one woman.

More profoundly, he notes that the traditional social meaning of marriage has changed over time based on considerations of justice. Notably, the marital partnership used to be generally understood as a hierarchical one in which the woman is subordinated to her husband. Marriage is not superfluous for communicating such a message--but we've decided that such a message is one that shouldn't be communicated let alone practiced, because fairness dictates against such subordination. And so justice has led us to change our social understanding of marriage in ways that substantively effects what is communicated by it.

The capacity of gay and lesbian couples to signal society about how they want to be regarded is compromised when these couples are denied access to the institution of marriage. And you need a compelling reason to deny a social benefit available to some that is denied to others. In this case, then, social justice issues speak in favor of changing the social meaning of marriage, but in a way that eliminates none of the communicative benefits of marriage--since matters of gender are so effectively and efficiently communicated in the absence of the marital institution.

Put another way, more of the communicative function of marriage was lost when we stopped treating the marital relationship as hierarchical than will be lost by extending marriage to same-sex couples, since in the latter case nothing is really lost at all. Instead, the capacity to have access to that mode of communication is just made more broadly available.

Overall, this strikes me as a significant argument. I think Wedgwood may underappreciate the extent to which prominent defenders of marriage equality already reach beyond the legal arguments and consider the social meanings of marriage. While it is true that a tactical interest in distinguishing civil marriage from religious marriage has led to a focus on the legal dimensions of the civic institution, there are plenty of defenders of same-sex marriage who pay serious attention to broader social concerns. Andrew Sullivan, for example, has long stressed the social impact of being denied, as a gay man, participation in an institution of such weighty social significance. Jonathan Rauch has long pointed out the social effects that same-sex marriage can have--an argument that goes well beyond equal access to a set of legal rights. More generally, gays and lesbians generally know that "marriage" entails a social recognition of the couple as a united pair, a "family"--and one of the main reasons they want access to marriage is for the sake of having their intimate partnerships appreciated publicly as the family units that they experience them to be.

My own argument about the meaning of the term "marriage" also goes beyond understanding it as a legal arrangement. In brief, my view is that marriage in its core meaning refers to a certain way of being related to another person. As such, this core meaning is not lost if marriage is available to partners whose personal characteristics (such as their gender) don't prevent them from relating to each other in this marital way. If infertility does not prevent a couple from being related in the marital way, it follows that procreative potential is not an essential feature of the marital relationship--and barring such a feature, same-sex couples can relate in all the meaningful ways that heterosexual married couples relate.

But even if defenders of marriage equality are already aware of the social dimension of marriage and its significance for the debate, Wedgwood has nicely articulated an important point and stressed an aspect of the issue that might have gone underappreciated.

So what should we make of his argument? Is it convincing? I suspect that critics of Wedgwood are most likely to question whether the specific communicative function that he highlights is really the chief benefit of marriage as a social institution. Some, such as Margaret Somerville, locate the chief good of marriage not in a benefit enjoyed by the married couple, but in a benefit enjoyed by the broader society. Specifically, she thinks that what marriage does is symbolically honor the procreative pair-bond, lifting it up for special social recognition and support. This singling out of the life-producing pair-bond for special recognition is, on her view, supposed to help promote certain social values that she believes it is good for society to have. Jean Bethke Elshtain offers an argument along similar lines in a 1991 Commonweal essay, "Against Gay Marriage".

Obviously, Wedgwood's perspective doesn't directly take on arguments like this (which could be independently challenged in terms of society's willingness to, among other things, marry heterosexual octagenarians). But I think his perspective raises important difficulties for Somerville and others like her, by bringing to the table further concerns that would need to be weighed against whatever social values are supposedly promoted by denying marriage equality.

Specifically, refusing equal access to the individual goods that marriage affords--such as the communicative goods Wedgwood identifies--impacts the values inculcated within a society. Most would agree, I think, that valuing equality--both equality under the law and equal access to participation in less tangible social goods--is good for society. And there is symbolic damage to our social respect for equality when sexual minorities are denied participation in such a core social institution as marriage. We shape our social values when we legitimize such social marginalization. We symbolically vindicate differential treatment based on unchosen sexuality. The value that equality is granted in society is correspondingly diminished.

Is there any value promoted by limiting marriage to procreative couples that is so significant, so crucial to promote--and so impossible to promote in any other way--that it justifies such a sacrifice in society's regard for equality?

That, it seems to me, is the question that opponents of marriage equality need to answer. And I doubt very much that any good answer favoring inequality is forthcoming.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Are atheists just in denial? Hellish motives behind a misguided notion

I remember it vividly. It was after my first visit to my then-girlfriend's church, and I found myself out to lunch with her pastor--a forceful personality whose every word radiated a kind of aggressive conviction. You got the sense that, whenever he said something, there was an unspoken addendum that went something like this: "By the way, if you disagree with this, then you are spitting in the face of God and have proved yourself to be a dangerous servant of Satan whom I will do my best to convert or silence so as to make sure that you do not endanger anyone's immortal soul."

Or maybe that was just my imagination. In any event, I found him quite intimidating.

I was reminded of that lunch the other day while I was reading Stephen Law's recent post, "Do atheists know God exists? " Law's post is a response to another post by Randy Everist. Both are considering a claim commonly made by conservative Christians--namely, that atheists really know that God exists but are engaged in some sort of deception, including self-deception. Put another way: they're in denial. Both Law and Everist have some trouble with this claim, but Everist tries to salvage a version of it. Law--I think quite convincingly--shows why Everist's salvage job fails.

But I don't want to talk specifically about the merits of Law's arguments here. Instead, I want to think in a somewhat different way about this idea that all atheists and agnostics are in denial.

My girlfriend's pastor, lo those many years ago, asserted this idea over lunch. And when my face began to inch, ever so slightly, towards an expression that may have hinted at skepticism, he quickly invoked the Bible--specifically, Romans 1:18-20, in which Paul writes, "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."

The man said that last bit more than once: "They're without excuse." This piece was important to him. It was important that non-believers be without excuse. And I remember that an old woman at a nearby table overhead him (the pastor had a resonant voice--he was preaching even in the restaurant), and she felt the need to voice her earnest agreement.

When the preacher said this, I wanted to respond with vocal incredulity. I might have said "Are you nuts?" if I'd had more courage. You see, I knew lots of atheists and agnostics. Some were close friends. Others were loved ones. And it was quite apparent to me that their lack of belief in God wasn't about denying what was plain before their eyes. 

Even though this happened years before The God Delusion hit shelves, I'd met atheists a bit like Richard Dawkins. And say what you will about Dawkins, it's pretty clear that he believes what he says about the absurdity of belief in God. I think it's clear to most followers of my work where I stand on this matter: We live in a world that is like that famed duck-rabbit image, a world that can be seen in different ways. And, contrary to Dawkins, I think one reasonable way in which to see the world is theistically. But in such a world, belief in the existence of God isn't a matter of knowledge but of faith--by which I mean it's a matter of choosing to see the world in terms of a hoped-for possibility. And this means that those who don't see it this way aren't denying something that they "really know in their heart is true."

