Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Triumph of Love, Excerpt #3: The Effects of Categorically Condemning Homosexuality

For Election Day, instead of a political post, I offer the third excerpt from my forthcoming book on same-sex marriage and the Christian love ethic. This excerpt offers a kind of summary of what the book has argued so far, in anticipation of tackling scriptural and natural law arguments for the conservative view. It thus functions well as a short, stand-alone piece (although it does not address all the details that came before or address the various objections that come later in the book). Enjoy!

I’ve tried to paint a picture of what it’s like for gays and lesbians to live in societies that deny them access to legal marriage and condemn every expression of their sexuality. Although Western societies have been moving fitfully away from this model of exclusion, this is the kind of society conservative Christians think gays and lesbians should live in. And because so many gays and lesbians have grown up in such a society, we know what it’s like for them.

My argument so far has been that by endorsing such a society, conservative Christians endorse something that harms their gay and lesbian neighbors. In such a society, gays and lesbians learn from a young age that they’ll never be equal and fully accepted members of their community. Most who try to change their intimate feelings fail, but in the process some trap themselves and their spouses in miserable heterosexual marriages they hoped would “fix” them. If they do form a loving partnership, society will condemn it. Every effort to nurture the bonds of love will be seen as evidence of their commitment to sin. While their straight friends can hope to fall in love and have their partnerships celebrated and supported by the wider community, the best sexual minorities can hope for is to find such support in a marginalized subculture while erecting walls of secrecy and isolation from those who would call their love a sin.

Some internalize the message that their deepest impulse towards love and intimacy is an affront to God. And when promises of change prove empty, they come to see that impulse as a sign that their very nature is a perversion, a blight on the world. Others, struggling to live in self-denial, cling to the praise of the very Christian conservatives who deny them what so enriches their heterosexual peers—a pattern reminiscent of abused children living for intermittent scraps of parental affection. As the only real payoff for their sacrifice, they wear the mantle of “costly discipleship” so tightly they hardly notice it costs them their ability to focus on discipleship.

Some, unable to suppress their deep instinct for sexual and romantic intimacy, pursue it in contexts where normal, healthy constraints on sexuality are absent. Since their sexuality as a whole is condemned, they make no fine-tuned distinctions between appropriate and inappropriate expressions. Loving monogamy becomes no better than casual sex—except that the latter can be explained away as momentary weakness rather than commitment to sin. In such a world, we shouldn’t be surprised when closeted pastors and politicians are caught with their pants down in pathetically tawdry sex scandals.

Other minorities, such as blacks and Jews, are raised by families like them in the ways that mark them off for marginalization. They have the opportunity from childhood to know solidarity with others who are similarly marginalized. Their homes and religious communities offer coping skills and at least some measure of refuge from society’s stigmatization.

But sexual minorities routinely grow up in profound isolation. Fearing rejection even from their own families and churches (at least if they admit who they are), they retreat into the closet—a metaphor for hiding one’s true self from the world and living a pretense. And because intimacy is about sharing oneself with others, the closet impedes intimacy across relationships—with parents, siblings, coworkers, friends, teachers and pastors. Deprived of one kind of intimacy by the categorical condemnation of homosexuality, the closet takes away the rest. Sometimes the isolation and rejection can be almost too much to bear, and all it takes is a final gesture of denunciation or scorn to spark an act of self-obliteration.

Despite all of this, many gays and lesbians make their way to a subculture that accepts them. They shake off self-loathing and the condemnation of their sexuality, and they come to see faithful partnerships as having a worth that other expressions of their sexuality lack. They fall in love, form marriage-like partnerships, and work to sustain them despite a society that not only withholds the social supports and accountability marriage provides but can be overtly hostile. Many have the devotion to do that work, and with the security of those relationships and a gay subculture that steps in to partially fill the gap, many escape suicidal loneliness.

But this bulwark against despair is something conservatives think they ought to be deprived of. Admittedly, many are sincere about trying to make alternative support systems available: ex-gay communities and spiritual friendship networks that aim to help those without the gift of celibacy to endure a life of ongoing suppression of their sexuality. But these alternatives lack what Christian marriage has: the multiple-level intimacy in which physical love is integrated with other forms of closeness in a way that forms a deeper and more holistic connection between embodied spirits than is possible without that physical dimension. And because they lack a framework for expressing sexuality that lifts sexuality out of the realm of animal lust and into a space of human meaning, these alternatives set up those gays and lesbians who lack the gift of celibacy not only for failure, but for failure of a particularly debasing kind: momentary sexual relief in meaningless encounters. As we have seen, such failure can lead to genital-slashing self-loathing.

What conservatives on this issue cannot consistently support is the bulwark against despair that does the most good: a community that supports and celebrates expressions of a homosexual orientation within the context of enduring monogamous love. Conservatives can’t consistently say that homosexuality is always a sin and yet be glad there’s a subculture where despairing gays and lesbians are embraced for who they are and encouraged to live out their sexuality with a self-affirming identity. They can’t consistently say that homosexuality is always a sin and yet be happy for their gay and lesbian neighbors who form life-enriching same-sex relationships. To think homosexuality is always a sin is, on pain of inconsistency, to think there should be no such subculture and no such relationships.

Suppose someone said something like the following about your most intimate partnership: “No matter how much it enriches your life and no matter how hard you have worked to nurture love and intimacy within it, it would be better if your relationship ceased to exist.” And then suppose they follow it up with something like this: “But even though I think this relationship that means so much to you is a moral blight on the world, I still love you.”

Wouldn’t your natural response be to say, “No, you don’t”?

The portrait I’m painting doesn’t look like a society that loves the gays and lesbians in its midst. The practical implications of condemning homosexuality, which come to vivid life when we listen compassionately to our gay and lesbian neighbors, are hard to reconcile with the Christian command to love our neighbors, including our gay and lesbian ones, as ourselves.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Richard Swinburne, the Ethics of Homosexuality, and the Ethics of Love

(Note to readers: I ran out of time on this before being able to track down and embed links to all the discussions I reference--but I thought it would be better to get this up while it is still timely than to wait. I may embed links later when I have more time.)

As most readers of this blog know, I'm in the midst of writing (actually revising) a book on same-sex marriage and the Christian love ethic.

What readers might not know is that I was part of an effort to bring Richard Swinburne, the eminent Christian philosopher of religion, to the Oklahoma State University campus--a visit that took place this past week. On Monday I met Swinburne, had lunch with him, and tried to help him figure out how to answer calls on his new cell phone (I wasn't much help). That evening I moderated his talk on arguments for the existence of God, which had an audience of 600 people not counting those watching on the live-feed from home. The following day, I introduced his lecture on "Humans have two parts--body and soul." I had him sign my copy of his book from which that lecture drew.

All things told, it was a delightful visit, and I was honored to have the chance to meet and interact with such an eminent and important leader in my field.

None of this would be fodder for a blog post were it not for what happened in the days just before Swinburne came to OSU. On the Friday before his visit, he gave a keynote talk at a divisional meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers. His topic was a departure for him: Christian sexual ethics. As part of that talk, he offered an argument in defense of the traditional, conservative Christian stance on homosexuality--a stance that I unrelentingly challenge in the book I'm now revising.

A member of the audience--J. Edward Hackett--got very upset, and not only objected to Swinburne's remarks during the Q&A but published a blog post about it, calling Swinburne's remarks "toxic." The post was widely disseminated on social media. The President of the Society for Christian Philosophers, Michael Rea, wrote a Facebook post expressing regret for hurt feelings, indicating that Swinburne's views do not necessarily represent the views of the society, and affirming the society's commitment to inclusiveness and diversity.

This triggered its own wave of outrage: A philosopher apologizing because another philosopher gave an argument for a controversial conclusion at a philosophy conference? A Christian philosopher apologizing for another Christian philosopher for defending a traditional Christian view?

All of this in the days leading up to Swinburne's visit to OSU, a day I'd been looking forward to for some time.

Of course the topic came up when I had lunch with him. After all, I was working on a book on the very topic that had just embroiled his name in a social media firestorm. He'd apparently read at least one of my articles on homosexuality, but was more interested in talking about an article I'd written with the provocative title "Swinburne's Lapse."

He knew my position on homosexuality, and I knew his. We disagreed--but since the topic was both peripheral to his career focus and unrelated to what he would be talking about at OSU, we didn't devote a lot of time to it. We ate pizza and tried to figure out his phone.

Of course, philosophers disagree about things all the time. In a sense, it's what we do for a living. And we disagree about things that impact human lives for good or ill. Some of the ideas that my fellow philosophers espouse are ones I think damage real human beings. They probably think the same about my ideas. And we have a beer together anyway. Or a pizza. Anyone unable to do that couldn't be philosophers--not and have any friends within the field.

That said, the topic of homosexuality is more than just an "issue." It's about people I love. It's about my gay best friend and my cousin. I can get very emotional about it. When I am engaging those who espouse the traditional view, my emotions give me energy to remain engaged. But I try not to be controlled by them. It is much more helpful to get opponents of LGBT equality to articulate their reasons clearly, and then examine their merits. When they are fellow philosophers who don't need to be prodded to clearly lay out their arguments, it can be downright refreshing.

There are important questions here about how we should live out the love ethic in relation to those who disagree with us. Swinburne is one of the greats in my field, a highly accomplished scholar who has earned my respect with his body of work. He is also a neighbor in the Christian sense, and I believe I am called to love my neighbors as myself. I am also called to love my gay and lesbian neighbors as myself--and Swinburne is endorsing a view that I think is harming them.

What is the best way to live out the love ethic in this situation? I can't answer that question in a blog post, but there are several things I want to say that are relevant to it.

1. Paying compassionate attention

I think Swinburne's view on homosexuality is mistaken. I think that the promulgation of that view, as a teaching of the church, has done immeasurable harm to my gay and lesbian neighbors over the centuries. I won't defend that view in this post, but I think it is important to state it.

