Monday, October 26, 2009

Not getting the American Revolution

What do we know about the Obama Administration?

That it does not much believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the rule of law, inconvenient monitoring of human rights, can be astonishingly morally tone deaf, as well as commercially clueless in a way that can be deeply damaging to its favoured friends, is happy to use the tax, spend and regulatory power of the state to buy corporate support and support astonishing levels of deficit spending in ways whose affects are apparently worse than its own projections of doing nothing based on ludicrously unfounded multiplier assumptions.

An Administration can recover from policy setbacks. What it cannot recover from is disastrous political instincts. After all, with the Presidency and both houses of Congress firmly in Democratic hands and time marching on, the Administration is surely running out of excuses.

The only thing going for the Obama Administration at the moment seems to be that their official opponents are even more politically clueless (via here). That, along with Obama’s intelligent, articulate charisma (and, I suspect, a certain wish that the first African-American President succeed) is keeping his polling favourability ratings up fairly well.
But Obama as Carter-redux is looking more plausible by the day. (Except, of course, President Carter was sounder on human rights.) I do not remember a time when US federal politics so completely manifested my fundamental principle of the division in American politics:
US politics is divided between two Parties who can accuse each other of “not getting” the American Revolution, and both be completely correct.
(Of course, that Obama’s political career was partly made on opposing Dubya’s attempt to export the American Revolution at the point of a smart-bomb to Mesopotamia and the Hindu Kush may further complicate matters. But I am not even going to touch foreign policy.)

Yet, on the subject of “not getting” the American Revolution, it is hard to go past Pat Buchanan:
Moreover, the alienation and radicalization of white America began long before Obama arrived. He acknowledged as much when he explained Middle Pennsylvanians to puzzled progressives in that closed-door meeting in San Francisco.
Referring to the white working-class voters in the industrial towns decimated by job losses, Obama said: "They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." …
America was once their country. They sense they are losing it. And they are right.
One cannot understand how much Pat Buchanan does not “get” the American Revolution without understanding the crucial difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is love/support/commitment to one’s country, to a polity with a certain territory. It presumes nothing about ethnic identity. Nationalism is love/support/commitment to one’s nation, conceived as an ethnic identity which should have a polity. Nationalism holds, for example, that no Jew can be a true member of any nation (other than Israel). Patriotism does not bar anyone who is willing to support their country.

This distinction is crucial in the case of the US because the United States has never been a nation in an ethnic sense. Not only was it not a solely British founding, the United Kingdom itself was ethnically and religiously diverse. The US, alone of all the great polities of its time, was founded around a set of ideas: ideas expressed most famously in the Declaration of Independence but also in the Preamble to the US Constitution. To be a patriotic American is to support the country founded on those ideals: hence the oath of allegiance being to the Constitution that expresses them. Indeed, the US fought a brutal Civil War over what those ideals meant: particularly over the contradiction of a Revolution based on natural equality and protection of property establishing a United States within which there were people who were property.

The US has never ceased to fight over those ideas. As a WWII veteran so eloquently and movingly states, the current fight over legal equality for the same-sex attracted is the latest manifestation of the battle as was previously fought over race, sex, religion, slavery.

Any attempt to base American identity on race, on ethnicity, on some identity that separates who cannot and cannot be a “true American” beyond their, at least implicit, commitment to something within the grander American project, is a betrayal of the American Revolution. That without even considering Andrew Sullivan’s point about how pervasive black influence is on “white” America.

Pat Buchanan was a disastrous failure as a candidate for the American Presidency (0.4% of votes cast) and arguably helped, with his strident 1992 Republican Convention speech, Clinton to beat Bush senior. Both effects, I would suggest, being because Buchanan so very, very obviously does not “get” the American Revolution.

Cleverer conservatives understand this, including fellow Catholic conservatives:
The anti-culture which the counterculture spawned or gave the opportunity of a lifetime used race/power as simply a weapon against the real foe of those against culture — religion/authority. And the foolish white racists of yesterday failed to realize that choosing to fight over the former meant choosing to lose the fight over the latter.
To be sure, Poulson wants to abandon the effortless virtue of race while standing on the effortless virtue of sexual orientation, and his point about religious culture was previously deployed against Catholics, but at least he understands how self-defeating—indeed, in American terms, self-refuting—the race dynamic is.

As should be obvious, I have grave concerns about the political instincts of the Obama Administration: apparently an amalgam of Chicago-machine politics and academe pc with all the latter's self-righteous obliviousness. That does not mean one cannot realise that many of his opponents are worse.

In recent decades, the Republicans have done best under Reagan for the Presidency and “Contract with America” Gingrich for the Congress. Both “got” the American Revolution in a way none of the current Republicans seem able to get anywhere near.

Obama might be Carter-redux, but without the equivalent of a Reagan or a Gingrich, the Republicans will continue to flounder in their own bubble of deeply misguided delusions. Leaving ordinary Americans, in effect, trying to work out which side of mainstream politics is less of a betrayal of the American project. The articulate, charismatic black man of mixed race has an inherent advantage in that judgement, for what speech has so eloquently personified the American Project as I have a Dream? Buchanan is so profoundly wrong he cannot even begin to see that.

But Buchanan is a patent political failure. The real question is why so many Republicans seem so similarly blind: so apparently utterly unable to understand past Republican success, let alone understand the country they aspire to lead.

ADDENDA That self-declared conservatives continue to way outnumber self-declared liberals in polling just highlights the Republican failure. (H/t gaypatriot).

Ayaayn Hirsi Ali makes the point about the nature of US patriotism quite nicely:
America has the advantage that when you become a citizen, you pledge loyalty to a Constitution that's about ideas and not about ethnicity. Because of that, Americans do not feel shy about teaching new Americans why citizenship is important, why patriotism is important, pride about the Founding Fathers. That's an easier sell than taking pride in the history of France, for instance.
(H/t Bruce Bawer.)

ADDENDA 2: Kyle has a nice post about divisions among conservative elite and base contrasting with far greater unity among liberal/progressive elite and base. Part of what is going on in that, I suspect, is that US progressivism (like progressivism across the West) is to a significant degree about signaling one is one of the Virtuous: a sense of Virtue itself based on a sensibility anchored in ideal aspirations, on a realm of the mind (see my post on beliefs as status markers). So, dissenting on marker-issues exposes one to loss of status. Conservatives, on the other hand, are committed to preserving a diverse inheritance from the past. Given that which part of that inheritance one is committed to and what degree can patently vary, getting unity is inherently harder (and greatly aided if there is a sense of common threat).

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Crusades: the Struggle for the Holy Land

Regine Pernoud’s The Crusades: the Struggle for the Holy Land was originally published in 1959, so does not represent the latest scholarship. It is also clearly mainly written for a lay audience.

Pernoud happily sees Islam as retrograde compared to Christianity, but still manages to provide more details about the Muslims than, say Riley-Smith’s more recent book. There is considerable overlap between the two books—right down to which passages from which chronicles are quoted—though Pernoud limits herself to crusades to the Holy Land, Egypt and Constantinople from the First Crusade to the fall of Acre in 1291, while Riley-Smith is much more comprehensive. Pernoud is only interested in crusades to outre-mer (literally over-sea). Riley-Smith also covers Spain, the Baltic states and crusades against fellow Christians.

Pernoud is centrally interested in how the crusades were experienced and understood by folk at the time. She gives a strong sense of how the crusades were lived.
Pernoud starts off with a brief summary of the history then an examination of the appeal and perils of pilgrimage. Having set the scene, she moves on to the Pope who preached the First Crusade, Urban II. (Various contemporary versions of his famous speech are available here.) She then looks at the poor, the barons, the churchmen and the women: each with their own chapter. Followed by one (The Grain and the Chaff) which considers villains (Reynald de Chatillon gets quite a go) and villainies (such as the slaughter of Jews in European cities) and contemporary reactions thereto.

Pernoud then continues on to three chapters on technical methods: of organising conquest, of engineering and building, and of financing. Then two chapters on The Spirit of Conquest, covering kings and merchants and the Fourth Crusade as well as the attempts against Egypt (which make more sense when one realises that Muslims probably only became a majority of the population around about this time). Then onto Mysticism and Politics covering a chapter on St Francis in Egypt (The Monk and the Sultan), one on Frederick II Stupor Mundi (The Crusader without Faith) and one on St Louis (The Perfect Crusader).

