Monday, June 25, 2012

Le Guin Attacks a False Dichotomy

In my first book, Is God a Delusion?, I attacked the idea that the theist/atheist divide coincided neatly with the divide between the reasonable/morally decent and the unreasonable/moral pernicious. I'm suspicious of such practices of hierarchical division: Divide the world between A's and B's (where A and B are something other than "good" and "bad"). Then assert that all A's are good by virtue of being A's, and all B's are bad by virtue of being B's.

So, I'm a fan of people who challenge the coherence of such divides. And I'm a fan of Ursula K. LeGuin. Have been for years. The Dispossessed blew me away when I read it for the first time in college. Before that, as a boy, the Earthsea trilogy charmed me and challenged me and kept me awake past my bedtime.

So, imagine my delight to see LeGuin taking on a hierarchical division. If you haven't read it, you can find it here.

Monday, June 18, 2012

One More Go: Same Sex Marriage and Children

Sometimes when I reread my blog posts, I realize that my desire for philosophical precision (and the writing habits developed in my academic career) have gotten in the way of making my main point fully accessible to people unused to the things philosophers like to do (such as lay out arguments premise by precisely formulated premise). This seems to be the case with my recent post about the idea that same-sex marriage is bad for children.

So let me offer a companion post—one that makes ssentially the same points I made in the earlier post, but in what I hope is a more accessible way. Here goes:

There’s this recent study out there by sociologist Mark Regnerus. It seems to say that children of gay and lesbian parents have more psychological problems than do those raised by their married biological parents. In fact, however—as John Corvino has argued—the study is terribly misleading.

Although I didn’t explore this in the last post, here’s the problem with the Regnerus study (as pointed out by Corvino): it doesn’t compare kids raised in stable same-sex families with kids raised in stable heterosexual families. Instead, it compares the following two groups: (a) kids raised in all sort of families—stable and unstable—whose only common theme is that one parent or another at some time or other had gay sex; and (b) kids from stable, heterosexual, biological families.

And so the only conclusion we can reach is that if you compare kids who come from homes with varying degrees of stability against kids coming from stable environments, the kids from the stable environments do better. This is something we already knew.

And we also know that, in general, kids who are raised by same-sex couples in a stable, loving environment do just fine. Hence, the Regnerus study would at best show that, all else being equal, kids raised by married biological parents do a bit better than kids raised by stable same-sex parents. The study doesn’t do even that, but let’s suppose—contrary to reality—that it does. Would this be a reason for same-sex marriage to be illegal?


Consider an analogous case. Suppose that kids raised by their married biological parents had fewer psychological problems, on average, than kids who are adopted by a comparably stable heterosexual family. I suppose this is possible, since adopted kids often have concerns that don't occur to kids raised by their blood relatives. Would this be a reason to outlaw adoption? Of course not. After all, the kids who are adopted are generally those who don’t have a biological family that’s as stable and loving as the family into which they are adopted. If they did, they wouldn’t have been adopted.

So how do you get from “kids in general do better when raised by their married biological parents than they do when raised by comparably stable same-sex parents” to “same-sex marriage should be illegal”?

You don’t.

To get there, you’d have to assume all sorts of nutty things. You’d have to assume that, were same-sex marriage legal, there’d suddenly be a significant number of kids being raised by same-sex couples who would otherwise have been raised by comparably stable and loving biological parents. But why think that? How does legalizing same sex marriage tear kids out of loving biological homes and ram them into the homes of married same-sex couples?

Not only that, you’d have to assume that the children who are currently being raised by same-sex couples without the stabilizing benefits of marriage wouldn’t benefit from the stabilizing power of making marriage available to their parents. Huh? Or, maybe, you’d just need to assume that none of the same-sex couples with kids, none of these people clamoring for marriage rights, would actually get married if they had the chance. Huh? Or, maybe, you’d just need to assume that if these couples did get married and their kids did benefit from the stabilizing effect of that, this effect wouldn’t outweigh the harm done by the supposed droves of kids who would suddenly for unknown reasons find themselves wrenched away from their biological families to be raised by same-sex couples.