From what I've gathered of his argument, Swinburne thinks that while not "intrinsically wrong" (which I assume means something like "wrong in itself") same-sex sex is "extrinsically wrong" (which I assume means something like "wrong because of some sort of external relation, such a violating an authorized and justified command or contributing for contingent reasons to some undesirable state of affairs").

This makes his condemnation of same-sex sex softer than what is common among conservative Christians. For him, it's not wrong in the way that lying or abusing people is wrong, but in the way that driving on the left-hand side of the road in the US is wrong. I can't tell you what I think of his case for this conclusion, since I haven't been able to study it. But I've looked at a lot of arguments, and I have yet to find any that can meet what I take to be an extremely powerful burden of proof created by the fact that immersion in communities that teach the categorical condemnation of homosexuality is harmful to gays and lesbians who belong to those communities. Depending on native dispositional qualities, some can be driven to the brink of suicide.

An abstract argument that doesn't get down and dirty and wrestle with the actual life stories of gays and lesbians whose lives have been broken on the wheel of condemnation is unlikely to be very compelling to me or anyone else who cares deeply about their gay and lesbian neighbors. Unlike abstract questions in philosophy of religion or epistemology--which have been the focus of Swinburne's career--ethics, especially applied ethics, often demands serious engagement with human stories. This is even more true for Christian ethics, which calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Such love demands compassionate attention to the experiences and life stories of our neighbors. Unless and until Swinburne offers an argument that is deeply informed and shaped by sustained attention to the lived experiences of gays and lesbians, I doubt his argument will convince me--and nothing I have heard suggests that Swinburne's argument at the SCP was informed by such attention.

(Note: there is a big difference between saying an argument of a certain kind is unlikely to convince me and saying that it won't enlighten me, deepen my thinking, or in other ways be useful in shaping my intellectual development. Swinburne's argument may well be very useful--offering distinctions and qualifications that may have bearing on my thought--even if it is of a kind that's unlikely to convince.)

One way I can show love in this case is to stress the importance of not exploring the ethics of homosexuality and same-sex marriage without paying compassionate attention to our gay and lesbian neighbors. There is nothing unloving about offering such advice to my conservative Christians brothers and sisters--some of whom I greatly admire as eminent scholars in my field who have shaped me in many ways. I suspect that advice will do more good that calling them "f***ing a**holes," as one Yale philosopher has done.

But if I offer such advice, I cannot then refuse to pay compassionate attention to Swinburne and others who espouse the traditional teaching. And such compassionate attention requires honest and fair assessments of their convictions and motives. This leads me to my next point.

2. Recognizing motives 

I am certain that Swinburne does not think the traditional teaching on homosexuality causes harm. He is not defending it in order to harm our gay and lesbian neighbors, even if I believe that is the actual effect. Or, more precisely, that is what I take to be the effect on gays and lesbians who belong to a community in which this view is treated as normative and significant. It's belonging to a community that teaches this which is harmful, not the arguments of a single philosopher, no matter how eminent. But I'm sure Swinburne does not agree with that, and in trying to preserve such a community he is not doing it in order to cause harm.

To put the point another way, if Swinburne believed that the teaching were a source of harm, he wouldn't be publicly defending it. Swinburne believes that this teaching is good and helpful as sincerely as I believe that it causes harm.

It may be worth pointing out that he didn't decide on this keynote topic on his own. He didn't set out to beat up on gays. I don't think I'm breaking any confidentiality when I say that during our lunch conversation, Swinburne told me how this came to be his topic. He'd offered some advice to philosophers of religion, to the effect that they should apply their distinctive training and expertise to contemporary social questions such as sexual ethics. And that advice prompted an invitation to follow the advice himself in his SCP address. Since he'd given the advice, he didn't feel as if he could refuse. And so he put something together.

This is not an issue that he has focused his career on or written a book about (I think it comes up briefly in his book on revelation). Rather, he was treading into largely new territory at the request of the conference organizers. If he did not display the kind of awareness of LGBT issues that others do, the most helpful response is to educate him, not denounce him.

Swinburne was asked to talk on a topic that was new to him, and he thought that resources from his own discipline might be useful in clarifying some of the moral issues. Were they? I wasn't at the talk, but I have learned lots from people I disagree with. Philosophers whose views I find misguided often provide ways of thinking about those very issues that deepen my insight even while I reject their arguments and conclusions. Is that true of Swinburne's thinking in this case?

I don't know. But I do know that Christian love calls for grace. And this leads to my next point.

3. Choosing our words with care and showing grace for failures

Given everything I know about Swinburne through reading his work, given what he told me about the argument he delivered at the SCP meeting, given the little I have gleaned about his argument form third parties, and given the talks I have now seen him deliver, I am convinced of the following: Swinburne offered a thoroughly dispassionate, analytically careful, abstractly intellectual argument for a conclusion he wanted to defend--with plenty of distinctions and deductive arguments and no deliberate personal attacks. I am pretty confident that he approached this as an issue of intellectual interest, as opposed to thinking of the faces of gay and lesbian loved ones (as I do every time I approach this topic).

That said, he reportedly used language that, when I read it in Hackett's post, immediately made me cringe. One premise of his argument was that gays and lesbians suffer from a "disability" insofar as their romantic sexual unions can't produce children. Another was that this is an "incurable condition." This language choice displays the kind of lack of familiarity with the LGBT community that is unsurprising in an elderly Christian philosopher who has spent his career focused primarily on traditional questions in the philosophy of religion, travels in circles where most gays and lesbians probably remain in the closet, and has not spent a long time considering these issues.

But here's the thing. These claims on Swinburne's part are claims I make in my book--but in different terms.

I do not call homosexuality a disability or an incurable condition, because I know that this language invokes the idea of "sickness"--and I know how that language has been used to abuse sexual minorities. But in my book and elsewhere, I argue that same-sex couples are like infertile heterosexual couples in that they can pursue the "unitive" end of sexual intimacy but not the procreative end. Of course, my aim is to argue the following: It would be unloving to bar infertile couples from marrying and pursuing loving union just because the union won't be reproductive; and it is likewise wrong to prohibit same-sex marriages for this reason.

But here's the thing: infertility is usually considered a disability. By comparing gay couples to infertile ones as part of my argument for their right to marry, I am likening them to a class of people who are often called disabled without anyone blinking an eye. But I know that many gays and lesbians have been kicked out of their parents' homes with the word "sick" ringing in their ears. I've held the hands of gay friends who were still scarred by abuse that was couched in the language of "sickness." And so I try to steer clear of such language.

Similar remarks apply to the other claim of Swinburne's that evokes the language of sickness--the claim that homosexuality is an "incurable condition." I have argued time and again that gays and lesbians cannot be expected to change their sexuality, that so-called conversion therapies and ex-gay ministries don't work. My gay and lesbian friends agree with me on this. If one were oblivious to the experiences of LGBT persons and the way the sickness label has been used to abuse them, one might make this point using the words "incurable condition"--and have no idea how that will stir up all sorts of painful crud among gay and lesbian listeners.

The thing about analytic philosophers of religion is this: Many if not most of them spend more time in their heads thinking about things like modal logic and probability theory than they do reflecting on how word choices are related to human feelings. While this is perhaps a human failing, all of us have failings and we need to treat each other with grace.

This means we shouldn't react as if an elder scholar whose career has focused on completely different issues, for whom all of this is mostly new, should know better. Oblivious use of terms that hurt is an opportunity to share stories about why they hurt, not to repudiate and shame.

The issue in these cases is not with the claims Swinburne is making but with his choice of words. I'm not saying that the words we use to express an idea don't matter. What I'm suggesting is that we need to engage one another in a spirit of grace, understanding where other people come from and not going on the offensive every time their word choice offends.

Let me offer an analogy from grading. Sometimes, I assign an essay on a topic and student after student makes the same oversight. The first time it happens, I calmly explain the oversight in the margins. The twentieth time it happens, I'm feeling exasperated. I want to scream, "How many times do I have to tell you this?!" I have to remind myself that I haven't told the same person this twenty times. For each of them, it is the first time they are hearing it. And for each of them, that first time may open their eyes, give them an "a ha!" moment, and lead their thinking in a new direction. But not if I make the point in a tone of outraged indignation as if I've been telling them this over and over and they haven't been listening. That'll just inspire defensiveness.

I remember, years ago, being at a discussion on homosexuality and the church where I used the phrase "gay lifestyle." A gay man in the discussion calmly explained the associations that term had for him, and the reasons it grated on him. I don't how many times he'd made that point. Probably many, many times. But for me it was the first time. His sharing was personal. It didn't make me defensive. And I stopped using the term. I doubt things would've gone so smoothly if he'd said, instead, "How many times do I have to tell you people that there is no *#$@! gay lifestyle!"

4. Embracing (rather than shutting down) discussion opportunities

Finally, if I'm right about the negative impact the traditional Christian teaching has on gays and lesbians who belong to communities that teach it, there is good reason to have serious discussion and debate within communities--such as conservative Christian ones--that still teach it. Such discussion and debate is not facilitated by efforts to shame and silence people who lay out, with admirable analytical clarity, their reasons for supporting this teaching. Especially in philosophy, every such effort to lay out arguments is intended as an invitation to raise objections, level criticism, and engage in discussion. That's what philosophers do.

When philosophers who are conservative on this issue try to spell out arguments for their view at a philosophical conference, this is the perfect opportunity to have a discussion. That's what a philosophy conference is for. When it's a conference for Christian philosophers, what that means for me is the discussion is happening where it needs to happen: in a community whose members still widely teach that all homosexual acts are sinful. Swinburne did not merely offer an argument for the conservative Christian position. He did so in a venue whose norms and standards invite vigorous critical discussion. As such, he created an opportunity to critically discuss the ethics of homosexuality and same-sex marriage exactly where I think that critical discussion most urgently needs to happen.

The question is what we should do with such opportunities. What did Hackett do with it? What did the rest of us do in the aftermath? Will these choices make it more or less likely that such opportunities will arise again?

To respond to opportunities for meaningful dialogue with repudiation and attack probably isn't the most productive strategy, and it certainly isn't the most loving.