The final part, The End of the World, deals with the final fall of the Crusader kingdoms and and concludes with a chapter on the last sputters of the crusader impulse to outre-mer, The Planner and the Saint. The former was French lawyer Peter Dubois, who provided an elaborate plan for elevation of the power and status of the French monarchy to support the re-establishment of outre-mer as its colonies. Shorn of its crusading and Council of Europe (chaired by the French King) aspects, its main interest is that it sets out much of the program Philip the Fair was to actually follow. The saint is Raymond Llull, who advocated crusade via preaching. She reports, as does the Catholic Encyclopedia, that he died being stoned by a mob at Tunis and holds him to be the precursor of the missionary impulse that was to later become (and still is) so important in the history of Christianity. But, then, what was St Paul if not the first missionary?

Pernoud is a very lively writer, with an eye for the striking: very interested in conveying a feel for the complexities of the period. Of making the medievals full beings in complex societies, rather than cardboard cut-outs available for us clever and wise moderns to sneer at. She does not care much for Eleanor of Aquitaine (fair enough). Apart from that, her presentation of the more prominent personalities is fairly conventional. Thus Guy of Lusignan is ineffectual to the point of incompetence, Reynald de Chatillon is a charismatic brute, Gerard of Richefort destructively selfish, Cardinal Pelagius incredibly arrogant, Frederick II untrustworthy and generally impossible to deal with. Judgements which, to be fair, are straightforwardly based on the chroniclers of the period.

Pernoud draws a sharp contrast Frederick II with Saint Louis. Again, one based firmly on period sources.

I like good populist history: works that bring history to as wide a readership as practicable. For intellectual life generally, if one looks at the articles, essays and books that have been seriously influential, it is those written for the intelligent lay audience which have tended to have the greatest impact. Scholarship should not be an insular little game, played for the oh-so-clever cognescenti, while the ignorant peons slave away to support the interests of their betters. It should be the research and testing ground from which knowledge gets distributed to the wider culture. Regine Pernoud obviously believes in accessible history and she practises it well. Good for her.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Kingdom of Shmeaven

I recently listened to an excellent presentation by Dr Darius von Guettner from Melbourne University at the History Teachers Association of Victoria conference on The Crusades: An Act of Intolerance or an Act of Love. He used Sir Ridley Scott’s film Kingdom of Heaven as a talking point. So I thought it worthwhile posting an updated version of my review of Kingdom of Heaven originally posted in another place.

So, Ridley Scott thought that there are far too many stupid myths about Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and the answer to this is a new set of stupid myths. Really, why do directors muck around with the history, particularly when the history itself is much more intelligent and engaging than their bastardisations? I could forgive it in Gladiator because (1) it is a much better film and (2) it was a redoing a previous film. Strangely enough, the bit I found most offensive in Kingdom was not the democratisation of knighthood (that just took all the point out of knighthood) but parading young Balian’s blatant refusal to take responsibility as a noble act. There comes a point when concern for your own moral purity becomes indulgence.

I watched Kingdom of Heaven in its cinema release with a group of medieval re-enactment friends, including one who is far more knowledgeable on the Crusades than I (and it being a long time since I read Runciman’s three volume History of the Crusades though she informed me I should read Jonathan Riley-Smith which I have since done and thoroughly enjoyed). Her bursts of laughter at particular points of violence to the historical record were particularly amusing.
I restrained myself to whispering to friend that I hoped the next two-hander I fight in SCA combat uses the "high guard" position Godfrey(!) of Ibelin taught Balian (“dead” to a cut to the body while my shield is planted on his sword is my prediction) and exclaiming out aloud, when Balian leads the defence of the breached walls of Jerusalem:
yes, throwing your shield away, that’s what you do when you lead a charge.
The siege warfare detail bits were well done. The cavalry charge was crap, but that seems standard for Ridley Scott (the cavalry charge in Gladiator was crap too) and for Hollywood generally (if anyone knows of a film which does a pre-1820, and particularly a pre-1550, cavalry charge properly, I would delighted to know about it—I am told that Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky does cavalry charges well). Shock cavalry charged knee-to-knee (or even knee-behind-knee). They were not swirling mobs, nor a bunch of individual riders heading in vaguely the same direction.

A friend later commented that the best bit was:
truly you leave out the best bit...You are forgetting the scene where Balian DEFEATS FOUR ARMOURED OPPONENTS ARMED WITH SWORDS AND SHIELDS, WHILE WEARING NO ARMOUR AND ARMED WITH A CERAMIC POT!!!!!!
If Balian had handed out more ceramic pots to his garrison, they may have kept Jerusalem from the infidel until Richard Cour de Leon arrived with reinforcements.
I quite enjoyed the portrayal of Saladin, which was within the long-standing tradition of Saladin-as-paragon. Orlando Bloom was fine for the role as written but was just no Russell Crowe, though I was so busy trying to remember relevant bits of history that I couldn’t really just sit back and enjoy the film.

As for Guy of Lusignan (Martin Csokas who also played Celeborn in LOTR), my period-expertise friend made the excellent point that he managed to go off and found the Kingdom of Cyprus, which his dynasty controlled until 1489.

I suspect I would have enjoyed the film if I had either known a lot more, or a lot less, of the specific history. I preferred A Knight’s Tale – it’s a lot more sheer fun. As I did Elizabeth: the movie is so much fun, you forgive its historical bastardisations (such as running two different Duc d’Anjou together⎯the gay cross-dresser was not his brother who courted Elizabeth⎯or portraying Walsingham as Elizabeth’s great dark fag—what every good girl needs to get ahead).

Others have had similar reactions to Kingdom of Heaven as I. The second review is particularly amusing.

There may also be a certain larger cluelessness:
Libertas’s Murty says that a publicist for Ridley Scott’s expensive 2005 flop about the Crusades, Kingdom of Heaven, asked her and her filmmaker husband, Jason Apuzzo, for advice on marketing the film to conservatives and Christians. Invited to a press screening along with representatives of various Christian groups, the two watched in disbelief as the movie opened with a Catholic priest beheading a woman and stealing her rosary—and went on in that vein, while also presenting the Muslims as noble and wise. “Every single person directly associated with the Church in the movie is a murderer or a liar. They really thought this would appeal to Christians,” Murty recounts. “Some of these people live in this completely sealed world in West Hollywood and didn’t register how offensive the movie would be.”
This compilation of responses from academic historians of the Crusades is informative and amusing (particularly the conjunction therein with some Muslim responses).

I am told that the Director’s cut is a better movie. Possibly, but I do not believe the bastardization of history can be retrieved.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The improper reasoning of classical natural law theory

A range of traditions (using the term ‘tradition’ very broadly) have attempted to ground their morality in the natural order, in the [general] nature of things—including nature. [I am distinguishing such claims from attempts to ground morality specifically in human nature.] They vary greatly in how reputable they are. By far the most intellectually serious is the classical natural law tradition (using the term in the sense that Ed Feser does inThe Last Superstition). By far the least reputable is Nazi ideology. Modern environmentalism rests somewhere in the middle.

They may vary greatly in how morally and intellectually respectable they are, but they all suffer the same problem. The alleged moral grounding they find in the [wider] nature of things, in the natural order, is false. They simply infer from the natural order the values they bring to it in the first place. Nazis take from nature their pre-existing concerns for purity, violence and territory; environmentalists take from nature their pre-existing animus to capitalism and industrialisation; classical natural law theorists take from nature their pre-existing concerns about, amongst other things, sex.

In each case, the natural order provides no moral grounding outside of the values they bring to it, and this is an irredeemable failure. It cannot be other than so because of the nature of norms, of valuation.

To show how this is so, I will use the most intellectually respectable case—classical natural law theory.

To say something is moral to do and another thing is immoral is to say it is better than one thing occur than the other. That is, to say that there are preferred states of the world. Which means they have to be grounded in something that prefers, that evaluates, that has evaluative force. If the only source for such preferences, such evaluative force, is to be purposive, to have purposes that can be frustrated or not, then what simply is cannot be a source of what ought to be, as simply being applies equally to what is good, what is evil and what is neither. Hence Hume’s point that one cannot infer an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. The claim of classical natural law theory is that what makes things moral or immoral is built into the structure of the universe. The claim is that morally determinant purposes are built into the structure of the universe. (So, classical natural law theory accepts that purpose is what generates evaluative force.)