But let's set aside such philosophical ideas and simply look at actual atheists and agnostics.

The reason I couldn't take that preacher seriously that day was because of the atheists and agnostics I'd known. Some had once been believers but had lost their faith--and they'd lost it kicking and screaming. They'd fought tooth and nail to preserve what had for so long helped to define who they were...until, finally, they had to admit that they just didn't believe anymore.

This doesn't smack of denial. In fact, I've know people who quite clearly were lying to themselves while they avowed belief in God, who really had already stopped believing and just weren't ready to admit it yet.

And I've known people who were perfectly open to the idea of God, but who neither found a compelling internal drive to believe nor saw any compelling evidence for God's existence when they looked at the world around them. And so they remained agnostic--friendly to believers, but honest enough to say, when pressed, "You know, I just don't have any beliefs about that." And these were not people full of "godlessness and wickedness," but rather people with a strong moral center, a noble heart, deep compassion and kindness.

I'm speaking, specifically, of my father. 

The preacher at that restaurant table announced, in effect, that my father was without excuse. That he was willfully denying the truth--this man whose character I knew as well as I've known the character of anyone. And I can tell you this: Anyone who met my father, paid any attention to him, and then insisted that he "knew in his heart that there is a God but lied to himself and others about it"...well, such a person would have to have been doing what that preacher claimed nonbelievers do: Refuse to acknowledge the obvious. 

More broadly, the notion that all atheists and agnostics are in denial is one that you can persist in clinging to only if you either don't pay attention to your atheist and agnostic neighbors, or if you willfully distort the evidence that pours in when you do pay attention. This notion operates as a way of blocking or impeding honest appreciation of other human beings. It is, in that sense, an impediment to love--because love begins with attention and the effort to understand.

So why do some Christians, like this preacher from my past, insist on clinging to this notion?

There are probably a number of reasons. Three in particular come to mind: First, because they cling to a doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and it sounds as if Paul endorses this notion in Romans. Second, because they cling to the doctrine that nonbelievers are damned to eternal hell at death, and they're astute enough to recognize that such a fate doesn't seem just if the person who is being thus damned is, well, exactly like my father in fact was. Third, because the level of certitude that they long to invest in their beliefs is hard for them to preserve in the face of sincere, authentic disagreement, thus leading them to want to deny that any sincere disagreement really exists.

And so, when they meet decent atheists and agnostics whose views are obviously sincere, views that express personal integrity as opposed to denial, they have to lie to themselves and others about those people, and declare them to be without excuse, in order to be able to cling to their infallibilist and hellish certitude.

In the process, they lose sight of what may be the deeper message of Romans 1:18-20--a message about paying attention to what's plain, about being honest with oneself about what one sees; a message about how those who fail to do this risk becoming alienated from the source of truth and love.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Ethical Relativism vs Preference Utilitarianism

There’s been a provocative discussion going on in the comments section of an earlier post, “Spitting at the conventional wisdom.” Specifically, the conversation has been about a recurring topic on this blog: the nature of morality and the respective merits of relativistic and objectivist understandings of moral claims—a conversation sparked by Darrell’s suggestion that the effort to change hearts and minds on the issue of same-sex marriage requires invocation of objective moral standards.

In this discussion (and elsewhere on this blog), Bernard has been an eloquent voice in defense of relativism. His comments, however, have features that cause me and others like me—probably Darrell among them—to scratch our heads and wonder if we might simply be miscommunicating. That is, I’m led to wonder whether we are using terms like "objectivism" and "relativism" in different senses.

Specifically, Bernard’s comments in the earlier discussion thread are rich with normative language, and I wonder how to make sense of those remarks if I interpret that normative language in accord with what I understand relativism to be. For example, he says the following:

"(The fact that most leaders of social movements were objectivists rather than relativists) certainly doesn't establish social progress requires such leaders. It may well be that incremental change is more positive and lasting than revolutions (and here we must balance the positive achievements objectivists against some of their immeasurable damage, hence my use of Stalin as a possible example)."
An underlying assumption of this remark seems to be that there is such a thing as social progress—that social change can be positive (change for the better) or negative (change for the worse). And the suggestion is made that maybe an advantage of relativist approaches to making social progress is that the changes, while more incremental, are more likely to last.

The difficulty I have with this perspective is that one of the key philosophical challenges to relativism is that, because it makes the subjective preferences of the individual or community the standard of value, and because "progress" is a value judgment (change for the better), relativism seriously truncates the senses in which any social change can count as progress.

If what is "good" for a society and its members is relative to a culture's collective subjective values, then we might say that a culture progresses to the extent that it develops institutions and practices that more effectively realize those values. But no change in the dominant subjective values could count as progress.

And so a slow, negotiated change in the dominant valuation of same-sex relationships wouldn't count as progress in any deep sense. It would count as progress only relative to those individuals who happen to already value such relationships. From the standpoint of those who abhor same-sex relationships, it wouldn't count as progress at all. It's not just that it wouldn't seem like progress to them. It wouldn't be progress. Progress itself is fundamentally relativized.

And one wonders: why should I seek to persuade people to move away from their subjective preferences in favor of mine, if there can in principle be no reason to think that my preferences are any more fitting or appropriate than theirs? Why should I be open to being persuaded, to adjusting my preferences in the light of theirs, if there is in principle no reason why my preferences are any worse than theirs?

As James Rachels and other have argued, it seems as if subjectivism in ethics takes away the possibility of rational discourse about ethical issues. If there’s no sense in which it really is better (or really is worse) to allow same-sex marriage in society than to forbid it, then there’s no sense in which there really are reasons to allow same-sex marriage rather than forbid it (or really are reasons to forbid it). And if there are no such reasons, then if I talk as if I am trying to give you reasons to believe as I do I’m really just engaged in a kind of deceptive use of language (perhaps self-deceptive): I am attempting to present as a reason something that cannot be a reason for the simple reason that in the ethical domain there are no such things as reasons that support one ethical view over another.

And so, all arguments and efforts at persuasion reduce to a kind of psychological manipulation: I attempt to get you to embrace my preferences, not because there is any good reason to do so, but because I want you to; and I try to make it look, falsely, as if there is a good reason to do so in order to more effectively influence your preferences. Since this is done in the absence of any actual reasons to suppose that such a change would be a change for the better, there is no meaningful distinction between reasonable persuasion and pschological manipulation. All of it's nothing but more or less effective forms of the latter.