That said, I know that many people carry deep hurt and anger over the ways in which the church has perpetuated and magnified anguish for gays and lesbians. It is too easy to dismiss someone like Hackett, who rises up to offer an angry rebuke to an elder statesman in the discipline, as offering nothing but a"semi-coherent rant." But behind such anger there is human pain, and pain cries out for compassion.

Philosophers are used to engaging with issues on a purely intellectual level. But when the topic is something like homosexuality, what is at stake are the lives and loves of real human beings, with histories and emotional lives. This fact may have actual bearing on what conclusions we should reach; but it also has bearing on which approaches to argument and debate are likely to be most productive. Patience and grace and compassion may, on this level, prove to be important philosophical virtues.


I want to say something about Michael Rea's "apology," which many have denounced.

On the one hand, I don't think it is wrong for a philosopher at a philosophy conference to give a talk defending a view that the philosopher accepts, with the understanding that others are encouraged to ask critical questions and raise objections. Hence, it isn't wrong for Swinburne to give such a talk, whatever we might think of the view being defended.

So, in that sense, there wasn't anything to apologize for. But strictly speaking, Rea did not apologize for what Swinburne said. He expressed regret for any hurt caused at the meeting, clarified that Swinburne's view was not that of the society, and affirmed a commitment to welcoming diverse people and perspectives (while affirming the shared foundation of Christian faith of the society's members).

Can anything be said for issuing such a "disclaimer"? I'm still not sure what I think of his decision to explicitly distance Swinburne's views from those of the SCP. Ordinarily, this distance is taken for granted at philosophy conferences, which may lead some readers to suppose that the real message is that those with Swinburne's views are not welcome to express them at the SCP. But much hinges here on the history of the SCP on this issue and the broader perceptions of the philosophical community. And this distancing is related to something I am sure about, which I turn to now.

Gays and lesbians have a long history of not feeling welcome in Christian communities. And the SCP is a Christian community. Absent any statement by SCP officials to the contrary, it is quite possible, even likely, that at least some gays and lesbians upon hearing second-hand about Swinburne's keynote address would get the impression that the SCP does not welcome their perspectives, their ideas, or their presence. Even if this impression is inaccurate, it could stifle the diversity that Rea talks about nurturing.

Furthermore, gays and lesbians have lived what for me and other straight Christians can only be an hypothesis--that immersion in communities that teach the categorical condemnation of homosexuality causes harm to gays and lesbians. Other straight Christians may doubt its truth, but many gay and lesbian Christians experience it not as an hypothesis to which they might give intellectual assent but at a painfully inescapable feature of their personal histories. As such, an assurance of welcome that does not include something about the views of the society might be experienced as disingenuous.

But this is tricky. Some are afraid of any community where the categorical condemnation of homosexuality is granted hegemony and significance, because they have experienced the harms that such a community does to its LGBT members. Out of such fear, they fear any community that allows this condemnation to be expressed without rebuke. But there is an enormous difference between a community that preaches this condemnation and a community which cultivates an environment where people who believe in this condemnation feel welcome to make their case for it, knowing that there will be challenges and critical discussion (but not efforts to shame and silence). A philosophical society surely should be the latter--and there is need for the latter. And for reasons already mentioned, the SCP would be a particularly valuable place for the latter.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Triumph of Love Excerpt #2: Loving the Sinner but Hating the Sin

Posted below is the second of my promised excerpts from my work-in-progress, Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic. This is the introductory section of a chapter exploring the uses and misuses of the "love the sinner but hate the sin" mantra. Enjoy!

The story is common enough. Joe and Mary are walking out of a college classroom where the topic of homosexuality just came up. Joe, a conservative Christian convinced that all homosexual sex is sinful, expressed this conviction during the class discussion. Mary, a lesbian, isn’t quite ready to let that go. She’s tired of staying quiet.

“You really think I should break up with my girlfriend,” she says, “even though we love each other?”

“The Bible says it’s wrong. I can’t go against that.”

“But what about love your neighbor as yourself? Isn’t that in the Bible, too? You really think it’s loving to break apart people who love each other?”

“I’m not breaking you apart. You’ve got to decide to do that for yourself.”

“But you think we ought to break up. You would encourage us to break up.”

“That’s what God says.”

“You really know what God says? How arrogant can you be!”

“I…it’s in the Bible. I don’t have anything against you or your girlfriend, but the Bible is clear. What you’re doing is a sin, and I can’t condone sin.”

“This is the most meaningful relationship of my life. Anyone who knows me knows what ending it would do…it would be…” She falls silent, seething with frustration. She doesn’t know how to say it. He seems to her like a wall of righteousness. She gropes for words: “If you think the world would be improved by Katy and me breaking up, what you really think is that the world would be better if both Katy and I lost the most meaningful, beautiful, loving relationship either of us has ever known. You think the world would be a better place if this beautiful thing were destroyed, if it were taken away from us, if both of us were left heartbroken. How is that love? How can you possibly claim to love me and Katy if that’s what you think should happen? You think it would be loving to tell a happily married couple they should break up, that it would be wrong for them to grow old together? You think it would be loving to call what they have an abomination?”

“I didn’t use that word.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“But it’s not the same thing. A married couple—”

“It is the same thing!”

“It’s not! One’s a sin and the other isn’t!”

“I’m telling you that Katy and I have something beautiful together, and wanting to tear us apart is wanting to destroy something that makes our lives better. That’s not love.”

“I don’t want to tear you apart. That’s not what I’m saying.”

“You don’t? So you think it is fine for us to stay together?”

“No! I’m saying I’m supposed to love the sinner while hating the sin.”

“That’s a f**king copout!” she shouts. “If you hate my relationship enough to insist that it should end, then you don’t love me and you don’t love Katy. You can’t call what we have a sin and still love us. That’s bulls**t!”

Mary storms away. Joe stands there, shaking a little in the aftermath of her fury.

So is Joe right that he can love Mary while condemning as sin her most intimate relationship? Is Mary right that to hate her relationship is incompatible with loving her?

The question is important. Setting aside extremists like Fred Phelps with his “God Hates Fags” signs, conservative Christians typically agree that we ought to love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves—in other words, that the Christian call to love one another includes sexual minorities. But they typically hold that such love is fully compatible with condemning homosexuality—because we can “love the sinner but hate the sin.”

For many of my gay and lesbian acquaintances, they’ve heard this phrase so much it has become an emotional trigger. They react as if it were nothing but a smokescreen for perpetuating hateful practices and policies, a false promise of love to make the reality of hate more palatable (that is, more palatable to the agents of hate and third-party observers, not to the victims).

In a recent Tulsa World op-ed, Mike Jones expresses just this sort of cynicism. He concedes that the “love the sinner, hate the sin” phrase could be used in beneficial ways. “But what can be a helpful, even comforting phrase, under the right circumstances,” he says, “has been hijacked by those whose purpose is to hand down judgments . . . ” And instead of being a general remark about sin and sinners, it has acquired a focus. In Jones’s experience, the phrase “is used now almost exclusively for those who disapprove of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community.”

The widespread LGBT suspicion of the phrase doesn’t spring out of nowhere. James Dobson, for example, repeatedly says that we should love our gay and lesbian neighbors as ourselves. The following statement is typical:
Christians have a scriptural mandate to love and care for all the people of the world. Even those who are living in immoral circumstances are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. There is no place for hatred, hurtful jokes, or other forms of rejection toward those who are gay.
But as we’ve already seen, Dobson has persistently used rhetoric that feeds anti-gay ideologies of division, including claims that homosexuals are a threat to children. Dobson founded the Family Research Council and remains closely tied to it—the same Family Research Council that published the slanderous pamphlet we looked at in the last chapter, in which homosexuality was falsely linked to pedophilia through egregious misrepresentation of the research.

When such public figures pay lip service to loving gays and lesbians at the same time that they pursue and supporting unloving practices, it is not at all surprising that when gays and lesbians hear “love the sinner but hate the sin,” they find it a kind of disingenuous double-speak that is mostly about making hateful practices tolerable to the wider public by wrapping it up loving words.

But in my experience, most individual Christians who talk about loving the sinner while hating the sin are sincere. There was a time when I used the phrase myself in relation to my gay and lesbian neighbors—and I was earnest enough when I did so. My problem wasn’t that I didn’t mean it. My problem was that I didn’t wrestle with what it means to show love for gays and lesbians. The phrase became a mantra that I could fall back on to avoid confronting a real difficulty—the difficulty highlighted in the exchange between Joe and Mary. What is involved in believing that homosexuality is a sin—that is, really believing it, acting as if it were true? And what is involved in really loving my gay and lesbian neighbors? And are these things compatible?

There is a tension here, and conservative Christians who invoke the “love the sinner, hate the sin” dictum are often dodging that tension. The dictum becomes an easy conversation-stopper, a way to hide from challenging questions about what it means to show love. Gays and lesbians have every right to complain when Christians do that.

Nevertheless, I think the dictum is an indispensable part of the Christian moral life. No Christian who seeks to live by the ethic of love can deny that we must love sinners while hating sin. The problem doesn’t lie with the dictum itself, but with how it is invoked and with the challenge of figuring out what it implies.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Triumph of Love Excerpt #1: The place of emotions in loving debate

As promised, I start this week sharing excepts from my forthcoming book, Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic. For the first excerpt, I've chosen a passage from the last chapter of the book, in which I move away from the question of what the love ethic demands with respect to our gay and lesbian neighbors and focus on how sincere people who disagree on these matters can pursue their disagreements in a spirit of love.

Let me offer just a few words of context. I reject the notion that any of us should simply "agree to disagree" when the actual fate of people we are called to love is at stake. If we're convinced we have an important truth to share, we do no one a favor by hiding it or obscuring it in an effort to be nice. What love calls for is honest debate that avoid psychological manipulation and seeks instead to illuminate truth. We are called to share why we believe in ways that may move others if our reasons are as compelling as we think they are, and may expose the weaknesses in our thinking when they're not as compelling as we think.