In other words, even if Regnerus’s study showed what it in fact doesn’t show, you’d have to assume all kinds of truly absurd things in order to get from these supposed results to the conclusion that we should oppose same-sex marriage. As I see it, the only way to make a case against same-sex marriage based on child welfare would be if stable, loving same-sex couples raised kids who would have been better off had they been taken from these loving parents and raised in foster care.

And no study claims to show that. Because it’s simply not true.

For those who want to explore these and other arguments in more depth, I suspect that John Corvino makes similar points with his characteristic balance of clarity, accessibility, and philosophical substance in his contributions to Debating Same Sex Marriage. I can't speak to the quality of the opposing arguments offered by his co-author Maggie Gallagher, since I'm still waiting on my copy of the book and haven't otherwise witnessed her try to make her case in the face of an accomplished philosophical interlocutor.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Deficit We Should Worry About

Since not long after President Obama took office, Republicans have been making a big fuss about the federal deficit--something they don't typically do when a Republican is president and/or when military spending is the focus of attention. Then it's the Democrats who make a fuss about the federal deficit.

What's distinctive about the deficit fuss this time around is that it's linked to the 2008 economic crash and our subsequent economic troubles--as if, in hard times, it's important for all of us to tighten our belts and the federal government isn't doing its share of this. Usually this line of thinking is bolstered by an analogy to household budgets, which need to be balanced on pain of producing long-term hardship.

Not long ago a friend of mine, Steven Stark, very nicely explained the problems with this analogy. In a nutshell (and oversimplifying matters a bit), the argument is this: The federal government is fundamentally unlike a household (or a state govermnent, for whom the household analogy works better), because the federal government is a creator of currency. It creates the currency that it spends--and the currency isn't backed by gold in Fort Knox or anything like that. Not anymore.

Households get their economic resources from elsewhere, and if their expenses exceed their income they need to borrow economic resources from someone to whom they then owe money. But as a creator of its own currency, the federal government doesn't "owe" in anything like the way that we owe. And the way that the US government creates currency is through deficit spending. To put it another way, the federal government creates dollars by spending dollars--or, to be more precise, by spending more dollars than it takes in through taxation.

Deficit spending, in a nutshell, is a means for the federal government to pump money into the economy and thereby stimulate economic activity. The federal government puts money into the economy through federal spending and takes it out through taxation. When the economy is sluggish, the government peps it up by paying contractors to build roads or paying researchers to make new discoveries without asking someone else (the taxpayer) to foot the bill--that is, the government peps up the economy by putting more money into the economy than it takes out. In other words, through deficit spending. When the economy is overproducing relative to demand, the government can slow the economy down and so avoid runaway inflation by taking money out again--through taxing more than its spends.

If all of this is right, then the idea that the government needs to rein in deficit spending in tight economic times is precisely the wrong idea--and dangerously wrong. When the problem isn't runaway inflation but a cycle of shrinking consumer demand leading to business downsizing, leading to greater unemployment, leading to shrinking consumer demand, leading to even more downsizing, what we've got is a feedback loop that only deficit spending will break--only some combination of increased spending or tax cuts. To follow the household analogy here--to do as households do, and "save money" in tight economic times--is to guarantee, in effect, that our economic problems get worse rather than better.

That's the argument--rooted essentially in the economic insights of Keynes. If we're going to make progress in handling our economic woes wisely, we need to take arguments like this very seriously. We don't want to base policy on false analogies just because they seem like common sense on the surface. If we do, we're in danger of magnifying our woes rather than treating them.

But with all that said, I think there is something that conservatives on this issue get right. Because it isn't quite right to say that the federal government, unlike households (and state governments, etc.), create the currency they spend (in fact, create by spending) rather than getting its economic resources from elsewhere. Or maybe it's better to say that, while this is correct as far as it goes, it is misleading. No one lives on currency. We all live off of what currency buys. And the things that currency buys come from the planet--from the soil, and the oceans, and the mines we dig into the mountains, and the wells we dig in deserts and gulfs.

When we increase the amount of currency in circulation, we buy more things--more goods and services, more food and fuel. Businesses are stimulated to make more of the things we buy. Currency is a fabrication that governments can create by fiat, but the natural resources of the planet are not something we can similarly create by willing them into existence. The human economy depends on the economy of the natural environment. And the economy of the natural environment, upon which all of human civilization depends--does work a lot like a household budget.