So can this line of concern be answered? And if so, how? It seems to me that the best way answer to these concerns while staying within the spirit of relativism makes something like the following move: while there’s no such thing as “values” or "the good" apart from subjective preferences, other people's preferences have the same status as my own, shaping the good of other people as surely as my preferences determine what is good for me. And every person’s subjectively-defined good has just as much of a claim on being realized as anyone else’s, implying that there is a reason to attempt to negotiate our way towards policies and practices that do the best job of maximizing preference-satisfactions.

In such negotiations, the fact that someone subjectively values X becomes a reason (all else being equal) for anyone to pursue actions or policies that help to bring about or maintain X. But each such reason must be balanced against a wide array of potentially conflicting reasons in the effort to find that course of action which has the strongest reasons in its favor.

From such a perspective, it becomes possible to reject certain preferences, to view them as ultimately bad reasons on which to act. Some preferences effectively "drag down" our potential for maximizing preference-satisfaction, since they are preferences about the preference-satisfaction of others. More precisely, some people prefer that certain important preferences of others not be satisfied. This creates a conflict among preferences. Not all such conflicts "drag down" the potential for maximizing preference satisfaction (for example, I prefer that pedophiles not satisfy their preference for child sex partners; but in this case, we know that children who fall prey to pedophiles suffer long-term affects that negatively impact their prospects for maximizing preference satisfactions of their own).

In many cases, however, there can arise good reasons to oppose such conflict-generating preferences and to encourage those who have them to take steps to change those preferences--for example, by cultivating and practicing empathy. More broadly, we might argue that the more widely people practice empathy—the more their actual preferences are shaped through the practice of empathy—the less conflict there is among our preferences and the more preferences it becomes possible to satisfy. This, then, becomes a reason to call empathy “good” in a sense that isn’t just an expression of personal preference, and to use empathy as a standard for assessing the merits of individual preferences.

But none of this is relativism as I (or most moral philosophers I know) would define it. It's preference utilitarianism. Preference utilitarianism is a moral theory which holds each person's (and, arguably, animal's) preferences to be reasons for anyone to favor actions that satisfy those preferences (all else being equal). And this means that what is right is determined by what has the best reasons in its favor, not by what any person happens to prefer—even if the preferences that are out there in the world serve as the basis on which moral reasoning is done. Subjective preferences become, on this theory, objective reasons for action: That Joe prefers that X come about is treated, on this theory, as a reason for anyone to favor the realization of X in the absence of any competing reasons against X.

There are many who explicitly label themselves relativists who, when I listen to what they have to say or read what they write, sound to me as if they are actually preference utilitarians. This is the case with some of the regular commenters on this blog. Which leads me to wonder whether they are using "relativism" in a broader sense than I do--or whether, perhaps, they are a bit unsure themselves about whether they find relativism or preference utilitarianism more attractive.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Making it Personal: Why Same-Sex Marriage Can't Be Just an "Issue"

In a post the other day in which I addressed my struggles about blogging and writing about the topic of same-sex marriage (and gay rights more generally), I stressed that for me this isn't just an issue. I put the point as follows:
One of the challenges on the issue of homosexuality and the church, however, is that I care about this issue because I care about the people who are affected by it, LGBT friends and family who I think have endured considerable hardship and suffering because of traditional views and the actions which follow from them.

And this means this isn't just an issue. There are some topics where "agreeing to disagree" is a way of showing mutual respect in the face of uncertainty. But given my understanding of what is at stake when it comes to such matters as the moral condemnation of homosexuality and opposition to same-sex marriage, to agree to disagree is to agree to let real people continue to be harmed.
A recent New York Times piece underscores the point I was trying to make in that post. The essay, "For Some, Same-Sex Marriage is not Politics, It's Personal," traces out how close personal relationships with gays and lesbians tends to be decisive in shaping one's views on gay rights issues. If you are close to someone who's gay, it's hard to persist in denying them and their intimate partnerships equality under the law.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the New York Times piece discusses Maureen Walsh, a Republican state representative whose views on same-sex marriage were changed when her daughter came out:
Take Maureen Walsh. By night, Ms. Walsh runs Onion World, a sausage restaurant in Walla Walla, Wash., with her family. But by day, she is the Republican state representative for a district in the state’s conservative southeastern corner. She said she had no problem with domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. But when it came to marriage, she drew the line. Then she started thinking about her 26-year-old daughter, who recently came out of the closet.

“In some selfish way I did think what an affront to my beautiful daughter, who deserves something everybody else has in this country,” Ms. Walsh said in an interview, recalling how her decision to vote yes on the same-sex marriage bill that passed in Washington in February sprang more from a motherly impulse than from any political or ideological reasoning.

“It’s selfishness, but it’s motivated by love,” she said. “And I’d rather err on the side of love, wouldn’t you?”
I find it intiguing that she describes her motive as "selfish," while in the same breath describing her motivation as love. I suspect that, in fact, Walsh was confusing the "selfish" with the "personal." When her daughter came out, same-sex marriage could no longer be a merely abstract political issue. She suddenly found herself reflecting on this policy issue in light of an actual human being, a person Walsh loved with a mother's love. That is, she loved her daughter for the daughter's own sake. That's not selfishness, even if such love means your own welfare becomes bound up with the good of others. When you expand yourself through love, so that others' joys and sorrows affect your own welfare, you are taking a risk, making yourself vulnerable in new ways.

Selfish people don't do that. Selfish people try to keep things impersonal, so that they won't have to worry about being hurt by the sorrows and injustices that afflict others.

The Christian call to love, by contrast, is a call to make things personal. It is a call to try, as far as we are able, to love those who are affected by what we do and the policies we endorse, and to let our decisions in such matters be shaped by that love. We must try to love them as a mother loves--so that when they suffer, we suffer. So that when they feel like they are cut off from the bedrock institution of social life, we feel cut off. So that when they weep to hear their president announce a message of inclusion--as Andrew Sullivan recently did--we can understand and empathetically grasp their joy.

To be committed to an ethic of love is to be committed to making such matters as same-sex marriage personal. If it's just an abstract issue for us, just some political policy decision to be assessed on the basis of some impersonal "principles" and "values," we aren't being guided by an ethic of love. When Jesus said, "The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath," he was making a profound statement about the priorities that flow from an ethic of love. Principles and rules exist for the sake of people, not the other way around. If a rule no longer serves the people we're supposed to love, then it's the rule that has to give way.

This isn't to say that there aren't any hard-and-fast rules. Rather, it's is to say that we have to make those decisions--about which rules are inviolate, and which need to admit of exceptions--from a standpoint of love, a standpoint in which we care, personally, about those who are affected by the rules.