One question that arises in this context is the place of emotions and emotional appeals in loving debates. After exploring an example of an illicit appeal to disgust (an example I addressed a few years back in this blog entry), I move to a broader discussion of the place of emotions in loving discourse and debate. Without further ado, the excerpt:

Appeals to misleading emotions are one of the most potent forms of improper manipulation, and the appeal to disgust is just an example. Consider a slightly more complex case involving shame, fear of ridicule, and the desire for belonging. Suppose I’m having a conversation with several people, talking about my gay best friend, and I notice that one member of the group—call her Jane—starts to shift uncomfortably. She finally asks how I deal with the biblical passages that condemn homosexuality. Imagine that I respond with something like the following: “You don’t actually think homosexuality is wrong, do you? I mean, that’s ridiculous! This is the twenty-first century. You’re smarter than that, right?” 

Such a comment is designed to manipulate Jane with the fear of appearing a fool. Instead of inviting an open sharing of perspectives, it shuts down such sharing. A hint of flattery—“you look smarter than the kind of person who would think that”—is really a basis for invoking the specter of public shame. More often than not, the person most influenced by such a tactic may not be Jane, but the fence-sitting bystander—let’s call him Joe—who hasn’t thought much about the topic but sincerely longs to belong. The more he witnesses those with another view being shamed and silenced, the more he gravitates to the socially safest choice. At its worst this strategy can generate an arms-race of shame, in which each side of the debate escalates the social costs of rejecting their view in order to ensure that siding with them represent the socially safest choice. The winner of such an arms race has done nothing to illuminate truth.

While invoking misleading emotional responses for persuasive purposes is inimical to debating issues in a spirit of love, this does not mean that our discussions and debates should be divorced from our feelings. Not every emotion is an irrelevant emotion. 

Sometimes a compelling story generates a strong emotional response, and the reason is because the story has stimulated our capacity for empathy. We are suddenly in the shoes of another person, feeling what it’s like to be them. Our eyes tear up because we vicariously feel their suffering. We smile because we suddenly understand their joy as if it were our own. 

That kind of emotional resonance is crucial for loving our neighbors as ourselves, because it gives genuine insight. We can’t make wise decisions about how to love our neighbors if we can’t empathize with how they feel, if we can’t discern the truth about what it is like to be in their situation. 

Sometimes, in disagreements and debates, what we have to offer is a way of looking at an issue that invites and encourages this sort of empathy, thereby eliciting an emotional response. That emotional response is hardly irrelevant, because it is part of the insight into truth. If I didn’t feel some vicarious anguish at the story of a mother who can’t produce enough milk to feed her baby, that means I’m not seeing the truth about her situation. 

Likewise, there are some emotional responses to the experiences of others—compassion for those who suffer, anger at injustice—whose absence betrays a failure to appreciate what is going on. While our emotions are tricky, there is a strong intellectual tradition that sees them as having cognitive content: emotions are about something. Anger, for example, is a response to a perceived wrong. If injustice does not anger us, if it’s just some fact about the world that our intellect tells us is wrong, then a part of us has failed to see that it’s wrong. Our emotional selves have become blinded to the injustice, and so we aren’t discerning the injustice with our whole selves. 

In discussion or debate, part of our aim might be to awaken others’ emotional selves to a truth they have failed to see (even if their intellects have discerned it). In other words, we might not limit ourselves to making an intellectually dispassionate case that something is unjust. We might go further, looking for an analogy or image or narrative that helps to expose the outrageousness of the injustice. This is not an appeal to an irrelevant emotion, but rather a way of extending the intellectual argument beyond the merely academic, theoretical level. It’s a way of helping the heart, and not just the mind, to see. 

But because the emotions can be misled—because some rhetoricians have the power to paint something as outrageous even when no wrong has been done—it is best to wed such emotion-evoking arguments to more intellectual ones, to argue in a way that awakens the heart along with the mind, as opposed to awakening the heart alone (while, perhaps, the mind is kept deliberately asleep so the heart can be more easily led astray). 

Christian love, whatever else it is, is emotional. To love our neighbors as ourselves is to feel for them and to feel with them. Any strategy of debate and argument that is cut off from our emotions is therefore at odds with the very nature of Christian love. But truth-oriented arguments that extend to our emotional selves are not the same as manipulative ones that evoke emotions in order to confuse and obscure and misdirect. Love calls for the former, and rules out the latter.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Coming Soon: Triumph of Love Excerpts!

Some of you may have noticed that my blogging dropped off this spring and vanished entirely over the summer. There is a reason for this: I've been pouring all my writing energies into finishing my newest book, Triumph of Love: Same-Sex Marriage and the Christian Love Ethic, in an effort to beat the December contract deadline.

The good news is that I am now working on the final chapter of the first draft, and with my sabbatical this semester I have no worries about being able to revise the whole manuscript in time, so long as I stay focused. The bad news is that I still want to resist blogging about current topics so I can be sure to meet my deadline. This is probably a good thing, since the current election season would likely inspire posts that are nothing but expressions of incredulity.


There is no reason why I can't, over the next few months, post a few choice excerpts from my work-in-progress. Look for the first one next week.

I post these for two self-serving reasons. First, to generate some interest in the forthcoming book. Second, to elicit critical feedback.

Just a word about that second aim. I don't take all critical feedback seriously, because I don't find all critical feedback helpful. Some of it doesn't even qualify as critical feedback. I generally find feedback of the following sort unhelpful: it commits formal or informal fallacies; it does little more than accuse me of being a heretic; it is an exercise in creative name-calling instead of a critical engagement with the substance of what I have posted; it expresses righteous indignation over my utter failure to consider argument X (which, while I don't address it in the excerpt, I address elsewhere in the book).

Of course, with respect to the last issue, you can't know whether I consider argument X elsewhere in the book or not. So you should feel free to point out that argument X is relevant to issues raised in the excerpt. I'm likely to be quite receptive if you use something like the following form: "This excerpt made me think of argument X, which I think is relevant for reasons R1 and R2. Do you address that argument in the book?" I just get irritated when you use something like the following form: "What an idiot you are for failing to consider argument X! And to think you call yourself a philosopher!" If you do use the latter form, it is helpful to include a winky-face emoji at the end.

(That said, if I really did miss arguments that strikes me as important, I will likely look up scholarly articulations of them and find ways to work them into the manuscript even if you direct me to them in an a$$#0l-ey way.)

If you do feel motivated to offer serious feedback that engages with the substance of what I argue in a posted excerpt, I will be appreciative. I may not, however, take the time to engage in the kind of back-and-forth discussion that I pursue when I have more time. My energies will be directed primarily towards revising the manuscript, and I know from experience that the discussion section of a blog post can be a serious time-suck if I start responding to comments there. So my engagement may be minimal, although you may find that other readers of the blog are eager to engage.

Finally, my main aim with posting excerpts is to generate some interest and give those who are already interested a foretaste of what's to come. I have volunteer readers for the manuscript who are likely to offer far more substantive and authoritative feedback than what I can get from those who happen to read a few pages out of context. But if you surprise me, it's not totally inconceivable that the acknowledgments section of the book might include a sentence like this: "Thanks also to the various commenters on my blog, some of whom offered feedback on early excerpts that ranged from actually helpful to only moderately perplexing."

I know, I know. Heady stuff.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Orlando: What I Want to Say

The problem is that I don't know what to say. Or maybe it's that I don't know how to say it.

I'm in the midst of writing a book on same-sex marriage and Christian love. I was just starting a chapter on the use and misuse of the "love the sinner/hate the sin" slogan when Orlando happened. I went to bed thinking about philosophical arguments and woke up to reports of horror.

The basic facts are now familiar to everyone. An American-born Muslim man--possibly wrestling with same-sex attraction, undoubtedly immersed in the idea that homosexuality is evil--went on a shooting rampage at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. If we don't include the slaughter of Native Americans at Wounded Knee, it was the deadliest mass shooting in American history. And the perpetrator was armed with a handgun and an assault weapon--that is, a semi-automatic rifle modeled after military assault rifles but lacking the capacity to fire automatically.

For days I have been a bit numb. I have watched the unfolding national conversation on social media--although at times it has more the look of a national shouting match. The themes of that debate are ones I've written about extensively on this blog: homosexuality and homophobia, Islam and Islamophobia, guns and gun control.

The charge of hypocrisy has been flying from both directions, and everyone has been busy producing unfair and oversimplified memes to justify their own position. In the midst of all the noise, of course, there have been thoughtful expressions of opposing views. And there has been grief. And there have been unprecedented displays of support for the LGBT community. Oklahoma City, a city in the heart of the Bible Belt, illumined a bridge in rainbow lights to show solidarity for the Pulse victims.

And there have been expressions of hate. If you want to find the hate, just click on any online article and then read the comments section.

I've felt the need to add my voice, but it all seems too much. There are too many things to say and too many ways to say it wrong. I want to say something that encourages thoughtful discourse, not self-righteous denunciation of opposing views. I want to say something that encourages love, not hate.

I want to lift up my gay and lesbian friends and relatives, to say something that nurtures them at a moment when they stand witness to the reality of homophobic hate and the violence it can engender, when they feel afresh the vulnerability to harm that is always part of being an LGBT person. I want to say something that shows my solidarity and invites others to express it, too. I want to find a way to show the connection between explosions of homophobic violence and the more mundane and widespread forms of disgust and social marginalization out of which such violence can grow--find a way to say this without being promptly caricatured as saying that Christians who refuse to bake cakes for gay couples are as bad as mass murderers.

I want to acknowledge that most of the Christians who call homosexuality a sin do not mean harm to their gay and lesbian neighbors. But I want to say this in a way that makes it clear that we can do harm without meaning to. I want to speak in a way that doesn't enable more mundane homophobes to use the acts of extremists as a form of cover. I want to make it clear that when the Family Research Council publishes pamphlets implying that gays and lesbians are a threat to children, the fact that they would never think of shooting up a gay nightclub doesn't make their slander okay. The fact that the deadliest single attack on the gay community was carried out by a Muslim does not vindicate the many ways that Christians have magnified the suffering of sexual minorities.