The human economy is a subsystem within the broader planetary systems of nature. And the human economy is sustainable in the long run only if it extracts resources from global geo-ecological systems at a  rate equal to or less than the rate at which those resources renew themselves; and only if it dumps waste at a rate less than or equal to the rate at which the planet can assimilate those wastes.

Now fortunately, resources do renew themselves. And fortunately, our waste is assimilated, at least when our waste is some other creature's resource. But when the global human economy exceeds these environmental renewal and assimilation rates, humanity is engaged in the equivalent of massive deficit spending. We do that for long enough, and eventually we'll go bankrupt. That is, we won't be able to meet our needs anymore, and the global economy will collapse catastrophically.

Insofar as federal deficit spending stimulates economic growth, and insofar as economic growth means greater consumption of resources and waste production, federal deficit spending can contribute to ecological deficit spending--at least when the size of the global economy has already hit the limits set by renewal and assimilation rates. And there is reason to think that we are at or beyond those limits now.

The absurd character of our political system is such that those who are most clamoring for federal deficit reduction are precisely those who show no special concern for environmental protection, who think environmental concerns are overblown, who are global warming deniers, etc. But if there is a reason to be concerned about the federal deficit, it is because that deficit is correlated with an ecological one.

But this is not to say that we should oppose, on environmental grounds, any federal-level deficit spending. Not all federal deficit spending is created equal. Deficit spending is targeted: The government spends money on specific things. And some of things that one might spend money are things that help to reduce the ecological deficit. Development of our public transportation infrastructure. Research and development of more fuel efficient vehicles. Development of our capacity to harness solar energy. Environmental cleanup efforts.

Some forms of deficit spending qualify as invenstment spending--and while not every investment pays off (Solindra), the more we invest in enhancing our capacity to live within our ecological means, the better off we'll be. Some investment spending (education) isn't directly related to fighting the ecological deficit--but it is utterly essential for our capacity as a society to effectively mitigate environmental problems we confront.

In short, what we should care about isn't the federal deficit, but the ecological one. And while some kinds of deficit spending might contribute to the ecological deficit, other kinds might help mitigate it. If we want to crawl out of our current economic woes, the federal government needs to spend at a deficit. The trick is to know how to do that without selling out our children and grandchildren, without leaving them a world on the brink of ecological collapse. What we need now is targeted deficit spending that prioritizes environmental capital, that invests in our ecological wealth, and that positions us to more effectively confront the challenges ahead.

Comment: Today is Father's Day, and while this might not seem like a Father's Day post, in fact it is. My father, in his last years, devoted his life to educating the public about environmental sustainability issues, and was active in spearheading the development of "geoethics," a dimension of geology (his field) devoted to considering the ethical and social implications of insights gleaned from the earth sciences.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Same-Sex Marriage and Children

There is an argument against same-sex marriage that's been around for awhile, and argument which insists that same-sex marriage is bad for children. This argument has received some new life recently, thanks in large measure to the results of a new study by UT Austin sociologist Mark Regnerus.

Last night I saw a teaser for a local (Oklahoma City) news report about the study, and it made my skin crawl. The voice-over asked, "Are children of gay parents more likely to commit suicide?" And then it made reference to the new study...and said that gay rights activists are up in arms about it. The effect the teaser conveyed was clear: Scientific research says that kids being raised by gay and lesbian parents are psychologically damaged by it, and the gay community doesn't like the facts because it hurts their cause.

The news report itself, which I couldn't pay close attention to because I was hounding the kids into bed at the time, seemed more balanced than the teaser--but like most local news reports, it couldn't provide a detailed analysis of how the study was conducted, its limitations, and whether the hyped implications really follow.

In fact, this study doesn't show what the teaser question suggested, nor does it support any of the more modest claims opponents of same-sex marriage want to draw from it. In a recent New Republic piece, John Corvino--a philosophical colleague at Wayne State and the co-author with Maggie Gallagher of Debating Same-Sex Marriage--exposes with great clarity the problems with the Regnerus study.