When you love your gay and lesbian neighbors in a personal way, you understand how unequal access to marriage affects them--because you care about them enough to pay attention. And you don't just assume that their same-sex attraction is a harmful or dysfunctional desire akin to the alcoholic's craving for alcohol; because you base your views about such matters on how the same-sex attraction is integrated into their lives as a whole. Whose lives are richer, fuller, more personally and spiritually whole? Those who repress and deny their same-sex attraction? Or is it those who accept those desires as part of who they are and then looks for ways to live out those desires responsibly--perhaps by following the same model that serves as the heterosexual standard for responsible sexuality, namely marriage?

It is not possible to make pronouncements about gays and lesbians that are utter hogwash--as Paul Cameron is wont to do--if you pay the kind of attention to gays and lesbians that love demands. If what you are saying is personal, because what you are saying materially affects people you love, then you are less likely to perpetuate deeply harmful misinformation. You'll make sure, before you say something, that it isn't slander. (I'd advise clicking over to the Cameron recording only if you have a stomach for listening to extremely abusive and slanderous falsehoods spoken as if they were gospel truth; if you can't stomach that sort of thing, then don't listen.)

The New York Times essay observes that, when the same-sex marriage issue is personal, political divisions and ideologies tend to fall away. Support for same-sex marriage tends to increase. This seems correct, but my point is not this merely descriptive one. My point is that we ought to make it personal.

For those committed to an ethic of love, this cannot and must not be merely an issue about which we have a political opinion. It must be personal. And if it isn't personal already, then go out and make it personal. Find your gay and lesbian neighbors, and ask them about their lives. And listen in love.

Monday, May 14, 2012

News Flash! Obama NOT plotting to trigger martial law and set himself up as American Fuhrer

You heard it right. As shocking as it may sound, President Obama is not Hitler’s (black) clone, and may not even be the Antichrist. As popular as it has been on right-wing internet sites, there is no substantiation for the report of a DHS whistleblower exposing an Obama conspiracy to trigger a “Reichstag” event—in the form of a faked assassination attempt on the president, leading to a wave of national chaos that Obama will then ride to a position of tyrannical power.

Earlier reports of Obama paving the way for such a takeover with power-grabbing executive orders have, it turns out (again to the dismay and astonishment of many), proven vacuous. The so-called executive order that was identified as a reason to anticipate such a plot has proved to be nothing more than a routine update of an executive order that’s been on the books in one form or another for decades.

Although some Americans are stunned into silence by the news, it is becoming increasingly apparent that President Obama may, in fact, be the mild-mannered and somewhat wonky constitutional lawyer and left-leaning political moderate that he appears to be, with no ambitions of setting himself up as Fuhrer for life by deliberately triggering a massive explosion of national violence.

In related news, a philosophy professor at Oklahoma State University has come out in favor of a democratic political process focusing on civilized discourse about the relative merits of opposing candidates’ qualifications and platforms, without hyperbolic fear-mongering. In this spirit, the professor admits that he does not live in mortal terror of Mitt Romney being elected president and confesses that were Romney to be elected, the world would probably not come to an abrupt, apocalyptic end.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Spitting at the conventional wisdom: Some thoughts on (my) blogging

Whenever I encounter advice about blogging--at writers' conferences, on websites, etc.--the message is the same: Keep it brief and to the point. 500 hundreds words or less of punchy, provocative prose. A blog isn't the place to write a feature-length article, or to get bogged down in academic details. If it get's too long, break it up into a series.

I suppose that, were I to consistently follow this advice, I'd get more page views. More people would read my stuff. Fewer people would navigate to the page, realize my piece was the length equivalent of an academic article, and promptly navigate away. More people would come back for the next post.

And, of course, some of my more faithful readers and commenters would no longer be getting what initially drew them to this blog. Some of the readers who've said they were powerfully impacted by the substance of this blog might not have been so impacted.

So, call me a rebel, but I'm going to keep writing posts that are just too damned long. I spit in the face of conventional wisdom! Nya!

But seriously, I don't think there are any rigid "rules" of good blogging. There are blogs that aren't worth reading. But a blog, like a book, is a format that allows for a diversity of approaches. There are short books and long ones, academic books and popular ones, punchy, provocative books and deliberate, thoughtful ones. The key question is whether there's a niche for the kind of blogging that you do, whether what you have to say contributes in some small or large way to people's lives. And the beauty of blogging is this: If the only life that your blogging contributes to is your own, that's enough to justify doing it. It doesn't cost anything (or needn't), so if you enjoy doing it then who cares if there's an audience of 10 or an audience of 10,000?

Those of us who blog don't all do it for the same reasons.  And not only do different bloggers have different aims and motives for their blogging, but an individual blogger's aims and motives can change from post to post. This is certainly true of me. Sometimes I want to tell a story. Sometimes I want to develop a line of argument and solicit the kind of instant feedback that blogs offer. Sometimes I want to promote my books or other writings. Sometimes I have a viewpoint that I think will help other people live richer lives. Sometimes I have a distinction to make that I think will help people think more clearly on a topic. Sometimes I want to rail against perceived injustices. Sometimes I want to be funny.

As followers of this blog know, a lot of my blogging addresses religious issues in a philosophical way intended to spark substantive conversations--establishing a vanue where thoughtful disagreement and productive dialogue is possible (productive at least in the sense of hopefully advancing deeper understanding of divergent perspectives). While I try to be less technical and "academic" even in such blog posts than I would be in a philosophical article, I also try to be more rigorous than the 500-word-limit-punchy-post-rule allows. The kind of blogging I do in these cases may not generate mass-market appeal, but that doesn't mean there isn't a place for it.

Sometimes, however, I want to use the blog to participate in an important public conversation--and so I want the post to be appealing and accessible enough to actually be read by a wider audience.  I think of the conventional wisdom about blog length and content, not as some rule that you have to follow for your blog to be a good blog, but as advice that can be helpful to follow when you want your message to reach a wider audience. At the same time, I want such posts to introduce into the broader public discourse ideas and arguments and distinctions that I think will be actually be helpful and meaningful. In other words, I want what I say to provoke thought and conversation, hopefully across conventional divides and polarities.

But finding the balance between writing in a way that is likely to be heard and writing in a way that is true to my understanding of how controversial conversations ought to be approached--that's not easy. As I get increasingly focused on my current book project--on homosexuality and Christianity--I will undoubtedly be offering more blog posts that I hope will have an impact on an ongoing public conversation that's defined by strong opinions, polarization, and passion. And I'm not, in this conversation, a neutral party. I have my own commitments, my own passions. I'm not a mediator in this dialogue, but a voice for a certain view. But I want to be a voice that is clear and helpful, one that deepens understanding of the position I espouse and the reasons behind it. And I hope that my posts can stimulate productive reflection and conversation as opposed to simply reinforcing ideological divides.

One of the challenges on the issue of homosexuality and the church, however, is that I care about this issue because I care about the people who are affected by it, LGBT friends and family who I think have endured considerable hardship and suffering because of traditional views and the actions which follow from them.