Shifts in meaning
If what is actually going on in classical natural law theory is that evaluation is being imported into the characterisation of the universe, it is unlikely to be happening “out in the open”. It is far more likely that it is happening surreptitiously. A classic way for this to happen is to shift from one conception to another without it being apparent, even to the thinker.

This is surprisingly easy to do and flows from the nature of language and thought. There is no necessary connection between any sets of sounds or characters and particular meanings. It is all a matter of learned, and arbitrary, associations. Hence the meaning of scripts can be entirely lost even though their physical signs remain.

But it is worse than that, for there is no necessary connection between one use of a set of sounds or characters and another, even if the meaning seems to be the same. Malthus was famously criticised for confusing two different notions of ‘tendency’. This is sort of mistake is a common problem. Charles Darwin, for example, often talks as if the “struggle for existence” was “ceaseless” in ways which are unclear between things that can happen at any time and things that happen at all times. Clearly, that something can happen at any time is not the same as happening all the time and does not have the same implications. (In particular, the latter tends to be more hostile to the notion of cooperation in nature than the former: that some selection processes can be said to be always operating for particular individuals, or genetic lineages, while others operate at some times and not others, encourages the ambiguity.)
In The Last Superstition, Ed Feser usefully distinguishes between different conceptions of God. God the old-man-with-beard; God as eternal, immaterial being; God as pure being or existence; God as mystically experienced; God as experienced in the beatific vision (Pp87-88). Feser then proceeds to argue for a moral theory—classical natural law theory—that is based on just such a mistake as Malthus made of shifting between meanings without taking adequate note of it. A shift across conceptions of God which gives it unearned persuasive force (to believers) and a more fatal shift in conceptions of (final) causality.

Classical natural law theory is based on Aristotelian metaphysics and its four causes—the material cause (the underlying stuff something is made out of), the formal cause (the form, structure or pattern that it exhibits), the efficient cause (what brings a thing into being: technically, what actualises a potentiality in a thing) and the final cause (the end, goal or purpose of a thing). In Aristotelian metaphysics, final causes are and are universally. All causal sequences have them. Because they just are, they do not of themselves create or imply preferred states of the world. Precisely because they are universal, absolutely ubiquitous, they exhibit no preferences for they equally manifest in—in a sense support—all preferences, all actions. So evaluation can only be established if some final causes are more important than others in an evaluative sense.

Reference to God is not a solution, for the God of Aristotelian metaphysics—God the Unmoved Mover, the First Cause God—has the same causal relationship to each and every final cause. To good actions, bad actions, neutral actions: to the existence and actions of Buddha as the existence and actions of Hitler. The God of the Philosophers has a universal role and this universal role does not support particular causal roles, functions and purposes, but indifferently maintains all such.

The problem comes with running together the God of the Philosophers with Yahweh of the Old Testament and Allah of the Qu’ran: the God Who Permits and Forbids. Who expresses preferred states of the world. Who has purposes and so has preferred states of the world (those that fulfil or conform to those purposes).

It is an easy mistake, to go from God the Unmoved Mover, to God the Creator, to God the Preferrer and take it that the purposes, the preferences, of God are immanent in the Creation—in the case of classical natural law theory, immanent in final causes. Thus we have a world with an inherent natural moral order. This is not a divine command theory as such, in that such good is not good because God says so. But it does claim the good is inherent in the immanent purpose of what exists and gains persuasive weight (among believers) from a sense of what exists comes from God. Things are sanctified by their origin being from God. (Specifically, via their nature manifesting their original purpose.) It is a question of philosophical interest whether this in fact ends up being a divine command theory hidden by being based on immanent purpose, but I will not pursue this question here. (I am inclined to think it is not.) Though, historically, natural law theories have been deeply intertwined with divine command notions: this is particularly obvious in medieval theories of property.

ASIDE: this shift across conceptions of God helps explain, in part, why so many modern philosophers have such problems in properly understanding the Unmoved Mover/First Cause argument for God. (A frequent complaint of Ed Feser’s: see here.) Precisely because the powerful cultural notion of God-the-Creator is the active God in Genesis, creating the world in six days, it is hard to see that a quite different sense of causality, and role in causality, is being invoked in the Unmoved Mover/First Cause argument. Of course, that classical natural law theory persuasive force as a moral theory is, in part, due to the aforementioned shift across concepts of God is not helpful in making the matter clear.

LONGER ASIDE: that Allah as Sovereign Legislator is so basic to Islam probably helps explain why Al-Ghazali’s hostility to natural law philosophy won out in Islam over Ibn Rushd (Averroes)’s Aristotelianism. Islam, as a religion of social order, has so many specific laws and injunctions that it is simply too big a gap from the God of the Philosophers to Allah of the Qur’an and hadith. Islam has a strong inner logic based on its goal of universal submission to Allah as sovereign legislator: for example, renouncing one’s submission to Allah—that is, converting from Islam—is treason against Allah-as-sovereign legislator, hence death being the penalty for apostasy. But it is not an inner logic naturally amenable to Aristotelianism.

Conversely, Christianity, growing up in a very ordered Roman Empire, is a religion of moral order. With the rejection of the Holiness Code, Christianity-the-religion-of-moral-order was left with general moral precepts famously encapsulated as:
you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind (and) you must love your neighbour as yourself - on these two commandments depend the whole Law and the prophets also.
Such a moral vision could be fitted in with natural law thinking fairly easily. (An example of this being Pope Paul III’s bull Sublimus Dei.) That St Paul uses para physin (‘against nature’, a very non-Judaic concept) in his canonical Epistles provided further support to natural law thinking. Hence the aforementioned Aristotelianism of Averroes was far more influential in Latin Christendom than in Islam, Aristotelianism surviving Bishop Tempier’s 1270 and 1270 condemnations, condemnations based on criticisms that were very similar to those of al-Ghazali.

The notion of miracles implies a normal natural order that God has chosen to override (or allow to be overridden) in a particular case: the standard Christian interpretation. Alternatively, either such things cannot happen (the standard secular view— Clarke’s third law being a version of this) or everything is just whatever God decrees with any apparent regularities being merely God’s customary practice: the standard Muslim interpretation. This being the interpretation that fits in with the lack of miracles equivalent to those of Jesus in the Gospels by the Prophet and with God-as-sovereign legislator—with God’s will as the basis of all law, the difference being between those we can break (but should not) and those we cannot.

The one bit of Holiness Code which made it into mainstream Christianity was, of course, the Levitical condemnations of same-sex activity: such activity being deemed of a form against nature and thus hateful to God as Creator of nature. A survival which derived from the works of Philo of Alexandria who was highly influential with early Christian thinkers and (most likely) St Paul. The treatment of the story of Lut (i.e Lot) in the Qur’an also largely follows Philo’s reinterpretation of Genesis 19.

So, in natural law monotheism, two men having sex were committing treason against the Creator of the natural order, thereby meriting death. (One of the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, held that “when a man mounts another man, the throne of God trembles” though part of what is going on may be about authority being masculine.) Rape, provided it was heterosexual, was a lesser offence and treated as such in Latin Christendom. (In cases of homosexual rape, the victim was sometimes also punished, so great was the evil of transgressing the “natural form” of sex taken to be. After all, if the wish of individuals to freely engage in such sex had absolutely no standing, why should the wish of someone not to engage in such sex trump the fact that they had?) END ASIDE

Sanctified beginnings
Classical natural law theory is—in its notion that the origin, the original purpose, of something has trumping moral authority—a philosophy natural to a scribal (that is, pre-printing) culture. To a scribal culture, the process of transmission is a process of copying by hand, so a process of the accretion of errors and of the loss of written works. To move away from the original source is a process of decay, a lessening. One reason it is hard for a modern to get his or her head around the classical natural law approach is that, for us, life is a process of discovery of new things. In particular, it is a process of discovering new functions for existing things. The classical natural law idea that the purest, most perfect, version of something is from its past, is its source—of the original use being the highest standard—does not fit at all with our experience. We are children of the printing press, the Scientific Revolution and of the most technologically dynamic civilisation in human history: moreover, ours is a civilisation of accelerating technological dynamism. For us, movement away from the origin is not inherently a process of decay: on the contrary is a process of the expansion of knowledge and capacities. Even in the evolutionary terms, it is movement towards greater complexity (particularly cognitive complexity): including movement to us.