At the same time, I want to find a way to say these things that doesn't fuel the rhetoric of militant atheists, those who want to blame religion as such for the kind of hate that tore through human lives in Orlando. I want to find a way to target the beast of homophobia without doing collateral damage. I want to acknowledge that prayers and moments of silence are not the only thing that religion can offer, while also acknowledging the power that prayers and moments of silence can have in symbolizing and strengthening human solidarity--at least when these things are offered as a framework out of which to act rather than an alternative to action. I want to find a way to remind us all that the civil rights movement was rooted in the black churches of America, that not all faith is toxic faith.

I want to lift up my peace-loving Muslim neighbors and say something that nurtures them at a time when, once again, some very loud voices are holding up a violent extremist as representative of what Islam is about at its core. I want to find some new and better way to say what I've been trying to say for a very long time: the problem of religious extremism is a species of the problem of violent ideology that divides the world into "us" and "them" and treats "them" as a fundamental threat to "us," a threat that must by stopped by any means necessary. When Christians and others in the west fail to distinguish between the Muslim extremists and the vast majority of Muslims who denounce the extremism, they play into the us/them ideology that is the source of the worst kind of violence. They make part of themselves a mirror of the extremism they're reacting to. Like the person bitten by the zombie, they start to become the thing that has attacked them. Our own horror stories, the mythologies of our time, tell us where this kind of spreading infection leads.

I want to find some way to talk productively about the relationship between the accessibility of guns and the violence that is perpetrated using guns. I want to avoid ignorance and mischaracterization, acknowledge the complexity the issues, and steer a course between the extremes of draconian bans on gun ownership and the kind of free-for-all that makes it so easy for someone with violent intentions to arm themselves to the teeth with high-capacity semi-automatic rifles and ammunition. I want to acknowledge that the AR-15 is functionally no different from most guns on the market but still have a conversation about the social implications of selling guns that are deliberately designed to look, not like the weapons traditionally used to shoot deer, but like the ones traditionally used to shoot people as efficiently as possible in a theater of war. I want to have a serious conversation about the role that symbols of human-against-human violence can play in tipping some vulnerable psychologies over that line--without ignoring the many ways that this happens (including in movies and video games), without forgetting that most gun owners don't go on killing sprees, but also without ignoring the way that guns figure into the story of violence in America.

I want to talk about comprehensive policies for reducing violence without either fixating on or hiding from one piece of the puzzle. And when the conversation turns to that piece, I don't want to be mischaracterized as saying that this one thing will solve the problem.

I want to find ways to articulate the nuances and qualification that are impossible in memes and slogans, and I want to find a way to do that without my comments being caricatured or distorted or turned into an oversimplified slogan for the sake of launching an unfair attack on a straw man.

It would be easy, in the face of the challenges of pursuing thoughtful and loving conversations in a polarized world, to remain silent. This post, for what it's worth, is one alternative to the extremes of easy slogans and easy silence. I encourage all of you to offer your own, while I return to working on a book that I hope will offer a richer reflection on at least one of the issues raised by the horror in Orlando.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Our Choice: A Parable for Our Times

Here's the situation.

Your current maid is retiring. He kept the house basically presentable but never did the windows. The windows are, predictably, filthy.

You advertise for a new maid and two candidates apply. The first shows up at the interview nicely dressed but seems to you to have a grating personality. She is businesslike but humorless. One of her former employers suspects that she was in the habit of sneaking swigs of booze from their liquor cabinet, but others point out that she brought her own high-powered vacuum and knew how to make a kitchen floor shine. She doesn't do windows.

The other candidate, with no background in cleaning houses, shows up to the interview wearing an orange clown wig, with a sledge hammer in one hand and a jug of gasoline in the other. He cackles throughout the interview, making remarks about the size of his penis and how hot he thinks his own daughter is. He keeps telling you how dangerous your neighbors are. When you ask if he does windows, he hefts the sledge hammer and says that if you hire him you'll never need to clean your windows again.

Assuming you have to hire one of them, who do you hire?

Oh, and the person you hire will have access to the contents of your gun safe.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Transgender Bathroom Post: What Should Those Motivated by Christian Love Think of the North Carolina Law?

As everyone reading this is surely aware, a recent North Carolina law requires everyone to use male- and female-designated bathrooms according to the sex they were assigned at birth, rather than according to their gender identity. In other words, the law requires that transgender women use the men’s restroom and transgender men use the women’s restroom.

What should Christians think about such a law? I have specifically in mind Christians who take seriously the command to love their neighbors as themselves. This love command, of course, would extend to our trans neighbors.

It seems to me that the law doesn’t just affect transgendered persons, but also intersexed persons (those who have the physiological genitalia of both sexes). Exactly what those implications are isn’t clear to me. Any non-arbitrary sex-assignment at birth would either be “neither” (in which case the intersexed would be prohibited from using both restrooms) or “both” (in which case they could choose). I suppose some hospital might decide to impose a sex-assignment arbitrarily. If so, would this law require the intersexed person to use bathrooms according to that arbitrary decision in all its arbitrariness, even if their gender identity doesn’t conform?

Whatever we think of these difficulties, it’s clear that the Christian love ethic calls us to love our intersexed neighbors as ourselves. But let’s focus on the group that the NC law most clearly targets: our transgender neighbors. Is this law something that those of us who are called to love our neighbors as ourselves—including our transgender neighbors—should support?

In addressing this question, I’d like to make three points.

1. The Main Impact of the Law is on our Trans-Neighbors

Some supporters of the bill invoke concern for the welfare of children as a motivating factor behind the law. And, of course, the call to love our neighbors as ourselves encompasses children everywhere. Is this law needed in order to keep children safe—children we are called to love?

The reality is this: There are no reports of children being molested by transgender persons in bathrooms, and the idea that child molesters will fake a trans identity in order to gain access to victims—while suggested a few times—doesn’t seem to reflect the tragic realities of child molestation.

The sad truth is that children are targeted by molesters in all kinds of venues—churches and summer camps, for example. And molesters typically groom their victims before offending. That is, they work their way into the child’s circle of trust. Public restrooms are not the ideal venue for such “grooming,” and so it seems unlikely that we will do much to limit the abuse of children by focusing our energies there.

Some might argue that permitting trans women to use women's restrooms is likely to make some women uncomfortable. It might. But discomfort as such is a fairly trivial issue, and my love for you is a call to promote your good, not your comfort level. And the deeper issue is that the current NC law is hardly a recipe for eliminating discomfort, as the following popular meme demonstrates quite vividly:

Some say that creepers--men who want to spy on women using the bathroom--will use the excuse that they are trans to get into women's bathrooms so they can peek under stalls. I doubt this is a widespread problem (although maybe the current broohaha has given some creepers the idea). But here't the thing. We already have laws that criminalize such things as men peeking under bathroom stalls to look at women while they pee. If something like this is going on, the solution is to call the cops on people doing these things, not to prohibit every transgender person from peeing in the restroom where they're less likely to get abused.

In short, the arguments that appeal to public safety are trading in hypothetical scenarios that don't seem to be a real problem. Meanwhile, trans people actually face non-hypothetical bullying and bashing.

This means that the people who are affected by the law are overwhelmingly our transgender neighbors. The question is how they are affected.

2. We Must Listen

First, if we want to know how our trans neighbors are affected by such laws, we need to listen. Listening is the starting point of love. If we are to love our transgender neighbors as ourselves, we need to pay attention to them, to understand their perspective and experience as we understand our own. And this can only be done through compassionate listening.

Have you heard how fraught with peril and distress using a public restroom is for your trans neighbors? Do you know that transgender persons suffer from higher rates of urinary tract problems than the general population because they are more likely to “hold it in” when they’re in public, even to the point of harming their own health? Did you know that when our transgender neighbors stand in front of the two restroom options, they are often trying to decide whether they should risk getting arrested if they go to the one door and getting beaten up or harassed if they go to the other?

If you are thinking about supporting such laws and haven’t sought out your trans neighbors and asked them to share their stories with you—if you haven’t made a concerted effort to hear their stories with empathy and attention—then you aren’t really in a position to base your thinking on neighbor-love.

3. We Must Be Realistic

The NC bathroom law isn’t going to make transgender persons suddenly stop being transgendered. It will simply make their lives harder.

Someone is transgendered if their experience of themselves in terms of gender is in conflict with their biological sex. That is, they feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body, or a man trapped in a woman’s body. In a world that expects "men to be men and women to be women" (according to traditional ideas of gender), this can be an anguished situation, especially as they move into adolescence and become painfully aware of how different they are from those around them.

In a society that simply assumes that gender identity and biological sex do and should go together, many transgender people deal with their experience by pretending. They try to act and feel in accord with the gender associated with their biological sex, even though they know it’s an act. For many, this continues for decades.

Now, there is considerable evidence that with psychological propensities that are genuinely malleable, one way to change them is through a process of habituation. This is an idea that stretches back to Aristotle. You fake it ’til you make it. Want to become courageous? Act courageously until it takes. The fact that transgender women have often behaved in hyper-masculine ways for decades in an attempt to make their minds fit with their bodies testifies to the fact that this is not something that is malleable. If you discover in childhood that you experience yourself as a girl even though you have boy parts, it’s because something in your brain is so hard-wired to experience yourself as a girl that pretending to be a boy for the next fifty years won’t change that. You’ll just end up a fifty-year old who feels like you’ve been a woman trapped in a man’d body for the last fifty years, playing a role that isn’t you.

(If you doubt me, I invite you to reread #2 above and follow the advice there; I am simply reporting what numerous transgender people have said to me in person and what I have read again and again in personal narratives.)

Many who have spent decades pretending to be the gender associated with their body-parts finally reach the point where they can’t stand living a lie any longer. And so, at last, they come out and begin to “transition.” That is, they start to dress and behave in ways that fit better with the gender they identify with. Others, especially in recent years, begin the process sooner. Either way, the process of transitioning is dangerous, given social stigma and the often violent enforcement of gender norms. That they transition anyway is a testament to just how intolerable the continued pretense is. They’d rather risk getting beaten to a pulp than keep on living a lie.