And this means this isn't just an issue. There are some topics where "agreeing to disagree" is a way of showing mutual respect in the face of uncertainty. But given my understanding of what is at stake when it comes to such matters as the moral condemnation of homosexuality and opposition to same-sex marriage, to agree to disagree is to agree to let real people continue to be harmed.

When people you love are being harmed by a practice, sometimes your humanity demands something other than thoughtful conversation about the ethics of the practice. Imagine that a child is being deeply hurt by peer abuse, but those peers don't consider it abuse at all. To them, it's "no big deal." They're just having fun. In that case, there is an important place for standing with the victim and saying, "This is a big deal! This IS abusive. It's NOT okay!" Even if saying these things doesn't convince the abusers, it may be the very thing that the victim needs in order to feel less alone, in order to feel loved in the face of that treatment, in order not to be crushed by the abuse.

Sometimes a blog post can be a gesture of solidarity with the victims of social marginalization, a gesture that would lose its power if it were less passionate, if it were more academic, if it were more "open" to the perspective of those who believe the social marginalization is justified. How do you balance the desire to thoughtfully engage with those who disagree with you--in this case, with thouse who regard a marginalizing practice as morally right--with the desire to express solidarity with those who, in your experience, are deeply harmed by the practice?

I raise all these issues not because I have good answers, but because I want to be honest about some of my struggles on these matters.

I'm sure there's a blogging rule against such meta-level posts--and against using the term "meta-level" in a blog post. Call me a rebel.

Friday, May 11, 2012


John's and my book on universalism, God's Final Victory, received a very nice review from CHOICE REVIEWS. Here's the review for those who are interested.

The reality of hell and eternal torment as doctrinal elements under the banner of Christian love forms the context of this closely argued and thorough book. Kronen (Univ. of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN) and Reitan (Oklahoma State Univ.) dissect doctrinal meaning and history in their persuasive presentation of universalism, i.e., that the most coherent claim for Christians is that all people will be saved and that none are consigned to hell or able to will themselves to eternal separation from God. In nine tightly organized chapters, the authors present arguments for and against a broad array of doctrines of hell and universalism, concluding that "there is no rational basis to prefer DH (doctrine of hell) to DU (universalism), and there are compelling reasons to prefer DU." The treatment of scripture avoids hermeneutical tricks and takes seriously the rich tradition of belief in hell by nearly all principal Christian thinkers. At times the interest in sorting through fine distinctions becomes more distracting than helpful, but the overall quality of the work overshadows any critique of form. The historical breadth and depth of analysis will make this volume helpful for researchers and for graduate-level courses in philosophy of religion. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-level undergraduates through researchers/faculty. -- R. Ward, Georgetown College

Why did Obama do it?

Predictably, there's been considerable speculation about why President Obama took the historic step of explicitly and publicly declaring his support for same-sex marriage.

I'll admit that I didn't expect it--certainly not in advance of the upcoming election. Too politically risky, it seemed to me. And whatever else he may be, President Obama is a politician who cares about political risks. The supporters of same-sex marriage were already going to vote for him, so what could be gained by being the first sitting president to take a public stand for marriage equality? Wouldn't he risk mobilizing social conservatives, bringing to the polls those who might otherwise (out of tepid feelings for Romney) have simply stayed home on voting day?

A recent CNN piece suggests the following answer:

"This is an acknowledgment that those voters (conservative Democrats) are largely gone, and the president and the Democrats have to respond to a different coalition: Younger voters. More socially liberal. White collar voters," (Ron) Brownstein (CNN contributor and the National Journal's editorial director) said. "This is a reflection of his understanding that that is now the coalition that is going to elect him and that he needs to respond to."

That's one answer. I (somewhat facetiously) gestured to another one when I suggested, on Facebook, that Obama made his public declaration because he'd read the brilliant Onion satire in which Obama reportedly chastized the sitting president for continuing to hedge on the subject:

"President Obama's inability to simply state whether he's for or against gay marriage is unacceptable," Obama said during a spirited 30-minute address in which he sharply criticized the president for failing time and again to articulate his beliefs. "This nonsense where he says his views are 'evolving' isn't going to cut it anymore. It's patronizing and it's wrong."

Maybe he decided that everyone knows he supports same-sex marriage anyway, and they were reading his silence as nothing more than political expediency. And maybe he didn't want to turn voters off by looking like nothing but a political animal--and so, being the consummate political animal that he is, he did what would make him appear less of a political animal.

Maybe so. But here's another possibility. Maybe he heard the results of the North Carolina vote and felt disheartened by the continued willingness of so many Americans to write discrimination into the law, and even into their state constitutions. Maybe President Obama really believes that it is unjust to systematically exclude one minority group from access to a meaningful, rights-bestowing and life-enriching legal institution that is available to the majority. And maybe the North Carolina decision was the catalyst that helped him to rise above considerations of politics, at least in that historic moment, to do what's right.

Political cynics and Obama opponents may scoff at the suggestion, but perhaps the president acted in a moment of conscience. Maybe he realized that he did have something to lose by remaining evasive on the subject. Not votes, but his integrity.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

What lunch has to do with injustice in North Carolina

While the people of North Carolina were voting yesterday to write discrimination against sexual minorities into their state constitution, I was having lunch with one of this nation’s most tireless defenders of the rights of sexual minorities.

Mel White was passing through Oklahoma with his long-time partner, Gary, on the way from Virginia to California. Mel is the author of the powerful memoir, Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America, as well as founder of Soulforce (a nonviolent social action group that targets the religious roots of violence and injustice against sexual minorities). For the last several years he and his partner have lived in Jerry Falwell’s hometown of Lynchburg, in the shadow of Falwell’s mega-church as well as Liberty University, attempting to support the LGBT community there and, by their presence, to serve as a visible reminder of the humanity of those most harmed by Falwell’s teachings (teachings that are still very much alive after his death). But now, five years after Falwell's death, they decided it was time to move on.

And the cross-country drive has turned into an impromptu book tour: the Holy Terror Tour, to be exact, named after Mel’s newest book, Holy Terror: Lies the Christian Right Tells Us to Deny Gay Equality. Since they were stopping for a book-signing at a Barnes & Noble in Oklahoma City, I drove down from Stillwater to meet them.

Unfortunately I ended up at the wrong Barnes & Noble. (Who knew there were two of them on the same street in different parts of the city?) As I was wandering the aisles, wondering what had become of Mel and the book signing, I heard my name over the intercom. When I got to the customer service station, I was handed a phone. It was Mel.

He knew that I was planning to be at the book signing, and somehow he’d figured out what had happened. And so, graciously, he offered to drive to the bookstore where I’d been waiting and take me out to lunch.