The notion that the original state of man and woman was superior—i.e. before The Fall—fits in with natural law thinking’s reverence for origins, for original purpose: it very much does not fit in with evolutionary understanding. It entirely fits in with his classical natural law perspective that Feser, in The Last Superstition, characterises the last 500 years of Western history primarily in terms of decline.

We are also the children of the global age: of the centuries-long discovery of new cultures, species, manifestations of nature. Faced with such diversity, it becomes harder to maintain that we live in a world with an inherent moral order, since things which were claimed to be immanent in that natural order, thereby supporting particular conceptions thereof (such as conceptions of love, marriage, gender outlooks and patterns), show great diversity across human societies and across species. Nor has this process of discovery been one of metaphysical privileging some causal processes over others in the way classical natural law theory holds: on the contrary, it is based quite fundamentally in treating seriously the deep continuity underlying the diversity of nature to find its underlying structures.

ASIDE: Ed Feser regularly complains about philosophers, and others, not understanding classical natural law moral theory. Given how absolutely basic morality is to human existence, that highly educated and intelligent people have difficulty understanding a theory of morality is a strong mark against it being the correct theory. But I think we can see why—from the aforementioned factors—folk might have trouble, and why classical natural law theory is more plausible to thinkers strongly committed to God-as-Creator and Scriptures-as-Revelation: two sources of authority coming from the past, from origins, from original purpose.

Proper natures
The attempt to make a universal feature of all causal sequences (having a final cause) generate preferred casual sequences begins by identifying immanent purpose and nature as if one has a necessary connection to the other. The position is that something’s originating final cause—its immanent purpose—expresses its proper nature. Once you have proper natures, you have preferred states of the world: actions that accord with things’ proper natures are moral (at least in some general sense and if “proper nature” has sufficient moral status). Those that act against something’s proper nature are not (even though, as causal sequences, they also have final causes).

So, the classical natural law approach is to distinguish between the final cause that brought something into existence and further uses of that thing that are deemed to be morally required to accord with that originating purpose. Thereby metaphysically and morally privileging one type of final cause over another.

This, of course, immediately bars all meat eating since that utterly frustrates the final cause that brought the animal into existence. Or any plant eating that gets in the way of the plant thriving. My point here is not that one cannot create moral arguments for meat eating or plant eating. They just will not be arguments grounded in the facts of final causes. The claim that the purpose that brought something into existence has moral privilege is an evaluation, a moral claim: it is not a fact. As is deciding some such originating causes matter morally and not others.

I have previously cited the case of the pig leg. Its final cause is to move a pig around. If we kill, cook and eat the pig leg we have frustrated the final cause that brought the pig leg into existence in a most thorough way. Clearly therefore, it is not acting according to final cause that makes one final cause preferable (morally or otherwise) to another, but whatever criteria we are using to choose between final causes. Which has to be the case, since final causes just are, and are universally. We are bringing our moral criteria to the analysis, we are not deriving it from the facts of final causes. Not even the ones that bring things into existence.

Identifying nature
Take it back a step. How do we know what the final cause of something is? Particularly, for example, something as highly diverse as, say, marriage. Why should we expect any social institution to have a single function, a single purpose, a single final cause? Why, for that matter, should something as complex as sex have a single final cause? Do we really think that a couple in their 50s or older getting married are manifesting exactly the same purposes as a couple in their 20s getting married? (If we do, clearly procreation is not one of them.)

Classical natural law theory says the final cause, the immanent purpose, of sex that determines its nature is procreation. How do we know that? The original argument, by “The Athenian” in Plato’s The Laws claimed it was because all sex acts in nature are procreative:
If we were to follow in nature's steps and enact that law which held good before the days of Laïus, declaring that it is right to refrain from indulging in the same kind of intercourse with men and boys as with women, and adducing as evidence thereof the nature of wild beasts, and pointing out how male does not touch male for this purpose, since it is unnatural …
That seems straightforward. We know that sex has a single final cause, and thus a determinant nature, because all sex acts in nature are procreative, at least in form. The immanent purpose is coterminous with its manifested nature. This certainly fits in with the universality of final causes—or, at least, it does for non-human cases—if nature is as is claimed.

Of course, a sex act that is not procreative has its own, specific, final cause (since, according to Aristotelian metaphysics, all causal sequences do). But we have already established that originating final causes are given authority over others. Besides, there is a much more basic problem. The Athenian’s claim is just not true:
Animals of the same sex build nests and homes together, and many homosexual pairs raise young without members of the opposite sex. Other animals regularly have partners of both sexes, and some even live in communal groups where sexual activity is common among all members, male and female. Many creatures are “transgendered,” crossing or combining characteristics of both males and females in their appearance and behaviour. Amid this incredible variety of different patterns, one thing is certain: the animal kingdom is definitely not just heterosexual. (Biological Exuberance P.xx)
So, now if we say the final cause, the immanent purpose of sex is procreation we are separating purpose from the nature-of-the-thing-in-the-world. We are saying some sex acts count, and others do not, in expressing the nature of sex, the morally central nature of sex. Yet, why infer from this diversity that sex has a single final cause? Why would we not infer that sex is complex in its nature? With more than one function?

Well, privileging the final cause of procreation certainly gives us a criteria to judge sex acts. It does not, however, give us any basis to decide what the final cause of sex is, or whether it has a single final cause at all, for it is no longer grounded in the actual nature of sex as it manifests in the world. (Remembering that all those sex acts that are not procreative have final causes as well and that the fact of the originating function does not work as a basis for moral judgement, as we saw with pig legs and meat eating.)

This is a fundamental problem. The nature of a thing applies to all of it. If the designated purpose of that thing does not include various manifestations of it, clearly the purpose does not incorporate its nature, but only part of its nature as-manifested-in-the-world. If one arrogates the right to decide which manifestations of something does or does not manifest its nature, one is selecting one’s own premises to suit the desired conclusion. The authority is in the selection criteria, not in how the thing actually is. One’s authority is not how a thing is, but how a thing is deemed to ought to be, how it is deemed properly to be: but that is a deeming not derived from how it is but only how some of it is. The evaluation is thereby placed therein, it is not derived from the full manifestation in nature.

If we look at sex as it actually manifests in nature, we can see that sex has a range of uses derived from it also being cathartic and pleasurable. This is part of the nature of sex. So why does one part of its nature (procreation) morally trump others? Again, this is not a factual matter, but an evaluative one. It is going to be a claim that the presumed original function of sex is to be preferred, is morally determinative. No amount of reference to the facts of final causes will get us there without the addition of an evaluative premise. Especially given that theory is selective about what parts of sex in nature manifest its natural form. Some final causes not only have to be metaphysically privileged, this privileging has to morally matter.

A moveable feast
But the problem is worse still. For even though saying sex is properly procreative seems to give us a criteria for judging sex acts, it does so only in a very general sense.

The great medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologica:
the use of venereal acts can be without sin, provided they be performed in due manner and order, in keeping with the end of human procreation.
Hence, Aquinas, tells us,
there is the ‘vice against nature,’ which attaches to every venereal act from which generation cannot follow.
Aquinas was following the “Alexandrian rule” of sexual conduct formulated Clement of Alexandria in the second century. To indulge in intercourse without intent to produce children was, according to Clement, to “outrage nature”. In the words of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 Papal Encyclical Humanae Vitae:
each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.
Which means only sex acts where any ejaculation is into an unimpeded vagina are morally acceptable: any act that fails this requirement being held to be an evil misuse of the sexual organs against their natural sexual function.

But Clement, Aquinas and Pope Paul are offering three quite different standards. Clement that sexual acts must only be directed to reproduction (i.e., to be deliberately aimed at reproduction), Aquinas that they must be able to result in reproduction (so the act has to be actually able to procreate, whether or not it does in any particular case) and Pope Paul that they must not deliberately frustrate reproduction (regardless of whether procreation is possible). It is hard to see which of these standards is compelled by the fact of sex having a reproductive function. For, in reality, none of them are.

It is easy enough to see why the not deliberately frustrate standard has been adopted by the Catholic Church. Given that a sterile husband or post-menopausal wife cannot have successfully reproductive sex—and given that married couples enjoy having sex even if they are not trying to specifically have a baby—to limit permitted sex to purely procreative sex is clearly “too big an ask”: the standard of Aquinas, let alone Clement, is too much. So—as long as any intended ejaculation is into an unimpeded vagina—it is deemed “procreative” in the sense of “keeping to the proper purpose of sex” even if procreation is being evaded by careful timing or is impossible due to the sterility of one or both parties.