But the problems with the "bad for children" argument run deeper than a flawed study. It would be a failed argument even if the Regnerus study wasn't flawed.

One difficulty with assessing the "bad for children" argument is that those who put it forward rarely fill in all the premises. They start with something like this: "Children raised by same-sex couples do worse in general (in terms of adult psychological health) than do children raised by their biological mothers and fathers in a 'traditional' family." And then they conclude that we should oppose same-sex marriage because it's bad for children.

How, exactly, do you get from that starting point to that conclusion?

In fact, the argument is going to be pretty complicated. To see why, consider the following analogy. Suppose we can demonstrate that children raised by adoptive parents do worse in general (in terms of their adult psychological health) than do children raised by their biological mothers and fathers. Can we conclude from this that adoption ought to be outlawed? Of course not. To get to that conclusion, we'd have to introduce a bunch of very dubious premises.

First of all, it is clear that adoptive parents can and do raise healthy, well-adjusted children. If there's anything that might reasonably be claimed, it's that being raised by biological parents is better all else being equal. If a child has the option of being raised by their biological parents or by adoptive parents who are in all other respects equally competent and capable parents, then there might be evidence to suggest that biological parents are the better choice. But to get from this to a prohibition on adoption, we'd need to assume a whole lot.

We'd have to assume, first of all, that when adoption is allowed there are children who would have been raised by their biological parents who are instead raised by adoptive parents. Now this assumption might actually be true. If adoption is outlawed, then children who come out of biological families characterized by extreme parental negligence or abuse who might otherwise have ended up adopted by a loving family would never end up in adoptive homes--and some of them might, by default, remain in the abusive homes. But this just goes to show that a case against adoption would also need to assume that the children who would have stayed with their biological parents had adoption been outlawed would, as a general rule, have thereby been better off.

And this seems clearly false. If, given a prohibition on adoption, there are children who remain with their biological families who might otherwise have been adopted, it seems clear that these are precisely the same children who in general would have been better off getting adopted. And this is true even if, in a general comparison of biological families and adoptive ones, the children raised in the former do a bit better on average in terms of standard measures of psychological health. To put it simply, the biological families that lose their kids to foster care and eventual adoption are a "special class" of biological families--a special class that doesn't share the childrearing outcomes of biological families in general.

And then there's the simple fact that having in place a system of adoption provides important social goods--it provides homes for children who would otherwise have no family at all. And this fact would seem to justify a policy of adoption even if it should turn out that such a policy sometimes results in children ending up adopted who would have been better off had they stayed in with their biological families.

In fact, it seems likely that any system that allows adoption will occasionally have such a result. Suppose a woman gives up a child for adoption on the assumption she can't care for it--an assumption based on the belief that the biological father won't stick around. But suppose that this woman eventually ends up marrying the biological father and forming a happy life with him. And suppose the adopted child ends up in a dysfunctional home. Had adoption been outlawed, the child would have ended up with its biological parents and would have been better off. But does the fact that such cases exist justify outlawing adoption? Obviously not. The overall social benefits of having adoption in place warrant legal adoption even if, sometimes, had adoption been illegal, a specific child would have ended up with a better life.

This adoption analogy helps make it clear, I think, that the "bad for children" argument against same-sex marraige has to make numerous assumptions. If these assumptions were made explicit, here's how I think the argument would look:

Premise 1: Children raised by same-sex couples are less psychologically healthy in general than are children raised by their married biological mothers and fathers (hereafter, 'traditional biological families').

Premise 2: There would be more children raised by same-sex couples were same-sex marriage legal than there are when same-sex marriage is illegal.

Premise 3: If, by virtue of legalizing same-sex marriage, more children came to be raised by same-sex couples, at least some of those children would have been raised in traditional biological families had same-sex marriage remained illegal.

Premise 4: With respect to these children, the traditional biological families they would have been raised in (in the absence of legal same-sex marriage) would NOT be a special class of 'traditional biological families' with child-rearing outcomes on average worse than the child-rearing outcomes of traditional biological families in general. 

Premise 5: Even if (as seems probable) legalizing same-sex marriage would result in some sames-sex couples already raising children getting married who would otherwise have remained unmarried, this result would produce no compensating positive impact on the psychological health of their children. That is, any positive impact on the children in these families would be outweighed by the negative impact of children being raised by same-sex couples who would otherwise have been raised in traditional biological families.