We went to the best Mexican restaurant in town, which happened to be right by the Barnes & Noble I’d wrongly chosen to visit. And we had a lovely lunch talking about books, about teaching ethics, about religion gone wrong, about the roots of anti-gay prejudice and  the roots of my own passion for gay rights. And we drank Tecate with lime , served in the way that they serve it at this particular restaurant—with most of the inner meat of the lime clinging to the rim of the over-sized goblet. As Mel noted, it looks kind of gross but it’s incredibly good.

Mel’s life story is remarkable. It’s a story of inner struggle, of courage, of audacity and hope. For years he was an insider in the Christian right. He was even the ghost writer for Jerry Falwell’s autobiography. But those were years of soul-crushing self-denial and pretense. And finally he couldn’t take it anymore. Not only did he come out of the closet, but he came out (nonviolently) swinging. To be more precise and less metaphorical, he knew first-hand what the teachings of the Christian right were doing to the souls of gays and lesbians, and he couldn’t stand by and let such spiritual violence continue unresisted. And so he spoke out. And he took action. And he continues to do so.

But for the hour that we sat together at Ted’s CafĂ© Escondido, we were enjoying the flavors and textures of good food and congenial company. And even as we were there talking and eating, the people of North Carolina were taking to the polls. As I enjoyed the warm humanity of Mel and Gary, who have been together in loving partnership for decades, the citizens of North Carolina were voting to marginalize them.

Supporters of the anti-equality constitutional amendment--including Billy Graham--consistently cited God and the Bible as reasons for their stance. I do not doubt that of the roughly 60% of voters who supported the amendment, most were operating in part on the conviction that voting as they did was what God wanted them to do.

This upsets me more than anything else. One reason, of course, has to do with my belief in the importance of religious liberty and church/state separation. To believe in these things is to believe that sectarian religious doctrines cannot serve as a legitimate basis for justifying legal discrimination. Equality under the law is a core civic precept. When such legal equality is abridged on the basis of particular religious teachings—when that abridgment is written into the very constitution of a state—then sectarian religious doctrines have become established as state doctrine.

Does that undermine the separation of church and state? You bet does. Does it threaten religious liberty? Imagine that the religion in question isn’t yours, but your equality under the law has been truncated because of that religion’s teachings. Would you cry foul? Would it be a truncation of your religious freedom? Of course it would be. When the state takes a particular religion's sectarian teachings as warrant for overriding basic civic principles of equality, the state has co-opted a particular religion's values as state policy in a way that threatens the religious liberty of anyone with a different faith.

Since the state of North Carolina affirms freedom of religion in Article 1, Section 13 of its constitution, what the people of that state have just done is write a contradiction into their constitution. Of course, they aren’t alone in doing so. My state of Oklahoma did the same thing a few years back. But that doesn’t make it any less contradictory.

But for all my outrage about the violation of church/state separation, that isn’t what angers me the most about the recent events in North Carolina. The idea that God stands behind this act of discrimination, that the author of the universe wills that some of his children be cut off from the nurturing intimacy of life partnership, that they be systematically excluded from one of the great blessings of human life simply because they happen to have a romantic and sexual orientation that leads them to fall in love with persons of the same sex—this idea is appalling.

Why believe it? Because of this or that verse of the Bible, defenders of the view will say. But here’s the problem. The Bible tells us that human beings were made in God’s image. It doesn’t say that a book was made in God’s image. It said that human beings were. If we take that biblical teaching seriously, then there is more of God in the loving couple I was sitting across from at lunch yesterday than there can ever be in any collection of writings, no matter how insightful or sublime.

And if we read the Christian Bible carefully, what does it tell us is the fundamental revelation of God in history? This Christian Bible? No. It points to Jesus. Jesus has that honor. A person has that honor. And that person taught—at least according to the Bible—that he comes to us in the form of the neighbor in need. What we do to the least of these, we do to him.

And that same Bible teaches that God is love. It teaches that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Love is something that is experienced in our relationships with persons, not in our relationship with a book. If God is love, then we experience God most truly in loving relationships. If we want to know God, we need to get on with the messy business of loving one another, listening to one another, paying compassionate attention to the persons who carry in themselves the image of God.

At every turn the collection of writings we call the Bible is pointing us beyond its pages, calling us to care about humanity, to find the divine in the work of loving and being loved. When I do that, I cannot help but look at Mel and Gary, sitting side by side, years of tender affection on display in the subtle interplay of glance and comment, smile and touch.

Here is love. And the law of love calls me to pay attention to this love, to these people, to pay compassionate attention to these neighbors.  The law of love calls me to pay attention to Mel’s moving and often harrowing life story, a story in which the traditional condemnation of homosexuality is seen, vividly, as soul-destroying, a story in which rejection of that traditional teaching has the character of a spiritual awakening.  The man who wrote Falwell’s autobiography from the shadows is very different from the person that has emerged since that spiritual awakening to preach for equality in the light of day, the person I sat across from at the restaurant, the man who boldly and lovingly, often at personal risk, fights one behalf of those who are suffering.

And I know which man more closely resembles the chief moral exemplar of the Christian faith.

If you believe that God is love--as Christians do--then you cannot pretend that the lessons gleaned from loving relationships have no bearing on understanding the will of God. You cannot pretend that you are doing justice to God when you use a handful of ambiguous biblical passages as a reason to ignore the often anguished stories of neighbors you are called to love.

To prioritize those passages, interpreted in the least loving way, over the lessons of human community, it to turn the Bible into a dead book of rules. It is to take this once-living text and beat still-living human beings with it, sometimes to death. It is to turn away from life and compassion and make the Bible into nothing more than an underwriter of prejudice.

What makes me so angry is that so many of North Carolina's voters have been so indoctrinated into a rigidly unquestioned set of teachings--about the Bible, about homosexuality, about God--that in the name of fidelity to a God of love they are unwittingly doing violence to the spirit of love. In the name of fidelity to a scant handful of biblical passages, interpreted as they’ve been taught to interpret them, they are unwittingly doing violence to the spirit of the Bible. In the name of loving their neighbors, they are unwittingly doing violence to their gay and lesbian neighbors.

Let me pause here and say that I know that many thoughtful people don’t see matters quite like this. And a blog post can't address all the objections and counterarguments, or acknowledge all the nuances, all the ways in which people who are doing violence to sexual minorities can also be, in many other dimensions of their lives, genuinely and deeply loving. In saying that the people of North Carolina did violence to Mel and Gary and all their gay and lesbian neighbors, I am saying something about what they did. I am not trying to define who they are.

And I’m not saying they intended to do violence. It is the teachings—teachings that can lead good people to unwittingly do violence in the name of what is right—that are the deep problem.