This acknowledges the connective and cathartic roles of sex but binds them within the reproductive form. Doing so even though fulfilling the reproductive function of sex is the rarest outcome of sex among humans, and many other cognitively complex species. It is, after all, a perfectly reasonable question to wonder why every single act of something must fulfil/be open to/not deliberately frustrate its original function. Particularly given the not deliberately frustrate standard allows acts which cannot be procreative and hence cannot fulfil the original function. Even more given that the procreative function can be happily fulfilled on other occasions even if it is not on any particular occasion. (Not the case with a pig leg turned into ham, for example.) None of these standards are established by the facts of final causes, not even by any notion of proper nature. Why, after all, should the “proper nature” be followed at all? And how much?

So our criteria for judging sex acts is, allegedly, grounded in the nature of things, but the criteria has shifted over time. Moreover, it has shifted clearly due to pressure from the purposes of people, not due to the facts of final causes. The natural law notion of proper purpose flowing from form and function would be more impressive if form and purpose (and implications derived there from) had not proved to be such a moveable feast—and not only for sex.

Medieval natural law theorists argued that since the purpose of money was exchange, it was against nature to profit from money that was not exchanged but returned and it was against nature for an artificial thing to beget more of itself: hence, on either ground, the charging of interest was immoral because it was against the nature of things. In each case, there is overly narrow misconstruing of function (in the former) and form (in the latter). It is perfectly reasonable to charge for the use of money, particularly given one is giving up the use of it oneself and there are risks involved. While money—as a generic trade item—facilitates exchange, thereby facilitating gains from trade, so facilitating expansion in value. Its “artificiality” is entirely moot.

The history of Catholic debates over usury demonstrates the malleability of natural law reasoning. Scripture damns usury (Nehemiah 5:7-12, Psalm 15:4-5, Ezekiel 18:16-18 & Ezekiel 22:11-13). Operating in the way Catholic natural law theory does—start with the conclusion (usury is wrong) and then work back to the construing of form and purpose which gets the desired result—money, as round bits of metal, was deemed inherently sterile. So clearly it was improper to pretend it was generative. Which is what charging interest clearly did, so charging interest was usury and wrong. Alternatively, the only function was exchange, so interest violated money’s nature as a medium of exchange and so is wrong. The crucial criteria are construed quite differently: what they have in common is providing the correct (pre-determined) conclusion.

Alas, a blanket ban on interest got in the way of the interests of the Papacy (and of merchants), so things were adjusted over time. Time, risk, use and labour were all admitted to be relevant when Pope Leo X ruled on the matter in the bull Inter multiplices (1515). So the purposes of people as users of money are clearly what drove the shift in moral evaluation.

Besides, it was a foolish way to conceive of money. The purpose, the intended function, of coin is indeed to facilitate exchange (and payment of taxes). It is deliberately given a form that makes it as unchanging as possible. (Coins are ridged, for example, to discourage clipping.) The more unchanging the form, the better coins serve productive purposes. Interest does not flow from some perverse pretend generative property from round bits of metal or from “misuse” of their role as media of exchange but the wider context in which those round bits of metal (or notes of paper or plastic, or electronic entries) are used. To focus on their physical form, or their immediate use, in such a way is absurdly reductionist. The inference from form, and even use, turned out to be fallacious. What matters is the human purposes of the creation and uses of money (as the Church effectively acknowledged in the 1515 Bull). In just the same way that banning our psyche from determining our sexual nature beyond the deemed constraints of physical form (as heterosexuality is deemed The One True Sexuality regardless of the diversity among people as they actually are) is absurdly reductionist. Both emphasise physical form over substance (that is, nature in the full sense). Nature as it is turns out to be too varied and complex for classical natural law theory: too much of a mysterious jungle, not enough of a neatly pruned garden. Though adherents are happy to hack away at the jungle of human diversity to “reveal” the “true” ordered garden underneath since, after all, according to Philo’s natural law interpretation of Genesis 19 and to the medieval “best seller” The Golden Legend compiled by a beatified Archbishop of Genoa, God Himself was.

The problem of selective and fallacious inference is pervasive. When in the ninth century, St Gerald of Aurillac came across a woman working in the fields because her husband was sick, and the work needed to be done, he gave her money to engage a day labourer because, in the words in the chronicle:
women should not do the work of men, for God has a horror of what is against nature.
It is the nature of cultural assumptions that they feel “natural” to people in that culture—indeed, philosopher Richard Norman has defined ‘natural’ as ‘accepted background constraints’. Feeling natural due to one’s culture (or even social milieu, or sexuality) is a very long way from being signs of the nature of things in a more general sense. But such cultural, milieu or personal assumptions will tend to loom particularly large if proper function is not found by what happens in nature, still less by what people (or animals) do or how they are. But since the entire logic rests on being selective about what manifestations count, this is an inbuilt feature.

St Paul held that long hair is the glory of a woman but an unnatural shame in a man (1 Corinthians 11:13-15). For St Paul, if men let their hair grow, that is unnatural; but cutting it, that is natural (so Delilah was doing Samson a moral favour)—part of the function of hair being, apparently, to help differentiate men from women. (Something that was very important to St Paul. I have no particular problem with St Paul-the-follower-of-Christ: St Paul-the-follower-of-Philo-of-Alexandria is entirely another matter.)

If hair has an original function, then shaving one’s head clearly frustrates it. Why is that not a sinful frustration of the original purpose of a feature of the human body? The reason is that hair does not matter to us in morally significant ways (despite St. Paul’s fulminations). Sex, on the other hand, does. But this ranking does not come from the facts of final causes but the moral evaluation put on particular ones due to human purposes. As Ed Feser writes in The Last Supersitition:
Natural law theory does not entail that every frustration of nature’s purposes is a serious moral failing. Where certain natural functions concern only some minor aspects of human life, a frustration of nature’s purposes might be at worse a minor lapse in a virtue like prudence. But where they concern the maintenance of the species itself, and the material and spiritual well-being of children, women and men – as they do where sex is concerned – acting contrary to them cannot fail to be of serious moral significance. (p.149)
Which is an argument grounded in human purposes passed off as an argument grounded in final causes.

This view also massively discounts the brutality and misery inflicted from anathematising homosexuality. Feser holds we are take into account the importance of sex for people but not the patent consequences for people of anathematising homosexuality. But this is just another manifestation of the selective deciding of what counts and what does not. Of the desired conclusion getting to choose its own premises.

Moreover, this conception of sex is not only highly selective about sex as it manifests in nature, it is quite divorced from sex as it actually manifests among people. In particular, it is highly dismissive about the cognitive complexity of sex within the human condition. For we are cognitively complex beings who have lots of purposes of our own, a cognitive complexity that is certainly manifested in how eros actually operates among humans. This conception of sex is, in a deep sense, a very in-human view of sex, obsessively focusing on narrow biological function as trumping the rich complexity of eros as it actually is. The greater is imprisoned in the lesser, with all the deformities that result there from.

Feser’s argument, and that of classical natural law moral theory generally, is ultimately grounded in running causal role into causal purpose: the crucial shift in meaning from which all the above problems flow. To repeat what I noted in the previous post on this, there is a difference between role
the role of this billiard ball in this causal sequence was to knock that other billiard ball into the side pocket as a result of being hit by a cue
billiard balls have the function of being part of a game of billiards
and purpose
his purpose in hitting this billiard ball with his cue was to knock that other billiard ball into the side pocket.
An asteroid striking the moon has a key role in the causal sequence that created a crater. A kidney has the function of processing and distilling liquid waste in the body. A kidney transplant has the purpose of replacing a failed kidney. One is an individual event, one is something embedded in a functioning (indeed, highly coherent) structure and one is a matter of conscious intent. Each higher level entails the ones below it: the reverse is not true. They may, in some sense, all be manifestations of intentionality in the sense of being directed to something: they are very far from being manifestations of the same sort of intentionality. Hence rocks do not have morality or moral dilemmas while humans do. For we are purposive in a way that rocks, for example, or bacteria, are not and bacteria are purposive in a way rocks are not.