Premise 6: Legalizing same-sex marriage would not help ameliorate conditions damaging to the psychological health of anyone else in society, or in any other way generate positive social outcomes, or it would not do so enough to outweigh the impact of more children being raised by same sex couples who would otherwise have been raised in traditional biological families.

Sub-Conclusion: Therefore, legalizing same-sex marriage would have a negative impact on the psychological health of some children, without there being any comparable positive psychological effect on other children or any other compensating social good (in short, without any comparable positive benefits).

Premise 7: If legalizing same-sex marriage negatively impacts the psychological health of some children without any comparable positive benefits, then it should remain illegal.

Final Conclusion: Same-sex marriage should remain illegal.

Now, once we've unpacked the argument in this way, with all its hidden premises, we see that it's a pretty lousy argument. Simply put, the argument sucks.

The fact is that same-sex couples can and do raise healthy, well-adjusted children--and that remains true even if, in general, traditional biological families are the best arrangement. And it seems clear that children raised by same-sex couples would benefit from the social and legal supports of marriage, supports which would increase the likelihood that their same-sex parents would stay together and provide a long-lasting, stable child-rearing environment. And it seems clear that, were same-sex marriage legal, the same-sex couples raising children would not generally be raising kids who would otherwise have been raised by loving biological parents, if only same-sex marriage had remained illegal.

There might, however, be a few cases like this--cases in which children are raised by same-sex parents who might have been raised in "traditional biological families" had same-sex marraige remained illegal. But if there are such rare cases, what would they look like? My guess is they'd be cases involving an ill-advised marriage between a gay man and a straight woman, or a straight man and a lesbian--a marriage entered into out of a misplaced belief that this will provide the "cure" for the one party's homosexuality. I can imagine that the legalization of same-sex marriage might help to precipitate the end of some marriages that look like this--and in some of these marriages, there will be children.

But here's the thing. If same-sex marriage were legal, it's likely there'd be far fewer ill-advised marriages of this sort. Gays and lesbians would feel less need to hide from their homosexuality (by entering into heterosexual marriage) if same-sex relationships were normalized and socially accepted. Fewer children would come into the world in the context of a marriage in which one party has no romantic feelings for the other, where one party has to fantasize about someone else in order to function sexually, while the other party senses the distance, the lack of authentic intimacy, and is hurt by it. In other words, fewer children would be born into marriages virtually destined for unhappiness.

It is unclear whether children are better off being raised by their biological parents in such unhapy marriages than they would be were the parents to divorce and find partners with whom they could actually sustain genuine romantic intimacy. It is unclear whether these unhappy marriages are more likely to endure until the kids grow up were same-sex marriage to remain illegal. What is clear is that there would be fewer such marriages were we to legalize same-sex marriage. And fewer such marriages clearly is good for children.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Storytelling and Belief

In my last post I introduced the idea that storytelling is an inescapable and important element of our nature, if not a definitive one. We are in the business of piecing together elements of human experience into a narrative that fits them together. These stories are important for our lives, and they serve a wide range of functions. In my last post I ended with a question: What do stories have to do with belief?

Sometimes what we try to piece together is a set of facts or observations, and our aim is to understand what is going on by coming up with the narrative that does the best job of coherently integrating these facts or observations. The more facts or observations that are accounted for coherently by this "story," and the fewer anomolies are left unexplained, the less likely it seems that a radically different story we haven't thought of could work as well. Sometimes, of course, there is more than one story that works as well, in which case we keep looking for something that will decide the case--some new observation or bit of evidence that fits better with the one story rather than the other.

In some arenas of inquiry it seems possible to decide among rival stories in a deliberate way, because the stories not only fits the facts on offer but enable us to make predictions: We imagine "what should happen next" in the story--and what should happen next is actually something that we could, in principle, observe. If observation supports prediction, we become increasingly convinced that the story is in fact true. What may have started out as conjecture moves progressively closer to certainty. Here, we say, is a true story.