In my own life, the error of these teachings became increasingly and inescapably apparent because of my close relationships with gay and lesbian friends. If there is anything I want to share with those who voted for NC's Amendment One, it's this: From now on, before you take actions that have staggering implications for real human beings, get to know those human beings. Take them to lunch. Or coffee, or dinner. Or sit down with them on a park bench. And listen to their stories.

Love for them demands no less. Love is about listening empathetically, listening in a way that leaves you open to being moved. 

If you can't get yourself to listen to a live human being, then read stories such as the one Mel tells in Stranger at the Gate.

Read honest, heartfelt narratives. Take your gay neighbors to a Mexican restaurant and ask them to tell you about their lives. Love finds its fullest expression not when you chastize and berate and judge, but when you open your heart enough to your neighbors that their journeys can touch you. Before you decide again to truncate rights, to restrict and marginalize, listen with love.

That's what I did. And it changed me.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What do you do?

"What do you do?"

A couple of years ago I was in a play based on the writings of Robert Fulghum--All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten--which featured this question in one scene. The focus of the scene, and of the Fulghum essay on which it was based, was to highlight how uninformative the usual answers to this question really are.

I think that in my own case, when people ask, “What do you do?”, telling them my profession is probably more informative than it would be in many other cases. I spend a lot of time thinking about stuff, and writing about and discussing those thoughts. But still, to say that philosophy is what I do seems to put in shadow other things that define me at least as much.  
Over the weekend I was at a writers’ conference where the keynote speaker, Steven James, encouraged everyone with a passion for writing to say “I’m a writer” even if that’s not what they’re paid to do. After all, Van Gogh was barely paid for his painting but surely was a painter. My wife is training for her first full Ironman triathlon this summer. She isn’t getting paid for it, but she devotes many hours a week to intense workouts, often getting up at 4:30 in the morning to get her training in before work. She loves it. It gives her a sense of purpose. Is she a triathlete?

At the writers’ conference this weekend I thought to myself: “Philosophers are my colleagues, but writers are my tribe.” So, should I say that writing is what I do? Or playing the violin? That used to be what I said, back in high school. Maybe now it should be acting, given how much theatre I've done in the past year.

I think those kinds of answers are really short-hand answers, gestures that we make because we don’t have the time to tell a story. But here, on a blog, I do have time to tell a story. And for some reason, the story that comes to mind right now, when I think about that “What do you do?” question, is about one of my less-than-stellar parenting moments—a time last summer when I tried to build a tool box with my eight-year-old son.

My son’s a perfectionist, and I’m an academic with insecurities in the face of such things as screwdrivers and measuring tape. But he was so excited about getting started on putting together that tool box—and I thought to myself, “What can go wrong? It’s a kit.”

“Okay,” I said as we laid out the pieces of wood on the table and I squinted at the instructions. “We need three screws.”

He fished in the little plastic bag that came with the kit, and came up with three innocuous-looking bronze screws.

It didn’t take long for things to go to hell. We’d barely started working on the second screw—having abandoned efforts to get the first one into the hole—when he flung down the screw driver, ran into his room, and barricaded the door.

In the span of five minutes, a would-be bonding experience with an eager son was transformed into an hour-long sobbing meltdown. What happened?

The details are a bit hazy. I remember trying to instruct him on how to screw in a screw. I recall seeing the delight wither on his face when, concerned that the screw was going in crooked, I snatched up the block of wood to look more closely at it. I can recall his exasperated hiss: “Let me do it!”

And then came that moment when I knew he’d given up. He started spinning the screwdriver round and round without pressing down. “See? Nothing’s happening.”

“That’s because you’re not pressing down on the screwdriver as you turn.”

“I am pressing down!”

Here, let me—”


And so he fled into his room, and I found myself slumped on the floor in the hallway outside, trying to talk to him through the barricaded door. I was baffled. Somehow I’d turned father-son bonding into (or so it seemed) the worst day of my eldest child’s life.

“Can you explain why you’re so upset?” I asked from my spot on the hardwood floor. The only response I got was the sound of his sobs and one more piece of furniture being pushed in front of the door.

Finally I gave up and did what other 21st Century fathers would do. I pulled out my Android Smart Phone and texted my wife.

Half an hour later she came home, snatched up a book about perfectionism, and asked my son to look at a page and pick out the thoughts that were going through his head. I watched as he pointed to phrases that were printed in various sizes on the page. His finger landed on “I can’t do anything right” before moving on to “If I goof up, something’s wrong with me.”

“Now are any of those thoughts true?” my wife asked.


And he nodded. And in no time at all he was back to his usual happy self. I blinked at my wife, filled with a kind of awe.

But this isn’t about my wife. It’s about who I am. I’m the guy who tried to build a toolbox with my son, even though I’m essentially incompetent with hand tools, even though I haven’t yet achieved the psychological finesse to perfectly maneuver the pitfalls of such a task with a perfectionist child. Because of the eagerness in my son’s eyes.  

And I’m also the guy who followed after my sobbing child, my heart aching, and sat there on the floor in the hall outside my son’s room, baffled and wanting nothing more than to rewind the morning and start again—start again and do it right this time, and put my arm on my son’s shoulder, and look at the finished tool box and say something like, “We did it!”

I’m the guy who was slumped there full of feelings, most of them about my son and my family and my desire to be a good father, about the enormity and importance of the job.

But, of course, what I tell people is that I’m a philosophy professor who specializes in ethics and the philosophy of religion. Go figure.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

"Why is there something and not nothing?" A bit more on the question

I thought it might be useful to offer a few clarifying remarks concerning the philosophical version of the “cosmological question,” and the notion that this question operates (as I claimed in my recent “Science vs. Philosophy?” post) as a wellspring of belief in the transcendent.

First of all, as I noted in that earlier post, Leibniz put the question as follows: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” By “nothing,” here, Leibniz meant absolutely nothing, not even empty space, and certainly not empty space governed by empirically discovered laws that regulate the behavior of that empty space. By most standards of “somethingness” that I know of, to have rule-governed capacities is to be something. (In fact, as I understand one of Hermann Lotze's arguments, that is what makes something something).

Leibniz’s question, in other words, isn’t a question about why there is this kind of something (a vacuum governed by certain laws) as opposed to that sort of something (an expanding universe of quantum particles organized in a rich diversity of ways and governed by a set of basic constants). Leibniz is asking why there is anything at all.

In my earlier post I said that this “cosmological philosophical question” (borrowing the useful designator Burk offers in one comment) operates as a source of belief in the transcendent. I want to clarify what I mean by that. “The transcendent” refers to some reality beyond the empirical world but fundamental to determining its character, much in the way that the reality into which Neo awakens (in “The Matrix” movies) is a reality beyond the virtual reality matrix but fundamental to shaping the latter’s character. Put simply, “the transcendent” refers to a level of reality in principle beyond the scope of scientific inquiry but which, if it existed, would serve as the ultimate “explainer” of the reality that falls within the scope of science.