The purpose in the kidney transplant comes from the mind of the participants, as does the purpose of the billiard player. Such purposiveness is not innate to the structure of things but arises out of human purposiveness. To pretend that originating final causes—which simply have causal roles—have causal purpose is how the evaluative element is smuggled in. How form gets to (selectively) trump human purposes. It is the key unremarked shift in meaning, even more than the shift across notions of God, though it gains extra plausibility to believers by being tied to the shift across conceptions of God since an active Creator is naturally seen as having specifically intended, and thus preferred, outcomes. To have causal roles that have intended functions: which is to say, are purposes.

Religious context
Sex matters in very particular ways to monotheist religions—especially when they are competing with polytheist and animist religions, which tend to have highly sexualised, and sexually active, conceptions of the divine and so develop notions of sex as connecting us to the divine. (Competition with polytheism and animism is precisely the situation worship of Yahweh faced in the Old Testament, that Philo was confronted with in Alexandria and virulently reacted against, that those preaching the Gospels within the Roman Empire faced and African Christianity faces today.) The worship of the One God, on the other hand, very much does not have a sexualised, a sexually active, conception of the divine. On the contrary, such sexualised conceptions of the divine are taken to be one of the basic features of idolatry. This antipathy to sexualised conceptions of the divine, and conceptions of sex as connecting us to the divine, is very clear in the Bible. As is monotheism’s strong religious antipathy to nudity: to any display of those separating-from-the-divine genitals. (The naturalness of nudity gives it no cred for the God-fearing.) The only way sex connects us to the divine in monotheism is via procreation, since it invokes God-the-Creator. Natural law thinking, with its concern for the originating purpose, fits this very nicely.

In fact, that is where the marriage between natural law thinking and Scriptural Revelation is first made, in the work of Philo of Alexandria. It is to Philo, who was very influential on Church Fathers (and, very likely, St Paul) that we owe the re-interpretation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah as being about God’s horror of “unnatural” sex—that is, sex that goes against its originating purpose and thus proper nature.

But this religious convenience does not mean that the approach is philosophically sound. Just as we have already seen that final cause/original function is not determinative in its logical implications (should the standard be fulfil/be open to/not deliberately frustrate the original function?) nor metaphysically determinant (since it provides no basis to distinguish between final causes), neither is it ethically determinant (why does every instance have to fulfil/be open to/not deliberately frustrate the original function? why do other functions not count? why do some consequences count and not others?) nor epistemically determinant (we simply might not know what the original function is). St Paul was not in a position to know the cause of human hair, St Gerald the breadth of human work patterns across cultures nor medieval theorists to connect money as the generic trade item to gains from trade (or even its existence in forms other than coins) while the Athenian is clearly not aware of the sexual complexity of nature, and so on. The epistemically mysterious cannot be a basis of moral obligation. Hence natural law theory turns out to be at the mercy of the preconceptions and ignorance of the natural law theorist.

But if classical natural law is bankrupt as a determinant moral theory, its very lack of such determinacy makes it a splendid vehicle for giving the culturally contingent and the doctrinally convenient the (false) patina of moral necessity. This malleability does, of course, also make it very well suited to melding with a tradition of Scriptural revelation. As we have seen for both sex and usury.

The main difference between the cases of usury and sex is that commerce was an interest, both for the Church and to the Church, which the same-sex attracted have never matched. On the contrary, as an easily isolated, vulnerable, minority of scattered individuals, they have been (and in many places remain) very easy targets—particularly for priests and clerics acting as “gatekeepers of righteousness”, selling effortless virtue to a large majority based on contempt for a small, vulnerable minority.

Since morality under the classical natural law criteria is to conform with the original function of things, the non-procreative manifestation of eros of same-sex attraction is cast into the moral outer darkness, as manifestation of rebellion against the natural order, and therefore God as the Creator of that order. And what does one do to such “rebels” against God? To such manifestations of the dreadful jungle of human diversity? Evidence all contempt, and whatever barbarities, one can get away with. Trying to prune humanity back into the ordered garden it should rightfully be. One certainly does not permit such traitors to the natural order, to how people are “supposed” to be, to have equal protection of the laws. Ed Feser characterising their will as “corrupted”, as evidencing an unnatural and thus illegitimate desire (The Last Superstitition p.224) that puts them into “their wishes to be inoperative” category, the people whose wants do not count (except to be condemned). The first discounting from which all other discountings follow since it establishes their metaphysical, and thus moral, inferiority.

The process of metaphysically privileging certain phenomena over others ends up metaphysically privileging particular people over others. The Golden Legend held them not fit to share the world with Jesus—so God exterminated them so the Incarnation could take place—while other Catholic sources held them not fit to even speak before the Throne of God, part of sodomy as the peccatum mutum, the silent sin. The terms ‘sodomy’ and ‘sodomite’ that Feser is so fond of—using them frequently in The Last Superstition—are based on, and invoke, the notion of God-the-Virtuous-Exterminator. A view of Genesis 19, of Sodom and Gomorrah, that comes from Philo, a natural law theorist. For the notion of proper nature also implies improper nature. Hence the Vatican describing the same-sex attracted as as being “ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil” and thus “objectively disordered” (which puts the same-sex attracted ontologically lower than murderers, who are merely people who commit a heinous crime: they are not inherently metaphysically flawed [beyond the human norm]). So the notion of proper manifestations of the human implies improper manifestations of the human. Thus dividing humanity into proper and improper forms of people, with all that entails.

Moral universalism gives rise to two pathologies. One is universalising the parochial: treating something specific to particular times and places, or which is otherwise a partial manifestation, as if it is some universal feature or principle. As we have seen, this is endemic to classical natural law thinking. Indeed, an inbuilt feature.

The second pathology is that, if some group is to be exempted from the moral protections that are otherwise held to be inherent for all, that operate universally, one has to tell a particularly hostile and derogatory story about that group so as to demote them from the fully and properly human. To denigrate them in a particularly intense way that casts them out of the realm of the properly human. This is why, for example, slavery in monotheist societies involved denigrating entire categories of people in a way slavery in societies with less morally unified conceptions did not. (In the US, that slaves had to be exempted from both Christian universalism and the universalism of the Founding— from the people who were created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights—led to particularly intense denigration of blacks to justify slavery and later their political and social exclusion.) Such resort to the rhetoric of abomination—what a threatening moral affront the group is—and the language of moral degradation—how far the excluded fall short of being “real” people, what tainted characteristics they labour under—is clearly also a feature of classical natural law theory in regard to the same-sex attracted, oriented and active.

Conversely, of course, the more one denies such framing—that some group’s nature or actions represents abomination, that they are so “degraded”—the greater the salience of the monstrous unfairness involved in their exclusion from full members of the moral (and political) community.

Human purposes
Classical natural law thinking, far from revealing purposes immanent in nature, is driven by (and reflects) the purposes of its reasoners. It claims to be based on an immanent natural order but it is not based on how things are, but on a selective rendition of how things are, where the process of selection is driven by its desired conclusions, by the values its adherents put into the natural order.

Classical natural law theory with its notion of a natural moral order derived from immanent purpose was developed within the “venerable model” of a world created instantaneously, whole, to fit together in a particular way: a world where the ruins of Petra are “half as old as time”. A world with metaphysical privileging. A world with, therefore, an inherent natural moral order.

But the world, the universe is not like that, and we cannot build moral theories on the basis that it is. The world is tremendously ancient, the universe more ancient still, and is a realm of flux and dynamism where one thing becomes another. Where original functions are expanded, or even superseded by new ones: where fins become legs and feet then hands and arms. Where nature evolves: and things in nature evolve, so do not have static essential natures. Where reality is unified and coterminous. Where things are not sanctified by their sources nor morally constrained by their origins. There is no inherent moral natural order, there are just humans attempting to construct and maintain moral orders. Not as a happenstance thing, but as a necessary thing if we are to live together.

Morality is grounded in human purposes, because those purposes are basic to why morality is needed. To why it exists and can exist. Purposiveness is the only basis on which it can exist. For only purposes, which only sentient beings can have, give preferred states of the world: only their existence can generate ‘oughts’.

We are purposive beings. We act in the world according to choices driven by our purposes. These acts, choices and purposes interact: they require cooperation and restraint. Hence rules of morality, courtesy, law, social structures, economic structures, institutions: all the vast array of human norms. We, our purposes, are the grounding and source of all values and norms, including morality and moral order. Morality is not some utterly separate, metaphysically privileged, set of norms but arises from the same bases as all other types of norms.

Indeed, the tendency for (selected) human purposes to keep coming back into natural law thinking is a backhanded tribute to the actual origins of human norms.