This, I think, is what is going on with scientific or quasi-scientific explanations--and while we're not in the habit of calling such explanations stories, it seems to me that the same creative mechanisms that function in all story-telling are inexcapably implicated in scientific work. In such cases there is no question about whether we believe the stories we tell. Often, we claim to know. At the very least, we claim to have good reasons to believe that they are true. 

Fictional stories, by contrast, we know to be false. We don't believe the story; but at the same time, one test of the quality of a fictional story is its believability. Even a far-flung fantasy novel, with magic and monsters, has to pass a test of believability. The magic has to follow rules that, in some way, make sense. The laws of logic must be respected even if the laws of nature are imagined to be different. More significantly, the (human or human-like) characters have to behave and think and respond in ways that ring true to what human beings are like. Good fiction, even if it is known to be false in the details, has to be "true" at some more general level on pain of failing to connect with readers.

Between these extremes is a species of storytelling sometimes called speculation. You hear that a couple from your old neighborhood is getting divorced. You remember several things you witnessed concerning their interpersonal dynamics, and you know a few facts about their recent history. And you say, "Here's what I think might have happened between them." Your speculation might not be true--but you have some reasons to think it is. At the very least you don't know that it's false in the way that you know a fictional story is false. And if the story resonates with you strongly enough there's a good chance you'll believe it. Believe it, but not claim to know it.

Then again, you might resist believing it. Perhaps you have a history of getting things wrong in these kinds of cases. Or there's someone else you know whose speculations on these sorts of matters--even when they know fewer relevant facts than you do--more often turn out correct (when it's been possible to find out "the true story" later on). This person is "intuitive." And this person doesn't agree with your speculation. Or maybe you're just are dispositionally resistant to believing "mere" speculation unless you have to.

Of course, sometimes you do "have to," in the sense that you have to make a decision about how to act, and all you have to go on is speculation. So you do the best speculating you know how to do, given the pieces of the story that are available to you. And you operate as if the speculative story you've come up with is true, and you hope for the best.

And sometimes, even if you don't "have to" believe it (in the sense of needing to make a decision), you have an instinct. You're speculation feels right. Perhaps you have a history of getting these sorts of stories right, at least on the general level. You're the one who's "intuitive." You might resist acting as if it's right if you don't have to, but in a different sense, you believe. You don't know, of course, and you don't claim to know. But in the privacy of your heart you believe.

But all cases of speculation, regardless of whether the speculative stories are believed or not, differ from fiction in important ways. One has to do with the purpose. Speculation is an attempt to offer an account of what is going on. One isn't just making stuff up in a way that fits together. One is trying to fit facts or events or experiences together. A second difference does have to do with belief: At the very least, when you speculate, you don't disbelieve. As soon as you disbelieve the story, the story is no longer your speculation.

These three--rigorously vetted explanation, speculation, and fiction--are really points along a continuum. There's fictionalized speculation (a hostorical novel about real people that tries to be faithful to the known facts but involves lots of mere invention). And before an explanation becomes well-vetted, it starts out as speculation and moves up the continuum. And how our stories relate to belief may change dependning on where on this continuum they fall.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Storytelling Animals

The traditional philosophical definition of 'human' is "rational animal," and while I think this definition works, it seems to me a case could made for defining us as storytelling animals. That's what is suggested in a recent article by Maria Popova, and also in the book Popova discusses in that article, namely The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gottschall.

There may actually be a close connection between rationality and storytelling. Perhaps defining us as storytelling animals, as opposed to merely rational ones, focuses in on a certain kind of rational thinking that is especially distinctive of who and what we are.

Reason makes connections. Some of those connections are logical ones--and certainly part of what human characteristically do is recognizing logical implications. But the most important connections people make have to do with the question "Why?" And as soon as we start saying why this or that is the case--as soon as we start making causal connections, teleological ones (roughly, connections based on purposes and aims), or what I'll call energent ones (accounts of how some higher level property arises out of the interaction of simpler elements)--we've started to tell a story.

Scientists, in their way, are in the business of telling stories. They aim not just to be collectors of facts and observers of patterns. They want to make sense of those facts and those patterns, weave them together into a coherent picture. This is the essence of narrative, what distinguishes a timeline from a story: Fitting the pieces together in a way that makes sense. The theoretic level of science might be construed as a distinctive refinement of the storyteller's art.