Given these psychological realities, we can’t expect that doubling-down on the demand that people adopt gender identities that “fit” with their biological sex will somehow achieve what years of faking it can’t. We can’t expect that transgender women will stop feeling like women trapped in male bodies just because they are now required to go to the men’s bathroom. We can’t expect that transgender men will suddenly embrace their inner womanhood because they face punishment for going to the men’s room. These things won’t happen. What will happen is that our trans neighbors will feel more rejected, more alienated from society, more marginalized for their inability to conform with our society’s gender norms.

In other words, if we are realistic, we can reasonably reach only one conclusion about the effect that these laws will have: They will magnify the sense of rejection and isolation that our trans neighbors experience. The question, then, is whether that effect is one that Christians, trying to live by an ethic of love, should try to achieve.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Is Social Democracy About the Poor Being Greedy?

This morning, the following meme passed through my Facebook newsfeed:

It takes some unpacking to figure out exactly what Thomas Sowell is talking about here. Who in the world says that taking other people's money isn't greedy but keeping your own money, the money you've earned through your own efforts, is?

No one. No one says this.

This is the first thing to be absolutely clear about. What Sowell is offering here is  a version of what philosophers calls the straw man fallacy. The strategy is this. Some people are saying "Y." You disagree with Y. But instead of actually criticizing Y itself, what you do is this. You mischaracterize Y as X, where X is totally nutters. And then you say, "This view, X, is a crazy view. I don't understand why anyone could possibly believe it"--while looking pointedly at the people who say "Y." And since X is a crazy view, you are able to walk away having conveyed the impression that Y is nuts and the people who believe it are crazy--even though you've not done a single thing to show that.

So what is the view that Sowell is here mischaracterizing? Sowell is a conservative economist who self-identifies as libertarian. He appears to be an advocate of free market capitalism in the spirit of Milton Friedman--that is, someone who strongly believes in the idea of the laissez faire ecomony: if we just privatize the whole economy and let businesses pursue profit-maximization, not only will we do the most to respect individual liberty rights, but market forces will channel self-interested agents in ways that promote the general welfare.

Opposed to this philosophy is the view that government ought to be more involved in the economy than someone like Milton Friedman favors.While socialism represents one version of this view, one could favor more government involvement in the economy without being a socialist in a robust sense.

The key difference between socialism and capitalism has to do with who owns the means of production--private entities, or the state? And on this question, we're all at least partially socialist. After all, our military is not privately owned. Strictly speaking, the military is a service-provider--offering national security services--that is wholly owned and run by the government and paid for through tax dollars (or through federal deficit spending). And I have yet to hear a thoughtful and serious objection to this "socialized" military. Furthermore, most people think that some form of public education should continue, even if the form is a matter of dispute. Likewise with police and fire departments. And then, of course, there are the public libraries and public parks and public roads. These are not privately owned but publicly owned providers of human goods and services.

I believe in free markets. But I also think that some goods and services are provided more effectively and/or efficiently through collective or public cooperation. The idea with all of these public goods and services is that we all as a society contribute our share of the burden of paying for them, collectively oversee the operations via elected representatives who are beholden to us (and can be "fired" by us--that is, not re-elected--if we don't like how they manage the public goods), and all share in the benefits.

Beyond this, I take very seriously an idea expressed by one of the philosophical fathers of economies  like ours, that prioritize private ownership. John Locke believed that we acquire a right to private property through our personal labor: The resources of nature belong to all of us in common, but if I mix the resources of nature with my labor, I've added something that is mine alone. Hence, it becomes mine.

But Locke offered the following caveat: we should leave "as much and as good" for others. In other words, even if I work hard throughout the night to chop down every single tree in the woods and drag it to my plot of land, when the rest of the villagers wake up in the morning to find the entire forest gone and every log piled on my front lawn, they have a right to complain.

And if they call me greedy, that is legitimate even though I worked hard to take more than my fair share. "Lazy" might not be warranted, but "greedy" certainly is. And they are not being greedy when they take back a portion of the lumber. They are asserting their rights. I took more than I had a legitimate claim on.

Now, the society we live in is one in which pretty much all the resources of nature have been divided up. Private owners have claimed much of it. What remains falls largely under the control of the government, which at least in theory operates as the representative of the public in managing what is collectively owned.

But here's the thing. We live in a world where some people are filthy rich while many others do not have "as much and as good." Many people are so cut off from resources that they have nothing to mix their labor with--unless the sell their labor to the rich private owners. But in that case, the products of their labor belong to the owners and all the workers get in return is a paycheck. And many worry that the private owners are exploiting the workers: giving them far less than their labor is worth and pocketing the difference, getting richer and richer by riding on the backs of the less fortunate.

If this is right, then we might consider fixing the problem in something like the following way: take some of those exploited riches back from the exploiters and put those riches into public resources that the industrious poor can use to make something of themselves if they're willing to work hard--something like, say, free college education. Or maybe a federal jobs program offering competitive wages to anyone willing to work on building public infrastructure.

Aside from the issue of exploitation and correcting for it, some services and goods just make sense to provide by pooling our collective resources--through, say, taxation--and then making the goods and services available to all (the security that comes from the military, the roads that come from public infrastructure development, etc.).

When we pursue this collective strategy for meeting our needs, there is the question of what is fair in terms of paying for it. Should everyone contribute equally?

Suppose we wake up one morning and find that the woods are gone and those who are willing to work hard have no resources to work with, while some villagers are sitting pretty with huge piles of logs on their lawns, mostly inherited from their parents who were the ones who did the work of clear-cutting the forest. There is not "as much and as good" for everyone, but there ought to be. And suppose there are ways to use lumber to make public resources that benefit everyone, including industrious people without private resources. The majority thinks developing these resources is a great plan. Given the duty to leave as much and as good, don't the beneficiaries of those who paid no attention to this duty have more of an obligation to give back than those who aren't such beneficiaries?

So, consider the following activities:

A. Taking back what exploiters have unjustly snagged and putting it back into the public domain, so that the exploited can succeed through their hard work rather than have their labor greedily exploited.

B. Making sure that everyone contributes their fair share when we collectively pool our resources to produce public goods available to all.

In either of these cases, if some people resist paying up, we are justified in calling them greedy. But we aren't calling them greedy for keeping the money they've earned. We're calling them greedy for either taking more than they've earned or for being, essentially, freeloaders.

The disagreement between people on the right like Sowell and people on the left (like, say, Bernie Sanders) isn't about whether it is greedy for people to keep what is rightfully theirs. The disagreement lies elsewhere. It's about where and whether exploitation is going on, where and whether some people have come to enjoy an unfair share of the common resources of the planet, and where and whether people are benefiting from public goods without doing their fair share to maintain them.

So let's honestly debate those issues, rather than hide behind straw men. We all agree that it's not greedy to keep what you've earned. But when have people rightly earned the money in their bank accounts? And when they haven't done so, what is the best public policy response?

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Myths About the Confederacy?

I recently read a Washington Post piece from last July in which the author, James Loewen, argues that school textbooks and historic monuments have been perpetuating myths about the Civil War. The main conclusion is that the South in fact seceded to protect the institution of slavery and white supremacy, but that post-war efforts by Southerners to whitewash this fact were largely successful, resulting in the myth that the war was about state's rights.

In the Washington Post piece, the case for this conclusion is patchy. For example, only one state's secession document is cited explicitly (the Texas document). It's quite possible that the case is much stronger and more comprehensive in Loewen's book, The Confederate and Neo-Confederate Reader. After all, one can only include so much in a short essay.

Despite the patchiness of the essay, at its heart is an interesting line of argument, one that's nicely summarized in the following excerpt:
In its “Declaration of the Causes Which Impel the State of Texas to Secede From the Federal Union,” for example, the secession convention of Texas listed the states that had offended the delegates: “Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa.” Governments there had exercised states’ rights by passing laws that interfered with the federal government’s attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Some no longer let slave owners “transit” across their territory with slaves. “States’ rights” were what Texas was seceding against.
The point here is that, by opposing the right of these states to pass laws impeding enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, Texas was thereby standing against the right of states to make their own laws on these matters. Texas was upset because these states weren't capitulating to the Federal Government, but were instead standing up for what they believed in the face of contrary Federal mandates. In short, Texas seceded in part because they were upset about Northern states that expressed too much autonomy in the face of a Federal mandate that served the institution of slavery.

This point does not, of course, entail that Southern States didn't invoke state's rights. What it entails is that to the extent that they did invoke state's rights, it was a selective invocation. If they invoked state's rights to defend their right to keep slaves, but opposed state's rights whenever a state made laws and policies unfriendly to slavery, what we have is evidence that the real issue was not a principled defense of state's rights but a consistent defense of slavery.

None of this means that slavery was the only issue motivating Southern secession. What it does mean is that slavery was a deeper and more central issue than state's rights. Were state's rights more important to Southern states than preserving the institution of slavery, wouldn't they have affirmed the right of states to refuse to facilitate the return of runaway slaves? That, on the contrary, they were denounced states for doing this suggests they cared more about preserving slavery against any forces that threatened it--including both federal and state-initiated threats--than they cared about state's rights.  

Friday, April 1, 2016

April Fools Day Cancelled

As most of you have no doubt heard by now, President Obama has officially declared a national moratorium on April Fools Day pranks. Citing safety concerns caused by "far too many pranks gone terribly, terribly wrong," Obama announced from the White House lawn that it was "past time" to put April Fools Day in the past. "Look," he declared. "It's not just a safety issue but sound fiscal policy. April Fools pranks cost the American people money, not only in terms of health care costs but in terms of lost productivity at work."