There are things that undermine and frustrate moral order: but adults having consensual sex, or adults building lives together, which are not betrayals of our obligations to others (such as adultery or incest), do not. The anathematisation of them, however, does in the same way all bigotry does: under the pretence of upholding “moral decency” it strips moral protections from some designated group. (A stripping that is “moral” because of the fault of said designated group.)

Let’s suppose
What happens if homosexuality is accepted as just a manifestation of the variety of the human?
Then men will have sex with men, women will have sex with women, and they will attempt to build lives together.

What happens if we preach—and practise as public policy—that homosexuality is wrong and evil?
Then men will have sex with men somewhat less often, women will have sex with women somewhat less often, and they will, with greater difficulty and less often, attempt to build lives together.

And they will be killed for doing so. Imprisoned for doing so. Punished in all sorts of ways for doing so. Subject to a myriad of petty and not so petty cruelties. Parents and children will be alienated from each other. Boys and girls coming into their sexuality will be tortured by misery and self-loathing, will feel profoundly isolated, hiding themselves from themselves and others, creating the:
[t]wo old self-fulfilling prophecy deadlocks between Christianity and its gay children, the rebellious "you reject me therefore I'll reject you" and the self-hating "you reject me therefore I'll reject myself" …
While some men and women will pretend, to themselves, to others, to be of a different nature than they are with all the fakery and deceit that involves:
Traditional societies in most parts of the world have asked these people to suppress this reality as unthinkably wicked. To add injury to insult, they have also asked these people, at maturity, to feign a heterosexual relationship, after misrepresenting themselves to a member of the opposite sex by saying that they are interested in such a relationship. Wherever such relationships are encouraged, women who want to marry a man have no guarantee of getting a genuinely interested male partner; they may get a concealed gay man instead. Men who want to marry a woman may be similarly tricked into taking a partner who secretly finds them sexually repellent. Religions that principally strive to uphold love and justice have been the main enforcers of this system of arbitrary fraud, which has gay and heterosexual victims in equal numbers.
How obsessed with what other people do for sex do you have to be to think the second situation is, in any way, preferable to the first? And how indifferent, how blind, how contemptuous of the sufferings of others do you have to be?

And how twisted does your conception of God’s purpose have to be to think that He prefers the second? (Even leaving aside that separation of Church and state means “God says so” or “God wants” is no basis for public policy.)

All attempts to ground morality in the natural order, in how nature [beyond the human] is, must end in belittling humans because they must mean that human purposes are trumped by non-human considerations [beyond the merely factual. Human agency is not belittled by factual constraints: it is belittled when the natural order is cited as the source of trumping purposes]. This effect is obvious in Nazism and, indeed, in various forms of environmentalism. It is no less true of classical natural law thinking regarding sex.

The answer “all this does not matter, homosexuality is just wrong, so we have to make other people’s lives miserable to frustrate their nature” has to have powerful reasoning behind it. For arguments against homosexuality are not like arguments against, say, Judaism (a belief system). Given how basic to us our sexual orientations are, they are much more like arguments against Jews, for they are arguments against people’s lives, their natures, their being. And ideas have consequences.

But classical natural theory does not have strong reasoning behind it. What it has is effortless virtue, contempt for others and the habit of not taking inconveniently different experiences and aspirations seriously, and doing so as an inherent feature. While the exposing of intellectual error is always worthy, it is particularly important to strip bigotry of its intellectual supports away: to leave it naked, exposed for what it is.

The anathematisation of homosexuality is not merely wrong, it is evil and demonstrably so. For its requirement that the same-sex attracted be metaphysically discounted has vile consequences. It is only when we accept that what is done to people-as-people matters, has moral force, and is not selected out from positive moral consideration, that its evil can be seen. But that is always true of bigotry: as much for, say, Jew-hatred, as gay-hatred. We can see the evil of bigotry if we do not choose to be at war with the diversity of the human: for to be so at war is entirely a choice.

ADDENDA The words in [ ] have been added to clarify the argument.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Right Nation

The Right Nation: Why America is Different by two journalists from The Economist is all about underlying structures. It is also the best book I have read on conservatism in the US. The authors don’t sneer, they don’t condescend, they can think and write about right-of-centre politics in terms other than as moral and intellectual pathology. If one genuinely wants to understand underlying structures in American politics, and why the US is different, this is the book to read.

The authors start with the history, showing how the rise of modern US conservatism grew out of the triumph of American liberalism. This is a point many miss; that (US) liberalism was in a profoundly dominant position which it lost partly because its policies were too often seen to fail and partly because it got too detached from the concerns and perspectives of too many Americans. They then turn to various streams that fed into contemporary conservatism, try to tease out the direction things are heading and examine Ameican exceptionalism, finishing with a chapter about living with the Right Nation.

The authors consider how conservatism could overreach, a normal problem of any successful political movement. Indeed, as I read it, I came to suspect they underrated the capacity for US liberalism and the Democrats to regenerate in a new form (as has happened). The scandal thread that runs from Watergate to the torture controversies show conservatives succumbing to narcissistic worship of their own noble intentions. US conservatives are clearly not immune to their beliefs blocking understanding of awkward bits of reality.

The authors are comfortable with the idea that the US has a particular history that lead to the rise of particular politics – which extends across the political spectrum. Too often, progressivist commentators see their own politics as “real” politics and anything else as aberration (hence all the nonsense about there being “no Left” in the US, or US politics being somehow “Mickey Mouse” and a parody of the real thing). The authors avoid another form of wishful thinking – that US power will wane and do so quickly. The authors point out that the US is 30% of world GDP, 40% of world R&D spending and the only major developed nation with a young and growing population (Pp390-1).

If one wants one’s prejudices confirmed about evil the US, US politics and particularly US conservative politics are, this is not the book to read. If one wants to be informed and understand, it certainly is.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Beyond Belief

Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples is V. S. Naipaul returning to the countries—and some of the same people—he visited about fifteen or so years previously in Among the Believers to see how things have progressed. It is, as Naipaul says on the first page, a book of stories: countries and their history as seen through the words and experiences of the people Naipaul meets.

The book is in four parts, each covering a country—Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia. These are the countries of conversion. In the case of Iran and Pakistan, Arab conquest is seen as a liberation. (Islam came to Malaysia and Indonesia originally via traders, with Islam becoming the majority religion probably in the 1400s.) The theme of conversion has struck Naipaul more forcefully this time around:
Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s world view alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his. The disturbance for societies is immense, and even after a thousand years can remain unresolved; the turning away has to be done again and again. People develop fantasies about who and what they are; and in the Islam of converted countries there is an element of neurosis and nihilism. These countries can easily be set on the boil (p.1).
There is an element of this in Christianity, the other great revelatory and universalist religion, which Naipaul alludes to: mainly in the context of the loss of the sense of sacredness of place. But Christianity—a religion founded by preachers concerned with moral rather than social order in a polyglot Empire which rather took care of the social order issue—has no sacred language and its relationship to the political is much more contingent than is Islam’s, whose founder was a ruler and conqueror. Politicised traditional Christians are often criticised for the narrowness of their concerns—typically abortion and sexual taboos. Politicised Muslims are much more likely to think Islam is the basis for the solution of all political issues.

In both religions, saints and martyrs provide a local anchoring for a universal religion. Though such veneration is not without controversy in either—a standard Salafi abuse of Shi’a is corpse worshipper, parallelling Protestant denunciation of Catholic veneration of saints as idolatry.

The Indonesia Part (this is before the fall of the Suharto regime) is entitled The Flight of the N-250, a plane project of Habibie, the Islamist Industry minister. In accordance with his normal technique, Naipaul takes a “bottom up” perspective, looking at Indonesian history through the lives of particular individuals. The experience of Dutch rule, Japanese occupation, war against Dutch rule, the 1965 struggles and mass murders (the Wikipedia article’s use of terms such as “right wing” is not very useful), the pressures of modernisation, religion and changing village life, are seen through their experiences.

Naipaul is also fascinated by the lingering effects of Indonesia’s Hindu and Buddhist past, the echoes of which operate in local Islam—such as a classic Hindu holy figure becoming a local Muslim saint—and the sundering from that past that Islam represents and often seeks to deepen.