Arguably, the most influential scientists are those who have a knack for how to tell their story well, in a way that resonates with and makes sense to others. Darwin, in The Origin of Species, famously told the story of evolution in a way that connected with the common experience of people of the day--by, among other things, invoking the metaphor of animal husbandry to explain the process of natural selection.

Philosophy, too, can be seen as involving a specialized kind of storytelling. Philosophy has both a negative/critical side and a constructive/speculative one. The constructive side attempts to fit disparate elements of our experience together into a coherent way of seeing the whole--and the critical side is really in the service of the constructive one, assessing attempts at speculative construction to evaluate their internal coherence and their fit with our lived experience and the facts available. Philosophy in this sense becomes a kind of storytelling and vetting of stories in an attempt to piece together our human experience into a compelling account of what it all means.

Even those who resist speculation beyond "what science tells us" have a hard time resisting their own version of such holistic storytelling, which is why "scientism" so often emerges among those who are doggedly committed not to believe in anything beyond what science tells us. Scientism is what happens, we might say, when those who consciously refuse to tell a holistic story end up telling one subconsciously: They weave together a narrative picture of the whole premised on the idea that there is nothing beyond what science gives to us, and hence postulating that the picture of "the whole" cannot include any postulates beyond the very delimited ones that arise in the scientist's specialized form of storytelling.

Naturalism, in contrast with scientism, might be seen as the conscious attempt to build a narrative worldview around such a postulate--and hence as the effort to tell this story in a self-reflective and thoughtful way, as opposed to merely falling into a muddled story by accident.

Note: The above distinction might convey the impression that agnosticism is paired with scientism rather than naturalism, but that is a mistake. Agnostics might be very deliberate, thoughtful storytellers who are simply hesitant to give too much credence to their own stories. Telling a story isn't the same as believing it.

But this point raises some interesting questions which I think I'll take up in my next post. For now, however, let me ask it of my readers: What, exactly, are the different ways in which storytelling can be (or generally is) related to belief?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Some Thoughts on Education and the Free Market

We live in a society where business executives who oversee the production and sale of crap no one needs-- let's say sugary soft drinks, which magnify health problems such as obesity and diabetes--routinely have incomes a hundred times (or more) larger than the school teachers entrusted with preparing the next generation for successful participation in society.

It can be argued that the system that produces this result has something important going for it, some procedural virtue that speaks in favor of keeping it in place despite results like this one. Maybe this is the system in which individual liberty in production and consumption choices is maximally respected without wholly undermining the future of society. Consumers are free to indulge their maladaptive sweet tooths, and resourceful business people are free to make a killing by fueling the propensity for such overindulgence--while basic education is provided by something other than the free market, and hence without the chance at generating extravagantly excessive rewards for education providers, in order to ensure that all children have a shot at being productive citizens, even the children whose parents wouldn't be able to buy a decent primary education for their children if it were provided through the free market, or whose priorities would lead them to neglect their children's education in favor of buying crap they don't need.

But even if the social disparities we see in our society are the outcome of systems possessed of procedural virtues, it doesn't follow that we shouldn't be troubled by outcomes that are so troubling in their own right. I think most of us woud agree that our education system is doing something far more crucial to the long-term health of society than is the soft drink industry. I think we can agree that even if the soft drink CEO worked very hard to become a soft drink CEO, it remains troubling to contemplate the enormous disparity in incomes between the hard-working teacher entrusted with a crucial social role and this CEO whose "social role" is to indulge a sweet tooth that it would be better for all were it not indulged to nearly the degree that it is.

Here's a deeper way to think about the problem: Education succeeds to the extent that it develops intellectual virtues and virtues of character. Education isn't just about shoving necessary information into people's heads. It certainly isn't about teachers somehow taking over the hearts and minds of their students and developing their potential for them. Education succeeds by helping students develop the intellectual skills and the habits of character that enable them to focus on developing their own talents and abilities for themselves. Education ideally aims to turn students into mature adults who defer immediate gratification for the sake of more meaningful good and long-term goals, people who develop themselves and use their talents as opposed to primarily indulging their preferences-of-the-moment.