One of the things that's surprised me has been the widespread bipartisan support for Obama's moratorium (already being called the "mor-Obam-ium"). On the one hand we have conservative political commentator David Brooks, who opined this morning, "It has become increasingly difficult for the American people to distinguish truth from lies, and April Fools Day only exacerbates the problem. With faux-news articles from the Onion and the New Yorker being spread on social media as if they were true, the last thing this country needs is a proliferation of false news stories. It's one thing when satirical sites post falsehood, but when multinational corporations and mainstream news sites like Fox News, sources usually known for their impeccable honesty, start to report outrageous things, that can only breed confusion."

Economist and progressive commentator Paul Krugman agrees: "Let's face it. When an orange-faced trust-fund billionaire with multiple bankruptcies to his name--a man who would have been richer had he simply put all his inheritance into a money market account--is the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president, reality has started to prank us far better than any satirist could hope to do. April Fools Day has become redundant."

Rachel Maddow was a rare voice of dissent. "In this election cycle, we are witnessing reality and fantasy turned on their heads. According to fact checkers, Donald Trump is the most dishonest of all the current candidates, with a through-the-roof 'pants-on-fire' rating that shows an utter indifference to anything even remotely resembling truth. He's the biggest liar ever to step onto the political stage, a man who almost never says a single sentence that is not outrageously false or mostly false. And yet he is winning because voters perceive him as 'telling it like it is.' On the other side of the spectrum we have Hillary Clinton, whom political fact-checkers consistently rank the most honest of the bunch. And her biggest impediment to winning the nomination is that people don't trust her. The lesson should be clear: The only way that truth is going to win out in this political climate is if it lies big-time."

So what do my readers think? Was Obama right to cancel April Fools Day?

Monday, March 7, 2016

A Straightforward Solution to the Drug Patent Dilemma?

I'm sitting here grading essays on pharmaceutical drug patents for my business ethics class. These patents generate a serious problem (which 'll describe in a second), and students were asked to think about how that problem might be addressed. What many of them proposed in their essays is so sensible--indeed, so obvious--that it's a wonder that some version of the strategy hasn't become part of our public policies.

Or maybe it isn't such a wonder after all. Maybe it's what we should expect in a world where business exert enormous influence on government policy.

Big Pharma has lots of money to lobby congress. They have lots of money to finance politicians' election campaigns. And the solution that some of my students propose (the same solutions that some of my brighter students proposed last year, and the year before that, and the year before that) might be great for everyone on planet earth except Big Pharma. But it's not as good for Big Pharma as the status quo.

Here is the problem, in a nutshell: When a drug company invests in the research and development of a new drug, they need the assurance that others who haven't spent the money on R&D won't just step in and effectively steal their intellectual property. Once a new drug has been developed and has passed clinical trials, the actual manufacture may be cheap. So in the absence of intellectual property protections, a predatory company could just wait for others to do all the risky and expensive R&D, and then swoop in and start making the drug for next to nothing. The incentive to actually invest in developing new drugs would disappear, and we'd all be sicker for it.

Furthermore, the payoff needs to be pretty big. Investing in drug R&D is risky, because it may not yield a usable product. A drug needs to meet some pretty exacting specifications in order to be approved for patient use. If it fails the clinical trials--if the side-effects are too severe or the benefits too limited--the R&D investment will have no payoff at all. So, the payoff for a successful product needs to be high enough to motivate taking those risks.

Enter the 20-year drug patent. A patent protects intellectual property, and a 20-year patent offers a big payoff for risky investments. It does all this by giving the company a 20-year monopoly on what they have invented.

Such a monopoly might not stifle all competition. After all, a drug company might develop an effective treatment for MS and a rival company, pursuing its own R&D, might develop an equally effective treatment. Each company holds a patent on its drug, but they compete with each other.

But that doesn't always happen. Sometimes one company has a drug that is substantially better than existing rivals, or has the only treatment for a life-threatening condition that actually works. When that happens, it's great for the company--but the rest of us have a problem.

In a free market, there are two natural constraints on product pricing. First, there is competition among businesses selling comparable products. Second, there is the fact that when prices get too high, potential consumers may decide to walk away and do without rather than buy the product. Raise your price too high, and whatever benefits come from the higher price are offset by lost sales.

But when you have a monopoly on a product essential for life, neither of these natural market constraints applies. And so when a pharmaceutical company has a patent on that kind of drug, they can pretty much ask whatever they want. And they do. According to the textbook my students were using to write their essays, relative to the cost of ingredients, some prescription drugs have mark-ups of 500,000 percent (although 5,000 percent may be more typical).

So--you need patents both to protect intellectual property rights and to incentivize risky R&D. But in the drug industry, eliminating competition for 20 years can mean a total lack of natural market constraints on prices, leading to skyrocketing healthcare costs, people coming out of serious illnesses saddled with crushing debt, rising insurance premiums...you get the idea.

So what's the solution? There's one approach, repeatedly proposed by my students, that's actually pretty simple. Confer patents with conditions. Two of my students this semester independently came up with the idea of imposing these conditions in the following way: Bestow short-term renewable drug patents (say, 5 years), and impose conditions on renewal (for up to 20 years) based on living up to reasonable pricing standards.

Such legal constraints on pricing wouldn't be illicit government interference in the market, since the government is already regulating the marketplace by bestowing the patent. They'd just be bestowing the patent with conditions, instead of in the essentially unconditional way they do now. They'd be interfering with the market in a way that did something to replace the market constraint on overpricing that their interference (through conferring the patent) has eliminated.

The conditions would have to be reasonable enough that the payoff for developing a new drug would still motivate risky R&D. In fact, the imposition of such conditions could be paired with other reforms that are favorable to drug companies. For example, as things are now, drug companies apply for their patent before the drug has been approved by the FDA, and in some cases the approval process may take years--meaning that the clock on their patent has run down by many years before they can actually start making money. What if an initial 5-year patent, renewable for up to 20 years, didn't kick in until the drug was approved for sale--but was conferred with a range of conditions that curb exploitation of the unique position drug companies sometimes find themselves in? If a company fails to meet the conditions, the drug patent is not renewed after its initial 5-year term. If it meets the conditions, it can continue to enjoy the patent for another 5 years, renewable for up to 20.

These time-frames are mere placeholders for whichever actual time-frames make the most sense in terms of incentivizing R&D while protecting the public welfare. And the conditions on retaining the patent can be reasonable enough to allow drug companies to make healthy profits without risking losing their patents. The precise conditions would be established by independent research informed by prevailing public values, rather than corporate-sponsored research informed by the profit interests of drug companies.

The aim here is to allow drug companies to do well, to make their R&D risks worth it and to protect their intellectual property rights, but to put fair limits (limits that reflect public interests and values) on how much a drug company can take advantage of the desperation of sick and dying people when there aren't competitors vying for the dollars of those same sick and dying people. Because the life-saving treatments are the result of their labors, we let the drug companies enjoy a payoff for their work. But we don't give them unfettered freedom to extract whatever they can get from the desperate people who would die or wither without their help.

The basic strategy strikes me as so reasonable and straightforward that I would almost expect to see some version of it already in place. But while I am no expert on patent law, I can't find anything like it at work curbing drug company exploitation of patent-conferred monopolies. Am I missing something obvious? If not, why is nothing like this in place?

The simplest answer I can find is this: It's not as good for drug companies as the current system, and the interests of drug companies are doing more to influence public policy than the interests of the American people.

Does any other explanation make sense? Are there problems with the solution my students keep coming up with, year after year, that we haven't seen? If so, what are they?

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Mount St. Mary's President Likens At-Risk Students to Bunnies Who Should Be Drowned--then Fires His Critics

Yes, that's right. Simon Newman--the president of Mount St. Mary's hired last year from the business world and obviously ignorant of the values that define a Roman Catholic institution of higher education--has turned a policy stumble into a PR disaster by, first, defending his policies in the most offensive way imaginable and then firing his critics (or, as his most vocal defender on the board of trustees would have it, firing the key members of the secret conspiracy determined to bring him down). The details of the case are well-described here, here, here, here, and here.

I don't know Simon Newman. He might be a thoughtful, decent guy most of the time. But he has displayed a pattern of behavior in recent months that has risen from the controversial into the stratosphere of egregiously unjust.

Let's walk through the escalating stages of outrageousness together.

Stage One: A Dubious Policy

It started with a controversial policy proposal pertaining to student retention. Usually, when you think about student retention policies, you think about strategies for helping to keep students from failing out or dropping out. You don't usually imagine issuing a questionnaire to incoming freshmen whose aim is to identify new students at-risk for dropping out so that the university can encourage them to withdraw from the university before their departure would count as dropping out from the standpoint of retention statistics.

There are reasons why you don't usually think about the latter. If there's something you can do to determine whether a brand-new freshman is unlikely to succeed at your college--something you can learn before their first semester is even underway--then presumably you could have figured that out before you admitted them in the first place. And surely it's better not to admit them than to admit them, let them get registered for courses and moved into their dorm and excited about the new stage in their life...and then encourage them to quit and go home before they've even unpacked all their bags.

Of course, a policy aimed at identifying at-risk students for the sake of providing them with what they need in order to succeed would be a different matter. And if, as a side-effect of such a policy, one (rarely) encountered a student who should never have been admitted but somehow slipped through the cracks in the admissions process, there might be some reason to think it compassionate to encourage such a student to withdraw with a full tuition refund before "wasting" their time and money only to drop out later. Of course, even then you might argue that once you've admitted them, they should be afforded every chance to succeed.

Now it sounds as if the policy that Newman proposed might have been a little bit of both. Part of the purpose of identifying at-risk students might have been to provide resources for their success, but part would be to identify those whom the university would encouraged to quit before they've even had a chance to try--so that their failure wouldn't negatively impact the university's retention statistics. Newman even conceded that some students who might have been successful could get dismissed--which he called "collateral damage," apparently justified because getting "20-25 people to leave by the 25th" of September would "boost our retention 4-5%." (Quotes are from e-mails and witness accounts acquired by Mount St. Mary's student newspaper, The Mountain View, and reported there).