My claim is that the cosmological philosophical question (hereafter CPQ) helps give rise to belief in such a realm. Note, however, that belief in the existence of such a realm is distinct from any beliefs about what that realm of reality is like (e.g., whether or not it is personal or impersonal, monistic or dualistic, etc.), and also from any beliefs about the scope or lack thereof of human access to such a realm (e.g., whether introspective reflection on the content of consciousness can give us some insight into this realm that outward, disinterested examination of empirical objects cannot). To say that the CPQ gives rise to belief in the transcendent is not to say that it offers any particular answers to these other questions.

But even if belief in the transcendent is divorced from any beliefs about the transcendent or any beliefs about our ability to get in touch with the transcendent, it doesn’t follow that such belief is insignificant. At a minimum, such belief implies that there are important outer limits to what science can discover about reality, even in principle. If we were to imagine that science had completed its work (which it never will), discovering and understanding everything that it is possible to discover and understand about reality through broadly scientific means, belief in the transcendent entails that the most fundamental truths about reality would remain unknown.

To be clear, believing that there are orders of reality that fall outside the scope of scientific inquiry is not to say that, within its scope of inquiry, science shouldn’t be trusted (or shouldn’t be regarded as the go-to method for gaining knowledge). It isn’t to hold that some purported revelation from a purportedly transcendent source should be trusted above the direct evidence of sustained scientific inquiry. I think much scientific hostility to the postulate that there is a transcendent realm is rooted in these sorts of confusions about what positing the transcendent does (and does not) involve.

But at least some of the hostility is surely rooted in something that the postulation of the transcendent does imply—namely, that no matter how vital and amazing science is in furthering our knowledge, it cannot plumb the deepest and most important mysteries of existence. Whatever science learns, and however important or useful its teachings, the ultimate nature of reality will remain beyond its grasp. At best, some scientists bristle at this suggestion because they don’t want to place a priori philosophical limits on science’s reach. At worst, they want to believe that they are part of the ultimate project of unearthing the deepest mysteries that there are, and belief in the transcendent undercuts that narrative.

In any event, my claim in the "Science vs. Philosophy?" post was that the CPQ operates as a basis for belief in the transcendent. Now this is different from saying that the CPQ operates as a good basis for such belief, but as it happens I also think that the CPQ can serve as the starting point for a powerful philosophical argument for the transcendent—a point I make at length in Chapter 6 of Is God a Delusion?

I won’t repeat what I argued there. Instead, I will simply summarize the heart of the argument, which is this: In order for the CPQ to have an answer (in order for there to be a reason why there is something rather than nothing, as opposed to the existence of the universe being a brute fact), there must exist something that possesses the property of self-existence, that is, something whose nature renders it such that it could not have failed to exist—something whose nature sufficiently explains its own existence.

This is a property that, as Hume argued, is inconceivable of anything in the empirical realm (or any empirical entity we could hypothetically construct with our imaginations). His principle, in effect, is that the formal nature of empirical reality is such that anything which can be conceived to exist can also be conceived not to exist. And so, no empirical thing we can conceive would be such that it’s empirical nature necessitated its existence.

And so, if the CPQ is to have an answer, we must posit something beyond the empirical—something transcendent. And if the transcendent is posited to answer the CPQ, it is posited as the ultimate explanation for the existence of things.

Of course, we could say that the CPQ lacks an answer. We could say that there is no reason why there is something and not nothing—that, instead, it’s just a brute fact. That’s what Bertrand Russell did. But could a reasonable person reasonably disagree with Russell? Could a reasonable person believe in the Principle of Sufficient Reason—that everything admits of an explanation, even if we can’t discern what it is? If so, a reasonable person, reflecting on the CPQ, would come away believing in the transcendent.

I don’t think this “cosmological argument” is irresistible. I don’t, in other words, regard it as a proof of the transcendent. My own view is that this argument, like many other philosophical arguments, shows why it is that a reasonable person can reasonably believe in the transcendent—even if that does not preclude the possibility that other reasonable people might reasonably believe otherwise.

Now it is important to be clear that certain questions superficially similar to CPQ do not serve as any sort of basis—good or otherwise—for believing in the transcendent. That a vacuum is inherently unstable (given certain empirically discovered laws regulating vacuums) may explain why a vacuum in a universe governed by the basic laws that prevail in this universe would resolve into more interesting “stuff”—and thus answer the question of why our universe is a universe full of protons and electrons and stars and planets rather than an endless void. But while that might answer an interesting and important question in physics without invoking anything beyond what is accessible to physics, it does not answer the CPQ.

For the reasons I've given here and elsewhere, I’m pretty sure that if the CPQ has an answer—if there is a reason why there is anything at all—that answer in principle can’t be discovered by physics or any of the other sciences (although I’m open to being proved wrong about this).

There are some (and Krauss seems to be one of them, at least given some remarks he makes in his recent apology about his earlier dismissiveness towards philosophy) who, on the basis of this fact, are dismissive of the CPQ, regarding it as an absurd or meaningless question—as if a condition for a question’s significance is its capacity to motivate a scientific inquiry. But I am very skeptical of such dismissals. If you were a physicist trying to do physics and you confronted a question that wasn’t a question that physics could begin to address, then you might not as a physicist be interested in the question. But it doesn’t follow that no human being, as a human being, should be interested in the question. Nor does it follow that the question is incoherent—unless you adopt a logical positivist philosophy of language, which I’d advise against on the grounds that doing so renders the logical positivist philosophy of language incoherent.

In any event, my own conclusion is that the question can be addressed to some extent philosophically, insofar as it can be shown that on the assumption that the CPQ admits of an answer, we are forced to the conclusion that the answer is something that transcends the reality we encounter empirically.

Whether philosophical arguments can take us any further than reasonable belief in a “something-I-know-not-what” beyond the limits of science—that is a much more challenging question that I won’t explore here (and didn’t explore in Is God a Delusion?). What I will say is that people who (reasonably, in my judgment) believe in the transcendent can and do and should speculate about it. And these speculations are susceptible to philosophical scrutiny, in the sense that philosophers can assess such things as their internal coherence, their consistency with what we know about the empirical world (since certain views about the transcendent have implications for what the empirical world would look like), and their pragmatic implications for human life.

Philosophers can and should engage in such assessments, since such assessments help us to discern what could be true and what can’t be true about a transcendent reality that defies the grasp of specific human knowledge. Knowing what could and could not be the case about X is better than nothing, even if we cannot know precisely what is the case about X. And I think philosophers can and should address questions such as whether there are conditions under which it is objectionable to live one’s life as if one or another speculative vision about the transcendent were true—and whether there are conditions under which doing so is not objectionable.