But businesses in the free market often are most successful to to the extent that they tap into dominant preferences-of-the-moment, capitalizing on our difficulties with resisting temptation.

What's the result? Here's how George Scialabba puts it in a review of Why America Failed:
According to a very familiar statistic that nonetheless cannot be repeated too often, the average American’s day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, 30 seconds attending a play or concert, 25 seconds making or viewing art, and four hours watching television.
And I suspect we'd find similar statistics relating to food consumption choices. The pattern is this: Choices that express or reflect the pursuit of self-cultivation--of our talents, abilities, knowledge, and tastes--are far less common than choices which don't place any real demands on us.

I'm not trying to be elitist here. I'm not saying there's something essentially wrong about enjoying something that it takes no effort or training to enjoy. The point is that much of what's best in life does take effort or training to enjoy. There is a level of satisfaction that comes from developing a talent and then using it well, or developing a capacity for discernment that enables you to appreciate excellence--and it is a level of satisfaction that outstrips the satisfaction you get from satisfying your sweet tooth or watching a movie where lots of things blow up.

A life in which we develop some of our talents and our capacity to discern excellence is a better life, overall, than one in which we don't. And it isn't just better because we're likely to make more money with which to indulge our desires-of-the-moment. It is better because we can enjoy more rewarding things. A life characterized by the pursuit of excellence and the appreciation of excellence is, simply put, a richer life. 

If we want to have access to these goods we need to develop our capacities. And to do that we need to cultivate character traits like perseverence, diligence, focus, and commitment. That doesn't happen when we spend most of our time watching TV shows...and the commercials that aim to feed into our baser appetites and desires, channeling them towards consumerism. The statistics Scialabba cites are disturbing precisely because they indicate a society that has prioritized immediate gratification over self-development.

Put another way, the CEO who is pandering to our baser preferences is winning out over the school teacher who is trying to help us cultivate ourselves. And the social injustice here isn't simply that the CEO is richly rewarded while the school teacher scrapes by. The deeper social injustice is that the system is set up to more richly reward (in overt material ways) the person who panders to baser preferences than it does the person who provides the foundations for a life of self-cultivation. While I believe the inner rewards of the school teacher are more profound, the visible system of overt rewards symbolically conveys a message about social values and priorities that is turned upside down.

So what do we do about this?

We can't solve the problem simply by letting the free market do its thing. Free markets can do lots of things well, but they are designed to reward those who are (a) good at meeting existing demand and (b) good at manipulating consumer psychology to magnify demand for what they have to sell. The former does little to develop character, and the latter shapes character in ways largely indifferent to what is best for those whose character is being changed. If society is ruled by unregulated free markets, the result will be a society mostly indifferent to what is perhaps the most crucial requirement for a flourishing society: the wise character development of its citizens. And so we need institutions that aren't ruled by the laws of supply and demand--institutions that, instead, shape how the laws of supply and demand play out because, in shaping character, they help shape what people want and hence what is in demand.

We need, in other words, a system of comprehensive public education that is funded by something other than free market forces. And of course that's what we have. But the public resources devoted to compensating our teachers leave the disparity noted above intact. The upside-down message persists.

Much of the problem here is an issue of degree. We already impose upon the free market a taxation framework in which some of the wealth generated by those who largely pander to existing preferences is transferred to those who cultivate collective preferences in accord with virtue--in other words, those who teach our kids the basic intellectual and moral virtues that offer the foundation for a life pursuing and appreciating excellence. And no politician or political party that I know of is advocating that we do away with taxes or public education.

But in the political tug-of-war in our society, there are pressures to prioritize "business development" over public education--to cut taxes on the supposed "job creators" (as if there were no public sector jobs that aren't thereby threatened) and then cut salaries and positions in the public schools to compensate for this. And this strikes me as a move that should be presumptively resisted. Because it seems to me that we should be going in the other direction--that the symbolic affirmation of what our schools and our teachers are doing needs to be greater than it is.

In times of comparative austerity, it seems even more important to stress, through our policies, a set of social priorities and values that lift self-development and intangible goods above the consumerist satisfaction of desire.

In other words, when the economy gets tight, invest in education.