If the retention policy was both about providing support and drumming out students for the sake of massaging retention statistics, the criticisms from within Mount St. Mary's were focused on the latter.

And there is plenty of good reason for faculty and administrators (and students and alumni and other interested parties) to be critical of the latter. Or maybe I should say there are plenty of staggeringly powerful reasons to be appalled by the latter--especially when the method of identifying at-risk students is a student questionnaire misleadingly presented to incoming freshmen as an opportunity for deeper self-awareness for which there are no wrong answers.

We might put it this way: A Roman Catholic institution of higher learning is defined by both the values of the academy (such as academic freedom and integrity and a priority on expanding wisdom and knowledge) and by Catholic values (such as social justice, charity, and the promotion of human flourishing). For several years while I was finishing my PhD, I taught multiple courses each semester at a Roman Catholic college. While an adjunct faculty member there, I participated in a program designed to promote the success of students admitted probationally. I was the advisor for several of these students and taught a course for them aimed at promoting success. And I was active with various other aspects of the life of the college that gave me a sense of what values drove that institution.

Massaging numbers to make retention rates look better is not a value of a Roman Catholic institution. It is fundamentally a business value--where numbers and appearances often take precedence over substantive contributions to wisdom and the human good.

So what are some values that help define a Roman Catholic institution of higher learning? Here's one: Ensuring that a student is not admitted in the first place unless the university will in good faith offer them every opportunity to succeed. That's a matter of justice, and such matters of justice resonate deeply with Roman Catholic values. And what about students who have been judged capable of success in the admission process but whom the university soon identifies as confronted with personal challenges that might interfere with actualizing that potential (such things as depression, which the proposed freshman questionnaire would have tested for)? Roman Catholic values would speak in favor of support and hope and nurture, of responsibility for caring about the welfare and success of those with whom one has established a relationship and made an initial commitment. It would certainly not speak in favor of preemptively cutting depressed students loose in order to massage retention statistics and make the university look better on paper.

Given Newman's background, I suppose it is no surprise that he might be motivated by considerations that don't reflect the value priorities of an institution such as Mount St. Mary's. The test of someone's character and fit with an institution comes not with such early missteps, but with what happens afterwards. Does the leader listen to concerns, take seriously criticism that springs from sincere devotion to institutional values, and either change course or make their case in terms of a better understanding of and respect for those values?

It's possible that not every aspect of President Newman's retention policy clashed with the values that define an institution like Mount St. Mary's. But it is obvious that part of the aim was to drum out new freshman right away, prior to giving them a meaningful opportunity to succeed or fail on their own. And it's obvious that this part of the plan was important to Newman. Thus, there is no doubt at all that critics of the policy were targeting something that really was a part of President Newman's aims, and that really was problematic from the traditional institutional values at issue. Newman's critics weren't attacking a straw man.

Why do I say that this is so obvious? There are actually a number of reasons, but one of the most significant is how President Newman defended his policy proposal. And that leads me to stage two of the escalating egregiousness.

Stage Two: Drown the Bunnies

In response to faculty criticism of his policy proposal, Simon Newman displayed a tin ear to the values that define an institution like Mount St. Mary's. As reported by the student newspaper, the Mountain Echo, Newman invoked violent metaphors: “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”

This language is not only rhetorically out of tune with Roman Catholic values, but betrays a way of understanding the policy proposals at issue that is not primarily about identifying at-risk students for the sake of nurture and support but, rather, of identifying them for the sake of drowning them. The rhetoric betrays a motivation for the policy proposals that exposes a fault-line between the president's business-minded approach and the value system that makes Catholic universities distinctive and important in the academic landscape and in society.

Let me be clear here: President Newman described his remarks as unfortunate rhetoric, and apologized for the choice of words. But this is not simply a word-choice issue. The choice to invoke violent metaphors to defend his policy proposal says something about how President Newman understands that policy and its aims. The metaphors that spring immediately to your lips when describing a policy you support spring to your lips for a reason. They express your attitude and understanding. The violent rhetoric is not only problematic because it is violent, because it invokes the unsavory images of putting guns to the heads of college students and drowning them like unwanted bunny rabbits. The violent rhetoric tells us that President Newman sees his policy as aiming at eliminating unwanted students the way a ruthless person might drown unwanted bunnies.

This is simply not the sort of imagery that springs into the mind of someone who is deeply invested in the values of Roman Catholic higher education. People who really care about those values don't think of at-risk students as bunnies to be drowned. They're more likely to think of them, well, as bunnies to be nurtured. President Newman was telling the faculty to stop embracing those values. He was telling them that they "can't" approach students in that nurturing way, that a kind of heartlessness is required.

Required for what? For making Mount St. Mary's operate in accord with Newman's heartless business model? Obviously, faculty at Mount St. Mary's can view their students in the nurturing way that Newman derides. And if those faculty believe in what Roman Catholic higher education is about, they not only can but should.

Those who advise against compassion and nurture often hide behind the language of necessity--we must do this, we can't do that--as a way to deflect moral objections to their hard-hearted proposals. But there is no necessity here. It is absolutely possible for a Roman Catholic university to be guided by Roman Catholic values.

In defending his policy proposal as he did, Newman not only made clear the true spirit of the policy, but he also made clear just how alienated he is from the defining spirit of Mount St. Mary's identity as a Roman Catholic University. When there was a clash between his policy proposals and the values of Mount St. Mary's, instead of listening to concerns openly and responsively, he sought to impose his will with the language of necessity and the rhetoric of violence. He responded to a gap between his value system and the values of the institution he'd been entrusted to lead by expressing disdain for the latter.

In short, he made it clear that he was not a good fit for the leadership position that he held, not merely because of a disconnect between his values and those of the university, but more profoundly because of his unwillingness to be moved and shaped by the university's historic values.

This unwillingness then escalated, in stage three, into behavior characteristic of a tyrant. Or maybe Donald Trump.

Stage Three: "You're Fired!"

When the student newspaper acquired the drowning bunnies quote and published it, the shocking character of the president's words carried the controversy beyond the boundaries of the school. The newspaper's faculty adviser was Edward Egan, who ran the pre-law program and was also deeply and historically invested in the school. He was an alumnus, the child of an alumnus, and a former trustee. Mount St. Mary's was, by all indications, an institution Egan loved.

Newman fired him. Summarily. He was escorted off campus by security.

Another faculty member was similarly fired: tenured philosophy professor Thane M. Naberhaus, Newman fired him for "disloyalty," and he fired him without the due process that is normally afforded tenured faculty.

And the provost who was critical of Newman's retention policy? Yeah. He's no longer provost.

Let me say something, first, about the firing of the philosophy professor. Philosophy as a discipline includes within its scope ethical reflection on such things as the policies and practices of societies and its institutions. A philosophy professor thus has things to say--as part of their academic life and career--about the ethics of policies and practices, including those at their own institution. To be denied the freedom to do so--to face summary termination for thinking philosophically about matters close to home--is thus a fundamental truncation of academic freedom. Furthermore, it is precisely the protection of academic freedom in this kind of situation that the institution of tenure exists to protect.

Similar concerns can be raised about the firing of the student newspaper's faculty advisor. The faculty advisor to a newspaper has a duty to teach and encourage serious journalism. And journalism has an important role in a free society, to serve as a kind of social watchdog, to hold those in power accountable for their behavior in part by making public what those in power might rather were kept secret.

The news piece about Newman's proposals and his comments exemplify such journalism. For a school newspaper to expose the words and plans of the university's leadership is not disloyalty but journalism. The newspaper is doing what good journalism has always done. For a faculty advisor to discourage that--or fail to encourage it, for that matter--would be for that faculty advisor to fail to live up to the role that an educator working with student journalists is supposed to fulfill: namely, help them learn to be good journalists.

In other words, by supporting the student paper and its choices, Edward Egan was supporting the students of journalism in doing what the best journalism is supposed to do: hold those in power accountable for the trust that has been placed in them. He was, in short, doing his job well. Newman, by contrast, wasn't. Ed was fired because he helped to expose the latter fact.

By firing those who opposed him, Newman has compounded his earlier failings by demonstrating that he cares more about keeping power in the face of challenges than he cares about serving the institution fairly and honestly. He has also spit in the face of core values that unite all academic institutions, Roman Catholic and otherwise--most notably the importance of academic freedom.

In other words, Newman has demonstrated that his loyalty is not to Mount St. Mary's, but to himself and his own self-interest. He has used his power in the service of injustice, in the manner of tyrants who aim to shut down their vocal opponents and thereby cow into silence everyone else. He has exposed himself as so fundamentally at odds with the values of the academy in general and Roman Catholic higher education in particular that it is hard to imagine a worse candidate for leadership of a Catholic university.

He has gone from being a university president who, because he is out of tune with institutional values, proposes suspect policies, to being a university president egregiously misusing his power to silence opposition at the cost of the welfare of the institution he is supposed to lead and without any regard for that institution's defining values. In other words, based on reasons of ego, he has betrayed the institution he was hired to serve.

Let me be clear. I do not think that anything that has happened so far has given Mount St. Mary's University a bad name. I think the shame falls squarely on the shoulders of the current president and--to the extent that they support him--the board of trustees. The university is a victim in all of this, as are the individuals who lost their jobs. They are the victims of escalating injustice, where unwise decisions were compounded by unresponsiveness to critical feedback and then capped off with the unjust misuse of power.

There is a solution to all of this. It is a simple and elegant solution. It involves removing those who really are disloyal to Mount St. Mary's and its values, and restoring to their jobs those who, out of loyalty to what Mount St. Mary's stands for, criticized and opposed someone with power who threatened what they held dear.

If the university doesn't do this, I wonder what enrollment will look like in the fall. I know I would never send my children there, and I can imagine that many, many parents would feel the same way--including many parents whose students currently attend a school whose president thinks of their children as potential bunnies to be drowned.

I suspect that absent meaningful action to remedy recent injustices, what started as an attempt to massage retention rates may conclude with the worst retention (and new enrollment) statistics in Mount St. Mary's history.

And that, I think, would be a shame.