The Part covering Iran is entitled The Justice of Ali. Naipaul shows us a society exhausted by revolution, one with disaffected youth. The Iranian Revolution looms over everything. Its patterns continue—for example, from Khomeini “creating disorder”—acting arbitrarily—because that was the easy path to power (p.184). One can see that lack of sense of regard for being bound by “other people’s” rules in its foreign policy beginning with the Iran hostage crisis. Yet within Iran “Islamic” rules pervade everything (pp238ff), another legacy of Khomeini. The section includes a brilliant few pages on the socio-economic basis of the Iranian Revolution (pp256ff). Again, Naipaul is very aware of how modern Iran’s identity rests on rejecting its pre-Islamic past yet the very identity of being Iranian is to have that past.

We then move on to Pakistan, in Part III entitled Dropping off the Map. Pakistan is a country (apart from Sindh) more pervaded by the pre-Islamic past than Iran.

British rule of the sub-continent was a period of Hindu regeneration after centuries of Muslim rule. Naipaul sees this regeneration as a continuing process: India continues to grow intellectually, while Pakistan shrinks (p.268).

Confiscation of Sikh and Hindu assets at the time of the creation of Pakistan, Cold War subsidies from the US and remittances from the export of its people have been basic to Pakistani solvency, such as it is (p.267). Pakistan law is a awkward mixture of British law, Islamic additions and political manipulation (p.268).

Muslim poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal, the first significant proponent of the concept of Pakistan, distinguished Islam from Christianity on the basis that Islam had legal concepts of civic significance, which Christianity lacked (p.269). Hence the need for an Islamic state. Tracing the implications and permutations of Iqbal’s vision becomes an underlying theme of Naipaul’s narrative. Since religious identity is central to the Pakistani state—to the entire project of Pakistan—the mullahs become the definers of the acceptable (p.329). There is constant pressure from the “fundos” (fundamentalists) to make everything more Islamic (p.311). This dream of an Islamic solution to all the problems of politics persists:
after all that had happened, the dream was still here … the dream of restoring the golden age at the very beginning of Islam, when the manageable, pure congregation was at one with itself and the ruler (pp 318-9).
(Of course, of the first four Caliphs, the third and fourth were assassinated, the latter during the civil war which created the main split in Islam.)

The final picture of Pakistan is of a state in decay presiding over decay—literally in the case of monuments from the past (p.381).

The book ends with Part IV Malaysian Postcript: Raising the Coconut Shell. The personal stories Naipaul takes us into contrast urbanised, bustling Kuala Lumpur with village life; village traditions reaching back into a pre-Islamic past with Muslim purities. The final chapter is the story of the parents and upbringing of a Malay poet. His father suffered schizophrenia and periodically retreated into the “other world”. His mother kept the family going and attended to her husband’s needs. Her son’s appreciation of the success of her devotion in keeping his father alive for probably two decades longer than he would have otherwise ends the book.

Naipaul is less questioning, more conclusive in Beyond Belief than he was in Among the Believers. It is not that he less interested in people’s stories: he remains every bit as interested, they are still central to how the book operates. It is just that he clearly feels more confident in his conclusions, as if what they are saying is mainly a matter of further and better particulars for conclusions already reached.

Which is perhaps why his last chapter really isn’t about Islam or the experience of being Muslim or among Muslims at all, but family devotion and the trials (and triumphs) of madness. He sees the Islam of the converted peoples as narrowing, loss, constriction. A family tragedy that is also a family triumph is a relief, in its simple humanity and travel around the edges of sanity, from much more grandiose—and so much more dangerous—burdens. A statement in itself, perhaps.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Nurture Assumption

One of the most iconoclastic books of recent times is Judith Rich Harris’s The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, which is an attack on the notion that parents’ have any significant causal effect on how their children turn out. In her words:
As for what’s wrong with you, don’t blame it on your parents (p.362).
(A friend cynically suggested to me it was yet another book telling Baby Boomers they are not responsible for anything bad.)

She has a twofold argument. First, that studies which purport to show parental effects on children’s personalities either fail to tease out how much is shared genes and how much is parental-child interaction independent of genes or do not capture anything that cannot be explained by shared genes. (Hereditary regularly shows up as explaining about 50% of variation between individuals, p.307.) Second, that group salience—the power of group-forming and identification, particularly in peer groups—is much more powerful in forming the personalities and perspectives of children than anything parents typically do. The authority of folk you-see-as-like-you is much more powerful than that of folk you-see-as-different.
Harris does mount a powerful case that folk have been far too ready to blame parents for just about everything based on an unexamined nurture assumption (you are largely the result of how your parents raised you). Her points about the power of peer groups are also powerfully argued and empirically supported. (E.g. picking up or losing accents, taking on local culture.) In particular, her discussion of teaching and classroom dynamics is one of those pieces of writing that should be read by every teacher. And I take her point that children also have an effect on parents and they have characteristics that affect how people treat them.
Johnny comes from a broken home.
Johnny would be enough to break any home.
Having, I thought, worked out a few things about my upbringing and its effect on me, I found reading The Nurture Assumption confronting. But productive, because it did make me think much more about peer group effects in growing up. It was even somewhat liberating, since it shook up what was beginning to be another form of assumed helplessness.

Yet, I am not fully persuaded. I think my parents had little effect on my personality (point to Harris). But it seems clear to me that they had a powerful effect on particular beliefs and patterns of behaviour. Harris indeed concedes that parents can set up patterns of behaviour that one is very likely to fall into again if one enters a similar situation later in life. She just argues that they stop once one is no longer in that similar situation.

Harris’s argument is that, essentially, parents only have an effect in areas where they have no competition. So things which are “in the home”, at least as far as the peer group are concerned—cooking habits, religion, politics—they can have a major effect on (p.330). But the minute the peer group gets to work, Harris argues, parents are powerless.

Note, she does not think what parents do does not matter. They have great potential to make their children unhappy, and that matters. If they turn the family into a group and act as leader of it, they can also have an enduring effect (Pp332ff).

Her argument about peer groups is essentially an argument about identification—children don’t see themselves as being parent-like but they do see themselves as being children-like, so other children set the pace in interactions and absorption of information. Yet how and where a child identifies with will vary from case to case, so the ambit of peer groups will vary from case to case.

Also, it seems unlikely that interactions with parents as babies and toddlers is irrelevant in establishing patterns which then feed into interactions with peers. Her point about the difficult in separating out parent-child interactions from parent-child genetic sharing seems to also apply about parent-or-peer interaction effects, given that parents get several years of “first go” at a rapidly developing and-at-its-most-malleable small child before peers get their go.

She is also not even in her treatment of variation. Variation in siblings is treated as an argument against parental influence:
any features of the environment that are shared by two children growing up in the same home are pretty much ruled out as important influences on what they will be like as grownups (p.307)
Yet both variation and similarity in peer group experience is treated as causally crucial.

A warning bell for me was thinking about homosexuality. Harris notes (P.51) that studies have failed to show significant differences between the children of opposite-sex and same-sex couples—which she includes as part of a general argument that variances in child-rearing arrangements do not seem to generate congruent variances in children. (Of course, that could just mean they don’t pick up the important aspects of parenting.) She later goes on to argue that studies showing poorer outcomes for children of single-sex parents actually show poorer outcomes for children in worse neighbourhoods (p.304). Harris also notes that studies have not found children of homosexuals to be more likely to be homosexual, though she thinks that may change as more cases mount (p.51).

Much more problematic is this comment:
The larger the high school, the greater the choice of social categories. A big city high school is likely, for example, to contain a group of boys who have artistic or theatrical interests and who are not attracted to girls. Groups of this sort are seldom found in small rural high schools, which may be one of the reasons why male homosexuality is much less common in such settings. Having, or not having, a group to identify with could make all the difference to a kid who isn’t sure what sort of person he is (p.277).
There is no source cited for the claim that
male homosexuality is much less common in such settings.
Which is certainly a pretty silly one: gays fleeing rural upbringings is an archetypal gay experience. They may feel more alienated, but they certainly don’t feel less gay. They may even feel more so, since it is driving their decision to escape. Conversely, it was precisely because I was not theatrical or arty that meant in my large high school (1400 students) I did not hang out with the art-fags. Not feeling myself to be “like them” got in the way of self-understanding. It was precisely because I did not identify very much with any peer group at my surfer high school that I withdrew so much into the home (and books and the company of my parents, particularly Mum).

There is a lot of varying informative and thought-provoking things in The Nurture Assumption, but, like many theorists, Harris is perhaps rather too much in love with her theory.